For college basketball fans, the NCAA Tournament is the main course of course. But the amuse-bouche of two weeks of conference tournaments to get ready is some of the best basketball of the year. Major teams fighting in front of packed houses on neutral floors. Schools you can’t find on a map throwing everything they’ve got to earn their One Shining Moment. Students storming home courts. Tears flowing in post-game interviews. And wall-to-wall basketball from day until night for two straight weeks.
Let’s check some storylines as we head into postseason play with two weeks of conference tournament college basketball.
Can three mid-majors get a No. 1 seed?
San Diego State was skating through the regular season with wins over BYU, Iowa, Creighton, Utah State twice — and then a pretty bad UNLV team dropped the Aztecs on the night they raised their Mountain West Conference regular season championship banner. They’ll head into the MWC Tournament still with a path to a No. 1 seed, but if they drop a game they’ll drop at least a seed line. They’re also the potential top-flight mid-major with the weakest schedule this season.
We stipulate that calling Gonzaga a mid-major is a bit ridiculous after two decades of brilliance under Mark Few, but the WCC is technically a mid-major league. The Bulldogs only losses are to Michigan in the Bahamas the day after Thanksgiving, and to BYU in Provo a week ago. They also have five Quadrant 1 wins, and enter the WCC tournament at 29-2.
Dayton is 4-2 in Q1 games, and 23-0 against everyone else, including seven Q2 victories. They are perfect so far through a not-bad A-10 conference, and their only losses are to No. 1 overall candidate Kansas in overtime, and Colorado in a tournament. They’re the real deal too.
With Baylor losing to TCU last week, and assuming they don’t beat Kansas to win the Big XII tournament, it’s very possible we get three mid-major No. 1 seeds for the first time. But of course for all mid-majors, because the strength of their leagues are so weakened, there is no margin for error: win out or fall down.
The Big XII Final should finish the Kansas-Baylor Trilogy
Kansas is “just” 28-3, with losses to Duke to open the season and Villanova in Philly over the holidays by a combined three points. They also lost to Baylor at home on January 11th, putting the Bears on the No. 1 line for the first time.
But then Baylor gave it right back on February 22nd, losing at home. Kansas is a 11-3 in Q1 games, which is more wins against the best teams than anyone, and are the clear choice of all the rankings computers. They’re also 8-0 vs. Q2 so they might be able to lose a Big XII Final and still get a No. 1 seed. But Baylor needs to win the trilogy to get back on the top line. It should be an epic battle in Kansas City.
The Big Ten is ridiculously good
The conference plays 20 league games per team, which has meant more opportunities to get big intra-conference wins against good opponents this season. There is no question the B1G is the best league, but how many of their 14 teams will make the Big Dance? At least nine, probably 10 — and maybe even 11 to set the all-time record.
The last league to send 11 was the Big East in 2011, but they had 16 conference members. Minnesota, Northwestern, and Nebraska are out, Purdue and Indiana are the bubble boys, and everyone else is safely in the tournament. Because of unbalanced scheduling, Maryland is probably going to pick up at least a share of the regular season crown, but the computers still favor the body of work of Michigan State and Ohio State as the best teams.
And that doesn’t even include teams like Iowa, who might have the best player in America in Luka Garza. Or a Penn State that has been scrappy and tough all year long. Or Illinois with Ayo Dosunmu, who when healthy is an elite guard you can’t keep your eyes off. No conference will have more battle-tested teams than the B1G, or more tournament units distributed by the NCAA, either.
There are stars you need to watch
This won’t be an elite NBA Draft class this year, but there are players you won’t want to miss. Big man Obi Toppin at Dayton is a revelation, and why the Flyers are the most offensively efficient team in America. Nico Mannion from Arizona is a lottery pick too; an explosive point guard that can score himself or get others involved. Vernon Carey at Duke is a rim run machine that dominates the dunk spot, and will catch a ton of lobs at the next level. Isaac Okoro at Auburn can jump over the gym while dunking on you.
There’s no can’t-miss super-elite prospect that will be playing in March, but a lot of guys that should have excellent NBA careers. And that’s before you get to players like Garza, a big man that can shoot threes and score anyway he wants on the post. Or Markus Howard at Marquette, the Big East’s all-time leading scorer who exists only to consume oxygen and get buckets, but is projected as a second-round pick. Or Devon Dotson at Kansas, who KenPom rates as the best player in America by the numbers.
Catch them all playing for free for the last time, and say you knew them when.
If a bid steal is coming, the question is from where
Our best guess is in the American, where Memphis has recovered from the departure of James Wiseman enough to scare everyone they play. Precious Achiuwa is a one-and-done player filled with raw athleticism and touch, and he could carry the Tigers through a down league by himself.
But there’s really only one mid-major league where a regular season champ could get knocked off and still slide into The Dance: the Missouri Valley, where Northern Iowa appears to be in for now. If they dropped a game in Arch Madness, they could still find a bid, but that’s basically it. Liberty was the other contender out of the Big South after non-conference play, but their 27-4 record has no Q1 wins and only one Q2.
This year has extremely polar in college basketball, and the power conferences have separated themselves. The only non-P5/Big East/AAC leagues with some bid wiggle are the WCC (Gonzaga, BYU is in, St. Mary’s likely is too) and the A-10 (Richmond and Rhode Island have been arguing over who goes with Dayton).
But if you can find a team that will make a run through a multi-bid league and get home, let us know. Because we just don’t see it.
Get it together, ACC
You’re better than this, Tobacco Road. Duke, FSU, and Louisville, we’ll leave you out of this conversation as you’re all good and safely on the protected top-four seed lines. But the rest of you, c’mon man!
Virginia, you’re likely in, but this is no way to defend a national championship. You looked hungover from your parade until mid-January, and that double-digit seed you’re getting shows it.
There are 15 teams in this league, one with a proud tradition of basketball excellence. But the rest of you are out here deciding between the NIT and the CBI, if you’re even .500 at all (stares at North Carolina)! C’mon John Swofford: shut down football if you must, but this is not ok!
Some teams are hotter than others
Absolutely no one wants to play Providence right now. They were likely budgeting for entry fees to the CBI two months ago, but went 6-2 in March and all six were top-tier Q1 wins. Alpha Diallo, David Duke, and Luwane Pipkins should terrify anyone they draw.
Michigan was salted away in January, but they used the B1G’s tough schedule to get hot at the right time and get on the right side. A Zavier Simpson-Jon Teske pick and roll is going to be really tough to defend in March.
And oh hey look, Michigan State is getting better heading into March for the 374th consecutive year. They’ve won four of their last five in that brutal Big Ten, and still have an outside shot for at least a share of the regular season title.
And someone else will catch fire during a conference tournament and make a run as well. It’s what makes March so magical. So enjoy the conference tournaments, as we get ready for the best month of the college basketball year.