From ACC to WAC: Breaking down the conference tournaments
Syracuse is the Big East favorite, although erratic Georgetown is a darkhorse
Kansas is strong in the Big 12, but could get a semifinal test from Texas A&M
The Big Ten appears wide open, with four teams capable of strong tourney runs
The most poignant scenes of conference tournament season typically involve plucky clubs from small conferences that have played their way into a shot at NCAA tournament glory. Those moments can be magical, especially for the supporters of those schools, but they're not where the bulk of the NCAA tournament bracket is forged.
That shaping and fitting comes this week when the bigger boys take the stage. There will be dozens of games over the next six days that will heavily impact both the seeding and bubble pictures for the final bracket, plus there could be a bid thief or two to really mix things up.
Here's a primer to all of the major-conference tournament action:
Thursday, March 11-Sunday, March 14 (Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.)
The pick: Duke, in part because the event is in Greensboro and the Blue Devils rarely lose there (or home/neutral, in general). The other part is they have performed significantly better statistically in ACC play than any team other than Maryland, and Duke's league defense has been much better overall than the Terps'. According to statsheet.com, Duke is +0.18 PPP in ACC play and Maryland is second at +0.10.
Darkhorse: According to teamrankings.com, Duke or Maryland wins the event three out of every four times. Frankly, that feels a bit low given the season's stats, but I agree with their nominal third choice, which is Virginia Tech. The Hokies showed some road chops by winning at Georgia Tech and are playing a better quality of basketball at the moment than most of the other logical contenders.
Deep sleeper(s): None that are really intriguing. Not sure if Clemson qualifies. Georgia Tech has the most to play for, but after going 1-7 away in ACC play, it's hard to see them finding a way to go deep.
Player(s) to watch: Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney is an underhyped scoring machine for the Hokies who was a unanimous first-team all-ACC pick. Usually, as he goes, so goes VT. Georgia Tech needs more from big man Gani Lawal, who averaged just 11.5 points and 4.5 rebounds during Tech's 1-3 league finish. Maryland's Greivis Vasquez (who should be league player of the year) and Duke's Jon Scheyer and, maybe more importantly, Kyle Singler are other bellwethers.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Georgia Tech has a must-win 7-10 game against North Carolina in which it will be at a pronounced crowd disadvantage. The Jackets very well must also beat Maryland in a quarterfinal game should they handle the Heels. The rest of the league looks just about safe after Wake beat Clemson on Sunday night.
Tuesday, March 9-Saturday, March 13 (Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y.)
The pick: Syracuse, the regular-season conference champ that rolled to a 15-3 league mark and is the best team in the conference. The Orange can't see Louisville, which swept them, until the title game. A quarterfinal against Georgetown could be sticky, but a potential semi against Villanova is a huge personnel mismatch (as seen in the game at Syracuse two weeks ago).
Darkhorse: Georgetown is talented enough to win the event, but inconsistent enough to lose to South Florida in its first game. The Bulls think they can make the NCAAs with another win or two and will be dangerous on Wednesday.
Deep sleeper(s): It could have been UConn, had the Huskies bothered to show up Tuesday against St. John's. Now that they're gone, it's time to watch Seton Hall, which spent 30 minutes pasting Providence before having to hold on for dear life in the first round. Now SHU gets Notre Dame and would then get Pitt, both of which Seton Hall beat this season at home.
Player(s) to watch: South Florida's Dominique Jones could be the key that unlocks the NCAA tournament for the Bulls. Also, watch for how Georgetown's Austin Freeman continues to come back from his health issues and which Samardo Samuels shows up for Louisville.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Wednesday's 8-9 game between South Florida and Georgetown is huge for USF. The 7-10 game between Seton Hall and Notre Dame could be a "win-and-in" for both teams while leaving the loser in very precarious shape. Syracuse appears locked in as a No. 1 seed for the NCAAs. Can West Virginia join the Orange with a BET title? Villanova is still fighting to stay on the 2-seed line.
Wednesday, March 10-Saturday, March 13 (Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.)
The pick: Kansas. No reason to go against the best team in the conference (and the country). The Jayhawks nearly went undefeated in the regular season and don't have to play at Gallagher-Iba again. Plus, the Jayhawks, as the 1-seed, get a primo draw in what's essentially a seven-team league. They have the only "easy" quarterfinal and K-State, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State are all on the other side of the bracket. KU would likely face Texas A&M or Missouri in a semifinal.
Darkhorse: Texas A&M, which is in the better side of the bracket, would be favored to beat Missouri in the quarters and gave Kansas everything it wanted in College Station in February.
Deep sleeper(s): There isn't one. The chance of a team outside the top seven winning it, according to teamrankings.com, is 0.32 percent, or roughly once every 300 times. Oklahoma State would be the least likely winner of the top seven, but the Cowboys' draw is not favorable.
Player(s) to watch: If you haven't seen much of Big 12 Player of the Year James Anderson, tune in, because he's a treat to watch. The ongoing evolution of Kansas' Xavier Henry could be important for the next tournament on tap. Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn may be the Bears' best player, but the most important could be Ekpe Udoh, who provides an interior anchor. Oh, yeah, and KU's Sherron Collins is really good.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Oklahoma State can't be thrilled to draw Oklahoma in a first-round "nothing to gain/a lot to lose" matchup. The Cowboys probably are OK regardless, but a loss there wouldn't be a great idea. Beyond that, K-State, Baylor and Texas A&M are playing for protected seeding of various calibers. Baylor-Texas is a loaded potential quarterfinal.
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