Previewing this week's major conference tournament action
Could St. John's continue its Garden magic and win the Big East tournament?
Bubblers should be very nervous about USC earning a bid by winning Pac-10
With BYU missing Brandon Davies, San Diego St.'s the pick in the Mountain West
The first week of conference tournament season is for mid-major madness, and this season has obliged with a ton of regular-season champs getting trapdoored into the NIT by feisty underdogs. The second week is for the bigger boys, with seeding and selection situations sorting themselves out nationwide.
Here's a primer to all of this week's major conference tournament action:
Thursday, March 10-Sunday, March 13
Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
The pick: North Carolina. The Heels are playing at a different level since Kendall Marshall took over at the point and they're not a very good matchup for this version of Duke.
Dark horse: This is a two-horse race. A Duke-UNC final is a very sizable possibility.
Deep sleeper(s): Clemson. The Tigers were surprisingly solid in scoring differential during what looks like a bit of an unlucky 9-7. They have a very winnable quarterfinal against Boston College and then likely would get the Tar Heels. The good news: The game's not in Chapel Hill, where Clemson is 0-55 all time. The Tigers lost to the Heels by two at home.
Player(s) to watch: Marshall's a good place to start. He's helped raise the Heels' offensive efficiency significantly while their defense has remained constant. Duke's Nolan Smith has had an All-America season. UNC's Harrison Barnes is finding himself more and more and has shown a huge knack for big shots. Virginia Tech's Jeff Allen has been huge for the Hokies, who are trying to hold on to a bid.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Clemson-BC is an enormous bubble game in the quarterfinals. Virginia Tech must beat Georgia Tech and probably Florida State to make it. Duke is playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, while UNC is trying to lock down a 2.
Tuesday, March 8-Saturday, March 12
Madison Square Garden, New York
The pick: Pitt. The Panthers, per John Gasaway's illuminating Tuesday Truths column on Basketball Prospectus, were the dominant team in the conference, sporting a +0.15 points per possession margin. That was basically double that of the rest of the contending teams; Syracuse's PPP margin almost doubled, thanks to its final game against DePaul. The Panthers also seem to have the softer side of the draw, although a possible semifinal against homestanding St. John's isn't particularly favorable.
Dark horse: Syracuse. That whole six-losses-in-eight-games thing? Seems like a memory for the Orange, who won five straight down the stretch, including road wins at (fading) Villanova and (short-handed) Georgetown.
Deep sleeper(s): St. John's. The Red Storm have been a Category 5 hurricane at home this season. The Garden will be rocking. They're good enough to win this event.
Player(s) to watch: Catch Providence's Marshon Brooks in prime time Tuesday night in case the Friars quickly disappear. There are a lot of big names, but I enjoy watching St. John's guard Dwight Hardy and Notre Dame's sweet-shooting duo of Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Marquette had best win its first-round game against Providence. Beating West Virginia wouldn't be a bad idea, either. Pitt looks assured of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, but Notre Dame's performance here will determine whether the Irish can hold off Duke and others for the final top-line slot come Sunday.
Wednesday, March 9-Saturday, March 12
Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
The pick: Kansas. The crowd will be partial and with Texas' late-season defensive slide, the Jayhawks comfortably look like the best team in the conference at the moment.
Dark horse: Kansas State. No team is hotter than the Wildcats, who are surging up the S-curve and know they can beat any of the top seeds, since they just did it repeatedly down the stretch.
Deep sleeper(s): I'd like Texas A&M a bit better if it weren't in Texas' half of the bracket. Even with the 'Horns' slippage defensively, they are a horrible matchup for an Aggies team that relies on crisp execution rather than overt athleticism.
Player(s) to watch: Kansas' Morrises (Morrisii?), Texas' Jordan Hamilton, Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn and Perry Jones and Colorado's Alec Burks comprise an entertaining septet.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Colorado needs to beat Iowa State and then Kansas State to have a chance of making the NCAAs, so that potential quarterfinal is huge. Kansas looks set to hold onto a No. 1 seed. Can Texas steal the final one by winning this event and getting breaks elsewhere?