Conference tournaments mean different things for different programs. Teams such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Wake Forest, Marquette and Florida have plenty for which to play, as each of them can make a strong case for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed with a conference tournament championship.
The real drama, however, comes from the desperate.
Teams that have squandered their opportunities to earn NCAA bids during the regular season now have one last chance to sway the selection committee’s collective mind and sneak into the Big Dance.
Three teams in particular fit this model. All three had high expectations for the season, and all three have underachieved. Now only a deep run in their respective conference tournaments can save them from those three dreaded letters: NIT.
Alabama, Indiana and North Carolina State are your Three Most Desperate.
Ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll, the Crimson Tide moved to No. 1 after Arizona stumbled at LSU on Dec. 21. Then came a trip to Utah and the start of SEC play. Alabama went in the tank, losing 10 of its final 18 games, including a 1-7 road record in conference play. Not good.
Alabama opens the conference tournament with South Carolina. Lose there and it’s off to the NIT. Win there, and the Tide are rewarded with a game against Kentucky. Look, we said they were desperate. Only an upset of Kentucky will save Alabama from becoming the first team in history to miss the NCAA tournament after being ranked No. 1 during the season.
Indiana, last year’s national championship runner-up, started the season ranked 19th, which many people believed to be too low. They were wrong. Like Alabama, woeful road play doomed the Hoosiers into desperation. Mike Davis’ team went 3-11 away from Bloomington this year, including embarrassments at Temple, Northwestern and Penn State.
Indiana opens the Big Ten tournament with Penn State in a play-in game. If the Hoosiers advance (they should), they’ll face Michigan. A win there (very possible) and Indiana, with its lofty RPI, could be just one win from avoiding the NIT. Anything less than three wins, however, and the Hoosiers will call this season one of the most disappointing in recent memory.
Having lost six of its last 10 games, N.C. State is as desperate as anybody. The Wolfpack drew Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament, with a likely date against Wake Forest if N.C. State advances. Duke, Maryland and North Carolina sit on the other side of the bracket, and it’s probably going to take three ACC tournament victories for the Wolfpack to make the field of 65.
In other words, don’t count on it, State fans.
Enjoy conference tournament week -- if you can.
The top five players in the country, based on last week's performances.
GUARD: T.J. Ford, Texas. Ford probably secured Big 12 player of the year honors Saturday at Oklahoma when he scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half of Texas’ come-from-behind victory. Ford’s fall-away 10-footer sealed the win for the Longhorns. The All-America point guard also dished out 10 assists.
GUARD: Dwyane Wade, Marquette. As usual, Wade was at his best in a critical game for Marquette. He filled up the box score with 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the victory against Cincinnati that ensured the Golden Eagles the C-USA championship. Dwyane, if you’re reading this, please come back for your senior year. College basketball needs you.
FORWARD: Josh Howard, Wake Forest. Add “clutch” to the list of superlatives that describe Howard. With Wake Forest’s right outright ACC title in 40 years on the line at N.C. State, the do-it-all senior scored 27 points -- including six free throws in the final 1.7 seconds -- to lift the Demon Deacons to the league crown. Under control at all times, Howard was 8-for-10 from the floor and scored at least 20 points for the 15th time this year.
FORWARD: Chris Kaman, Central Michigan. Ending the Chippewas’ 18-year losing streak at Ball State, Kaman poured in 39 points and a career-high 22 rebounds in a 86-66 victory over the Cardinals.
CENTER: David Harrison, Colorado. A triple-double gets a player on this list every time. Especially when one of those double-digits statistics are blocks. Harrison swatted a school-record 11 in an 84-69 victory against Nebraska on Saturday, to complement his 20 points and 10 boards.
TEXAS LONGHORNS: After Kentucky hung on to win at Florida to cap a 16-0 blitz of the SEC, we, like everyone else, are sold on Arizona’s and Kentucky’s clear separation from the rest of the nation. But Texas is close. Granted, the Longhorns have not accomplished nearly as much as Arizona and Kentucky on the road, but Texas’ come-from-behind win at No. 5 Oklahoma on Saturday hints that Rick Barnes’ team may be peaking at the perfect time. We’ve been in love with the Longhorns’ depth all year, and Saturday’s victory was just another example. Five players scored in double figures -- a testament to Ford’s ability to get teammates involved. Like Arizona and Kentucky, Texas has the players to beat opponents from anywhere on the court. Brian Boddicker (8.0 ppg., 43 percent from 3-point range) can get as hot as anyone from the perimeter, Brandon Mouton (14.2 ppg., 42 percent 3-pointers) can beat defenders off the dribble or spot up off a pick. James Thomas (11.6 ppg., 11.3 rpg.) is one of the most underrated big men in the country. He can hit the face-up 10-footer, he’s a demon on the offensive glass (105 of his 306 season boards are offensive) and he’s an underrated defender. Barnes brings guys off the bench such as Sydmill Harris, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later gunner, Brad Buckman, a capable forward who averages 6.5 points and 5.5 boards in just 15.7 minutes and Deginald Erskin, a senior slasher. As for Royal Ivey -- we’ve said this before: He may be as good defensively as T.J. Ford is offensively.
DUNK: Wake Forest The Demon Deacons won their first outright ACC title since 1962 in style -– winning at N.C. State on Saturday. Led by All-America forward Josh Howard and an underrated group of role players such as Eric Williams and Justin Gray, Wake Forest set a school record for league wins with 13 and closed out conference play by winning 11 of 12.
AIR BALL: Jim Harrick That’s right. Again. After last week’s interview with ESPN’s Dick Vitale, where Harrick spewed lies with just about every breath, reports surfaced from Rhode Island about the specifics of a lawsuit filed by a woman who worked for Harrick when he coached at IRU from 1997-98. The Providence Journal reported that Christine King filed a suit against URI, claiming Harrick changed his players’ grades, arranged for players to receive cars, housing and cash, and paid a member of the women’s team to cover up an assault on her by one of his players. King’s suit was settled out of court for a reported $45,000. Harrick may last the season in Athens, but look for UGA president Michael Adams to fire or force the resignation of Harrick this summer.
DUNK: Jason Gardner Just warming up? Maybe. We expected at least a handful of 30-plus point games from the Arizona senior this year. Instead, he has been the steady hand of the Wildcats, sacrificing points for victories. Still, he put up a nice 27 for Senior Day at the McKale Center, scoring 21 points in the second half.
AIR BALL: Oregon Good grief, what was Oregon wearing on Saturday at Arizona? Please burn those glow-in-the-dark yellow road uniforms. Burn them. Now. Gross.
DUNK: Week at a Glance readers
In last week’s Sixth Man section of this column, we asked for your first-team All-America choices. We received more than 2,500 responses, many with convincing arguments. Thanks for a season’s worth of reading and responding, and good luck filling out those brackets. This column is retired for the season, but there is plenty of college hoops left to enjoy.
AIRBALL: Duke from behind the arc
Live by it, die by it. The Blue Devils chucked 24 3-point attempts in Chapel Hill on Sunday. They made five. Ouch. North Carolina won 82-79.
DUNK: Watching Marcus Hatten play It must be fun when your team knows that its best offense is letting you shoot pretty much every time down the court. Obviously, it’s not the same as watching the unselfish team play of Kentucky or Arizona, but there’s something to be said for a guy such as Hatten getting his 25 points when everyone in the building knows he is St. John’s entire offense. Disagree? Watch the Red Storm play in the Big East tournament -- but keep your eyes on Hatten at all times. He’s involved in every play on both ends, and he’s one of the best in the nation at moving without the ball (though those times are rare).
AIRBALL: Oklahoma The Big 12’s second-best free-throw shooting team went in the tank late at home against Texas. The Sooners missed their final five free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one attempt. As a team, Oklahoma makes 72.5 percent from the line, second in the Big 12 to Baylor.
“When we got up 15, you could tell he was like, 'I'm tired of these plays, I want to go make plays.'" -- Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson about Texas point guard T.J. Ford after Ford scored 14 of his 18 points in the second to lead the Longhorns to a 76-71 road victory against the Sooners on Saturday.
"It was motivation. How could people say that about us? I still have it above my door so I see it every time I come into my room. I'm going to keep it up there until we lose again. Hopefully, we won't." -- Josh Howard on the preseason ACC poll. Media members picked Wake Forest to finish sixth in the conference.
"We're 24 points ahead and we've got a 4-on-1 and that was a horrible play. It's a play that leads you to think that you've already won. It was really one of the more horrible plays of the year." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after Dahntay Jones turned over the ball with a behind-the-back pass on a fast break against Florida State on Thursday.
"I've never seen Cameron like it was in the second half. It's indicative of the attitude that's been surrounding our team all year long, you know, 'We're Duke and we should win instead of giving these kids [support].' We've won too much. This has been such a good year for us. We're 21-5 and these kids have played their butts off and it's like nobody knows -- especially our fans." -- More Krzyzewski following Duke’s 72-56 victory against FSU on Senior Night in Durham, N.C.
"Kirk told me the next shot he got he was going to make so that one didn't surprise me … Aaron's was just luck." -- Kansas coach Roy Williams on the Jayhawks’ two late 3-pointers that beat the shot-clock buzzer in the 79-74 victory at Missouri on Sunday.
Thanks for your spirited responses to last week’s question. Many of you made strong cases for first-team All-America selections, and we’re taking your thoughts under close advisement. Here’s a small sample of what we received:
I will agree with you all day long on your selection in the backcourt with T.J. Ford and Dwayne Wade, but the frontcourt is way off. I hate to say this but the Big East has the frontcourt locked down. Mike Sweetney, Emeka Okafor and Carmelo Anthony are the best frontcourt players in the nation. Sweetney and Okafor are the most dominant big men in college basketball. They not only score and rebound, but they block shots, and set the tone for their entire teams. Anthony is, plain and simple, a great college basketball player. The kid is averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds as a freshman. That alone speaks volume.
Taurus Bones, Atlanta
I believe you would have to go with three guards and two forwards. First of all you have to go with T.J. Ford from Texas. The guy is the best floor general in America. My second pick is Dwyane Wade from Marquette. He is having a great season. The last guard I would pick would be Hollis Price. Every time I seem to turn around he is beating the buzzer. You want him to have the ball with the game on the line. My forwards would then be David West out of Xavier and Nick Collison out of Kansas. They average double-doubles. Ryan Jakeway, San Marcos, Texas
Mike Sweetney deserves to be on the first team. You've got to be kidding about Josh Howard and Nick Collison. Both fine players, but both of them have help while Sweetney has to battle zones every game and still puts up awesome numbers. Dave Smith, Washington D.C.
I agree with all of your selections. I was primed and ready to come out firing about how you messed up, but I have nothing. Dwyane Wade might be the most complete player in the country. He does everything: scores, dishes, boards, blocks, steals, and leads his team to victory. He may be the single most important player to his team in the country.
Tim Posnanski, St. Louis
First of all, if you’re going to consider any sophomores on your team why not start with the best sophomore in the country, Salim Soudamire. Also, even though Brian Cook has been in a slump as of late in my mind he is still one of the premier big men in the game, and it would just kill me to put a freshman on the team (Carmelo Anthony). My team would consist of Salim Stoudamire and Dwayne Wade in the backcourt, and David West, Josh Howard, and Brian Cook in the frontcourt.
Jason, Plano, Texas
DAVID WEST? Are you serious? Surely he’s the best player on the best team in the top-heavy A-10. But they often struggle to beat poor teams. West is averaging 20 points a game, while Nick Collison, Josh Howard, Dwyane Wade and others would average 30 without breaking a sweat against the likes of George Washington, Duquesne, La Salle and on and on. There are 8-9 REAL BAD mid-major teams in that league. I think West is a fine player, but to keep someone like Hollis Price or others off who are bringing it every night against real competition is unreal!
Rob D., Plymouth, Ind.
I believe Carmelo Anthony needs to be seriously considered. You can make the case for David West all you want -- good ball player -- but 'Melo is doing the same, more point, a few fewer rebounds, in THE BIG EAST! Not the A-10! The Big East, with UConn, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Boston College, is a little different than the A-10 with Fordham, LaSalle and George Washington. You tell me who you would want to have the ball with five seconds left. Enough said.
Ryan, Buffalo, N.Y.
Keith Bogans and Jason Gardner -- the two best players on the clearly two best teams. If you put these guys on weaker teams, they would score 25 points a game. We must start picking the best players, not the guys who play the most minutes and get more stats. The game is a team game and these two make the correct decisions 99 percent of the time.
Jerry Armstrong, Franklin, Tenn.
I watched Luke Ridnour last night in Tempe. After seeing him score 20 points in the first half alone, I think you are forgetting about a very talented player out west. He is in the top three in points and assists in the Pac-10, and has led his team to 20 wins despite the loss of Freddie Jones to the pros and the season-long struggles of Luke Jackson.
Nick Oviedo, Tempe, Ariz.