Some years, we undervalue Champ Week because conference tournaments do not always create waves in the NCAA tournament field. In other years, the conference tournaments serve as the final slabs of wet cement on a sidewalk that leads to Selection Sunday.
This week's slate feels like the latter. So much still written in pencil. So many questions remain.
Will Michigan State earn a top seed? Which team(s) will represent the West Coast Conference? Will the ACC lock up two top seeds? Will the American Athletic Conference get off the bubble?
This week's conference tournaments will answer these questions.
You should pay attention.
The SEC tournament
Why you should care: Because we admit we can't stop watching this LSU horror flick
We're all tired of the tired LSU storyline. We all know the situation. Johnny Jones signed an elite recruiting class that featured Ben Simmons, a young man whom pro scouts anointed as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft when he was 16 years old. Veterans returned, too. Craig Victor, a former top-100 recruit, transferred from Arizona. Partaaaayyyyyy in Baton Rouge!!! Nope. Just disappointment. If Simmons can't lead LSU to an SEC tournament title, he could become the first No. 1 pick to miss the NCAA tournament since Mychal Thompson failed to reach the NCAA tournament in 1978 -- only because Minnesota was banned from that year's postseason because of a scandal.
Yet, we're still fascinated by this nosedive. You don't have to be great. Good is more than sufficient in this season's field. And LSU couldn't achieve that in 2015-16. So now the Tigers and their future multimillionaire need an SEC tournament championship to qualify. Yes, we know that's not the only storyline. Come for the chance to see America's best pure point guard (Tyler Ulis) and stay to watch Stefan Moody drop 40 points -- in a loss? Vanderbilt needs wins in this tournament. Texas A&M is fighting to regain its pre-February form. Until they're dismissed, however, the LSU Tigers will be the headliners in Nashville.
Who will win? Kentucky
The Big 12 tournament
Why you should care: Because the best league in America will put every team in the same building
In 1987, B.B. King organized one of the greatest blues jam sessions of all time. Albert King, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gladys Knight, Billy Ocean and others shared the stage. It was an electric celebration of the genre. And the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City this week is college basketball's jam session. It's easy to get excited when Texas Tech, a bubble team, is the field's Billy Ocean. So many stars. So much drama. So much talent.
We'll see a Kansas team that hasn't lost since Jan. 25 -- a squad many will pick to win the national championship. We'll see Buddy Hield add onto a memorable, national player of the year-worthy season: 25.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 89 percent from the free throw line, 47.3 percent from the 3-point line. That ain't right. West Virginia has forced turnovers on 25.4 percent of its opponents' possessions and the Mountaineers lead the nation in offensive rebounding rate, per Ken Pomeroy. Baylor is a second weekend team. Iowa State is a top-10ish team on its best night. Tubby Smith could lead Texas Tech back to the NCAA tournament. For the second consecutive season, 70 percent of this conference probably will earn a berth on Selection Sunday. But they'll all party in Kansas City first.
Who will win? Oklahoma
The Big Ten tournament
Why you should care: Because Michigan State's performance won't mean anything in the NCAA tournament
Listen, you can't tweak your bracket or exaggerate the meaning of a prospective mediocre outing by a Michigan State team that could snatch a top seed in Indianapolis. Because the Spartans rarely reveal their full hand in the conference tournament. Of Tom Izzo's seven Final Four appearances, only two followed Big Ten tournament championship runs (1999, 2000). From 2001 to 2011, Michigan State never reached the championship game. Yet, the Spartans made four Final Four runs during that period. Many believe Izzo views the Big Ten tournament as a nuisance more than anything else. And a Spartans team that has fought through injuries all season could use the rest. But a conference tournament title this season could lead to a No. 1 seed. So the stakes matter. Still, it's not smart to overanalyze the results with the Spartans. They're always ready for the critical three weeks after Selection Sunday.
Who will win? Indiana
The Mountain West tournament
Why you should care: Because the league has to send someone, right?
Let's talk about a team. This team's best wins? Cal and Boise State. Nothing more. This team also lost to Arkansas-Little Rock, San Diego and Grand Canyon. This team continues to cleave to a top-50 RPI slot and an uncomfortable position on the bubble. Let's say this team lost to Utah State (148th in the RPI) in the quarterfinals of the league tournament. Would you offer that squad an at-large invite to the NCAA tournament? Well, welcome to ... The. Mountain. West. Conference. Tournament!!!! Because that's San Diego State's situation.
The Aztecs, who entered a Saturday matchup against UNLV as a projected 12-seed in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology, are the league's lone hope for an at-large berth. But if something crazy happens in Las Vegas -- what happens in Vegas will get back to the sequestered NCAA tournament selection committee in Indianapolis, by the way -- then, the Aztecs could miss the NCAA tournament altogether. This is the same Mountain West Conference that sent five teams to the NCAA tournament in 2013. Three teams represented the league last season. This season? Probably only one unless the Aztecs sneak into the field and another team wins the conference tournament and the committee ignores a resume that features only one legit quality win.
Who will win? San Diego State
The West Coast Conference tournament
Why you should care: Because Gonzaga hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since Will Smith dropped "Gettin' Jiggy wit It"
In 1998, Will Smith, the Fresh Prince, reminded us he was a rapper long before he became an actor by releasing the hip-hop hit of 1998 (yes, you're lying if you say you didn't dance to this song 18 years ago). Months before Smith's reemergence, however, a quaint private school in eastern Washington missed the NCAA tournament. But Gonzaga would not miss another NCAA tournament for the next 17 seasons. In four of those 17 years, the Bulldogs failed to win the WCC tournament championship. Gonzaga's overall resume during those years, however, was enough to convince the NCAA selection committee it belonged in the field.
In recent seasons, the WCC tournament acted only as an opportunity for Gonzaga to improve its seed. This season, however, Gonzaga needs a West Coast Conference tournament title after finishing 0-5 against the RPI's top 50. It's a rare scenario for a Gonzaga team that's led by NBA prospect Domantas Sabonis and senior standout Kyle Wiltjer. They're not the same Zags. That's clear. But one good week could help the program return to a familiar final chapter.
Who will win? Gonzaga
The ACC tournament
Why you should care: Because North Carolina, Duke, Miami and Virginia deserve a final assessment before your office pool begins
Right now, Virginia and North Carolina seem comfortably positioned to secure top seeds once the NCAA selection committee finalizes the field on Selection Sunday. And few, if any, scenarios in the ACC tournament will alter this projection. Despite its lopsided loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday, Miami could still finish with a top-four seed. Same with Duke. North Carolina's victory at Cameron Indoor on Saturday did not dramatically damage its Selection Sunday standing, either.
For you, the next step entails an assessment of their potential to make a run in March according to what happens in the ACC tournament. And that's a difficult proposition and it's not completely fair. But the ACC tournament will offer a final look at four teams with Final Four aspirations. Four teams worth scrutinizing. You won't find many flaws with a Virginia team that's 11-2 since suffering a Jan. 17 loss at Florida State. But the ACC tournament should put to rest any lingering concerns about that messy stretch that included road losses to Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Florida State in January. And we know you love North Carolina. We get it. They're monsters inside. But don't count on the Tar Heels to hit many shots from beyond the arc (31 percent, No. 310). Miami? Um, see the team's recent three-game winning streak over Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame. Then check out Saturday's 15-point loss at Virginia Tech (17 percent from the 3-point line). And Duke will attempt to defend its national title with a six-man rotation. Don't make any significant bracket decisions without watching the ACC tournament.
Who will win? Miami
The Pac-12 tournament
Why you should care: Because a wild league can only end the season with a wild tournament
College basketball fans on the West Coast often feel slighted by their brethren on the other side of the country. The #EastCoastBias! hashtag populates timelines in March as Pac-12 followers demand more attention and bracket respect. We understand.
But the league failed to create the hype it enjoyed in past years because its best teams didn't shine until February. So, some folks overlooked Cal's 8-1 rally in its last nine games because they figured Cuonzo Martin's team had already flopped when it finished 4-5 in January. Arizona has lacked the dominance that past Wildcats demonstrated. Oregon looked good as it pursued a conference championship but nonconference losses to UNLV and Boise State did not help the perception of the league or its titleholder. And Utah started Pac-12 play with three losses in its first four games.
In February, however, the Pac-12 showcased its potential as its best teams emerged and put together impressive finishes. Still, eight teams finished with records of .500 or better. Oregon was the only team in the league that did not lose five or more conference games. The Pac-12 beat the heck out of the Pac-12 this season. So when you put all those squads in the same arena in Las Vegas, why would anyone expect the carnage to cease?
Who will win? Arizona
The Atlantic 10 tournament
Why you should care? Because Dayton is back, baby!!! Maybe ...
Have you ever walked into a room after a tough week and noticed your co-workers staring at you but not saying anything? That's probably how Dayton has felt for the last two weeks, a stretch that included three losses in the team's last four games in February. Something wasn't right and a Kendall Pollard injury (the team lost at home to Rhode Island in his first game back from a knee injury) was not the culprit. Dayton probably received this voicemail after the slide: "Hey, Flyers! It's your Uncle Jack and Aunt Betty here. (Hey, guys!) Just calling to check in and see if everything is OK. Um, could you stop by when you have a second? Thanks."
Dayton did not compromise its at-large status with that messy chapter. But the team that defeated Iowa, Monmouth and Vandy had lost its mojo. The Flyers ended the regular season with a couple of one-point victories over Richmond and VCU. If they're serious about sticking around for the second weekend in the NCAA tournament, however, they'll prove as much with a strong outing at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Who will win? VCU
The American Athletic Conference tournament
Why you should care: Because college basketball's "Survivor" will offer drama, if nothing else
In 2014, Kevin Ollie led Shabazz Napier and the Connecticut Huskies to the national title. Four teams from the upstart American Athletic Conference cracked that year's field, a significant achievement for a league salvaged from the fires of realignment. This season has not featured the same highs for the conference. Its best team, SMU, is banned from the NCAA tournament. And the league entered the weekend without any eligible top-50 squads in the RPI. So Tulsa, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Temple will all make their final claims for a berth (or Houston will shock everyone and win the whole thing) in the AAC tournament. Nothing is settled in the AAC. Every matchup will feel like an elimination game.
Who will win? Connecticut
The Big East tournament
Why you should care: Because this could look like the old Big East tournaments
In a past life, the Big East's tournament offered Champ Week's most impressive action. We all remember the six-overtime war between Syracuse and Connecticut in 2009. If you've followed the Big East this season, then you know the current alignment's conference tournament could provide a comparable round of highlights. Villanova is a great team. Xavier is a great team. What else do we know about the Big East beyond that? Not much. Will Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil lead Providence to a tournament championship and reverse their squad's recent slide? Could Henry Ellenson carry Marquette to the title game? Butler and Seton Hall? Better than you think. And this is Georgetown's last chance to avoid the "most disappointing teams" list. Creighton beat Xavier by 14 points a few weeks ago. Do the Bluejays have a shot? Yep. So much intrigue in this league's tournament.
Who will win? Villanova