Champ Week: Setting up Week 2
As Championship Week continues, here are are the storylines to watch for in this week's conference tournaments.
Atlantic 10When: Tuesday, March 6 through Sunday, March 11 Where: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
More than two bids? Saint Louis and Temple are in. But what about Dayton and Saint Joseph's, with the latter on Joe Lunardi's "next four out" list after Sunday night's games? Xavier was on Lunardi's "last four in" list. Dayton has the most work to do, but the Flyers could face Xavier and Saint Louis in the A-10 tourney, key opportunities to boost their questionable résumé. The Saint Joseph's résumé is padded with wins over Creighton, Drexel and Temple. The Hawks could face Temple, the 1-seed, in the semifinals. Xavier seems to have the most security, even though its RPI is similar to Saint Joseph's. A tough loss or a big win this week could change the entire postseason outlook for the A-10's bubble teams.
Will Temple's dominance continue? The Owls rose to the top of the league and claimed the A-10 regular-season title. But the parity within this conference -- an element that could make this weekend's festivities in New Jersey one of the most interesting conference tournaments in the country -- can't be overlooked. Temple needed overtime to dismiss UMass and La Salle in recent weeks. The Owls lost by 10 at Saint Joseph's on Feb. 25. St. Bonaventure was only down by three points in the final seconds of a Feb. 15 loss to the Owls. The latter is the best team in the league, but the final weeks of the A-10 slate proved that four or five teams in this conference could win the league tournament.
Rick Majerus' health: It looks like Rick Majerus will be fine for the conference tournament. A medication mishap led to a weekend hospital stay for the Saint Louis coach. He said he took the wrong medication, which resulted in a precautionary visit to the hospital. But Majerus, one of the most underrated coaches in the country this season, has his best Saint Louis team, a squad that could do damage in the conference tournament and build momentum for the NCAA tourney. He's battled medical issues in recent years. Let's hope he's OK for the conference tournament.
ACCWhen: Thursday, March 8 through Sunday, March 11 Where: Philips Arena in Atlanta, Ga.
Getting ready for the NBA: Catch them while you can. For some of the ACC's top stars, this will be their last ACC tournament. Austin Rivers, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Mason Plumlee, C.J. Leslie and Kendall Marshall could all choose to leave school early and go pro. Few leagues can match that concentration of NBA talent.
Duke-UNC III: How about another one? Duke won the first matchup with a Rivers buzzer-beater. North Carolina returned fire with a lopsided victory Saturday. The two teams could meet for a third time in the ACC tournament title game. The winner will remain in contention for a No. 1 seed.
North Carolina State: A four-game losing skid in February hurt NC State's at-large hopes, so the ACC tournament is a crucial audition in the eyes of the selection committee. A win over Texas is its only noteworthy nonconference victory. And the Wolfpack have not defeated the ACC's best this season.
Big 12When: Wednesday, March 7 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
Another (final) Kansas-Missouri classic? In their first matchup, Missouri and Kansas staged a memorable game that the Tigers won in the final minutes. In their second meeting this season, the Jayhawks stormed back from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat Missouri in overtime on Feb. 25 at Allen Fieldhouse. It's a shame that this rivalry will end next season when the Tigers leave for the SEC. But we could see one more battle between them in the Big 12 championship game on Saturday. We should be so lucky.
Fred Hoiberg and Co.: The Mayor did not want to wait. When he took over the Cyclones, his alma mater, two years ago, he immediately grabbed a crew of transfers and set his sights on the here-and-now. And his vision has been realized. With All-Big 12 first-teamer and Newcomer of the Year Royce White playing part-time point guard -- yes, he employs a 6-8, 270-pound point guard -- Hoiberg led the Cyclones to a tie for third in the Big 12 and an all-but-guaranteed at-large NCAA tourney bid in just his second season with the program. The Big 12 tournament is another showcase for the Cyclones and Hoiberg, who earned co-Big 12 coach of the year honors with Bill Self on Sunday.
Thomas Robinson: The Kansas power forward is locked in a two-man race for National Player of the Year honors with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. Robinson, who's averaging 18.0 ppg and 11.9 rpg, led Kansas to its eighth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. Voters have a multitude of reasons to pick him for national player of the year. And this will probably be their last opportunity. Robinson will soon take his services to the NBA.
Big EastWhen: Tuesday, March 6 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
Is Syracuse the No. 1 overall seed? A Big East tournament title, which would be Syracuse's first since 2005-06, could seal that slot for the Orange, especially if Kentucky falls in the SEC tournament. A trip to Boston for the regional would be a short drive for a Syracuse squad with the nation's 29th-ranked strength of schedule. The 1-seed Orange have overcome a lot this season to secure the Big East title. But additional success in the Big East tournament could prove even more beneficial on Selection Sunday.
UConn, Seton Hall and South Florida on the bubble: You have to wonder if the Big East's bubble squads need another key win or two to feel 100 percent secure about their at-large hopes. Somehow, the Huskies (8-10 in the Big East) have the toughest strength of schedule in the country. It's really hard to find anything sexy about their résumé, but it looks like it should be enough to earn an at-large bid at this point. South Florida's win over Louisville last week was its first against one of the Big East's elite squads. And the Bulls are coming off a loss to West Virginia on Saturday. Seton Hall lacks a top-50 RPI and it has lost three of its past four games. None of these teams can take the week off.
Star power: With so many studs in this league, someone is bound to go off and disrupt the tournament, right? Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom are a potent combo that could carry the Golden Eagles to the Big East tourney title. Ditto for Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon, who've led Cincinnati to five wins in its past six games. But Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters don't have to do it alone. Kevin Jones has only dropped 14 points or less six times this season. With the Big East star on its side, West Virginia could shock the field.
Big TenWhen: Thursday, March 8 through Sunday, March 11 Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind.
Who's the best? Ohio State's win over Michigan State only made the conference's hierarchy cloudier. With a three-way tie among Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, we still don't know who the king in the Big Ten is. But by Sunday, we might have a better idea. The league might not have a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but bragging rights are certainly on the line in what should be a fascinating tournament, considering the parity throughout the league.
Northwestern No. 1? The Wildcats cracked Joe Lunardi's "last four in" list on Sunday night. Northwestern has never danced. And an 8-10 conference record and wins over Michigan State and Seton Hall won't guarantee anything on Selection Sunday. A victory against a top conference foe in the Big Ten tournament, however, might seal Northwestern's first NCAA tournament bid.
Tom Crean's coronation: Last season the Hoosiers won three Big Ten games. A year later -- with the help of future lottery pick Cody Zeller -- they've finished fifth in the Big Ten with an 11-7 conference record and a 24-7 overall record. It's been an amazing ride for the Hoosiers. They're good enough to win the Big Ten tournament title, a season after being a nonfactor on the national and Big Ten scenes. And like past years, thousands of Hoosiers fans will make the short trek from Bloomington to cheer for an Indiana team that's been one of the best stories in the country this season.
Big WestWhen: Thursday, March 8 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Long Beach State's tourney hopes: Long Beach State has the nation's No. 1 nonconference strength of schedule and a top-40 RPI. But its 77-74 loss at Cal State-Fullerton on Saturday may have damaged its at-large hopes. The 49ers missed the last two NCAA tournaments following losses in the Big West tourney title game. Another loss in the conference tournament could hurt the top seed's chances of earning a bid, again.
UC-Santa Barbara goes for three in a row: The Gauchos have defeated the 49ers in the previous two Big West tournament finals. With Orlando Johnson leading the way, three in a row is definitely possible. The Gauchos have the league's top rebounding offense (38.6 rpg), and they're No.1 in blocked shots per game (5.2 bpg).
Cal-State Fullerton, a 2-seed, can't be overlooked: The Titans' win over Long Beach State on Saturday was their eighth in nine games. They have the league's top scoring offense (78.6 ppg), so they're another potential obstacle for Long Beach State's NCAA tourney hopes.
C-USAWhen: Wednesday, March 7 through Saturday, March 10 Where: FedExForum in Memphis
Adonis Thomas might return for Memphis: The freshman recently returned to practice for the first time since undergoing ankle surgery in January. He averaged 9.7 ppg prior to his injury, and the 6-foot-6 guard/forward could be an asset in the conference tournament. They don't need it to solidify their at-large hopes, but working Thomas back into the rotation could prove to be beneficial once the NCAA tournament arrives.
Larry Eustachy's redemption: The Southern Miss head coach's tenure at Iowa State ended in scandal. But he's found a new home at Southern Miss. And now, he's positioned his team to earn a slot in the Big Dance. Lunardi's most recent bracketology report had Eustachy's squad locked in as a 9-seed. Every win in the conference tournament will help it maintain that at-large security. The Golden Eagles defeated Memphis on Feb. 1. They might get another shot at the Tigers, the favorites, in the championship game.
Under-the-radar standouts: This tournament is filled with players who've excelled off the grid all season. Will Barton has had an All-America caliber season for Memphis. Tulsa sophomore Jordan Clarkson is averaging 16.6 ppg and shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line. Cameron Moore, a 6-10 senior, has averaged a double-double for Alabama-Birmingham. And he's recorded 2.5 blocks per game.
MACWhen: Monday, March 5 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Where: First round at higher seeds; second round, quarterfinals, semifinals and championship at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Will Akron repeat? The Zips have won two out of the previous three MAC tournaments, including last season's event, and they're the No. 1 seed in this tournament. But the Zips will enter the tournament on a downturn. They've lost three of their past five games, a streak that interrupted an eight-game winning streak.
Justin Greene's health: The Golden Flashes' leading scorer (13.6 ppg) has battled an ankle injury in recent weeks as a key member of a Kent State squad that has lost four of its last five games. He scored eight points and went 2-for-10 in a 61-55 loss to Akron on Friday. Kent State had won seven in a row before the senior missed a Feb. 18 matchup against Charleston to rest the ankle. This team has had some big moments this season -- see a season-opening win at West Virginia -- and could be the dark horse (4-seed) in the tournament. But the status of Greene's ankle could be the determining factor in a tournament that Kent State hasn't won since 2007-08.
Buffalo and Ohio crashing the party? Akron has lost to the Bulls, a 2-seed, and Ohio, a 3-seed, in recent weeks. So both should pose formidable challenges for the Zips. Buffalo senior Mitchell Watt has recorded 20 or more in his past three games, all wins, while Bobcats junior D.J. Cooper has been an offensive catalyst. Both players could carry their respective teams to the title on Saturday.
MWCWhen: Thursday, March 8 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas
Colorado State's postseason future: Lunardi says they're in. But without any major nonconference victories on their résumé, the Rams could end up watching the Big Dance from the couch if they lose to TCU in their first MWC tourney matchup. It would be their second loss of the season to the Horned Frogs. They could solidify their position as the Mountain West's fourth NCAA tournament team or potentially cut the league's bids to three with a loss. Junior Wes Eikmeier has to go big for the Rams in the Mountain West tournament, which they haven't won since the 2002-03 campaign.
Could TCU win the whole thing? Seems like a crazy notion. But the Horned Frogs, a 5-seed, defeated Colorado State, New Mexico and UNLV in February, albeit at home. The Mountain West has been anything but consistent, so a squad like TCU, which has gotten the best of the league's top teams in recent weeks, could pull off a few upsets.
How elite are the Mountain West's best? In January, the Mountain West looked like a stacked league. But recent stumbles by San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV haven't buttressed that notion. All three squads have the talent and leadership to win the Mountain West tournament and create momentum as they prepare for the postseason. But which one will emerge?
Pac-12When: Wednesday, March 7 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Staples Center/Galen Center in Los Angeles
UCLA's turmoil: A recent Sports Illustrated article portrayed UCLA basketball as a mess in recent years. The Bruins' struggles this season, which included the dismissal of Reeves Nelson, have made for national headlines. But the SI expose included allegations of drug use, frequent misconduct and a head coach (Ben Howland) who turned a blind eye to the drama that followed three straight trips to the Final Four (2006-2008). Now, Howland's job status is in jeopardy. Could a Pac-12 tournament run take some of the heat off the coach?
Devoe Joseph and the Ducks: Sounds like a '50s doo-wop band. But the Minnesota transfer has turned Oregon's fortunes since joining the program in December. Oregon is on the bubble in large part because the senior has been an offensive juggernaut in the Pac-12. A few wins in the Pac-12 tournament and the Ducks could seal a bid to the NCAA tournament.
The benefits of mediocrity: Yes, the Pac-12 has been down this season. But that could create an exciting tournament. Seven squads finished with 10 or more wins. Washington, a 1-seed, earned the league's regular-season crown. But the Huskies will have challengers in L.A. this week if the league's fluctuation continues.
SECWhen: Thursday, March 8 through Sunday, March 11 Where: New Orleans Arena
Will Kentucky stay perfect? The Wildcats completed a 16-0 SEC campaign with 74-59 win at Florida on Sunday. Still the best team in America, the Wildcats could certainly carry this streak through the SEC tournament. A tournament title would probably result in a No. 1 overall seed. They're young, but with national player of the year Anthony Davis, an undefeated postseason run -- one that ends with a national title in New Orleans -- seems feasible.
Tennessee's emergence: After ending the regular season with four consecutive wins, including a 68-61 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Volunteers are in the NCAA tournament conversation. They'll need an SEC tournament run to overcome their current RPI of 75. But the 2-seed Volunteers get a first-round bye and will get either Ole Miss or Auburn in their first game. Jarnell Stokes (11 points, 14 rebounds against Vanderbilt on Saturday) has been a huge midseason addition.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are the biggest enigma in this tournament. They could reach the title game on Sunday. Or they could lose to Georgia, the same squad that beat them in Starkville in overtime Feb. 11, in their first game. You just never know with this team, one that might end up missing the field of 68 in the latter scenario.
SouthlandWhen: Wednesday, March 7 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Leonard E. Merrell Center in Katy, Texas
Pat Knight postgame rant: Lamar's Pat Knight has earned the award for this season's most memorable postgame press conference. He called out his veterans for their failures on and off the court following a recent loss to Stephen F. Austin. Some folks disagreed with his approach. Others supported it. Well, the 3-seed Cardinals have won three in a row since that rant. Perhaps that momentum will be a boost in the Southland tournament, too.
Texas-Arlington's last Southland tournament: Texas-Arlington is taking its talents to the WAC next season. But it hopes to earn an automatic bid via the Southland tourney before its departure. The Mavericks have lost just two games since Dec. 20, and they're the No. 1 seed in the field.
Prepare for upsets: Last season, UTSA won the Southland tournament and the league's automatic bid as a 7-seed in the conference tourney. It was the second time in four years that a 7-seed won the conference's tournament. Texas San-Antonio lost in the championship game as a 6-seed in 2008-09. This season's 7-seed, Sam Houston State, has the No. 2 scoring defense in the conference (60.4 ppg allowed).
SWACWhen: Wednesday, March 6 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Special Events Center in Garland, Texas
Mississippi Valley State builds off tough nonconference slate: The Delta Devils started the season 1-11 after traveling often to play some of the top teams in the country. Last Thursday's loss to Arkansas Pine-Bluff was their first since suffering a road loss to Iowa State on New Year's Eve. They easily earned the SWAC regular-season title, and they're the favorites to win the conference's tournament title.
No guarantees for 1s: In the SWAC, only one No. 1 seed in the last five seasons has earned the conference's automatic bid. Alabama State won the slot as a 4-seed in last season's tournament.
Arkansas Pine-Bluff surges: The Golden Lions finished the regular season with a 9-9 record in conference play. But they've won four straight, a streak that's anchored by a win over the Delta Devils. They could surprise the field and win it all.
WACWhen: Thursday, March 8 through Saturday, March 10 Where: Orleans Arena in Las Vegas
Nevada has work to do: The Wolf Pack has a top-50 RPI. But that doesn't mean Nevada should be comfortable in the days leading up to Selection Sunday. They are 0-3 against top-50 teams and have four wins against Top 100 squads. An early loss -- perhaps any loss -- could be devastating for the Wolf Pack, which hasn't won the WAC tourney since 2005-06.
Wendell McKines is a star: The New Mexico State player is an intriguing figure. He serves up a variety of interesting tweets each week ("Goose bumps books used to clown"), and has recorded rap songs. But he's made his greatest impact on the hardwood, where he's averaging 18.5 ppg and 10.8 rpg. New Mexico State lost to top-seeded Nevada twice this season by single digits. But the Aggies are Nevada's top threats in the WAC tourney due to McKines' prowess.
Upset potential? Idaho, the only WAC team that beat Nevada this season, ended the regular season with wins in seven of its final eight games. The Vandals hit 37 percent of their 3s in conference play, third in the league. Utah State leads the conference with a 48.6 percent field goal percentage and has won two of the last three WAC tournaments. Both teams could make this postseason tournament interesting.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN.
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