While next week is when the real March Madness begins, Championship Week is rather great itself. The amount of basketball one can consume over a four-day span is quite thrilling. It also helps you prepare to fill out a bracket. But which tournaments should you focus on and who should you be watching? Here’s a list of the top eight conference tournaments this weekend with some quick predictions on who will cut down the nets.
On paper it appears as if Florida can run with any team in the country. Their squad resembles the Florida squads of old that could go eight-players-deep and have scoring from all positions. They’re second in defensive efficiency and sixth in offensive efficiency, but they have one glaring problem: Kenny Boynton. Somehow he ends up taking all the shots in close-and-late situations and that’s the worst scenario possible. After Florida, the conference really drops off. Missouri and Kentucky will both make the tournament, but neither team has lived up to its preseason billing. Tennessee has come on late and Mississippi was once relevant, but neither team is headed to the Madness at this moment. There are plenty of other tournaments to focus on this weekend.
Predicted Winner: Florida
7. Mountain West
Although rated the #1 conference in terms of RPI, I’m still not one to believe the Mountain West is the best conference in the country. That said, the semifinals and finals present some juicy matchups given that the top seeds have all advanced. The balanced New Mexico squad is currently looking at a #3 seed according to Joe Lunardi, but a tournament win here could push them as high as a #2 seed. They dominated the conference, but it’s a little disconcerting that they only beat one of the other three best conference teams in a road game. Colorado State is ranked ninth in the country in offensive efficiency because they’re a great offensive rebounding team. Unfortunately they allow teams to shoot well from the floor and don’t create many turnovers, so their defense is a serious question. UNLV lucks out playing this tournament on their home floor, but they have been juggling their lineup all season due to injury and roster adjustments. It’s possible, however, that they’re finally putting things together now with six wins in the last seven. You can’t recap the Mountain West without acknowledging Jamaal Franklin, the conference’s most dynamic player. San Diego State isn’t as talented as years past, but if there’s one player who can take over this tournament, it’s Jamaal Franklin.
Predicted Winner: UNLV
Sleeper: San Diego State
6. Big 12
The Big 12 is a forgotten conference this year due to its lack of star power. Kansas had one rough stretch where they lost three straight games, but their resume looks rather good outside of that. Still, one has to wonder if last week’s blowout loss to Baylor will linger into this weekend. Kansas State won’t wow you, but Bruce Weber has consistently shown he can coach talent, even if they were recruited by another coach. Rodney MacGruder hasn’t been as good as he was last season, but he certainly can rise to the occasion and put his teammates on his back for a tournament run. Oklahoma State struggled at the beginning of conference play, but they’ve rolled along since. Markel Brown and Marcus Smart are both players that could engineer a run for the Cowboys. After that the going gets a little rough. Oklahoma is a workmanlike team that shouldn’t cause a real team many problems. Iowa State isn’t nearly as good as they were last year. Finally, Baylor continues to underperform given their recruiting.
Predicted Winner: Kansas
Sleeper: Oklahoma State
5. Atlantic 10
The move to the Barclays Center fits well with the Atlantic 10’s rise to being as competitive as some of the better known conferences. Saint Louis has overcome the death of Rick Majerus with a well-rounded team effort to be the conference’s top seed. VCU is the flashier and more well-known team in the conference, but Saint Louis beat them by 14. Don’t be surprised, however, if Shaka Smart’s VCU group wakes up the space. Their “havoc” style is not something you want to play against in a tournament format without much preparation. Speaking of preparation, no one is better prepared than Butler’s Brad Stevens. They’re one of only two teams that can say they beat Indiana and Gonzaga, teams ranked #1 and #3 in the country. Temple has won seven in a row to give themselves comfort for an at-large bid, but a good weekend run could push them into a #7 seed or greater on Sunday. Just don’t forget La Salle. Wins against Butler and VCU have shown the explorers can ball behind the scoring ability of Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren. UMass and Xavier aren’t pushovers either.
Predicted Winner: VCU
The lone major conference in the Western time zone always gets neglected during the season, but it’s been a pretty fun watch this year. There are definitely teams capable of making runs in this group. UCLA has finally found its identity behind a perimeter heavy lineup featuring Shabazz Muhammad, but they can’t deal with a physical frontcourt. Arizona has really tailed off in conference play after a hot start, but they’ve got wins against Miami, Florida and San Diego State when they were at their best. Oregon’s diminished record is due in large part to the injury of starting point guard Dominic Artis should get them moving back in the right direction once he’s back up to speed. California may not have the household names, but Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs can score as well as any wing duo. Need a sleeper for this weekend and the NCAAs? Watch out for Colorado. They’re peaking at the right time, have Andre Roberson back in the lineup, and seem to have finally recovered mentally from the terrible Arizona loss from January.
Predicted Winner: Oregon
The ACC sure isn't what it used to be, but the winner of this weekend's conference tournament will likely be given a #1 seed when the brackets are announced on Sunday. Miami may have won the regular season with relative ease, but their loss at home last week to Georgia in a letdown game makes one wonder if they're capable of an early round letdown. The flip side to that is that Shane Larkin and his surrounding cast of upper-classmen have all the makings of a Final Four team if the group didn't peak too early. Duke hasn't lost a game with Ryan Kelly in the lineup and their resume of big wins speaks for itself. An ACC tournament victory would set them up for a Final Four run.
North Carolina looks a lot better since they went to a starting lineup with four perimeter players surrounding James Michael McAdoo, but Duke showed against them last week that lineup creates a weakness on the interior. Virginia is fundamentally sound and Joe Harris can be a lightning in a bottle scorer. North Carolina State has all the potential to be a Final Four team, but they’ve submarined since their win against Duke. They heated up around this time last season, but can they find that strength again? After those five, the ACC just doesn’t have the depth. Florida State and Maryland have shown their not worthy of March Madness bids unless they win this tournament.
Predicted Winner: Duke
Sleeper: North Carolina State
2. Big Ten
As we've seen all year, the Big Ten is clearly the best conference in college basketball. They have four teams ranked in the top 14 in RPI, all of whom one could argue are championship contenders. Indiana has two candidates for National Player of the Year between Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. Their comeback win at Michigan last week and their wins at Ohio State and at Michigan State show some brass balls we didn't think they had earlier in the season. Michigan shines behind Trey Burke, a do-it-all point guard, although their defense is a question mark for March. We're also not sure if they be able to recover from their heartbreaking disaster of a loss to Indiana last Sunday. Tom Izzo has Michigan State primed as always and Aaron Craft brings leadership, toughness, and defense to ensure Ohio State competes with any team in the country.
But it doesn't end there. Wisconsin's guile and hard work make it a tough team to beat. There's a reason they beat Indiana and Ohio State this season. Then you've also got Illinois, a team that can catch fire, who holds wins over Gonzaga and Indiana. Need a team with motivation this weekend? Try Iowa, who ended the year 9-9 in conference, but still need two wins this weekend to be confident they won't be playing in the NIT. Minnesota has as much talent as any team in the conference, but focus and coaching has let them down this season. Do they have an outside shot for a conference tournament title? I say yes.
Predicted Winner: Indiana
1. Big East
This is the last Big East tournament as we know it, therefore it gets the slight edge over the Big Ten, which has been the best conference to watch this season. Apologies to the Big Ten fans, but nostalgia wins out on this one. I'll be at the Garden on Friday night for the semifinals and I'm hoping for two great games. Georgetown, led by sleeper Player of the Year candidate Otto Porter, has been as hot as any team in the country over the last two months. No one expected this after Greg Whittington was ruled academic ineligible, but the Hoyas have been boosted by Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Louisville plays defense as well as anyone in the country and Rick Pitino's coaching means they'll be prepared for any game. Still I'm not sure about this team's conference tournament potential, let alone a Final Four run, because of how hard it has to work to score on the offensive end. It’s possible the recent surge of Luke Hancock is the difference.
Marquette isn't a team that puts the fear of God in their opponents, but Buzz Williams can coach 'em up and Vander Blue has as good a scoring ability as any wing player out there. Pittsburgh quietly went about their business this year and is ranked eighth in offensive efficiency. We'll just see how they handle the ever compromising situation of close and late when they're on a neutral floor. Does Syracuse still have the potential to be a Final Four team? The answer is "yes" on paper, but the Orange haven't had the same cohesiveness since James Southerland was suspended and then re-entered the fray. Notre Dame, Villanova, and Cincinnati have all shown the ability to win against good opponents this year. One or more of them could easily ruin my dream of one last stacked Semifinal Friday.
Predicted Winner: Louisville