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#pounditSunday, February 5, 2023

10 biggest storylines for the conference tournaments

Jim Boeheim

Conference tournaments are in full swing. Mid-majors have graced us with upsets, buzzer-beaters, and great games for the past week, but now it’s time for the big boys.

Power conference tournaments begin with opening rounds on Tuesday and offer no shortage of excitement. Bubble teams, championship contenders, and also-rans all have dreams of making waves on the big stage this week.

1. Top seeds likely to finish the job

Kansas, Villanova, and North Carolina all have number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament essentially locked up with less than a week until Selection Sunday. Any of the three could probably lose their conference tournament opener and still find themselves on the top line of their respective regions next week.

Still, crazier things have happened, and an impressive run by a Pac-12 team, Louisville, or Kentucky could at least apply some pressure.

Each of the expected No. 1 seeds just needs to win one game to avoid an embarrassing flub to seal their top seed in the Big Dance.

2. Bubble showdowns

Teams on the bubble face three scenarios this week, the first of which is a match-up with a team also on the fence. When two teams with uncertain future square-off this week, the loser can usually set their hopes aside.

Key bubble showdowns will include Seton Hall vs. Marquette, Michigan vs. Illinois, Iowa vs. Indiana, and Utah vs. Cal.

Seton Hall enters the Big East tournament 20-10 and 10-8 in conference, while Marquette is 10-8 in conference play and 19-11 overall. Both could be safe with a loss Wednesday, though both would sleep a little more soundly with a win.

The Big Ten has a major traffic jam in the middle of the conference.

Michigan enters the Big Ten tournament 20-11 and 10-8 in conference, and they’re coming off a last-second loss to Northwestern that likely put the Wildcats into the tourney. Illinois is in worse shape at 18-13 and 8-10 in conference and could use a few wins at the Verizon Center. Iowa and Indiana similarly are in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, at 18-13 and 17-14 overall, respectively. Iowa is 10-8 in conference compared to 7-11 for Indiana.

Arizona, Oregon and UCLA are locks to make the NCAA Tournament from the Pac-12. But will the conference get anyone else in? USC and Utah are the conference’s next best hopes. The Trojans dominated in their non-conference schedule going 14-0 but struggled in conference play and went 0-4 in a tough stretch last month. Utah has a slightly better conference record than USC at 11-7 and has an advantage of a head-to-head win over the Trojans. Cal still holds an outside prayer at a bid, yet the Golden Bears have lost five of their last six games. Beating Utah could jumpstart a turnaround.

3. Bubble statement wins

The second scenario for a bubble team is the chance for a big upset in the conference tournament. Nothing makes a bubble team seem capable of winning a game in the tournament quite like beating a team that is certain to be playing in the Big Dance.

Obviously every team could square off with a highly-ranked foe if they advance a few rounds this week, but some bubble dwellers will start their week with a chance to topple a contender, or head home with a loss.

Kansas State gets a crack at Baylor in a quarterfinal match-up in the Big XII. Georgia and Vanderbilt could pick up crucial wins over Kentucky and Florida, respectively, if they can survive an opening round match-up first. Georgia likely needs multiple wins this week to earn a bid, but Vandy and Kansas State could both validate their entire resumes with one win over tough competition.

4. Avoiding the bubble disaster

That brings us to the third scenario for bubble teams, the back-breaking loss.

Teams with unsure footing need big wins, but it could be even more important to avoid a crushing defeat. Opening round games provide many teams on the bubble with a game against one of the bottom feeders in their conference. A win lets the bubble squad live to fight another day. A loss slams the door on the chance for an at-large bid.

Wake Forest would never survive losing to Boston College. Xavier can’t lose to DePaul and have a chance at a bid. Cal and USC need wins over Oregon State and Washington to have a chance.

These wins sound simple, though one or more bubble teams will pop their shot at a bid with a bad loss this week.

5. Crucial wins on a neutral court

Conference tournament wins carry extra weight. Not only do they prey on the recency bias by the committee, but they occur on a neutral court.

For teams that have struggled away from home, wins on a neutral court are super valuable.

Syracuse would be the perfect example, as the Orange have collected just two wins all season away from the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome.

The Orange enter the Big East tournament 18-13 and 10-8 in conference. They have impressive wins over Duke, Florida State and Virginia, but all three were at home. The Orange’s only road or neutral wins came at middling NC State and Clemson. Beating Miami on Wednesday would be huge for Syracuse’s bid chances.
Read Nos. 6-10 on Page 2

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