10 biggest storylines for the conference tournaments
6. Wisconsin sliding
Once thought to be a Final Four contender, the Wisconsin Badgers have settled into a late season swoon.
Greg Gard’s squad has lost five of its final seven games in the regular season and cast some serious doubts about the Badgers’ ability to win in March. They raced out to a 21-3 start and 10-1 in conference record, but the middle of February was a disaster for the Badgers. They lost to Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa, which has them nearly out of the top 25.
With a group of veterans, and talented ones at that, Wisconsin has time to figure things out as they hope to at least replicate last year’s trip to the Sweet 16. The Big Ten Tournament would be the perfect place to start.
7. Pac-12 teams angling for No. 2 seed in West
No conference has a stronger top three teams than the Pac-12 trio of Oregon, UCLA, and Arizona. The three have traded wins throughout the season, with no true separation developing. Unless Gonzaga loses in the WCC tournament, none of the three are expected to earn a top seed in the Big Dance, but the 2 seed in the West Region is a valuable consolation prize.
Due to bracketing rules, the other two Pac-12 contenders would be shipped to other regions thousands of miles from home. UCLA and Arizona will play in the semifinals, with Oregon hoping to meet the winner in the title game. Whoever survives the tournament likely earns that coveted number two seed.
8. SEC powers
The SEC faces a similar situation with two top teams fighting for seeding and bragging rights.
Kentucky and Florida have both had excellent seasons, though neither has truly separated as the league’s best. The two teams split their regular season meetings, so the SEC Tournament allows both a chance to elevate themselves before the Big Dance.
The winner of the SEC Tournament would lock up a higher seed, possibly as high as a number two seed. The higher seeded of the two SEC teams would also be placed in close-to-home Memphis. Now, Big Blue Nation would likely not have any trouble attracting fans to New York City or Kansas City, but the Memphis Regional would be packed enough with Kentucky fans to feel like a faux-home game.
No matter if Florida or Kentucky wins the SEC Tournament, the winner would enter March Madness with a confidence boost. Even though both have had troubled moments during otherwise stellar seasons, a conference tournament championship could be a launching pad to the Final Four.
9. A Duke and Carolina rubber match
Nothing beats a great rivalry and none is juicier than the blue bloods from Tobacco Road.
We saw how good a game can be between Duke and UNC just a week ago, and no college basketball fan in their right mind wouldn’t want to see a third meeting between the two.
Though both have essentially settled into a seed — a one for UNC and a three or four for Duke — this game would mean so much more than the possible implications moving forward. A North Carolina win would validate the Heels as a national championship contender, while a Duke win would remind the world how dangerous and talented this Blue Devils team could be.
Every game is only one game, but this week — especially with the background of a heated rivalry — a game like this can feel much more important.
10. Big East is still king
There are better conferences with a better crop of teams than the Big East, but no league musters the energy and excitement of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Last season’s run by Seton Hall to defeat eventual national champion Villanova was as exhilarating as anything in college basketball last March.
Villanova will be back looking for revenge, but Butler, Marquette and Seton Hall are willing to put up a fight. Butler has already swept the Wildcats this season and Marquette beat the champs once as well. This tournament could feel like Villanova against the field, though that would underestimate the rest of the Big East.
Not to mention, under the bright lights of Broadway, the pressure and the intensity are turned up and anything can happen.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.