10 teams to watch closely during conference tournaments
With a shade over a week remaining until Selection Sunday, teams near the top of the bracket and on the bubble all across the country are looking to make a case to the tournament committee. Conference play is wrapping up and will come to a head during Championship Week. Automatic bids will be handed out to conference champions, while other bids and seeds will be earned in games throughout this week. Every single team playing in a conference tournament has a chance to make their run in March, though these ten have something extra to play for or to prove this week.
The team at the heart of the current drama in the sport is also in a precarious situation in a basketball sense. With head coach Sean Miller embroiled in controversy involving the FBI, wiretapped phone calls, and illegal benefits, the Wildcats have lost three of their last seven games. In addition to questions about Deandre Ayton’s eligibility, scoring guard Allonzo Trier has been suspended for a substance found in a drug test. Trier was cleared to play and scored 18 points Thursday night versus Stanford.
While Arizona has no worries about making the NCAA Tournament, and even their seed won’t be affected too much, their play in the Pac-12 Tournament could speak volumes about their ability to compete for a Final Four. A distracted Arizona team that gets bounced early in the conference tournament would limp into the Big Dance, ready to be picked off in the early rounds.
The Musketeers’ path is as defined as any team in college hoops. If they beat DePaul Saturday, they will win the Big East championship outright, snapping Villanova’s streak of four straight conference titles. If Xavier can run the table at Madison Square Garden and win the Big East Tournament, it will be awarded a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That second feat is easier said than done. Xavier has four losses all season, but two of those defeats were blowouts at the hands of Big East foe Villanova. In fact, since joining the Big East, Xavier is just 1-10 versus Villanova. Finally climbing that mountain to win the conference championship would be the perfect way to kick start a run in March.
8. Arizona State
The Sun Devils were the last undefeated team in college basketball at 12-0 on December 29. Since then, Bobby Hurley’s team has floundered to an 8-9 record in Pac-12 play. The Sun Devils’ shallow bench has been exposed by conference competition, particularly in the paint and on the defensive end of the floor. Because of that shaky defense and surprising record, Arizona State is firmly on the bubble. The Devils will likely play as the 8 or 9 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, in a must-win first round game. With a win, they’d get a crack at top-seeded Arizona and a chance to seal a spot in the Big Dance.
The Zags are safely in the NCAA Tournament, but unlike the teams they are competing for a high seed with, they have only played seven games against likely tournament bound teams. The Zags are 4-3 in those contests, including wins at Saint Mary’s and over Ohio State, Texas, and Creighton. The last of those games to come against a team other than WCC rival Saint Mary’s was a beatdown at the hands of Villanova on December 5. Losing to any WCC team but Saint Mary’s would essentially drop the Zags by a seed line or two. Even failing to top the Gaels for the conference crown would hurt Mark Few and company.
The Longhorns’ record does not look like that of a tournament team at 17-13. Thanks to some tough scheduling and playing in America’s best conference, Texas has done enough to stay afloat on the bubble. All 13 losses have come at the hands of a team ranked in the top 65 of the KenPom rankings, only four of those losses came at home, and four came in overtime. With that being said, the tournament selection committee might have trouble slotting Texas over teams with more proven success. Seeding is still up in the air based on this weekend’s games, but it’s safe to say the Longhorns need to at least win once to feel anything close to safe on Selection Sunday.
5. St. Bonaventure
The Bonnies currently sit at 23-6, with quality wins over Rhode Island, Vermont, and fellow bubble dweller Syracuse. With an RPI of 21 and a top 50 strength of schedule, St. Bonaventure should be looking at an at-large bid to the Big Dance. So much can happen during Championship Week to rock the boat and change things. Power conference bubble teams can earn their way in with a deep run in their tourneys while mid-major bid thieves can nab turn a single-bid league into a multiple bid-league by upsetting a sure-fire at large team. To make sure their spot stays secure, the Bonnies need to advance in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Anything shy of playing in the championship would leave them sitting on the edge.
4. Notre Dame
The Irish are amidst one of the strangest seasons in recent college basketball memory. Expectations were sky-high with Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson returning from successful runs in the past few seasons. Both of Notre Dame’s stars battled injuries, with Farrell missing 5 games and Colson out for 15 games. The Irish were 1-4 in games without either Farrell or Colson and just 6-9 in games with Farrell but without Colson. That leaves Notre Dame 12-3 with its full roster. The committee is supposed to take injuries into consideration, and shouldn’t take Notre Dame’s 18-12 record at face value. That would be a lot easier if the Irish can grab a few victories in the ACC Tournament with a healthy team back on the floor.
3. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders are the most notable team from a likely one-bid conference with a chance to secure an at-large spot in the NCAA Tournament if they don’t survive their conference tournament. Middle Tennessee is 24-5 against the 91st-ranked strength of schedule. If they lose in the Conference USA Tournament, the Raiders would be right on the cut line come Selection Sunday. Unlike other teams on the bubble, they only have one way to secure their spot – earning the automatic bid with a tournament win. Even a loss to a decent team like Old Dominion or Western Kentucky would have Middle Tennessee in dangerous territory.
No team has spent more time dancing on the bubble than Jim Boeheim and the Orange. ESPN’s resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi admitted this season that Syracuse is the only Division I school he just can’t figure out. This year’s Cuse team has stumbled down the stretch, with three straight losses coming into the season’s final week. The Orange have played seven games against the RPI top 25 and won just one of those tries. With 12 losses on the slate already and no top-level wins, Syracuse needs to impress in the ACC Tournament. Beating one of the conference’s top dogs could slide them into the NCAA Tournament.
The Sooners have been college basketball’s most volatile roller coaster ride this season. Trae Young and his supporting cast started the season 15-4 with wins over USC, Wichita State, Oregon, Texas Tech, Kansas and TCU (twice). They looked like a legitimate Final Four team. Since January 27, Oklahoma has gone 2-8, including six straight losses in Big XII play. National pundits are quick to say opponents have solved Trae Young, though it’s more likely they have solved Oklahoma as a whole. Defensive has been porous at best for the Sooners in recent weeks. They’ll need to correct that in an attempt to return to the team they were earlier this season. If they can do so, they’ll earn a bid to the Big Dance with a chance to ride Young’s coattails as far as he can carry them.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.