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Friday, March 22, 2019

Eight biggest storylines to watch during conference tournaments

Archie Miller Indiana

There are some basketball junkies who argue that the week of conference tournaments is actually more exciting than the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Although I think that take is a bit too spicy for my taste, I can see the appeal.

The stakes this week are so high. Many of the teams that lose early in the NCAA Tournament weren’t real threats to reach the Final Four anyway. But in conference tournaments, any team can get hot and sneak through a chaotic bracket to cut down the nets and earn a bid to the Big Dance. Teams that lose, like South Dakota State did Saturday, find their season essentially over.

There are battles for conference crowns, bubbles popping left and right, and just as many Cinderella stories, if not more. Conference tournament week is here and already crazy. Here are the top storylines to monitor across the college basketball world:

8. LSU’s crazy situation

Few expected LSU to win the regular season SEC title and enter the conference tournament as the top seed. The Tigers played brilliantly in SEC play and have developed into a team worthy of attention this March.

At the same time, LSU’s coach was suspended indefinitely and a member of the Tigers’ rotation is being held out due to eligibility concerns. Somehow, this month is still simultaneously the best and worst month in the history of LSU basketball. The Tigers have the talent and opportunity to win the SEC Tournament and advance deep in the Big Dance. They are also directly in the crosshairs of the FBI’s investigation of illegal college basketball conspiracy.

It remains to be seen how all of this adversity will affect LSU’s play on the floor. Without their head coach and a key cog, the Tigers should be at a disadvantage.

7. Florida and Alabama with bubble trouble

Also in the SEC Tournament, two teams face an interesting challenge on the bubble. Florida and Alabama are both within the final eight projected at-large slots per Bracket Matrix. Both also face a similar daunting situation to hold on to their NCAA hopes.

Florida and Alabama will begin the SEC Tournament in the play-in games on Wednesday. Florida will face Arkansas in the 8 seed vs. 9 seed match-up. Alabama, the 10 seed, will play Ole Miss, the 7 seed. If either Florida or Alabama were to lose that first tournament game, their fate would be far more likely to send them to the NIT. If they advance, Florida would face LSU and Alabama would face Kentucky. Those games would present a monumental opportunity for a resume-building victory. A win in that round of the tournament would ensure an NCAA berth.

The math for the Gators and Tide is simple. Lose Wednesday and you’re in trouble. Win Wednesday, but lose Thursday, you’ll be stuck worrying until Sunday evening. Win Wednesday and Thursday, and the tournament is nearly guaranteed.

6. Is the Pac-12 going to get an at-large team?

Currently, two Pac-12 clubs are within range of an at-large berth according to Bracket Matrix. Washington is pegged as a 9 seed after an ugly home loss to Oregon on Saturday night. Arizona State is the third to last team in the field in the collective minds of Bracketologists. Someone from the conference will get into the tournament via the automatic bid for winning the Pac-12 Tournament. Yet if that team is not Washington or Arizona State, there’s a chance one or both could be left on the outside looking in.

Washington will play the winner of Arizona-USC on Thursday afternoon. Arizona State will play the winner of UCLA-Stanford. If either loses that game, their bubble may pop as the final buzzer sounds.

It is not unprecedented for this occurrence. The last time Washington won the Pac-12 regular season, in 2012, the Huskies lost early in the conference tournament and were relegated to the NIT. For a power conference, this outcome was considered an albatross. How could a major conference receive zero at-large bids?

Just seven years later, history may repeat itself.

5. Where are the bid thieves lurking?

The Pac-12 is far from the only tournament with an uncertain outcome in terms of NCAA Tournament bids. For teams on the bubble, this is an unwelcome development. Every time a team that should (or could) earn at-large bid fails to win its conference’s auto bid, the number of available spots shrinks and every bubble team moves down one rung of the ladder.

For example, if neither Washington nor Arizona State wins the Pac-12 Tournament, any team with a worse resume that the Huskies or Sun Devils has a tougher situation at hand.

We’ve already seen two outside chances at bid thieves. When Murray State won the Ohio Valley Conference, Belmont slid onto the bubble, begging for an at-large bid. For fringe bubble teams, this was a back breaker. The Bruins have a strong case at a bid, with more road/neutral wins than Kansas, Clemson, Texas, and Minnesota combined.

With Lipscomb’s loss in the Atlantic Sun Championship, the Bisons joined the bubble fray, yet have a far worse case than Belmont.

There are still a host of conference capable of producing a bid thief. A Gonzaga slip-up would pop someone’s bubble. Buffalo, Wofford, and VCU look like the only tournament teams in their leagues, unless an upset buys someone else a bid.

If you’re a fan of a team on the bubble, root for favorites all week long. You need those teams to fill up the auto-bids, rather than stealing your school’s at-large spot.

4. Can potential Cinderellas make their way to the Big Dance?

Last year, it seemed like a real bummer when Vermont was upset in the America East title game. A buzzer-beater ended the Catamounts season and their hopes of being a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately for the basketball enjoying public, Vermont lost to UMBC, who then pulled off the biggest upset in tournament history.

But for teams like Vermont unable to amass an at-large case while wallowing in a lesser conference, winning their conference tournament is the difference between a shot at glory and heading home early.

Vermont would qualify for this designation again this season. The Catamounts are 25-6 this season and showed their Cinderella potential nearly winning at Louisville in November.

The same is true of Hofstra, who took VCU to overtime in a loss, just before ripping off a 16-game winning streak. Justin Wright-Foreman is one of college basketball’s best scorers and would be eager to etch his name into the history of NCAA Tournament heroes if the Pride can earn their bid.

Similar stories are found across the country. New Mexico State, Old Dominion, Harvard, and UC Irvine would all make for dangerous first round match-ups, if they can survive this week. We’ve already lost South Dakota State and all-time great player Mike Daum to the viciousness of a conference tournament upset. We need some of our other Cinderellas to fit into their glass slippers.

3. Are Indiana and Texas really going to make the tournament with 15 losses?

No team will test the Selection Committee quite like the Hoosiers and Longhorns. Indiana has played the 25th-toughest schedule, according to the NCAA’s NET ratings. Texas’ slate has been even tougher, ranked as the 7th-hardest in the nation.

With that being said, each has struggled. Indiana is 17-14 this season. The Hoosiers lost 10 of 11 games during one stretch and finished Big Ten play tied for 8th place, at 8-12 in conference play. Indiana has three true road wins and one neutral site win.

Texas went 8-10 in the Big XII, with a total record of 16-15 this season. The Longhorns have only two road and two neutral wins. They also lost home games to Providence and Radford.

If you have a good reason either of these teams deserves a chance at an NCAA Tournament bid, I’m all ears. They will, however, have a chance to prove doubters like me wrong. Texas’ first Big XII Tournament game pits the Longhorns against Kansas, with a chance for a monstrous win. Indiana will face Ohio State, with a chance to slide its way up the bubble.

If either loses, they should be banished to the NIT. They should, but Bracketologists are split. Some favor teams like Belmont for those final spots. Others value the strength of schedule seen by these mediocre power conference also-rans.

2. The middle of the Big East is a mess

Elsewhere on the bubble, most of the Big East finds itself on uncertain ground heading into conference tournament week. Villanova and Marquette are safely in the tournament. Bracket Matrix places Seton Hall and St. John’s within the last ten teams in the field, and Creighton, Georgetown, and Xavier all just on the negative side of the in/out dividing line. Any of the five could potentially play their way in, or out, of the Big Dance this week.

St. John’s must first survive a bad loss to a feisty DePaul club on Wednesday before getting a third chance at Marquette. The Red Storm have already beaten Marquette twice this season. A loss to DePaul would mean trouble, but just advancing to Thursday should get the Johnnies in.

The other four teams play head-to-head matchups in the quarterfinals. The loser of Creighton-Xavier can pack up and head home, while the winner gets a chance to earn a bid by upsetting Villanova in the semifinals. If Georgetown can beat Seton Hall, the Hoyas’ case looks better. A loss probably doesn’t doom the Pirates, but why risk it? A win over Georgetown cements Seton Hall in the field.

1. Who will earn the last two top seeds?

Gonzaga and Virginia are essentially locks for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Even if the Zags are upset by Pepperdine or the Hoos get upended in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, they’ve done enough to find themselves on the top line.

The next two slots are wide open.

Duke and North Carolina have the inside track. If either wins the ACC Tournament, the spot is theirs. To do so, they’d likely have to beat their in-state rival and then Virginia in the title game. That’s enough to earn a top seed, especially for Duke, if Zion Williamson returns and looks like himself. The committee would look more forgiving towards Duke’s run without their All-American.

If Carolina or Duke fail to win the ACC Tournament, the door opens for the top teams from other conferences. The winner of the SEC Tournament would get a hard look, especially if that team is Tennessee or Kentucky. The Vols have the better resume and thus, a better chance to slide onto the top line.

If the top ACC and SEC teams struggle this week, the door opens for a late run from Michigan State. Sparty’s win over Michigan to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season crown put them back into the discussion for a top seed. If Michigan State can win the Big Ten Tournament as well, they’d receive serious consideration for the final slot.

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.

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