Breaking down college basketball’s biggest conference tournaments
Some of college basketball’s diehards argue that the conference tournaments are more exciting and intriguing than March Madness itself. Take Tuesday’s Horizon League quarterfinals for example. In one day, the same conference saw a buzzer-beating win, an overtime win, a triple-overtime win, and a 24-point comeback in the final six minutes that led to an overtime win.
If the power conferences have anything close to that level of drama up their sleeves, buckle up. The next week and a half could be a doozy. Before those tournaments begin, here is a look at the favorite to win each of them, as well as a team capable of making a surprising run to cut down the nets and earn their league’s automatic berth to the Big Dance.
Favorite: Florida State
Dark Horse: Georgia Tech
This is a strange year for basketball’s most historic conference. North Carolina, Duke, and Syracuse are all middling back towards the bubble (or off the bubble entirely) while a host of other teams have taken turns flashing as the possible conference champ. Virginia’s late February three-game skid cast serious doubts on the Hoos’ postseason chances.
Florida State, despite a recent loss in Chapel Hill, is the current leader in the clubhouse. The Noles are undefeated at home in the conference and have a top-ten offense in the nation. Future NBA lottery pick Scottie Barnes could become a household name this month.
Further down in the standings, Georgia Tech is making waves. The Yellow Jackets have won five in a row after starting 5-6 in ACC play. With a pestering defense and the ball in the hands of senior point guard Jose Alvarado, Tech could be a problem in the postseason.
Dark Horse: UConn
Creighton has the offensive firepower to challenge Villanova at the top, yet it’s hard to name anyone but the Wildcats as the favorites at the Garden given recent history. Villanova has won three straight Big East tournament titles and four of the last five. This Villanova team, however, is more flawed than those in the last half decade. The over rely on jump shooting and struggle to protect the rim defensively.
UConn, meanwhile, has returned to a familiar recipe. The Huskies play strong defense and are driven by a scoring lead guard, James Bouknight. Sounds a lot like the UConn teams that won national titles in 2011 and 2014, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s some UConn magic in the air.
Dark Horse: Purdue
It should be hard to nail down a favorite in the Big Ten. It’s the best conference in the nation, with four teams eyeing a deep, deep run in Indianapolis this month. Michigan is likely the best team in the conference, but it’s hard to label the Wolverines as the favorites after their most recent loss. Illinois, without National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu, came into Ann Arbor and picked Michigan to pieces. The Wolverines looked flatter than ever, though they rebounded with a win over Michigan State. Michigan is still likely the better team, but with the taste left in our mouth after that clunker, the Illini have to be considered the top dog in the conference.
Iowa and Ohio State aren’t far behind the top two and should have a good chance to win the tournament as well. Purdue, riding a four-game winning streak of late, looks to be peaking at the perfect time.
Dark Horse: Oklahoma State
Coming off a three-week COVID pause, Baylor stumbled for the first time this season. The Bears nearly lost to a very bad Iowa State team, lost at Kansas, and were dragged to overtime by West Virginia. Pulling out a win against a very competitive Mountaineer team in Morgantown was a good sign for Baylor’s long-term odds. The Bears should be back to form in time to take the Big XII by storm.
If there’s a team able to capitalize on a Baylor slip-up, it may be Mike Boynton’s Oklahoma State squad. Led by surefire top-three draft prospect Cade Cunningham, the Cowboys were thought to be suspended from the postseason. With an appeal process still unsettled by the NCAA, it appears Cunningham and company will be able to play in March. He may have rolled an ankle in Thursday’s loss, but the rest of the Big XII who saw how good the Pokes can be in recent wins over Texas Tech and Oklahoma (twice).
Dark Horse: Arkansas
The Tide are good enough to win in any situation, but a tournament atmosphere makes Alabama even scarier. Nate Oats has the Tide playing lightning-fast, shooting a ton of threes, and locking down on defense.
The one team that could stop Alabama did so recently. Arkansas handled Alabama, with relative ease, in late February and is playing its best basketball at the right time. NBA prospect Moses Moody has grown into one of the best players in the conference.
Dark Horse: Stanford
Don’t let the jumbled standings atop the Pac-12 fool you. None of the top four teams have been able to emerge as the unquestioned favorite, yet there’s a real chance for UCLA, USC, Oregon, or Colorado to claim the Pac-12 tournament title or make a second-weekend run in the tournament. Oregon edges the others thanks to Dana Altman’s coaching and Chris Duarte’s explosion as the best player in the conference.
Stanford, finally starting to settle into a season that caused them to be uprooted from campus and moved elsewhere, could use a strong tournament performance to maneuver off the bubble. That could be the motivation needed to play spoiler.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.