Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, March 10, 2014 at 9:55 AM
COLLEGE BASKETBALL’S MINI-TOURNEY WEEK IS CHOCK FULL OF GREAT HOOPS ACTION AND HERE WE PREVIEW 10 CONFERENCES INCLUDING THE ACC, THE BIG EAST, THE BIG 12 & THE SEC
By Jim Hurley
Hey, the “madness” doesn’t have to begin with the NCAA Tournament, you know!
In fact, there’s plenty of faithful college hoop fans who look forward to this week— the Conference Tournaments— as much or more than any other time of the year.
And consider that this year there are a plethora of bubble teams, squads playing a “gotta-have-it” first round game, etc. and so that makes this week’s wall-to-wall hoop feast better than ever.
In today’s special edition of Jim Sez, we’ll offer up our quick-hitter Conference Tournament previews for 10 different leagues who swing into action with their mini-tourneys starting between tonight and Wednesday and so there’s a whole lot to get to right here/right now but first this key reminder:
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Now, let’s roll our way through the Conference Tournaments that we’ll be paying special attention to this week:
Starting tonight, it’s …
MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE— Maybe the good folks in the MAC don’t wish to hear this, but expect this 12-team league to get just one NCAA Tournament bid (again!) and it’s gonna be a real donnybrook for what figures to be a #12- or #13-type seed in the “Big Dance”.
Toledo (26-5) is the best of the bunch, but the Rockets and their high-flying offense (81 ppg to lead the MAC) are far from a sure thing while Buffalo sports a legit star in Javon McCrea (18.4 ppg) who could take over this mini-tourney.
The Favorite: Toledo
The Dark Horse: Eastern Michigan
Starting on Tuesday, it’s …
CONFERENCE USA— This 16-team league practically is begging the NCAA Tournament folks for multiple bids, but we believe you’re likely to get only two providing either Southern Miss (26-5) or Louisiana Tech (25-6) win this mini-tourney in El Paso.
If someone other than these clubs win the tourney this weekend, you could get a third C-USA team into the mix and so that’s one reason we’ve been preaching to L-Tech not to “mess around” here.
A real player-to-watch in this week’s C-USA Tournament is Louisiana Tech’s Kenyon McNeail, who has drained 70 triples and is shooting close to 40 percent from beyond the three-point stripe.
The Favorite: Southern Miss
The Dark Horse: Tulane
On Wednesday, it’s …
ACC— The very bloated 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference just finished a real twist-sand-turns season in which Virginia (25-6, 16-2) snagged the regular-season honors, but something tells us Tony Bennett’s Wahoos won’t be able to win this mini-tourney unless that Division 1-best defense (54.8 ppg) can really hold the fort in possible games against North Carolina, Duke and/or Syracuse.
The real drama might well be what bubble team can bang out a couple of “W’s” here with N.C. State (19-12, 9-9) a real X-factor thanks to scoring whiz T.J. Warren (24.2 ppg) who should be the league’s Player of the Year.
If Duke wins this mini-tourney, the Blue Devils will lock in a #2 seed in the NCAAs while Carolina could slip onto the #3 seed line with a mini-tourney title.
Hey, a conference tourney crown for aforementioned Virginia would have to equal a #1 seed no matter that the Cavs lost Sunday’s regular-season finale 75-69 in OT at Maryland.
The Favorite: Duke
The Dark Horse: N.C. State
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PAC-12— Odds are this league will get seven teams into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, but a fatal first-round blowout loss by Utah (20-10, 9-9) could sink the Utes’ ship here, but gotta admit there will be some juicy matchups come the semis no matter who is left standing and we believe the team with the most on the line here is Stanford (19-11, 10-8) as the Cardinal lost three of its final four regular-season games and can’t afford an opening-round loss to underdog Washington State or else Johnny Dawkins’ crew will be back on the bubble.
Both Arizona (28-3, 15-3) and UCLA (23-8, 12-6) have no identity issues as ‘Zona is a lock-down defensive unit while the Uclans rank 10th nationally in scoring (82.0 ppg) under first-year boss Steve Alford.
The only other team that could win here is streaking Oregon, but the Ducks are simply not the same ferocious team outside of Eugene.
The Favorite: Arizona
The Dark Horse: Oregon
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE— No doubt this oft-overlooked league has not fared well in NCAA Tournament games in recent saves, but there’s lots of folks believing that San Diego State (27-3, 16-2) and New Mexico (24-6, 15-3) both could have “long runs” in ‘em this time around … but first things first and the knee-jerk reaction is to think the Aztecs and Lobos will battle it out come Saturday for the mini-tourney crown, and nobody but these teams will wind up representing the MWC in the NCAAs.
The Favorite: San Diego State
The Dark Horse: Boise State
BIG EAST— Word coming down the pike was that ticket sales for this year’s mini-tourney at Madison Square Garden were “way down”, but what did you expect after Syracuse, UConn, Pittsburgh and Louisville all flew the proverbial coop following the 2012-13 season for “greener pastures” and overall this whole tourney has a watered-down feel.
If anyone other than Villanova (28-3, 16-2) or Creighton (24-6, 14-4) wins this thing it’ll qualify as news, but note the Big East does have multiple bubble teams as we enter this week’s free-for-all including Providence, St. John’s and Xavier (and don’t be shocked now if this league only gets four bids in all).
If Creighton mega-star Doug McDermott (25.9 ppg) makes this his private party, then nobody should be surprised but can the Bluejays beat ‘Nova three times in a row this year?
The Favorites: Villanova or Creighton
The Dark Horse: Georgetown
ATLANTIC-10— The league goes back to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for its five-day affair and there’s only two teams here that can breathe a bit in terms of having locked up NCAA Tournament: Saint Louis (26-5, 13-3) has been sliding a bit lately and VCU (24-7, 12-4) always brings its defensive intensity to any tourney and we’re wondering if any other A-10 team out there is “complete” to win this shindig in upset fashion.
The Favorites: Saint Louis or VCU
The Dark Horse: UMass
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE— At last check there were five Top 20 teams residing in this newfangled league, but it’s Louisville (26-5, 15-3) that remains the cream of the crop and nobody’s beating Rick Pitino’s club here should G Russ Smith go on one of his famed three-point blitzes.
The Cards can turn over lots of weak ball-handling teams in the AAC and— while you do get an awful lot of ugly basketball from this conference— it’s doubtful anyone save for Louisville or co-champ Cincinnati (26-5, 15-3) can withstand the rigors of up-and-down basketball for three straight days/nights.
If you happen to believe in guard play, then maybe UConn’s Shabazz Napier (18.1 ppg) could steal the show a la Kemba Walker from 2011.
Keep in mind this tourney’s in Memphis and so that could lift the host Tigers in a tight semifinal game should they get there in the first place.
The Favorite: Louisville
The Dark Horse: SMU
SEC— The nation’s numero uno team has a #1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament all locked away, but Billy Donovan’s Gators would like to be the No. 1 overall seed next week and so fully expect the Gainesville gang to play for keeps in Atlanta.
If Florida (29-2, 18-0) puts the squeeze on the other SEC teams with this vice-like defense that’s allowing just 58 ppg, than nobody around in this mini-tourney stands a chance, but Florida can get into offensive funks and so expect at least one “white knuckler” on tap for ‘em here.
Otherwise, the way we see things is that Kentucky’s “not ready” to win this SEC Tournament and Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas— all in the upcoming NCAA Tournament save for some disastrous result— simply are not equipped to win three or four games in succession here.
The Favorite: Florida
The Dark Horse: Ole Miss
Big 12— Kansas City, here we come as the best top-to-bottom league in the land gets its mini-tourney rolling with hopes that six teams are in for good in the NCAA Tournament and, yes, that includes streaking Baylor at 21-10.
Now that Kansas has banked 10 consecutive regular-season crowns, Bill Self’s guys would love to unleash freshman stud Andrew Wiggins (41 points in Saturday’s 92-86 loss at 5-point dog West Virginia) on the field here in this mini-tourney, but it’s G Naadir Tharpe who often determines which way the wind blows for these Jayhawks.
Both Oklahoma (23-8) and Oklahoma State (21-11) have arrows pointing up these days and wouldn’t it be something if Okie State G Marcus Smart had the “last laugh” with a monster mini-tourney for the bubble-like Cowboys?
The Favorite: Kansas
The Dark Horse: Baylor
NOTE: Get more key College Basketball News & Notes in the next edition of Jim Sez and keep it right here all March long for important Conference Tournament and NCAA Tournament Previews.