Conference championships are up for grabs on this final weekend of the regular season and nowhere is the finish going to be more dramatic than in the ACC. Once again, it’s Duke and North Carolina tied for first and going head-to-head in Durham on Saturday night (7 PM ET, ESPN). The Blue Devils have the kind of team that can beat anyone on any given night, with their ability to hit the three-point shot. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins can nail from downtown. Ryan Kelly can step out from his power forward spot. And Austin Rivers? UNC head coach Roy Williams might have a casual familiarity with the freshman guard after Rivers ripped the heart out of Chapel Hill with a game-winning trey at the end of the teams’ February 8 meeting.
But if Duke has a team that can win any individual game, North Carolina has the kind of team that can win a national championship. The Tar Heels are big and tough on the blocks, with John Henson and Tyler Zeller patrolling. Harrison Barnes is an elite talent at small forward and one of the best players in the country. And no one on Carolina is more valuable than point guard Kendall Marshall, who gets the ball where it needs to be as well as any floor leader in the country. That’s why, even though Duke won the initial meeting and has homecourt, I think North Carolina is going to win its second straight ACC crown on Saturday night. The only way the Blue Devils can beat the league’s upper echelon is to be red-hot from behind the arc. It worked the first time against Carolina. It worked last week against Florida State. It’s asking too much for that approach to work each game.
Then on Sunday it’s the Big Ten that comes down to the wire. Michigan State has a tie for first clinched, but Ohio State can claim a share of the title if they win a head-to-head game in East Lansing. And if that happens, Michigan can make it a tri-championship if they win at Penn State. The Buckeyes-Spartans game is at 4 PM ET on CBS and gives us a big battle on the blocks, with Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Michigan State’s Draymond Green. The Buckeyes have the better supporting cast, and if DeShaun Thomas can help out Sullinger down low and William Buford can hit the trey, Michigan State will have a hard time keeping up. But while the Spartans don’t have the raw talent, Tom Izzo has done a superb job fitting everyone into their roles and his team held Ohio State to 26 percent shooting a couple weeks ago in Columbus. The Buckeyes have also been inconsistent this year, and I’m not ready to go with them on the road in a championship game. I see Green hungry to make himself a reputation against the more heralded Sullinger and having a big 17/12 type game and Michigan State wins another slugfest. I also need a Spartan win to save face, because I woke up the echoes of ABC News on Election Night 2000 and called this race too early, writing off Ohio State and moving Michigan into the middle class with Wisconsin and Indiana in an article earlier this week.
CHAMPIONSHIP RACE REPORT
Atlantic 10: Temple has clinched a tie for first and can wrap up the outright crown with a win at lowly Fordham. By all rights Xavier should have played its way out of the NCAAs with the Tuesday loss at second-place St. Louis, but I’ve been more negative on the Musketeers than other bracket projections. So perhaps they still have a chance when they host Charlotte. St. Louis has locked up a bid and is at Duquesne, hoping for a break in the championship race.
Mountain West: This is the league nobody wants to win. UNLV and San Diego State have each had their moments of seeming in control. New Mexico really had it, with a two-game lead and a soft schedule the rest of the way. But here we are, with SD State and New Mexico tied for first. It’s likely to end that way, as the Aztecs are at TCU, and the Lobos host Boise State (Insert obligatory football joke right here). The most interesting story beyond the title chase if Colorado State’s drive for an NCAA bid. They beat UNLV earlier this week and go to Air Force on Saturday. If the Rams win this game and make the semis of the conference tournament next week, I think they should get in.
Pac-12: Washington is the team in control here, with a one-game lead, but a tough game on Saturday at UCLA (2 PM ET, CBS). The Bruins showed how much they were really affected by the damaging Sports Illustrated report about improprieties in the program, by blowing out Washington State last night. Oh, here’s a thought to SI—why not do some historical investigating on the role booster Sam Gilbert played in luring talent to Westwood during the John Wooden era? It might bring down the whole myth of the Wooden Dynasty if it turns out Gilbert was more than just an interested friend of the program. Back to basketball today, if UCLA gets this win over Washington, it opens the door for Cal to claim a share of the crown against Stanford on Sunday. Arizona is probably in the NCAA Tournament and just as probably could use a win over a bad Arizona State team to make sure. Oregon knocked out Colorado last night and now needs to knock themselves in by beating lowly Utah and then winning a conference tourney game next week.
WHERE CONFERENCES ARE CLINCHED
Big East: Syracuse is sailing on in to shore in the Big East race and hosts Louisville on Saturday (4 PM ET, CBS). Along with Marquette-Georgetown these are games that are more tune-ups for the tournament in Madison Square Garden next week. The big games this weekend are on the NCAA bubble. If South Florida isn’t in, I’ll scream to the heavens, and winning at home against rapidly sinking West Virginia is a good place to save my voice. Cincinnati should also be in and plays Villanova. Seton Hall and UConn look to nail down bids against DePaul and Pitt respectively. Note that all Big East games are on Saturday, an unusual step by the conference and done presumably because their league tournament begins on Tuesday in MSG.
SEC: The Kentucky-Florida game on Sunday (Noon ET, CBS) doesn’t have much impact now that the Wildcats have wrapped up the championship. UK is still going for the perfect regular season. On the bubble, there’s three interesting games Saturday. Alabama probably needs to win at least one more and they play Ole Miss. Mississippi State absolutely needs to keep winning and they host Arkansas. What’s interesting is that Ole Miss and Arkansas are just good enough to be darkhorses to steal a bid if they win here and get hot in the conference tournament—“hot” being defined as reaching the final game. The same goes for Tennessee who hosts Vanderbilt.
Big 12: Kansas has the championship wrapped up. Missouri, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State are all in the NCAAs. But Texas, while looking good, can’t be resting securely and they go to Kansas for ESPN’s Saturday night showcase (9 PM ET, ESPN). I’m sure the Longhorns can play their way in by winning a less difficult first-round tournament game in Kansas City next week and might not even need that. But they could eliminate all doubt with a road shocker in Phog Allen Field House.
MIDMAJOR CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT S
We’ll start to see some automatic bids go up on the board this weekend, so for those of you playing Bracket Manager over at CBS Sportsline, expect to see UNC-Asheville win the Big South and become the first qualifier. The Missouri Valley also plays its tournament over the next three days and it’s a place to watch for possible bracket-busters. Wichita State is a mortal lock for the tournament. Creighton is probably in too. But if someone else can sneak in and steal the title, then the power conference bubble teams can start sweating early. And in that same vein, the power teams need to pull for Murray State in the Ohio Valley tournament, where the Racers play a semi-final game tonight and the presumably the championship game tomorrow. Anyone other than Murray State winning turns the OVC into a two-bid league.
The Colonial will probably be a one-bid league this year, although my podcasting colleague Greg DePalma over at PrimeSportsNetwork.com (where I’ll be on at 3 PM ET on Friday and the same time again on Monday) is still thinking that perhaps two of the Drexel, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Old Dominion quartet might get in. The quarterfinals of this tournament start Saturday and if the four favorites win, Sunday’s semi-finals should provide the good people of Richmond a great show. Any of these teams can be cutting down the nets on Monday night (this coming Monday night, not the big Monday night on April 2).
And we conclude with the West Coast Conference, which has BYU looking to play its way in tonight against San Diego. If the Cougars win it sets up a semi-final date with Gonzaga tomorrow (the Zags and St. Mary’s are automatically seeded to the semis as part of an extended bracket process the conference uses). Loyola Marymount isn’t an at-large threat but is good enough to steal this tournament title. They’re looking to earn a date with St. Mary’s in tomorrow’s semis. The championship game will go on Monday night.