If March Madness is the great feast of college basketball, then the conference tournaments are the appetizer. All across America, from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Kansas City to a double down in Las Vegas and a lot of other places in between, the major leagues gather for several days of non-stop hoops.
Our focus is the nine power conferences, looking at who needs to win. We’re going to ignore the obvious answer—the teams that are completely out of the running for an NCAA Tournament bid unless they win their events and the automatic bid that goes with it. At best, only one such team is going to win its tournament and even that would be a lot.
We’ll look at what teams are on the NCAA bubble and need at least one victory, if nothing else, for the comfort of their own fans on Selection Sunday. But when I talk about who “needs to win” a conference tournament, I have something more redemptive in mind.
Yesterday, TheSportsNotebook celebrated the regular season conference champions. For every champion, there’s one or more teams that had a legitimate expectation of winning a conference title, but came up short. The chances to hang a banner are running out. And while I don’t think winning a weekend tournament should have the same prestige as winning a long conference schedule, it does count for something. Its teams like these that have my attention the most in the coming day.
One final note before we run through everything. I’m not focusing on who needs to win to move up or down on the seed lines. Those are interesting conversations—where I live just outside Milwaukee, I’ve had plenty regarding Wisconsin’s chances (can they get a #1, will they be placed in Milwaukee, etc). But I’m not nearly as sold as the mainstream media that this is vitally important.
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The table is set, now let’s look at what’s ahead from today through Sunday in the college basketball conference tournaments…
Who Needs Redemption: Kentucky
Who Needs Wins: Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri
Comment: I’m opening with the SEC, because no conference combines a program that needs a redemptive championship with so many who just need to get some wins. Kentucky’s up-and-down season and John Calipari’s frustrations have been a matter of national attention. The Wildcats are the 2-seed and have a clear path to a potential Sunday matchup up with Florida.
Tennessee and Arkansas are each among the last teams in the field for ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. And if Arkansas takes care of the Auburn-South Carolina winner on Thursday, then it’s Hogs and Vols in a showdown in Friday’s quarterfinals. Missouri, in a strange twist, is the 8-seed in their own league, yet still on the bubble. Their path would include Florida, a win that would surely get everyone’s attention. The twist gets stranger in considering that 3-seed Georgia is nowhere on the Lunardi radar.
Who Needs Redemption: Duke, Syracuse
Who Needs Wins: Pitt, Florida State
Comment: Virginia’s surprise run to the ACC title came at the expense of the Blue Devils and Orangemen and thereby gives heightened importance to the latter’s potential third meeting in Saturday’s semis.
Florida State appears on a path to miss the NCAAs, but they are in the discussion. The Seminoles play Maryland on Thursday and potentially Virginia on Friday. If FSU gets through that, they’ve got another winnable game on Saturday against presumably North Carolina. That’s a path that gives Florida State a reasonable chance to play their way in without actually winning the tournament.
Pitt is probably going to make it, but they haven’t played their best basketball of late, and are down to a 10-seed in the current Lunardi projections. The Panthers probably get in no matter what, but if they lose to Wake Forest/Notre Dame on Thursday, there’s going to be some frayed nerves in the Steel City. If Pitt wins that game, it sets up a good Pitt-UNC game in the quarters. Pitt’s the kind of team where we can’t be surprised if they lose on Thursday and we can’t be surprised if they’re still playing on Sunday.
Big Ten (Indianapolis)
Who Needs Redemption: Wisconsin
Who Needs Wins: Minnesota, Nebraska
Comment: As a Badger fan, I’m still annoyed this team, the most talented I’ve seen in Madison, didn’t win the Big Ten title and in fact missed it by three games to a Michigan team that overcame a lot of adversity. Wisconsin is the 2-seed in Indy and needs to be cutting down the nets on Sunday.
It sets up a Friday clash of Redemption vs. Desperation. Minnesota is dead square on the bubble, and if they get past Penn State on Thursday, a Badgers-Gophers battle awaits. Nebraska got its big win over Wisconsin last Sunday night, but everything is still up in the air for the Cornhuskers. Their first game will be Friday, likely against Ohio State. If Nebraska wins that one, you have to think a bid is a done deal.
Big East (New York)
Who Needs Redemption: Creighton, Villanova
Who Needs Wins: Xavier, St. John’s, Providence
Comment: The Creighton-Villanova rivalry is interesting from the redemptive dynamic. These two teams are clearly the class of the league and Villanova won the conference, which logically puts the burden on Creighton this weekend at Madison Square Garden. But ‘Nova was absolutely humiliated in the two head-to-head games the rivals played. If a Round 3 awaits in the Saturday final, I’ve got think the kids from Villanova are going to want payback in a way that’s more personal than just who hangs banners.
Xavier appears to be leaning into the NCAA field, but they certainly need to beat Marquette on Thursday night to make themselves a little more comfortable. St. John’s and Providence are pure bubble teams and they play in the Thursday quarters. It’s the most consequential head-to-head game anywhere in the conference tournaments this week.
Pac-12 (Las Vegas)
Who Needs Redemption: No one
Who Needs Wins: Colorado, Stanford, Cal
Comment: Arizona was the class of the league and chalk favorite who delivered a conference title. The Wildcats don’t need redemption and it would be unreasonable to pin that burden on anyone else. UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon had nice seasons and are NCAA-bound. A tournament title would be nice, but it’s not like any of the three have failed expectations.
Colorado and Stanford are projected by Lunardi for the 10-seed line, which allows a wide room for error and them still to make it. But if either one loses early, then the slip closer to the true bubble. Stanford plays Washington State, then Arizona State. Cal is a true bubble team and is headed for a collision with Colorado in the quarters.
Big 12 (Kansas City)
Who Needs Redemption: Baylor
Who Needs Wins: Oklahoma State
Comment: Baylor has underachieved all year, and while a late surge appears to have them stabilized for making the NCAA Tournament, I still want to see the Bears make something happen in Kansas City. This is a program I’ve come to follow a lot lately. I fell in love with the basketball team when LaceDarius Dunn was there and they got on the map in the 2010-12 timeframe.
I started liking the football team when RG3 was there and I pushed his Heisman candidacy and then he ended up playing for my favorite NFL team. And I rooted for the baseball team this past February when I was vacationing in Tempe and watched them open the season in Arizona State. It’s time for the hoops team to live up its potential.
I’ll be shocked if Oklahoma State misses the field, especially with a recent win over Kansas under their belt. But Lunardi has them on the 10-line, and that’s my benchmark for needing at least one win to avoid any nerves on Sunday.
Atlantic 10 (Brooklyn)
Who Needs Redemption: No one
Who Needs Wins: Dayton, St. Joseph
Comment: This is the conference where the two bullet points that open it really don’t tell the whole story. There’s no one in the A-10 that was so good—either by this year’s talent or by program pedigree—that you should demand some sort of championship. But Virginia Commonwealth and George Washington can feel like they were at least as good as St. Louis, who won the regular season title, and now is the chance to prove it. Or UMass for that matter, who is the 6-seed, but capable of beating anyone with electric point guard Chaz Williams.
As to who needs wins, how about St. Louis? The Billikens dropped three games late, nearly blew the conference championship and barely hung on in UMass. Any season that ends with an A-10 title is a success in St. Loo, but if the season ends with a slump and early exits here and in the Big Dance, I’m sure it’s going to leave a bit of a sour taste.
Dayton and St. Joe’s are both right on Lunardi’s bubble, and need to win the quarters. Even though UMass is seeded lower than either, the Minutemen’s overall resume is strong enough that the ESPN analyst has them safely in.
Who Needs Redemption: Memphis
Who Needs Wins: No one
Comment: Memphis has been one of the year’s big disappointments for me. Their win over Louisville down the stretch showed their potential, and the Tigers are comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field. But Memphis should have done what Cincinnati did, and run with Louisville for the conference race. Or what Larry Brown and SMU did and become a good story. Playing this tournament at home, Memphis needs to redeem themselves.
This conference has five teams that are locks for the NCAA field—UConn will join the four mentioned above. Everyone else needs to win the automatic bid or go home.
Mountain West (Las Vegas)
Who Needs Redemption: No one
Who Needs Wins: No one
Comment: Suffice it to say I haven’t been asked to write promotional copy for the Mountain West tournament. But the top-heavy favorite to win the conference championship was San Diego State and they did so. New Mexico will join them in the NCAA field and anyone else who follows will have to win the automatic.
If you’re really dead set on watching this event (a label I suspect applies to no one), then UNLV would be a redemptive team—not a good year for a proud program and playing at home. And a team to keep an eye on for a surprise run would be Nevada. The Wolfpack had a horrible non-conference run that took them out of NCAA at-large consideration almost immediately, but turned it around in MWC play. The Pack are the 3-seed and if the two favorites aren’t motivated, Nevada could steal a bid from the bubble teams.