The power conference tournaments start to warm up tonight, with preliminary games in the Big East and Mountain West Conferences. The action picks up tomorrow and hits full stride by Friday when the best team in each league will have played at least one game. In today’s college basketball coverage, our question is going to be a philosophical one—what do these games actually mean?
Conference tournaments are stuck there in between the long, drawn-out battles of the regular season and the prestige-laden intensity of the NCAA Tournament. The media focus on those events focuses on two extremes—the first would be the teams that need wins to play their way into the field of 68. The second would be the elite teams and speculating on what they need to do to secure a #1 seed. There’s a third group of teams that gets overlooked though, and it’s ones that really need to win a championship of some kind to justify their season.
Well, maybe “justify” is too harsh a term. But I’m thinking about teams that had the talent to win a regular season title and didn’t. They’ve had years good enough to be safely in the NCAA Tournament, but at this point they’ve haven’t done anything to earn hanging a banner or getting rings. And unless they make the Final Four—obviously a pretty tall order—then the conference tournament is the last chance. TheSportsNotebook will run through each of the eight major conferences and identify the team(s) who should be feeling a little extra heat to make it all the way and cut down the nets by this weekend.
Big East: Notre Dame—I put the onus on the Irish over Syracuse for the simple reason that I think Notre Dame has more talent and therefore should have higher expectations. Mike Brey’s team should have been in the mix for a Big East championship—they certainly have more talent than tri-champion Marquette, probably more than Georgetown and arguably more than Louisville. All three of those squads got championship hardware. Notre Dame needs to redeem itself this week in Madison Square Garden.
ACC: N.C. State—The easy answer here is Duke, to show that Miami’s regular season title was just about Ryan Kelly being injured. But Duke has ascended to a level where only the Final Four is seen as a success—I don’t think that’s fair or rational, but it’s the way it is. And N.C. State has been a serious disappointment. With 22 wins, they’ll make the NCAA Tournament, but the Wolfpack have the inside-outside balance that they should have been the team to take advantage of the Kelly injury and run to an ACC crown. At the very least, they can come out of the #5 seed, beat Virginia in the quarters, knock off Miami in the semis and set up a battle with Duke in the Sunday final.
Big Ten: Michigan—The Wolverines were within some missed free throws and an agonizingly close tip-in of sharing the conference title with Indiana. They had previously played themselves out of Big Ten supremacy by losing at Penn State and dropping a crazy game at Wisconsin because of a buzzer-beating halfcourt heave to force overtime. Michigan was a top-five team at the start of the year and been in the national conversation all year, but they’re sitting on the 5-seed in their own conference tournament. How about this for revenge—beat Penn State, Wisconsin and presumably Indiana in succession, and get to the final. With your revenge in hand, seal the deal with a tournament title.
SEC: No one—Okay, it’s a cop-out, but Florida was the heavy favorite to win this conference and they did. I suppose it would be nice for Missouri to step up and show what they can do with a healthy Laurence Bowers at the forward position. But the Tigers had a lot of personnel to replace and it’s no fairer to place this burden on them then it would to do so for Wisconsin in the Big Ten. No, the SEC is a tournament that fits the mainstream media narrative—there’s four bubble teams (Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss) that need wins and given the softness of this league, it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone play their way in from completely off the grid. Think Georgia in the 8-hole, with recent wins over Tennessee and Kentucky to build momentum.
Big 12: No one—Cop Out II. But what do you do when Kansas is a heavy favorite and gets a piece of the regular season title. Kansas State already feels great because they shared the crown. And no one else is so good that a tournament crown is necessary for vindication. This is actually the feel-good tournament of the year—only Baylor really has any pressure on them to advance.
Pac-12: Arizona—The folks in Oregon might protest, given the way the Ducks blew the regular season title to UCLA down the stretch. But Arizona has the horses to be a real national title contender and so far they have won nothing. The Wildcats absolutely have to win this event or they’re on the hook to be the disappointment of the season nationally, obviously pending the NCAA Tournament.
Atlantic 10: Butler/Virginia Commonwealth—These two teams were the powers-that-be and as such, the most disappointed at the way St. Louis angled in and took the conference championship. The pressure to cut down the nets at the Barclays Center is equal on both teams, but Butler has more pressure to at least have a generic good showing. The Bulldogs have slumped to a 5-seed and have to win four times in four days.
Mountain West: UNLV—The Rebels would be the choice here regardless of tournament venue—they were supposed to compete for the MWC title, but got started too late and let New Mexico run away. But the fact this tourney is in Las Vegas only heightens the pressure on UNLV to take their strong late-season play and produce a crown.
I don’t think winning a conference tournament is as significant of an accomplishment as winning the regular season. I certainly don’t put it in the ballpark with making the Final Four. But surely winning your league’s postseason event counts for something and the teams discussed here today all should have done something by now and have another chance.