By Sal Capaccio
Before the field of 68 is announced Sunday night, conference tournaments all over the country will help determine what teams gets automatic bids to the Big Dance. Here are my predictions for who wins some of these tournaments, along with a sleeper team (must be seeded 5 or worse), and a brief analysis on each tourney:
Big East (at New York City)Sal’s Pick: Louisville
Of course it’s a shame this tournament is ending as we know it. It’s been one of the marquee events in the entire sports calendar for many years. The Cardinals were expected to contend for the national title. Then they lost three in a row in January. But they’ve now won seven straight and ten of their last eleven (the only loss in 5 OTs at Notre Dame). They’re playing as well as anyone in the country right now. Beware of having the double-bye at MSG, though. Historically, since the double-bye format was put into place, teams that are “rewarded” with the rest haven’t fared so well. So, don’t be surprised if (1) Georgetown or (3) Marquette gets upset in their first game. As bad as they’ve played lately, even (5) Syracuse could get some confidence back after an opening round win and surprise (4) Pittsburgh. Those top four seeds seem to always be rusty while the lower-seed already has the feel of a game under their belts.
Big Ten (at Chicago)
Sal’s Pick: Michigan State
It’s amazing to think Michigan has dropped all the way to the 5th seed in this tourney. That’s partly due to their own late-season failings, but mostly about how good the top of the conference is. The top-five reads like a “who’s who” of college basketball this year: Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan. Any one of those teams could make the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament and no one would be surprised. Once you get to these quarterfinals, you could probably throw a dart and have the same chance of winning with whichever team it sticks. So, I’ll go with Sparty just because I hate going against Tom Izzo. He’s one of the best coaches in the country, always doing more with less.
Mountain West (at Las Vegas)
Sal’s Pick: UNLV
Sleeper: Boise State
This is a much better conference than most people realize. Mostly because most fans don’t get to see these teams play on television as often. So, it should be a fun – and wide open – tournament. The top teams are very even, so one small edge is all it may take to win it. And UNLV has that edge. They get to play at home as the #3 seed.
Pac-12 (at Las Vegas)
Sal’s Pick: UCLA
Yep, two conferences on the same days in the same city. To clear confusion, the Pac-12 tourney will be played at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Mountain West tourney will be held at the Thomas & Mack Center. Tourney play is all about guards and controlling the pace. Although he can play in the frontcourt, as well, UCLA has one of the best in Shabazz Muhammed with the ball in his hands.
SEC (at Nashville)
Sal’s Pick: Florida
From top to bottom this conference hasn’t been very good this year and inconsistencies have plagued everyone. So this one is more wide-open than most realize. But Florida has the most talent here. I’ll take that talent, and the coaching of Billy Donovan, to win out in the end. But as my sleeper above hints, keep an eye on Tennessee. The Vols have won eight of their last nine and can play with anyone when they’re on their game. And they’re on their game right now.
ACC (at Greensboro)
Sal’s Pick: Virginia
Sleeper: NC State
Here’s a little trivia for you: Of the past twelve ACC tournaments played (since 2000), the top seed has won it only four times. This year’s top seed, Miami, isn’t playing well enough for me to take them here, anyway. Duke is clearly playing the best basketball of any team in the conference, but I love the way Virginia plays defense (4th in the country in points allowed per game) and the fact they’ll be playing for their tournament lives. The Cavs are squarely on the NCAA bubble. North Carolina has played very good basketball since going to a smaller lineup. But the Tar Heels have to play Duke in the quarterfinals if they both win their first game, and that has proven to be an awful matchup for them.
Big 12 (at Kansas City)Sal’s Pick: Oklahoma State
Sleeper: Iowa State
The Cowboys were 2-2 against Kansas and Kansas State, splitting with both. And one of those losses was in double-OT to the Jayhawks. So, they match up just fine with the top two seeds in this tourney. Plus, they’ll avoid Kansas until the final (so anything can happen before then) and get Kansas State first. A team Oklahoma State beat by six just this past weekend.
Other Conference Tournament Picks:
Atlantic 10: VCU
Conference USA: Memphis
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