March Madness 2011: The Top 10 Conference Tournaments You Don't Want To Miss
Ladies and gentleman, the Madness has finally arrived. After what seemed like forever, college basketball's regular season has ended and the conference tournaments have started.
Already we have four teams that have won their conferences' automatic bids: Belmont (30-win ball club), Indiana State (yes, the same team that one white boy played for back in the 70s), Morehead State (with the best mid-major player in the country, Kenneth Faried) and UNC-Asheville (a young, talented team that's a year ahead of schedule).
Many of the automatic qualifiers from the low-major conferences won't make any noise in the tournament.
However, when it comes to the top-level conferences, there will be more than just the automatic bid at stake. These teams will be in desperation mode trying to knock off a top team to improve their standing with the cruel entity that is the bubble.
Those that are locked in to the field will be looking to move up in seeding and send a message to the rest of the country that they're a force to be reckoned with.
So here are the 10 conference tournaments that everyone should watch, or at least keep their eyes on.
10. West Coast Conference
The prelims have already happened and the conference tournament championship fittingly comes down to the best teams in the WCC most years: Gonzaga and St. Mary's.
Both teams are believed to be in, but neither is a lock at this point. The Gaels and Bulldogs will be looking to not leave their fates up to the NCAA tournament selection committee.
These two teams have a history of making noise in the NCAA tournament (St. Mary's last year, and everyone knows about the Zags' history of upsets) and a victory over the rival could give one team the momentum it needs to add to their history.
The game starts around 9 p.m. tonight on ESPN (and no, unfortunately I did not get paid by the brass in Bristol for promoting the game).
9. Atlantic 10
Two teams are believed to be in the tournament (Xavier and Temple) while there are a couple teams on the bubble (Richmond and Duquesne) that could use deep runs to pad their resumes.
Many bubble teams in big conferences will be hoping either Xavier or Temple win the whole thing so a team like George Washington doesn't steal one of the few bids still up for grabs.
Outside of the NCAA implications, this conference has some of the best talent no one knows about. Find some time to check out the following players, as they all have a good chance to be in the NBA one day: Aaric Murray (La Salle), Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure), Chris Gaston (Fordham), Chris Wright (Dayton) and Tu Holloway (Xavier).
8. Mountain West
We all know what has happened over at BYU with the dismissal of one of its best players in Brandon Davies. The only thing I will say about the situation is that by signing his letter of intent to attend BYU, Davies thereby agreed to the strict rules and regulations the university abides by. While many may disagree with the ruling, Davies knew the rules that have been in place for years and simply broke them.
Now to the tournament. With BYU's loss in personnel, this will give fans a decent idea as to how they will respond against top competition, assuming the Cougars make it far enough to run into either San Diego State or UNLV (both NCAA tournament teams).
If we get to see BYU-SDSU for a third time and BYU still prevails, the Aztecs may not be as great as people were claiming. That, or Jimmer Fredette is simply incredible.
Regardless, for a mid-major conference that's expected to get three bids, these teams will not be pushovers.
7. Conference USA
This has been the most confusing conference in the country in terms of stability this season. In the preseason, Memphis was expected to control the top of the conference due to their top-five recruiting class.
By December, Central Florida was making noise with a hot start (14-0) that included wins over Florida and Miami (Fla.). The Knights then lost eight straight games and are currently 19-10, 6-10 in the C-USA.
Midway through conference play, Memphis and Southern Miss had taken control of the conference. Then both faltered to finish fourth and fifth in the conference, respectively.
Now the top team is UAB and it is projected as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament, not exactly the highest spot for a regular-season champion.
None of these teams mentioned have the resume to make it without at least a long run in the conference tournament, and anything less than winning the tournament may not be enough.
I propose to re-name this tournament the Tournament of Desperation in honor of all the teams that now have to rely on winning this thing to get firmly in the NCAAs when they couldn't get it done during the regular season.
Entering into the big conferences, the Pac-10 has been better overall than it was last year. UCLA has come back into relevance and Arizona is a contender to make a deep run behind dark-horse POY candidate Derrick Williams. Washington is the other NCAA-bound team barring something catastrophic.
A couple teams currently on the bubble (USC and Washington State) will be looking to run into one of those teams and beat them to improve their body of work. If WSU is able to beat UCLA or Arizona, they're probably in the tournament as they're one of the teams believed to be just outside the tournament.
USC will need to probably win the entire tournament if it hopes to make the NCAAs, but a win over Arizona will definitely make the Trojans more enticing.
Also, this is the youngest conference in the country, so expect to see a lot of players that shine in this conference tournament to at least be back next year.
If someone told me North Carolina would be the ACC regular-season champions back in December, I would've said they need to stop partying with Charlie Sheen.
Then Larry Drew II left the program, allowing Kendall Marshall to run the show. Now the Heels are one of the teams believed to have a legitimate shot at making the Final Four. Their victory over Duke proved that these guys can not only hang with, but also beat, the best teams in the country.
The crazy thing is that outside of UNC and Duke, there aren't any other really good teams in the conference. Usually teams like Maryland, NC State, or Clemson are in the top 25. Not so this year.
Florida State is really the only other team solidly in the tournament, while Boston College and Virginia Tech are barely in right now. Neither team can afford a first-round loss. Otherwise they'll probably be out of the tournament.
In the end, I hope to see Duke-UNC part III. The first two parts were good and I don't see the third being a letdown like Spiderman.
4. Big 12
The top of the Big 12 is clear as Kansas has once again dominated the conference and is a projected top seed in the NCAA tournament. Led by the Morris twins, the Jayhawks will once again be among the favorites to cut down the nets in Houston.
After that, it gets cluttered. Texas is the second-best team, but Missouri, Kansas State and Texas A&M are closer to them than most think.
If the Conference USA is the Tournament of Desperation, this conference is the Tournament of Shattered Dreams. Currently, there are three teams on the bubble in Baylor, Nebraska and Colorado, all of which look to be out as of right now.
All of these teams need to beat one of the top teams in the conference, but I doubt all of them will. A loss in the first or second rounds by any team and it's say hello to the NIT.
3. Big Ten
What Ohio State did to Wisconsin on Sunday was one of the most dominating performances I've seen this year. If Jon Diebler is able to continue his hot streak through the conference tournament, the Buckeyes will easily walk through this without a challenge.
The bubble teams here consist of Michigan State, Illinois and Michigan. All are believed to be in, but not by much. Each team could use another victory to ensure spots in the field.
The matchup of Illinois-Michigan in the quarterfinals will be a huge game for both teams. While a loss wouldn't be terrible, like a loss to Indiana would, a win would put the Illini or Wolverines solidly in the tournament.
I'm also looking forward to a possible Purdue-Wisconsin meeting in the semifinals. Both teams have shown flashes of being capable of making the Final Four and they are similar in that both have an inside-out duo (E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson for Purdue and Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer for the Badgers).
With no truly elite team in the conference, this tournament may be the biggest crap shoot of any in the country.
Only three teams—Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida—are viewed as locks for the NCAA tournament. The Gators may be a sleeper Final Four team as their play in the last month has been outstanding, going 8-1 in their last nine games. This veteran squad is finally excelling the way I thought they would back in November.
Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee could all use a victory or two to ensure their NCAA statuses as at-larges. None of those teams can afford to lose their first-round games and still feel comfortable about where they stand.
Alabama's status is one of the more intriguing in the country. The Crimson Tide dominated the SEC West, winning it by three games, but the Tide are currently team No. 69 according to Joe Lunardi. It would be surprising for a division winner in the SEC to not make the tournament, but if the Tide can't win their quarterfinal game, that may end up being the case.
1. Big East
Some of the more memorable games of the year occur in the Big East Tournament. Who can forget Gerry McNamara carrying the Orange, who were on the bubble entering the tournament, to the Big East championship a few years ago? Or what about the epic six-overtime game a couple years ago between Syracuse and Connecticut?
This season, there are believed to be at least 10 teams that will make the tournament, with Marquette currently on the bubble and needing at least a victory over Providence in the opening round to make sure it is in.
This is the best conference with the most drawn out tournament outside of the NCAA or NIT. Teams that finished between nine and 16 in the conference will have to win five games to get the coveted trophy.
The hometown team, St. John's, has returned to relevance and is a top 20 team in the country. The fans during their games should be intense.
With 15 games taking place in the most famous arena in the country, Madison Square Garden, there will surely be some fantastic contests that take place.
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