NCAA Conference Tournaments 2021: Last-Second Predictions for Major Men's Conferences
At long, long last, another March Madness is nearly upon us. Pat yourselves on the back, everyone. We made it!
COVID-19 precautions have made the 2020-21 campaign an unprecedented experience for everyone involved, from the teams themselves stopping and starting to us observers trying to get a handle on the season's hierarchy and trends.
This year, more so than most, Conference Championship Week will serve as a bellwether in this regard, separating the men's teams that have made it through the long winter intact and loaded from those just hanging on by a thread.
As this month of highly competitive basketball kicks off, let's quickly preview which squads from the major conferences are best positioned to make deep postseason runs.
ACC: Virginia (17-6, 13-4)
There's no clearer microcosm for the chaos that's been the 2020-21 college basketball season than the ACC. Preseason expectations were typically high with four programs ranked in the AP Top 25. But Duke and North Carolina struggled from the start, and the rest of the conference has mostly been unable to capitalize on that power vacuum.
We'll tentatively pick Virginia over Florida State, Virginia Tech and several other decent candidates.
This hasn't been one of Tony Bennett's stronger efforts, especially considering he's (technically) the head coach of the defending champions. The Cavaliers ranking 31st in KenPom.com's defensive efficiency metric is particularly surprising, given that Bennett's previous teams boasted some of the most potent defenses in college basketball history.
But it's that recent legacy of March success that makes Virginia a team worth counting on in this chaotic year.
Bennett famously brought his 2018-19 club back from ignominy to win the last NCAA title, a feat that must have taken enormous strength. Two of the 2020-21 team's starting five—point guard Kihei Clark and big man Jay Huff—played in that title game and are similarly battle-tested.
Add in productive Marquette transfer Sam Hauser (15.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 44.4 3PT%) and sniper Trey Murphy III and there's certainly a recipe for Bennett to add to his already stellar postseason legacy.
Given what we outlined earlier, you might be best served picking an ACC team out of a hat and betting on it to win the conference tournament. But we'll take the club with the best combination of talent and experience.
American: Houston (21-3, 14-3)
By winning percentage, the Houston Cougars aren't even the best team in the American Athletic Conference. That distinction belongs to the Wichita State Shockers, who recently managed to beat Houston. But you only have to look at Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology predictions to understand the significant gap between Kelvin Sampson's group and its competition.
As of now, Lunardi has Houston as a second seed, Wichita State on the 11th-seed line and no other AAC teams in the field (both SMU and Memphis are in the Next Four Out category).
Despite the ostensibly tight standings, that gap exists for a reason.
Houston is one of four teams nationwide to have a top-10 offense and defense, per KenPom.com (Gonzaga, Michigan and Illinois are the others), has won by double digits in all but three of its victories and was competitive in each of its three losses, which came by a combined 15 points.
It helps that former McDonald's All-American Quentin Grimes now seems to be rounding into shape, as well. The swingman poured in a career-high 33 points against Western Kentucky and scored 22 first-half points (including 16 consecutively) in the Cougars' runaway victory over South Florida three nights later before closing the regular season with 17 points against Memphis.
Houston is now in prime position to win a conference tournament for the first time in a decade and make its deepest March run since Phi Slama Jama reigned supreme.
Atlantic 10: St. Bonaventure (15-4, 11-4)
It's been an intense two-horse race between St. Bonaventure and VCU all season.
The teams split their season series, are only separated by half a game at the top of the Atlantic 10 standings and have both stumbled of late with the Bonnies losing to Dayton last week and the Rams dropping two of their last five to George Mason and Davidson. Thankfully, they've now got all week to plan for each other as the conference tournament final is set for Sunday, more than a week after the semis took place.
With both teams at full health and home-court advantage a non-factor this year, we can limit our preview to on-court factors.
Fouls and turnover trouble defined the teams' two regular-season battles.
St. Bonaventure comfortably won Round 1 by shooting 22 free throws and forcing four Rams into at least three fouls, while VCU turned the tables a month later in a much closer matchup. It pressured Jalen Adaway and Jaren Holmes into committing a combined eight turnovers, fouled out big man Osun Osunniyi and limited the Bonnies' leading scorer, Kyle Lofton, to just eight points on 3-of-6 shooting.
It seems that whichever team can win the defensive-pressure battle will take this game. And though both clubs have top-20 defenses this year by KenPom.com's metrics, St. Bonaventure's combination of more capable scorers and infinitesimally more consistency on defense puts it over the edge here. (Lest we forget, VCU let middling Rhode Island score 83 back in January.)
In a photo finish, we'll pick the Bonnies to clinch their second trip to March Madness in four years.
Big 12: Baylor (21-1, 13-1)
Between Baylor losing nearly a month of games to COVID-19-related precautions and Kansas recently defeating it in the midst of a timely hot streak, public perception may be turning in the Big 12. But with all due respect to how the Jayhawks are playing right now and a special shoutout to Bob Huggins and West Virginia for turning in a stellar season, this is still Scott Drew's conference to lose.
There's a reason the Bears are so vaunted. They're an elite team on both sides of the ball, led by a dominant backcourt in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, and they claim a sterling resume headlined by victories over Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Texas Tech.
That recent defeat to Bill Self's Jayhawks? Well, it was the team's second game in nearly a month (the only other one coming against last-place Iowa State), and it quickly recovered, conquering three more ranked clubs (West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech) to close out the regular season.
Is Baylor in as smooth a groove as it was in December and January? Perhaps not. But recent performance suggests it might not be far off, either. If it can beat three ranked teams in a week while ostensibly being rusty, storming through the conference over the course of another week doesn't seem far-fetched.
A Gonzaga-Baylor national title game has been all anyone has wanted to talk about in college basketball for most of this season, and a conference championship would prove Drew and Co. can uphold their end of that bargain.
Big East: UConn (14-6, 11-6)
Is James Bouknight next in a line of UConn guards to catch fire in the postseason and lead his team to a title? Probably not, but let's not rule out the possibility just yet.
The Huskies haven't been as well-rounded or consistent as Villanova and Creighton, the two teams above them in the Big East standings. However, the combination of poorly timed injuries to Villanova's two best guards and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott's suspension after he made racially insensitive remarks make both clubs complete wild cards right now.
Plus, UConn has cruised since getting Bouknight back from an elbow injury, winning five of six (all by double figures). The star 2-guard has picked up where he left off pre-injury, as well, averaging 20.0 points and 5.8 rebounds on 49.4 percent shooting from the field while contributing to the team's top-flight defense.
Jay Wright's postseason experience could rule the day for Villanova this week, while Marcus Zegarowski could catch fire for Creighton. But with turmoil hanging over both teams at the moment, UConn is a much easier choice than it would have been last month.
Big Ten: Michigan (19-3, 14-3)
With four teams in KenPom.com's top 10 and multiple presumptive All-Americans, the Big Ten has had a banner 2020-21 campaign, one that will hopefully translate to an entertaining tournament over the next week.
Both the stacked top portion of the conference and the middle tier, which features several bubble teams, make predicting a winner as tough a task as there is this week. But the Michigan Wolverines have done their best to rise above a superbly talented crop of competitors.
Did Juwan Howard's club just lose to an Ayo Dosunmu-less Illinois by 23 points? Yes. Did a subpar Minnesota team beat the Wolverines by nearly 20? Also yes.
On the other hand, Michigan has been reliably stellar on both ends of the floor throughout the season, holding nine opponents under 60 points while scoring at least 80 on 11 occasions.
Hunter Dickinson is the team leader in points, rebounds and blocks per game, but he's been complemented by superb play from a cadre of bruising big men, versatile wing Franz Wagner and veteran guards Eli Brooks and Mike Smith. As a result, the Wolverines are 3-1 against their ranked Big Ten brethren and appear to claim both an on-court and psychological edge over the field.
We don't recommend wagering on this potential bloodbath of a tournament. But if you're so inclined, there are worse ways to go than betting on the Maize and Blue.
Mountain West: San Diego State (20-4, 14-3)
The Mountain West has given rise to several intriguing postseason teams this season, particularly the trio of Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State. But as has been the case throughout much of recent memory, San Diego State reigns here.
Early in conference play, the Aztecs struggled to find their footing, dropping three of their first six to Colorado State and Utah State. It's been smooth sailing since, though, as Brian Dutcher's club has won all 11 of its ensuing matchups—10 by double figures—and clinched its second consecutive regular-season conference title.
It certainly helps that the headlining trio of Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel and Nathan Mensah are playing some of the best basketball of their careers right now. Considering each has an elite skill (inside-out scoring for Mitchell, shooting for Schakel and rebounding for Mensah), that's a big problem for opponents.
Currently plugged in as a seventh seed in Lunardi's latest bracket while no other MWC team is firmly in the field, San Diego State slipping up in the midst of its most dominant stretch yet would be surprising. Upsets happen, of course, but consider the Aztecs as much of a favorite in their conference tournament as any mid- or high-major team short of Gonzaga.
Pac-12: Oregon (19-5, 14-4)
Stop us if you've heard this one before: In a down year for the Pac-12, Oregon is hitting its stride at the perfect moment.
After playing just once between Jan. 10 and Feb. 3 due to COVID-19-related precautions, Dana Altman's Ducks have once again gotten healthy and into a groove, winning nine of their last 10, seeing career-best play from leading scorer Chris Duarte, two-way stalwart Eugene Omoruyi and the rest of their deep rotation and claiming their fourth regular-season title in six years.
We're now nearing the point at which Altman's March dominance over the rest of the Pac-12 belongs alongside death and taxes as an inevitability.
That aforementioned one loss over the last month came at the hands of Tahj Eaddy, Evan Mobley and the USC Trojans, who, alongside UCLA and Colorado, should be considered a major threat to Oregon's double-pronged conference supremacy.
But none of those three teams are playing their best ball right now, and none were ever as consistently superior as the Ducks currently are, especially considering Oregon is playing so well directly after sacrificing a month's worth of games.
The ups and downs of a team like USC might play well during the NCAA tournament since you merely need to catch fire over the course of one weekend to make the Sweet 16. But against as many as four knowledgeable conference opponents in a week, Oregon's steadiness places it at the front of the pack.
SEC: Arkansas (21-5, 13-4)
This is pretty clearly a two-horse race between Alabama and Arkansas. But while the Crimson Tide lead the conference by 2.5 games, they've dropped three of their last 10. On the other hand, Eric Musselman's club is heating up at just the right moment, having won 11 of 13 games—including a 15-point victory over Bama— since big man Justin Smith returned from injury in January.
The Razorbacks haven't won the SEC Conference Tournament since 2000, and with a fully healthy roster, they now look in prime position to break that drought.
Shooting guard Moses Moody has played his way into one-and-done status this season, averaging 17.5 points on 44.1 percent shooting and posing major problems as a perimeter defender, while the team's two main transfers—Smith and floor general Jalen Tate—have seamlessly fit in as efficient, no-nonsense complements to his explosive scoring.
The SEC has been a roller-coaster all season long, with just 4.5 games separating third-place LSU from Auburn and Georgia, who are tied for 10th. Many teams have the potential to surprise over the next week.
But it's all coming up Arkansas right now.
West Coast: Gonzaga (25-0, 16-0)
In the business, we call this a no-brainer.
Gonzaga has been the best team in the West Coast Conference for the entire 21st century, and this year is no different. In fact, the 2020-21 edition might be Mark Few's best club yet.
The Bulldogs are undefeated, have won 24 of their 25 games by double digits and claim a top-10 offense and defense, per KenPom.com. They also boast one of the most balanced rotations you'll ever see, led by National Player of the Year candidate Corey Kispert, future lottery pick Jalen Suggs and interior maven Drew Timme. They've beaten four ranked teams (Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia) and twice disposed of BYU (the WCC's second-best team).
Legendary Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim paid Few's team the ultimate compliment back in January, saying on ESPN Radio Syracuse (h/t Forbes' Adam Zagoria), "I don't think anyone can beat Gonzaga. I've never seen a team [so far ahead] since UCLA when John Wooden was there."
Boeheim might have been exaggerating, but it stands to reason that Gonzaga's biggest questions will need to be answered later this month, not during the WCC tournament. Any of the other nine WCC teams winning would be one of the biggest shocks in recent memory.