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Ben Billman’s NCAA Hoops Championship Week Breakdown

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SMU forward Semi Ojeleye, left, grabs a rebound next to Tulsa forward Will Magnay during an NCAA college basketball game in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP)

Championship week is upon us. Across the country, 32 conferences will hold tournaments to determine automatic bids for the NCAA tournament. While many low-major and mid-major schools know that the only hope of getting an NCAA bid is to win a conference title, some high-major teams need a good showing to sneak in as an at-large bid. Here is a breakdown of the major conference tournaments along with some mid-major teams.

American Athletic Conference

Summary: SMU won the regular season title and is a lock for the NCAA tournament along with Cincinnati, who finished one game behind. Houston and UCF finished 12-6 and 11-7 in conference play respectively, while everyone else completed the regular season with .500 or lower conference records. UConn has had a down year by their standards. They are not in the running for an at-large bid and could miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years.

Team to watch – Houston is on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. If the Cougars can make it to the semifinals and beat Cincinnati, there is a good chance they will get an at-large bid. Anything less, and they are looking at the NIT.

Projected winner – SMU is playing great basketball right now. They have won thirteen games in a row, and that includes a nine point win against Cincinnati. No one will want to face this team in the NCAA tournament.

Atlantic 10 Conference

Summary – Dayton has been a consistent winner with Archie Miller at the helm, and they hold the one seed in the conference tournament. VCU, another dominant team in recent years, is the two seed. Both of these teams are locks for the NCAA Tournament and have favorable roads to the semifinals. Rhode Island and Richmond tied for third place, and they both received byes to the conference tournament quarterfinals. Last season’s conference tournament champion, Saint Joseph’s, dropped all the way to thirteenth this season.

Team to watch – Rhode Island began the season as a dark horse to win the conference. They have been fairly inconsistent, but they have won nine of their past eleven games to make a late season push. The Rams would need to make the conference final to have a decent shot at an at-large bid. That run would need to include a semifinal win over Dayton.

Projected winner – Rhode Island has too much at stake to falter right now. They lost to Dayton by one point in early February, and they have a chance to seek revenge if both teams win in the quarterfinals. Rhode Island already has a win against VCU. The Rams will be in the NCAA tournament, not as an at-large, but as a conference champion.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Summary – The best conference in the country has eight teams that are locks to make the NCAA tournament no matter the outcome of the conference tournament. North Carolina won the regular season title while Florida State, Louisville, and Notre Dame tied for second. Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Miami all won double digit conference regular season games and are locks for the NCAA tournament. Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech sit squarely on the bubble and need at least one win in the conference tournament to strengthen their resumes. Mark Gottfried already knows this is his last season at NC State, so it will be interesting to see how his team plays in an opening round matchup against a solid Clemson squad.

Team to watch – Wake Forest has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation. They have twelve losses on the year, but none of them can be considered “bad.” They won their last three games to get back to 9-9 in conference play. A win over Boston College in the opening round advances them into a crucial game against Virginia Tech. A win over the Hokies will lock them into the NCAA tournament, but a loss will make them sweat it out on selection Sunday.

Projected winner – Florida State has a nice draw as the two seed.  Duke, North Carolina, and Louisville all fall on the other half of the bracket. This should set up a nice run for the Seminoles to get to the final and be fresh enough to overcome one of the blue bloods in the conference championship game. Leonard Hamilton does not get enough credit for the job he has done at Florida State.

Big 12 Conference

Summary – Kansas won its 13th straight conference regular season title. This is impressive considering how many good teams have supplied competition over this span of time. Even with Kansas at the top, there are a number of teams entering the conference tournament with a lot of confidence. Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State are all playing at a high level and will be tough matchups in the NCAA tournament. The bottom half of the tournament features teams looking to improve their resumes. Kansas State, TCU, and Texas Tech must play well to get recognition from the selection committee. Oklahoma and Texas round out the bottom of the conference.

Team to watch – Kansas State seems to be an annual bubble team under Bruce Weber. The Wildcats looked like an early season lock after starting 13-2 but have staggered to the finish and have only won eight conference games. A solid strength of schedule has kept them right on the edge of an at-large bid. Their NCAA tournament chances come down to a quarterfinal matchup against Baylor. A win makes them a lock, but a loss may force them into the NIT.

Projected winner – West Virginia is a tough matchup for any team, and in a conference tournament setting, their athleticism and defense may be too much to handle. The Mountaineers split games with both Kansas and Baylor. They have a chance to earn some redemption after blowing a large lead at Kansas before losing in overtime back in February. Bob Huggins has this team playing at a high level at the right time.

Villanova’s Josh Hart. Photo: Sports Illustrated

Big East Conference

Summary – Villanova, the defending national champion, is the top seed and the team to beat in the conference tournament.  Butler was a surprise team after being picked to finish in the middle of the pack in most preseason rankings. They earned the second seed. Creighton, Seton Hall, Providence, and Marquette all won at least ten conference games and are in solid positions to receive at-large bids. Xavier has dealt with injuries and is squarely on the bubble after a late season drop. Georgetown sits in ninth place and could face a lot of scrutiny based on their decision to keep or replace John Thompson III during the offseason.

Team to watch – As mentioned earlier, Xavier has dropped like a rock after a mid-season injury to Edmond Sumner. They have lost six of their last seven games and have gone from an NCAA tournament lock to a huge question mark. Fortunately, they play a struggling DePaul team in an opening round matchup. A win should be enough to get them off the bubble. A loss will keep them sweating right up until the selection show.

Projected winner – Villanova is in contention for the overall number one seed in the NCAA tournament. They only have three conference losses all season, and two of those came against Butler. If they can avoid the Bulldogs in a potential title game matchup, they should easily run through the Big East bracket.

Big Ten Conference

Summary – It has been an ugly season in a conference known for its depth and quality of play.  Purdue won the regular season title, and they seem to be the only team with hopes of advancing far in the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin once again finished near the top, but they have struggled in recent games.  Not much was expected of Minnesota, but Richard Pitino has had them playing at a high level all season. Northwestern, for the first time in school history, will go to the NCAA tournament. Michigan, Michigan State, and Maryland have done enough to earn at-large bids as well. Iowa and Illinois are bubble teams that have come on strong. Indiana and Ohio State have been plagued with injuries and sit near the bottom in the conference standings.

Team to watch – Iowa is a team on fire. The Hawkeyes have won four games in a row, including road wins over Maryland and Wisconsin. They finished with ten conference wins, which normally is enough to get an at-large bid in the Big Ten. In a down year, it is just enough to put them on the bubble. They draw Indiana before a potential matchup against Wisconsin. If they can win both of these games, it will be tough to leave out a team playing great basketball at the right time.

Projected winner – After a mid-season slide, Minnesota is back to playing great basketball. The Golden Gophers have won eight of their past nine games, and Richard Pitino was recently named Big Ten coach of the year. They have lost twice to Michigan State, a potential quarterfinal opponent, but both meetings occurred early on in conference play. They could play Purdue in the semifinals, a team they have already beaten. This has been an amazing year so far for Minnesota, and it will end with a conference tournament title.

Pac 12 Conference

Summary – Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA are all national title contenders.  They owned the rest of the conference throughout the regular season, and the conference tournament should be no different. Oregon earned the top seed which means they would avoid Arizona and UCLA until the final. Utah, USC, and California all won at least ten conference games, but weak schedules keep them from being NCAA tournament locks. The bottom half on the conference includes mediocre teams with little to no chance of making a conference tournament run.

Team to watch – Utah is a team clinging to the bubble, and they have a chance to play their way into the NCAA tournament with a couple wins. They have won five of their past seven games and have a bye to the quarterfinals. Most likely they will face an up-and-down Cal team before a potential matchup against Oregon. A win over the Ducks would give the selection committee a lot to think about in terms of including the Utes.

Projected winner – As stated earlier, Oregon avoids the top challengers until the title game. Their only loss in the past nine games came in a three point loss at UCLA. Dillon Brooks has this team rolling along, and a conference tournament championship could propel the Ducks to a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

Southeastern Conference

Summary – Kentucky sits at the top of the bracket, but Florida is nipping at their heels. The teams split games in the regular season and have separated themselves from the rest of the conference. Arkansas and South Carolina have done enough in recent games to be considered NCAA tournament locks. Ole Miss, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Georgia are all clinging to bubble spots even after erratic play throughout the season. The bottom half of the conference includes some intriguing teams such as Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Auburn.

Team to watch – Vanderbilt has arguably played the toughest schedule in the nation. They have fourteen losses, but only a loss to Missouri can be considered “bad.” The Commodores have won five of their past six games.  They face Texas A&M in their first game. If they beat them, Florida awaits in the quarterfinals.  Vanderbilt beat Florida in both regular season meetings, so they will have a lot of confidence heading into the game. They probably need to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAA tournament, but it could get very interesting if they can get to the final and play a good game against a very tough Kentucky team.

Projected winner – Kentucky is rolling right now. They have won eight games in a row and are building momentum. They are still in the running for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, and this should give them motivation in a bracket that features no real challengers before the title game. John Calipari has quieted his critics by bringing another young team closer together as the season progresses.

Mid-major conferences

Summary – Gonzaga is a lock no matter what happens against Saint Mary’s in their conference title game. A win more than likely propels Gonzaga to a one seed in the NCAA tournament. UNC Wilmington and Wichita State were both bubble teams that cemented their automatic bids by winning their conference tournament championships. Illinois State lost to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference title game, but their 27-6 overall record puts them in contention for an at-large bid. UT Arlington, Nevada, and Middle Tennessee are all teams that won conference regular season titles and will be tough to pass over as at-large teams if they somehow lose in conference tournament games.

Team to watch – Middle Tennessee shocked college basketball last season when they beat Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They were no joke, and they have proven it this year by going 27-4 and winning the Conference USA regular season title. Even with such an impressive record, a poor strength of schedule leaves them in danger of missing out on the NCAA tournament if they lose in the conference tournament. A possible semifinal matchup against UTEP could end their run. UTEP is the only conference team to beat Middle Tennessee this season.

Projected winners – Middle Tennessee looks like a strong bet to win their conference tournament. Nevada won the Mountain West Conference regular season crown, but Colorado State will be a major challenger in the tournament. Look for Colorado State to win the tournament title. UT Arlington has played great in recent games, but Georgia State will win the Sun Belt Conference tournament title because of recent success in tournament games.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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