By Cameron Tillet–
The most wonderful season of all has almost arrived here in the Bluegrass. Nothing compares with of the most random, exciting and beautiful thing in sports, March Madness. But before that, we get to witness a prequel, which is almost as good. The Tournament is to Star Wars 4, 5 and 6 as Championship Week is to Star Wars 1, 2 and 3 except they aren’t really crappy and there are 30 instead three. Otherwise they’re practically the same. Conference championships are absolutely vital in determining which bubble teams get a chance at the big dance. Here’s a little preview of each power conference.
Chalk this one up to a pretty typical year in the ACC. Bluebloods Duke and North Carolina have separated themselves from the pack of the conference with the Florida State Seminoles nipping at their tar heels. Miami and Virginia would be the best upset picks to potentially topple one of the top three.
This postseason will once again come down to the most storied rivalry on Tobacco Road. The poised demeanor of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and Kendall Marshall will lead the Heels to their 18th ACC Tournament Championship and Zeller’s consistent and outstanding play will earn him Tournament MVP. Though both teams will go into the postseason looking strong, UNC’s game will consistently live up to their talent after occasionally struggling with their sense of urgency during the regular season. Look for high turnovers from Duke’s two primary ball handlers, Austin Rivers – 2.3 per game – and Seth Curry – 2.2 per game – to be sources of problems for the Devils.
The Big 12 has seen some incredible battles between an undersized, but incredibly efficient Missouri squad and an emerging Kansas team that also has legitimate national title hopes. The Baylor Bears have disappointed, but still have the talent to make a deep postseason run, but does anyone believe they have it in them? Kansas State is one of the feistiest teams in the nation that most teams would rather not see in their part of the bracket.
If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see one last rematch of the Border War before Missouri makes their move to the SEC. Both of the regular season games have been spectacular. If they do indeed meet again, look for Thomas Robison to take advantage of his superior size and strength down low and take home a Big 12 championship to Jayhawk Nation and an MVP trophy for himself. This will be another epic chapter in this heated rivalry between two teams vying for potential one seeds in the big dance.
Syracuse is the clear favorite to win, but as we’ve seen in previous seasons that means almost nothing when it comes to the grand finale of the Big East. Nostradamus, himself couldn’t predict the eventual winner of this tournament. After all, last year we witnessed a middle-of-the-pack UConn team with a major identity crisis, springboard from a conference tournament title to the run the table in the NCAA tournament behind the hurricane force of Kemba Walker. Marquette is currently riding a hot streak. Georgetown has plenty of disciplined players who execute their Princeton offense to a tee. Our own Louisville, Cincinnati and Notre Dame will all be serious players in this tournament. That’s without mentioning several bubble teams who are hungry for an invite to the Big Dance.
Marquette has been on a very impressive win streak through the last several weeks and will ride this surge to a Big East tournament title. Hot-shooting Darius Johnson-Odom and versatile forward Jae Crowdern combo are the best one-two punch in the conference and one will take home MVP honors. Syracuse has looked vulnerable in their last games, particularly in rebounding the defensive glass. But ‘Cuse has the best home court advantage of any team not named St. John’s in this tournament and are darn near unbeatable at home, so look forward to very good game.
Behind the leadership of Tom Izzo, the Spartans have emerged as the strongest team in the conference for now and looking to go into this postseason with a lot of momentum. Ohio State still has a roster capable of making a Final Four run, but their recent struggles have exposed a certain formula to beating them. Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin are all between No. 3 and No. 5 seeds in the Tournament and can compete with anyone.
This is a tough one, as the Big Ten has proven to be the best basketball conference this year and six teams could legitimately win this tournament. Despite their recent struggles, the Buckeyes still have a bulk of the players left over from the No. 1 overall seed last year and retain a lot of that swagger. Jared Sullinger and his nimble low post game will help them to a Big Ten Championship and MVP for himself. This will be of the more interesting conference tournaments, so make sure to give this one your attention.
It’s been something of a down year in the Pac 12 for what seems like the last four years. Regardless, it’s a power conference so at least two or three teams will get in. Washington, California and Arizona have all had relatively successful year. Each team has a good collection of talent on their roster and with a little hot shooting could make an interesting postseason run.
Whereas the Big Ten has a lot of parity because of the number of good teams they have, the Pac 12 has a lot of parity because of the mediocre teams they have currently. Sean Miller’s team had some major postseason victories last year so the Arizona Wildcats look to be the team to take home a Pac 12 title. Look for Lorenzo Romar’s Washington Huskies to be a major challenge for Zona however.
Conference play here has been all about UK. The talent train in Lexington continues to chug on. Senior-laden Vanderbilt, perimeter-oriented Florida and the enigmatic Mississippi State Bulldogs are teams that have outside shots to upset the Cats but it would take a special game from one of them and a particularly bad game from UK.
The SEC has been far from spectacular this season so it’s hard to pick against what has possibly been the most spectacular team in college basketball this season. UK will take home another SEC tournament title behind the game-changing uniqueness of Anthony Davis.