Before the Madness comes the conference tournaments.
Ahead of Selection Sunday on St. Patrick’s Day, NCAA basketball will be focused on conference tournaments this week and the ramifications for March Madness that will come out of them as a result.
While conference tournaments no longer carry with them the cachet that they once did, they still serve a vital purpose in filling out the field of 64 (well, 68 with the First Four) teams that will compete for a national title.
For some teams, triumph in their conference tournament is the only path to March Madness through the automatic berth that comes with winning one. For others, like UCONN in 2011, conference tournaments represent a way to build momentum ahead of March Madness and use that head of steam to go on a run. When it comes to the elite teams, a run in the conference tournament could mean the difference between receiving a favourable seeding and a clear path to the Final Four or a lower ranking and more difficult road ahead.
There are 32 conferences in the NCAA, believe it or not, and you’re likely unfamiliar with many of them. If you’re an avid Summit League fan, it’s because your nephew goes to Western Illinois or you’re lying. Because each conference winner gets an automatic berth, conference champions make up half the March Madness field. In lesser conferences like, say, the Northeast or Mid-Eastern, winning your conference is very likely your only way to the Big Dance.
Some tournaments already finished up this weekend. The teams that have already punched their tickets to March Madness are Atlantic Sun champions Liberty, making their fourth appearance, Big South champions Gardner-Webb, making their Tournament debut, Missouri Valley champions Bradley, heading to the Big Dance for the ninth time, and Ohio Valley champions Murray State, led by prospective top-three pick in this June’s NBA Draft, Ja Morant.
While the remaining 27 conferences will be determining their victors this week, most of the focus will be on the Power 5 conferences (Atlantic Coast, Pacific-12, Southeastern, Big Ten and Big 12), as well as the American, Big East, Atlantic 10, West Coast and Mountain West. And there’s good reason for that – though we see Cinderella runs every year, it’s virtually certain that the eventual champions will come from one of these conferences. Jerry Tarkanian’s 1990 UNLV squad – out of the Big West – featuring Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony remains the only mid-major school to win a national title.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at some key matchups on the sked this week and their Canadian implications.
MONDAY AND TUESDAY – WCC
The WCC would be considered a run-of-the-mill mid-major if it weren’t for the presence of Gonzaga, currently the No.1 team in the country and a March Madness fixture over the past two decades, reaching the Tournament in 20 straight years.
The Bulldogs have won 30 games over this period and were finalists in 2017 – falling to North Carolina in the title game. Mark Few’s team will likely head into March Madness with a No. 1 seed for the second time in three years if they can prevail in the WCC tournament in Paradise, NV.
Gonzaga is led by guard Rui Hachimura, who is likely a top-five pick this year, and Canadian forward Brandon Clarke. Born in Vancouver, Clarke – a junior – is averaging 16.8 points on .688 shooting, 8.5 boards and 1.8 assists over 27.6 minutes a night. Right now, Clarke projects as a high second-round pick, but a strong showing in the Tournament could lift him into the first round.
The Zags’ path to a WCC title is a straightforward one. Entering the tournament at the semi-final stage by virtue of being its top seed and a perfect 16-0 conference schedule, Gonzaga takes on Pepperdine on Monday night. The eighth-seeded Waves defeated Pacific in their opener and then upset No. 4 San Francisco to reach the semis. In their one regular season encounter last month, the Bulldogs pasted the Waves 92-64 at home.
Presuming that Gonzaga handles Pepperdine, they will meet the winner of No. 2 Saint Mary’s and No. 4 San Diego. As it stands, both the Gaels and the Toreros likely need to win the WCC for a Tournament berth with an at-large entry unlikely.
WEDNESDAY - ACC
The ACC is a perennial powerhouse, but the quality of this year’s No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 UNC and No. 3 Duke squads is among the best in years. All three teams have No. 1 aspirations and a pair of the trio will likely grab top seeds on Sunday, but the only way to ensure that will be through a good showing in the tournament.
And while the Hoos, Tarheels and Blue Devils are more concerned with the ultimate prize, the ACC tournament remains a big deal for the other teams in the conference. Along with the top three, two other teams are currently in the Top 25 in No. 12 FSU (No. 4 in the ACC) and No. 16 Virginia Tech (No. 5 in the ACC). The latter team is led by Toronto’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, cousin of Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In 29 games this season, the junior is averaging 16.6 points on .480 shooting, 4.1 rebounds and 3.9 dimes in 34.1 minutes a night. Currently projecting as a lottery pick, Alexander-Walker knows that the Tournament could raise his profile and propel him into the top-10.
You can catch Alexander-Walker and No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 Miami/No. 13 Wake Forest LIVE at 2pm et/11 am pt on TSN3/5, on TSN Direct and streaming on TSN.ca on Wednesday
Barring the unforeseen, both of the Seminoles and Hokies are locks for the Tournament, so the question remains how many other ACC teams will join them? Certain Bracketology mocks have up to nine ACC teams in the field, meaning that how the conference tournament shakes out will be key to their fortunes going forward.
One of those teams looking to make a push from the bubble into a lock is the No. 6 seed in the tournament, Syracuse. Featuring Mississauga, Ont., sophomore Oshae Brissett (12.6 PPG on .391 FG%, 7.5 RPG and 1.8 APG in 33.1 MPG), the Orange need at least one win and maybe even two to ensure a Tournament spot. They open up their ACC Tournament on Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday’s game between No. 11 Boston College and No. 14 Pittsburgh.
You can catch Brissett and No. 6 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Boston College/No. 14 Pittsburgh LIVE at 9pm et/6pm pt on TSN5, on TSN Direct and streaming on TSN.ca on Wednesday
The Orange reached the Sweet Sixteen last year and the Final Four in 2016.
THURSDAY - Big 12, ACC and Pac-12
As the conference tournaments heat up, Canadians take centre stage on TSN.
The Big 12 quarterfinals feature a pair of players from North of the 49th suiting up for the No. 5 Iowa State Cyclones as they do battle with the No. 4 Baylor Bears in Ottawa senior Marial Shayok (18.7 PPG on .496 FG%, 5.1 RPG and 2.0 APG in 32.2 MPG) and Dartmouth, NS sophomore Lindell Wigginton (13.4 PPG on .411 FG%, 4.1 RPG and 2.2 APG in 25.7 MPG)
You can catch Shayok, Wigginton and No. 5 Iowa State vs. No. 4 Baylor LIVE at 12:30pm et/9:30am pt on TSN4, on TSN Direct and streaming on TSN.ca on Thursday
The Cyclones were 73-70 losers at Baylor in January and are losers of their last three straight heading into the tournament. With the Bears in a similar position with the Cyclones, a victory for either team would go a long way into firming up their Tournament credentials. Current Bracketology forecasts have seven Big 12 entries into March Madness, so neither of these two teams should be looking ahead too far.
The SEC is top heavy this year with very good Kentucky, Tennessee (featuring Milton, Ont.,’s Kyle Alexander) and LSU teams, who will all be vying for top Tournament seeding, but the battle for a berth among the lesser teams will be equally fascinating.
Former champions No. 8 Florida – with Aurora, Ont., freshman and RJ Barrett’s high school teammate, Andrew Nembhard (7.9 PPG on .415 FG%, 2.7 RPG and 5.2 APG in 32.2 MPG) – and No. 9 Arkansas are fighting for their Tournament lives when they meet in the SEC quarters.
You can catch Nembhard and No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 Arkansas LIVE at 1pm et/10am pt on TSN5, on TSN Direct and streaming on TSN.ca on Thursday
In the only meeting between the two clubs, the Gators topped the Razorbacks, 57-51, in a low-scoring affair back in January. Both bubble teams, each of Florida and Arkansas knows that a loss here could doom any chances for a Tournament berth.
Burlington, Ont., sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele (13.1 PPG on .504 FG%, 5.7 RPG and 0.4 APG in 20.9 MPG) and FSU see their first action of the ACC Tournament in the quarters when they take on the winner of Wednesday’s Virginia Tech vs. Wake Forest/Miami matchup. On Monday, Kabengele was named ACC Sixth Man of the Year.
You can catch Kabengele and No. 4 FSU vs. No. 5 Virginia Tech/No. 12 Miami/No. 13 Wake Forest LIVE at 2:30pm et/11:30am pt on TSN1, on TSN Direct and streaming on TSN.ca on Thursday
The ‘Noles enter the postseason red-hot as winners of four straight and 12 of their last 13 with the lone blemish in that run coming on February 23 against UNC. Likely looking at a No. 4 or a No. 5 as is, an impressive showing in the ACC Tournament could push the ‘Noles to an even higher seeding.
Barrett (23.4 PPG on .458 FG%, 7.5 RPG and 4.2 APG in 34.7 MPG) and the No. 3 Blue Devils make their postseason bow later on Thursday when the No. 3 Blue Devils take on the winner of Syracuse vs. Boston College/Pitt in the ACC quarters.
You can catch Barrett and No. 3 Duke vs. No. 6 Syracuse/No. 11 Boston College/No. 14 Pittsburgh LIVE at 9pm et/6pm pt on TSN1, on TSN Direct and streaming on TSN.ca on Thursday
Like UNC and Virginia, Coach K and Duke know what the stakes are in the ACC Tournament – get to the final and you’re a No. 1 in Tournament. Granted, there is a scenario where all three end up as No. 1 seeds, but it’s highly unlikely. It’s only happened once before in 2009 when all of UCONN, Pitt and Louisville were No. 1 seeds coming out of the old Big East (None of the three won that Tournament, BTW). You can pretty much pencil in Gonzaga and an SEC team – likely Kentucky – as No. 1 seeds, so it looks like there are two available spots for the ACC teams.
The other storyline to follow with Duke is when (if?) Zion Williamson returns to the lineup from his sprained right knee. With another matchup with the Tarheels potentially looming in the semis of the ACC Tournament, Coach K hopes to have his stud big-man back in time for Thursday's tip-off.
Out west, Montreal freshman Luguentz Dort (16.2 PPG on .408 FG%, 4.3 RPG and 2.4 APG in 31.2 MPG) and No. 2 Arizona State enter into the Pac-12 Tournament at the quarterfinal stage in a date with the winner of No. 7 Stanford and No. 10 UCLA, who face off on Wednesday night.
Dort’s draft stock (obviously contigent on whether or not he declares) has oscilated quite a bit over the season with more bullish expectations (lottery pick) tempered as the season has gone on (he’s currently earmarked for the second round), largely due to Dort’s shooting struggles. Now back above .400, the worst appears to behind Dort and a strong showing in the Pac-12 Tournament and onwards will get his stock rising again.
As for the Sun Devils, they’re likely headed into the Tournament, but this isn’t a particularly strong Pac-12. Even winning the Pac-12 won’t necessarily guarantee a favourable seeding, so it’s imperative to at least reach the final for ASU.
FRIDAY - Big Ten
Mono, Ont., freshman Iggy Brazdeikis (15.0 PPG on .466 FG%, 5.3 RPG and 0.9 APG in 29.5 MPG) and No. 3 Michigan enter the Big Ten Tournament at the quarterfinal stage in a game against No. 6. Iowa/No. 11 Illinois/No. 14 Northwestern.
The Wolverines beat both of the Fighting Illini and the Wildcats in the regular season, but fell 74-59 to the Hawkeyes on Feb. 1. While Michigan avoids archrivals No. 1 MSU on the other side of the bracket, a potential semi-final matchup with No. 2 Purdue is also daunting.
A victory in the Big Ten Tournament could push Michigan up to a No. 2 seed