Well folks, we’ve made it. It…is…officially… Championship… Week!! For my money, the best week in all of sports.
That’s right, while some will (falsely) make the claim that the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is the best sports week of the year, I disagree. In Champ Week we get wall-to-wall basketball from noon until well after midnight eastern, pretty much every day from Tuesday to Saturday. Plus, we get to see the best teams three and sometimes four times, as opposed to just once or twice in the NCAA Tournament. And we’ve got all the same desperation that comes with the first weekend of March, as small schools battle for automatic bids and bubble squads fight to secure tourney spots.
So all of that is my nice way of say…. BUCKLE UP, because these next few days are about to get crazy. The major conference tournaments start tomorrow (Tuesday) when the ACC Tournament begins, and the non-stop hoops will run pretty much straight until the bracket is revealed late on Sunday evening.
The question now: What do you need to know heading into Champ Week? Here is a preview guide of the week ahead, featuring all the big storylines, heading into all the bit tournaments.
WCC Tournament (Monday-Tuesday)
Teams Already In: Gonzaga
Work to Do: Saint Mary’s
Biggest Storyline: Does Gonzaga Wrap Up a No. 1 seed?
This is the one tournament on this list that has already begun – with semifinals underway tonight and the title game Tuesday.
And while Gonzaga is the overwhelming favorite in Vegas, it is worth monitoring for one simple reason: The Zags need to win their conference tournament to secure a No. 1 seed. Win and they will essentially lock up the No. 1 seed in the West region. Lose it, and there’s a good chance they fall to the No. 2 line.
Considering that this has basically been the Gonzaga Invitational the last few years (they’ve won the title six years in a row) there is no reason to think they won’t win it. But for the purposes of figuring out the No. 1 seed discussion, it’s one worth monitoring.
ACC Tournament (Tuesday-Saturday)
Teams Already In: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Syracuse
Work to Do: Clemson, NC State
Biggest Storyline: So What’s the Deal With Zion?
Yes, yes, I know: “So what’s the deal with Zion” sounds like a bad opening monologue on an old episode of Seinfeld, but for college basketball purposes, it really is the single most important question in the sport right now. Is Zion Williamson really coming back for the ACC Tournament? Or is Coach K putting up a façade to protect Duke’s NCAA Tournament seeding? At this point, it’s totally fair to ask both questions, because we’ve gotten so much misinformation over the last few weeks.
It also sets up the next big question in the ACC: Will they really get three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament? My hunch is no, and that the winner of the SEC (assuming it’s Kentucky or Tennessee) still has the inside track to the fourth No. 1. Heck, I think you can make the case that Michigan State would deserve a No. 1 seed ahead of the third ACC team if the SEC teams falter. But at the same time, it isn’t inconceivable either. Especially if Zion comes back, and if the Blue Devils get the swag back that they’ve clearly been missing without him.
In terms of the rest of the conference, most everything else is largely self-explanatory at this point. Virginia has already locked up a No. 1 seed, and Louisville, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Syracuse are also in the Big Dance already. Barring some surprising run, their seeding won’t be impacted this week in Charlotte.
Interestingly, the only true bubble drama will come from two teams that are set to face each other head-to-head. Those two teams are Clemson and NC State, who will meet in the 8-9 game on Wednesday afternoon at noon. The winner of that one very likely clinches a spot (especially if it’s NC State). The loser will be sweating until Selection Sunday – and might want to start making plans for the NIT.
Big East Tournament (Wednesday-Saturday)
Teams Already In: Villanova, Marquette, Seton Hall
Work to Do: St. John’s, Creighton, Georgetown, Xavier, Butler
Biggest Question: Does Anyone Want to Win This Thing?
If you want a quick snapshot of the Big East season, it came on Saturday afternoon, when Villanova lost to Seton Hall – and Jay Wright’s club still clinched the Big East regular season title later that afternoon. The news became official when Marquette lost to Georgetown at home to close out the regular season – marking the Golden Eagles fourth straight loss heading into Championship Week. It also gave Nova the regular season title despite losing four out of its final six, including again, its season finale.
But that basically explains the Big East in a nutshell this season. it’s a conference where up is down, nothing is the way it seems and every time you think you’ve got things figured out… somebody loses to DePaul.
All of that led to chaos in the regular season, but also makes for a damn compelling week at Madison Square Garden over the next few days. In the 10-team league, only three teams should feel like they have comfortably clinched NCAA Tournament berths (Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall). And on the flip side, there are only two teams (Providence and DePaul) that feel like they’re definitively out of this thing altogether if they don’t win the automatic bid. That also means there are five teams that could legitimately play themselves into or out of the NCAA Tournament this week at Madison Square Garden.
Here is a brief rundown: It feels like St. John’s is probably in – but man, would one more win really help their cause. Lose their opener to DePaul Wednesday night and they could be sweating come Selection Sunday. Incredibly, Creighton has played itself back onto the bubble after seemingly falling off just a few weeks ago. With one win they should feel good, and with two wins they should feel really good about hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. Georgetown and Xavier probably need multiple wins to get back into the conversation, and Butler would probably need to make a run from the opening round to the title game (which would entail three wins in New York) to have a serious shot at an at-large.
Still, the only thing you can ask for in March is hope. And just about everyone in the Big East has it right now.
Big 12 Tournament (Wednesday-Saturday)
Teams Already In: Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma
Work to Do: Texas, TCU
Biggest Storyline: Which Crappy Bubble Team Will Get the Wins Needed to Punch Their Tourney Ticket
It’s funny, because for all the talk about the media over-hyping the ACC (hey – did you hear they might get three No. 1 seeds?!?!?), to me the over-hype around the Big 12 is much worse. At least the ACC actually has teams who can compete for a title – Duke, North Carolina, maybe Virginia this year. The Big 12? It’s Kansas and everybody else. To their credit, Texas Tech is coming on strong as a second elite program in this league. But it’s the first time in a long time that it looks like there is a real challenger for the Jayhawks in the big picture.
And no where is the media overkill felt more than on the bubble this year. Seriously, when Texas (which is now 16-15 and 8-10 in the Big 12) lost to TCU (19-12, 7-11 in the Big 12) on Saturday afternoon it should have ended any talk of the Longhorns being a legitimate at-large candidate. But instead, rather than the media saying “Man, that should have eliminated Texas from at-large consideration) instead, they did the opposite: It made them say, “Well, looks like the Big 12 just got another team in the NCAA Tournament.”
Wait, what? Have you seen Texas’ resume? It has more holes in it than a block of swiss cheese.
And to me, that’s the entire Big 12.
Texas is probably on the wrong side of the bubble right now – considering that no team has ever gotten an at-large bid with more than 14 losses. But it also feels like a win or two in Kansas City, and they’ll be right back in the picture. TCU is currently 19-12, their best out of conference win was against Florida at home, they’re 0-6 against the Top 3 teams in the Big 12 (Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas) and yet somehow they are on the right side of the bubble. Oklahoma is also on the right side of the bubble, even though they are also 19-12 and 7-11 in this league, with their best out of conference wins coming against Florida, Creighton and Wofford. Did I mention they went 1-9 against the Top 5 teams in the Big 12? Seriously you can’t make this stuff up!!!
Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of me saying, the Big 12 sucks, but a couple of these teams are going to get the wins needed to punch their tickets into the NCAA Tournament… because they’re playing equally crappy, overhyped teams.
Thankfully everyone other than Texas Tech and maybe Kansas State will be out of the NCAA Tournament by the end of the first weekend.
Mountain West Tournament (Wednesday-Saturday)
Teams Already In: Nevada, Utah State
Work to Do: None
Biggest Storyline: Do we get a Nevada-Utah State rematch in the title game?
Both Nevada and Utah State are in the NCAA Tournament regardless of who wins the conference tournament, so there really isn’t much drama here.
Therefore with the Mountain West, it really boils down to two questions.
The first is simple: Does this league have a bid-stealer? Honestly, the answer is probably not (San Diego State is certainly talented enough, but also just lost by 30 to Nevada on the road Saturday night. So yeah, it probably ain’t happening). The second storyline is much more interesting: Do we get a Nevada-Utah State rematch in the final? That’s the question we’re all hoping to find an answer to.
This video is wild. I'll say this: We should get video soon enough from the court, to see exactly what happened. But I find it really hard to believe that Nevada's players and coaches would be THIS mad if the Utah State fans weren't REALLY out of line pic.twitter.com/otKCO3i6AS
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) March 3, 2019
That’s because, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last two weeks, you know that when these two teams last played, things got ugly after the game. Utah State fans rushed the court – and it led to a ruckus in the tunnel between the two teams, which reportedly was started by Utah State’s coaches. The whole thing went super-viral and forced the league to step in.
Because of the way college basketball is these days (one-and-done players, so many transfers) it’s rare that you get two teams that legitimately hate each other.
But these two teams do. Which should make for a hell of a weekend in Las Vegas.
Pac 12 Tournament (Wednesday-Saturday)
Teams Already In: Washington
Work to Do: Arizona State
Biggest Storyline: Do We Have a Bid Stealer?
Usually when we talk about “bid stealers” we’re talking about schools from the smaller conferences – the Mountain West’s and Atlantic 10’s etc. – where one of the non-favorites could rise up and win the automatic bid. It would also mean that the league favorite (say in the case of the Mountain West, Nevada) would get an at-large, hence the league “steals” a bid from one of the power conferences.
Only in 2019, in the Pac-12, it’s fair to ask: Will this league end up having a bid-stealing champion? Given how things have played out all season, the answer feels like it might end up a “yes.”
Right now there is only one team that fits the “comfortably in” profile and that’s Washington – and even Washington has struggled of late. The Dawgs were rolling through the Pac-12, but lost two of their final three games – one to the worst team in the league (Cal) and the other at home on Senior Night to Oregon. The Huskies should be good for an at-large bid, but should probably get at least one win in Las Vegas for good measure. Arizona State probably needs to win two games to feel really good. But with the way the Pac-12 season has gone, does anyone really expect that?
Add all this up and it makes the Pac-12 arguably one of the two or three most interesting conference tournaments in college basketball. There are no great teams, but it also feels like there are seven, eight or nine teams in Vegas that could legitimately win the whole thing. Like, would you be surprised if UCLA (which has seven Top 100 recruits in their rotation) made a run? Or Oregon, which has won four in a row, and has a future first round pick (Louis King) in their lineup?
Oh, and did I mention Bill Walton is going to be on the call all week? Yeah, the Pac-12 is going to be WILD.
AAC Tournament (Thursday-Sunday)
Teams Already In: Houston, Cincinnati, UCF
Work to Do: Temple
Biggest Storyline: Can Memphis Make a Real Run?
There are three teams that are comfortably in (Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida) and one that is probably on the right side of the bubble right now. That would be Temple, who beat Central Florida at home on Saturday afternoon.
That also means that the only real intrigue comes in this: Is there a legitimate bid stealer in the AAC? And could it mean the Memphis Tigers?
That’s right, Penny Hardaway, the man that everyone loves to hate, quietly has Memphis playing good basketball over the last month with the Tigers winning six of their last eight games. More importantly, the AAC Conference Tournament will be played in Memphis, on the Tigers home-court. Talk about an insane advantage, huh?
I’m still not expecting the Tigers to pull off the tournament run. But hey, stranger things have happened.
SEC Tournament (Wednesday-Sunday)
Teams Already In: Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss
Work to Do: Alabama, Florida
Biggest Storyline: Will Anyone Get a No. 1 Seed?
In case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m kind of over the whole “ACC getting three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament” narrative. And frankly, I don’t think it will be an issue if either Kentucky or Tennessee wins the conference tournament. If either the Vols or Cats win the league, they will almost certainly be a No. 1 come Selection Sunday (for what it’s worth, I’m not nearly as sold on LSU. If they continue to sit out Javonte Smart and Will Wade isn’t back, how can you justify giving that team a No. 1 seed? Even if they win the conference tournament).
Speaking of LSU, to me that’s where the rest of the real intrigue lies: Can the Tigers continue this wild run? Look, I’m not saying you have to like a school that has allegedly been caught cheating, but at the same time, it was fascinating to me that even without Smart and Naz Reid on Saturday night, the Tigers didn’t miss a beat without Vandy. I know it was Vandy – which was part of this. But I wonder if they can keep up the high intensity of play as the weeks go on.
And finally, there is the bubble conversation, which feels a little boring in the SEC this season. Six teams are comfortably in, and Florida is probably in too. If the Gators win their opener against Arkansas, my hunch is that they are essentially a lock. Alabama on the other hand probably played themselves out of the NCAA Tournament this week with losses to Auburn and at Arkansas. The Crimson Tide currently sit at 17-14 overall, and remember, no team has ever gotten an at-large with more than 14 losses.
It feels like Alabama would legitimately need to win two games just to be in the conversation, and three to have a real shot. And considering that would likely involve upsetting three future NCAA Tournament teams (Ole Miss, Kentucky and probably Tennessee) for that to happen, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Big Ten Tournament (Wednesday-Sunday)
Teams Already In: Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland, Iowa
Work to Do: Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana
Biggest Storyline: Will Indiana get in?
The Big Ten was the last conference to finish its regular season on Sunday afternoon, and in the final game of the regular season Ohio State pushed Wisconsin to overtime before they lost. Had Ohio State won that game, they probably would have clinched an NCAA Tournament. But now it sets up a fascinating opening round tournament game for both teams at 12:30 ET on Thursday afternoon.
Like Clemson-NC State in the ACC, it feels like Ohio State-Indiana is a “survive and advance game.” If either team loses they’re probably out of the NCAA Tournament picture. And heck, even if Indiana wins, they probably need to win a second game to feel truly safe about making the Big Dance. The crazy part: Their second game would be against top-seed Michigan State. Incredibly, Michigan State lost four Big Ten games all year… and two were to Indiana.
Talk about drama, huh?
Like Indiana and Ohio State, Minnesota is on the bubble and it feels like they probably need one more win to feel safe. They open with Penn State. The Golden Gophers might be into the NCAA Tournament without a win, but why test the fates of the bubble Gods?
Outside of that, there isn’t really a ton of intrigue in terms of bubble teams or even seeding necessarily, but I’ll also add this: Of the 14 teams in this league, 12 won at least seven conference games, and 13 won six or more.
Add it up and it could be a wild week in Chicago, where just about any team can take home the title.
It should make for a fascinating Big Ten Tournament, in the midst of a fascinating Championship Week.
And I for one can’t wait for it to get started.