To everyone reading, we’ve made it. We are here! Championship Week. For my money, the single best week on the entire sports calendar.
Now I know that sounds like blasphemy – especially for those who think that the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are the best two days in sports. But here me out. While the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are fun, ultimately you only get the best teams playing two games, and one (usually the first round) is often a blowout. But Championship Week? We get more games, spanning more days, with the best teams playing 3-4 times in the week. We also get the best teams facing each other, and teams that know each other well matching up, adding to drama. Seriously, what’s better than flipping on the TV, catching an ACC/SEC/Big 12 buffet in the afternoon, and not moving from the couch until the last games in the Pac-12 and Mountain West finish up sometime around 2 a.m. ET?
The answer is “nothing.” Nothing is better than that. Nothing is better than Championship Week.
And as always this year, Championship Week has plenty of intrigue, with plenty of teams battling on the bubble and even more trying to lock in a top seed.
So what do you need to know heading into Championship Week? Here is our official preview.
NCAA Tournament locks: Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Missouri
Bubble: Alabama, Mississippi State
Throughout the last couple weeks, I’ve been asked by a number of different people which is the conference tournament I’m most excited to watch. The answer to me is simple: The SEC.
For starters, it feels like there are about seven or eight teams that could legitimately win this league. Seriously, would it surprise you if say, Missouri won the whole thing? Or Arkansas? Me neither. At the same time, even the best teams aren’t unbeatable. Auburn is just 2-2 since they lost starter Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending injury – are we sure they’re the same team we saw just a few weeks ago? And as good as Tennessee has been all year, are we sure they’re really built for March? Or just a good regular season team?
On the opposite end are the bubble teams. Just a few weeks ago Alabama was a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but after losing five straight do they need to beat Texas A&M on Thursday afternoon to get in? Do they need to beat Auburn Thursday as well? Same with Mississippi State. Will beating LSU be enough on Thursday, or do they need the double-dip against Tennessee on Friday as well.
There are other storylines too. Is Mark Fox coaching for his job at Georgia? Will Michael Porter Jr. ever actually take the court at Missouri? And oh, what about Kentucky? Even despite a disappointing loss at Florida on Saturday they still got the double-bye. And if they can make a deep run in St. Louis, will that be a pre-cursor for what’s to come in the NCAA Tournament?
Point being, that from first tip Wednesday until the final whistle Sunday, this will be a must watch tournament.
Favorite: Kansas, I guess?
NCAA Tournament Locks: Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia, TCU,
Bubble: Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas, Baylor and maaaaaaybe Oklahoma State (?)
To me, outside of the SEC, the Big 12 is the single most intriguing tournament during Championship Week for this year. Outside of the SEC I also believe it’s the most wide open.
The simple truth is that – like the SEC – I don’t feel like there’s really a favorite in the Big 12. America has come down with one too many cases of Jayhawk Fever this time of year, and is hesitant to back Bill Self again after one disappointing March after another. That’s especially the case in 2018, where Kansas just simply isn’t as good as in years past. Sure they won another Big 12 title, but they also just got swept by Oklahoma State this weekend, the ninth place team in this league. Does that seem like a club bound for a deep tourney run to you? Me neither.
More importantly, the Big 12 has a big, beefy bubble. It feels like Texas will make the field of 68 after beating West Virginia over the weekend – but there’s no quicker way to play yourself back onto the bubble than losing to 10th place Iowa State in your opener Wednesday. Baylor probably needs a win just to feel safe, and what about Oklahoma? While America became obsessed with Trae Young sometime around Christmas – thanks to the insane over-exposure of one sports network – the simple truth is that the Sooners haven’t been very good since the start of February. They lost seven of their last nine games, and didn’t win their first game in February until the 24th of the month. Woof. The Sooners are probably in, but boy oh boy do they need to beat Oklahoma State on Wednesday. On the inverse, Oklahoma State is coming off its second straight win against Kansas. Could they play themselves into the tourney conversation with a win or two here?
Finally, look out for Texas Tech. I called them “Team ESPNU” during the season because it seemed like every game they played was on at a weird time, on the far reaches of your cable box on ESPNU (I guess the greater-Lubbock area isn’t exactly a ratings monster) but this team is veteran, tough and plays great defense. They are a real threat not just to win this tournament, but make a deep run in the Big Dance.
NCAA Tournament Locks: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Miami, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech
Bubble Teams: Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame
Alright, so I’m going to make a really bad analogy here. Please forgive me in advance. But to me, watching this ACC Tournament the next few days will be like watching the Oscar’s last night. It’s something that sounds good on paper, but then you tune in, take one look around and think to yourself “What did I get myself into? Maybe it’s time to watch re-runs of Family Guy on Hulu instead.”
Look, it’s nothing against the ACC, but one, I find most of these teams insanely boring (yes, I’m looking at you, Virginia, Clemson, Florida State and Miami). And I say that as a guy that loves college basketball – LOVES it. But the next time I look up and tell my girlfriend, “Honey, clear the calendar, Clemson is on!” will be the first time.
Secondly, can we just get this thing moved back to Greensboro already? Honestly, as I watch ESPN preview Championship Week, I can’t help but look back on all the great moments in ACC Tournament history and think about how much better things were when this thing was played, you know, in ACC territory. I’d much rather watch a game filled with North Carolina, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest and Virginia fans (all within a three hour drive from Greensboro) than in the dank, dark, quiet, depressing Barclay’s Center. I know that the Big Ten moving its tournament to Madison Square Garden was a massive success last week – but believe me, Barclay’s Center ain’t Madison Square Garden. It’s like comparing your daughter’s weird, middle school stick figure drawing that’s on your refrigerator to the Mona Lisa. There is no comparison at all.
Anyway, sorry for going “Old man, get off my lawn” on you there, and let’s get to some things I’m actually excited about. Honestly, the most intriguing story line is probably Louisville. Had they just beaten Virginia the other day, they’d probably be in, but instead, they probably need to beat Florida State in their opener to be in the conversation. Syracuse and Notre Dame each probably need to win two games to ensure that they’re into the NCAA Tournament.
In terms of everyone else, I’m curious to see if Duke can stay hot and whether North Carolina can actually bounce back after two straight losses. To me, the Tar Heels are actually better than most people realize, and I believe a real threat to go to the Final Four.
NCAA Tournament Locks: Arizona
Bubble Teams: Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Utah, Washington
Welcome to the Wild, Wild, West – and no, I’m not talking what came up on Sean Miller’s call log in the last few weeks (allegedly). Instead, I’m talking about the Pac-12, which is the single weirdest power conference I can ever remember. That’s because as they enter Championship Week, there is one, surefire, bona-fide NCAA Tournament team, which is those Arizona Wildcats. Everyone else is completely up in the air.
Arizona State was – at one time the hottest team in college basketball – and to be blunt, they are still probably a pretty safe bet to get into the Big Dance. They have an insane out-of-conference resume that includes a win at Kansas and a neutral court victory over Xavier. The problem is, they have torpedoed since the start of Pac-12 play and actually finished below .500 in the league. They are probably already in, but oh boy would things be interesting if they lost their conference tournament opener to Colorado.
UCLA and USC are two fascinating teams in their own right. The Bruins probably have the better wins overall (at Arizona, vs. Kentucky in New Orleans, two wins over USC) but also have some really head-scratching losses as well (at Oregon State, two losses to Colorado), while USC has fewer bad losses (especially Pac-12 play started) but virtually no really good wins. Does beating Middle Tennessee State do anything for anyone? Both LA schools could use a victory or two in Las Vegas to feel really good about getting in.
Then there are Utah and Washington, two schools who are clinging to their bubble fates for dear life. Each needs a major run just to play themselves onto the bubble, let alone into the NCAA Tournament.
NCAA Tournament Locks: Xavier, Villanova, Seton Hall, Creighton, Butler
Bubble Teams: Providence, Marquette
For months, I’ve argued with the #FakeNews national media over about who has the best conference in college basketball. They continue to try to tell me how great the ACC and Big 12 are (honestly, have you seen Baylor or Kansas State play?!?) but in my opinion, the SEC is the best conference in college basketball. I also believe the Big East is right behind it. Honestly, when your second-to-worst team (St. John’s) can beat Villanova and Duke in back-to-back games, how bad can you really be?
In terms of this tournament specifically, boy oh boy am I interested to watch. And much like the SEC, I really feel like just any game could go either way. How is his for interesting: Xavier was the regular season champs, but actually lost to Villanova twice. And to me, that’s the most interesting storyline. Can Chris Mack and Xavier finally slay the giant in this league? How about Seton Hall? A senior-laden team is making its last run together. The Pirates felt like a Final Four-ish type team earlier this year but fell off hard. Then they regained their mojo. Can they close things out in style?
There is also real bubble drama in this league as well. Providence probably needs at least one more win to feel really good about their NCAA Tournament standing, and can get it against Creighton on Thursday afternoon. Marquette likely needs at least two wins. They open with 10th place DePaul, before a potential second round matchup with Villanova.
Win that one and the Golden Eagles are probably in.
Enjoy Championship Week everyone!