Inside The NCAA | Conference tournaments to set tone for NCAA tournament
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 00:03
Indeed, March is upon us. The madness has finally begun. This weekend, regular season games officially wrapped up for the remainder of most of Div. I college basketball, and conference tournaments are set for the coming week to help the NCAA Selection Committee decide the fates of the top 68 teams in the nation. While Selection Sunday is still five days away, here’s how some of the country’s top conferences are shaping up with NCAA tournament berths on the line.
Five teams vie for Big 10 Championship
In what has become arguably the most talented conference from top to bottom this season, the Big 10 features five of the premier teams in college hoops, all ranked in the Associated Press’s top 25.
While No. 3 Indiana prevented a four-way regular season tie atop the conference with a hard-fought, 72-71 win against Michigan Sunday, the conference still looks wide open going into the tournament with Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin all hoping to contend.
After struggling a bit in early February, coach Thad Matta’s Ohio State squad rides in with the longest win streak among the top five teams, with five. Ohio State most recently knocked off Indiana last Tuesday and Illinois Sunday afternoon to round out its regular season schedule. The Buckeyes feature Big 10 scoring leader Deshaun Thomas as well as junior guard Aaron Craft, both with plenty of experience in high-pressure tournament games over the last few seasons.
However, the pick in this conference is still Indiana, as coach Tom Crean’s high-powered offensive attack featuring Wooden Award finalists Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo will surely seek revenge against the Buckeyes if they can hustle their way to the title game next Sunday afternoon.
The pick: Indiana Hoosiers
Big East promises a fittingly captivating tournament
This season, the Big East has been one of the most competitive conferences in all of college basketball, marked by intense rivalry matchups between foes such as Syracuse and Georgetown and Louisville and Notre Dame. Fittingly, the regular season title is being shared this year by three teams — Georgetown, Louisville, and Marquette — that all finished 14-4 in the conference, but the No. 1 seed will go to the Hoyas, followed by the Cardinals and Golden Eagles.
Georgetown’s 61-39 trouncing of No. 19 Syracuse on Saturday, the team’s second victory over the Orange this year, locked up the Hoyas’ tenth Big East regular season title in program history.
While Syracuse has slipped from their usual power position in the Big East and Georgetown has improved, no one can forget about a Louisville Cardinals team that was once No. 1 in the nation. Rick Pitino’s squad has not lost since their crushing five-overtime defeat to Notre Dame back on Feb. 9, and avenged that loss with a victory over the Fighting Irish last week, 73-57.
Pittsburgh and Marquette will contend in the battle for the Big East Championship, but the depth and experience of the Louisville backcourt with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith should be enough for the Cardinals to defend their 2012 championship with another victory at Madison Square Garden.
The pick: Louisville Cardinals
Underclassmen carry Big-12 powerhouses
Over the last few weeks, three teams have separated from the pack in the ever-exciting Big 12 conference: Kansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State.
While Bill Self’s Jayhawks looked to be the overwhelming favorites earlier this year to win the conference, a 23-point upset against Baylor on Sunday plus a three-game losing streak in February has slowed a team featuring four seniors and standout freshman Ben McLemore. Across the Sunflower State, KSU has been impressive overall and managed a share of the regular season title, but a weak resume against top-ranked teams should leave them on the outside of the title game.
With the Wildcats and Jayhawks looking weak, the pick for the Big 12 is none other than the Cowboys from Oklahoma State, who have been sensational over the second half of the season. Junior guard Markel Brown and freshman point guard Marcus Smart will continue to carry the load for this team on the offensive end — the duo has combined for 30.7 points per game this season and unloaded for 53 in a road win against Kansas back on Feb. 2.
The pick: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Duke affirms spot as top contender in a talented ACC Championship field
Despite the slip-ups the Duke Blue Devils have had this season, the team staked their claim as the favorite for the ACC Championship with a 69-53 trouncing of North Carolina on Saturday.
Seth Curry’s ability to score from anywhere on the floor, along with Mason Plumlee’s improved play in the paint, will make the Blue Devils a force at the tournament in Greensboro.
And although the ACC is known for its perennial powerhouses, such as Duke and North Carolina, this year the conference is definitely more balanced heading into the tournament, as teams like Miami, currently first in the conference, and N.C. State have proven they can beat just about anyone. Both teams have defeated Duke and UNC this season, including the Hurricanes’ 90-63 blowout of the Blue Devils on Jan. 23.
The tables have turned, and after beating N.C. State, Miami, and UNC twice in the past month, Duke appears to have reestablished its presence in the ACC. The return of big man senior Ryan Kelly has marked a change in momentum for the Blue Devils, making them the choice heading into tournament season.
The pick: Duke Blue Devils