Marching Towards Madness: Conference Tournament Previews

Marching Towards Madness: Conference Tournament Previews

The regular season is over and we begin the sprint to a national championship. All of the major teams will be in action over the next week. Each day, more and more will be eliminated, never to be seen again (or possibly in the NIT, I'm not sure which is worse). The odd thing about Championship Week is that the national champion is not crowned. There will be plenty of upsets and teams who have their bubble burst. We'll take a spin through a handful of conferences, starting with the weakest (as determined by KenPom) and going to the strongest.

Conference USA – March 13-16

Place: Ford Center at the Star, Frisco, Texas

Format: 12 teams, top four seeds get bye into quarterfinals

Top Seed: Old Dominion Monarchs – We can give the Monarchs the benefit of the doubt: they lost their last two conference games – to Southern Miss and UAB – after they had already clinched the regular season championship. ODU has already beaten both teams earlier in the season, but the offensive swoon (102 points in the losses) is cause for concern. B.J. Stith was held to a combined 13 points on 18.5 percent from the field. Prior to the losses, he had scored in double digits in 13 straight games. The Monarchs await the winner of the Louisiana Tech-Florida Atlantic tilt and would play Texas-San Antonio in the semifinals if the seeds hold.

Dark Horse: Marshall Thundering Herd – Conference USA's innovative flexible scheduling had a negligible effect on the overall product. It was an interesting experiment to game the system, but the only team that really benefited was the Thundering Herd. They were placed in the middle tier of teams and romped to five straight wins. They scored 90 points or more in three of the wins. Coach Dan D'Antoni's team looked dead in the water on Valentine's Day after losing seven of eight games. Time will tell if they are simply a flexible scheduling phantasm or a CUSA force. Marshall opens against Rice on Wednesday and would play Southern Miss if they can escape the Owls.

Player to Watch: Charles Bassey, center, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers – No one can say that coach Rick Stansbury isn't a great recruiter. He brought a dominating big man to Bowling Green, Kentucky and, unlike Mitchell Robinson, the 6-10 Bassey was able to play. The freshman center provided 15.0 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks and had 15 double-doubles. Perhaps his best game came against Texas-San Antonio in which he provided 22 points and 18 rebounds in the overtime win. Bassey has been a steady presence for a team that had a mercurial roster. The Hilltoppers will face the winner of the Florida International-North Texas match up before possibly meeting Southern Mississippi in the semifinals.

Mountain West – March 13-16

Place: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

Format: 11 teams, top five seeds get bye into quarterfinals

Top Seed: NevadaWolf Pack – Coach Eric Musselman had the enviable task of figuring out how best to make use of his transfer-laden roster. In the end, the coach figured that he should not mess with what worked last year. The team leaned on Jordan Caroline and the twins, Cody Martin and Caleb Martin for huge minutes and production. The Wolf Pack went undefeated at home and suffered just three road losses in conference: New Mexico, San Diego State and Utah State. After making a run to the Elite Eight last year, expectations were heavy on the Nevada. The team has been up to the challenge and earned the top seed in the conference. They will face the winner of the Boise State-Colorado game and face either San Diego State or UNLV in the next round.

Dark Horse: San Diego State Aztecs – The Aztecs had a relatively puzzling season. They were inconsistent in the non-conference slate with wins over Xavier and BYU, but losses to California and Brown. Things seem to snap into place in mid-January and San Diego State won eight of nine games, including wins over Utah State and Nevada. Coach Brian Dutcher's team went undefeated at home in conference and Jalen McDaniels was a big reason why. The 6-10 sophomore led the team with 16.0 points and 8.1 rebounds. He had six straight double-doubles in conference play. Devin Watson is an experienced scoring guard who averaged 15.7 points. The Aztecs swept UNLV during the regular season.

Player to Watch: Sam Merrill, guard, Utah State Aggies – The Aggies are the hottest team in the Mountain West and one of the hottest in the country. They have won 14 of their last 15 games and Merrill has been a big reason for the success. The 6-5 junior has scored at least 19 points in all but one of his 12 games and helped Utah State gain a tie with Nevada for first place in the conference. He had 29 points in the win over the Wolf Pack last Saturday. Merrill can score in a variety of ways: he hit 39.0 percent of his 3-pointers and 90.5 percent of his free throws on 5.7 attempts per game. Merrill averaged 21.0 points and 4.2 assists. The Aggies await the winner of the New Mexico-Wyoming game and could meet Frenso State on Friday.

Pac-12 – March 13-16

Place: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas

Format: 12 teams, top four seeds get bye into quarterfinals

Top Seed: Washington Huskies – After winning their first 10 conference games, perhaps the Huskies decided to coast a bit. A loss at Arizona State can be explained for that reason, but there is no earthly excuse for losing at California and giving the Golden Bears their lone conference win. What happened? Washington was also limited to 47 points in the season finale against Oregon. The team has the best individual defensive player in Matisse Thybulle, while Jaylen Nowell and Noah Dickerson are both good offensive players. Coach Mike Hopkins has brought the Syracuse zone west, and the results are generally encouraging. The Huskies will open with the winner of the USC-Arizona game followed by a potential meeting with Oregon State.

Dark Horse: Oregon Ducks – The fact that center Bol Bol was on the Oregon roster at one point seems like ancient history. The 7-2 freshman injured his foot and decided to go pro. It took some time for the Ducks to figure out their way. Perhaps they found the path in their last four games by beating the Arizona schools at home (by a combined 54 points) followed by a successful trip to Washington to close the season. Much like last year, the team leaned on guard Payton Pritchard, who played on the 2017 Final Four team. Kenny Wooten is a shot blocker extraordinaire. Oregon opens the tournament against Washington State before playing Utah if they are able to beat the Cougars.

Player to Watch: Tres Tinkle, forward, Oregon State Beavers – The lip service going into the season was that Tinkle would have more help on the Beaver roster, so that he would not have to shoulder such an enormous burden. As it turned out, the coach's son took more responsibility for the team's success and put up career highs across the board with 20.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 36.3 minutes. Although the team lost three of its last four games, Tinkle averaged 26.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in that span. The junior had 10 double-doubles, including four in his last six games. Oregon State earned a bye into the quarterfinals where they will face the winner of the Colorado-California game. They could meet Washington in the semifinals. Tinkle averaged 24.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the two losses against the Huskies.

American Athletic – March 14-17

Place: FedEx Forum, Memphis

Format: 12 teams, top four seeds get bye into quarterfinals

Top Seed: Houston Cougars – Everything came together for the Cougars this season. The team blasted through the non-conference schedule and was one of the last squads to suffer a loss, which did not occur until a trip to Temple on Jan. 9. Other than a home loss against UCF, Houston was perfect and coach Kelvin Sampson crafted an excellent defense. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks are volume three-point shooters, while Massachusetts transfer DeJon Jarreau gave the team another ball handling expert. Freshman Nate Hinton carved a role as a small-ball power forward. The Cougars open with the winner of South Florida and Connecticut – both of whom they swept – before going for revenge against the Knights, if the chalk holds.

Dark Horse: Memphis Tigers – The first season under coach Penny Hardaway has to be considered a mild success. The team won six of his last eight games to move up the AAC standings and did so with a freshman backcourt. Jeremiah Martin put the team on his back in the last month of the season. The 6-3 senior had 80 combined points in the wins over Tulane and Wichita State, and was not held under 20 points in his last seven games. Martin hit at least five three-pointers five times and forged his way to the free-throw line at least nine times in five of his last seven games. He is going to be trouble for opponents, which starts with Tulane, followed by a tough matchup with UCF in the quarterfinals Friday.

Player to Watch: Shizz Alston Jr., guard, Temple Owls – Alston contested Martin for hotness in the late stages of the AAC season. The Owl guard scored at least 20 points in seven straight games and helped Temple win six games. He is more of a playmaker than Martin and averaged 5.6 assists in that seven-game span. In the penultimate game of the season, the 6-4 senior put up 34 points on 12-of-14 from the field in the win over Connecticut. He put up 21 points against the defensively stout UCF squad. For their late season surge, the Owls earned the three seed. They will play the winner of the Wichita State-East Carolina game before possibly taking on Cincinnati. The Bearcats limited Alston to a combined 16 points in the regular season sweep.

Big East – March 13-16

Place: Madison Square Garden, New York City

Format: 10 teams, bottom four seeds play in first round, top two seeds meet the teams that have already played one game

Top Seed: Villanova Wildcats – It turns out that losing four players to the NBA draft will cause some seepage in dominance. The national champions of two of the past three seasons suffered great personnel losses, but were still able to win the Big East regular season title. They play excellent transition defense and receive timely scoring from Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. The rest of the roster was a rotating cast of role players with freshmen Saddiq Bey and sophomore Jermaine Samuels having big games on occasion. The team lost an unfathomable three game in a row before beating Marquette on Feb. 27. Other than Washington, the Wildcats seem like one of the weakest one seeds. They will face the winner of the Providence-Butler game before taking on Xavier-Creighton winner, if they should be so fortunate to win in the quarterfinals.

Dark Horse: Creighton Bluejays – As it turned out, the four-game losing streak in which the Bluejays held the lead after the last TV timeout made the team stronger. Creighton finished the season with five straight wins, including an impressive road win at Marquette. Martin Krampelj recovered from his third surgery from a torn ACL. He started the season slowly, but had double-doubles in three of his last four games. Coach Greg McDermott surrounds Krampelj with legions of guards, including lead scorer Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitch Ballock (who closed the season with 39 points against DePaul), and the dual-guard threat of Marcus Zegarowski and Davion Mintz. The Bluejays open the tournament against Xavier who won six of its last seven games. It wouldn't be shocking to see the Big East champion come from the winner of that game.

Player to Watch: Markus Howard, guard, Marquette Golden Eagles – After only losing to Indiana, Kansas and St. John's in the first three months of the season, the Golden Eagles dropped four straight games to close things out. Not great, Bob! If they are going to figure things out, they will need to give Howard some help. The 5-11 junior led the Big East with 25.0 points and scored 25 points or more three of the last four games. Howard can step back and knock down shots from the perimeter, but he is unafraid to attack the basket. He took 6.9 free throws per game and converted 90.2 percent from the charity stripe. Few people will forget the 53 points that Howard scored against Creighton in the Jan. 9 win. Marquette takes on the winner of the St. John's-DePaul game. The Red Storm held Howard to 12.5 points in the sweep of the Golden Eagles.

SEC – March 13-17

Place: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville

Format: 14 teams, top four teams start in the quarterfinals, bottom four teams play in first round

Top Seed: LSU Tigers – It is amazing that LSU outlasted the Kentuckies and Tennessees of the world to win the SEC regular season title. The team brought back point guard Tremont Waters and had an excellent recruiting class. It remains to be seen what happens with coach Will Wade after he was suspended. Wade was caught on tape talking about giving a recruit (rumored to be freshman Ja'vonte Smart) a significant offer. The team won without Smart, Wade and Naz Reid in the season finale against Vanderbilt. Waters is one of the most effective players in the conference and averaged 15.3 points, 5.9 assists and 3.1 steals. The Tigers earned a double-bye and will play the winner the of the Florida-Arkansas game. They split against both teams in the regular season.

Dark Horse: Florida Gators – The SEC Is a deep conference with an excellent top five teams, so it is a bit hard to name a true dark horse. Florida might suffice. They do not play the prettiest brand of basketball. The team has not had a go-to scorer but has been able to win by limiting opponents with a crushing defense. They were the last team to beat LSU. Florida lost its last three games, but those games included an overtime loss to the Tigers and a defeat at Kentucky. They had won five straight games to close February. Florida beat Arkansas in the teams' lone meeting and could have success against LSU in the quarterfinals.

Player to Watch: Grant Williams, forward, Tennessee VolunteersWilliams is one of those players who is a great college player who could add to a NBA winning squad due to his diverse array of skills. The 6-7 junior has also improved mightily in his three seasons with the Volunteers. He was the SEC Player of the Year as the team won the SEC regular season title. They were not able to repeat and lost three of their final seven games. Williams was consistently great. He averaged 19.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The forward also hit a career-high 56.9 percent of his field goals. He is the engine that drives Tennessee. The Volunteers earned the three-seed in the conference tournament and will either play Mississippi State or the winner of the Texas A&M-Vanderbilt game on Friday.

ACC – March 12-16

Place: Spectrum Center, Charlotte

Format: 15 teams, top four teams start in the quarterfinals, bottom six teams play in first round

Top Seed: Virginia Cavaliers – The Cavaliers have played with a UMBC-sized chip on their shoulder throughout the season. They destroyed their non-conference opponents and beat every team not named Duke in the ACC. We need to see a Virginia-Duke game in the ACC tournament and that game cannot occur until the final. Virginia continues to confound opponents with the pack-line defense and a patient offense that will not settle for a bad shot. De'Andre Hunter has blossomed into a fine two-way player. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome form one of the best backcourt duos in the country. The Cavaliers will play the winner of the North Carolina State-Clemson game and could meet Florida State in the semifinals.

Dark Horse: Syracuse Orange – Let's not make the mistake of underrating the Orange again this year. After another unassuming regular season, Syracuse is somewhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble where they seem to have lived for the last five seasons. The team lost four of its last five games, but all of those opponents were inside the KenPom top-30. Teams seem to get flummoxed by the Syracuse zone. The Orange offense relies on individual play, but there is plenty of talent in Tyus Battle, O'Shae Brissett, Elijah Hughes and Frank Howard. Syracuse plays the winner of the Boston College-Pittsburgh tussle and could meet Duke for the third time this season. Coach Jim Boeheim earned a split with the Blue Devils.

Player to Watch: Zion Williamson, forward, Duke Blue Devils – Oh, you thought I was going to write about Alex O'Connell? As even the most casual college basketball fan knows, Williamson missed the last five games and all but one minute of the Feb. 20 loss against North Carolina after his shoe exploded and he suffered a mild knee sprain. Coach Mike Krzyzewski was probably being cautious with the top prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft. Williamson may have his minutes limited a bit in the daily gauntlet of the ACC Tournament, but his mere presence makes his teammates better. The team went 3-3 without him. Zion will not make his return until Thursday when the Blue Devils meet either Syracuse or the winner of the Boston College-Pitt game.

Big 12 – March 13-16

Place: Sprint Center, Kansas City

Format: 10 teams, bottom four seeds play in first round, top two seeds meet the teams that have already played one game

Top Seed: Kansas State Wildcats – Wait a second… something is not right here. At the beginning of the season, I put Kansas in this spot and I used ink. Was I wrong to do that? Apparently I was, since for the first time in 15 years, the Jayhawks did not win the Big 12 regular season title. At least a team with Kansas in its name is atop the Big 12 standings. Still, I feel quite confused. The Wildcats used a hellacious defense and slow pace of play to grind opponents down. The team won nine of its last 11 games and did not allow more than 64 points in its final six games. It will be good to see a healthy Dean Wade (foot) in the conference tournament. Kansas State, one of two teams that earned a bye in the Big 12 tournament, takes on the winner of the TCU-Oklahoma State game.

Dark Horse: Iowa State Cyclones – The top-three teams in the Big 12 – Texas Tech, Kansas State and Kansas – have better defensive than offensive efficiency, per KenPom. It may take a team that is offensively successful to drop one or two of those defensively staunch teams. Few teams in the country have the type of offensive arsenal. Marial Shayok gutted his way through an ankle injury to play in the season finale. He and Lindell Wigginton can get hot against even the best defenses and the Cyclones dealt defeats to Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas. The bad news is that Iowa State lost five of its last six games, but the talent remains. Iowa State plays Baylor on Thursday and would take on Kansas State if they can survive the Bears.

Player to Watch: Dedric Lawson, forward, Kansas Jayhawks – Lawson proved that his numbers with Memphis could be translated to Tier 1 hoops. While he did not provide as many as assists or blocks as he did in his last campaign with the Tigers, Lawson put up similar points, rebounds and conversion rates. The Jayhawks lost offensive options during the season, including center Udoka Azubuike and guard Legarald Vick. Lawson kept on ticking. The 6-9 junior does not astonish people with his athleticism, but he is quietly effective and has excellent hands for rebounding. Lawson had double-doubles in his last four games. Kansas can take some measure of revenge for not winning the regular season by winning the Big 12 autobid. The bracket starts with Texas and could go through Texas Tech in the semifinals.

Big Ten – March 13-17

Place: United Center, Chicago

Format: 14 teams, top two seeds get double byes into the quarterfinals, bottom four seeds play to get into the second round

Top Seed: Michigan State Spartans – If you prize a coach who can do more with less, then it is hard to look past the job that Tom Izzo did this season. The Spartans lost Joshua Langford after 13 games and Nick Ward (hand) has missed the last five games. Unlike other teams, Michigan State did not combust; they just kept winning. The team swept Michigan and won seven of their last eight games. Other than a curious sweep at the hands of Indiana, the season went swimmingly. It helps to have Cassius Winston, one of the best point guards in the nation. Winston led the team with 19.0 points and 7.6 assists. Izzo and his charges may get a third shot at the Hoosier if Indiana can beat Ohio State in the quarterfinals.

Dark Horse: Penn State Nittany Lions – While the Hoosier could certainly qualify as a dark horse after they won their last four games, Penn State could do more damage in the conference tournament. The Nittany Lions were one of the best teams in the conference after February 1. The team went 6-3 down the stretch and beat Michigan, Maryland and three games on the road. Penn State went winless in January, but lost its last four games by nine points or fewer. Lamar Stevens persevered through the losing and was a consistent producer throughout the season. It helped greatly went shooters such as Rasir Bolton, Josh Reaves and Myles Dread hit from the perimeter. Penn State takes on Minnesota in the quarterfinals and would play Purdue if they can beat the Golden Gophers. 

Player to Watch: Ethan Happ, forward, Wisconsin Badgers – Few teams rely on a player as much as the Badgers lean on Happ. The 6-10 senior is the squad's leading scorer (17.9 points), rebounder (10.2 per game) and playmaker (4.6 assists). He had eight double-doubles in his last 10 games and helped Wisconsin win seven of those games. Unlike Badger big men in the past, Happ never added a perimeter game. His range barely extended to the free-throw line where he converts just 46.9 percent. Wisconsin earned a double-bye and will take on either Maryland or the winner of the Rutgers-Nebraska first round contest.

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Perry Missner
Missner covers college basketball for RotoWire. A veteran fantasy sports writer, he once served on the executive board for the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.
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