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Pick Six: Conference tournaments under way, big boys set to take the stage next
The madness of March kicked off over the weekend with some wild finishes and the first NCAA tournament berths.
Now, it's time for the big boys to get going.
After teams like No. 11 Murray State, Virginia Commonwealth and Creighton secured spots in the 68-team bracket, all the major conferences will play their tournaments this week.
There's still plenty to be decided and the possibility of some must-watch games, so if you're a college hoops fan it might be time to stock the fridge and check the vacation schedule at work.
This should be good.
Big East, Tuesday-Saturday, New York. The BEast is typically one of the most difficult conference tournaments to get through and this year's should be no different. No. 2 Syracuse is the favorite after finishing the regular season 30-1 and 17-1 in conference, the lone loss coming while Fab Melo was suspended. It doesn't figure to be easy for the Orange, though. Not only is Syracuse dealing with the distraction of self-reported violations of its own drug code, it's had some squeakers down the stretch. The Big East is also loaded with eight, possibly even nine teams with a shot at getting into the NCAA tournament. No. 9 Marquette played well down the stretch, while No. 13 Georgetown, No. 23 Notre Dame, Louisville and Cincinnati appear to have their NCAA invites waiting. Defending national champion Connecticut, South Florida, West Virginia and Seton Hall all could use a good conference tournament, so there figures to be hard-fought games from the start at Madison Square Garden.
ACC, Thursday-Sunday in Atlanta. North Carolina. Duke. That's all you need to know about this conference tournament. OK, maybe not all, but the possibility of a third matchup between these rivals makes the ACC tourney worth watching. The sixth-ranked Blue Devils won the first matchup on freshman Austin Rivers' buzzer-beating 3-pointer ' you know, the one you've seen on ESPN hundreds of times ' but the fourth-ranked Tar Heels got their revenge last week by routing Duke. But before we get ahead of ourselves and lock those two neighboring teams into the final, don't forget about No. 17 Florida State. The Seminoles beat Duke and North Carolina in January and finished third in the ACC. Virginia and North Carolina State also are angling for NCAA bids, so keep an eye on them.
Big 12, Wednesday-Saturday in Kansas City, Mo. Another season, another conference title for No. 3 Kansas. The Jayhawks earned their eighth straight Big 12 title in the regular season and will head into the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed. Again. Kansas can lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if it wins the Big 12 tournament and could even sneak in if it loses. Either way, it's not going to be an easy run for the Jayhawks. No. 5 Missouri beat Kansas in February and No. 25 Iowa State, making its own bid for an NCAA invite, also knocked off the Jayhawks. No. 12 Baylor is capable of beating anyone at any time, too. The marquee matchup in the final would be another Border War between Tigers and Jayhawks. Could be right up there with Duke-Carolina III.
Big Ten, Thursday-Sunday, Indianapolis. The regular season was a weekly beatdown and the battles figure to continue in Indy. No. 8 Michigan State appeared to be a lock to win the regular-season title, taking a two-game lead with two games left. The Spartans tripped up, though, losing to No. 15 Indiana, then blew a 15-point lead to lose to No. 7 Ohio State on Sunday in what coach Tom Izzo called the toughest loss in his 17 years in East Lansing. That created a three-way tie between Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. The conference tournament will feature five teams in the Top 25 ' Wisconsin is No. 14 ' so every game, even the first-round ones, has the potential to go down to the wire. Ohio State has to be the favorite heading in, particularly after Michigan State freshman Branden Dawson went down with a knee injury.
SEC, Thursday-Saturday, New Orleans. Top-ranked Kentucky is the clear favorite after setting a school record with 30 regular-season wins and becoming the third team since Alabama in 1956 to go unbeaten in SEC play. What the conference tournament likely will determine is whether the Wildcats get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament ' they may get one even with a loss ' and how many teams get in. The SEC could be in line to get six teams into the big bracket, but the games will have to fall just the right way. Tennessee and Vanderbilt should have good enough resumes to get in and No. 22 Florida will likely get a nod despite struggling at the end of the season. Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State could use a good run through the tournament and Arkansas may have to get the automatic bid after losing five of its final six games.
Pac-12, Wednesday-Saturday, Los Angeles. A down year in the Pac-12 could mean an ugly selection Sunday. Yes, just one bid. Washington won the regular-season title, but could be left out if it doesn't win the conference tournament. Even though it didn't win the regular-season title, California has been pegged as the team with the best chance at getting an NCAA tournament invite, but that could go away quickly with a weak conference tournament. Arizona appeared to be in line for an at-large NCAA bid after winning seven of eight games, only to end the season with a loss to Arizona State, which could be an inexcusable setback in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee. Oregon also is considered to be on the bubble and the conference was so, uh, competitive that five or six different teams could end up earning the automatic berth.