Now that many of the small schools have gone past the Horizon, scaled the Summit and made it through the (Ohio and Missouri) Valley of death, it’s time for college basketball’s big boys to take over. On Wednesday, the nation’s top seven conferences begin (or continue) their league tournaments, among them the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC. That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that the best teams in those conferences will be on the court. What follows is a snapshot look at what to expect from each of those conference tournaments today:
No. 8 Clemson vs. No. 9 Florida State, noon, ESPN
No. 5 North Carolina vs. No. 12 Boston College, 2 p.m., ESPN
No. 7 N.C. State vs. No. 10 Pittsburgh, 7 p.m., ESPN2
No. 6 Miami vs. No. 14 Virginia Tech, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Higher seeds North Carolina—at No. 19, the only Top 25 team in action on Wednesday—and Miami should have little trouble advancing, and the 8-9 game between Clemson and Florida State features a pair of teams with no hope of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large. The Panthers, however, enter their second ACC tournament as the No. 10 seed but still with an outside chance at reaching the NCAAs.
To get there, they’ll need at least two and maybe even three marquee wins, the first of which would have to come against an N.C. State team that drubbed them by 18 points back on Jan. 3. Pitt ended the regular season losing its last three games, none of which were against a team that currently figures to reach the NCAA tournament. Its path through Greensboro, however, offers nothing but stern tests against teams that will be going dancing: Even with a win over a Wolfpack team that has won five of six, the Panthers would still need to beat Duke in the quarterfinals and maybe even Notre Dame in the semis just to be in the bubble discussion.
These two early round games involve teams that are a combined 40-79. All four of these teams will be finishing their season quickly. The only question is which two will survive to be slaughtered later in the week.
There’s an outside chance that Minnesota could do enough in Chicago to earn a return trip to the NIT, where the Gophers would attempt to become the first team since South Carolina in 2005 and ’06 to win that title in consecutive years.
Other than that, Wednesday might be the last chance to see what has been one of the nation’s most disappointing teams, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After making the school’s first NCAA tournament since 1998 last season and opening this season in the top 25, Nebraska had designs on finally winning its first-ever NCAA tournament game. But a loss to Incarnate Word in November was an early sign that this group was not as good as advertised, and after a 12th-place finish in the 14-team Big Ten, its season is one loss away from ending. Junior Terran Petteway was not as good as he was a year ago, but his 17.8 points per game suggested he deserved better than this early end to their once-promising season.
All eyes will be on Texas to see if the Longhorns—another of the nation’s most disappointing teams—can manage to avoid falling from the Top 10 in December to the NIT in March, but the more intriguing team might actually be the 15-16 Wildcats. Why? Because it’s still hard to believe that they’re 15-16. Kansas State beat Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma (twice) and Oklahoma State in Big 12 play and knocked off Purdue, a likely tournament team, and Texas A&M, a serious bubble team, in the non-conference while only losing to Arizona by four points on a neutral court.
If they can get past TCU—which is not automatic considering the 14-point loss the Horned Frogs hung on the Wildcats on Feb. 18—K-State would then get Kansas in the quarterfinals, in Kansas City. That game will feature a partisan Jayhawks crowd, but it’s the Wildcats’ home state, too. Another win over their in-state rivals would not only get Kansas State on the right side of .500 but would also give it yet another marquee win to put before the selection committee, and leave the Wildcats just two wins from the auto bid with the top seed already out of the way.
Seton Hall is the only team with a winning record that will be on the floor at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday and thus it is the only team with any chance of taking the floor somewhere after it leaves Madison Square Garden. The Pirates were ranked in the top 25 at midseason but went a ghastly 3-11 down the stretch, putting even an NIT bid in doubt. But they may yet be able to make some noise in the Big East tournament, just as they did a year ago, when Sterling Gibbs hit a buzzer-beating jumper to knock off Villanova and effectively send the Wildcats from a 1-seed to a 2. Gibbs had a strong junior year, averaging a team-best 16.7 points per game. And should Seton Hall advance on Wednesday, what team would be waiting for them in Thursday’s quarterfinals? Villanova, which suffered one of its two defeats this season against the Pirates back on Jan. 3.
Washington State vs. California, 3 p.m., Pac-12 Network
USC vs. Arizona State, 5:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Colorado vs. Oregon State, 9 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Washington vs. Stanford, 11 p.m., Pac-12 Network
The Cardinal desperately need to reverse their sagging NCAA tournament chances this week, so they will garner the most attention of the early-round teams playing Wednesday. But if there’s a team in Las Vegas worth making a long-term bet on it might be Oregon State. Regular season league champion Arizona has lost just three games this season, but one of them came in Corvallis on Jan. 11. And the Beavers secured a winning record overall despite not having a single senior on their roster. A conference tournament title isn’t likely, but a berth in some postseason tournament probably is, which could go a long way toward getting them ready for next year.
The 15-15 Gamecocks are the only team that will tip off in Nashville on Wednesday that is even at .500 overall, but there is some good news for South Carolina: at least it isn’t on Kentucky’s side of the bracket. Reaching the title game for what would almost surely mean a third meeting this year with the Wildcats is highly unlikely, but if the Gamecocks can beat Mississippi State, just as they did on Feb. 28 in the only meeting between those teams this season, and upset Ole Miss, they’d get Georgia, whom they swept this season, in the quarterfinals. That wouldn’t put South Carolina in any projected brackets, but it would at least liven up an event that figures to be a Cat-walk.