With just days until Selection Sunday, the bigger boys get their conference tourneys underway. Here's a primer to this week's biggest conference tournament action, and how each could impact the Field of 68:
Thursday, March 8 - Sunday, March 11 (Philips Arena, Atlanta, Ga.)
The pick: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have been better than Duke for most of the two head-to-head matchups, should it come down to a third meeting. The win at Cameron was big because now Duke and Florida State are on the same semifinal path, while the Heels have Virginia on their side. With a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs in the offing, the team with the most talent won't let this chance slip.
Darkhorse: Miami. The 6-seed just beat 3-seed Florida State (without Reggie Johnson) and already won at 2-seed Duke this season, so that side of the bracket works decently for the Hurricanes. They also played North Carolina tough in Coral Gables should they make the final and find the Heels there.
Bubble/bracket games of note: First things first, the 'Canes need to make the NCAAs, and they may need a quarterfinal win over Florida State to get there. N.C. State definitely has to beat Virginia and probably needs to beat North Carolina in the semis. If it's not UNC, the Wolfpack may have to win the whole thing, as they won't get that extra marquee win before the final.
Tuesday, March 6 - Saturday, March 10 (Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y.)
The pick: Marquette. Syracuse has been the best team in the league by a substantial margin, but the Orange also have a substantially trickier draw than the Golden Eagles. The artists formerly known as team Bubble Watch likely draw Seton Hall or offensively challenged Louisville and then Notre Dame, South Florida or Rutgers. 'Cuse, West Virginia, Georgetown and Cincinnati are all on the other side of the bracket.
Darkhorse: Louisville. When you're playing back-to-back-to-back (to back) games, utility is greater than beauty. If the Cardinals can find some semblance of offense to supplement their staunch D, they could rip off some wins on the softer side of the bracket.
Bubble/bracket games of note: South Florida may need to win a quarterfinal against Notre Dame to really be on the right side of the cutline. The UConn-West Virginia game ices things for the winner and leaves the loser somewhat nervous.
Wednesday, March 7 - Saturday, March 10 (Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.)
The pick: Kansas. After two stirring games with Missouri, everyone but the eight other fan bases wants to see Round 3 in the final. The Jayhawks were definitively the best team over 18 games, though, and the draw is decent. Baylor hasn't shown any ability to play with this KU team. K-State was swept, too.
Darkhorse: Iowa State. The Cyclones have beaten Kansas and played Missouri well twice. Anyone but KU or Missouri winning would be a surprise.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Kansas is playing for a 1-seed. Mizzou isn't dead for a No. 1, but it would be harder. Texas needs to beat Iowa State in the quarters, at bare minimum.
Thursday, March 8 - Sunday, March 11 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Ind.)
The pick: Ohio State. The Buckeyes' mini-slump may be over, and Michigan State is a bit weakened by injury and the images of last weekend's cave-in at Breslin.
Darkhorse: Indiana. Certainly capable of beating anyone in the league (and nation) at home, and this is sort-of, kind-of resembling home, right?
Bubble/bracket games of note: Northwestern has to beat Minnesota in the opening round and may need to (finally) get past Michigan in order to make the NCAAs for the first time. Michigan State and Ohio State are jousting for a possible 1-seed. Five Big Ten teams may end up in the first quadrant of the NCAA bracket.
Wednesday, March 7 - Saturday, March 10 (Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.)
The pick: Ummm ... uhhhh ... hmmm ... Oregon! The Ducks may be playing the best right now and have the easiest potential quarterfinal (Non-home Colorado or Non-good Utah). Then they could catch a break in the semis if Stanford, which just beat Cal at Maples Pavilion on Sunday, does the deed again. If not, the Ducks just lost by three at Cal a few weeks ago and would be looking for revenge for a season sweep.
Darkhorse: UCLA. The Bruins beat Washington on Saturday, so a potential semifinal isn't daunting, and they are playing in their home city. Per John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths, the Bruins were basically the scoring margin equivalent of Arizona and Oregon in league play, not far behind league leader Cal. Washington was fifth in PPP pecking order.
Bubble/bracket games of note: The semifinals could be de facto NCAA eliminators if the right teams make it there. Only the auto-bid winner is assured of dancing, although Cal probably will hang on for an at-large, if needed, and maybe there's room for a third team in.
Thursday, March 8 - Sunday, March 11 (New Orleans Arena, New Orleans, La.)
The pick: Kentucky ... like you expected anyone else?
Darkhorse: Tennessee. An outsider as far as NCAA at-large status, not seed, goes, the Volunteers have a glorious path to the final. First up is the Ole Miss-Auburn winner and the likely rematch with Vanderbilt just days after multiple sources (thanks, @WesRucker247) had Kevin Stallings yelling "Good luck in the NIT" after the Vols beat the 'Dores in Knoxville. The other option is mercurial Mississippi State, with the same side of the bracket to navigate. Of course, the Bulldogs could just lose to Georgia, too.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Tennessee's semifinal game could be a play-in game for the NCAAs. Vanderbilt and Florida are trying to push into protected seeding range. That could matter a lot to Vanderbilt, as the committee has the option to leave them in Nashville (they're not the host and the subregional's not at Memorial Gym), but would be less likely to do that if they're below a 5-seed.
Tuesday, March 6; Friday, March 9 - Sunday, March 11 (First round on campus; Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.)
The pick: Temple. Saint Louis actually graded out a bit better over the course of 16 league games in points-per-possession differential (thanks, stingy D!), but the Owls have a much easier (on paper) side of the bracket as the 1-seed. They should handle either UMass or Duquesne in the quarters and then the Saint Joe's-Charlotte-St. Bona survivor in the semis. Meanwhile, Saint Louis is in the same side as La Salle, Richmond, Dayton and Xavier. Plus, Temple coach Fran Dunphy is a well-documented A-10 tourney killer.
Darkhorse: Saint Joseph's. As the 5-seed, the Hawks have the same route as Temple and know they need multiple wins to make the NCAAs. Assuming they handle Charlotte, they get an immediate chance at revenge with St. Bonaventure and then likely will see Temple, a team they beat recently, in the semis.
Bubble/bracket games of note: A possible Dayton-Xavier quarterfinal could mean bracket safety for the winner and relative-to-certain bracket demise for the loser. If St. Joe's gets Temple in the semis, that could be a win-and-in game for the Hawks. Temple's playing to hold on to protected seeding; Saint Louis to stay out of the 8-9 game.
Thursday, March 8 - Saturday, March 10 (Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nev.)
The pick: UNLV. The Rebels may be very mortal away from the Thomas and Mack Center, but at home, they're nearly impossible to handle (as is everyone in this league). San Diego State is the only team that came close during the regular season, and the top-seeded Aztecs may get a second shot in a final. Of course, the Rebels would likely need to get past New Mexico in the semis first, and while the first meeting here was a rout, the Lobos have tightened up the D again since.
Darkhorse: There isn't one, really, but if it's not any of the "big three" winning the event, it likely will be Colorado State. The Rams know they need to beat TCU in the quarters for at-large safety reasons and then likely would draw a San Diego State team that they have played well against this season. If they get to the final and it is UNLV, the Rams scrapped for awhile in the regular-season meeting in Vegas.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Colorado State would be very wise to win its quarterfinal matchup against TCU. Beyond that, the tournament winner likely will find itself in the 4- or 5-seed line.
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