Forde Minutes: Breaking Down Every Remaining Conference Tournament

Five questions for the NCAA tournament selection committee, plus a preview and prediction for all 19 remaining conference tournaments.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Sam Merrill double-order onions sold separately): 

THE FIVE BIGGEST QUESTIONS FOR THE COMMITTEE

The NCAA tournament selection committee gets down to formal business this week, with its bracket to be revealed Sunday. Seeding will be monumentally difficult; with the lack of separation between, say No. 3 seeds and No. 10s, here’s hoping that we don’t hear the usual complaining about that aspect of the bracket. If you’re in the field, you probably have a chance.

But there are some other tough calls for the committee. The Minutes takes a look at the five biggest:

• Who gets the fourth No. 1 seed? As of today, the choice is Dayton (1) over San Diego State (2). But if the Flyers don’t win the Atlantic-10 tournament that might reverse itself. They have identical 29-2 records, and using the NCAA NET ratings, Dayton comes out ahead. The Flyers’ average NET win is 137; the Aztecs’ is 156. The Flyers’ average loss is 12; the Aztecs’ is 74.

Basically, the difference is San Diego State’s home loss to No. 109 UNLV. There is nothing comparable on the Dayton résumé. But if the Flyers don’t win three games in Brooklyn this week they will open the door back up for the Aztecs, whose hay is in the barn at this point.

• Can we really have an NCAA tournament without a No. 1 seed from the Atlantic Coast Conference (3)? Yes, we can and likely will. But it hasn’t happened since 2013. Last year the league took down three No. 1 seeds, and has had a total of nine in the last six tourneys. Florida State could present an argument for the top line if it backs up its first-ever ACC regular-season title with a tourney crown as well—especially if Dayton falters in the A-10. But on the whole, the ACC is way down from its customary standards—it ranks fifth in the Pomeroy Ratings, which is the lowest it has been since ’13.

• What if Stephen F. Austin (4) doesn’t win the Southland tournament? The Minutes is here to stump for the Lumberjacks as an at-large candidate if they somehow are defeated in their league tourney. It would take some true committee flexibility to take in the No. 78 team in the NET ratings, with a 1-2 record against Quad 1 opponents and zero Quad 2 games of any kind.

But this would be a good case for throwing out the rigid numerical protocol and rewarding a team that has had a great season (28-3), dominated its league and scored one landmark victory. That was at Duke in November, and in the previous 12 seasons only two teams have beaten the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium and not made the tourney (North Carolina State 2017 and Miami 2015).

The Minutes wonders if Stephen F. Austin might have one powerful advocate in the room this week: Duke athletic director Kevin White chairs the selection committee. If he was truly impressed by what the Lumberjacks did in his own gym, maybe he stumps for them—if they don’t win the Southland. (They should.)

• What to do with the sub-.500 crew? The Big Ten and Big East both have teams with bad league records that have been in the bracket (or close) for a number of weeks: Purdue (5) and Indiana (6) were 9-11 in their league, while Marquette (7) and Xavier (8) were 8-10 in the Big East. Both conferences were monsters this season, but is this the kind of mediocrity the committee wants to reward?

The Boilermakers absolutely need to win at least one game in Indianapolis to even have a shot, because 16-16 isn’t going to cut it. If they beat Ohio State Thursday to guarantee a winning record, that at least gives them a leg to stand on. For the Hoosiers, a loss Wednesday to Nebraska would be fatal, and they might need to beat Penn State the next night to make a case. (Archie Miller’s trashing of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi over the weekend sounded like classic Snapping Coach Syndrome late in a trying season.)

Marquette has a shiny NET rating (26th) but has been brutal down the stretch, losing six of its last seven—and the most recent two losses were to the worst teams in the Big East, DePaul and St. John’s. The Golden Eagles remain in a lot of mock brackets, but they might need to beat Seton Hall Thursday to gain some security. As for Xavier, DePaul would seem to be a must-win on Wednesday. The Musketeers’ last victory over a team that will definitely be in the field was Feb. 8.

• How to handle bad teams with good conference records? UCLA (9) and Tulsa (10) come immediately to mind.

The Bruins were a USC last-second three-pointer away from winning a share of the Pac-12 title. They finished second in a league that could get seven bids, but they also were dreadful through Jan. 15 before winning 11 of their last 14. This is getting deep into the weeds, but UCLA should root for Hofstra to win the CAA tournament and make the November loss in Pauley Pavilion look a little better. The NET rating (75th) is a problem.

As of Sunday morning, the Golden Hurricane was right behind UCLA in the NET at No. 76. Yet they were tri-champions of the American Athletic Conference at 13-5. The problems for Tulsa: a non-conference slate that includes five losses to teams that likely won’t make the tourney (UT Arlington, Arkansas State, Arkansas, Colorado State and Kansas State); league losses by 31 (Cincinnati), 33 (Houston) and 22 points (Wichita State). Tulsa almost certainly has to win the automatic bid.

conference-tournament-predictions-preview-2020

CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK BREAKDOWN

AMERICAN

Dates: March 12-15.

Location: Fort Worth, Texas.

Top seed: Cincinnati (11). The Bearcats won the tiebreakers with fellow champions Tulsa and Houston.

Dark horse: Wichita State. The fourth-seeded Shockers have won six of their last eight and could catch Cincinnati in the semifinals. The Bearcats beat Wichita twice during the season, but by a combined four points. Gregg Marshall’s team seems due to turn the tables on Cincy.

In the NCAA tournament: Houston.

Bubble teams: Wichita State, Cincinnati, Memphis. Everyone else needs to win this tourney.

Best tourney coach: SMU’s Tim Jankovich is the only coach in this field who has won an AAC tournament, having done it in 2017. His record in this tourney is 5-2.

Worst tourney coach: Houston’s Kelvin Sampson has a 71-37 AAC regular-season record but is just 5-5 in the tournament, and has never won this tourney.

Player to watch: Memphis’ Precious Achiuwa comes in averaging 15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots, but check the numbers from his last three games: 20.3 points, 17.3 boards and three blocks.

Minutes pick: Wichita State (12). Armed with bubble urgency and tenacious defense, look for the Shockers to make their run and avoid Selection Sunday anxiety.

ATLANTIC COAST

Dates: March 10-14.

Location: Greensboro, N.C.

Top seed: Florida State (13). The Seminoles were 16-0 in Tallahassee, just 7-5 on the road. There are no more home games the rest of the way.

Dark horse: North Carolina. Can the last-place team in a 14-team league actually make a run? Well, maybe. A potential draw of Virginia Tech-Syracuse-Louisville to reach the semifinals doesn’t seem impossible—especially in Tar Heel-friendly Greensboro.

In the NCAA tournament: Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Duke.

Bubble teams: North Carolina State. Everyone else needs to win this tourney.

Best tourney coach: Mike Krzyzewski has won this thing 11 times this century alone, including last year.

Worst tourney coach: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is 2-5 in the ACC tournament, and has never reached the semifinals.

Player to watch: Vernon Carey will be the higher NBA draft pick, but ACC voters correctly named Tre Jones the league’s Player of the Year Monday. He’s the guy Coach K can’t bear to put on the bench. Jones has averaged 41.5 minutes in Duke’s last four games, which included a double-overtime game

Minutes pick: Virginia (14). Tony Bennett’s slow death style has reached peak effectiveness in the last month, resulting in eight straight wins. Seven of those victories have come by three points or less, which means the Cavaliers are probably overdue to wind up on the wrong side of a last-minute game—but it also means they’re accustomed to winning the close ones.

ATLANTIC 10

Dates: March 11-15

Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Top seed: Dayton. Stormed through the league to become the A-10’s first 18-0 champion. The Flyers are undefeated in regulation this season, with both losses (Kansas and Colorado) coming in overtime.

Dark horse: Saint Louis (15). Won this last year as a No. 6 seed. This year, the fourth-seeded Billikens have been Dayton’s toughest A-10 matchup, pushing the Flyers into overtime once and losing the other meeting by six points. They’re on a five-game winning streak and could catch Dayton in the semifinals. But will guard Demarius Jacobs be back? He’s missed the last two games due to suspension.

In the NCAA tournament: Dayton.

Bubble teams: Richmond, Rhode Island. Everyone else needs to win this tourney.

Best tourney coach: Bob McKillop, Davidson. His Wildcats have advanced to at least the semifinals in all five seasons since joining the league, and won this tournament in 2018.

Worst tourney coach: Mike Rhoades, VCU. Lost first game last year as the No. 1 seed, and is 1-2 in two seasons.

Player to watch: Obi Toppin. If you’ve been paying attention, you know. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Toppin is averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds, on his way to being a first-team All-American and a likely high draft pick.

Minutes pick: Dayton (16). Anthony Grant is 0-2 in the A-10 tourney since taking over the Flyers, but expect that to change this week.

BIG 12

Dates: March 11-14.

Location: Kansas City, Mo.

Top seed: Kansas. Best team not just in the conference, but in the nation.

Dark horse: West Virginia (17). Arguably the best No. 6 seed in any conference tournament in the nation, the Mountaineers regrouped in the final week of the regular season by winning their first road game in two months and then taking down Baylor. They will guard tenaciously and crash the offensive glass with abandon—the latter by necessity, because they miss a lot of shots.

In the NCAA tournament: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia.

Bubble teams: Texas Tech (probably in but sliding), Oklahoma, Texas. Everyone else needs to win the tourney.

Best tourney coach: Steve Prohm, Iowa State. He’s been feast or famine—won this event twice and been knocked out in the first round twice. This year’s 12-19 team doesn’t have the horses to defend its tourney title.

Worst tourney coach: Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger is a remarkably bad 2-8 in the Big 12 tournament, has never made the final and has lost his first game three years in a row.

Player to watch: Udoka Azubuike has been destroying everything in his path in recent weeks. He’s dunking on everyone, rebounding at a huge rate and blocking shots. The 7-foot, 270-pounder will be the most powerful physical force in both this tournament and the next one.

Minutes pick: Kansas (18). There is basically one hot team in this league. And it also happens to be the best team. And it is playing in a tournament just down the road from campus.

BIG EAST

Dates: March 11-14.

Location: New York.

Top seed: Creighton (19). The Bluejays earned a share of their first Big East title. Aside from a notable hiccup at St. John’s on March 1, this has been a blazing-hot team, winning seven of its last eight and 11 of 13. They can shoot it and pass it as well as anyone in the country.

Dark horse: Providence. The Friars went from the distant bubble to comfortably in the field thanks to a closing six-game winning streak. Coach Ed Cooley has done some damage in this tournament before.

In the NCAA tournament: Creighton, Seton Hall, Villanova, Providence, Butler.

Bubble teams: Marquette (probably in but sliding), Xavier.

Best tourney coach: Jay Wright of Villanova has won four of the last five Big East tourneys and made the final of the one he didn’t win.

Worst tourney coach: DePaul’s Dave Leitao is winless in four Big East tourney games.

Player to watch: Myles Powell, Seton Hall. Volume shooter, but when he’s on he can carry a team a long way. His three-point percentage has dipped to .306 this season due to defensive diligence, but he’s finding other ways to score. A late-night Thursday shootout between Powell and Marquette’s Markus Howard would be some fine Madison Square Garden theater.

Minutes pick: Providence (20). Hot team has a senior point guard on a roll (Luwane Pipkins) and perhaps the best defense in the league.

BIG SKY

Dates: March 11-14.

Location: Boise, Idaho.

Top seed: Eastern Washington. Finished on a seven-game winning streak to take the league by one game over Northern Colorado.

Dark horse: Montana. Third-seeded Grizzlies have won the past two Big Sky tourneys.

Player to watch: Northern Colorado senior guard Jonah Radebaugh leads his team in scoring (16.5 points), assists (6.5), steals (1.5) and is second in rebounds (6.3).

Minutes pick: Eastern Washington (21). After losing in the final the past two seasons to Montana, the Eagles are ready for their breakthrough and first NCAA bid since 2015.

BIG TEN

Dates: March 11-15.

Location: Indianapolis.

Top seed: Wisconsin (22). Quite a triumph for Greg Gard and his Badgers to earn the No. 1 seed. They overcame the abrupt departure of guard Kobe King in late January and rolled down the stretch, winning their final eight games.

Dark horse: Fourth-seeded Illinois comes in with a lot of confidence, having won five of its last six to lock up its first NCAA bid since 2013.

In the NCAA tournament: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Maryland, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers.

On the bubble: Purdue, Indiana.

Best tourney coach: Only one current Big Ten coach has won this tourney in the last decade, and his name is Tom Izzo. He’s won four of the last eight.

Worst tourney coach: Maryland’s Mark Turgeon is 2-5 in the Big Ten tourney and has lost his first game each of the last three years.

Player to watch: Luka Garza of Iowa is a one-man wrecking crew in the paint, having scored 20 or more points in 16 consecutive games. His year-over-year improvement has been staggering and should serve as a blueprint for other players.

Minutes pick: Michigan State (23). The Spartans have emerged from their near-annual crisis mode to look a lot like the team that was the consensus preseason No. 1 pick. Cassius Winston & Co. will cut down the nets Sunday in Indy, then take aim at the bigger prize.

BIG WEST

Dates: March 12-14.

Location: Anaheim, Calif.

Top seed: UC Irvine won the league by three games. Shooting 10 percentage points better than opponents from two-point range (51% to 41%) will win a lot of games.

Dark horse: Cal State-Northridge. Mark Gottfried, stashed at a low-profile program and fighting NCAA allegations from his time at NC State, might have figured out a few things late with his second-seeded Matadors. The arrive on a four-game winning streak that includes a road upset of Irvine.

Player to watch: Lamine Diane, Northridge. Check out the 6'7" forward’s averages during the Matadors’ current four-game winning streak: 21.8 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks.

Minutes pick: UC Irvine (24). Defending champions have made the Big West final the past three seasons. This will make it four straight.

CONFERENCE USA

Dates: March 11-14.

Location: Frisco, Texas.

Top seed: North Texas. Mean Green went 8-0 in January to take control of the league, but just 6-3 since.

Dark horse: Louisiana Tech. Won five of last six, and the last two losses were in overtime on the road. Bulldogs have been the best defensive team during conference play.

Player to watch: Taveion Hollingsworth, Western Kentucky. Junior guard has cranked up his production since Hilltoppers big man Charles Bassey went down with an injury. He’s averaged 28.7 points over his last three games and dropped 43 on Louisiana Tech.

Minutes pick: Louisiana Tech (25). This is coach Erik Konkol’s fourth 20-win season in five years on the job at Tech. He’s due for a breakthrough to the Big Dance, which Tech last made in 1991.

IVY LEAGUE

Dates: March 14-15.

Location: Cambridge, Mass.

Top seed: Yale. The veteran Bulldogs have been the league’s most efficient offensive team by a pretty wide margin.

Dark horse: There are only four teams in the tournament, so by default you have to go with No. 2 seed Harvard, which is 2-0 against Yale and has the tourney on its home court.

Player to watch: Yale’s Paul Atkinson has dramatically increased his production this season, after teammate Miyi One was drafted in the second round last year. Could the 6'10" junior be the Bulldogs’ second draft pick in as many seasons (if he leaves school early)?

Minutes pick: Yale (26). Harvard has beaten Yale eight straight times in the regular season, but lost the last two meetings in the Ivy tournament. This will make in three in a row.

METRO ATLANTIC

Dates: March 10-14.

Location: Atlantic City, N.J.

Top seed: Siena was a perfect 14-0 at home to capture its first MAAC regular-season title since 2010.

Dark horse: Iona. The seventh-seeded Gaels aren’t very good (11-16 overall, 9-11 in the league and on a three-game losing streak), but until they are beaten they remain the most dangerous team. Iona owns this event, having won it four straight years.

Player to watch: Siena guard Jalen Pickett is averaging 15.3 points and six assists and playing his best ball late. Past two games he’s racked up 23 assists.

Minutes pick: Siena (27). When Jamion Christian departed the school after one season for George Washington, Siena elevated assistant and alum Carmen Maciariello and it has worked out well. Saints get their first NCAA berth in a decade.

MID-EASTERN

Dates: March 10-14.

Location: Norfolk, Va.

Top seed: North Carolina Central. The Eagles have been the class of the conference for several years, and this year is no exception.

Dark horse: Third seed Norfolk State has the highest Pomeroy Rating in the league and probably the MEAC’s toughest defense.

Player to watch: NCC forward Jibri Blount will fill the box score. He leads the team in scoring 19.3 points), rebounds (9.4) and steals (2.2).

Minutes pick: North Carolina Central (28). This will be four straight tourney titles and NCAA bids for LeVelle Moton’s team—and probably a fourth straight No. 16 seed and trip to Dayton for the First Four.

MID-AMERICAN

Dates: March 9-14.

Location: Campus sites first round, Cleveland thereafter.

Top seed: Akron. John Groce is well-positioned to take his third program to the NCAA tourney, after getting there with Ohio (2010 and ’12) and Illinois (’13).

Dark horse: Buffalo. It took the fifth-seeded Bulls a while to make the transition from Nate Oats to Jim Whitesell, but they seem to have turned the corner a month ago. Buffalo has won six of its last eight.

Player to watch: Loren Cristian Jackson, Akron. If you like a little guard with a big game, the 5'8" Jackson is your guy. He’s gone for 30-plus four times in the last two months, including twice in late February.

Minutes pick: Akron (29). Veteran team is efficient offensively and is ready to deliver the Zips’ first NCAA berth since 2013.

PAC-12

Dates: March 11-14.

Location: Las Vegas.

Top seed: Oregon. Ducks surged late, winning five of their last six to nip UCLA at the wire for the regular-season title.

Dark horse: Washington (30). Can the last-place team in the league really make some noise in Vegas? Sure. The Huskies certainly are not without talent, and they showed it by closing with road upsets of Arizona State and Arizona. Throw in a problematic zone defense and look out.

In the NCAA tournament: Oregon, USC, Arizona State, Arizona, Colorado.

Bubble teams: UCLA, Stanford.

Best tourney coach: Oregon’s Dana Altman has a 19-6 record in this event and three championships, including last year. And to quote Bill Walton: “It’s an embarrassing to the sport—and to the world—that Dana Altman is not already in the Hall of Fame.”

Worst tourney coach: Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak has lost his first game three years in a row and has a losing record in this event.

Player to watch: Ducks point guard Payton Pritchard has shouldered a large load this season but handled it with aplomb—and down the stretch he is performing at his best. Last four games he has averaged 27.5 points and 5.3 assists while making 18 of 35 threes.

Minutes pick: UCLA (31). They haven’t held an NCAA tournament without Mick Cronin since 2010, and they’re not going to start now. He’ll get the Bruins off the bubble and in the Dance.

SOUTHEASTERN

Dates: March 11-15.

Location: Nashville, Tenn.

Top seed: Kentucky. Wildcats put it together late to win the league by three games, but Ashton Hagans missed the Florida game after being at odds with teammates and coaches the previous game, against Tennessee. Then video surfaced this week of Hagans showing off an astounding wad of cash. Tim Sullivan of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal was told by a UK spokesman that the video is dated and has been addressed by the school’s compliance office. Nothing to see here, move along.

Dark horse: Mississippi State (32). The Bulldogs likely are on the wrong side of the bubble at present and should bring maximum motivation with them to Nashville. Talented offensive team with a bye into the quarterfinals, where Ben Howland’s team could face a Florida team it defeated in Gainesville.

In the NCAA tournament: Kentucky, Auburn, LSU, Florida.

Bubble teams: Mississippi State, Arkansas.

Best tourney coach: Kentucky’s John Calipari has won this tourney six times in 10 previous seasons, including yearly from 2015-18.

Worst tourney coach: LSU’s Will Wade lost his first SEC tourney game in 2018 and was suspended last year. Without him, the regular-season champion Tigers lost their first game to Florida.

Player to watch: Mason Jones of Arkansas is a big scorer who has flourished in new coach Eric Musselman’s free-flowing offense. He’s scored 30 or more points seven times in the last 12 games.

Minutes pick: Kentucky (33). Best team, best coach, most fans. Hagans will probably be back in the lineup and all recent drama will be submerged.

SOUTHLAND

Dates: March 11-14.

Location: Katy, Texas.

Top seed: Stephen F. Austin. See above note on the Lumberjacks’ league dominance and special season to date.

Dark horse: Third-seeded Nicholls State (34) has won seven of its last eight. The Colonels are shooting for their first NCAA tourney bid since 1998.

Player to watch: Kevon Harris, Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks have several good players, but the best of the bunch is Harris, a 6'6" senior averaging 17.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He had 26 in the landmark win at Duke.

Minutes pick: Stephen F. Austin. Accept no substitutes.

SOUTHWESTERN

Dates: March 10-14.

Location: Campus sites quarterfinals, then semis and final in Birmingham, Ala.

Top seed: Prairie View A&M dominated the league until closing the regular season with consecutive losses, but still captured the top seed.

Dark horse: Fourth seed Jackson State closed on a four-game winning streak and gave us the gift of Thomas “Snacks” Lee in the process.

Player to watch: While “Snacks” may be the player/manager you know, don’t overlook Prairie View’s Devonte Patterson. The active 6'7" senior has had a 33-point scoring game (against Alcorn State), a 17-rebound game (Grambling), a 10-assist game (Mississippi Valley) and a seven-steal game (Texas Southern).

Minutes pick: Texas Southern (35). Out of habit as much as anything else. Tigers have won four of the last six SWAC tourneys.

SUN BELT

Dates: March 7-14.

Location: Campus sites, then semifinals and final in New Orleans.

Top seed: Little Rock, which has rocketed from 21 losses last year to 21 wins this year and was picked to finish 11th in the conference.

Dark horse: Third seed Texas State has the best Pomeroy Rating of any Sun Belt team (No. 95, the only one in the top 100). Coach Danny Kaspar, the guy who built Stephen F. Austin, is overdue for an NCAA bid in year seven in San Marcos.

Player to watch: Nijal Pearson of Texas State is a 2,000-point career scorer who has improved in scoring average every season. But the 6'5" senior needs to rediscover his perimeter shooting stroke after making three of his last 22 three-point shots.

Minutes pick: Texas State (36). Nobody on Little Rock’s roster has ever won a Sun Belt tournament game. The Bobcats have at least been around the block.

WESTERN ATHLETIC

Dates: March 12-14.

Location: Las Vegas.

Top seed: New Mexico State. The Aggies were one of just two teams to go undefeated in conference play this season. They haven’t lost since mid-December.

Dark horse: UMKC. The fourth-seeded Kangaroos have at least played New Mexico State close twice, losing by three points on the road and six at home.

Player to watch: Guard Terrell Brown of Seattle has the green light at all times, having attempted 526 shots and 167 free throws on the season. He’s averaged 29 points over his last three games.

Minutes pick: New Mexico State (37). The only thing that could trip up the dominant Aggies is succumbing to lose-and-go-home pressure. They’ve rarely even been threatened during league play.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Anthony Grant (38), Dayton. He couldn’t quite make it work at Alabama and was fired after six seasons, with just one NCAA bid to show for it. But returning to a level just below the Power-6 has been the tonic for Grant, who averaged 25 wins a year in three seasons at VCU. After taking one season to get going, Grant’s Dayton teams have gone 50-14 the past two. This year’s team is his coaching masterpiece.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Ben Jacobson (39), Northern Iowa. You hate to see a good season unravel in 40 minutes, but that’s what happened to Jacobson’s Panthers in the Missouri Valley tournament. With a 25-5 record as the regular-season champion and No. 1 seed, Northern Iowa took on Drake in the Valley quarterfinals in a rematch of a game UNI won by 27 points six days earlier. This time the Panthers lost by 21, a stunning reversal that likely cost them an NCAA tourney bid.

BUZZER BEATER

When thirsty in the basketball-centric city of Dayton, The Minutes recommends a visit to Century Bar (40) downtown. It has a great speakeasy vibe and a prodigious bourbon list to sample. Get a two-ounce pour of Woodford Reserve double oaked and thank The Minutes later.