The first week of conference tournament season is for mid-major madness, and this season has obliged with a ton of regular-season champs getting trapdoored into the NIT by feisty underdogs. The second week is for the bigger boys, with seeding and selection situations sorting themselves out nationwide.
Here's a primer to all of this week's major conference tournament action:
Thursday, March 10-Sunday, March 13Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
The pick: North Carolina. The Heels are playing at a different level since Kendall Marshall took over at the point and they're not a very good matchup for this version of Duke.
Dark horse: This is a two-horse race. A Duke-UNC final is a very sizable possibility.
Deep sleeper(s): Clemson. The Tigers were surprisingly solid in scoring differential during what looks like a bit of an unlucky 9-7. They have a very winnable quarterfinal against Boston College and then likely would get the Tar Heels. The good news: The game's not in Chapel Hill, where Clemson is 0-55 all time. The Tigers lost to the Heels by two at home.
Player(s) to watch: Marshall's a good place to start. He's helped raise the Heels' offensive efficiency significantly while their defense has remained constant. Duke's Nolan Smith has had an All-America season. UNC's Harrison Barnes is finding himself more and more and has shown a huge knack for big shots. Virginia Tech's Jeff Allen has been huge for the Hokies, who are trying to hold on to a bid.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Clemson-BC is an enormous bubble game in the quarterfinals. Virginia Tech must beat Georgia Tech and probably Florida State to make it. Duke is playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, while UNC is trying to lock down a 2.
Tuesday, March 8-Saturday, March 12Madison Square Garden, New York
The pick: Pitt. The Panthers, per John Gasaway's illuminating Tuesday Truths column on Basketball Prospectus, were the dominant team in the conference, sporting a +0.15 points per possession margin. That was basically double that of the rest of the contending teams; Syracuse's PPP margin almost doubled, thanks to its final game against DePaul. The Panthers also seem to have the softer side of the draw, although a possible semifinal against homestanding St. John's isn't particularly favorable.
Dark horse: Syracuse. That whole six-losses-in-eight-games thing? Seems like a memory for the Orange, who won five straight down the stretch, including road wins at (fading) Villanova and (short-handed) Georgetown.
Deep sleeper(s): St. John's. The Red Storm have been a Category 5 hurricane at home this season. The Garden will be rocking. They're good enough to win this event.
Player(s) to watch: Catch Providence's Marshon Brooks in prime time Tuesday night in case the Friars quickly disappear. There are a lot of big names, but I enjoy watching St. John's guard Dwight Hardy and Notre Dame's sweet-shooting duo of Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Marquette had best win its first-round game against Providence. Beating West Virginia wouldn't be a bad idea, either. Pitt looks assured of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, but Notre Dame's performance here will determine whether the Irish can hold off Duke and others for the final top-line slot come Sunday.
Wednesday, March 9-Saturday, March 12Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
The pick: Kansas. The crowd will be partial and with Texas' late-season defensive slide, the Jayhawks comfortably look like the best team in the conference at the moment.
Dark horse: Kansas State. No team is hotter than the Wildcats, who are surging up the S-curve and know they can beat any of the top seeds, since they just did it repeatedly down the stretch.
Deep sleeper(s): I'd like Texas A&M a bit better if it weren't in Texas' half of the bracket. Even with the 'Horns' slippage defensively, they are a horrible matchup for an Aggies team that relies on crisp execution rather than overt athleticism.
Player(s) to watch: Kansas' Morrises (Morrisii?), Texas' Jordan Hamilton, Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn and Perry Jones and Colorado's Alec Burks comprise an entertaining septet.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Colorado needs to beat Iowa State and then Kansas State to have a chance of making the NCAAs, so that potential quarterfinal is huge. Kansas looks set to hold onto a No. 1 seed. Can Texas steal the final one by winning this event and getting breaks elsewhere?
Thursday, March 10-Sunday, March 13Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
The pick: Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the best team in the nation and will do just enough to hold off Purdue in its home state.
Dark horse: There really isn't one. If anyone outside the top three teams wins this, it would be a huge surprise.
Deep sleeper(s): Illinois has the talent to throw a run together and a manageable quarterfinal against Michigan. The semifinal against (assumedly) Ohio State could be a big hurdle, though.
Player(s) to watch: Any of the three of Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger or Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor could have won the league's player of the year award (that went to Johnson). Ohio State's Jon Diebler is white-hot from the arc (17-for-20 from distance in his last two games). Two other point guards -- Penn State's Talor Battle and Michigan's Darius Morris -- are a joy to watch. Terrific players.
Bubble/bracket games of note: The first couple of rounds will be extremely bubbly. Illinois-Michigan is a huge game, especially for the Wolverines. Michigan State could end up playing Purdue in a quarterfinal in a game the Spartans may need to win. Penn State also must beat Indiana and then Wisconsin to have a chance.
Wednesday, March 9-Saturday, March 12Staples Center, Los Angeles
The pick: UCLA. In a year where there's no dominant team in the league, going with the second-place Bruins in their home city seems reasonable. Their side of the bracket also could open up if Wazzu takes out Washington in the 3-6 game. The Cougars swept the Huskies in the regular season.
Dark horse: USC. This is the team that bubblers should be nervous about. They have beaten UCLA and Arizona at home and lost to Washington in overtime. The Trojans defend as well as anyone in the league, so no game against them will be easy. Seeing USC make the final is not unreasonable at all, and then they'd be an at-large consideration, as well.
Deep sleeper(s): Washington State. The Cougars fell into a quarterfinal against Washington, a team they know they can handle. Then they likely would draw UCLA, a team they just lost to at home in overtime without Klay Thompson.
Player(s) to watch: Derrick Williams' only flaw is that he's too deferential at times, but the way Arizona shoots the three, sometimes that's not a terrible plan. Much was made of Jio Fontan's January arrival for USC, but Nikola Vucevic has been terrific for the Trojans. As has Reeves Nelson for UCLA.
Bubble/bracket games of note: The league's top three teams seem safe, so the bubble onus is on USC or Wazzu to give the committee any reason to consider them.
Thursday, March 10-Sunday, March 13Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
The pick: Kentucky. The 'Cats are starting to figure things out, finishing the season in style by beating the three other best teams in the league. Their PPP margin was identical to Florida's despite finishing three games behind the Gators and all of the late road losses may have created a battle-hardened team that doesn't have to play another true road game. Plus, I think the E2-seed may end up more favorable, drawing the Alabama-Georgia winner in the semis instead of Vandy or Mississippi State -- Florida's plight.
Dark horse: Tennessee. Would it surprise you if the Vols won this event? Or if they lost in the first round? Exactly. They're good enough to beat anyone on the right day, though.
Deep sleeper(s): Georgia. The Bulldogs had surprisingly good efficiency margins in the league and have a reasonable path to the semifinals with games against Auburn and then Alabama. Home-state location can't hurt, either.
Player(s) to watch: Brandon Knight is really coming on for Kentucky, which could be a major development heading into the NCAAs. You know a lot of the other major names: Vandy's John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, Georgia's Trey Thompkins, Florida's Chandler Parsons, Tennessee's Scotty Hopson.
Bubble/bracket games of note: An Alabama-Georgia quarterfinal is a huge bubble game, especially for the Tide, which likely needs to win it to have a legit at-large case. This tournament has also produced its share of surprise champs, so any game involving Mississippi State will be nerve-racking for bubblers. Florida is trying to hold onto a top-three seed for the NCAAs.
Tuesday, March 8; Friday March, 11-Sunday, March 13First-round games on campus; Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.
The pick: Xavier. The X-men only won the league by a game over Temple, but were far superior in PPP margin (+0.22 vs. +0.15, per Gasaway). The Owls also lost Micheal Eric for the season, which changes their m.o.
Dark horse: Richmond. The Spiders were crushed by both Xavier and Temple in the teams' only meetings of the season, but they know they enter the tourney needing wins to ice an NCAA bid. They have the talent to string some Ws together, but lack the consistency against better teams this season.
Deep sleeper(s): There really isn't one. The fifth- through ninth-best teams in scoring margin were basically equivalent in league play, and the top four teams in the league were way above that level.
Player(s) to watch: Point guards are the rule of the day with Xavier's Tu Holloway and Richmond's Kevin Anderson playing leading roles in their teams' successful campaigns. Temple has Juan Fernandez, but he's more part of a collective effort. The best player you may not have heard of is St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Richmond likely needs to get to the tourney semis to feel decent about its at-large chances, so the Spiders will need to handle (assumedly) Rhode Island in the quarters.
Wednesday, March 9-Saturday, March 12 Don Haskins Center, El Paso, Texas
The pick: UTEP. In theory, the tourney should be wide open, as there's no dominant team in the league, but UTEP landed on the other side of the bracket from UAB, Memphis and Southern Miss, which is a huge advantage. Combine that with home-court advantage and it's a powerful combo when most else is relatively equal among the top teams.
Dark horse: Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles arguably are the best team in the league, but three one-point losses in league play dropped them to an unlucky 9-7. They have the most potent offense in C-USA on a PPP basis, so if they can find one or two more key stops a game, they could be dangerous despite having to play an opening-round game against bottom seed Tulane and then being on the rough side of the draw.
Deep sleeper(s): Marshall. The Thundering Herd won six of their last seven in league play, with the only loss coming by eight at UTEP, who they would play in the quarterfinal if they can get past No. 11 seed Houston. The Herd also crushed So. Miss. and Memphis at home and beat West Virginia, too, so the top-end quality is there to make a run. They get after you on the glass and get to the free throw line a ton.
Player(s) to watch: UTEP still has Randy Culpepper firing away in the backcourt. Gary Flowers has been a frontcourt force for Southern Miss. Jamarr Sanders has improved his efficiency as a scorer for UAB, but Cameron Moore has really blossomed this season with full-time minutes and is back from a broken hand.
Bubble/bracket games of note: UAB has a very odd at-large case. The Blazers have a terrific RPI, but don't really have any true quality wins. Memphis has much more meat to its résumé, but lags in computer profile and the league standings despite a sweep of the Blazers. The two are set to meet in a semifinal, with the loser almost certainly done as far as NCAA hopes go.
Wednesday, March 9-Saturday, March 12Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
The pick: San Diego State. Brandon Davies was an enormous part of BYU's slagging defense that helped keep the Aztecs on the perimeter in the game in San Diego. Without him, it will take a supremely good shooting game from the Cougars to offset what could be a huge disadvantage inside and on the glass if the two teams meet for a third time. SDSU could have to deal with homestanding UNLV in the semis, but the Aztecs are the better team in that matchup.
Dark horse: New Mexico. The Lobos have a legit inside force in UCLA transfer Drew Gordon and an experienced point guard in Dairese Gary. They also own BYU at the moment, having won all four meetings between the teams in the last two seasons. New Mexico is on BYU's side of the bracket, so that could be a semifinal matchup.
Deep sleeper(s): None. It's very hard to see anyone outside the top four winning the title.
Player(s) to watch: In addition to the Lobos mentioned above, there's this guy named Jimmer on BYU you might want to check out. SDSU's Kawhi Leonard is a fine alternative if you prefer inside/outside stuff. Chace Stanback is a multipurpose force for UNLV.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Colorado State is trying to push its way into the NCAAs, but seems to need at least a finals appearance, if not the auto bid, to get in. That would (ostensibly) mean beating New Mexico, then BYU and then SDSU/UNLV. Tough sledding. If BYU falters (especially against the New Mexico-Colorado State winner) and SDSU wins the tournament, the Aztecs could pip the Cougars for the West regional.
Wednesday, March 9-Saturday, March 12Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
The pick: I'll go out on a huge limb and take Utah State, which won the league by five games with a massive +0.21 points per possession margin.
Dark horse: New Mexico State. The league's other Aggies have some athleticism and talent and just gave Utah State a strong test in Las Cruces. Plus, they're on the other side of the bracket, so they wouldn't see the Aggies until a potential title game.
Deep sleeper(s): Everyone besides Utah State is pretty much a deep sleeper in this league, but if you pass on NMSU as an alternative, Idaho had the same PPP differential and was the only team to beat Utah State in league play. Boise State is the only other team that really has any legit chance of winning this.
Player(s) to watch: League player of the year Tai Wesley inside makes things tick for Utah State. New Mexico State is paced by forward Troy Gillenwater. For pure entertainment, check out San Jose State scoring machine Adrian Oliver.
Bubble/bracket games of note: Utah State is almost certainly playing for seed in the NCAAs, but the bracket obviously would be thrown for a loop if there is a bid thief here. The Aggies get a double-bye into the semifinals, so Bubble Nation will have to hold its breath twice.