The power conference tournaments get underway Tuesday with opening round action in the ACC going down in Greensboro. This kicks off a six day stretch where we will be flooded with the best college basketball teams in the country playing in win or go home scenarios where “go home” can mean anything from a diminished seed in the NCAA tournament to the season being over.
If you’re a fan of a team in a power conference, then obviously you have a rooting interest as far as what you’d like to see in that conference’s tournament championship game. If you’re an impartial viewer simply rooting for the highest quality and most dramatic title tilts this coming weekend, here are the six games you should be hoping to see.
Big East: No. 1 Creighton vs. No. 3 Seton Hall
Last week, Seton Hall had an opportunity to claim its first outright Big East regular-season title since 1993 with either a home win over Villanova or a road victory over Creighton. After losing narrowly at home to Jay Wright’s club, the Pirates got smacked on the road by the Bluejays, 77-60. The loss meant that not only would Seton Hall have to share the regular-season title with Creighton and Villanova, but the Pirates would be the No. 3 seed for the Big East tournament and would have to face the nation’s leading scorer, Markus Howard, and Marquette in their postseason opener.
To their credit, Creighton was ready for the moment on Saturday. Almost right as the final buzzer sounded inside CHI Health Center Omaha, a “2020 Big East Regular-Season Champions” banner was unfurled from the rafters. The team then proceeded to cut down the nets inside the building.
The Bluejay faithful loved the theatrics. Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard did not.
“I’m really pissed off that people are cutting down the nets and my guys are down there [in the locker room],” Willard said in his postgame radio interview. “I should’ve brought them out, but they’re not in a very good mood right now. I wish I could bring my kids out here right now because they’re cutting down the nets and I’ve got 13 kids who think they failed miserably.”
The top eight teams in the Big East are so strong that it’s going to be damn near impossible for this tournament not to produce a compelling title game. This one would check every box though:
— Bad blood
— Quality teams
— Fun styles of play
— Star power
We just need a healthy Marcus Zegarowski and we’ll be good to go.
Big Ten: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Illinois
Like the Big East, the Big Ten is so saturated with quality teams that it’s really difficult to envision a championship game that doesn’t produce a quality two hours of entertainment. Additionally, it seems like just about every Big Ten coach — Fran McCaffery, Chris Holtmann, Archie Miller, Mark Turgeon, Greg Gard, Brad Underwood — has thrown a fit about something or someone at some point this season, so you’ve got a strong likelihood of sideline fireworks at play here as well.
Unless there’s a team in the Big Ten championship game that needs the league’s auto-bid to make the NCAA tournament, the Selection Committee has pretty much completed its bracket by the time this game is going on. It’s only real purpose is to keep us entertained until the Selection Show starts at 6 p.m. ET. With that being the case, let’s go with the two teams that would give us the most up-and-down, competitive two hours of action, which I think would be Illinois and Michigan State.
Kofi Cockburn vs. Xavier Tillman? Good. Cassius Winston vs. Ayo Dosunmu? Even better. Tom Izzo and Brad Underwood busting blood vessels on the sidelines? Give me all of it.
ACC: No. 4 Duke vs. No. 14 North Carolina
Roll your eyes if you want, but unless something wild happens, this ACC tournament doesn’t seem likely to bring the level of drama and intrigue that fans of the event have grown accustomed to over the years.
There is an established top tier of Florida State, Louisville, Duke and Virginia, four teams that are all safely in the NCAA tournament. Those four teams have played some decent games against one another and there’s been a small amount of bad blood between Louisville and Florida State, but nothing has really happened amongst the quartet that has the general basketball world foaming at the mouth for a rematch. Outside of those four, there’s one true bubble team with work to do in No. 5 seed NC State, and then the other nine teams in the field almost certainly all have to win four games in four days or five games in five days to make it into the big field of 68.
That final storyline seems like the most compelling one. This tournament is going to need a true Cinderella reach maximum interest levels, and what better Cinderella than the worst North Carolina team of the Roy Williams era?
If “Zombie UNC” — led by a determined Cole Anthony who certainly possesses the tools necessary to have one of those conference tournament weeks people remember forever — can make it to Thursday’s quarterfinals, this could get interesting.
This is the first time in the history of the ACC tournament that neither Duke or North Carolina has been a top three-seed. What better year for the arch-rivals to square off in a 4 vs. 14 title game?
Big 12: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Baylor
There’s no need to get cute here. Baylor went to Lawrence and manhandled Kansas in January, and then the Jayhawks came to Waco and won a highly competitive game a month later. Now we need a round three.
If round three does happen in Kansas City, Kansas will have almost certainly already locked down the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The game could have more significance for Baylor, which may be fighting with Gonzaga and Dayton (or someone else) for pecking order behind the Jayhawks on the top line.
Regardless of all the seeding implications and other extenuating circumstances, this would probably just be a fantastic game. Kansas looks like everyone’s national title favorite, and Baylor needs to get its mojo pointed back in the right direction before it starts playing with its season on the line next week. There’s all the storyline you need.
SEC: No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Auburn
This tournament doesn’t seem like it’s going to be nearly as much fun as we thought it could be heading into the season, but there’s still an opportunity for an alluring title game.
Kentucky is back in its familiar spot as the unquestioned king of the conference, but Auburn won this event a year ago and then went on to upset the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and make their first ever trip to the Final Four. The two teams appear to be the class of the conference this season, and split their regular season meetings, with each winning fairly comfortably on its home floor.
A John Calipari/Bruce Pearl rubber match loaded with screaming and sweating is the best option for the first part of Selection Sunday afternoon.
Pac-12: No. 1 Oregon vs. No. 3 Arizona State
UCLA is the most fascinating story in the Pac-12 right now and one of the most fascinating stories nationally, but I’m leaving them out of the dream title game for one reason: Their situation becomes more interesting if they lose early in the tournament.
We’re talking about a team that has won seven of its last eight games, that finished alone in second place in a power conference that could send as many as seven teams to the NCAA tournament, and that is being coached by the man who was just named Pac-12 Coach of the Year. That same team we just described is not a lock to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. That’s incredible.
If UCLA were to win two games and advance to Saturday’s championship game, the drama is gone and the Bruins would almost certainly slide off the bubble and into the “lock” category. We’re all about the drama here, so our scenario has them falling in the quarters or semis.
As for who will be playing ... the Pac-12 title game is the true Selection Sunday Eve test for East Coast hoop heads. It doesn’t tip-off until 10:30 p.m., which means it needs to serve as a basketball stimulant. That shouldn’t be a problem with Payton Pritchard leading Oregon’s high-octane offense and Remy Martin countering with Arizona State’s up-tempo attack.
Plus, I mean, it’s Bobby Hurley in a high-pressure, nationally-televised game with enormous implications. I’m not saying he’s definitely going to punch somebody or rip off an article of clothing, but the chances of at least one of those things happening in this game would be exponentially higher than they would be for any other game played this coming weekend.