BY JORDAN O’DONNELL
College basketball conference tournaments are more than just a precursor to the NCAA Tournament itself. Mid-majors are given the opportunity to earn automatic berths. Teams on the bubble can make a final statement to the selection committee. Elite squads are able to fight to improve their seeding. But there are some additional storylines in the major conferences worth watching before the Big Dance begins.
ACC – Though North Carolina and Duke remain the conference’s cream of the crop, Florida State has placed itself on the cusp of the league’s elite. After defeating Carolina by 33 and shocking Duke with a Michael Snaer buzzer-beating three pointer (that caused sounds to emit from Len Elmore I’d rather not have heard), many thought Leonard Hamilton’s squad was talented enough to take the ACC regular season crown, despite losses to two Ivy League programs in non-conference play. The Seminoles spent much of the ACC season at the top of the standings, but late losses against Miami and Duke left them looking up at the Heels and Blue Devils. FSU responded with a nice road win against Virginia, a team likely to make the field of 68. Should the Seminoles pick up a victory over UNC and/or Duke this weekend in Atlanta, they’d have to be considered a legitimate threat to knock of a number of teams this month.
Big 12 – Kansas and Missouri played one of the best games of the season in Lawrence on Feb. 25, and both teams are decent picks to advance far in the Big Dance. But keep an eye on Baylor. The Bears looked like the conference favorite earlier in the year, thanks to NBA lottery prospect Perry Jones III and Scott Drew’s unconventional 1-3-1 zone. But after starting the season 17-0, Baylor lost twice to Missouri, twice to Kansas and once to Kansas State—three of the top four teams in the Big 12. If the sophomore Jones can boost his draft stock with improved play in Kansas City this weekend, the Bears will more closely resemble the dominant team we last saw in mid-January.
Big East – In my opinion, the Big East presents the most exciting conference championship, often offering multiple premier match-ups each day of the tournament. Playing in Jeremy Lin’s house (Madison Square Garden) doesn’t hurt either. Last year, Kemba Walker carried UConn on his back to a Big East title in New York before eventually winning the national championship, making him a bigger deal in Connecticut than Vince McMahon and Joe Lieberman combined. UConn will attempt another improbable five-wins-in-five-days run, but this weekend, all eyes should be on the Syracuse Orange. With just one loss (at Notre Dame while playing without big man Fab Melo), Jim Boeheim’s squad is a legitimate championship contender. But Yahoo! Sports dropped a bombshell on March 5, with a report suggesting Syracuse basketball players have failed drug tests but have still been permitted to practice and play in games. The school released a cryptic statement saying that no current players were involved in such activity, but this is potentially a major distraction for the Orange. Though the team rallied after the sexual abuse allegations against former assistant coach Bernie Fine, this is of a different nature. These allegations are against the players themselves, and could have massive implications for the program if the NCAA levies penalties. Further, the situation comes on the doorstep of postseason play. But if ‘Cuse rolls through the Garden this weekend, then it may be safe to say off-the-court issues won’t distract them on their quest to win their second national title in the last decade.
Big Ten – Typically the butt of jokes for having final scores that resemble a girls high school basketball game, the Big Ten and its twelve teams comprise perhaps the best conference in the nation this year. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin all have less than 10 losses. The team to watch this weekend is Ohio State. After steamrolling Duke earlier in the season, OSU appeared locked in for a national title run. But prior to closing out the regular season with a big two-point victory over MSU in East Lansing, the Buckeyes had lost three consecutive games to ranked opponents. Jared Sullinger – a preseason favorite for National Player of the Year – has not fulfilled the lofty expectations placed upon his no longer hefty frame. Jay Bilas – the best college basketball commentator/attorney in the world – tweeted this week that Sullinger has not looked right to him for several weeks. For OSU to do any damage this month, it will need to ride Sullinger. If he can become a force in Indianapolis this weekend, then the Buckeyes may become a trendy Final Four pick.
SEC – Can anyone beat Kentucky? John Calipari has once again assembled a future NBA All-Star team, but the criticism has long been that he can’t win a championship with such inexperienced young players. Well, that crutch may soon be null and void. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2010, and last year Terrence Jones led them to the Final Four. Jones returned this year and is joined by an elite freshman class, including the likely No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis and star guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Wildcats swept SEC play and have lost just one game all season (on a buzzer-beating three-pointer at Indiana that emitted noises from Dick Vitale that make Len Elmore seem sedated). Florida is the second best team in the conference, but no one mistakes them for a national title contender. Critics have occasionally questioned Kentucky’s focus and resolve since they’ve often found themselves in close games against inferior opponents. But if Kentucky routs its competition in New Orleans this weekend, it may signal a mature focus that could get the Wildcats over the hump this year.
Pac-12 – Wow, is the Pac-12 bad. For a conference that features UCLA and Arizona, this stretch of mediocrity is unheard of. But if you need a story, check out the Bruins. Sports Illustrated eviscerated the state of this legendary program last week, suggesting coach Ben Howland has lost control of his team. Results have been down in recent years for the Bruins, and Howland could find himself on the firing line despite taking the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008. And if that coaching slot opens up, expect the rumor mill to swirl with nearly every great up-and-coming coach in the nation.
Jordan is a contributing editor to Yi!. He is an ACC expert, a firm believer in Eli and a deft analyst of pop culture.