Whereas the opening week of conference tournament play is typically just the undercard before the marquee leagues tip off the following week, this year is a bit unusual.
The Big Ten’s decision to start its tournament early in order to hold it at Madison Square Garden adds some juice to the first week of the postseason.
The Atlantic Sun and Big South tournaments are already underway, while three more leagues get started Wednesday night. Below is a look at the four biggest storylines from week one of conference tournament action:
1. Will any Big Ten team earn a No. 1 seed?
The Big Ten’s soft middle and bottom tiers this season have been a blessing and a curse for the league’s top teams. Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State have built gaudy records by feasting on inferior competition, but the dearth of opportunities for marquee wins in league play have made it difficult for any of them to produce a resume comparable to the top teams in the ACC, Big 12 or Big East.
No Big Ten team would be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today, but both Michigan State and Purdue both have a chance to jump up to the top seed line if either wins the Big Ten tournament.
What’s preventing the Spartans (28-3, 16-2) from projecting as a No. 1 seed already is a lack of impressive victories relative to the other contenders. Kansas has 11 quadrant 1 victories, North Carolina boasts 10 and Virginia and Villanova both have seven apiece. Michigan State has three, and one of those is a road win at fading Maryland.
Even so, a 31-3 Michigan State team that swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles would be near-impossible to deny a No. 1 seed. The Spartans would presumably add at least two quadrant 1 victories and would still have zero losses against teams outside the RPI top 30.
Purdue (26-5, 15-3) actually has twice as many quadrant 1 victories as Michigan State, but its lack of a head-to-head victory against either the Spartans or Ohio State hurts its resume a bit, as do a pair of quadrant 2 losses to Wisconsin and Western Kentucky. The Boilermakers would be a strong candidate for a No. 2 seed just by reaching the Big Ten title game. Should they win the trophy and collect a couple resume-boosting victories in the process, they would also find themselves in the conversation for a No. 1.
2. Can Nebraska nail down an at-large bid?
Only once since the league schedule expanded to 18 games in 2008 has a Big Ten team with 11 or more conference wins missed the NCAA tournament. A Nebraska team that went 13-5 in the Big Ten this season is in jeopardy of being the second.
Despite its 22-9 overall record and fourth-place finish in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s resume is full of empty calories. The Huskers’ rout of visiting Michigan last month is their only quadrant 1 win of the season and only victory against a likely NCAA tournament team. Their only two quadrant 2 wins came at home against Maryland and on the road at Wisconsin, not exactly inspiring stuff.
How deep a Big Ten tournament run Nebraska needs isn’t yet clear, but the Huskers’ dearth of quality wins suggests they probably have to win a potential Big Ten quarterfinal against Michigan on Friday to have a realistic chance at an at-large bid. Even then, that might not be enough unless they also win their semifinal game the next day, likely against Michigan State.
It would help Nebraska if the selection committee takes the time to study the intricacies of the Huskers’ unusual resume.
They haven’t won a game against any of the three Big Ten teams ahead of them in the standings, but they faced Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State once apiece and all on the road. They lost both their marquee non-conference games against Kansas and Creighton, but they had two shots to beat the Jayhawks in the final 10 seconds and they pushed the Bluejays into the final minute in Omaha. They don’t get much credit anymore for defeating Minnesota on Dec. 5, but at that time the Golden Gophers still had Reggie Lynch and Amir Coffey and were ranked in the AP top 20.
In short, right now this is probably an NCAA tournament-caliber team without NCAA tournament-caliber wins.
3. Can Gonzaga bolster its case for a top-four seed?
If Gonzaga took a step backward this season after reaching the national title game a year ago, it certainly wasn’t a big one. The Zags remained a fixture in the top 15 of the AP poll, notched some impressive non-conference wins and maintained their stranglehold on first place in the WCC despite losing four of their top eight players from last season’s team.
Gonzaga enters the WCC tournament with a 27-4 record that includes a split with Saint Mary’s in league play and marquee non-conference victories over Ohio State, Creighton, a then-healthy Texas team and Washington. The weakness of the WCC compared to power conferences prevents the Zags from having as many opportunities for quality wins, but predictive metrics love Gonzaga, which is No. 7 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and No. 10 in ESPN’s BPI.
When the committee released its in-season bracket earlier this month, Gonzaga was not among the teams on the top four seed lines. The Zags have since reeled off four more wins, but only a regular season-ending road victory at BYU bolsters their profile.
Can Gonzaga climb to the No. 4 seed line if it wins the WCC tournament with a victory over Saint Mary’s in the title game? The guess here is yes. The committee would be doing a disservice to both Gonzaga and its potential opponents to put a 30-4 Zags team any lower.
Of course seeding gripes are a good problem for Gonzaga to have relative to the rest of its league. Saint Mary’s really needs to avoid losing to anyone besides the Zags in Las Vegas in order to feel confident heading into Selection Sunday. Every other WCC team needs to win the conference tournament to land an NCAA bid.
4. How many dominant teams from one-bid leagues will survive their conference tournaments this week?
There are a handful of small-conference programs that dominated their leagues and performed well against established competition in November and December. Each of them are capable of making surprising someone in the NCAA tournament next month, but first they have to secure their spot in the field of 68 by surviving their conference tournaments.
The best mid-major in action this week may be Loyola (Chicago), which stepped into the void left by Wichita State’s departure from the Valley and won the league by a whopping four games. The Ramblers (25-5, 15-3) might have an outside shot at an at-large bid should they stumble at Arch Madness, but their December victory at Florida is their lone quadrant 1 victory all season.
Vermont (25-6, 15-1) would be another scary team to draw in the round of 64 should the Catamounts advance to the NCAA tournament. They tore through the America East for the second straight season despite talented sophomore Anthony Lamb missing all but Tuesday’s regular season finale with a fractured foot. Lamb’s return makes Vermont more dangerous, as does the fact so many of the Catamounts top players have NCAA tournament experience from last year’s 80-70 first-round loss to Purdue.
Among the other one-bid league champions who are in action this week and could make noise in March are Murray State, Florida Gulf Coast and Bucknell. The Racers (24-5, 15-3) face tough competition in the OVC from Belmont. Lipscomb edged the Eagles on their home floor last week and will be a tough out in the A-Sun, while surging Lehigh is threat to the Bison in the Patriot League.
It makes a stronger NCAA tournament and a more exciting opening weekend when the best small-conference programs earn bids. If Loyola (Chicago), Vermont and Murray State make it in particular, each could be popular upset picks.
– – – – – – –