Sunday, I wrote about whether power conference tournament results are going to matter in the bubble hunt and the race for higher NCAA Tournament seeds. We all know why mid-major tournaments exist: to give ESPN added inventory and create the pressure cooker in which teams chase automatic bids for the Big Dance. The system isn’t fair to regular-season conference champions, but it creates great television.
In a battle between fairness and great TV optics, the great TV optics will win every time.
Why do power conference tournaments exist, though? We could devise a world in which the Big Ten (a conference which long resisted the conference tournament) and the Pac-12 (another conference without a long and enduring tournament of its own) could play a non-conference series. The AAC, a conference without much of a history, might want to join a collection of conferences which play non-conference games the week before Selection Sunday while the conferences with cherished or longstanding tournaments, chiefly the ACC and SEC, continue their in-house gatherings.
Imagine a week this week in which Houston plays Washington or Michigan State plays Cincinnati on Wednesday, and then UCF plays Arizona State while Temple plays Ohio State on Saturday.
It’s not the world we live in.
We are left to deal with power conference tournaments, skeptical that results are going to matter but still possessing what we THINK is a sense of which games created by these conference brackets will carry significant bubble or seeding implications.
Here are the main bubble and seeding dramas of Championship Week as they relate to the power conference tournaments, which comprise the Power Five conferences plus the Big East. (The AAC would be included, but there seem to be no dramas involved. I think Temple is relatively safe in the field after it beat UCF on Saturday. Houston will be a No. 3 seed. There are no big questions in that conference.)
You would THINK that the 8-9 game between North Carolina State and Clemson will either:
A) eliminate the loser; B) put the winner in the field; or C) both.
Yet, we have seen in recent years — chiefly 2016 — that you can lose an 8-9 bubble game in the ACC Tournament and still make the field of 68. Hello, Syracuse Final Four run as a 10 seed in the Midwest Region!
Will the committee put the N.C. State-Clemson loser in the field? There would be precedent for it — but there shouldn’t be. That should be a spot best reserved for either Belmont, Lipscomb or Furman.
There aren’t any other bubble games in the ACC, save for the N.C. State-Clemson winner facing Virginia in Thursday’s quarterfinals. If State or Clemson beats Virginia, that team will be in the field for sure. A blowout loss would create lingering questions on Selection Sunday.
In terms of seeding, the winner of the likely quarterfinal between Virginia Tech and Florida State will probably face Virginia in one ACC semifinal. If Tech or FSU can upset Virginia, it could move up one seed line: Tech from a 5 to a 4, FSU from a 4 to a 3.
Then comes the big one: Duke and North Carolina could meet in the other ACC semifinal. That game could be for a No. 1 seed. More precisely, the winner would improve its odds of getting a 1 seed. The loser might not necessarily give up its place on the 1 line. That drama depends, however, on another tournament:
Let’s start with the No. 1 seed chase, then go to the bubble.
Kentucky is battling Duke and North Carolina for a No. 1 seed. If Tennessee wins the SEC Tournament, it has a slight chance of getting to the 1 line, but if that doesn’t happen, it’s Kentucky versus Duke and UNC for the last 1 seed on the board, in the Midwest Region. Virginia will be a 1 seed in the East or South. Duke or UNC will be a 1 seed in the East or South as well. Gonzaga will be a 1 seed in the West. The Midwest is the point of uncertainty.
If Kentucky beats Tennessee in a possible SEC semifinal on Saturday, that should probably be enough to give Big Blue the 1 seed in the Midwest. This claim gains traction when one realizes how often the results of conference tournament finals on Selection Sunday have been flatly ignored by the committee over the years. It is as though the brackets are made Saturday night, and the committee thinks its work is done before Sunday’s games begin. This is part of the reason why some of the big conference tournaments, especially the ACC, moved their finals from Sunday to Saturday. (Getting more rest before the NCAA Tournament was another key consideration.)
If Kentucky loses to Tennessee or any point before the final, that would leave the door open for the ACC to get three No. 1 seeds. Don’t expect that to happen, but don’t be floored if it does. It is in play — but not something to expect.
If LSU wins the SEC Tournament by beating either Kentucky or Tennessee in the final, it would have a good claim to a No. 2 seed.
Now, to the bubble.
Again, these results might be overlooked by the committee, but a logical person would conclude that Florida and Alabama absolutely must win one game at the SEC Tournament to make the NCAAs. That should be non-negotiable. The Gators and Tide have plummeted over the past three games, with at least one bad loss in those losing streaks (UF to Georgia, Bama to Arkansas). They were both in the field but have played their way to the middle of the bubble, and what should be a no-margin position. They have to gain back some ground with at least one win in their first games. They should neither expect nor deserve a bid if they can’t win at least one game.
The real question is if the Gators or Tide need two wins, not merely one. Two wins would certainly lock up a bid. Would only one win be sufficient? Alabama plays tournament-bound Ole Miss in its first game, so the Tide would derive more value from a win there than Florida would in a rematch against Arkansas. If you had to distinguish between the two, Florida needs two wins more than Bama does, simply because of how the brackets are arranged.
Brackets shape stories, as I always like to say.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
Ohio State-Indiana is an 8-9 bubble classic. This feels to me like a play-OUT game, an elimination game, more than a play-IN game, a ticket-puncher. The winner of that game would then have to beat Michigan State to feel reasonably safe about a spot in the Big Dance. Some will argue that Indiana would need to win another game beyond Michigan State. They might be right, but gosh, I think that if the Hoosiers can win THREE TIMES against Michigan State, that will be impossible to ignore for the committee.
I do remind you: An Oklahoma team which went 7-11 in the Big 12 is almost certain to make the NCAA Tournament. That 8-12 Big Ten record is not the albatross you think it is. The 14 losses are the true impediment.
We can all agree that Indiana — if it beats Ohio State but loses to Michigan State — will be one of the most fascinating bubble stories on Selection Sunday. The arguments have been intense and will explode either way on March 17 at 6:10 Eastern or thereabouts.
Let’s not forget about Minnesota on the Big Ten bubble. The win over Purdue was huge and probably got the Golden Gophers into the field, but I would strongly advise Minnesota to beat Penn State on Thursday. A loss there would create legitimate bubble uncertainty. A win would put the Gophers solidly in the field.
As for high-end seeds, the Big Ten Tournament champion could rise to a 2 seed, but I think the 1 line is out of play, given that Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue all suffered losses over the past 10 days. If Purdue loses in its Big Ten quarterfinal on Friday, it could drop to a 4 seed. I anticipate MSU, Michigan and Purdue being 2 seeds or 3 seeds on Selection Sunday.
Is Washington 100-percent safe? Maybe 90 percent, but man, if the Huskies once again lose as a 1 seed in their Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal, that will become an interesting situation on Selection Sunday. Maybe the committee already has the Huskies solidly in the field as an 8 or 9 seed, but Washington simply hasn’t beaten NCAA Tournament at-large teams. I do think the Huskies will survive a loss in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, the one remaining potential obstacle to an at-large bid. However, they would leave the door open for the committee to slam them, much as the committee hit USC for much the same reason last year. USC beat very few at-large NCAA Tournament teams last season, which is why going 12-6 in the Pac-12 regular season and making the final of the Pac-12 Tournament didn’t matter.
Washington did not get in as an at-large team in 2012 despite going 14-4 in the Pac-12 and winning the regular-season title. Again, Huskies: Win your quarterfinal to remove any and all lingering doubt.
Assuming Washington does win its quarterfinal to become an absolute lock, the question becomes: Does Arizona State have enough on its resume to be an at-large team if it fails to win the Pac-12 Tournament? The resume has some quality wins — Kansas, Mississippi State, Washington — but also a bunch of eyesore-level losses and the lack of a single road sweep in Pac-12 rotations through the conference season. 12-6 in this year’s Pac-12 is a profile in underachievement.
Last year, Arizona State was on the bubble; lost its 8-9 first-round game at the Pac-12 Tournament; and still got in. The complication this year is that if Washington doesn’t win the Pac-12 Tournament, the committee would face the possibility of putting THREE Pac-12 teams into the Dance. Arizona State would be third in the pecking order after the autobid representative and at-large-worthy Washington.
Arizona State needs Washington to be in the final. ASU — if it can make the final and play the Huskies there — would substantially improve its at-large chances.
A question: Assuming Arizona State doesn’t win the Pac-12 Tournament, is it more important for ASU to have Washington win the tournament, or for the Sun Devils to make the final? The best answer is YES, but if forced to choose, it is more important for Arizona State that Washington wins the tournament, so that a third bid from the Pac-12 is not a consideration the committee has to weigh.
BIG EAST TOURNAMENT
What a car crash the Big East has been. Marquette and Villanova have played their way out of a top-four seed over the past two weeks. All the drama at this tournament concerns bubble teams St. John’s, Georgetown, Creighton, and maybe even Xavier, with Seton Hall safely in the field and DePaul, Butler and Providence out of the running.
St. John’s probably needs to beat DePaul to get into the NCAA Tournament. That’s not a guarantee, but a loss to the Blue Demons would give the committee good reason to push the Red Storm out of the field despite a sweep of Marquette and other quality wins such as Villanova. I strongly advise the Johnnies to win that game. Would they be 100-percent safe if they lost their subsequent Big East quarterfinal to Marquette? I’m not sure… but if they beat DePaul, I would lean toward inclusion on Selection Sunday for Chris Mullin.
Creighton-Xavier in a quarterfinal is a must for both teams. I think Xavier and bubble-hugging Georgetown need to win the whole tournament and get the automatic bid, but if we view X and Georgetown as bubble teams, they both need to make the final at minimum, and they both need to go through Villanova (in Xavier’s half of the bracket) or Marquette (Georgetown’s half of the bracket) to get the resume boost en route to the final.
Creighton, should it beat Xavier, will be right on the middle of the bubble on Selection Sunday. The Bluejays would likely be in the field if they make the final. Creighton probably needs two wins in New York for an at-large ticket. Georgetown more likely needs three wins, but two represent an absolute necessity for the Hoyas. I don’t think GU can get in solely on the basis of a win over Seton Hall.
BIG 12 TOURNAMENT
First, a brief note about the high-end seeds in the league: Texas Tech is playing for a 2 seed. If it wins the Big 12 Tournament, it would deserve a 2 seed. Kansas State is playing for a 3 seed. Kansas is playing for a 3 or 4 seed. If the Jayhawks lose to Texas in the quarterfinals, a 5 seed is not out of the question.
Now, to that fascinating Big 12 bubble: Oklahoma, despite being 7-11 in the Big 12, will probably survive a loss in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament on Wednesday night… but I would advise the Sooners to win that game and leave zero doubt about their worthiness as an NCAA Tournament team.
TCU, unlike Oklahoma, cannot survive a first-round loss. The Horned Frogs absolutely MUST win on Wednesday. The big question is if TCU has to win its quarterfinal to get into the field. Let’s put it this way: It will be a LONG wait for Jamie Dixon if he loses in the Big 12 quarters. TCU’s non-conference profile is very thin, and if Florida — a team TCU defeated — gets hot in the SEC Tournament, TCU would very likely need to win its quarterfinal to keep pace with the Gators and other bubble teams.
TCU will also be very interested in the Texas-Kansas quarterfinal. If the Longhorns lose, their huge pile of high-end wins might evaporate into the fog of what would be a 16-16 record. Even with all those great wins — North Carolina, Purdue, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State — 16 losses and a .500 overall record would be hard to overlook.
I think Texas needs to win this game to make the field… and that if it DOES win, it WILL make the field. This is high-stakes poker for Shaka Smart.
If Texas loses, that is a spot not just for the Belmonts, Furmans and Lipscombs of the world to get excited about, but also for TCU. The Horned Frogs really need Kansas to come through on Thursday, so that if the Big 12 gets seven teams into the NCAAs instead of eight, Texas is the one left in the cold, not the Frogs.
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