The only conference tournaments that matter are the smaller ones. The big-league conventions are for show, not to mention dough. If the compelling story in Greensboro is whether N.C. State (19-12, 0-2 against going-nowhere Georgia Tech) can wangle a No. 11 NCAA seed … well, that’s not terribly compelling, is it?
Then we check the Mountain West, which staged its final Saturday. Had Utah State finished 25-9 instead of 26-8, it might have missed the Big Dance. But Sam Merrill, among the better players in the land, hit a nerveless 23-footer over San Diego State’s KJ Feagin with 2.5 seconds left in the title game, and now there’s no question.
Utah State is an automatic qualifier, which means the bracket has shrunk for N.C. State and its ilk. San Diego State will also make it, though maybe not as a No. 1 seed, which might be a better deal. Owing to this season’s westward lean, at least three of the top seeds could hail from the far side of the Mississippi. That would have meant uprooting Gonzaga or San Diego State and making it No. 1 in the East. As is, both Zags and Aztecs could start in Spokane/Sacramento and stay west for the Anaheim regional. Sometimes geography trumps seeding.
The beneficiary of San Diego State’s loss stands to be Dayton, which this space has been hyping since New Year’s. The Flyers rolled through the Atlantic 10 unbeaten. They’ve won 20 games in succession. They haven’t lost since Dec. 21. They haven’t lost in regulation this season. They haven’t had a truly close game in almost a month, and that’s not always a good thing. A conference tournament loss can refocus a team for the tournament that matters. Then again, the Flyers might be too strong to lose to anybody anywhere.
Regarding other conference convocations:
ACC: Nobody who works in any other league would believe it’s possible to remain underrated in the conference that trumpets itself to the heavens. But consider Florida State, which finished first over the ACC regular season and was clearly the class of the Tiffany League. No Seminole made first-team all-conference, though two Duke players did; 18-loss Carolina had as many players on the three all-league teams as did 26-win FSU. To be fair, Leonard Hamilton was voted coach of the year, not that there was any real competition. Factoid: The Ham, as he was dubbed in his younger days as a Kentucky assistant, is fifth among ACC coaches in victories. The top four —Krzyzewski, D. Smith, R. Williams, G. Williams — are in the Naismith Hall of Fame. FSU doesn’t really need to prevail in Greensboro, but it’s feisty enough to do it anyway.
SEC: Georgia finished its flop of a regular season by losing at home to Florida by 14 and by 30 in Baton Rouge. This wouldn’t seem to presage an extended stay in Nashville. The Bulldogs will open against Ole Miss, to which they lost by 10 in Oxford. If they survive, they’ll face No. 5 Florida, which would have been the No. 2 seed had it not blown an 18-point lead against Kentucky. Then would come No. 4 Mississippi State, which must win twice this week to have any NCAA hope. Then, in the semis, would surely come the Big Blue. It’s possible Anthony Edwards will turn Bridgestone Arena into his personal playground; it’s more likely he’ll be free to prep for the NBA draft by sundown Thursday.
Big Ten: The conference has 14 members. (So much for truth in labeling.) Ten are projected to make the NCAA tournament. Even Purdue, which is 16-15, is No. 33 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. So now we ask: Is this the greatest conference ever? The answer: probably not. Only two Big Tenners have fewer than 10 losses. Maryland is 24-7 but enters the league tournament having lost three of five. The only potential national champ apt to emerge from this conference is same team that topped the Associated Press preseason poll. Michigan State wobbled all over creation, even falling from the Top 25 in February, but it closed the way Tom Izzo’s teams invariably do. It won its final five games to tie for first in the league standings. It should prevail in Indianapolis.
Big 12: Baylor is still projected as an NCAA No. 1 seed, but the Bears lost three of their final five and needed overtime to shade Texas Tech in Waco. A loss in Kansas City this week could mean a slippage to No. 2 come Sunday night. Kansas has established itself as the overall No. 1, which doesn’t mean that the Jayhawks will win it all. (They’re great at not winning it all.) But they haven’t lost since Jan. 11, and they look to be the nation’s best team by some distance.
Pac-12: Had UCLA beaten USC on Saturday, the Bruins would have tied Oregon at the top of the league. These are the same Bruins who went 7-6 in non-conference play and were 12-11 on Feb. 6. This is the same Pac-12 that managed three NCAA berths, the best of those a No. 9 seed, last year. Now this conference could send seven to the Dance, though UCLA could go either way. The Bruins are 76th in NET, four spots behind Georgia Tech. They need to win the tournament in Las Vegas to be sure. They probably won’t.
Big East: This league is positioned to bank four of the NCAA’s top 16 seeds, with Villanova and Creighton in line for No. 2s. In a season of rampant uncertainty, you could do worse than to toss in Seton Hall and Butler and pick an all-Big East Final Four. (And yes, Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco will return for its 33rd installment, coming to AJC.com Sunday night. Oh, and the Final Four is here, in case you hadn’t heard.)
Sun Belt: Here’s a tournament that absolutely matters. Only the winner gets to dance. Georgia State didn’t help itself by falling to fourth place and having to start with a quarterfinal at home Wednesday. (The two top seeds get byes into the semis.) That said, the Panthers were lucky not to finish fifth — Georgia Southern squandered a four-point lead with 23 seconds left against Arkansas State — which would have meant needing two wins to reach New Orleans. Georgia State remains the Sun Belt’s second-highest ranked team (behind No. 3 seed Texas State) in both NET and KenPom, and this event defies prediction. In the six league tournaments since the Panthers joined, the No. 1 seed lost as often as it won.
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