College Basketball: Which Teams Have the Most at Stake in Conference Tournaments?
The conference tournaments mean many different things to many different teams: a final audition for a 1 or 2 seed, a chance to win away from the friendly confines of campus, or a last chance to keep a bubble from getting burst.
While many of the prominent teams in this week's tournaments will simply be jockeying for seeding position, there's much more on the line for several of the entrants in the biggest tournaments being played this week. Who are the teams with the most to gain or lose over the final five days before Selection Sunday?
Michigan (Big Ten)
Michigan's got one of the most perplexing tournament profiles of any of this year's bubble teams. The Wolverines have beaten Maryland, Purdue, and Texas, all ranked 24th or better in RPI. But there isn't another top-100 win to be found on Michigan's resume. Meanwhile, nine of their 11 losses are against teams inside the top 35 of RPI. So Michigan's resume is free of any bad blemishes, but it's also shockingly lacking in depth.
Michigan's fate could completely flip in two games. If they lose their opener to Northwestern, it's going to be really hard to see a path for them into the NCAA Tournament with just three top-100 wins. But a win in the second round over top-seeded Indiana would give Michigan four top-25 victories in a year where most other bubble teams are lucky to have one such win.
North Carolina (ACC)
To repeat the top wins exercise from above, UNC's top three wins are all really good ones: Miami, Maryland, and Duke. To find the fourth best team the Tar Heels have beaten, one would have to travel all the way down to 55 on the RPI list, where Temple resides. Despite the 25-6 record, ACC regular season title, brand name, and Hall of Fame coach, North Carolina does not have the resume of a 1 seed.
But if UNC can make good on their top seed in the ACC Tournament and win the whole thing, they should drastically improve their case. They'll have to win three games against NCAA Tournament-bound teams to do it (if seeds hold, their opponents would be Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Virginia). A regular season and tournament championship coming out of a league as strong as the ACC would likely clinch a spot on the 1 line for Carolina.
Other than their 18-13 record, Florida's resume has quite a bit going for them, especially when compared to this year's soft bubble to end all soft bubbles. The Gators have seven top-100 wins, only one bad loss, and the 15th toughest strength of schedule. But 20 wins would sound much, much better than their current figure. Beating Arkansas in their first game would set up a matchup with top-seeded Texas A&M. If Florida can get past the Aggies to snag win number 20, they'll add a second top-25 win to their resume, which could be enough to push it back toward the right side of the bubble.
Oklahoma (Big 12)
After starting 19-2 and looking like a safe bet for a 1 seed, Oklahoma went just 5-4 down the stretch and now has to play their way above a crowded group vying for the top seed line. Big 12 rival Kansas seems like a lock for the top overall seed, but there's no reason the Big 12, the nation's best conference, can't have two 1 seeds. Despite recency bias suggesting otherwise, Oklahoma still should be ahead of Michigan State, North Carolina, and Xavier for a spot on the 1 line. But they'll likely need to advance to the Big 12 Tournament final if they want to stay there. A tournament championship should all but clinch a 1 seed for the Sooners.
VCU (Atlantic 10)
With only two top-50 wins and five sub-50 losses, one could make the argument that VCU, the A-10 Tournament's 2 seed, is behind conference foes Saint Joseph's and St. Bonaventure on the bubble. Our power rankings, as well as KenPom's, Jeff Sagarin's, and ESPN's all rate VCU as the best team in the conference. Assuming they win their first game against the winner of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, VCU will likely get a chance to match up with St. Bonaventure and either Dayton or Saint Joseph's, in an effort to prove the advanced rankings correct, and play their way into the NCAA Tournament.
Villanova (Big East)
Villanova's another team looking to put the finishing touches on their case for one of the 1 seeds. But unlike the other contenders for the top line, they've got a little extra at stake: home court advantage. The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, an arena where Villanova typically plays four or five games a year, is the site of the East regionals this year. Villanova altered their home schedule to play just three regular season games at Wells Fargo so that they could still be eligible under NCAA rules to play their second weekend games at their home away from campus.
Villanova's resume is strong, with 14 top-50 wins and an RPI ranked third. But the Wildcats are not a lock for a 1 seed. Villanova needs to win the Big East Tournament to help fend off the possibility of getting jumped by Michigan State, North Carolina, or Oklahoma, if any of those teams were to win their conference tournaments. Even getting a 1 seed -- but being behind Virginia or UNC on the S-curve -- could keep Villanova from playing in front of their home fans.
USC (Pac 12)
With 11 top-100 wins and zero sub-100 losses, USC should be safely in the tournament field. But as losers of six of their last eight, no one is going to feel too bullish about their chances to get out of the first round, unless we see something from the Trojans in the Pac 12 Tournament. Of USC's nine wins in the Pac 12, seven of them came at home, so the conference tournament would be a good opportunity for USC to prove they can win away from their home building. Only adding to the stakes is that USC's first-round opponent in Las Vegas is UCLA, the last team the Trojans would want to fall to in the postseason.
Temple (and, really, everyone) (American)
With SMU absent due to ineligibility, the American's tournament is shaping up to be a free-for-all. The top five seeds -- Temple, Houston, Tulsa, Cincinnati, and Connecticut -- are all on the bubble, and it's tough to differentiate between them. It seems reasonable that the American could get, say, three teams into the NCAA Tournament, but good luck guessing which ones they'll be.
The fact that a presumed multi-bid league has no tournament locks this late in the season is astounding and should make for a great tournament because only the auto-bid winner will feel safe on Selection Sunday. Our bracketology has four teams (all from the above list but Houston) in the field, but barely, with Temple being the last to sneak into the field. As the American's top seed, Temple has the easiest path to the semifinal, where they'll face the winner of Cincinnati-Connecticut, a game that could determine either team's NCAA Tournament fate.