Championship Week – in essence, a fortnight – is now reduced to an actual seven-day period, one of the best of the sports year.
Plenty of American sports fans regard the first weekend of the NCAA tournament as the high point on the sports calendar in this country, and there’s a strong argument to make for that claim. (There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to a fan’s personal preference, of course.) Yet, the week leading up to Selection Sunday more precisely embodies “the thrill of the chase,” when teams and their emotions are gripped by the question, “Will we get in?”
This is just one person’s opinion, but the Thursday and Friday of Championship Week are just as stimulating, electrifying and mesmerizing as the round of 64 in the Big Dance. All those first-round and quarterfinal-round conference tournament games create a glut of action with maximum bubble stakes and an even greater density of March-like moments, all packed into a short span of time. More will be written about television coverage of Championship Week in the Bloguin Viewer’s Guide.
Television is one thing, though. For now, let’s focus on the composition of the Championship Week brackets in the power-conference tournaments. The matchups in these events can be (and often are) lotteries in which some teams get big breaks and others receive nasty doses of misfortune. The following is an examination of various conference tournament brackets:
10 – BIG EAST TOURNAMENT: TOP HALF OF THE BRACKET
This is, of course, the first year of the new and downsized Big East. Gone is the five-day tournament with a 16-versus-9 game on a Tuesday afternoon. Gone are Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame, making Madison Square Garden a much less electric place. In past years, a quarterfinal between fourth and fifth seeds would have almost always been a matchup of two NCAA-bound teams.
This year, the matchup between fifth-seeded St. John’s and fourth-seeded Providence is a play-out game. For those not familiar with bubble terminology, a play-out game is one in which the loser is almost certainly out of the field of 68. (A play-in game is one in which the winner is almost certainly in the field.) Neither St. John’s nor Providence owns enough heft on the nitty-gritty sheet to punch a ticket with a win. That’s the bad news to emerge from the announcement of the Big East brackets.
The good news for SJU and Providence? The winner gets top seed (and regular season champion) Villanova in the semifinals. This brings up a very important part of Championship Week for bubble teams, especially those on the bad side of the bubble: It’s not bad news if you draw an elite team in the quarters or semis of your league tournament. No, it’s actually great news.
Yes, St. John’s or Providence probably won’t defeat Villanova, but that’s a different kind of conversation. Both the Johnnies and the Friars need a high-value win to put on the resume, vaulting them past other competitors in a crowded bubble field. This will be a reference point in the other “bracket bits” you’ll read about. If the SJU-Providence winner takes down Villanova, it will very likely be in the field. The odds of winning? Not great. The odds of making the field with a win? Great. Bubble teams want that kind of opportunity.
The rest of these bracket facts will be able to be discussed in a similar manner, but with much less detail. The Big East’s top half offers two examples of how a conference tournament bracket puts teams in positions of mere survival (the SJU-Providence quarterfinal) or opportunity (a semifinal for the SJU-Providence winner against Villanova).
9 – BIG EAST TOURNAMENT: BOTTOM HALF OF THE BRACKET
In the bottom half of the Big East bracket, Georgetown faces a situation similar to what the St. John’s-Providence winner would face against Villanova. The Hoyas would play Creighton in the quarterfinals. GU would be an underdog in that game, but if the boys from Washington, D.C., can win that game, they’d very likely be in, given Creighton’s value on a resume.
There’s one twist involved in Georgetown’s situation, however, one that’s not in evidence for St. John’s or Providence. The Hoyas are the seventh seed in a 10-team Big East field. This puts them into a 7-10 first-round game against DePaul, a horrible opponent. Bubble teams dread this kind of game. Playing a bad team negatively affects the RPI number. There’s no value in winning; there’s only value in avoiding a resume- and season-killing loss. The fact that Georgetown must play DePaul is a stroke of bad luck in a conference tournament bracket. This makes it more important, not less, for GU to beat Creighton in the quarters, should it skate past DePaul.
8 – BIG 12 TOURNAMENT: WEST VIRGINIA GETS A MIXED SCENARIO
Many bracketologists think West Virginia is done as an at-large candidate, and that’s a reasonable position. Yet, the Mountaineers just beat Kansas and have more high-quality wins than a lot of other bubble teams. Their problem is that they simply haven’t won enough games against the top 100 (5-12 record) to provide a complete resume. Let’s call West Virginia a “fringe bubble team,” one that most likely needs to win its conference tournament but might be able to enter the discussion if it makes its conference tournament final.
Is the Big 12 bracket favorable to West Virginia or not? The verdict is mixed.
On one hand, West Virginia got a bracket with which it might be able to win the tournament and get an automatic bid. For one thing, WVU avoided the 7-10 first-round game referred to above in the Big East. The Mountaineers only have to play three games, not four, to win the tournament. Coach Bob Huggins’s team also gets Texas in the quarters and Oklahoma or Baylor (let’s discount TCU here) in the semis. Baylor is an inconsistent team, but one that has a history of getting hot in March. Baylor could very possibly knock off Oklahoma in the quarters, giving WVU a 6-versus-7 semifinal and a ticket to the final. Moreover, with Kansas big man Joel Embiid in evident physical distress, the Jayhawks might not make the final, and if they do, West Virginia can shoot them down, much as they did this past Saturday. That’s the good news: WVU could get the autobid with this bracket.
The bad news is this: Because Kansas is on the other side of the bracket, West Virginia has a smaller chance of facing KU in this tournament. Accordingly, WVU has a smaller chance of getting the kind of win that could produce an at-large bid with its truckload of losses.
Remember: At-large teams necessarily aren’t autobid holders, which in turn means that they do wind up losing a game in their conference tournaments. Can West Virginia lose the Big 12 final and still make the field? It’s not very likely to begin with, but with this bracket, WVU can’t beat Kansas before the Big 12 final. Accordingly, WVU is pretty much in a position where it has to get the autobid.
7 – PAC-12 TOURNAMENT: UTAH’S PATH
Utah is, like West Virginia, a team that probably needs to get an autobid to make the field. That said – as an instructive point of comparison and contrast – Utah got the kind of bracket that would enhance its at-large candidacy if it can make the final. Utah gets the top seed (and elite team) in its conference, Arizona, in a possible quarterfinal. The Utes, should they avoid a loss to Washington, would get a chance to improve their profile by leaps and bounds against a team that will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Again, this is what “bad side of the bubble” teams want.
6 – PAC-12 TOURNAMENT: THE PATHS FOR CAL, COLORADO, ARIZONA STATE, AND STANFORD
California and Arizona State received good breaks in the Pac-12 bracket, while bubble-hugging Colorado and Stanford (albeit on the good side of the bubble at this point) did not.
Cal and Arizona State avoided an RPI-hurting first-round game against the worst teams in the league. They received byes into the quarterfinals, so they don’t have to worry about last-place USC or 11th-place Washington State.
Colorado and Stanford have to play those RPI-negative games instead. If either CU or Stanford loses that first-round game, there could be a long wait ahead on Selection Sunday (March 16), though again, both the Buffaloes and Cardinal are probably going to make the field.
Back to Cal and Arizona State. The Bears and Sun Devils will likely play quarterfinals (Colorado will probably be Cal’s opponent, and Stanford will probably be Arizona State’s foe) that, if won, should definitely put them into the field. If Cal or ASU lose, they might face a little too much drama for their liking on March 16.
Here’s an obvious but necessary caveat to mention: Let’s say Washington State upsets Stanford in the first round. Arizona State would then face that much more pressure to beat the Cougars. An ASU loss to Wazzu could really complicate the Sun Devils’ Selection Sunday gathering in front of a television. (Everything that’s just been said about ASU would apply to Cal if USC upsets Colorado in the 5-12 game.)
5 – ACC TOURNAMENT: THE SYRACUSE-DUKE SEMIFINAL
The way the seeds aligned in the ACC, Syracuse and Duke found themselves on the same side of the bracket in a potential 2-3 semifinal, while Virginia and North Carolina moved to the other half of the bracket in the 1-4 semifinal. With Virginia losing to Maryland in the regular season finale, Syracuse and Duke – also teams that lost this past week – gained ground in the race for a very important prize: no, not a top seed, but the right to stay in the East as the 2 seed. This is especially valuable for Syracuse, which would love to play the regionals (should it get there) at Madison Square Garden. Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Villanova will also be in the hunt for the 2 in the East, but Syracuse and Duke are very much part of that mix, as is Virginia. The winner of the ACC Tournament is probably the odds-on favorite to stay in the East, either as the 1 or the 2. Staying in the East is what matters; the 1 or 2 seeding is of secondary importance.
In order to underscore the extent to which conference tournament brackets matter, had Syracuse or Duke faced North Carolina in the semis, neither the Orange nor the Blue Devils would have derived as much value from a conquest of the Tar Heels. Facing each other in the semis gives Syracuse and Duke a chance to gain a lot of leverage in the race for an East Region location. If Villanova (the leader in the race for the East’s No. 1 seed) and Wisconsin (a team that’s close to the 1 line) falter, it seems almost certain that the winner of a Syracuse-Duke ACC semifinal will stay in the East. That would make the Orange-Blue Devil rubber match (the third meeting between the teams this season) an even bigger event this upcoming Saturday.
4 – ACC TOURNAMENT: PITTSBURGH AND FLORIDA STATE
The bad news for bubble-hugging Pittsburgh: It must play a game against the winner of a 12-versus-13 opening-round game. The good news: Should it win that contest, Pittsburgh would play North Carolina in the quarterfinals. A win there would probably own enough heft to push the Panthers into the field.
As for Florida State, the Seminoles are in a West Virginia- or Utah-like position. They probably have to win the whole tournament, but they must make the final to have any remote hint of an at-large chance. In terms of being able to make an at-large case, Florida State will get Virginia in the quarters if it moves past the preliminary round of the tournament. It would then play North Carolina (most likely) in the semis. On balance, this is a bad draw for the Seminoles, who could have gained more on their resume if they had been the 7 seed, putting them in the half of the bracket with Syracuse and Duke.
3 – SEC TOURNAMENT: TOP HALF OF THE BRACKET
The 2014 SEC Tournament looks and feels like an event in which all hell will break loose. Whether you agree with that claim or not, the top half of the bracket is strikingly similar to the top half of last year’s SEC Tournament bracket.
In 2013, Tennessee was the 5 seed and Alabama was the 4. The two teams played a play-out quarterfinal, with the winner advancing to face top-seeded Florida in the semis. Alabama knocked out Tennessee on Friday in the quarters, but then fell short on Saturday against Florida, missing the field. This year’s tournament is little different.
Tennessee is the 4 seed and not the 5, but it is still headed for what looks like a play-out quarterfinal on Friday in Atlanta. Arkansas is the 5, and a date with the Vols should eliminate a team from the bubble. Had Arkansas become the 6 seed and drawn third-seeded Georgia, the Hogs would have had to win that game and then beat second-seeded Kentucky to nail down their case. Playing Tennessee does feel like a play-out game more than a play-in, but Arkansas can at least improve its situation relative to a bubble competitor in its own conference. If the seed list released on Selection Sunday has Arkansas at 48 (the lowest 12 seed among the pool of at-large teams) and Tennessee is in the NIT, it could become the case that Arkansas-Tennessee will be a play-in and play-out “combo special.”
Debate about the extent of the importance of Arkansas-Tennessee (assuming Arkansas gets past its first game, of course) will continue. What’s not debatable is that if the Arkansas-Tennessee winner then beats Florida in a likely semifinal, that team (Hogs or Vols) will be in the field.
2 – BIG TEN TOURNAMENT: MINNESOTA AND NEBRASKA
Seventh-seeded Minnesota, by having to play Penn State again in the opening round, faces a game that won’t improve its resume, only one that can kill it. The Golden Gophers can’t lose that game. They could then punch their ticket versus second-seeded Wisconsin in a possible quarterfinal.
As for Nebraska, the Huskers should be in the field of 68 after their win over Wisconsin, but they received an extra boost by getting the fourth and final first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. They avoid an RPI-hurting game against Purdue – solely for that reason, their NCAA hopes have improved beyond the extent to which the Wisconsin win (in itself) helps them. Some might say that Nebraska hasn’t yet punched its ticket. Well, beat Ohio State in the 4-5 quarterfinal, and there will be zero doubt left. (Psst: Nebraska's in.)
1 – THE BIG PICTURE: SATURDAY BRACKETS VERSUS SUNDAY BRACKETS
One of the big issues (and problems) with the larger bracketing and seeding process for the NCAA tournament the past several years has been the level of significance given (or rather, not given) to the results of the three big conference tournaments that play their championship games on Selection Sunday. There’s ample evidence to indicate that the selection committee just doesn’t value the Sunday results, and that it finalizes its brackets late Saturday night or early Sunday morning.
Last year fit into this pattern. Duke and Miami – but especially the Hurricanes – seemed to have resumes which pointed to a No. 1 seed, but Gonzaga got the 1 in the West. Miami played in the ACC Tournament championship game on Sunday afternoon against North Carolina, beating the Tar Heels and capturing the regular season-tournament “double” in terms of ACC supremacy. Duke didn’t win conference titles, but its non-conference profile was strong… stronger than Gonzaga’s. Yet, the committee ignored Miami’s achievements and put the Hurricanes as a 2 seed, shipping them to Austin, Tex., for an opening-round pod. Sunday conference tournament results were discounted… or at least, the claim possessed quite a bit of validity.
Let’s see if any results from Sunday (some commentators think Saturday results are also downplayed, but that’s less certain) are discounted on March 16.