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Champ Week: Story lines to follow

3/13/2009

How do you separate teams that look so much alike?

That was the rhetorical question a selection committee member posed to me this week. The answer may lie in one of the remaining conference tournaments this week.

The committee may be looking for reasons to vote for or against a team in the coming days, to seed a team high or low or to just dismiss a team altogether.

Here's a look at the upcoming story lines that will have the greatest effect on the committee's decision-making …

ACC

Georgia Dome (Atlanta)

Starts: Thursday

Title game: Sunday (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET)

ACC story lines:

• North Carolina could lose in the quarterfinals and still earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

• Duke's overall body of work could garner the team a No. 2 seed, even though the Blue Devils are seeded third in their own conference tournament.

• Virginia Tech and Miami essentially are playing an elimination game in the first round. The loser can't complain about getting shut out from a bid. The winner has plenty of life and a legit shot to beat North Carolina in the quarterfinals. Miami played with the Tar Heels down to the final possession in Coral Gables, and guard Jack McClinton gave UNC fits. Last week in Blacksburg, the Hokies were within one point of the Heels with five minutes left.

• Georgia Tech is athletic as any team in the league. The Yellow Jackets are playing in their home city, and if you're looking for a 12-5 upset pick, this could be it. Clemson is ripe to be taken out by the hometown squad that has played well of late, beating Miami and losing at Boston College in the final seconds. Don't forget that this team knocked off Wake Forest earlier in the season.

• Boston College has wins at North Carolina and over Duke and Florida State. Losing to Virginia in the first round of the conference tournament wouldn't crush the Eagles, although their NCAA tournament seeding would take a hit. If the Eagles beat Virginia, they shouldn't let a drop of sweat form on their brow.

• Maryland has to beat NC State to have any chance of earning a tourney bid. Taking out Wake Forest in the quarterfinals likely is a prerequisite for consideration as well.

• There's no debate that the two potential semifinals of North Carolina-Florida State and Duke-Wake Forest could rival anything the Big East puts forth. Like a number of Big East teams, all four of those ACC teams could reach the Elite Eight if they play the right matchups.

• The matchup that would be a dream for the ACC is not North Carolina-Duke III. Instead, North Carolina-Wake II should be coveted. The first game was one of the best this season.

• This will be Tyler Hansbrough's last ACC tournament. He will be rightfully praised throughout the week for his storied four-year career in Chapel Hill.

• Miami's McClinton, Florida State's Toney Douglas and Wake Forest's Jeff Teague are all capable of carrying their respective teams further than projected (Miami to the semifinals; Florida State to the finals and Wake to the title).

Atlantic 10

Boardwalk Hall (Atlantic City, N.J.)
Starts: Wednesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET)

Atlantic 10 story lines:

• Xavier is stumbling to the finish line yet is an absolute lock for the NCAA tournament. This tournament is more about how far the Musketeers will slide in seeding.

• Dayton should be in, but a dangerous quarterfinal matchup against Richmond looms for the Flyers, assuming the Spiders beat St. Bonaventure. Richmond ended the regular season by beating Xavier.

• Rhode Island's NCAA tournament hopes may have been dashed on a last-second shot by UMass guard Chris Lowe. The Rams, who earned a first-round bye in the A-10 tournament, can exact revenge in the quarterfinals if the Minutemen get by Duquesne in the first round.

• The Rams can't even be in the conversation for an at-large bid if they don't beat Dayton in the semifinals. Yes, they may have to take out the Flyers twice in just a few weeks. And Dayton has to beat Richmond for the Rams to have a shot. Yet URI can't expect a bid if it reaches the finals by beating Richmond or St. Bonaventure. URI needs a quality win en route to the conference tournament final.

• Is there ever a season when Temple isn't a threat to win the A-10 tournament?

• If this event were in Charlotte, the 49ers might have been favored. The 12-seed knocked off Xavier and Dayton at home this season.

• Saint Joseph's Ahmad Nivins, the A-10 player of the year, URI's Jimmy Baron and UMass' Tony Gaffney are three seniors who have had stellar careers and are all capable of giving the A-10 a memorable send-off with a star performance in the tourney.

Big East

Madison Square Garden (New York)
Starts: Tuesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)

Big East story lines:

• The Big East is the only conference that could produce multiple No. 1 seeds, let alone three.

• Louisville's body of work isn't equal to Pitt's or Connecticut's, so the only certain way for the Cardinals to earn a No. 1 seed is to win the Big East tournament.

• Louisville won the Big East regular-season title but didn't have to play at Pitt, Connecticut or Marquette. It also didn't play any of those teams twice.

• For Pitt or Connecticut to win the tournament, it likely would have to beat the other team, then possibly Louisville. Once again, either of those teams would face a harder road to a championship than the Cardinals.

• Connecticut is the No. 3 seed in the Big East tournament but easily could become a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

• Providence is the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament and enters as the strongest bubble team with a chance to garner an NCAA tournament bid. But the Friars can't just beat Cincinnati or DePaul in the second round and expect a berth. Providence may have to take out top-seeded Louisville in the quarterfinals to reach the NCAA tournament.

• Marquette has lost four straight games since senior point guard Dominic James broke his foot. The Golden Eagles may face Villanova in the quarterfinals in a game that could have a heavy effect on their seeding.

• Longtime rivalries may dominate the bottom of the bracket in the quarterfinals if Syracuse gets to play Connecticut and West Virginia meets up with Pitt.

• The Big East provides more opportunities for quality wins, so it's hard to pronounce Georgetown's and Notre Dame's tourney hopes dead. What if the Hoyas beat Marquette, Villanova and Louisville before losing in the Big East final? Georgetown would then have beaten Connecticut, Memphis, Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville and Villanova (twice). How many bubble teams could have that solid a résumé? What if Notre Dame beats West Virginia, Pitt and Connecticut before losing in the final? What would happen then? If either team does that well this week, it should earn a bid on Sunday.

• A Connecticut-Pitt semifinal, which would be the third game this season between the two teams, would be a grueling game and likely one of the best of the entire postseason, NCAA tournament and NIT included.

• Two of the best senior stars who will bid adieu to the Big East have a chance to carry their teams to a title: Pitt's Sam Young and Louisville's Terrence Williams.

• How many Diet Cokes will some of the staffers need to drink to stay awake through 15 games in five days?

Big Ten

Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Starts: Thursday

Title game: Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET)

Big Ten story lines:

• Michigan State has an outside shot at a No. 1 seed if the Spartans can win the Big Ten tournament and if teams from other conferences knock off projected No. 1 teams.

• Northwestern has a legit shot to earn its first NCAA tournament berth if the Wildcats can knock off Minnesota in the first round and then the Spartans in the quarterfinals.

• Penn State can't lose to Indiana in the first round. If the Nittany Lions do that, they will give the selection committee a reason not to place them in the tournament.

• Wisconsin and Ohio State will play each other in the 4-5 quarterfinal game. The loser of this game will be the only Big Ten bubble team that shouldn't sweat Selection Sunday. If any other Big Ten bubble team (Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State or Michigan) loses its first-round game, it will have reason for angst.

• The Big Ten's late Sunday title game tip-off time (3:30 p.m.) could cause problems for seeding. If Michigan State is in play for a No. 1 seed or if a flier is in the game, the selection committee will need to keep a slot open in the final minutes before the bracket is due to CBS by 6 p.m.

Big 12

Ford Center (Oklahoma City, Okla.)
Starts: Wednesday

Title Game: Saturday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET)

Big 12 story lines:

• Oklahoma probably needs to win the Big 12 tournament to ensure a No. 1 seed.

• Barring a bizarre occurrence, this should be the Big 12's last look at OU sophomore and likely national player of the year Blake Griffin. He continues a line of epic individual seasons of late in this league, preceded by Texas' Kevin Durant and Kansas State's Michael Beasley.

• If top-seeded Kansas wins the conference tournament, it can lock up a No. 2 seed and a date at home in Kansas City in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.

• Kansas State is the No. 4 seed but has the most work to do of any bubble team. Its pre-January body of work doesn't stand out. The Wildcats probably have to beat Texas, assuming the Longhorns beat Colorado, then Kansas in the semifinals, provided the Jayhawks get by either Baylor or Nebraska.

• Oklahoma State can't lose to Iowa State in the first round and expect a bid. But beating Oklahoma isn't a must.

• Texas A&M is the only bubble team that can survive a first-round loss and reach the NCAA tournament, even if it loses to Texas Tech. The Aggies have the body of work down with wins over LSU, Arizona, Texas and Missouri.

• Missouri would love to take on the Aggies again after getting beat down to end the regular season. The Tigers might have their shot in the quarterfinals. Oklahoma might play Mizzou next. The Sooners would love to put an L on the Tigers after they handed the Sooners their only Big 12 loss with Griffin on the floor for both halves.

• It's still hard to believe that Texas, a team that started the year as a potential Final Four team, didn't earn a bye into the quarterfinals.

• This is the first season the Big 12 will end its tournament on Saturday. The selection committee has no say on this, but you can be assured it's rejoicing that it won't have to wait for a Big 12 final before finalizing the bracket. The committee won't have to add a few scenarios for possible 1- or 2-seeds, which it had to do the past few years.

C-USA

FedExForum (Memphis, Tenn.)
Starts: Wednesday
Title game: Saturday (11:30 a.m. ET)

Conference USA story lines:

• Memphis is playing for a No. 1 seed on its home court. The Tigers could earn a 1-seed if they win the tournament, but they would need a few other teams to lose before the final in their conference tournaments.

• Of all the other Conference USA teams, Tulsa has the best case for an at-large berth. But the Golden Hurricane would have to play and beat UAB in the semifinal and then not get embarrassed against Memphis in the final.

• Central Florida's Jermaine Taylor is one of the most prolific scorers in the country and a likely NBA first-round draft pick. The Knights play Southern Miss in a first-round game, then UAB in the quarterfinals if they advance. Taylor is the type of player who could carry a team for a game or two in a tournament.

• The 11:30 a.m. start time for Saturday's final is great news for the selection committee. This traditionally has been one of the early conference final starting times and gives the committee ample time to find a home for the winner and a possible at-large candidate.

Mountain West

Thomas & Mack Center (Las Vegas)
Starts: Wednesday

Title game: Saturday (7 p.m. ET)

Mountain West story lines:

• The Mountain West has become the most polarizing conference in the country. Talk to a bubble head coach from a "big six" conference, and he'll tell you how miffed he is that the MWC could put nearly half its teams in the NCAA tournament.

• Utah is a safe lock. BYU should be, too.

• New Mexico has to beat Wyoming for the second time in a week to start feeling a little less nervous about earning a bid even though it shares the conference title with Utah and BYU.

• The Lobos then likely would get another shot at Utah in the semifinals. If the Lobos play well against the league's highest-rated team, they would have a decent shot at a bid.

• UNLV is the hardest team to figure in this event. The Runnin' Rebels are hanging on to that road win at Louisville without top player Wink Adams, yet are the fifth seed in the MWC. UNLV has to beat San Diego State in the quarterfinals and probably needs to beat BYU in the semifinals. The tournament is on its home court, after all.

• San Diego State has nothing on its nonconference résumé to earn a body-of-work bid. That's why even a finals appearance would draw groans from fellow bubble teams.

• Watch Utah's Luke Nevill and New Mexico's Tony Danridge, two of the least appreciated studs in college basketball this season.

Pac-10

Staples Center (Los Angeles)
Starts: Wednesday

Title game: Saturday (6 p.m. ET)

Pac-10 story lines:

• Washington is the story of the league after winning the conference. But the Huskies aren't done. A mediocre nonconference performance has hurt their chances of getting a high seed, but winning the conference tournament could push the Huskies into 3-seed range in the NCAA tournament. Washington likely will play in Portland in the first and second round.

• UCLA is the No. 2 seed, has the league's best late-game player in potential Bob Cousy Award winner Darren Collison and would love nothing more than to get another crack at Washington -- this time in L.A. -- with a title on the line.

• If Washington State gets by Oregon, though, the Cougars could pose a problem for UCLA. Wazzu was one possession shy of sweeping the Bruins, losing in Pullman and scoring 82 points in a shocking win at Pauley Pavilion.

• Arizona may not need to beat Arizona State in the quarterfinals to earn an at-large bid. Zona's body of work -- wins over Kansas, Gonzaga, UCLA and Washington -- should be better than the résumé of any other middling major.

• This likely will be Pac-10 player of the year James Harden's last conference tournament. But the Arizona State sophomore has to play well for the Sun Devils to advance and improve on a sliding seed.

• This league has quite a collection of lead guards in Cal's Jerome Randle, Washington's Isaiah Thomas, UCLA's Collison, Washington State's Taylor Rochestie, Oregon's Tajuan Porter and Arizona's Nic Wise.

• The hardest game to call may be the 3-6 matchup of Cal-USC. The Trojans started to wake up this past weekend with a home sweep of the Oregon schools. The talent is in place for USC to win the Pac-10 tournament. If only it had played up to its potential during the regular season. Defending hasn't been the issue, but USC has had trouble scoring at times.

SEC

St. Pete Times Forum (Tampa, Fla.)
Starts: Thursday

Title game: Sunday (1 p.m. ET)

SEC story lines:

• This clearly is the most wide-open conference tournament.

• The only certainties to earn NCAA tournament bids are SEC East top seed Tennessee and SEC West top seed LSU.

• Kentucky has the talent to win the SEC tournament with two of the league's best players, Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. If the Wildcats can find their rhythm again, the path is paved with teams they can handle. Ole Miss beat Kentucky during the regular season, so the Wildcats have plenty of reason to return the favor in the tournament's first round. They'd then face LSU, which needed a last-possession 3-pointer to beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena. If Kentucky beats LSU, facing whichever team emerges among South Carolina-Mississippi State-Georgia wouldn't be daunting. The other side of the tournament is led by Tennessee, a team UK swept rather easily. It all sounds doable if Kentucky plays up to its potential.

• Auburn is one of the hottest teams in the country after winning eight of nine games. But the Tigers must win one, maybe two, games to get a sniff from the committee. That would mean knocking out Florida or Arkansas in the quarterfinals, then possibly Tennessee in the semifinals.

• LSU's seeding will depend on how it fares in the conference tournament. If the Tigers win, they should be treated well. If they lose early, a big six co-champion could end up with a middling seed.

• Florida probably needs to win at least two games in the SEC tournament to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season after winning the national title in back-to-back years.

• Alabama is a legit sleeper after winning at Tennessee. Interim coach Philip Pearson has done a tremendous job of keeping the Tide competitive. If the Tide get past Vanderbilt, they would play the Vols for the second time in a week.

• This year's Georgia -- a surprise team that shockingly wins the SEC tournament -- could end up being Vanderbilt. The Commodores, who drew the SEC East No. 5 seed, play Alabama in the first round, then would face Tennessee in the second round. Vandy has won three straight games, including a 13-point win over South and a victory at LSU. Australian big man A.J. Ogilvy is scoring of late and had a 33-point outing in the win over LSU. The Dores could be dangerous.


So those were the conference tournaments that will be generating the most discussion in the selection committee room. But let's not forget the other six league tourneys that begin this week. Those players will be competing just as hard and the fight for an automatic bid will be just as dramatic …

Big West

Anaheim Convention Center (Anaheim, Calif.)

Starts: Wednesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPN2, 11:59 p.m.)

The Big West story lines:

• Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State received double-byes to the semifinals.

• Since finding a new home after being sacked at Minnesota, Long Beach State's Dan Monson is trying to take the 49ers to the NCAA tournament in just his second season at the school.

• Northridge enters the tournament after losing at Pacific, which tied with Long Beach State but received the No. 3 seed. Pacific and the 49ers will likely meet in the semis.

• If Fullerton can advance, look out for former Washington State player Josh Akognon, who averages 23.5 points a game for the Titans.

• Like the WAC, the Big West used to be one of the conferences of record on the West Coast. Now the Big West has to hope it doesn't land a 16-seed, which is a distinct possibility.

MAC

Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland)

Starts: Tuesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPN2, 8 p.m.)

MAC story lines:

• Talk about inbalance: Five of the six teams in the MAC East are 10-6 or better, while not a single team in the West has a winning record in league play (or overall). That's why you have the strange sight of 7-9 Ball State having a 2-seed.

• Bowling Green's Louis Orr was named MAC coach of the year. His coaching ability was never in question when he was at Seton Hall or Siena.

• Buffalo slid to the No. 3 seed, but the Bulls have played at a high level at times this season. Just ask UConn.

• While the West is clearly weak, Ball State's co-division title shouldn't be completely ignored. Remember, it was a just two seasons ago that this program was in turmoil with allegations flying back and forth between the school and former coach Ronnie Thompson. Former Lehigh coach Billy Taylor has brought stability.

• Never dismiss Miami of Ohio in this event -- never. The RedHawks are the No. 4 seed and could be a very dangerous out for Bowling Green in the semifinals.

• Once again the MAC is a one-bid league. The league continues to think of ways to rid itself of this label, but there is only one way -- have a team win big in the nonconference and enter the league tournament with a gaudy record and then have that team get beat in the final.

MEAC

Lawrence Joel Coliseum (Winston-Salem, N.C.)

Starts: Tuesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPNU, 7 p.m.)

MEAC story lines:

• Morgan State is the top seed and the best team in the field, too.

• The Bears won at Maryland on Jan. 7. They also won at Big East DePaul on Dec. 10. The Bears' challenging schedule also included games against Utah, Green Bay, Ole Miss, Saint Mary's and Washington, which should bode well for a 15-seed instead of a 16, assuming Morgan State can win the event.

• Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman is trying to complete a remarkable turnaround in his career, coming back from a eight-year ban for a major NCAA violation at Cal (it was an eight-year show cause penalty that lasted 10 years before someone hired him). If the Bears make the NCAA tournament, Bozeman should be looked at as a legitimate candidate to move if the right opportunity is available.

• Coppin State looms as a dangerous threat as the No. 5 seed. Fang Mitchell always has the Eagles ready for this event. Coppin could play Morgan in the semifinals.

• Moving this tournament to the Joel might be a good move. It'll be interesting to see what it does to attendance numbers.

Southland

Merrell Center (Katy, Texas)

Starts: Thursday

Title game: Sunday (ESPN2, 1 p.m.)

Southland story lines:

• Stephen F. Austin is on a roll. The Lumberjacks have won seven of eight games and go into the tournament as the top seed. Only eight of the 12 teams made the tournament this season.

• If you recall, SFA did outscore North Dakota State 112-111 in a multiple overtime game earlier this season.

• The championship game isn't until 1 p.m. on Sunday. That almost guarantees the Southland will get pigeon-holed into a poor seed. They weren't going to get anything better than a 15 anyway, but playing the title game so late usually means being slotted into one of the final holes in the bracket.

SWAC

Fair Park Arena (Birmingham, Ala.)

Starts: Wednesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPNU, 9 p.m.)

SWAC story lines:

• Top-seed Alabama State has the best name in college basketball with center Chief Kickingstallionsims on its roster. The Stetson transfer is averaging 9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.

• Alabama State went a respectable 8-8 on the road this season.

• The SWAC wasn't able to land a big-time nonconference win and that doesn't bode well for the SWAC avoiding the opening round game in Dayton. As it stands right now, the likely opponent will be surprise SoCon champ Chattanooga.

WAC

Lawlor Events Center (Reno, Nev.)

Starts: Tuesday

Title game: Saturday (ESPN2, 10 p.m.)

WAC storylines:

• Utah State enters the event as the top seed, but it's hard to make the Aggies the favorite. Host Nevada beat Utah State at home and is the No. 2 seed.

• USU's last three big road games were all losses: Boise State, Saint Mary's in a BracketBuster game and Nevada.

• Utah State is 27-4 and could conceivably be 29-5 by losing in the final -- and yet, it still might not get a bid. As harsh as that sounds, the Aggies' best win is a two-point victory over Utah at home. The "best" loss is a five-point defeat to BYU in Salt Lake City.

• Playing No. 4 seed Boise State in the semifinals would be a dangerous game for the Aggies.

• Nevada has one of the nation's best kept-secrets in freshman Luke Babbitt. Nevada shouldn't have a major issue getting to the final with San Jose State and then either Idaho or Louisiana Tech in its path.

• Over the past two seasons, the WAC has taken a back seat to its former sibling, the Mountain West. The best-case scenario for the conference is a Nevada-Utah State final and for the selection committee to look kindly on the Aggies if they lose. That way the WAC can get multiple bids.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.