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CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK WINDS DOWN, SELECTION NEARS
March 14, 2008

SCS.comNext week, everyone around you will be filling out NCAA tournament brackets. Hot shot know-it-alls will say they have the tournament figured out (the guy’s a genius for picking Memphis to win it all, right?), and people will announce their special first-round upset picks (seen on ESPN, of course). Unfortunately, the majority of bracket-goers next week probably don’t know a thing about college basketball. And they probably didn’t watch a single game of basketball this year, and most likely next Thursday will be one of the first hoops games they tune into this season. So this can be a secret of us college basketball fans: this weekend may just be the best weekend of the entire season. Sure, I love March Madness as much as the next guy, but you won’t find any match-ups like these in the NCAA tournament. You won’t find any games as competitive as these, involving two teams that know everything about each other and may be playing for the third time this season. Here’s a look at the conference tournaments to keep an eye on this weekend. If you didn’t notice, there are a whole lot of choices.

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS TO WATCH

Atlantic Coast Conference
Quarterfinals Friday, (ESPN2, all day), Semi-Finals Saturday (12:30, 2:30 ESPN), Championship Sunday (12:00 ESPN)

The third edition of Duke/North Carolina looks likely, especially given how dominant those two teams have been this season in the ACC. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils may find some resistance in the semi-finals, but I would be very surprised to see either team go down before the finals. The most critical game of the tournament is the 4/5 game with Miami and Virginia Tech in today’s quarterfinals. The Hurricanes seem to be in solid position for an NCAA bid, but a loss to the Hokies today could really hurt their chances. Virginia Tech probably won’t get an at-large, but if it can knock off Miami and make the finals (beating North Carolina on the way), it’d be hard to keep the Hokies out of the tournament.

Atlantic Ten Conference
Semi-Finals Friday (5:30, 7:30), Championship Saturday (8:00 ESPN)

St. Joseph’s took care of the easy part by winning its first two games in the Atlantic Ten Conference tournament. Now, the Hawks will play the biggest game of their season today, as they take on Xavier with a chance to not only gain the A-10 automatic bid with another win, but play their way into the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. On March 6th, St. Joseph’s defeated Xavier at home, and in the teams’ first meeting the Hawks lost by just four points. On the other side of the bracket, Temple and Charlotte will face off for a chance in the championship game. Neither team is a legitimate threat for an at-large bid, but both teams had solid finishes in the conference and could give either St. Joe’s or Xavier a tough game on Saturday.

Big East Conference
Semi-Finals Friday (6:00, 8:00 ESPN), Championship Saturday (8:00 ESPN)

Today’s semi-final game between Georgetown and West Virginia wouldn’t have seemed that competitive a few weeks ago, but after beating Connecticut yesterday, the Mountaineers solidified their spot in the NCAA tournament. Joe Alexander is on a complete tear for West Virginia, averaging 29.8 points per game over the last five games. If he can keep it up and the Mountaineers play like they did yesterday, Georgetown may be in trouble. Marquette and Pittsburgh will play for the right to go to the title game, and the last time these two met, it wasn’t pretty. The Golden Eagles destroyed Pitt in Milwaukee, but the Panthers have picked up their play lately. Georgetown may be the front-runner to win it all this weekend, but the Hoyas don’t have that much of an edge over the rest of the field. This tournament is wide open.

Big Ten Conference
Quarterfinals Friday, (ESPN, Big Ten Network, all day), Semi-Finals Saturday (12:30, 2:30 CBS), Championship Sunday (2:00 CBS)

Besides the Ohio State/Michigan State game, none of the Big Ten’s quarterfinal match-ups are very enticing. Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin should roll along to the semi-finals, but the Spartans will have some trouble with the emerging Buckeyes. Two wins against Purdue and Michigan State has Ohio State in the at-large conversation, and a win on Friday may put them in “lock territory.” Once we get past Friday, both Saturday and Sunday should be much more interesting. A likely Purdue/Indiana game would probably be the highlight of the weekend, even though the Hoosiers are stumbling severely. Wisconsin won the Big Ten regular season title and looks poised to win the conference tournament as well. Purdue has not faded but definitely has cooled off after such a fantastic run, and Michigan State has shown signs of extreme streakiness. Indiana has had its problems lately, leaving Wisconsin as the most complete team in the conference.

Big 12 Conference
Quarterfinals Friday, (ESPNU, ESPN Plus all day), Semi-Finals Saturday (1:00, 3:30 ESPN2), Championship Sunday (2:00 ESPN)

Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma should advance to the semis on Saturday, but the game of the day on Friday will be Kansas State vs. Texas A&M. At this point, both teams figure to be seeded in the 7-10 range, but that could change with a trip to the Big XII title game. Texas should be able to get past the Sooners, and I expect Kansas to beat either KSU or A&M. It’s looking like another Texas/Kansas Big 12 Championship game, and that was certainly a treat to watch last March. The Longhorns began the game on fire but the Jayhawks eventually caught up and captured the tournament crown. In the team’s only meeting this year, Texas won in Austin, but the result could be different in Kansas City, where a pro-KU crowd will really help Bill Self’s team.

Conference USA
Semi-Finals Friday (6:00, 8:00 ESPN), Championship Saturday (10:30 AM CBS)

Memphis is going to win this tournament. So don’t even worry about it. The tournament is actually on the Tigers’ home floor. If Memphis loses this weekend, it would probably be the upset of the season. If you’re looking for any hope at all that Memphis will go down, though, UTEP only lost by 6 points at Fed Ex Forum in February. Still, the Tigers probably won’t have much trouble winning on Friday and Saturday.

Mountain West Conference
Semi-Finals Friday (8:00, 10:30 CSTV), Championship Saturday (6:00 PM Versus)

New Mexico ruined its at-large hopes by losing to Utah last night, and UNLV and BYU should meet on Saturday to decide the MWC’s automatic bid. BYU is a lock for the NCAA tournament field, but the Runnin’ Rebels could still use some help. With the way all the bubble teams have played lately, UNLV looks to be in all right shape. Forgetting about the tournament for a moment, a showdown between UNLV and BYU should be very entertaining. The two teams split the season series in an odd way- at UNLV, the Runnin’ Rebels won by 29 points, and at BYU, the Cougars won by 26 points. So what happens when you put them in a neutral floor? Answer: nobody has any idea.

Pac-10 Conference
Semi-Finals Friday (8:00, 10:30 PM FSN), Championship Saturday (5:00 PM CBS)

If you want to know which conference tournament will be the most competitive this weekend, look no further than the Pac-10 conference. Would you expect anything else out of the nation’s best conference? It’s not even close- the semi-finals and finals of this tournament will be unlike any other conference tournament in the nation this weekend. Tonight, USC and UCLA will face off in the 1 vs. 4 game, and Stanford and Washington State will play in the 2 vs. 3 game. There weren’t any upsets in the early rounds, but that’s a great thing in my mind. One of the Bruins’ two Pac-10 losses game at home to USC, who ended “bubble” talks weeks ago and has made a strong run to finish fourth in the conference. When the Cardinal and Cougars tip off, expect an old-fashioned slugfest with a final score in the 50s. And no matter which two teams make it to the title game, Saturday’s showdown should be an instant classic.

Southeastern Conference
Quarterfinals Friday, (Local TV all day), Semi-Finals Saturday (12:00, 2:15 Local TV), Championship Sunday (12:00 CBS)

Kentucky looks to be in great shape for the NCAA tournament, and the Wildcats’ chances just got better with Mississippi’s loss to Georgia last night. That’s a critical loss that probably drops the Rebels out of the field, and Kentucky now gets an easier second-round game. If the Wildcats don’t screw up this opportunity, they will get a shot to play a good but beatable Mississippi State team in the semi-finals. One win should put the Wildcats in the field, and two more wins could gain Kentucky a seed as high as 7 or 8. There are no real “bubble” games in the SEC tournament anymore, so this tourney is all about seeding now. Arkansas and Kentucky may not be “locks” yet, but as I mentioned earlier, the Wildcats are looking good. Arkansas will most likely make the NCAA tournament as well, and a win against Vandy would seal a bid for sure.

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