Conference Tournament Preview: Big 12, SEC, PAC-12
Sports . Editorial Content . 5 Minutes . Ben Goren
It seems like forever since we’ve had a good basketball tournament, doesn’t it? Those early-season tournaments in tropical destinations like the Bahamas and Maui feel like they were way more than five months ago. But we’ve made it through the ups and downs of non-conference play and the grind of the regular season. Our reward? March is here, and there’s nothing better. Let’s get into the postseason swing with a breakdown of three conference tournaments you can't miss.
How we got here:
The Big 12 is supposed to be predictable, at least at the top. Kansas wins the regular season title. That’s just how it goes. Other things are allowed to happen only after that’s established.
Except for this year. For the first time in fifteen years, it’s utter chaos in the Big 12!
The Jayhawks lost several key pieces from last year’s Final Four squad, and for seemingly the first time in modern history, they simply could not find the necessary replacements. Instead, upstarts Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the Big 12 regular season title. The Red Raiders replaced the likes of Keenan Evans, Niem Stevenson, and Zhaire Smith by adding a grad transfer in Matt Mooney and turning Jarrett Culver into one of the best players in the country. The Wildcats are a deep, experienced and nasty defensive team that dictates tempo and forces turnovers.
All that means that, even without the conference’s usual top dog (and by the way, Bill Self’s squad is still ranked 17th), the Big 12 is scary.
Big 12 tournament bracket:
TCU has work to do. The Horned Frogs currently sit firmly on the bubble. A loss to Oklahoma State on Wednesday and its season is over. A win and, well, its season may still be over, but the selection committee would have a tough time not including TCU in the field of 68. Oklahoma shouldn’t need a win to get into the tourney, but Christian James and company would be wise to handle business against West Virginia, leaving little doubt in the minds of the selection committee.
It’s truly a coin flip for who’s most likely to take the championship home. Texas Tech is probably the best team, but having to go through KU in the semifinals is no joke. Kansas, meanwhile, needs to take care of Texas, who beat the Jayhawks by 10 in Austin, just to make that semifinal game. The two best offenses in the conference, Baylor and Iowa State, will play for the right to meet Kansas State in the other half of the bracket. It will be a dogfight from tip to horn in Kansas City.
How we got here:
Similar to the Big 12, the SEC is supposed to be one alpha dog (Kentucky) and everyone else. Year after year, John Calipari’s Wildcats dictate terms to the other 13 conference teams.
This year…not so much. Do you see a theme developing here?
Kentucky is still really really good, and if not for a fluke 19-point loss on the road in Knoxville on March 2, the Wildcats would be a logical choice as SEC tournament champions and potential national champions. They may still be the pick, likely as a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. As always, Kentucky has a raft of talented freshmen and just enough experience in the way of Reid Travis to smooth out the rough edges.
Rick Barnes' Tennessee squad poses an equal threat to earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, and it’s not hard to see why. Wooden Award contender Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield combine for the best one-two punch outside of Duke's young guns. Tennessee fills it up, gets to the line, shares the ball, and protects the rim on defense.
And yet, it’s LSU who claimed the regular season title. Whether it’s good luck or mental toughness, the Tigers won a mind-boggling five overtime games in SEC play. Having Tremont Waters run point guard has a way of getting you out of jams. They’ll need him to up his game, as personnel and coaching questions encircle the team ahead of the postseason.
SEC tournament bracket:
Alabama needs to win. It’s that simple. Avery Johnson’s bunch has done good work to get themselves out from under early-season losses to Northeastern and Georgia State, but a loss to Ole Miss in the SEC tourney first round, especially after losing their final three games of the regular season, might be one strike too many for the Crimson Tide to make the NCAA Tournament.
The team outside of those with double byes who could cause problems? It’s got to be the Auburn Tigers. They’re peaking at the right time, having won three straight, including a big win over Tennessee in the regular season finale. Chuma Okeke, Anfernee McLemore, and Malik Dunbar combine to fill passing lanes and swat shots better than any team in the nation. Tack on perimeter scoring from Jared Harper and Bryce Brown and you have a lean, mean, upset-ready machine.
How we got here:
After beginning the season with three teams in the Top 25, the conference of champions has had, to this point, a season to forget. The PAC-12 was dealt a tough hand this year: Steve Alford left UCLA, Cuonzo Martin departed Cal, Oregon’s hyped big-man Bol Bol got hurt, USC’s Kevin Porter was suspended for roughly a quarter of the season, Arizona State went through a head-scratching December, and Arizona went through a tumultuous offseason, with head coach Sean Miller's future now seemingly up in the air.
Washington has separated itself from the bunch, thanks to Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, and a mean defense, while Arizona State is a worthy challenger, thanks to super freshman and all-name team member, Luguentz Dort.
PAC-12 tournament bracket:
Only one team, Washington, is safely in the NCAA Tournament field. A wide-open league means there’s an opportunity for another PAC-12 team to play its way in. If Arizona State drops its first round matchup to either Stanford or UCLA, it might well see itself slip off the bubble. The Bruins may not have had the season they envisioned, but Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands are still awfully talented sophomores who can catch fire and sink good teams. Stanford has some players of its own, like KZ Okpala, a three-point marksman with a stretchy 6'9" frame.
Oregon was supposed to have Bol Bol, expected to be the best player in the conference. It’s taken time for the Ducks to adjust to their new reality, but beating Arizona State, Arizona, Washington State, and Washington has to give them some confidence heading into the postseason. If it isn’t the Huskies who emerge with the conference tournament trophy, it may well be the 6th seeded Ducks who smash and grab an NCAA Tournament bid.