Column: Championship Week burning questions
It certainly is true that the men's NCAA Division I hoops tournament represents the greatest postseason event in all of sports. But, while I wholeheartedly agree with the above statement, I love the major conference tournaments just as much as I do the Big Dance. While there's nothing quite better than the opening round (OK, technically the second round as it's known nowadays) of the NCAAs - the combined 32 games on the first Thursday and Friday - both my fondest and earliest college basketball memories stem from the league tourneys, which we simply refer to as Championship Week.
Going into the city with Pops to Madison Square Garden became a favorite annual tradition of my childhood, and one I got to enjoy almost every single year. We would attempt to treat the experience like a business trip - our sole focus was UConn moving on to the next round - but before the first TV timeout it was clear we had once again been drawn in to heavenly features of the Big East tournament: the fans, the majestic PA announcer, the cheerleaders, getting autographs from teams that were playing later, just the overall atmosphere. Heck, even the horn at the Mecca is different from everywhere else!
I quickly fell in love with a few March heroes, guys like West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnoggle and Mike Gansey, Louisville's Terrence Williams, and Georgetown's Jonathan Wallace. And I just as rapidly developed a strong disgust toward Pittsburgh's Julius Page and of course, Eric Devendorf of Syracuse. Witnessing Gerry McNamara singlehandedly upsetting an elite UConn squad in 2006 will live with me forever. I shed more than a few tears, but you better believe they were all dried up by the time Marquette and Georgetown tipped off a half hour later. Dad and I even got to bid our farewell to the old Big East last March, when we enjoyed eventual national champion Louisville putting on a second-half display for the history books in a rout of Syracuse.
But that's enough of my past escapades. Championship Week is upon us already, and that means we have to face some burning questions regarding conference tournaments around the land. As always, enjoy the games and feel free to let the madness of March overwhelm you!
What is the NCAA tournament fate of Pittsburgh should they lose on Thursday?
This first question is one that head coach Jamie Dixon and the Panthers would be best-served to not deal with. How do they manage that? By defeating Wake Forest on Thursday afternoon in the second round of the ACC tournament. Pitt's very lackluster NCAA tournament resume is well-documented by now: They have yet to beat a definite at-large team, and they're 1-6 against the RPI Top-50. As long as the Panthers beat Wake Forest, Pitt will most likely be fine heading into a quarterfinal matchup against UNC. But should they lose to the upstart Demon Deacons, they may be sweating worse on Selection Sunday than Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Along Came Polly."
Does T.J. Warren have enough magic left in him to make a run?
Some of you may not be familiar with T.J. Warren, the recently-named ACC Player of the Year who makes scoring look easier than Kevin Durant does. Warren, who is averaging 24.8 points per game this year at an efficient 53 percent clip, is coming off two 40-point masterpieces against Pittsburgh and Boston College. NC State has hardly been mentioned at all by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, but the Wolfpack could sneak into the Big Dance if they were to reach the ACC Championship. Tall task, sure, but State would be paired up against Syracuse in the quarterfinals, a team who they should've beaten at the Carrier Dome a month ago (Cuse won 56-55). Then it would likely be Warren vs. Jabari Parker in a matchup of two of the three best scorers in the country (Doug McDermott being the other). As long as Warren keeps dropping 40 as effortlessly as Chief Keef drops tracks, don't rule out the Wolfpack.
Can UConn beat Memphis for a third time this season?
For the last month or so, UConn and Memphis clashing a third time in the American tournament this year has been inevitable. Between Cincinnati and Louisville's dominance, SMU's emergence and the fact that the bottom half of the league is putrid, the 4-5 game had unofficially been set for a while. And now it is official: UConn, who couldn't have looked worse in a 33-point loss at UL, gets to try and beat Memphis for a third time Thursday evening at the FedEx Forum. Despite Shabazz Napier winning AAC Player of the Year, the Huskies are not going to carry out the three-peat. The Tigers are coming off two great home wins against UL and SMU, and the rise of freshman center Austin Nichols gives me even greater confidence that Memphis will protect its home floor and finally take out their Achilles' heel, UConn.
Is anyone going to take out Louisville?
I hate when my friends answer a question with a question, but that's exactly what I'm about to pull on you. What's most likely to happen in March: the skyrocketing of Irish Soda Bread sales, patriotic lads with surnames like McCurry getting hammered in the middle of the month, or Louisville playing their best basketball of the year? (Rumor is, this is going to be an SAT question under the new testing format.) While the two former choices are bound to occur, nothing quite signals March like Rick Pitino's boys clicking on all cylinders and gelling right as the postseason comes calling. We already know Montrezl Harrell is a beast, but can someone please give Russ Smith more love for tweaking his game this season? Russdiculous had 13 assists versus UConn and has blossomed into a tremendous facilitator in the post-Peyton Siva era (Cardinals PG Chris Jones is more of a scoring point guard). Plus, no one shines this month brighter than Luke Hancock. Louisville will win the American tournament, and another Final Four appearance is conceivable as well.
Which bubbles will be popped at MSG this week?
The Big East tournament, normally an event jam-packed with ranked teams, has transformed into a bubble exposition. Creighton and Villanova are safely in the field of 68, but Xavier, Providence, St. John's, and possibly even Georgetown are right on the NCAA Tournament fence and control their own destiny going forward. Xavier would be a lock by beating Marquette in the quarterfinal and Creighton in the semis. Georgetown might need to collect wins against DePaul, Creighton and Xavier to get their name called by Greg Gumbel. The best first-round tilt is St. John's and Providence (2:30 p.m. Thursday). St. John's probably needs to win the championship to go to the NCAAs - and the talented Red Storm winning three games in three days is entirely possible - while Providence could all but shore up a bid by beating the "home team" Johnnies. I predict the Big East getting four squads in.
Would a Creighton-Villanova final even be watchable?
Creighton and Nova are above and away the two elites in the Big East, but isn't it crazy that the tournament's 1-seed would be the heavy underdog if they met up in the finals? Nova, 28-3 on the campaign and regular season champs, has lost by a combined 49 points to Doug McDermott and Co. in two meetings this season. The first game, a 96-68 Creighton stampede, involved the Blue Jays hitting 21 3s at the Wells Fargo Center, many of which were by McDermott and "center" Ethan Wragge from outside the NBA 3-point line. You think that duo is salivating over the idea of facing Nova's perimeter defense in another NBA arena, this time at Madison Square Garden, with a Big East title on the line? You best believe it.
Does Nebraska need to win a game to assure themselves of a ticket to the NCAAs?
CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm currently lists Nebraska as a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament. Lunardi has the Cornhuskers at 11. So what would go down if Nebraska, who earned a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament, fell to Ohio State on Friday afternoon? God (or do we call him Aaron Craft now?) might even be puzzled if that scenario befell. Looking at Nebraska's resume, they have 3 awful losses to Penn State, Purdue, and UAB - they're also 4-10 away from home and their best out-of-conference victory is against Georgia. Then again, Big Red has a trio of RPI Top-25 wins: versus Wisconsin, Ohio State and at Michigan State. As odd as it sounds, Nebraska should probably root for Ohio State to beat Purdue on Thursday in the first round. Why? Because a loss to OSU is acceptable in the eyes of the NCAA tournament committee. A fourth sub-100 loss (which would be the case if Purdue conceivably beat Nebraska Friday) would be impossible to overlook.
Will the real Michigan State please stand up?
Cracking a Rubik's Cube after a night out at the bar would be much, much easier than taking a stab at explaining Michigan State's ups-and-downs this year. The Spartans are incomprehensible - one minute, they're taking it to Iowa in an inspiring second-half performance. The next, they're looking disinterested and discombobulated in a loss to Ohio State in the regular season finale. If you were to discuss MSU's struggles, you'd have to start with injuries. Stars Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, Keith Appling, and Branden Dawson have all been hindered by certain ailments at different points this season, and although the quartet is back on the floor they're not exactly "healthy." Payne is just fine (23 points versus Ohio State), and Harris' problem is much more outside shooting than anything else, but the conditions of Dawson and Appling are loaded with question marks. Dawson, who missed 10 games due to breaking his hand during a particularly aggravating film session, has yet to return to his near double-double form. Appling, on the other hand, is dealing with a wrist problem and has totaled a mere 28 points in six games since he's been back. Unless Appling gets back to taking over late-game situations, which could very possibly be determined by the health of his hand, MSU may not survive the first weekend of the NCAAs, let alone have a shot of winning the Big Ten tournament.
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