Winning a league tourney would rate behind both a regular season crown, as well as a substantial run in the NCAAs, but it’s still a trophy nonetheless. Perhaps most significantly, it’s the single best chance for teams that came up short in their conference races to bring home some hardware. Their odds of going to the Final Four are long, but winning a tournament this week is within their grasp. For teams like the ones we’re about to look at, this week is likely the difference between a nice season with a good win total, and a nice season that has a championship as a part of it. And to any athlete, that’s a big distinction.
So one of my favorite things to do during this week is to establish who’s got the pressure on them. Who needs to win their tournament—not just have a good game or two, or improve their seed, but win the tournament? This excludes regular season champs because they’ve already won something. It excludes bubble teams because they have issues of survival on their mind. It excludes also-rans—they need to win the tournament too, but simply to make it to the Big Dance. The teams’ below are part of college hoops’ great upper middle class. They could make a Final Four run. They could go out as early as the second round. But whatever happens next week, they have a puncher’s chance to win something this week…
Big East: Villanova. It was a year of great expectation for the Wildcats, returning their key starters after making the Final Four last year. And they played the part for most of the season until starting to slump in mid-February. ‘Nova’s dropped to the #4 seed in the bracket and needs to start the road to redemption on Thursday.
ACC: Tough call here. No team really fits the profile perfectly. I suppose the answer could be North Carolina, but they are closer to an also-ran this year. Maryland can celebrate their co-championship all weekend long. Georgia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Wake aren’t strong enough to have that kind of expectation. But how about Duke? They did share the title with Maryland, but this isn’t a program that’s into sharing, and it will get worse if they lose the tournament and the Terps win it. So it’s a tough burden, but in a league where we have to bend the rules a little bit, I’m saying the heat is on Coach K.
Big Ten: Wisconsin. This one’s pretty easy. There’s four good teams in the Big Ten, and Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue are already tri-champs. Wisconsin needs to become the fourth wheel in Indy.
SEC: Florida. This is another close call. We could say Vanderbilt, who finished second in the SEC and has the event at home. We could say Tennessee, who had another nice year under Bruce Pearl. Florida’s on the bubble and doesn’t have the luxury of thinking big. But this is a proud program and they need to re-assert themselves as a true champion at some point, and this team has the talent to do it. Just a few days of consistency would wipe out a lot of demons from the past three years.
Big 12: Kansas State fits the profile most perfectly, a Top 5 team who finished behind Kansas. But they also overachieved to begin with. Like the SEC, I’ve got my eye on a disappointing team that needs to see this weekend the way a Catholic sees the confessional box—a time for cleansing their sins and starting over. That’s Texas. They need to reverse their fortunes and ASAP.
Pac-10: Washington. The Huskies were the preseason favorite and Quincy Pondexter is one of the league’s best players. They should not have let Arizona State slip ahead of them for second, and they should be able to go toe-to-toe with Cal if a final game showdown with the regular season winner comes up. Washington is actually the proto-type of the team I have in mind when I think of teams that need to win this week.
The games are about to start! Tomorrow we’ll start recapping and previewing on a day-to-day basis.