Once a week, USA TODAY Sports asks its network of college basketball experts to analyze the biggest topics around the country.
This week, the panel takes a look at which conference tournament will be the most exciting this season.
Nicole Auerbach, USA TODAY Sports: The Big Ten tourney might very well be the craziest, and the Big 12 tournament might feature the best league - but I'll say the Pac-12/Atlantic 10 tournaments will be the most exciting for one reason: bubble teams. The Pac-12 and A-10 each have a chance to get up to six NCAA tournament bids. What that tells me is there's a great deal of depth in these leagues, and a whole lot of teams fighting for their NCAA lives. In other conference tournaments, most teams are jostling for NCAA seeding, but at the very least they won't be sweating out Selection Sunday. The Pac-12 and A-10 will have some squads sweating, meaning they will have teams desperate to make runs in their conference tournaments. Desperate basketball can be extremely exciting basketball.
Scott Gleeson, USA TODAY Sports: Tough one this week. I think the ACC and Big 12 could be the most exciting and the A-10 and Pac-12 tourneys aren't ones to sleep on. But I'm going with the Big East for the simple fact that win-hungry bubble teams will be fighting for resume-boosting wins, and in turn that could lead to a more unpredictable outcome. Villanova and Creighton, the top two seeds, are great teams. But I think teams like St. John's, Providence, Xavier and Georgetown have much more to play for than conference supremacy and that adds a dynamic that makes conference tournaments the perfect appetizer for the main course of the NCAA tournament. St. John's and Georgetown likely need to reach the Big East Conference final to get at-large bids so it'll be interesting to see if they can put together a serious run in New York.
Jason Lisk, The Big Lead: The Atlantic Coast Conference. Several reasons for this, from the inclusion of the new conference teams and new format (similar to what the old Big East used with 16 teams), to star players, to plenty of teams with a lot to play for, from seeding in the tournament to trying to get into it. Jabari Parker, the scorching hot T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Tyler Ennis, and Lamar Patterson are just some of the star players that will be in the same arena. The top four teams all have plenty to accomplish this week. Virginia still has an outside shot of a No. 1 seed with a tournament title to go with the regular season. Duke and Syracuse can answer recent bad losses with some quality wins. North Carolina can play themselves into a great seed with a run.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has been unable to break through against the top teams, and that has some questioning whether they will make the NCAA Tournament. They will have an opportunity to change that perception in the same side of the bracket as North Carolina and Virginia. Several other teams are on the outside of the "bubble" right now, but could add two quality wins and change that view. The quarterfinals have the potential for some fantastic matchups (Virginia vs. Florida State or Maryland, North Carolina vs. Pittsburgh, Syracuse vs. NC State, and Duke vs. Clemson), and it is as wide open as any major conference tournament this week.
David Aldridge, Duke Report: The Big 12 has been college basketball's most exciting conference all season, and I don't expect that to change with the conference tournament. What other major conference features eight teams that have a legitimate chance to make a run and win the tournament? Baylor and Oklahoma State are the No. 7 and 8 seeds, but would anyone be that surprised if either team got hot and and found itself in the championship game? The loss of Joel Embiid makes Kansas an extremely vulnerable No. 1 seed, and the Jayhawks clearly aren't playing their best as they enter the postseason. Plus, how could you not be excited about a tournament that features playmakers such as Juwan Staten, Andrew Wiggins, DeAndre Kane, Marcus Smart, Melvin Ejim, Marcus Foster and many more? Clear your schedule because the next few days in Kansas City should be very special.
Randy McClure, Rushthecourt.net: As usual, many of this week's conference tournaments are rife with storylines involving bubble-popping, seed positioning and primrose paths to redemption. While every tourney has several elements of these things, it is the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City this week that has the most. Of the 10 league teams, no fewer than eight have serious designs on walking away with the nets hanging in the Sprint Center, and given events of this season, how can we blame them? Top-seed Kansas has more talent than any other squad there, but center Joel Embiid will not suit up, rendering Bill Self's defense, and therefore, the Jayhawks, vulnerable (West Virginia just dropped 92 points on them). Oklahoma State, a preseason co-favorite to win this league, finished eighth, but has shown signs lately that it might be one of the most dangerous eighth seeds in the history of conference tournaments. Baylor, a group that was written off as DOA after starting 2-8 in league play, rallied to 9-9 and appears to have finally figured out what it does well (interior defense, rebounding). Oklahoma? Perennial slow-tempo and defensive-oriented head coach Lon Kruger has the Sooners running and gunning like Billy Tubbs was back on the sidelines, daring teams to beat them playing games in the 80s and 90s. Iowa State of all schools just had a player win Big 12 Player of the Year (Melvin Ejim), and Kansas State has -- egads -- ridden a Bruce Weber recruit named Marcus Foster to 20 wins and a surprisingly successful season. We haven't even mentioned Texas, the Longhorn Death Star coached by newly-minted Big 12 Coach of the Year Rick Barnes that was supposed to be well into a Buzz Williams transition phase by now. The Horns finished third in the league standings, an outcome so preposterous that even Justin Bieber is somehow, and frighteningly, involved. West Virginia is still trying to figure out why it joined this league (the Mountaineers are 30-35 in two years as a member of the Big 12), but as shown by a 4-6 record against the top five seeds, WVU, led by a guy named Staten, can play with anybody in KC.
The point of all of this is to say that, once Oklahoma State and Baylor advance to the quarterfinals on Thursday, quite literally anything can happen. Too many leagues this year are so top-heavy that there won't be much drama until the semifinals or even the finals of its tournament, but the Big 12 is poised to put on three scintillating days of back-and-forth, gloriously riveting, throw the names into a hat, March Madness basketball. This group of teams may not represent a cohort of the nation's best, but they are the most balanced, and those who are fortunate enough to have tickets to this year's Big 12 Tournament will no doubt leave on Saturday night thoroughly entertained.
Paul Gotham, Pickin' Splinters: The Atlantic 10 Championship offers a heap of intrigue and excitement. Consider this: three games separated six 20-win teams at the top of the A10. La Salle and St. Bonaventure tip the tourney for a chance to meet top seed Saint Louis. Both lost to SLU by single digits during the regular season. No team benefits more from a clean slate than La Salle (15-15/7-9), who returns four starters from last year's Sweet Sixteen team. UMass reached as high as No. 13 this season, but the Minutemen will have to defeat an upstart Rhode Island team for the third time this season to reach the quarter-finals. Speaking of the second round Dayton, the A10's hottest team winning nine of its last ten, could face St. Joseph's â?? the source of the Flyers last two defeats. Depending upon whom you trust, the Flyers will need to win this game and more to reach the NCAA Tournament. But St. Joseph's fell in both of their most recent outings. Suddenly the Hawks dance fate is uncertain. VCU is back in the rankings and looking to build momentum. The A10's pre-season favorite might have to beat cross-town rival, Richmond for a third time just to reach the semi-finals. Nothing could be sweeter for the Spiders than to play the spoiler. George Washington (23-7/11-5) seems to have locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But stranger things have happened. GW will want to get a winâ?¦.or two. And that is without even discussing the semi-finals. Buckle your seat belts for this one.
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