Previews of conference tournaments that begin Wednesday
American Athletic Conference
(All games in Memphis)
Favorite: Cincinnati. The Bearcats are a rugged, aggressive bunch who fear no team. They did lose at home to Louisville late in the season, but hold two victories over Memphis.
Contenders: Louisville, SMU, Memphis, UConn. Louisville, the defending national champion, has been playing much better of late and has to be rated a co-favorite. SMU has played most of its best games at home, and the same is basically true for UConn. Memphis obviously has the home court, which makes it dangerous.
Long shot: Temple. It’s big an uncharacteristically horrible year for the Owls but they’ve still have a great coach and a top-notch shooter in Dalton Pepper. Still, it would be a huge surprise.
Atlantic Coast Conference
(All games in Greensboro, N.C.)
Favorite: Virginia. The Cavaliers are the favorite team of Sully’s Court, a group that plays together on both ends of the court. They are not overly talented, but they are well coached and play smartly.
Contenders: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse. Duke has improved steadily this season behind freshman Jabari Parker. A Duke-Virginia final would be tremendous. North Carolina has also played well after underachieving for most of the season, but it didn’t play well in the regular-season finale at Duke. Syracuse is tough to figure, but it looks like the Orange have peaked.
Long shot: North Carolina State. The league’s best player, T.J. Warren, would have to carry the Wolfpack to the title himself.
(All games in Brooklyn)
Favorite: Saint Louis. The Billikens like to control the pace and smother teams with great half-court defense. It’s worked well for most of the season, but after winning the regular season title, they have the look of a team that’s peaked (very much like Syracuse).
Contenders: VCU, George Washington, UMass. VCU needs its full-court press to be effective because it doesn’t have many skilled offensive players. If you haven’t seen Briante Weber play defense, you should. He’s the best defender in the country. George Washington has been the surprise of the year, and the Colonials need big man Gary Larson to play as well as he did earlier in the season. UMass has the best player in the league in point guard Chaz Williams. In this evenly balanced league, it’s tough to eliminate Saint Joseph’s and Dayton as contenders too.
Long shot: LaSalle. Last year’s Sweet 16 team had a big win in the season finale, winning at Saint Joseph’s. If they can solve some shooting woes, they’d be dangerous.
Big East Conference
(All games in New York)
Favorite: Villanova. The Wildcats are a tremendous unit that plays together, and coach Jay Wright has numerous offensive options. They’re not the biggest team around, but Sully’s Court loves big man JayVaughn Pinkston, who is a beast around the basket.
Contenders: Creighton, Providence, Xavier. Creighton has the national player of the year in Doug McDermott and they’ve beaten Villanova easily twice. It’s one of the few blemishes on Villanova’s season. Providence’s Bryce Cotton (21.7 ppg) is a machine. His minutes per game are 41.1, he never comes off the court, and he’s relentless at all times. Perhaps the most overlooked player in the country. Xavier finished the season with two losses, but the Muskies are still capable.
Long shot: Saint John’s. Steve Lavin’s team has been inconsistent all season, but the highs are good enough to win this, especially on one of its home courts.
Big 12 Conference
(All games in Kansas City)
Favorite: Kansas. The Jayhawks won the regular-season title with an incredibly young team, but will be playing without freshman center Joel Embiid (who they’re hoping to get back for the NCAAs). It makes them vulnerable.
Contenders: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State. All of these teams (plus a few others) have a chance in this well-balanced league. Oklahoma doesn’t stack up talent-wise, but the Sooners have the best coach in Lon Kruger. Oklahoma State has the best player in Marcus Smart and the Cowboys seem to have finally overcome his mid-season suspension and the fallout of the incident where he pushed a fan. Texas has been a surprise all season, but looks like it has flattened out. Iowa State is highly entertaining, but is suspect at big moments.
Long shot: West Virginia. The Mountaineers looked like they were going to finish at the bottom of the league at one point, but improved remarkably and even beat Kansas in the regular-season finale.
Prediction: Oklahoma State
(All games in Las Vegas)
Favorite: San Diego State. This is the best defensive team in the country. If coach Steve Fisher had more offense, he'd have a Final Four team.
Contender: New Mexico. This is really a two-team league and it should come down to San Diego State and New Mexico. The teams split during the regular season with each winning on its home court.
Long shot: UNLV. The hometown advantage could be enough for the Rebels.
Prediction: San Diego State.
Pacific 12 Conference
(All games in Las Vegas)
Favorite: Arizona. The Wildcats are a national championship contender and proved during the regular season that they were the dominant team in the league.
Contenders: UCLA, Oregon. UCLA coach Steve Alford has mixed veterans with talented freshman (including his son Bryce) with great success. Oregon was great early, slumped, and has rallied. What I like most about them were the uniforms they wore at home in upsetting Arizona – with 1970s-type lettering under the school name.
Long shot: California. The Bears always frustrate their fans by coming up small in big situations, but that doesn’t mean they can’t put together several victories in a row to win this.
(All games to be played Atlanta)
Favorite: Florida. The Gators are the best team in the country right now and the favorite to win the national championship. They have dominated the league all season, with the best example Saturday when they toyed with Kentucky.
Contenders: Kentucky, Georgia. Based on the last two seasons, I’m wondering if Coach Cal is rethinking this one-and-done stuff. The Wildcats are wildly talented, but they haven’t proven they can compete with Florida. Georgia stunningly finished third in the league, a great coaching job by Mark Fox.
Long shot: Mississippi. Sully’s Court would love to see Marshall Henderson average 30 per game and pull off the upset.
(All games in Katy, Texas)
Favorite: Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are 28-2 and have won 26 straight games. Defense, rebounding, and offensive balance are the keys.
Contenders: Texas A&M Corpus Christi, San Houston State. It’s doubtful anyone can derail Austin, but these are the second and third best teams in the league.
Long shot: Northwestern State. The high-scoring Demons could surprise.
Prediction: Stephen F. Austin.