The Hardcourt Shuffle: Conference Tourney Previews!

The Friday of conference tourney week is the most underrated day of the college basketball season. It’s not the opening days of March Madness, and it’s not Selection Sunday, but it’s pretty fantastic in its own right, and I say it deserves a name. So I’m calling it “Great Friday,” blasphemy be damned.

On Great Friday 2013, the cornucopia of games should make you salivate. (Seriously, if you’re not salivating, consult a doctor. That’s good advice in general.) Here’s an incomplete list of Great Friday highlights, with links to each bracket:

Big East semifinals
Big Ten quarterfinals
ACC quarterfinals
Big 12 semifinals
Pac-12 semifinals
Florida plays in an SEC game
A-10 semifinals
Mountain West semifinals

It’s absurd. Of the current AP Top 25, only four teams won’t be playing on Great Friday (Gonzaga, Pittsburgh, Creighton, and Marquette). So in honor of this wonderful slate of games, and the weekend action leading up to Selection Sunday, let’s run through the six BCS conferences and my two favorite mid-majors — the A-10 and the Mountain West — to look at the best games, dispense some strong opinions, and make a prediction or two.

(Important note: If you’re the kind of person who objects to the A-10 or Mountain West being called “mid-majors,” then you are a mid-major human. It’s just a word to delineate BCS from non-BCS. It doesn’t mean your conference is worse at basketball than the SEC. Calm down.)

Calm? Good. Now get crazy again, but in a positive way.

The Big East

Basics: This is it — the very last Big East conference championship before the whole thing dissolves and the diaspora begins. Well, I guess technically the Big East name will still exist next year, but it will be very Catholic at that point and, judging by my own upbringing, will imbue us with intense feelings of guilt. So let’s call this the last hurrah.

Highlights: Syracuse vs. Georgetown, Friday, 7 p.m. ET! It’s only fitting that the legendary rivals meet one last time in Madison Square Garden, and I can confidently make two guarantees: First, it will be a classic. It never made sense for the rivalry to end on a 61-39 dud, and the minute that game ended, you knew fate would line these two up for a final epic. Second, Syracuse will win. I base this not on any hard analysis, but on a sound principle I learned growing up in New York: Whenever you think you have a handle on Jim Boeheim, he’ll do the exact opposite of what you expect. The minute we pronounced him spiritually dead, after an embarrassing 1-4 stretch at season’s end, retirement rumors, and the infamous golf comment, you knew he was about to go on a tear. It began Thursday with a win over Pittsburgh, and it will continue against Georgetown. With everyone down on Syracuse, it’s a certainty. He is, after all, the complicated fatalist.

The Big Prediction: Louisville will win the tournament. The Cardinals are exceptionally hot — one of the five hottest teams in the country — and I don’t think anyone can stand in their way. The defense has always been incredible, but with the offense catching up, times are getting scary. I expect them to advance at least to the NCAA championship game, so winning the conference title should be an appetizer, a la UConn in 2011.

The Big Ten

Basics: This is the tournament where you dearly hope the top four seeds can avoid upsets and make it to the semifinals. The dream Saturday is Indiana-Michigan and Michigan State-Ohio State, but teams like Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are lurking to spoil the broth. Friday will be fun — the Michigan-Wisconsin rematch will tell us so, so much about each team’s tournament chances — but Saturday could be a classic.

Highlights: To avoid the big jinx, we’ll focus on Friday highlights. Along with Michigan trying to avenge Ben Brust’s half-court dagger, you’ve got fast, ethereal Iowa trying to leap off the bubble with an upset of a quintessentially brutish Tom Izzo team (and I mean that as a compliment … also, has any team ever been so stylistically misplaced in the Big Ten as Iowa?), and Indiana attempting to smother the memories of the bizarre finish in Champaign.

The Big Prediction: I have no idea. I honestly have no idea what will happen when the four teams square off, just as I’ve had no idea all year long. Attempting to guess would insult your intelligence. Then again, I don’t know you. So I’m picking Michigan State to win a tight one over Ohio State and then win on its third try against Indiana.

The ACC

Basics: We’ll probably get to see another Duke-UNC clash while also finding out if Miami’s late-season fade is truly as bad as it seems.

Highlights: We’ll focus on NC State, the year’s most disappointing team, by any measure. Sure, Kentucky is close, but the Wildcats suffered a critical injury to Nerlens Noel. NC State has no excuse. When the Wolfpack play Virginia today, they’ll be face-to-face with their polar opposite — a team with mediocre talent but excellent defensive discipline. The first meeting ended in a loss for the Wolfpack, and I bet this one will, too. And while the selection committee will probably give State one last chance to display its futility, this loss will be the real death knell.

The Big Prediction: This will make me sound crazy, but I think the Hurricanes are going to lose to Boston College on Friday. If not, Virginia will do them in. Duke-UNC Part III will happen, with Duke making the clean sweep, and then Coach K will cut down the nets for the 11th time in the past 15 years. This is what he does. Another thing he does — or did, once — is win national titles in years without a dominant team. How’s a Duke-Louisville title game sound?

The Big 12

Basics: Kansas is a bully. Kansas is a merciless high sheriff who routinely throws the rest of the Big 12 schools in jail under dubious accusations of vagrancy. Kansas is a cackling nobleman who, for sport, launches stones from a catapult at the Big 12 serfs working in its fields.

Highlights: Keep an eye on Oklahoma State freshman guard Marcus Smart. He’s one of my two or three favorite players this season, and has been since he dismantled NC State’s Lorenzo Brown back in November. After beating Butler Baylor on Thursday, he and the Cowboys will have a rubber match against Kansas State, and then a possible championship showdown with Kansas.

The Big Prediction: Kansas has been consistently overrated this season, and I think the conference tournament title will go elsewhere. The Oklahoma State-Kansas State semifinal is a very tough call, but I’ll go with my heart — Marcus Smart secures Freshman of the Year honors with a conference title.

The Pac-12

Basics: I had a great time watching all the Pac-12 quarterfinals on Thursday, but I can’t tell if it’s because the quality of play surprised me, or because the collective conference defense is so terrible that there’s just a ton of scoring. Either way, I look forward to the rest, and also to each crazy NCAA flame-out these teams have in store.

Highlights: The marquee event is UCLA vs. Arizona on Friday night in a battle of “Who’s more overrated?” The Bruins are particularly fascinating to me, because though I do go along with the general consensus that they aren’t so great, people are still treating Ben Howland and his team like a national joke. Hey world, it’s not November anymore! They are not the Texas Longhorns! They won a Pac-12 title! (That still counts for something, right? No?) On the other side of the bracket, I was originally high on Cal as 2013’s consummate under-the-radar team. The Golden Bears won seven of their last eight games, including two over Arizona and UCLA, but it felt like we haven’t heard their name all season. And Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs were one of the best backcourt scoring tandems in the country, averaging a combined 33.7 points per game. Then the crazy Berkeley hippies practiced basketball socialism by losing to Utah in overtime in Thursday’s quarterfinal. So much for them, so much for my prediction, and so much, once more, for my infallibility.

The Big Prediction: Oregon finished the year on a mini-slide, so I’m going with the winner of UCLA-Arizona as the winner of the whole shebang. (Though, of course, deep in my heart, I’m rooting for the comedy of Utah winning the title and clinching an auto NCAA berth.) UCLA has topped Arizona twice already, and the Bruins’ offense has been a uniquely tough challenge for Sean Miller and the ’Cats. Normally you’d go with the best coach in the third game, but I think UCLA has too much firepower — Bruins by 10.

The SEC

Basics: Just horrible. Even Florida, the best team, can’t stop collapsing.

Highlights: Maybe Missouri can make a run? How weird is it that the only team I can see winning a title beyond the 1-seed is the 6-seed? There’s not much to hope for here. Maybe Marshall Henderson will do something crazy.

The Big Prediction: I don’t trust Billy Donovan’s Gators as far as I can throw them in the tournament, but their collective talent is so high that I can’t see another SEC team beating them on a neutral floor. Maybe a Noel-less Kentucky can take a crack, or maybe Frank Haith can get out of his own way long enough for Mizzou to win three games. But of all the tournaments, this is the one where the outcome feels the most obvious.

The Mountain West

Basics: Watching the top four teams in the Mountain West over the past few weeks, I’m more convinced than ever that all of them — with the possible exception of New Mexico (he said grudgingly) — are bound for another spectacular flop in the tournament. There’s something about West Coast basketball that makes it really fun to watch, though; in the Mountain West’s case, I can’t even call it a lack of defense. But it still feels fresh and sprawling and new, just like the real West must have felt back when people rode in wagons. Which just gave a sudden flash of genius: Wouldn’t riding around in a covered wagon be the ultimate hipster move? Think about it.

Highlights: The semis feature New Mexico against San Diego State in a rubber match from the split regular-season series, and Colorado State against UNLV in a game the Rams might have trouble winning because they could be without Dorian Green. Really, though, I’m looking at this entire tournament as a trial run for New Mexico. Every instinct in my bones tells me that the Lobos will lose before the Sweet 16, but maybe they can sway me with some Wagon Dominance. (It makes sense in my head.)

The Big Prediction: San Diego State can get really hot offensively, and Jamaal Franklin is still a stud who made this badass dunk, but good defenses like Colorado State and New Mexico tend to keep the Aztecs in check. Which is why it might be dumb for me to pick them to upset UNM. But dumb or not, I think the Aztecs are better than they’ve shown during a disappointing Mountain West campaign, and I’ve got them taking the title.

The A-10

Basics: It’s a real shame that the conference might be broken up if Butler and VCU flock to the new Catholic Big East, because it’s been an excellent year. Aside from the Big Ten, this is the tournament I’m looking forward to the most. The Friday quarterfinals have a very compelling matchup in Butler-La Salle, and like the Big Ten, the semifinals could be spectacular. And unlike the Mountain West, there are at least three teams here that could go very deep in the big dance.

Highlights: I’m really fascinated by this Saint Louis team, as you may have seen in Thursday’s post, and it presents one of those “Is there such a thing as sports destiny in real life?” scenarios. The narrative is incredible — legendary coach (Rick Majerus) dies, basketball lifer who left his last job in semi-disgrace (Jim Crews) takes over because legendary coach gave him a chance, and he leads tough-as-nails team to a regular-season conference title, beating the game’s two prominent hot-shot young coaches (Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens) along the way. If this were Hollywood, a Final Four trip would be in order. But it’s not, and like most of you, I’ve seen enough compelling stories flop to know that nothing’s guaranteed. But I still really want it to happen, and I can’t wait to see the the Billikens take on Butler and VCU, hopefully, as they try to win in Brooklyn.

The Big Prediction: Stevens’s Butler team is typically solid, VCU’s havoc defense can be breathless and devastating, and Temple is a quiet threat to unseat them all. But even without the strength of its narrative, SLU is the best team in the conference. With victories over Butler and VCU already under its belt, and a team full of defensive-minded upperclassmen who win even when they’re struggling, there’s no other pick.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Shane Ryan

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere