By Jon Rothstein
SLEEPER: NC State
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Virginia-NC State
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Duke over Miami
THE SKINNY: We’d be shocked if we don’t see a heavyweight showdown between the Blue Devils and Hurricanes on Sunday for the conference tournament championship. Despite two recent losses, Miami has been overlooked as potential No. 1 seed. Jim Larranaga’s team has had a banner season, but they’ll likely have to beat Duke for a second time this season — this time with Ryan Kelly — to reinforce their potential to go deep in the NCAA Tournament.
FAVORITE: Saint Louis
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: VCU-Xavier
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Saint Louis over VCU
THE SKINNY: Barclays Center may never be the same. A breakout year for the Atlantic 10 should culminate with plenty of drama, as a plethora of different teams could win this tournament. Keep an eye on Xavier, who will open with St. Joe’s on Thursday and then could potentially play VCU on Friday in the quarterfinals. The Musketeers are a tough, physical team that has all the requisites to win multiple games in a row. The only problem? They open with Saint Joseph’s, who still may have pound-for-pound the best roster in the Atlantic 10 despite their 17-12 record.
CHALLENGER: Kansas State
SLEEPER: Iowa State
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Iowa State-Oklahoma
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Kansas State over Kansas
THE SKINNY: We sincerely hope the basketball gods will give us a third meeting between Iowa State and Kansas in the semifinals. The Cyclones and Jayhawks gave us two memorable games in the regular season, both of which were won by Kansas by the slimmest of margins. It makes complete sense to pick Bill Self’s team to win this tournament, but we’re going with their in-state rivals. Bruce Weber was deservedly named Big 12 Coach of the Year a few days ago, and the Wildcats just seem primed to have a big March.
SLEEPER: St. John’s
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Louisville-St. John’s
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Louisville over Georgetown
THE SKINNY: How can the Red Storm be a sleeper? It’s simple — they have the third-most talented roster in the Big East. St. John’s didn’t have D’Angelo Harrison or Dom Pointer on Saturday and lost to Marquette on a buzzer-beater in overtime. Don’t discount the Red Storm from doing some damage on their home floor. A Louisville-Georgetown final seems imminent considering how well these two teams are playing — but does that mean anything? Not this season. We’ll roll the dice on the Cards.
CHALLENGER: Michigan State
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Iowa-Michigan State
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Michigan State over Indiana
THE SKINNY: Someone better break out some shoulder pads. In typical Big Ten fashion, this four-day tilt in Chicago should be physical, fierce and full of terrific competition. Many people have jumped off the Michigan State bandwagon recently, but I’m not one of them. Sparty is still built for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, and it says here that this is where they’ll start to get their momentum going.
CHALLENGER: Southern Miss
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Memphis-Marshall
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Memphis over Southern Miss
THE SKINNY: Memphis against Conference USA opponents is like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The same thing keeps happening over and over. We see little reason to bet against the Tigers in Tulsa, but keep an eye on their potential quarterfinal game with talented, yet enigmatic Marshall.
FAVORITE: New Mexico
CHALLENGER: Colorado State
SLEEPER: Air Force
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: UNLV-Boise State
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: New Mexico over Colorado State
THE SKINNY: Trying to predict this tournament would be taking gambling in Las Vegas to a whole new level. New Mexico has won the regular-season title outright, but there’s no way of forecasting this three-round event, especially since UNLV is playing on their home floor. We’re bullish on Larry Eustachy’s veteran Colorado State team, but until somebody beats New Mexico in a big spot the smart money is on the Lobos.
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Colorado-Arizona
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Cal over UCLA
THE SKINNY: Can UCLA win both the conference regular season and tournament titles with four new starters? Absolutely. The Bruins have had a memorable season behind their freshmen trio of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, but we’re not sure if they’ll be deep enough to hold up playing in consecutive days. Oregon was a trendy pick to do damage when Dominic Artis returned to the lineup, but they closed the regular season with back-to-back losses at Colorado and Utah. We’re going to take the team with the best player, which in this case is Cal and Allen Crabbe.
QUARTERFINAL GAME I’D PAY TO SEE: Ole Miss-Missouri
TITLE GAME PREDICTION: Florida over Kentucky
THE SKINNY: It’s still tough to project how many bids this league will send to the NCAA Tournament. We’ve got Kentucky in the field of 68 after Saturday’s win over Florida, but schools like Ole Miss and Tennessee could really help themselves by winning a few games in this event. Florida is the pick here, as the Gators are still clearly the best team in the SEC and are finally healthy for the first time all season.
Who are your picks to win the nine major conference tournaments? Let us know in the comments section below…