Photo via Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
March Madness has arrived! The conference tournament action is in full swing as many mid-major conferences have determined their automatic bids into the NCAA Tournament while the major conferences begin their tournaments on Wednesday. While NCAA Tournament upset favorites such as Loyola-Chicago, Liberty and Winthrop have already clinched their spot in the tournament, there are still plenty of action to watch before Selection Sunday. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on over the new few days.
1. Will Villanova overcome the loss of Collin Gillespie?
On Wednesday Mar. 3 against the Creighton Blue Jays, Villanova guard Collin Gillespie tore his ACL in Villanova’s 72-60 win over the Creighton Blue Jays, ending his season early. While his basketball future is in doubt, the immediate question is how does Villanova overcome the loss? In their one game after his injury, Villanova dropped an ugly 54-52 game at Providence, proving the lack of depth on their squad.
When Villanova won their two national championships in 2016 and 2018, they had key bench players such as Phil Booth and Donte DiVencenzo to give the starters a spark. This season, Villanova has been dependent on their starting five and without Gillespie, they just got that much thinner. Their top bench scorer, Cole Swider, averages only 5.9 points per game, leaving the rest of the starters such as Jermaine Samuels and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl to carry the scoring load. In a Big East Tournament that looks wide open, it will be intriguing to see how Jay Wright and Villanova attempt to overcome Gillespie’s loss and give themselves momentum for the tournament.
2. Will there be any bid stealers?
With the way conference tournaments are set up, any team, regardless of regular season record, has a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament by winning their conference tournament and receiving the conference’s automatic bid. This means that in conferences with at least one other guaranteed at-large bid in the tournament, a team that is not under consideration for an at-large spot can earn their way into the tournament, therefore taking away a spot from a team on the bubble.
There are several conferences that can provide such a bid stealer: the American Athletic Conference and the Atlantic 10. In the AAC, Wichita State and Houston are considered locks for the tournament and are the top two seeds in the conference tournament. However, Houston needed a buzzer beater to defeat Memphis on Sunday and the conference bolsters darkhorses such as SMU and Cincinnati, making the tournament an intriguing one to watch this weekend. Also, the Atlantic 10 bolsters one of the most chaotic conferences in college basketball as St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis and VCU are all teetering on the bubble in a wide-open conference. All three teams could take fate into their own hands by winning the tournament, but if they don’t, a desperate lower seed could sneak up and steal a bid from those three teams. The A-10 Tournament might be the most nerve-racking tournament for fans as nothing is certain from that conference.
3. Michigan-Illinois rematch?
The Big Ten Tournament is possibly the most anticipated conference tournament this weekend with a conference full of starpower and top-ranked teams potentially squaring off. You have Iowa stalwart Luka Garza, the dynamic duo of Duane Washington Jr. and E.J. Liddell at Ohio State along with Minnesota star guard Marcus Carr and well-coached teams in Michigan State and Wisconsin.
However, the biggest storyline is the potential rematch between the conference’s top-two teams in Michigan and Illinois. The last time these two teams squared off, Illinois, without their leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu defeated Michigan 76-53 on the road, making a statement that they have depth and can compete without their top player. Michigan center Hunter Dickinson was shut down by Illinois center Kofi Cockburn and in a potential rematch where Dosunmu’s status is uncertain, it will be intriguing to see if Michigan rebounds and gets revenge on the Fighting Illini or if Illinois proves they’re the superior team in college basketball’s best conference in 2021.
4. Mountain West bloodbath
The Mountain West Conference has been brutal this season with San Diego State winning the regular season championship and as of right now, appear to be the only team in the conference locked into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. The other three teams at the top of the standings, Colorado State, Utah State and Boise State, are all fighting for survival on the bubble.
Nevada could be a team that can disrupt everything as they have beaten Colorado State and Utah State twice, but have no shot to get in the NCAA Tournament without winning their conference tournament. Outside of Nevada, this is the last chance for the three bubble teams to pick up a quality win to augment their case for a bid, or winning their conference tournament altogether to guarantee them a spot in the tournament. Seeing these battles unfold will be entertaining while going a long way to determine the NCAA Tournament field.
5. Bubble watch: Xavier and UCLA
Speaking of teams that only have one last chance, there are several teams that are right on the bubble that desperately need wins in the conference tournament to not only pick up quality wins but also avoid bad losses that would further blemish their resume. Xavier has tumbled their way down the Big East standings, finishing seventh and will have to play on Wednesday against Butler. They have lost five of their last seven games coming into the Big East Tournament, and they will desperately need a win over Butler to avoid another bad loss and get another crack at Creighton to get that much-needed quality win. Their wins over Oklahoma and Creighton are the only quality wins keeping their tournament hopes alive.
While the UCLA Bruins come into the Pac-12 Tournament as the fourth-seed, their tournament hopes are riding a thin line as they have a loss to Washington State and lost to the top-three teams in the conference in Oregon, Colorado and USC. Their lone quality win came against Colorado back on Jan. 2. They face off against Oregon State on Thursday in a game they desperately need to win to avoid picking up a bad loss and have a chance of facing off against Oregon once again in the tournament. These two teams are in must-win positions, making their games some of the most important this weekend.