To most of the sports population, March Madness begins with the NCAA tournament. But before the brackets can be announced and pool sheets filled out, the conference tournaments must commence. Known as Championship Week, it is a nine-day feast of basketball for the diehard fan.
From Seattle to Miami and Honolulu to Orono, Maine, college basketball fans will be watching conference tournaments to gauge their teams' run to a tournament title to secure an NCAA bid or how their team's at-large status checks up.
The 2005 conference tournaments will have many interesting plots and sub-plots to follow. Some teams will be jockeying for a place into the NCAA Tournament, while others want to solidify their seed. Championship Week will have a lot to watch and when you go to work on March 14th with a bracket in hand, you will be able to discuss every team with confidence after watching them during Championship Week.
Teams on the bubble will be watching closely to make sure teams from the mid-majors with high RPIs capture their conference tournaments. A slip-up by a team like Vermont, Holy Cross, or Old Dominion might cost an ACC, Big 10, or Pac-10 team an NCAA bid.
Here is a look ahead into what to watch during Championship Week:
Missouri Valley (Championship game Monday night 9:05 ET)
Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison dunks against San Diego in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
The MVC will have a few storylines worth watching as Arch Madness 2005 concludes in St. Louis. Southern Illinois captured their fourth consecutive MVC Championship this season. Despite the impressive run, the Salukis have still yet to bring home postseason hardware in St. Louis, after losing to Southern Missouri State in the conference semi-finals. SMS faces Creighton for the conference title.
With an RPI of 12, SIU should be safe even without the tournament title again. The other story in St. Louis will be which teams other than the Salukis are in good enough shape for an at-large birth into the NCAA.
Wichita State and Northern Iowa are the other clubs to watch from the MVC. It's possible all three could make the tournament, but the likelihood is that one or two of them will. Northern Iowa currently has an RPI of 43, Wichita State sits at 34, SMS is 49 and Creighton, with an RPI of 78, is a long shot without winning tonight. Lose, and the Bluejays are looking at a trip the NIT.
West Coast Conference (Championship game Monday night 11:59 ET)
The WCC has been dominated by Gonzaga for the better part of a decade. The 'Zags did capture the conference title this year, but not without a stiff challenge by St. Mary's. Unless a major upset occurs, those two should meet in the championship game in late night on March 7th. The Gales won the first meeting in Moraga, CA and only a 43-25 Gonzaga advantage in the second half prevented a St. Mary's sweep.
Gonzaga has been considered among the nation's elite teams all year. Their trio of Derek Raivio, Adam Morrison, and Ronny Turiaf are as good as any in college basketball. Morrison and Turiaf should get some All-American consideration, while coach Mark Few has Raivio the Bulldogs' MVP. St. Mary's is led by the terrific inside-outside duo of Daniel Kickert and Paul Marigney.
Pacific (Big West Championship game Saturday night)
Remember this name: Pacific's David Doubley (AP Photo/Francis Specker)
The Tigers have toiled in relative obscurity in the Big West. They haven't lost since December 18th to San Francisco and their only other loss was at Kansas. Pacific carries a 20-game winning streak into their final regular season game. The Tigers use a balanced offense and shoot a high percentage. They have earned a ranking for the first time since 1967 and presently sit at number 17.
Tiger boss Bob Thomason earned the Big West Coach of the Year and guard David Doubley was the Conference Player of the Year. Christian Menaker is the Tigers' leading scorer and Guillaume Yango leads them in rebounds. Utah State should be Pacific's main competition in the Big West tournament.
Illinois (Big Ten Championship game Sunday)
The Illini have been the story of the year in college basketball. Now that the Illini have lost their regular-season finale against Ohio State, it will be interesting to see if the team has the mental toughness to rebound quickly enough to capture the Big Ten Tournament crown. The United Center should be a sea of orange as Illinois tried to complete their bid for a number one seeding in the Big Dance.
Bruce Weber should receive the Big 10 Coach of the Year and the Player of the Year is likely to go to one of the Illini's big three of Luther Head, Dee Brown, and Deron Williams. Those three have all taken turns leading the Illini this season.
In Chicago, the Illini appear to have the path of Northwestern or Michigan followed by Minnesota or Indiana and then likely Wisconsin or Michigan State in the championship game. Last season, after a relatively easy semifinal win over Michigan, the Illini fell flat in the championship game against the Badgers. Will we see a repeat performance again this year? We'll find out this weekend.
Conference USA (Championship game Saturday night)
Charlotte's Eddie Basden watches as Louisville's Larry O'Bannon soars toward the basket during Louisville's 94-82 win Thursday, Mar. 3. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
Conference USA will cease to exist as we know it after this season. When the Conference tournament concludes in Memphis, half the members will have competed in their last game as a member. Only Houston, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, UAB, and Houston will remain as charter members. Louisville, South Florida, Cincinnati, DePaul, and Marquette will leave for the Big East, TCU for the Mountain West, and Charlotte and St. Louis for the Atlantic 10. Louisville, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and DePaul are the top four teams in standings going into the last regular season game.
Louisville enters the C-USA tournament as the conference regular season champion and the favorite to win the tournament title. Larry O'Bannon has been on fire to close the regular season. The senior scored a career-high 33 points on Senior Night against Charlotte then followed it up with 24 points in a season-ending victory at DePaul. Francisco Garcia has struggled as of late, but has the potential to take a game over.
DePaul lost four of six to finish the regular season, but with Quemont Greer, Sammy Mejia, and Drake Diener, has the firepower to make a run.
Charlotte gave Louisville a run for the conference title and their duo of Eddie Basden and Brendan Plavich is as good as any in C-USA.
Furthermore, Cincinnati is always a threat and playing on their homecourt and Memphis has the potential to make a run. Travis Diener's season-ending injury has put Marquette into a nose dive and will make it difficult for the Golden Eagles to achieve any postseason success. It should be an interesting tournament. The teams that are staying in C-USA will likely want to make a statement that the league will still be strong to the teams that are leaving.
All in all, if you're a true college hoops fan, you know that the real madness begins with Championship Week. Order some pizza, pick up a six-pack of your favorite beverage, grab the remote, and get ready for a week of wall-to-wall college basketball action on your TV. Besides, you need to get acquainted with the teams before filling out your brackets next week, don't you?