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March Madness: Rapid-fire guide to this week's major conference tournaments

The opening week of conference tournament play in men’s college basketball delivered tense title games, record-setting scoring nights and SportsCenter-worthy buzzer-beaters.

Now here come the big-budget leagues to see if they can top that.

Conference tournament games will be played from early afternoon until deep into the night over the next six days as teams try to lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament or make a late push to improve their seeding. Below is a look at what’s at stake during this week’s eight marquee tournaments, from projected champions, to bubble implications, to the possibility of a bid thief.

Atlantic 10

Conference rank: 8th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Richmond 2. Loyola (Chicago) 3. Dayton

When and where: March 12-17 in Brooklyn (Bracket)

Favorite: Dayton may have finished a game back of co-champs Richmond and Loyola (Chicago), but the Flyers remain the favorites to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. They are the A-10’s only team with a NET ranking better than No. 71 and the only team that will make the NCAA tournament without securing the league’s auto bid. There’s also reasonably high stakes for Dayton (24-6, 14-4) from a seeding perspective. A win or two in Brooklyn should keep Dayton out of a dreaded 8-9 first-round NCAA tournament game and position the Flyers better for a potential second-weekend run.

Who else can win it? Start with the two teams who improbably shared the league title. A year ago, Chris Mooney spent March on medical leave after undergoing heart surgery. This year, he and Richmond are celebrating a 23-win season. A year ago, Drew Valentine was picking himself off the mat after a last-place finish in Loyola Chicago’s debut A-10 season. This year, he and the Ramblers enter the postseason having won 10 of their past 11.

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Bubble implications: None. Dayton is a lock, whether or not it wins the A-10 tournament. No one else has a viable at-large case.

Player who could carry his team in March: DaRon Holmes, Dayton

Projected champ: Richmond

Projected NCAA bids: 2

Odds of producing a bid thief: Bubble teams will be breaking out their foam fingers and pom-poms when Dayton plays because a championship run from the Flyers is the only way the A-10 becomes a one-bid league. If anyone else — Richmond, Loyola (Chicago), UMass, etc. — wins the A-10 tournament, Dayton falls into the at-large pool and a spot for a bubble team instantly vanishes. Bart Torvik’s projections give Dayton a 36.2% chance of winning the A-10 tournament. In other words, the field is a better bet than the Flyers. Bubble teams beware!

Will we see another UNC vs. Duke showdown in the ACC tournament this weekend? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Will we see another UNC vs. Duke showdown in the ACC tournament this weekend? (Grant Halverson/Getty Images) (Grant Halverson via Getty Images)

ACC

Conference rank: 4th of 33

Top seeds: 1. North Carolina 2. Duke 3. Virginia

When and where: March 12-16 in Washington D.C. (Bracket)

Favorite: The ACC tournament favorite undeniably is North Carolina. The Tar Heels earned that status last Saturday night when they completed a season sweep of Duke in Durham to claim the outright regular-season ACC title. That victory bolstered North Carolina’s chances of securing the NCAA tournament’s final No. 1 seed. The Tar Heels are close behind SEC champion Tennessee entering the start of conference tournament play.

Who else can win it? Duke has owned a lead against North Carolina for all of 16 seconds in two games this season, but the Blue Devils remain the biggest threat to the Tar Heels’ hopes of sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament titles. All Jon Scheyer should need to do to motivate his team is play a clip of North Carolina players taunting the Duke student section after Saturday night’s game.

Bubble implications: The ACC’s chances of securing more than three NCAA tournament bids rest on Virginia notching at least one win in Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh or Wake Forest stringing together more than one. Virginia would be safe with a quarterfinal win against either Clemson or the Miami-Boston College winner. A potential quarterfinal between Pittsburgh and Wake Forest is likely a must–win for either of them.

Player who could carry his team in March: R.J. Davis, North Carolina

Projected champ: North Carolina

Projected NCAA bids: 4

Odds of producing a bid thief: In a league with only three NCAA tournament locks, never say never. Wake Forest or Pittsburgh are capable of playing their way from the bubble to an auto bid if Hunter Sallis or Blake Hinson catch fire. Syracuse has also shown a pulse late in the season. And don’t forget that it was only two years ago that Virginia Tech went through North Carolina and Duke to claim an unexpected NCAA bid.

Big East

Conference rank: 5th of 33

Top seeds: 1. UConn 2. Creighton 3. Marquette

When and where: March 13-16 in New York (Bracket)

Favorite: UConn lost five of its top eight players from last year’s national title team. Somehow the Huskies have come back just as good or better. Dan Hurley’s team is the perfect blend of hungry newcomers and NCAA tournament-hardened veterans. Half of UConn’s 28 victories have come by 20 points or more. When at their best, the Huskies are dominant.

Who else can win it? Creighton might be the only viable threat to UConn unless Marquette star Tyler Kolek plays through the late-season oblique injury he suffered. The Bluejays enter the Big East tournament having reeled off eight wins in their last nine games, including a thoroughly impressive 85-66 demolition of UConn. Creighton’s lack of depth could be a factor playing three game in three days, but the Bluejays’ starting five is one of college basketball’s best.

Bubble implications: Four Big East teams will arrive in New York with varying levels of work left to do to secure an NCAA bid. A Seton Hall-St. John’s quarterfinal could be a win-and-in game for both teams, but the Pirates should feel better than the Johnnies about their chances with a loss. Sixth-seeded Villanova needs to avoid a season-killing loss against DePaul and then take aim at Marquette. Seventh-seeded Providence needs to avoid getting Ed Cooley'd against Georgetown and then go for broke against Creighton.

Player who could carry his team in March: Trey Alexander, Creighton

Projected champ: UConn

Projected NCAA bids: 5

Odds of producing a bid thief: Seven of the Big East’s 11 teams are NCAA tournament contenders, but the league’s bottom tier is in sorry shape. Injury-plagued Xavier and fading Butler stumbled across the finish line. DePaul is about to finish one of the all-time worst seasons by a power-conference team, and Georgetown’s two Big East wins this season were both against the Blue Demons. Bubble teams in other leagues just need to worry about eliminating Seton Hall, St. John’s, Villanova and Providence as quickly as possible.

Big Ten

Conference rank: 2nd of 33

Top seeds: 1. Purdue 2. Illinois 3. Nebraska

When and where: March 13-17 in Minneapolis (Bracket)

Favorite: Purdue is a clear favorite to sweep the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, but the Boilermakers will have to search hard to find motivation. They’ll be the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region no matter what they do in the Big Ten tournament. And nothing they accomplish this week will help them shed their reputation as NCAA tournament underachievers.

Who else can win it? If Purdue shows up looking ahead to next week, second-seeded Illinois could stand to benefit most. The Illini have the Big Ten’s most explosive transition offense and benefit from being on the opposite side of the bracket from the Boilermakers. Other than Illinois, it’s tough to get excited about anyone else’s chances. Nebraska did its best work at home all season. Wisconsin last won back-to-back games in January. And yes, yes, January, February, Izzo, April, but my goodness is Michigan State underwhelming this year.

Bubble implications: Are we sure 13-loss Michigan State would be safely in the field if it drops its opening-round Big Ten tournament game against Minnesota? The Spartans remain darlings of the predictive metrics, but the rest of their resume looks very bubbly. The Big Ten’s other two bubble teams, Iowa and Ohio State, face off in a must-win 7-versus-10 opening-round game on Thursday. The winner would need at least one more marquee win, but the loser would be NIT-bound.

Player who could carry his team in March: Zach Edey, Purdue

Projected champ: Illinois

Projected NCAA bids: 6

Odds of producing a bid thief: Ohio State’s transformation under interim coach Jake Diebler gives the Buckeyes an outside shot. They’ve beaten Purdue, Michigan State and Nebraska since firing Chris Holtmann last month.

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Big 12

Conference rank: 1st of 33

Top seeds: 1. Houston 2. Iowa State 3. Baylor

When and where: March 12-16 in Kansas City (Bracket)

Favorite: If this season has taught us anything, it’s don’t bet against Kelvin Sampson’s Houston program. The Cougars have seamlessly jumped from dominating the mid-tier American Athletic Conference to dominating the mighty Big 12. They went almost wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in predictive metrics and clinched the outright Big 12 title even before demolishing conference standard bearer Kansas by 30 points on Saturday evening.

Who else can win it? There’s a reason T-Mobile Arena in Kansas City is known as Hilton Coliseum South. Iowa State fans often flood it when the Cyclones play there. Iowa State (24-7) is unbeaten at home this season with victories over Houston and the rest of the Big 12’s top teams. The Cyclones will be a tough out this week with the crowd fueling them.

Bubble implications: There is still a long way to go for Kansas State, but the Wildcats at least stayed on the fringes of the bubble picture by upsetting Iowa State on Saturday in Manhattan. Now Kansas State’s attention turns to the Big 12 tournament, where it, at minimum, needs to beat NCAA tournament-bound Texas and take down Iowa State for the second time in less than a week.

Player who could carry his team in March: Jamal Shead, Houston

Projected champ: Houston

Projected NCAA bids: 9

Odds of producing a bid thief: Do you think Kansas State, Cincinnati, UCF, Oklahoma State or West Virginia can win four-plus games in the nation’s toughest conference tournament? Me neither. This isn’t the league that’s going to produce a bid thief.

Mountain West

Conference rank: 7th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Utah State 2. Nevada 3. Boise State

When and where: March 13-16 in Las Vegas (Bracket)

Favorite: There’s no true favorite in this deep, balanced conference, but Utah State and San Diego State come the closest. The Aggies (26-5) won the Mountain West outright despite returning zero players who scored a point the previous season. The Aztecs (22-9) still have a few key pieces from the team that reached last year’s national title game, most notably breakout star Jaedon LeDee.

Who else can win it? The better question is who can’t win it. Bart Torvik's Mountain West tournament simulator gives the league’s top seven teams at least a 10% chance but no better than an 18.6% chance to win the championship. Nevada, in particular, finished the regular season on a seven-game win streak, while Boise State won six of its final seven punctuated by an overtime road win at San Diego State.

Bubble implications: At minimum, the Mountain West is likely to match the conference-best five NCAA bids it earned in 2013. The question is whether the league can get a sixth team in the field. The league’s bubble team is New Mexico, which sits right on the cut line entering the week. The Lobos at minimum need to avoid disaster against Air Force and then win a quarterfinal against Boise State to improve their chances.

Player who could carry his team in March: Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State

Projected champ: San Diego State

Projected NCAA bids: 6

Odds of producing a bid thief: Watch out for fourth-seeded UNLV, which won 10 of its final 12 games and plays the Mountain West tournament on its home floor. The Rebels (19-11, 12-6) are unlikely to land an at-large bid as a result of early season losses to the likes of Southern, Loyola Marymount and Air Force, but they’re playing NCAA tournament-caliber basketball of late. They are capable of a run, though landing in the same half of the draw as San Diego State and Utah State doesn’t help.

Caleb Love has found a home at Arizona after transferring from North Carolina. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Caleb Love has found a home at Arizona after transferring from North Carolina. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images) (Christian Petersen via Getty Images)

Pac-12

Conference rank: 6th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Arizona 2. Washington State 3. Colorado

When and where: March 13-16 in Las Vegas (Bracket)

Favorite: When focused and motivated, Arizona is by far the Pac-12’s best team. The Wildcats beat Duke, Alabama, Wisconsin and Michigan State in non-conference play and clinched the outright Pac-12 title before their final regular-season game. They’re not just the favorite to win the Pac-12 tournament. They’re also a reasonable bet against the entire field.

Who else can win it? When sloppy or careless, Arizona has been susceptible to occasional head-scratching losses. That could open the door for a Washington State team that swept the Wildcats this season. Or a Colorado team with a first-team all-conference guard and a projected lottery pick in its starting lineup. Or even a handful of other teams who have the talent to string together a few wins.

Bubble implications: Whatever slim chance the Pac-12 had of sending both Colorado and Utah to the NCAA tournament took a hit when the third-seeded Buffaloes and sixth-seeded Utes landed in the same quarter of the bracket. Colorado needs that win to feel secure about its at-large chances. Utah might need a run to the Pac-12 title game to have any realistic hope.

Player who could carry his team in March: Caleb Love, Arizona

Projected champ: Arizona

Projected NCAA bids: 3

Odds of producing a bid thief: A bid thief from the Pac-12 is a real possibility considering that only Arizona, Washington State and Colorado are at-large-worthy among the league’s 12 teams. That leaves a couple of dangerous regular season underachievers who are capable of stringing together a few wins. Oregon is capable. So is Utah and USC.

SEC

Conference rank: 3rd of 33

Top seeds: 1. Tennessee 2. Kentucky 3. Alabama

When and where: March 13-17 in Nashville (Bracket)

Favorite: It’s either Tennessee, the outright regular-season champion, or Kentucky, the team that on Saturday took down the Vols on their home floor. Tennessee is in the pole position to secure the NCAA tournament’s fourth No. 1 seed and could all but clinch it by making the SEC title game. Kentucky has won seven of its past eight games and is a team that nobody will want to draw in the NCAA tournament.

Who else can win it? Watch out for Auburn, a team that predictive metrics continue to like far better than resume-based ones do. The fourth-seeded Tigers are ranked fourth at KenPom despite an astonishingly poor 1-7 record in Quadrant 1 games. Alabama also is a threat, though the Tide don'e have momentum heading into March. When Alabama’s perimeter shooters go cold, its defense is nowhere near good enough to grind out a win.

Bubble implications: All Mississippi State probably has to do to wrap up an NCAA bid is avoid crashing out of the SEC tournament in its opening-round game against LSU. Mock brackets project the Bulldogs as a 10 seed entering the week. The SEC team with more work to do is Texas A&M, which likely would not be in the field of 68 entering today. The Aggies (18-13) have beaten the likes of Kentucky, Tennessee and Iowa State, but they also have 13 losses, including four in Quadrant 3 games. Texas A&M might need to win a quarterfinal against Kentucky to feel good about its chances.

Player who could carry his team in March: Dalton Knecht, Tennessee

Projected champ: Kentucky

Projected NCAA bids: 7

Odds of producing a bid thief: Don’t count on an SEC bid thief. The top of this league is a lot better than the bottom half. Ole Miss has won two games since January. Arkansas hasn’t been able to string together consistent performances all season. The real threat to bubble teams is Texas A&M making a run to the SEC semifinals or title game. Otherwise bubble teams can breathe easy.