March Madness: 7 teams with something to prove in conference tournament play this week
Hear that popping noise? That’s the sound of hopes bursting for handfuls of borderline teams falling short of the ultimate goal: an invitation to March Madness.
For many programs, though, the hopes are still alive — barely.
Here are seven teams who have a lot to prove to the selection committee in this final week before Selection Sunday.
Georgia Tech (17-14, 8-10) | ACC
The record for most conference representatives in a single NCAA tournament is 11. With eight apparent locks and three more suitable candidates, the ACC is trying to match that mark this week.
Georgia Tech appears to be the 11th team in the ACC's pecking order and needs a solid showing at the conference tournament in Brooklyn to earn an invitation. The Yellow Jackets’ recent play hasn’t helped. Georgia Tech is 1-3 in its last four games, including a home loss to NC State (15-16) and a 29-point defeat to fellow wannabe tournament team Syracuse. Even in that lone win, Georgia Tech struggled to break away from Pittsburgh (15-16) in a 61-52 finish.
First up in the ACC Tournament for the the Yellow Jackets, the league's No. 11 seed, is No. 14 seed Pitt. An opening-round win there would set up a grand opportunity for a resume-building win against defensive-minded Virginia.
Kansas State (19-12, 8-10) | Big 12
Kansas State certainly has some tournament-worthy wins on its conference docket (Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State), but its weak non-conference schedule and a No. 58 RPI ranking don't help its case.
The Wildcats play in one of the nation's best conferences but don't have any signature victories over the past month. In the same span, Kansas State has suffered a crushing late defeat to then-No. 3 Kansas and a 30-point blowout loss to bottom-of-the-barrel Oklahoma.
Of course, the Big 12 tournament provides plenty of opportunities. That starts with a second-round matchup with No. 3 seed Baylor in a game which pits all-conference forwards Wesley Iwundu and Johnathan Motley against each other in the post.
Iwundu is KSU’s top scorer (12.6) and rebounder (6.6). In order to survive and advance in the gauntlet of the Big 12 tournament, he’ll likely have to take over some games.
USC (23-8, 10-8) | Pac-12
The top tier of the Pac-12 (Oregon, Arizona, UCLA) can compete with anyone in the country and seem like locks for top four seeds. Below those three, though, there’s some gray area.
Riding the coattails of Ivan Rabb, Cal appeared to be on the rise. But the Golden Bears laid an egg against Colorado Saturday. Utah, the No. 4 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, has won three straight — but it also lacks any standout wins and is No. 73 in the RPI.
That leaves the Trojans in the best position to give the Pac-12 another spot in the field. USC started the season 14-0 before struggling in conference play. The Trojans lost four straight games in February — three coming to Oregon, UCLA and Arizona — before ending the year with back-to-back victories over Washington State and Washington.
USC split the season series with UCLA and finished with a respectable No. 38 RPI rating. It has plenty of options on offense with four players averaging in double figures. That bodes well in a tournament ripe with powerful offensive systems.
USC opens the Pac-12 tournament with a rematch against Washington. The Trojans cannot afford an upset there. A win will set up a matchup with rival UCLA. A win there likely would put USC over the top.
Vanderbilt (17-14, 10-8) | SEC
Vanderbilt may be the safest team on this list, coming off a season sweep against Florida. But there's still work to do as the No. 7 seed in the SEC tournament.
In Bryce Drew’s first year at the helm, the Commodores overcame a shaky start to win nine of their last 13 games. Vanderbilt has beaten the Gators twice and knocked off South Carolina and Arkansas. Also, that January non-conference win against Iowa State — a likely middle seed — looks a whole lot better with the Cyclones’ meteoric rise.
Vanderbilt takes on Texas A&M in the second round of the SEC tournament for a chance to play No. 2 seed Florida in the quarterfinals. A three-game sweep over the Gators would be an impressive feat to consider come Selection Sunday.
Illinois (18-13, 8-10) | Big Ten
Illinois was riding high into Saturday on a four-game winning streak that catapulted the Illini into favorable position to squeak their way into the field. Then they lost to Rutgers, who has just three conference wins this season.
That’s March for you.
Now the Illini have work to do entering the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C. Illinois ranks 57th in RPI and is 0-5 against ranked teams this season.
The Illini likely need to run the table and win the conference title to advance to their first NCAA tournament since 2013. A runner-up finish or semifinals appearance may be enough, depending on other results.
A run like that in the conference tournament isn’t too far-fetched considering the lackluster play across the Big Ten down the stretch. Illinois already has beaten Northwestern (a likely NCAA tournament team) twice, Michigan State and Iowa in the past month. What may ultimately determine the Illini’s fate is if they can pick up a big win over one or two of the conference’s top-tier teams -- like Wisconsin or Purdue -- in later rounds.
Xavier (19-12, 9-9) | Big East
Losing a guard of Edmond Sumner’s caliber is tough to overcome for any program with tournament hopes. Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura have been carrying the load in his absence and have the Musketeers in position for a possible fourth straight berth.
The problem is, Xavier ended the season losing six of its final seven games. Now the Musketeers must play on Day 1 of the tournament against last-place DePaul and likely have to beat Butler in the quarterfinals to feel secure.
The Big East tournament has plenty of intrigue with injuries and late surges. The quarterfinals matchup between Marquette and Seton Hall pit a team needing help to get into the field against a team that appears to be in the top 68 but can't afford an early exit.
On the other side of the bracket, Providence goes against a Creighton team that's struggled the whole second half without point guard Maurice Watson Jr. (torn ACL). Tournament bids and seeding stakes are on the line throughout this tournament.
Rhode Island (21-9, 13-5) | Atlantic 10
Three years ago the A-10 had a conference-record six representatives in the NCAA tournament field. This year, it will need some help to get a third in.
Dayton and VCU are sure bets. Below them, Rhode Island faces uncertainty.
URI has a respectable No. 42 RPI ranking and has won nine of its last 10 games, including a 10-point victory against VCU on Feb. 25. But the Rams’ best win of the season came all the way in November — against then-No. 24 Cincinnati — and they have two bad losses to La Salle and Fordham.
The A-10 has seen six different tournament champs in the past seven seasons, only two of which have been top seeds. That parity may benefit No. 4 seed URI, who will have a bye for the first two rounds.
URI has the pieces to make a run. After missing almost the entirety of last season due to injury, junior guard E.C. Matthews has returned to lead the team with 14.4 points per game. He’s joined by veteran frontcourt members Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, who average more than 14 combined rebounds and almost four blocks per game.
The Rams haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 1999.