The oddest week of the college basketball season has arrived.
Just completed was a two-plus-month journey to determine league champions, which followed more than a month of non-conference competition.
Just over the horizon, the glorious madness of the NCAA Tournament.
Each phase becomes its own season for power-conference programs. Teams use the first to prepare for the second and they build credentials to gain entry into the third and the 68-team field.
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Shoved in between the regular season and NCAA Tournament is conference tournament week, a minichapter played at a frenzied pace with various purposes for the 351 teams in Division I.
For conferences such as the Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big East, their best teams aren’t sweating out the week. Oh, everybody wants to cut nets and wear championship caps and T-shirts, but winning the league tourney title isn’t the primary preseason goal here. Getting to the NCAA is, and the best of these teams are in regardless of this week’s outcomes.
The conference tournament champion is the league’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament, but unless there’s a wild upset from a team seeded near the bottom, being the automatic qualifier is a footnote among major conferences.
Kansas coach Bill Self has been asked a few times recently if he plans to alter his play rotation to rest starters during the Big 12 tournament, which starts Wednesday at the Sprint Center.
The Jayhawks are top-ranked and seemingly without a way to lose an NCAA No. 1 seed. Still, Self said KU won’t make adjustments and look to win its second straight and eighth Big 12 tourney title in Self’s 14 seasons in Lawrence.
At the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, the stakes are NCAA Tournament seeding. Oregon won the regular season and appears to be in the best position to be placed in the West Region, with Arizona and UCLA headed to different parts of the nation. A tourney victory by the Wildcats or Bruins could change that.
Kentucky will be favored to win the SEC tourney as the top seed, but Wildcats’ coach John Calipari said he believes the event is wide open. Still, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said, “I still think everything goes through Kentucky.”
If North Carolina and Duke are to meet for a third time this season it would be in the ACC semifinals at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But plenty can happen before then. The ACC is powerful at the top, with five teams expected to be top four seeds in the NCAA.
For the first time the Big Ten leaves its traditional footprint and brings its tournament to Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s backyard. Purdue is the top seed, but in a wild year for the Big Ten, with only two teams ranked in the top 25, the event appears up for grabs.
Villanova would seem a heavy favorite in the Big East at Madison Square Garden, but if the seeds hold, the Wildcats would face Butler in the final, and the Bulldogs handed the defending national champion two of its three losses this season.
Several from the power conference group hope to pad their resume this week and land an at-large spot in the NCAA field. Kansas State, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Illinois and California are among teams looking to play their way into the field.
Conference tournament tenor changes for mid- and low-major conferences. For them, with only the champion proceeding to the NCAAs in most cases, the season rides on these few days.
Several of these tournaments have started, among them the Missouri Valley. With Wichita State’s victory over Illinois State in Sunday’s title game, the Shockers are back in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season.
Wichita State might have reached the field as an at-large entry had it lost Sunday but there was no guarantee. There appears to be no route for Illinois State to be selected.
For teams in these leagues, becoming the automatic qualifier means everything.