With conference championship week accelerating into full gear this week, so to does March Madness in men’s college basketball. A season of dramatic upsets and unforgettable matchups over the past few months have all led to this critical week. With automatic NCAA Tournament bids on the line in each conference ahead of Selection Sunday, there’s no telling how the results will pan out. Even though these conference tourneys are next to impossible to predict, we decided to take a swing at it. So, here are our projected champions in each of the major conferences.
Projected champion: Virginia
The ACC could be the best conference in the country this season, with five teams currently ranked in the top 25 and two ranked in the top 10. Seven teams could end up in the NCAA Tournament, which could be the most of any conference in the country. Among the strongest teams in the ACC are North Carolina and Virginia, who finished just one game apart in the standings (the Tar Heels ended up winning the regular season title).
While those two are the clear favorites in the ACC tournament, teams like Miami, Duke, and defending tournament champion Notre Dame will have plenty to say about who comes out on top. Analyzing everything, we think Virginia has the best chance of winning. The Cavaliers beat North Carolina in the two teams’ lone meeting and won nearly every other big game in the conference this season as well — the main reason for our prediction. Also, their suffocating defense coupled with the scoring presence of Malcolm Brogdon gives Virginia an edge in a tournament format.
Projected champion: UConn
With almost every team being on the edge of an NCAA Tournament appearance, the American conference could be renamed the “Bubble” conference. Temple, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Houston, and Tulsa all have a chance to reach the Big Dance, but all of them could easily be left out of the field as well. Temple finished at the top of the conference in the regular season, but doesn’t mean that the Owls should be considered favorites in the tournament.
In fact, picking a winner of this tourney is like flipping a coin. We decided to stick with history to pick a winner. Connecticut hasn’t been anywhere near a great team this season, but the Huskies know how to win when the games matter. That’s why we think Kevin Ollie’s club will find a way to finish on top in the American tournament, despite finishing fifth in the conference. Seeing what UConn has done in the past after winning conference tournaments, this could be the beginning of something unpredictable.
Projected champion: Saint Joseph’s
The A-10 is always a solid league that sends multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. This season should be no different, as at least four schools should dance out of the conference. The Dayton Flyers won the regular season title, but only by a slim margin over the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, VCU Rams, and Saint Joseph’s Hawks. With how tight the standings ended up being at the top, all of these schools have a great chance to cut down the nets for the A-10.
However, we think one team has a slight edge. That team is Saint Joseph’s. The Hawks finished fourth in the league and only managed one victory against the other top teams, but we feel that is a perfect storm for a tournament title. Two capable scorers in Isaiah Miles and DeAndre Bembry provide a punch that could be lethal in a tournament format. If the Hawks get it done, they would clinch their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2014.
Projected champion: Oklahoma
The Big 12 (in the regular season at least) has been dominated by one team and one team only. That team is the Kansas Jayhawks, who took home a 12th straight conference title this season. However, that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will roll to the tournament title. In fact, they haven’t won the Big 12 tournament since 2013. More importantly, the conference is loaded with talented teams this season, as seven teams from the Big 12 should dance this season.
It would be no surprise if a lower-seeded team like Texas or Baylor won the event, but we think one of the top three teams will win it. Our favorite is the Oklahoma Sooners. This may come as a surprise, as Oklahoma struggled down the stretch a bit and failed to beat Kansas this season. However, the presence of the prolific Buddy Hield makes the Sooners a dangerous tournament team.
Projected champion: Villanova
The Big East is a top-heavy league, as Villanova and Xavier sit in the top five in the AP Polls, but no other school appears in the top 25. Those top two managed to split their matchups this season, making a potential rematch in the conference tournament intriguing. Seton Hall, Butler, and Providence are fighting for their tournament lives, so that desperation could lead to a huge upset over the two favorites.
Knowing that anything can happen and that going with the “chalk” is ill-advised, we have Villanova winning this tournament. The Wildcats have been the most consistent team in the conference for multiple seasons now and should continue that trend this week. Of course, they’ll have to overcome their NCAA Tournament woes for any of that to matter.
Projected champion: Michigan State
Picking a tournament champion is difficult in the Big Ten. Several strong teams call the league home, from Indiana and Michigan State to Iowa and Maryland. Even though the Hoosiers won the regular-season title, we think it’s another team that is actually the clear favorite. And the name probably sounds familiar.
Michigan State has played better basketball, of late, than just about anybody in the country. They’ve won 10 of their past 11 games and have a Wooden Award candidate in Denzel Valentine playing as good as anyone. That momentum should carry the Spartans to the top of the Big Ten in the conference tournament.
Projected champion: San Diego State
The Mountain West fell apart this season. Typically, the conference sends multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, but only the conference champion is likely to make it this season. We think that team will be San Diego State, as the Aztecs were the clear class of the league in the regular season (they finished three games above everybody else). A sleeper team like Fresno State or Boise State could ruin San Diego State’s bid, but that would be one of the bigger surprises of the week — which means it will probably happen.
Projected champion: Utah
The Pac-12 has probably been the most underrated conference in the nation this season, as seven teams will likely be selected to participate in the Big Dance from the league this season. With all of those good schools playing in the conference, the tournament should be one of the more exciting ones of the entire week. Oregon comes in as the regular-season champ, but teams like Arizona, Cal, and Utah lurk right behind the Ducks.
As with any tournament, the Pac 12 title could be determined by the team with the most momentum entering the event. That gives us a clear favorite. The Utah Utes won their final seven games of the season to surge to second place in the conference, as they earned key victories over Arizona and Colorado at the end of it. That, coupled with the presence of Jakob Poeltl, should give the Utes their first ever Pac-12 tourney title.
Projected champion: LSU
Finally, we have the SEC, a league typically owned by the Kentucky Wildcats, but one that was won by the Texas A&M Aggies this season. Plenty of teams lurk on the NCAA Tournament bubble in the conference, raising the importance of the league tournament. Therefore, we think that neither the Aggies nor the Wildcats will win it.
Instead, we are going with a team that has a player who needs to be in the Big Dance. Ben Simmons and the LSU Tigers have to win the SEC tournament if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. It would be a shame if a player of Simmons’ caliber wasn’t a part of the sport’s premier event, so we think (someway, somehow) that the Tigers will find a way to get it done. Their 18-13 record isn’t inspiring, but second chances are what makes March so great.