College Basketball Conference Tournaments: Sparty Makes A Statement

The NCAA Tournament bracket is up and the Madness has begun. But before we dig into the field of 68, how about we first take a look back at the events of the past several days in the college basketball conference tournaments? The first nets were cut down as teams won conference tournaments and in no case was a bigger statement than in Indianapolis, where Michigan State thundered to a tournament crown.

Tom Izzo’s Spartans have been hit with injuries throughout the year, dealing with the temporary losses of Adrien Payne or Branden Dawson and in some spots in the schedule, both. Payne, Dawson and the rest of Sparty are all healthy and clicking now and that spelled bad news for the rest of the Big Ten in Indy.

Michigan State was the 3-seed in this conference and opened up with an easy win over Northwestern. Then the Spartans shot 57 percent from the floor on Saturday, in beating Wisconsin 83-75. This was a game not as close as the score might lead you to believe—Michigan State built up a big lead and while Wisconsin made rumbles at various points in the second half, it never really got tight. The Spartans then closed it out with a win over archrival and regular season champ Michigan this afternoon by a 69-55 count.

That’s three straight wins, the last two against teams that got 2-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State enjoyed an average rebounding advantage of plus-10 in the Big Ten tournament and their average victory margin was over a dozen points. Izzo knows how to get a team to peak in March and with his kids getting healthy at the right time, it appears to be happening again.

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Elsewhere around the country…

ACC: Virginia—The Cavaliers continue a fantastic story this season. After they won the regular season championship a lot of observers—including me—figured Syracuse or Duke would win the ACC tournament in Greensboro. Instead, Joe Harris got UVA started with a 20-point game that pushed them past Florida State 64-51, a game the Seminoles desperately needed for an NCAA bid they didn’t get.

Virginia then won a physical game with Pitt, 51-48, holding the Panthers to 37 percent shooting. And in a tough emotional title game this afternoon, the Cavaliers pulled away from Duke in the last few minutes to win 72-63, thanks to 23 points from Malcom Brogdon and 15 more from Harris.

After a season that saw Virginia win their first outright conference championship since 1981, they then take their first tournament crown since 1976. I think it’s also worth noting that Duke—who can usually be counted on to at least pick up one of the regular season/tournament combo, has been shut out of both for the past three seasons. Nor have they made the Final Four in any of those years. But Coach K standards, this is a pretty significant drought.

American: Louisville—I share the shock of the ESPN studio crew that Louisville was a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals blasted their way through this field. They beat Rutgers 92-31, forcing 26 turnovers in the process. I know it’s only Rutgers—how many times do you see a score like that?

Louisville then caught a break when Houston upset SMU, although it likely didn’t matter. Russ Smith dropped 42 points and the Cardinals again won easily. They finished the job in the final against UConn with 19 more from Smith and 22 from Montrezl Hazell. Rick Pitino’s team has only lost five games and is coming on strong down the stretch. I don’t think it matters to them what seed line they’re in, but pity poor Wichita State, the 1-seed who’s getting stuck with them in the Sweet 16.

Disappointment was the bigger storyline out of this conference. When Houston hit nine treys and beat SMU, it knocked the Mustangs out of the NCAA Tournament. And on a less drastic note, regular season co-champ Cincinnati didn’t arrest their late-season slide. The Bearcats played poorly in a survival win over Central Florida and then lost to UConn.

Big 12: Iowa State—Melvin Ejim is a terrific basketball player and the Cyclones’ swingman lit it up the first two games in Kansas City. Ejim combined for 43 points as Iowa State beat Kansas State 91-85 and then a Joel Embid-less Kansas team, 94-83. As you can tell by the scores, the Cyclones were shooting the ball well. They continued the pattern in a 74-65 win over Baylor in the final.

Iowa State was the only team in a major conference to shoot at least 50 percent in all three of its tournament games. Does that mean they’re getting hot at the right time? Or does it mean that shots which fell this weekend will roll off the rim next weekend? We’ll start figuring that out tomorrow. For tonight, Cyclones fans, just take the trophy back to Ames and celebrate.

SEC: Florida—Billy Donovan’s Gators locked up the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with successive wins over Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. The games got progressively closer, going from a rout over Mizzou, to a moderately tense win over the Vols, to a 61-60 nailbiter over the Wildcats.

In all three cases, the opponents couldn’t buy a three-pointer, as Florida’s opposition shot a combined 6-for-37 from behind the arc. If it happens once, it’s some good luck. If it happens twice, it catches your attention. If it happens three days in a row, then your defense has an awful lot to do with it.

Big East: Providence—The Friars came to Madison Square Garden on the NCAA bubble and had a quarterfinal game with St. John’s that might have been a head-up battle for a bid. Providence got four three-pointers and 24 points from Josh Fortune and won 79-74. Then they got a bracket break when top-seeded Villanova lost and Providence beat Seton Hall 80-74, this time getting four treys and 26 points from LaDontae Henton.

Defense told the story in the championship game. Providence let Creighton’s Doug McDermott get his points, 27 in all, but no one else for the Bluejays did anything and Providence won it 65-58. They’re on the 11-seed line in the NCAA Tournament, and St. John’s did end up missing, so it’s pretty fair to say that Providence went right to the edge.

Pac-12: UCLA—UCLA sizzled in Las Vegas, shooting 57 percent in an easy win over Oregon in the quarterfinals, and then 65 percent over Stanford in a blowout win in the semifinals. This tournament is played inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and UCLA coach Steve Alford couldn’t have been blamed if he decided to try his hand at the blackjack tables with how hot his hand seemed to be.

The shooting wasn’t quite as hot in a good game against soon-to-be NCAA #1 seed Arizona in the final, but UCLA’s Kyle Anderson had a big 21 points/15 rebounds night and led the way to a 75-71 win.

Atlantic 10: St. Joe’s—Langton Galloway exploded for 31 points in a crucial 70-67 win over Dayton in the quarterfinals at the Barclays Center. Dayton still got on the field as an 11-seed, but this was another one of those games that a winner-take-all air to it.

St. Joe’s then was able to get 8-seed St. Bonaventure in the semis and cruise to a dominating win. Then they got four starters in double figures and beat a good Virginia Commonwealth team in today’s championship game, 65-61.

The team we have to wonder about is St. Louis. They nearly blew the regular season title and now they lose to an 8-seed in the conference tournament. The Billikens are on the 5-seed line in the NCAA Tournament. If they even survive the first round, it’s Louisville awaiting in the second. This has the feel of a year that’s going to end very ugly for Jim Crews’ team.

Mountain West: New Mexico—The conference that was dominated all year by New Mexico and San Diego State saw a third go-around between the two teams. The Lobos, after losing a winner-take-all battle for the conference championship to the Aztecs last weekend, were able to get a 64-58 win in the tournament final.

While I don’t think the league tournaments are on a par with the regular season championship, it’s still something for New Mexico to take home.  And forward Cameron Bairstow was a beast all weekend, going for 20-plus points each game and joining with center Alex Kirk in controlling the glass.

And that’s a wrap on the college basketball conference tournaments. Tomorrow we’ll start previewing March Madness, as the First Four starts up on Tuesday/Wednesday and then the extravaganza kicks in on Thursday.