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NCAA Basketball Conference Tournament Primer: Can Duke Get Back to Being Back?

Five story lines to watch as we inch closer to the Madness

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Before we begin, let’s recognize college basketball conference tournaments for what they are: money grabs by old rich dudes who are so desperate to update the gold toilets on their private yachts that they pretend to not know how free markets work and further exploit unpaid student-athletes for financial gain. Even beyond that, they are objectively the dumbest thing about the sport: They undermine the results of the regular season, they switch venues so often that they make establishing any sense of tradition impossible, and they’re competitively nonsensical. (Double-byes are the first step toward adopting the inevitable format of the 2035 conference tournaments: a Street Fighter–type ladder system in which the worst team from each league will have to go through every other conference member to win the championship, while the best team will get an automatic bye until the title game.) These tournaments are so obviously about the money that if the big shots in college sports were asked why they insist on having them instead of using this week to create balanced, regular-season conference schedules, they’d grab whatever they can find in their pockets, throw it on the ground as if were a smoke bomb, and immediately take off running.


Ever since I skipped class during my senior year of high school to watch Gerry McNamara carry Syracuse to the 2006 Big East tournament title, I’ve been all-in on conference tourneys. I so badly want to hate them, but as soon as I turn on DePaul–St. John’s in the middle of the day while all of my friends are at work, the MADNESS takes over and I temporarily forget all of the hypocrisy mentioned in the first paragraph. And that’s what conference tournaments are really good for: They’re a warm-up for fans to get ready for the Big Dance. Just like the players need practice, we need to get in reps of calling off work or skipping class, drinking all day, lounging in a recliner for 12 straight hours, and yelling at referees who blow calls in the final seconds.

With that, here are my power rankings of the most powerful things to watch for in this week’s conference tournament action.

5. The first Ivy League tournament will be held this weekend.

It’s no secret that most Ivy League institutions struggle to stay afloat financially, so the league was left with no choice but to finally cash in on a conference tournament payday. Unlike other conferences, though, the Ivy League — eight schools total — will allow only the top four teams in its regular-season standings to compete in the tourney. Princeton went 14–0 in league play to win the regular-season title, which would have been enough to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in any previous year. Now, the Tigers will have to go through Penn on Saturday and then the winner of Harvard–Yale on Sunday to make the Big Dance. And yes, you read that correctly: The first Ivy League tournament will feature the two best rivalries in the conference right out of the gate.

This will not be relevant to the national title picture in any way, but I am certainly intrigued by the idea of the Palestra hosting the first tournament for a conference that, rumor has it, really took up basketball when John Jay infamously dunked on John Adams during a First Continental Congress lunch break.

4. After going back to not being back following a brief stint in which it was back (when Coach K came back from back surgery), Duke will try to get back to being back before its not-backness comes back to bite it in the back.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The rest of America might be ready to pull the plug on the Blue Devils’ 2016–17 hopes, but I refuse to give up on Duke until I see Coach K lecturing the best player on the opposing team that just kicked his ass in the NCAA tournament. There’s just too much talent on this roster, and it’s impossible to forget the three-week stretch starting in late January that saw the Blue Devils beat Wake Forest twice, win at Notre Dame and at Virginia, and take down North Carolina relatively easily. That said, Duke is clearly back to not being back right now, having dropped three of its past four games entering the ACC tournament, including Saturday’s 90–83 loss to the Tar Heels.

Assuming the Blue Devils don’t stumble on Wednesday against the winner of NC State–Clemson, they’ll play Louisville on Thursday. If they win that one, they’ll (probably) play North Carolina on Friday, and a victory would (probably) mean a matchup against Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia, or Virginia Tech on Saturday for the title. If Duke, a program that’s historically been great in the ACC tournament (it’s captured 10 of the past 18 titles and 19 overall, the most all time), can piece everything together and rip off a four-game winning streak against high-caliber competition, the Blue Devils will become the One Team Nobody in America Wants to Face entering the NCAA tournament. More importantly, they’ll officially be back.

3. Literally any team except Rutgers could win the Big Ten tournament.

No, seriously. Penn State is the Big Ten tourney’s no. 13 seed and took regular-season champion Purdue to overtime in a 74–70 loss on February 21. Nebraska is the league’s no. 12 seed and has beaten Purdue and no. 3 seed Maryland this season. No. 11 seed Ohio State, which has historically found more success than any other program in the Big Ten tournament, came within a shot of beating Purdue on January 5, absolutely smoked no. 2 seed Wisconsin on February 23, and has wins over no. 4 seed Minnesota and no. 5 seed Michigan State. No. 10 seed Indiana was ranked no. 3 in the AP poll at one point this season and might still have the most talented roster in the conference, while every other non-Rutgers team in the Big Ten is at least on the bubble to make the NCAA tournament, even if only one (Purdue) is halfway expected to reach the Sweet 16.

As someone who has declared the 2016–17 Big Ten to be absolute trash and who thinks the product has been borderline unwatchable this season, I’ll say this much: If you want to follow a conference tournament in which anything can happen, the Big Ten is your only choice. There isn’t a single outcome that could surprise me — except Rutgers winning it all, of course.

2. The three best Pac-12 teams are playing to stay out west in the NCAA tournament.

Excluding conferences in which the tournament champion will be the sole representative in the NCAA tournament, no league has as much at stake in its tourney than the Pac-12. Oregon and Arizona shared the regular-season Pac-12 crown, but UCLA is the highest-ranked team in the conference and is riding a nine-game winning streak that includes victories over the Ducks and Wildcats. Thus, there’s little to distinguish the résumés of those three programs, and the Pac-12 tournament will likely serve as the tiebreaker in determining which team gets to stay in the West regional and which will be sent at least two time zones away. (As a reminder: The selection committee won’t put teams from the same conference in the same regional if those teams are seeded anywhere from no. 1 through no. 4, a principle that will likely affect the fates of UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona.)

A few weeks ago, with Kansas already seen as a lock for the no. 1 seed in the Midwest regional and Villanova perceived as a lock for the no. 1 seed in the East, an interesting hypothetical was on the table in which the best Pac-12 team seemed like it could end up with the no. 1 seed in the South. (Staying close to home is far more important to West Coast teams than being a no. 1 instead of a no. 2 seed.) That doesn’t seem to be in play anymore, though, as North Carolina figures to have secured the South’s no. 1 seed by winning the ACC regular-season title by two games. And while Gonzaga should wrap up the no. 1 seed in the West when it plays Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night for the West Coast Conference tournament championship, there’s a chance that the selection committee could bump the Zags down to a no. 2 seed because they lost their undefeated record by falling to BYU 79–71 on February 25. Even then, what’s at stake in the Pac-12 tourney remains the same: The winner will be one of the top seeds in the West alongside Gonzaga, while the other two great Pac-12 teams will be shit out of location luck.

1. The bubble is really weak this year, you guys.

For roughly the 46th consecutive season, the general consensus from bracketologists all over America is that this year’s bubble might be the weakest ever. I guess that may be true, but honestly I’m not sure why that opinion always feels so controversial. Regardless of the supposed strength of the bubble, the end result seems to be the same: Some bubble teams win a couple of games in their respective conference tournaments, most don’t, and when the dust settles, everything generally works itself out.

But the strength of the bubble is beside the point. What makes the NCAA tournament so fascinating isn’t just what happens on the court. It’s also how the field is set, as it’s one of the few sporting events in the world in which a committee decides the teams that will participate by using its own (seemingly arbitrary) metrics. And even though this seems like an absurd and awful system that would lead to rampant corruption, it actually works! Because of all the factors in play, it’s impossible for any team on the bubble to feel comfortable about its status heading into Selection Sunday. As the conference tournaments progress, the bubble shrinks, small schools lock up surprise bids, and the already hazy requirements to make the tournament drastically change. All bubble teams can do during this time of year is win the games in front of them and hope that it’s enough.

And that’s why the bubble is the most intriguing thing about conference tournaments. Remember that time in high school or college when you forgot about an upcoming test and tried to cram as the teacher made announcements before passing out the exam? You know how you quickly realized you were screwed, so you stopped cramming and started asking around to see how much other people had studied in hopes of finding out whether there would be a lenient grading curve? That feeling is basically what every bubble team experiences in the conference tournaments. There are way too many bubble teams to list, but a good rule of thumb is that any power-conference program with between 10 and 14 losses enters this week with a chance of making the NCAA tournament. They can play themselves onto or off of the bubble, they can have their bubble burst, or they can morph from a team that everyone swore off to a team that kinda, sorta might have a chance at stealing a tournament bid.

There is no ironclad rubric for making the NCAA tournament field, nor is there a set number of invitations to be extended to bubble teams. The next six days will be a mad dash to a finish line that nobody can see, bringing an end to a qualifying race with an unspecified cutoff point. All we know for sure is that we’re about to witness a mess of mediocrity attempt to sort itself out in the most chaotic and confusing way imaginable, after which we’ll shrug and say, “Meh, that seems about right” when the committee produces its final bracket. It’s a process that is inherently screwed up — that somehow makes no sense and total sense at the same time.

In other words: It’s madness.