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Conference expansion has made Championship week unwieldy at best and unwatchable at worst.  For years the ACC had to deal with having the “Les Robinson Game” that pitted the 8th and 9th place teams…adding drama to the late-season for the bottom-feeders.  Everybody dreaded playing in the Les Robinson Game, even the NC State coach the game was named after (fittingly his final win with the Wolfpack came in the Robinson game).  The expansion of the SEC, Big East and creation of the Big XII meant that 12-team brackets would become commonplace…and by the time the ACC had finished its first round of picking the bones of the Big East the dozen felt natural:  four first round games to feed the back end of the quarterfinals.

But expansion to 14 (and 15 in the ACC) schools mandates another round, and since we already have the “first round” that precedes the quarterfinals one wants to call the first day of these tournaments the “opening round” or “day of dreck”.  Instead of a first round that gave you bubble teams fighting for bids, you have bottom-feeders playing for their coach’s contract.  For a while the 16-school Big East didn’t invite the 13th through 16th place teams to Madison Square Garden, if only to spare us of having to watch Rutgers or DePaul play one more time (if there’s any bonus to recent realignment, it’s that we will never have to see Rutgers-DePaul again in a conference tournament).  Unfortunately cooler heads did not prevail-thus creating a double-bye, a five-day tournament and a difficult to draw bracket.

At least the current Big East with its ten-school membership is down to semi-workable numbers (I like the round-robin and the lack of double-bye).  If you’re an ACC fan and want to see North Carolina, you’re going to have to wait until the third day of their tournament.  Same case with Kentucky and the SEC.  Maryland fans who are excited to be able to make the short trip to Verizon Center will have to wait until the 10th game of the Big Ten Tournament to see the Terps in action.  The new first round features the usual suspects:  so get ready for a Boston College team that hasn’t won since mid-January, a Rutgers team that’s made the opening day in the Big Ten their home just like they did in the Big East, and a Duquesne that’s hosting the A-10 before being shown the quick door.  Even in the SEC, the first round is a bit of a drag because at this point 12 of the 14 schools are all focused on spring football anyways.  Actually, the day of dreck makes me yearn for spring football…

Alma Mater Update- so the Orange need a win over Miami to secure an NCAA Berth, right?  Just like they needed a victory over Pitt last March in DC?  I had SU out after a 19-13 campaign that included losses to Georgetown and St. John’s plus a finishing slide of five losses in six games, only to be proven wrong by the committee.  I still think they need a 19th win this year to get in.  We’ll find out as they tip off against the Hurricanes at noon Wednesday.

ACC Tournament (Barclays Center, Brooklyn)- you can’t get further away from the land of Bojangles than Brooklyn.  The top-heavy league has ten potential NCAA Tournament teams with the usual bluebloods (North Carolina and Duke) expecting their annual coronation.

Matchup I want to see:  Louisville-Duke in the Quarterfinals.  Two schools playing for high seeds in the big dance.  New ACC money against the old guard.  Pitino back in the Big Apple…and don’t forget Coach K played at Army and the Blue Devils previously made the Meadowlands their home away from Durham.  The winner likely faces North Carolina.

Bold Pick (which school will surprise the experts):  Wake Forest is playing in the opening round for the fourth straight year, but Danny Manning’s team boasts a big man extraordinaire in John Collins (3rd in ACC in scoring, 2nd in rebounds, 4th in blocked shots).  Potential second-round foe Virginia Tech ranks 15th in the conference in rebounding and the Deacons are playing for an at-large bid.

Fold Pick (which team will exit earlier than expected):  Virginia may have won three straight to finish the regular season, but the team lacks offensive consistency outside of London Perrantes and can be had inside.

Gold Pick (who cuts down the nets):  During a season where North Carolina’s talent, Duke’s discipline, Syracuse’s last-second shots, NC State’s implosion and Virginia Tech’s perspiring coach have hijacked the headlines nobody is talking about Florida State.  Same case with the second-longest tenured coach in the league Leonard Hamilton and sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon.  At a tournament played in New York’s “other” borough, shouldn’t an underdog shine?

 

Big Ten (Verizon Center, Washington D.C.)- at least they don’t begin their expanded tournament until Wednesday.  Fittingly Rutgers plays in one first round game while Penn State plays in the other…I think eventually their first-day presence may be mandated.

Matchup I want to see:  Maryland-Northwestern in the Quarterfinals.  Both schools have plenty to prove:  the Terps want to fare better than their last conference tournament in DC (a first round loss to Clemson) while the Wildcats look to cement their NCAA Tournament worthiness despite six losses in their last nine games.  Their journalism schools like to brag as well…

Bold: Iowa wrapped up the regular season with four straight wins…and they’re led by the conference’s leading scorer in Peter Jok.  The senior’s supporting cast is finally growing up (only two other scholarship upperclassmen dot the roster) and Fran McCaffery’s team

Fold:  Michigan State.  Tough to sell Tom Izzo short when he’s led the Spartans to the Big Ten title three times this decade, but the 5th seed is the school’s lowest this decade.  For whatever reason MSU didn’t benefit from it’s rough pre-conference schedule and turned into a bubble team that probably needs two wins to be secure in the field.

Gold: Purdue has long languished in the shadow of Indiana University (one can still hear the Hoosier faithful chant “Banners!”).  Not so this winter…and the one-two inside punch of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas looks to be too formidable to stop.

 

Atlantic 10 (PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh)- somebody had to move to give the ACC their week in Brooklyn.  One benefit from conference realignment is the A-10 is no longer being looked down upon by only the Big East.

Matchups I want to see: VCU-George Mason and Richmond-George Washington in the Quarterfinals.  If the 6th seeded Colonials and #7 Patriots win as expected, we’d have a Friday doubleheader featuring the conference’s southern wing…heating up the Orange Line and I-95.

Bold: Rhode Island heads to Pittsburgh on a five-game winning streak and has lost its games to regular season champ Dayton by a combined three points.  Danny Hurley’s team doesn’t dazzle you, but the steak far outweighs the sizzle.

Fold: Even with two of the league’s top four scorers and #1 assist man in Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure will draw a less-than-ideal matchup in round two…as both UMass and Saint Joseph’s have played them to two-possession games this winter.

Gold:  VCU has dominated the Atlantic 10 Tournament since joining the league, playing for the championship each season.  JeQuan Lewis and company have unfinished business with regular season champ Dayton.

 

Big East (Madison Square Garden)- finally, a tournament location where the league’s fans won’t get lost finding the arena.  I’m still bummed they play Wednesday-Saturday as opposed to Thursday-Sunday, but I’ll take the tournament that only lasts three and a half days.

Matchup I want to see:  Villanova-Butler in the Finals.  Nobody has been as good this winter as the Wildcats…and nobody has their number like the Bulldogs.

Bold:  Seton Hall. Angel Delgado leads the nation in rebounding, and in the conference of Patrick Ewing, Derrick Coleman and Walter Berry that has to count for something-even in a perimeter oriented 21st century game.  The Pirates also beat Villanova last year at MSG.

Fold: Providence.  The Friars are facing a Creighton team that may have finally recovered from losing Maurice Watson, Jr to injury.  They are also coming off wins against DePaul and St. John’s-and that is no way to prepare a team for the tournament.

Gold: Villanova is the best team in the league for the second straight year…plus they’ll have the extra motivating having lost in the championship game last March.  And I don’t think this is a team that needs motivation.

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