Championship Week is here, and it's a glorious time. Naturally, the kickoff of the major conference tournaments has us all looking ahead to Selection Sunday, but it's more than that.
All of these teams have beaten each other down for the past two-plus months, and now, they all get together in a single bracket in a fight for March Madness seeding, revenge and, most important, bragging rights.
It's debatable just how much winning a conference title indicates future success in the NCAA tournament. But regardless of your opinion on that topic, there is no denying the appeal of watching these teams play the most primal forms of basketball: the type in which you know your opponent's every move.
Here are teams from each of the primary conferences that I seem to like more than most fans, and why I think they could make some noise both in ESPN's Champ Week Challenge, and also when the madness gets underway.
The Cardinals looked like a true title threat early this season, but the public seems to have soured a bit on that thought after they went 3-4 in their final seven games. I understand the waning confidence, but I want versatility in March, as the contenders this time of year need to win in a variety of ways. They are the only team Joe Lunardi has in his field that ranks among the top 25 in both 3-point percentage and rebound rate. If Jordan Nwora can rediscover his November form (21.9 points per game on 50.5% shooting), this team can rattle off six straight W's.
Sometimes to win a game, you just have to not lose it. That may sound simple, but not beating yourself is a skill, and the Spiders certainly have it as they grade out among the elite in both free throw percentage and assist-turnover ratio. They finished the regular season with four players averaging over 12.5 points per game, and if they can get into the tournament, they are a bracket buster waiting to happen.
For a third straight season, the Red Raiders boast a top-10 defense in terms of efficiency, a trait alone that makes them a threat to pull off a big upset from their current spot as a 9-seed. But when you consider that this team ranks top-20 in assists per possession (those previous two Texas Tech teams didn't make the top 120), you'll understand why this is a team I think 1-seeds want no part of. Skeptics will point to the Red Raiders' 0-4 record against Kansas and Baylor, but considering that none of those games were decided by more than five points, I'm encouraged by this team's ability to hang with anyone.
You already know that I love Creighton. For those who don't know ... I really believe in the Bluejays. Instead of trying to convince you further that the Bluejays are every bit legit, let's focus on a Nova team that tied Creighton (and Seton Hall) for a share of the Big East title and impressed down the stretch of the regular season. Since losing three in a row (for the record, none of those losses really concern me at all), the Wildcats avenged an early-season loss to Marquette, blitzed a DePaul team that took them to overtime in January and won during Seton Hall's senior night. Jay Wright has a young team that moves the ball and doesn't give up easy points on defense ... they profile as a top-10 team in the country for me, yet they are priced outside the top 15 in the NCAA futures market.
Iowa is Creighton Lite in terms of its offensive approach, and while the Hawkeyes obviously lack the consistency to stake a claim as a legitimate title contender, this is very much one of those off-the-radar teams that could make some serious noise if they get rolling. Against a very difficult Big Ten schedule, they posted a top-10 offense, led by Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza. Garzilla? The Garzanater? OK, the nickname needs workshopping, but his game doesn't, and this is the type of offense that can force opponents out of their comfort zone. Yes, the defense can be a turnstile at times, but if the Hawkeyes can string eight minutes of intensity together at any point, this offense has the potential to put even the country's best in a bind. I'm not saying they win a title (Big Ten or national), but I am saying that I'd hate to project them in the path of a team I think can win it all.
Much like a hot goalie in hockey or a pitcher in baseball, we've all seen a player get hot and lead his squad to unexpected heights come tournament play. This Wildcats team is a Nico Mannion breakout away from wreaking all sorts of havoc on the brackets. I've got both Oregon and Gonzaga ranked as top-15 teams, and they went a combined 3-0 against Arizona this season. Expected, right? Maybe, but those games were decided by a total of six points, and Mannion was ... unimpressive. He went 3-of-20 from the field against the Zags and committed six turnovers in both Duck defeats, and yet his team battled against some of the best in the country. We saw flickers of Mannion's magic in two games against UCLA and WSU late in the regular season (42 points, 13 assists and 2 turnovers in 70 minutes) and that upside makes Arizona a frisky middle seed.
In early February, the Tigers were ranked 18th in the country, and although things went sideways from that point forward (4-6 after winning 10 straight), this is a team that has a playmaking senior in Skylar Mays leading a very talented young nucleus. March is a month of close games, right? Well, you'd trust a profile that featured a top-25 rebound rate and just as many made free throws as attempts allowed (512), wouldn't you? Don't be surprised if LSU makes a run in the SEC tournament and jumps up a few seed lines to make life very difficult for a 2-seed in the second round of the tournament.