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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT... COLLEGE TOURNEY LOOK-AHEAD!

                                    by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


After nearly six decades of publishing THE GOLD SHEET, we have quite a catalog of sports memories to call upon. And inevitably, some of our favorite recollections are of college hoops conference tournament time. Remember, we predate all of the conference tourneys save the ACC event, and there remains an unmistakable buzz each year when we move into late February and begin to anticipate conference tourney action and the subsequent Big Dance, all set to commence in March.

We don't think there was ever quite as exciting a time for us as the early '80s, when the ACC finally had some company with its postseason event, and the conference tournaments became standard fare. To this day, we still think those early days of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden were some of the most magical for us, with the realization that college basketball had finally arrived as a big-time sport, with wall-to-wall TV action (thanks largely to ESPN's arrival on the scene) providing the coverage we had only dreamed about in previous years.

Personally, I caught conference tourney fever in the mid 1970s when the old PCAA (eventually to become the Big West) conducted its second tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center; the initial tourney in 1976 was held at the old Stockton Civic Auditorium, but the 1977 renewal moved several hundred miles south to across the street from Disneyland. It featured a semifinal doubleheader resulting in a pair of pulsating one-point decisions, with San Jose State upsetting San Diego State and then Long Beach State winning a thriller in overtime against Cal State Fullerton before the 49ers took the crown the following day against the Spartans. So captivated was I by the spectacle of the semifinals that I changed course on a tradition of attending the Santa Anita Handicap the following day in Arcadia, bypassing that for another evening of college hoops in Anaheim.

From that point forward, I was hopelessly hooked, and followed the PCAA Tourney through subsequent years in Anaheim, then its move to the Inglewood Forum in 1983, featuring a couple of unforgettable battles in the '83 year and '84 between Jerry Tarkanian's glory-era UNLV and Boyd Grant's Fresno State, then at the apex of its "Red Wave" days. The Forum would be packed with fans in slightly different shades of red when Runnin' Rebels and Bulldogs briefly engaged in one of the nation's most heated rivalries. For many years I would look upon the first day of the tourney as a sort of Christmas in March, watching four games in person. TGS founder Mort Olshan, who recalled his own memories of days watching the old Los Angeles Classic during the holidays in the early '60s, had no problem giving me those days off to watch hoops in person!

In later years I would expand my visits to the Pac-10/12, West Coast, Mountain West, WAC, and eventually Big Ten (in Indianapolis) and SEC (in Atlanta) and Big West (in Anaheim) Tourneys in one three-day jaunt in 2008 and a story we will likely reprise on our web pages when tourney time rolls around next week. (We were there in Atlanta the night of the infamous tornado that damaged the Georgia Dome). Nowadays, I don't have to go far to watch all of the action, as hometown Las Vegas is a conference tourney fantasyland, with four (WCC, Mountain West, Pac-12, and WAC) taking place at three difference venues in early March. This year, I'll make it to at least three!

So, it's no surprise that we're getting excited again, as we at TGS are fast approaching our favorite time of the year! Indeed, from this point forward, "March Mayhem" will become the major talking point of the college basketball campaign. And the postseason is approaching quicker than you might imagine, as, believe it or not, we'll be starting our conference tournament previews later next week.

Hey, they just played the Super Bowl two weeks ago, didn't they? Where did the time go this season?

We first began an early preview of the conference tournaments and an early look-ahead to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, and it quickly become one of our favorite editorial assignments of the hoops season. Now is the time we really begin to count the days to the conference tourneys and Selection Sunday, less than four weeks away. And we have long believed that a mid-to-late February look at college hoop squads vying for potential NCAA invitations to be a worthwhile exercise. Knowing where teams might (or might not) fit into the postseason equation can be especially useful handicapping information at this time of the year. The Big Dance prospects of many teams (especially those on the proverbial "bubble") will be decided in the next few weeks, adding an extra factor to be considered when forecasting their upcoming games.

This 2015-16 season is also providing some of the most perplexing "bubble" questions we can ever recall. All to be examined more fully in our upcoming weekend issue (TGS Hoops 27) when we provide our next "Bracketology" update.

Beyond the aforementioned "bubble" teams that need every win to stay in the good graces of the NCAA Tourney Committee, it's also worth paying attention to the squads with Big Dance bids securely in hand. Those squads might not all approach the final weeks of the regular season (or conference tourneys) in the same manner, some seeking to develop extra depth and avoid key injuries, others emphasizing a strong drive through the regular-season tape and hoping to carry that momentum into the postseason.

Following is our annual mid-to-late February look at the major "board" conferences and their chances of sending multiple entries to the NCAA Tournament. As you've no doubt noted from our featured storylines throughout recent seasons, we're also our own "Bracketologists" at TGS and have divided the teams into three categories--Solid, Looking Good, and Bubble. Solid is self-explanatory. Looking Good teams can expect an NCAA invitation as long as they don't slump badly in the next few weeks. Bubble teams, however, remain at the mercy of the Tourney Committee, and desperately need every win to keep their Big Dance hopes alive.

Keep in mind that nearly every Division I team can qualify for an automatic Big Dance berth by winning its conference tournament. With the Big Ten finally relenting early in the last decade, and the Pac-10 (12) re-instituting its tourney in 2002 after a 12-year hiatus, the Ivy League remains the lone conference tourney holdout--and even the Ivies are now talking about conducting their own postseason bash in the near future! Stay tuned for further developments. In the meantime, as always, the number of upsets in conference tournaments can alter the look of the Big Dance. Also included below are conference tourney sites and dates; Conference Power Rankings (thru Feb. 21); and last year's postseason participants, including NCAA, NIT, CBI, and CIT action. Note that when referencing last year's NCAA Tourney, we have reverted to the new/old designations, wherein the play-in games are referred to as the First Four, the sub-regionals referred to as the first and second rounds, etc, as the NCAA has also thankfully changed back to its former designations.

We will be providing similar conference previews for the remainder of the D-I leagues in next week's Issue 28, along with an aforementioned new TGS Bracketology update in our upcoming weekend Issue 27!

AMERICAN--Looking Good...UConn. Bubble...Cincinnati, Houston, Temple, Tulsa. Conference Power Rating-7th. Tourney March 10-13 at Amway Center, Orlando, FL. Last year...NCAA-2 (Cincinnati-second round, SMU); NIT-3 (Temple-semifinals, Tulsa-second round, UConn). Notes...The bubble looks crowded in the American, though most project three or four league reps to land on the safe side of the cut line on Selection Sunday. Remember that SMU is on NCAA probation and is ineligible for postseason competition, including the American Tourney.

ACC--Solid...North Carolina, Virginia, Miami-Florida, Duke, Notre Dame. Looking Good...Pittsburgh. Bubble...Clemson, Syracuse. Conference Power Rating-2nd. Tourney March 9-13 at Verizon Center, Washington, D.C. Last year...NCAA-6 (Duke-Champion, Notre Dame-Elite Eight, Louisville-Elite Eight, NC State-Sweet 16, North Carolina-Sweet 16, Virginia-second round); NIT-2 (Miami-Fla.-Runner-up, Pittsburgh). Notes...There is a decent chance that the ACC will get eight Big Dance bids on Selection Sunday. Louisville has self-imposed penalties and will not be competing in the postseason, including the ACC Tourney.

ATLANTIC TEN--Solid...Dayton. Looking Good...Saint Joseph's, Virginia Commonwealth. Bubble...George Washington, St. Bonaventure. Conference-8th. Tourney March 9-13 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY. Last year...NCAA-3 (Dayton-Second Round, Davidson, Virginia Commonwealth); NIT-3 (Richmond-Quarterfinals, George Washington-Second Round, Rhode Island-Second Round). Notes...Though VCU currently leads the A-10 standings, Dayton's non-conference accomplishments have it rated slightly higher than the Rams and St. Joe's, though the latter two both appear likely to land NCAA Tourney bids. GWU and St. Bonaventure can expect to ride the bubble into Selection Sunday.

BIG EAST--Solid...Villanova, Xavier. Looking good... Providence, Seton Hall. Bubble...Butler, Creighton, Marquette. Conference-5th. Tourney March 9-12 at Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY. Last year...NCAA-6 (Xavier-Sweet 16, Villanova-Second Round, Georgetown-Second Round, Butler-Second Round, Providence, St. John's). Notes...Seton Hall avoided a banana peel on Sunday at St. John's and moved into the "Looking Good" category. Villanova and Xavier appear to have good chances of ending up as top regional seeds.

BIG TEN--Solid...Maryland, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue. Looking Good...Wisconsin. Bubble...Michigan, Ohio State. Conference-4th. Tourney March 9-13 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN. Last year...NCAA-7 (Wisconsin-Runner-up, Michigan State-Final Four, Iowa-Second Round, Maryland-Second Round, Ohio State-Second Round, Indiana, Purdue); NIT-1 (Illinois). Notes...The Big Ten is likely to compete with the ACC and Big 12 for most spots in the NCAA Tourney.

BIG 12--Solid...Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia Looking Good...Texas. Bubble...Texas Tech. Conference-1st. Notes...Tourney March 9-12 at Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO. Last year...NCAA-7 (Oklahoma-Sweet 16, West Virginia-Sweet 16, Kansas-Second Round, Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas). Notes...For the second consecutive year, the Big 12 is the top-rated conference in late February. But note that last season proved a disappointment in the Big Dance when four of the seven league invitees lost right off the bat, and only Oklahoma and West Virginia advanced as far as the Sweet 16.

BIG WEST--Bubble...Hawaii. Conference-13th. Notes...Tourney March 10-12 at Honda Center, Anaheim, CA, home of the NHL Ducks. Last year...NCAA-1 (UC Irvine); NIT-1 (UC Davis); CBI-1 (UC Santa Barbara. Notes...Hawaii was hit with NCAA probation in December, but the Rainbow Warriors are not scheduled to be ineligible for the postseason until next season.

COLONIAL--Bubble...UNC-Wilmington. Conference-10th. Tourney March 4-7 at Royal Farms Baltimore Arena, Baltimore, MD. Last year...NCAA-1 (Northeastern); NIT-1 (William & Mary); CBI-1 (Hofstra); CIT-2 (James Madison, UNC-Wilmington). Notes...After a long run at the Richmond Coliseum, the tourney will be played for the third straight year in Baltimore at the Royal Farms Arena, once known as Baltimore Civic Center in the '60s and early '70s when it was the home of the NBA Baltimore Bullets.

CONFERENCE USA--Bubble...UAB. Conference-22nd. Notes...Tourney March 8-12 at Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, Birmingham, AL (not the home court of UAB, which plays at Gene Bartow Arena). Last year...NCAA-1 (UAB-Second Round); NIT-3 (Old Dominion-Semifinals, La Tech-Quarterfinals, UTEP); CIT-1 (Middle Tennessee). Notes...With an NCAA investigation underway, Southern Miss has self-imposed a postseason ban for the second consecutive season.

HORIZON--Bubble...Valparaiso. Conference-19th. Tourney March 5-8 at Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI. Last year...NCAA-1 (Valparaiso); NIT-1 (Green Bay); CIT-2 (Cleveland State-Second Round, Oakland). Notes...After years of being conducted at campus sites, the Horizon Tourney moves into a new home in Detroit at the Joe Louis Arena, home of the NHL Red Wings, for the next two years. In 2018, the tourney is slated to move into the new Detroit Events Center, currently under construction.

MID-AMERICAN--Bubble...Akron. Conference-13th. Tourney first round March 7 at campus sites; quarters, semis, and Final March 10-12 at Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Last year...NCAA-1 (Buffalo); NIT-1 (Central Michigan); CIT-3 (Kent State-Third Round, Bowling Green-Second Round, Western Michigan); CBI-1 (Eastern Michigan). Notes...The MAC has not sent multiple teams to the Big Dance since 1999, when Kent State and Miami-Ohio qualified.

MISSOURI VALLEY--Looking Good...Wichita State. Bubble...Evansville, Northern Iowa. Conference-11th. Notes...Tourney ("Arch Madness") March 3-6 at Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO. Last year...NCAA-2 (Wichita State-Sweet 16, Northern Iowa-Second Round); NIT-1 (Illinois State-Second Round); CBI-1 (Loyola-Chicago-Champion); CIT-1 (Evansville-Champion). Notes...Yes, you are reading that correctly above, Valley teams won both the CBI (Loyola-Chicago) and CIT (Evansville) last spring!

MOUNTAIN WEST--Bubble...San Diego State. Conference-9th. Notes...Tourney March 9-12 at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV (home court of UNLV). Last year...NCAA-3 (San Diego State-Second Round, Wyoming, Boise State-First Four); NIT-1 (Colorado State). Notes...For the first time since it was formed in 1999, the Mountain West could be a one-bid league for the NCAA Tourney. San Diego State appears the only entry warranting Big Dance at-large consideration.

PAC 12--Solid...Arizona, Oregon, Utah, Southern Cal, Cal. Bubble...Colorado, Washington, UCLA. Conference-3rd. Tourney March 9-12 at MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-4 (Arizona-Elite Eight, UCLA-Sweet 16, Utah-Sweet 16, Oregon-Second Round) NIT-2 (Stanford-Champion, Arizona State-Second Round); CBI-1 (Colorado-Second round). Notes...With non-conference wins over Kentucky and on the road at Gonzaga, plus a win over Arizona, we give UCLA the benefit of the doubt and place it on the extreme edge of the bubble despite its underwhelming 15-12 SU record.

SEC--Solid...Kentucky, South Carolina, Texas A&M. Bubble...Alabama, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt. Conference-6th. Tourney March 9-13 at Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN (home of the NHL Predators). Last year...NCAA-5 (Kentucky-Final Four, Arkansas-Second Round, LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia); NIT-3 (Vanderbilt-Quarterfinals,, Alabama-Second Round, Texas A&M-Second Round). Notes...The SEC is the current unofficial "bubble champion" with five entries straddling the Big Dance cut line as of late February.

SUN BELT--Bubble...UA-Little Rock. Conference-20th. Tourney March 10-13 at Lakefront Arena, New Orleans, LA. Last year...NCAA-1 (Georgia State-Second Round); CIT-2 (ULM-Runner-up, UL-Lafayette-Third Round). Notes...Should UA-Little Rock lose in the conference tourney at New Orleans, the Belt could become a multi-bid league for the first time since 2008, when Western Kentucky and South Alabama qualified.

WEST COAST--Looking Good...Saint Mary's. Bubble...BYU, Gonzaga. Conference-12th. Notes...Tourney March 3-8 at the Orleans Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-2 (Gonzaga-Elite Eight, BYU-First Four); NIT-1 (Saint Mary); CBI-1 (Pepperdine); CIT-1 (Portland). Notes...With last Saturday's win at Gonzaga giving it a regular-season sweep over the Zags and likely the top seed in the upcoming conference tourney, Saint Mary's Big Dance prospects look good. As for Gonzaga, it appears at risk of missing the Dance for the first time since 1998 if it can't win in Las Vegas.


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