by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

With Selection Sunday looming ever closer over the horizon, the Big Dance "bubble" is under more scrutiny than ever. And if history is any indicator, whatever is left to be decided for squads hoping to fall on the safe side of the NCAA Tourney "cut line" will be determined in upcoming conference tourney action, which really swings into gear this weekend and continues unabated for the next ten days until the Selection Show Sunday, March 17 on CBS.

But no league tournament history remotely approaches that of the Atlantic Coast Conference and its impact on college hoops. Even though it was viewed as more of a curiosity, or nuisance, through much of what we now refer to as its golden era of the '60s and '70s when it was the only league conducting such an event.

Not everyone was thrilled with the ACC Tourney in those days. Sports Illustrated, once upon a time the ultimate validator of sports storylines (as ESPN would later become), was certainly not overwhelmed, calling the ACC Tournament a "lucrative but thoroughly unnecessary event" in 1970. But the ACC Tourney still got plenty of curious attention in those days, and what an oddity its in-house event seemed to be when it was the lone league conducting a postseason tourney and determining its NCAA rep by a process that more resembled a hoops version of Russian Roulette.

Indeed, before the NCAA Tourney expanded its March party to allow at-large teams into its field in 1975, the ACC Tourney more resembled an upheaval of nature than a mere sporting event. A lot of powerhouse teams never escaped the do-or-die ACC event, which this season has returned to its Greensboro roots.

Eventually, however, the ACC Tournament helped change the course of college basketball, and provided a template for almost every other conference to conduct its own in-house elimination tourney to decide its automatic NCAA representative. Even though by the time the Big East, SEC, and others got around to conducting their own postseason events before the commencement of the Big Dance, the expanded NCAA fields had taken much of the drama away from those events, none of which could dream to match the intensity of the ACC wars conducted prior to 1975.

It's a fact that the NCAA, which often moves at glacier-like speed when it comes to making significant policy adjustments, was apparently so influenced by the epic 1974 ACC Tourney final, won by Norm Sloan's eventual champion NCAA North Carolina State side, featuring David Thompson, over Lefty Driesell's Maryland, 103-100 in a pulsating overtime classic, that it decided future Big Dance invitations could thereafter be extended to include "at-large" teams that didn't win the automatic bids from their conferences. Those were probably two of the three best teams in the nation squaring off in that '74 Wolfpack-Terrapin classic, and it didn't seem fair that one of them should have to go home and not participate in the Big Dance (Driesell's Maryland was so devastated at the outcome that it rejected a subsequent invitation from the NIT). That result triggered the first significant expansion of the Big Dance to 32 teams in 1975, and later to 64 teams by 1985 (and eventually to the current 68). More on that classic battle in a moment.

The history of the ACC Tournament is unique, from its beginning in 1954 to the present, with the wild times peaking in the late '60s and early '70s featuring a succession of memorable games and upsets. No team was as directly involved as often as Norm Sloan's aforementioned NC State, which seemed to find itself in the middle of most of the unforgettable games. Sloan wasn't beyond resorting to gimmickry to conspire a couple of the landmark results in ACC Tourney lore, including one of the most bizarre games in NCAA history. That came in a 1968 ACC semifinal at Charlotte vs. a favored and 5th-ranked Duke side, as Sloan simply refused to play ball and resorted to a deep-freeze stall vs. Vic Bubas' tightly-packed Blue Devil zone defense, which had flummoxed the Wolfpack during both regular-season meetings that year.

Unless Duke emerged from its zone, Sloan instructed his team to just hold the ball, which the rules of the game in the late '60s didn't necessarily discourage (remember, that was long before the shot clock, and even before rules alterations that could require defenses to "force" the action, as well as making it more difficult for teams to simply hold the ball). Bubas, who had to deal with Clemson's similar (though not as drastic) slowdown tactics in a 43-40 quarterfinal escape the night before, refused to take the bait to pull his team out of its zone, as Sloan's NC State continued to stall and stall and stall. At halftime the score read 4-2 in Duke's favor, and, if anything, Sloan had become more emboldened, continuing his deep-freeze strategy into the second half. With the Blue Devils' lead at 8-6 with 16 minutes to play, Sloan continued his ploy, as Gs Bill Kretzer and Eddie Biedenbach (the current UNC-Asheville HC) played catch as the Wolfpack held the ball for the next 13:45, moving famed broadcaster Bill "Mouth of the South" Currie to moan, "This is as thrilling as artificial insemination." The Pack eventually picked up the pace enough in the final two minutes to steal a 12-10 win, prompting Bubas to question why he didn't instruct his boys to force the action a bit sooner. "I've made some good decisions this year," said Bubas afterwards, "but that wasn't one of them."

Under enormous criticism for his tactics, Sloan ditched any idea of a stall the next night, although he probably never had any intention of trying the deep freeze against Dean Smith's eventual national runner-up North Carolina team featuring Charlie Scott and Larry Miller, a squad not inclined to zone like Duke and whose withering press would likely render the stall ineffective anyway. Although another stab at the freeze might have been a better alternative for Sloan than playing things straight, as the Heels, after a sluggish first half and mere 31-26 lead at the break, erupted in the final 20 minutes and won in a gallop, 87-50.

Sloan, however, was up to his old tricks two years later, again at Charlotte, dusting off the slowdown once more in the finale to combat a 3rd-ranked South Carolina team led by G John Roche that had roared through ACC regular-season play a perfect 14-0 and was being mentioned as one of the best teams in league history, and certainly a threat for national honors along with Kentucky and UCLA, the 1-2 teams in the polls. The Gamecocks had avoided a major upset when escaping Clemson's stalling tactics to squeeze out a 34-33 win in the quarterfinals before dispatching Wake Forest 79-63 in the semis, although Roche suffered an injured ankle vs. the Demon Deacons and was hampered in the finale.

Sloan's slowdown worked again, as NC State, thanks to late free throws by Richard Anheuser, pulled a 42-39 overtime shocker that sent the Gamecocks into a deep depression, because they would also be denied participation in the NIT because of an odd Draconian NCAA rule that didn't allow schools to participate in the NIT if hosting an NCAA Regional event. One of SC's star players, Bobby Cremins (you've heard of him, right?), was so crestfallen that he literally disappeared for a couple of weeks thereafter, hiding out somewhere in the Smoky Mountains before confronting society again. That 42-39 result also forever changed the course of the conference and of South Carolina athletics, as HC Frank McGuire was so angered by the result that AD Paul Dietzel reckoned it was time to finally ditch the ACC altogether, with the unfairness of the basketball tourney piled on top of tougher league admission requirements that made it harder to compete in football. The Gamecocks were campaigning as an independent by the fall of 1971.

McGuire had reason to be bitter about the ACC Tourney, for in 15 tries at it, he only won twice, with his 1957 North Carolina NCAA champs and his last South Carolina team to compete in the league in 1971. That '71 win at Greensboro, in South Carolina's last game as a league member, came at the expense of North Carolina, which missed 8 of 11 free throws in the final five minutes, but nonetheless held a 51-50 lead with just 6 seconds to play and a jump ball at its own end of the court with 6'10 Heel C Lee Dedmon tipping vs. Cock G Kevin Joyce, 7 inches shorter. Dedmon controlled the tip alright, but knocked it backwards toward UNC's own bucket, where a surprised SC C Tom Owens picked up the ball and laid it in for a 52-51 win. It still stands as the state's only win in the conference tourney (more now the fault of Clemson, which has been competing as the Palmetto's State's only ACC representative for 40-plus years since the Gamecocks left the fold).

All of those results together, however, might not have been as impactful as the aforementioned NC State-Maryland classic at Greensboro in '74, a tourney in which not only the top-rated Wolfpack and Terrapins were involved, but also another Top Ten team, North Carolina. With only seven teams in the league at that time (thanks to South Carolina's defection), top-seeded NC State was allowed to bypass the opening round altogether, and had to defeat only Virginia in the semis to reach the finale. Meanwhile, the Terps had to run a three-day home-state gauntlet of Duke (an 85-66 quarterfinal victim), formidable UNC (a 105-85 semifinal victim), and then the Wolfpack to reach the NCAA Tourney. And the final was a classic, conducted at a torrid pace featuring each team blistering the nets (Maryland connecting on 61% of its shots, NC State at 55%) and rarely turning over the ball. The Terps jumped ahead early by as many as 13 points before being caught and passed before the half, only to regroup and lead by a 55-50 count at the break. Driesell was having some luck with a smaller lineup featuring three guards, with one of them, 6'2 Mo Howard, effectively spelling Fs Owen Brown and Tom Roy by pestering Thompson, although 7'4 C Tom Burleson eventually picked up the slack and then some for the Wolfpack en route to a 38-point performance.

Back and forth the game went in the second half, the lead never greater than five points either way. With the battle deadlocked at 97 in the final seconds, Maryland's game-winning attempt by G John Lucas misfired at the horn, and an extra five minutes beckoned. In the overtime session, both teams resembled arm-weary boxers, tired from throwing so many haymakers, with the wear and tear eventually taking its toll on the marvelous Lucas, who sobbed uncontrollably at the scorer's table when the game concluded, dismayed by the errant pass he sailed over an open Len Elmore's head with less than 15 seconds to play and the Terps down by only 1. Which opened the door for the Wolfpack to sew things up on a pair of charity tosses by diminutive yet heroic 5'5 G Monte Towe with six seconds to play.

When the dust settled after that 103-100 classic, the Terps had lost six games over the 1972-73 and 1973-74 seasons to Sloan's Wolfpack by a total of 30 points. And the NCAA had seen enough as well; the Big Dance, rumored for several seasons to be expanded, grew to 32 teams the following year, with multiple teams from the same leagues then eligible via the at-large route. Since 1975, the ACC has always had multiple entries in the Big Dance, although that was little consolation to the 1974 Terps, whose eventual declining of the subsequent NIT bid was summed up by Elmore. "In a way, we had all felt we had played kind of a championship game against NC State," Elmore told Sports Illustrated years later. "It just didn't get us anywhere."

With conference tourney play soon to take over the college hoops calendar, we look ahead to the "board" leagues and how their competitions are shaping up, with added emphasis on longshots worth a look and "bubble" consequences in each loop.

ACC...Tourney March 14-17 at Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC. Last year...NCAA-5 (North Carolina-Elite Eight, NC State-Sweet 16, Florida State-3rd round, Duke-2nd round, Virginia-2nd round); NIT-1 (Miami-Florida-2nd round). Favorite: Duke...The return of F Ryan Kelly has made the Blue Devils the team to beat. Coach K has won this event 13 times, and his Dookies would be in line for a number one regional Big Dance seed (if not top seed in the entire tourney) with success in Greensboro. Top contenders: North Carolina...Since Roy Williams switched to a 4-G lineup in mid-February, the Heels have covered seven straight and won their last six outright after Wednesday's success at Maryland. NC State...After a long stretch of indifferent performances, the Wolfpack seems to have shifted gears in recent weeks, with six wins in the last seven games. Darkhorse: Virginia...The Cavs play nasty defense and own one of the hottest scorers in the ACC in G Joe Harris (21.7 ppg his last ten outings). They could also use a deep run in Greensboro to shore up their Big Dance at-large credentials, although Tony Bennett's team rarely displayed its same KO power away from Charlottesville. Bubble consequences...Maryland has played itself into bubble trouble and might need a deep run to keep the Selection Committee interested. Virginia could also hurt its at-large case with an early exit.

ATLANTIC TEN...Tourney March 14-17 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY. Last year...NCAA-4 (Xavier-Sweet 16, Saint Louis-3rd round, St. Bonaventure-2nd round, Temple-2nd round); NIT-4 (UMass-semifinals, Dayton, La Salle, Saint Joseph's); CBI-1 (Butler-semifinals). Favorite: Saint Louis...Even after a midweek OT loss at Xavier, the Bills enter tourney week as one of the nation's hottest teams, having won (and covered) their previous 11 games. Top contenders: Virginia Commonwealth..."Shaka Ball" is still unnerving to many foes, and the Rams are a proven postseason commodity with recent successes in the NCAAs and the Colonial Tourney before making the move to the A-10. Temple...The Owls might own the league's best player in G Khalif Wyatt, and HC Fran Dunphy has won this event three times (2008-09-10) in the past five seasons. Darkhorse: Xavier...The Musketeers' only route to the Big Dance is by winning this event; consider their mild midweek upset over Saint Louis as a warning shot to the rest of the loop. Frosh G Semaj Christon, who scored 20 vs. the Billikens, has tallied double-digit points in 17 straight games. Bubble consequences...The A-10 projects to five bids, although Temple and La Salle can spare themselves a nervous Selection Sunday by avoiding early exits.

BIG EAST--Tourney March 12-16 at Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY. Last year...NCAA-9 (Louisville-Final Four, Syracuse-Elite Eight, Cincinnati-Sweet 16, Marquette-Sweet 16, Georgetown-3rd round, South Florida-3rd round, UConn-2nd round, Notre Dame-2nd round, West Virginia-2nd round); NIT-1-(Seton Hall-2nd round), CBI-1 (Pittsburgh-Champions). Favorite: Louisville...The most-accomplished postseason performer in the loop, having won this event last year and then advancing to the Final Four with a very similar-looking roster. Rick Pitino knows how to get his teams peaking in March. Top contenders: Georgetown...The Hoyas were the league's hottest team and on an 11-game win streak before running into an aroused and hungry Villanova at Philadelphia on Wednesday. Syracuse...Broke out of recent 3-game slump with resounding midweek win over DePaul. The Orange might approach these games with a bit more emotion than most, too, as they prepare to depart for the ACC. We know this would be a very special achievement for HC Jim Boeheim. Darkhorse: Providence...Don't sleep on the rugged and functional Friars, who have been playing as well as anyone in the league (save perhaps Georgetown) in recent weeks with wins in seven of their last eight thru Friday, with a recent victim's list that includes Villanova (beaten twice by Ed Cooley's team), Cincy, and Notre Dame. A seasoned and productive backcourt led by Gs Bryce Cotton and Vincent Council is always a plus in the tourney setting, while 6-10 Kadeem Batts (19.7 ppg & 7.9 rpg last seven games prior to Saturday vs. UConn) has been one of the hottest performers in the league the past month. Bubble consequences...Now that Villanova has claimed yet another high-profile scalp (Georgetown) this week, we have a hard time believing the Selection Committee would overlook Jay Wright's Wildcats, no matter what happens at the Garden. Cincinnati is the only other entry we would watch, but only of the Bearcats lose in their regular-season finale vs. lowly South Florida; in that case, Cincy could be in some bubble trouble if it makes an early exit at the Garden. This should be an 8-bid league.

BIG TEN--Tourney March 14-17 at United Center, Chicago, IL. Last year...NCAA-6 (Ohio State-Final Four, Indiana-Sweet 16, Michigan State-Sweet 16, Wisconsin-Sweet 16, Purdue-3rd round, Michigan-2nd round); NIT-3 (Minnesota-2nd place, Iowa-2nd round, Northwestern-2nd round). Favorite: Toss a coin? If forced to pick a team, we'd probably say Indiana, because we think the Hoosiers are the most complete team in the league. But any of six entries could win, and we wouldn't be the least bit surprised. Top Contenders: Take your pick...Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, or Wisconsin. Darkhorse: Iowa...The Hawkeyes still think they have an outside shot at an at-large bid if they can finish .500 in league play (which looks likely when hosting Nebraska on Sunday) and make a deep run at the United Center. Star 6-6 soph Devyn Marble (19.4 ppg last seven thru March 8) has raised his game to an elite level in recent weeks and could carry the Hawkeyes in Chicago. Bubble consequences...Assuming Illinois and Minnesota are safely into the field of 68 (which we believe is true), there aren't any besides the chance of a belated run by the Hawkeyes.

BIG 12--Tourney March 13-16 at Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO. Last year...NCAA-5 (Kansas-2nd place, Baylor-Elite Eight, Iowa State-3rd round, Kansas State-3rd round, Texas-2nd round). Favorite: Kansas...Aside from that puzzling 3-game slump in early February (from which KU has recovered), the Jayhawks would be the clear number one team in the country. Bill Self's multi-dimensional side is also playing for a top regional seed, although it is almost guaranteed that they will open the sub-regionals in this same Sprint Center in Kansas City next week. Top contenders: Oklahoma State...A chic pick in recent weeks by some hoops aficionados to reach the Final Four, the Cowboys have several potential go-to threats, led by dazzling frosh G Marcus Smart and a roster that goes 10 deep with quality. Also won vs. Kansas at Lawrence this season. Kansas State...Unlike OSU, K-State has not beaten Kansas this season, but Bruce Weber's side has beaten everyone else (including OSU) in the loop and is in the mix for an NCAA protected seed and possible sub-regional assignment at this same Sprint Center venue. The Cats have won six straight and 10 of their last 11 heading into Saturday's battle vs. the Cowboys at Stillwater. Darkhorse: The loop is top heavy, so the possibility of a surprise is more remote than in other leagues. Tempted to say Iowa State, though the Cyclones have been subpar away from Ames. How about Texas, which has played very solid defense all season and has displayed a sharper edge offensively (not to mention being more competitive) since G Myck Kabongo returned from suspension in late February. Bubble consequences...Iowa State is probably playing for its NCAA life in Kansas City, although its midweek win vs. Oklahoma State likely puts Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones on the safe side of the cut line in current projections. Baylor, with losses in 8 of its last 11, has almost played itself off the bubble and would need to at least make a run to the tourney finale to get back on the Selection Committee's radar screen.

BIG WEST--Tourney March 14-16 at Honda Center, Anaheim, CA. Last year...NCAA-1 (Long Beach State-2nd round); CIT-2 (UC Santa Barbara, CS Fullerton). Favorite: Long Beach State...Though not as formidable as last season's side that advanced to the Dance, the 49ers have been the most-consistent entry in the Big West and will carry a number one seed into the Honda Center. Senior and former juco James Ennis (16.9 ppg) has emerged as one of the loop's top threats. Top contenders: Hawaii...Gib Arnold has taken a long time to figure out proper lineup combinations and strategies for a roster filled with intriguing newcomers and transfers. The loop's best big, 6-10 Vander Joaquim (14 ppg), is a possible NBA draftee, but Joaquim, liked the Warrior team, remains plagued by inconsistencies. UC Davis...Kimberly Guilfoyle's alma mater has to be taken seriously, with the league's most-explosive weapons in Arizona State transfer G Corey Hawkins (20.3 ppg) and wins in 5 of its last 6 heading into Thursday's showdown at The Pavilion vs. the visiting Beach. Cal Poly...Mustangs can be vexing on the stop end thanks to the myriad of Stew Morrill-like defensive looks employed by shrewd HC Joe Callero, while ex-Rice transfer F Chris Eversley has scored 20 or more in three of his last five games before facing Riverside on Thursday. Darkhorse: UC Irvine...With a solid backcourt combo in Gs Michael Wilder (and his '70s throwback "natural" hairdo) and leading scorer Daman Starring (13.5 ppg), the Anteaters are hot down the stretch (having won five straight before Thursday night's game at UOP) and fared pretty well vs. a tough non-league slate, including a near-upset of UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. No bubble consequences in Big West.

COLONIAL--Tourney March 9-11 at Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA. Last year...NCAA-1 (Virginia Commonwealth-3rd round); NIT-1 (Drexel-Quarterfinals); CIT-2 (Old Dominion-Quarterfinals, Georgia State). Favorite: Delaware...We refrain from listing reg.-season champ Northeastern because of the Huskies' recent fade that includes inexplicable losses to lowly UNC-Wilmington and Old Dominion. The Blue Hens enter this weekend's festivities in Richmond having won 7 of their last 8 and boasting the league's top scoring threat in G Devon Saddler (20.2 ppg). Top contenders: Northeastern...If Bill Coen's well-balanced Huskies can rediscover their early-season form, they'd be the team to beat. We just haven't seen that version of NE in over a month. George Mason...The Patriots have hinted at a breakthrough at times in the past month as various contributors made cameo appearances in support of lone DD scorer G Sherrod Wright (16.5 ppg). Darkhorse: William & Mary...The Tribe is not deep, which could be a problem in the bang-bang-bang tourney format, but HC Tony Shaver has the league's best 1-2-3 scoring trio in Gs Marcus Thornton (18.6 ppg) & Brandon Britt (13.8 ppg) plus F Tim Rusthoven (14.4 ppg). No bubble consequences in Colonial.

CONFERENCE USA--Tourney March 13-16 at BOK Center, Tulsa, OK. Last year...NCAA-2 (Memphis-2nd round, Southern Miss-2nd round); NIT-2 (Marshall, UCF); CIT-1 (Rice-Quarterfinals). Favorite: Memphis...About as clear-cut a top choice as any conference tourney in the country. Still unbeaten in league play after midweek escape at UTEP, the Tigers might also be convinced by HC Josh Pastner that they need to win this event in Tulsa to make the Big Dance field. That's not really true, but if the Tigers really believe it, then look out. Top contenders: Southern Miss...Came up short on both occasions vs. Tigers, but the only side that appears deep enough to make a sustained run in Tulsa. Darkhorse: UTEP...We never sell short a team coached by Tim Floyd, whose collection of junk defenses usually include one perfectly suited to unnerve any foe. Probably not enough consistent firepower to win this thing, but its near-miss vs. Memphis suggests the Miners could cause trouble. Bubble consequences...Southern Miss is at the periphery of the bubble, and its at-large case could have been damaged beyond repair in its midweek loss vs. Marshall, which avenged an earlier 56-point loss to the Golden Eagles. But a run to the tourney final at least gets USM back into the discussion phase with the Selection Committee.

HORIZON--Quarters and semis March 8-9 at home of regular-season champion Valparaiso, also the number one seed; Final March 12 at home of highest-remaining seed. Last year...NCAA-1 (Detroit-2nd round); NIT-2 (Cleveland State, Valparaiso); CBI-1 (Butler-Quarterfinals); CBI-(UW-Milwaukee). Favorite: Valparasio...Home-court edge didn't help the Crusaders in this event a year ago when Detroit rolled to a title game win. But Bryce Drew's team is a bit better fortified this season, especially after South Florida transfer G LaVonte Dorrity became eligible in mid-December. Top contender: Detroit...The Titans have much the same roster composition as they did a year ago when routing Valpo by a 74-50 count in the title game. Interestingly, the teams split their regular-season meetings, with the road side winning each. Darkhorse: Wright State...The Raiders' scoring defense has been among the nation's leaders this season, although lack of a true go-to scoring threat has been a recurring problem at crunch time. Bubble consequences...Valpo and Detroit have been occasionally included among teams on the edge of the bubble, although we are almost sure the Horizon will be a one-bid league.

MID-AMERICAN--Tourney first round March 11 at campus sites; quarters, semis, and Final March 13-16 at Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Last year...NCAA-1 (Ohio-Sweet 16); NIT-1 (Akron); CIT-3 (Buffalo-2nd round, Bowling Green, Kent State). Favorite: Akron...The Zips' 19-game win streak was recently snapped by Buffalo, but Keith Dambrot's side looked to be much the best in this loop all season. Top defensive presence in the MAC in 7-0 C Zeke Marshall, blocking almost 4 shots per game and altering countless others. Potential dispruption, however, with word of suspension to key PG Alex Abreu on Thursday. Top contender: Ohio...The Bobcats have much the same composition as last year's edition that made a surprise run to the Sweet 16. With one major difference, as then-HC John Groce left for Illinois, and Jim Christian moved from TCU to Athens. Surprising inconsistencies all season have plagued the Bobcats. Darkhorse: Buffalo...Why not? The Bulls are the only MAC side that has demonstrated they can beat Akron. Bubble consequences...With Ohio likely having played its way out of the bubble mix, the question now is if Akron has enough of a case to make to the Selection Committee should it need to go the at-large route by losing in the conference tourney next week. Monitor the Abreu situation closely.

MISSOURI VALLEY--Tourney ("Arch Madness") ongoing thru Sunday, March 10 at Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO. Last year...NCAA-2 (Creighton-3rd round, Wichita State-2nd round); NIT-2 (Illinois State-2nd round, Northern Iowa-2nd round); CBI -1 (Evansville); CIT-2 (Drake-2nd round, Indiana State). Favorites: Wichita State...They start play on Thursday in St. Louis, though seeds one thru six don't commence operations until Friday. We're wary of making the Shockers or Creighton a top choice in Arch Madness because both likely have their NCAA tickets already punched and several other desperate (and capable sides) are also in this field. Slight nod to Wichita based upon consistency and ability to win away from home. Top contenders: Several possibilities here beyong Creighton, led by Northern Iowa, which won 7 of its last 8 MVC reg.-season games; Evansville, also hot down the stretch (four wins in a row entering Arch Madness) and a hot scorer in sr. G Colt Ryan (20.5 ppg); and Indiana State, which won this event two years ago when now-jr. G Jake Odum (14.4 ppg) first made a splash as a frosh. Darkhorse: Illinois State...The Redbirds battled back from a rough patch of form in January and feature perhaps the league's most-intriguing NBA prospect in athletic 6-9 frontliner Jackie Carmichael (17.4 ppg & 9.4 rpg). Bubble consequences...Plenty, especially since Wichita and Creighton appear safely into the field of 68 regardless what transpires in St. Louis. The Valley becomes a 3-bid league if one of the others wins the tourney and squeezes the rest of the bubble a bit tighter.

MOUNTAIN WEST--Tourney March 12-16 at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-4 (New Mexico-3rd round, Colorado State-2nd round, San Diego State-2nd round, UNLV-2nd round); CBI-2 (TCU-2nd round, Wyoming-2nd round). Favorite: UNLV...Because the tourney is played at the Thomas & Mack Center and the Rebels have yet to lose at home in conference play (although they've cut it close a few times), they're the team to beat. Top contender: New Mexico...Steve Alford's team won the regular season crown, but played two of its worst games on the road at San Diego State (a 55-34 loss!) and UNLV (a 64-55 Lobo defeat). Motivation for UNM is securing a protected seed and desirable sub-regional destination, though we think that's probably wrapped up before the MW Tourney commences. Darkhorse: Boise State...The Broncos are going to be the hungriest of the serious contenders because their NCAA status is far from secure, unlike the top four teams in the loop who appear safe. Guard Derrick Marks has been spectacular on occasion, including his recent 38-point explosion vs. Colorado State. Bubble consequences...Only in regard to Boise, which likely has to win at least its first game in a likely 4-5 opening battle vs. San Diego State, which would be a rematch of the regular-season finale on Saturday at Taco Bell Arena.

PAC 12--Tourney March 13-16 at MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-2 (Colorado-3rd round, Cal-First Four); NIT-4 (Stanford-Champs, Washington-Semifinals, Oregon-3rd round, Arizona); CBI-2 (Washington State-2nd place, Oregon State-3rd round). Favorite: None, really; we were going to say Cal before the Bears got smoked by Stanford on Wednesday night. All of the other top contenders have lost in the last two weeks, including Arizona (multiple times), UCLA, and Oregon. Top contenders: Throw a blanket over UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Arizona, and last year's winner Colorado. Darkhorse: We were tempted to offer Southern Cal, which has responded positively to interim HC Bob Cantu after Kevin O'Neill's midseason dismissal, but after the Trojans lost on Wednesday at Washington, we instead opt for Stanford, still with the nucleus of the squad which ran the table in the NIT last spring and is capable of the big effort, as indicated at midweek vs. the hated Golden Bears, in Berkeley, no less. Intriguing collection of bigs led by functional 6-9 workhorse Dwight Powell (team-best 15.1 ppg). Bubble consequences...Arizona State might have played itself off the bubble with five losses in its last eight games, but a Saturday win over Arizona would put Herb Sendek's Sun Devils in position to get noticed with a deep run in Vegas.

SEC--Tourney March 13-17 at Bridgestone Arena (home of NHL Predators), Nashville, TN. Last year...NCAA-4 (Kentucky-Champs, Florida-Elite Eight, Vanderbilt-3rd round, Alabama-2nd round); NIT-4 (Tennessee-2nd round, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss). Favorite: Florida...Clear choice as runaway regular-season champ, although Gators are one of only two sides (Missouri the other) to have their Big Dance tickets punched entering Nashville, so the compulsion to win is a bit muted for Billy Donovan's troops. Top contender: Tennessee...Winner of 7 of 8 entering reg.-season finale vs. Mizzou, and likely to be well-supported in Music City. The Vols are also hungry with no Big Dance bid locked up just yet. Has anyone else noticed the recent scoring numbers posted by G Jordan McRae (28 ppg last five thru March 8)? Darkhorse: LSU...The Tigers have won 8 of 11 prior to Saturday's regular-season finale vs. Ole Miss and feature five DD scorers, including Memphis sr. transfer G Charles Carmouche, who is really revving it up down the stretch (four straight 20+ games after Wednesday's win at Texas A&M). Bubble consequences...Lots, with Tennessee and Ole Miss appearing right on the cut line and Alabama and Kentucky (now minus frosh star C Nerlens Noel) right behind). What we can say for sure is that all four of them together are not getting into the Dance; two, maybe three of those at most.

SUN BELT--Tourney March 8-11 at Summit Arena, Hot Springs, AR. Last year...NCAA-1 (Western Kentucky-2nd round); NIT-1 (Middle Tennessee-Quarterfinals); CIT-1 (UL-Lafayette). Favorite: Middle Tennessee...Clear choice in the Belt with the Blue Raiders, but we were saying the same things last year before they got dumped in Hot Springs, and had to settle for the NIT instead. That experience likely galvanizes Kermit Davis' team this time around, although MTSU (which takes a 16-game SU win streak into Hot Springs) often cut it close away from Murfreesboro. Top contender: Arkansas State...We have to say the Red Wolves because they were the only Belt team to beat the Blue Raiders this season, although that result (in OT) was way back on January 3. Darkhorse: North Texas...Heavy underachiever this season under new HC Tony Beford, but the Mean Green finally started to stir late in the regular season with wins in three of their last four games, including a 74-50 home blowout over Arkansas State at the Super Pit last Saturday. UNT's 6-8 soph F Tony Mitchell (13.1 ppg) was often schemed out of the Mean Green's offensive flow by opposing defenses, but he remains the Belt's best NBA prospect. Bubble consequences...Depends upon Middle Tennessee's performance in Hot Springs; if the Blue Raiders lose, their high-20s RPI indicates they'd get a strong look as an at-large entry, in which case the Belt could become an unlikely two-bid league. MTSU will have lots of fans among the nation's bubble teams when it takes the court in Hot Springs.

WEST COAST--Tourney March 6-11 at Orleans Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-3 (Gonzaga-3rd round, BYU-2nd-round, Saint Mary's-2nd round); CBI-1 (San Francisco). Favorite: Gonzaga...It has to be, with the nation's top-rated Zags unbeaten in WCC play and only on occasion seriously tested by league foes. The only suspense regarding the Zags is whether they would warrant a number one regional seed should they lose in Las Vegas. Top contender: Saint Mary's...The Gaels have gotten the Zags a couple of times in recent years in this event, played for the fifth straight year in Las Vegas. Darkhorse: BYU...The only other team besides the top two that we could envision actually winning this event, the Cougs also know it is their only way into the Dance after playing themselves off the bubble in the last month. Soph G Tyler Haws (20.9 ppg) is the WCC's top scorer, and 6-9 sr. Brandon Davies (17.5 ppg) is a formidable paint presence. The Cougs could be a bubble thief. Bubble consequences...Nobody really believes Saint Mary's is in any trouble, having lost only to the Zags (twice) since New Year's and owning a nice BracketBusters win vs. Creighton two weeks ago. The consequences come into play should BYU or one of the longshots manage an upset in Vegas, in which case the WCC would probably become a three-bid league.

WAC--Tourney March 12-16 at Orleans Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-1 (New Mexico State-2nd round); NIT-1 (Nevada-Quarterfinals); CIT-2 (Utah State-2nd place, Idaho-2nd round). Favorite: La Tech...The Bulldogs have yet to lose in WAC play entering the final weekend of regular-season action and have cracked the national rankings. Well-oiled 4-G attack is led by smooth and savvy soph G Raheem Appleby (14.8 ppg), surprisingly the only DD scorer on the roster. Top contenders: Denver...The Pioneers might be flying under the radar nationally but entered Thursday's game vs. UT-Arlington having won 15 of their last 16 games, including a BracketBuster victory at Northern Iowa. They'll get a chance to avenge a Dec. 29 loss at La Tech in the reg.-season finale at Magness Arena on Saturday night. New Mexico State...Marvin Menzies' latest collection of international stars includes Andre the Giant-like 7-5 RS frosh Sim Bhullar (up to 10.2 ppg) and various physical specimens. And 6-4 soph G Daniel Mullings (13.7 ppg) is one of the most-entertaining high-wire acts in the country. But the Ags are slow on the frontline, which has caused matchup problems vs. the league's top contenders. Darkhorse: Utah State...The Utags have been short-handed since top scorer G Preston Medlin (16.3 ppg) and 3rd-leading scorer F Kyisean Reed (12.1 ppg) both went out with injury in late January. But such is our respect for HC Stew Morrill that we never underestimate his teams in conference tourney competition. Bubble considerations...Like the Sun Belt with Middle Tennessee, we wonder what the Selection Committee might do with La Tech if the Bulldogs should lose in Las Vegas. The bubble would be at risk of being squeezed further.

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