Well, it has arrived. Champ Week is like a satisfying appetizer as Selection Sunday approaches. The ambitions of college basketball programs that have worked all season to contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament will either be validated or crushed.
The evolution of the field is one of the most fascinating processes in sports. The excitement around Champ Week proves as much.
Let's not waste any time. Here are the biggest questions entering Champ Week: (and follow this link to play ESPN's Champ Week Challenge)
Could Virginia join the list of ACC national title contenders?
For the duration of the season, Louisville, Duke and Florida State, the ACC regular-season champion, have been discussed as three teams capable of making a run to Atlanta and winning a national championship. They all entered the week ranked within the top 10 in the NET rankings and the top 15 on KenPom. Virginia, which finished in a three-way tie for second place with the Blue Devils and the Cardinals, has wins over all three teams in recent weeks. Since suffering a 53-51 home loss to NC State on Jan. 20, Virginia is 11-1, and the Cavaliers have owned the most effective defense in America (ranked first on both KenPom and barttorvik.com).
Although Virginia has possessed one of the ACC's worst offensive units (31.4% from the 3-point line in league play) after losing three pros from last year's national title team, it's impossible to ignore the momentum Tony Bennett's team has amassed entering the NCAA tournament and the wins it has collected the past six weeks. Virginia ended the season with a 23-7 record in the regular season. Connecticut ended the 2013-14 campaign with a 24-7 record prior to its run to an American Athletic Conference tournament title and national championship. Could Virginia accomplish the same feat and defend its title with a wild run? Everything this team has achieved recently suggests that Virginia is capable, but an ACC tournament title would confirm that.
Will Creighton convert the nonbelievers at Madison Square Garden?
Greg McDermott might win national coach of the year after leading Creighton to a slice of the Big East championship, a title the Bluejays shared with Villanova and Seton Hall. The Bluejays have spent the bulk of the season as one of the nation's most efficient offenses, capped by a 38.7% clip from the 3-point line, a top-10 mark. Marcus Zegarowski, who suffered a knee injury in Saturday's 77-70 home win over Seton Hall, is doubtful for the Big East tournament. The Bluejays have lost just one game since Feb. 5 and certainly possess the offensive talent to make a run in March, but making a run through this week's tournament will be difficult without Zegarowski.
The naysayers have a point. Creighton's losses have been landslides. The Bluejays lost to St. John's by 20 points on March 1. San Diego State beat Creighton by 31 points in November. The Bluejays also have double-digit losses to Michigan, Providence and Butler -- all on the road -- this season. Those blemishes can be erased, however, with a strong run through the Big East tournament. This is one of the toughest leagues in the country, and a title in the conference tournament, a tall order given Zegarowski's injury, would make Creighton a serious pick to win a title in April. Another lopsided loss this week, especially without one of the team's top players, would encourage the doubters.
Can any team ruin Dayton's shot at a No. 1 seed?
Dayton became the first Atlantic 10 team since George Washington in 2006 to win the league's title without a conference loss. The Flyers are an excellent team, and their best player, Obi Toppin, is a projected first-round pick and a potential Wooden Award winner. Dayton's only blemishes are overtime losses to Colorado and Kansas. But the Flyers are entering the Atlantic 10 tournament with the understanding that one loss could jeopardize their shot at a No. 1 seed, for which the team is currently projected inJoe Lunardi's latest bracketology.
Dayton is the obvious favorite to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, but could any team disrupt its plans for a top seed in the NCAA tournament? Richmond, a bubble team, is a possible threat. A run to the title game might be enough to help Richmond (37th in the NET entering the week) crack the field of 68. In its only game against Richmond this season, Dayton won by eight, and Toppin finished with 24 points. But Richmond, the No. 2 seed in the tournament and the league's top defensive team, is 9-1 in its past 10 games. Blake Francis (17.7 PPG) did not play against Dayton due to injury. He's healthy now. Travis Ford's Saint Louis team is a sleeper, too, after winning five in a row and losing to Dayton by eight points combined (including an overtime affair in the first outing) this season.
How important is the Big 12 tournament for the Texas schools?
Kansas probably can't do anything in Kansas City to lose the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. But a number of programs, especially the Big 12 schools in the Lone Star State (excluding TCU), are facing pressure entering this event. Texas Tech and Texas will face each other on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. That's a matchup between a pair of bubble teams. Texas Tech has lost five of its past seven games (a slide that includes losses to Baylor and Kansas), and Texas ended a five-game resurgence with a 22-point home loss to Oklahoma on Saturday. The Longhorns are more desperate for wins in Kansas City, but the loser of this game could endure a frustrating Selection Sunday. Even so, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard isn't facing the same scrutiny Shaka Smart has endured.
Baylor enjoyed a significant stretch as America's best team and one of its top defensive teams. But Scott Drew's program hit a wall in recent weeks. During this 2-3 stretch (losses to Kansas, TCU and West Virginia), Baylor has been ranked 70th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per barttorvik.com. The Bears averaged 97 points per 100 possessions in those three losses, too. Now the former No. 1 team faces questions about its national title aspirations. A strong showing in Kansas City, one that might include a third game against Kansas, could author a fresh start for Baylor entering the NCAA tournament.
Could Memphis salvage its season in Dallas?
Memphis started the season surrounded by praise. James Wiseman, a projected lottery pick, would anchor Penny Hardaway's resurgent Tigers, we thought. Then the NCAA drama ensued, and Wiseman opted to turn pro rather than serve a 12-game suspension for the illegal benefits his mother allegedly received from Hardaway prior to Hardaway's stint as head coach. Shortly after the Wiseman decision, D.J. Jeffries suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the Memphis bandwagon rolled into a ditch. But conference tournaments can make folks forget about a rocky season.
Memphis is 4-2 in its past six games, and that run includes wins over Houston and Wichita State, the No. 2 and No. 4 seeds, respectively, in the AAC tournament. The Tigers went to overtime with Cincinnati, the No. 1 seed in the field, in mid-February. Right now, Memphis is listed among Lunardi's First Four Out. But a strong run seems possible for a Tigers team that picked up some momentum down the stretch. It would be an improbable finish for the program's turbulent ride, but Precious Achiuwa (15.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG) & Co. have a chance.
How many teams can win the Big Ten tournament?
Well, most of them. With the potential to achieve double-digit bids on Selection Sunday, the Big Ten is the deepest league in America. Its tournament should highlight the strength of the conference. Anything seems possible in this wild league, but its top teams are all ranked according to tiers. That's important to note. Michigan State is the best team in the Big Ten right now. Cassius Winston (49% from the 3-point line) is an All-American, and Michigan State is playing great offense and defense after winning six of its past seven games. The growth of Micah Potter (59% clip inside the arc) has made Wisconsin, which has won eight consecutive games, the most intriguing team in the field.
Maryland's recent slide doesn't do much to encourage hope, but Sunday's win over Michigan for the Terps, who won a slice of the Big Ten title, helped Mark Turgeon's team enter the tournament on a good note.Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith have a declining defense behind them, which complicates the team's chances to win this week. Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State could all get hot, too. Rutgers has wins over Purdue and Maryland this month. If Mike Watkins is available, Penn State could shock the field. Purdue and Indiana? In a year such as this, a run to the title for a pair of teams that finished 9-11 in league play would be surprising, but it doesn't seem impossible. In other words, don't miss a game.
Will the magic continue for UCLA?
On Monday, Mick Cronin secured Pac-12 coach of the year honors after UCLA's second-place finish with a 9-2 record in the final 11 games. It was a remarkable turnaround for the program. Saturday's 54-52 road loss at rival USC -- Jonah Mathews hit a clutch 3-pointer in the final seconds -- ended UCLA's seven-game winning streak, but the Bruins will enter the Pac-12 tournament as the most dangerous team in the field. The Bruins have made 50% of their shots inside the arc and held opponents to 0.92 points per possession with Cody Riley, who has become a key contributor for Cronin's squad.
Many have questioned UCLA's run because the Pac-12 is arguably the fourth- or fifth-best conference among the major leagues. But this also is a league that could send seven or eight teams to the NCAA tournament, and UCLA powered through that field. A run through the Pac-12 tournament would not just end all talk of UCLA's "fluke" finish in league play but also solidify its spot in the NCAA tournament.
What's next for Ashton Hagans and Kentucky?
With nearly 11 minutes to play, Kentucky was down by 18 points Saturday at Florida. Then the Wildcats launched a furious comeback and sealed a 71-70, come-from-behind victory. It was an impressive closing. Perhaps Kentucky is a Final Four team, but the bulk of Saturday's outing suggested that the Wildcats can't reach Atlanta without Ashton Hagans, who missed the game for personal reasons. After Saturday's win, John Calipari said Hagans came to him prior to the Florida matchup and said he was "in a bad way," which is why he didn't travel with the team. Calipari said he expected Hagans to return for the SEC tournament, but he didn't guarantee it. Hagans, on Instagram, celebrated the win over Florida.
It's still unclear where he stands. Kentucky clearly needs him. He averages 11.5 PPG and 6.4 APG. Kentucky has made 37% of its shots from beyond the arc with Hagans and just 26.3% of its 3-point attempts without him. He's an important player for this Kentucky team, and Saturday's sloppiness proved as much. Even if he's back for the SEC tournament, it's unclear if he'll be ready to resume his role. It's a good thing that Calipari and his Wildcat teammates are more concerned about his well-being than anything else. On the court, they all know they're better if Hagans comes back.
Non-Power 5 tournaments
Will Vermont's run continue? Winners of 15 of its past 16 games, Vermont has to get through UMBC, which beat the Catamounts on their home floor on Feb. 22, in the semifinals to advance.
Will Eastern Washington's winning streak continue? The Eagles have won seven in a row behind the dominance of Mason Peatling (17.2 PPG, 9.1 RPG) as the team seeks its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2015.
Will Collin Welp heat up for league champion UC-Irvine? The standout guard, a 44% 3-point shooter, has made just 10 of his past 29 attempts from beyond the arc.
Could poor interior defense cost Hofstra a trip to the NCAA tournament? The league champs allowed a 55% clip inside the arc.
Has North Texas cooled off? The top team in CUSA has made 38% of its 3-point attempts in league play but is just 9-for-40 in its past two games.
Will Illinois-Chicago make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004? After knocking off Wright State, the top seed and Horizon League regular-season champion, in a 73-56 win Monday in the semifinals, the Flames can go dancing for the first time in 16 years with a win in the title game.
Will Siena dominate the field? The top seed boasts six double-digit wins in its current nine-game winning streak.
Can anyone guard Akron's Loren Cristian Jackson? He has 10 games with 26 or more points this season.
Will the streak continue for North Carolina Central? The MEAC's regular-season champs have won three consecutive conference tournaments.
Who is the No. 2 team in the league? Robert Morris and St. Francis (Pennsylvania) will battle for the league's at-large bid because Merrimack, the regular-season champion, is ineligible for the postseason tournament during its ongoing transition to Division I.
Will Colgate win its third and most important outing against Boston U. in the title game? Colgate scored exactly 79 points in each win over the Terriers during the regular season.
Will turnovers doom Stephen F. Austin? The overwhelming favorite and NCAA tournament sleeper forces turnovers on nearly 28% of its opponents' possessions but commits turnovers on nearly one-fifth of its trips down the floor.
Does North Dakota State have the nation's easiest path to a bid? North Dakota and Purdue Fort Wayne finished with a combined record of 13-19 in league play.
Could Rob Lanier's first season at Georgia State end with an automatic bid? The Panthers beat Little Rock, the Sun Belt champions, by 19 points in the final game of the regular season.
Could Southern complete America's best in-season turnaround? The team started 3-13, including an 0-3 start in SWAC play, but is 13-2 in its past 15 games.
Is New Mexico State evolving into an NCAA tournament threat again? The Aggies, who nearly knocked off Auburn in last year's NCAA tournament, have not lost since Dec. 14.
Can Jordan Ford lead Saint Mary's to an upset over Gonzaga in the title game? The Gaels lost both games against the Bulldogs this season by a combined 40 points.
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