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SEC Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The SEC has seen a resurgence this season as the league should have more than six NCAA tournament bids for the first time ever.

With as many as eight teams jockeying for NCAA tournament positioning (or to even get in at all, in some cases) the SEC is perhaps as deep in basketball as it has ever been.

Heading into the SEC Tournament this week in St. Louis, every team in the league has suffered at least five conference losses this season. That means every team in the bracket is beatable and nobody is a consensus favorite. We could see a number of unique scenarios and champions play out this week. You could even make the case that this is the most wide-open major conference tournament in the country.

Here’s a look at the 2018 SEC Tournament.

THE FAVORITE

It’s tough to pick a favorite in this event since so many teams look beatable, but Tennessee has perhaps the most favorable path. While all of the other teams with double byes face tough first opponents, the Volunteers handled both LSU and Mississippi State with 20-plus point wins during the regular season. Also the hottest team in the league with a four-game winning streak, Tennessee is playing very well on both sides of the ball — particularly on defense.

THE CONTENDERS

You can mark most of the teams in this bracket as contenders if it’s the right week. Auburn is the No. 1 seed after they shared the SEC’s regular season crown with Tennessee. The Tigers have been one the nation’s biggest surprises this season. Although the Tigers don’t have a lot of size on the interior, they’ve been able to make up for it with balanced scoring and scrappy perimeter play as Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper all had all-league seasons.

Florida is another intriguing contender. If Florida is making perimeter shots then they can compete with any team in the country. If the Gators are missing shots, they could be ousted in the first game. The Scottrade Center in St. Louis has strange rims and is known as a tough spot to shoot. Will that hurt Florida?

And you can never count out Kentucky when it comes to the SEC tournament. The Wildcats had won four straight games before a loss to Florida in the season finale as they’ve been sharing the ball much better the past few weeks. If Kentucky has multiple weapons rolling then they could easily make a run and win this event.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

If Alabama is going to make the NCAA tournament then they need a win (or two) in St. Louis this week. The Crimson Tide are squarely on the bubble after a five-game losing streak to end the regular season as they are limping into the SEC tournament. Alabama’s first opponent in the tournament, Texas A&M, just beat the Crimson Tide by two on Saturday, so these two teams should be quite familiar with each other.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Besides for Alabama, the SEC looks pretty established when it comes to NCAA tournament projections. Of course, a couple of scenarios could change things. Texas A&M, Missouri and Arkansas should all feel pretty solid about getting in. A loss for any of them in the first game, however, could make Selection Sunday a little uncomfortable depending on how the week plays out. Teams like LSU and Mississippi State have been on the bubble in recent weeks, but they mostly look out of the picture entering the tournament — barring a miracle run. Since the Tigers and Bulldogs play each other first, one of those teams will immediately get sent to the NIT with a loss while the winner will have to probably make a finals run to even have a chance of getting in.

THE SLEEPER

Missouri is an intriguing team to watch this week for a number of different reasons. Already a dangerous team in their first season under head coach Cuonzo Martin, the Tigers could get a major boost if freshman Michael Porter Jr. returns to the rotation. The potential top-five pick would give the Tigers a major mismatch on the offensive end and a lot of size on the defensive end. Also keep in mind that Missouri will have a home court advantage by playing this one in St. Louis. Tigers fans can travel in numbers given the right situation, and with an NCAA tournament bid on the horizon, they could help Missouri quite a bit. The potential quarterfinal matchup with Kentucky would have an awesome atmosphere for a conference tournament.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Chris Chiozza, Florida. Most of the players in this SEC tournament field don’t have significant postseason experience. Which makes Chiozza, Florida’s senior point guard, a very dangerous player. Coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season after a memorable Sweet 16 buzzer-beater against Wisconsin, Chiozza is capable of controlling games and going on offensive bursts as a scorer or distributor. The Gators could be the favorite in this event if Chiozza is playing well.

X-FACTORS

Michael Porter Jr.’s health: We still aren’t sure if Porter Jr. will even play during the SEC tournament and how he will look if he does. If Porter is healthy and ready to go then it gives Missouri a chance to make a run in this event.
Kentucky’s balanced scoring: During Kentucky’s four-game winning streak towards the end of the season, they had at least five players in double-figures in all four wins. The Wildcats struggle to win games if one player has to take over. Kentucky’s success will largely be dictated by its collective efforts to score.  
Daniel Gafford: The Arkansas freshman big man has come on strong over the past several weeks as he’s a major factor at the rim on both ends of the floor. Gafford has more dunks this season than some SEC teams do and he’s also a rim protector that few in the SEC can match.

NBC SPORTS SEC POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Barnes, Tennessee

FIRST TEAM ALL SEC

  • Bryce Brown, Auburn
  • Daryl Macon, Arkansas
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama
  • Yante Maten, Georgia
  • Grant Williams, Tennessee

SECOND TEAM ALL SEC

  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn
  • Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
  • Chris Chiozza, Florida
  • Kevin Knox, Kentucky
  • Kassius Robertson, Missouri

Pac-12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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In what has been a tumultuous season for the Pac-12, beginning with the still-ongoing FBI probe and some misbehavior in China, the league’s 12 teams meet in Las Vegas to determine who will earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Arizona, the preseason favorite, won the conference by two games and after an eventful week will arrive at T-Mobile Arena at full strength. Sean Miller’s Wildcats will be favored to win the tournament for the third time in the last four years, but it won’t be easy due to the desperation many teams will be playing with.

UCLA, USC and Washington still have varying amounts of work to do depending upon who’s doing the prognosticating, Arizona State may need wins when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding, and then there are dangerous teams such as Stanford, Utah and Oregon that need the automatic bid if they’re to play in the Big Dance.

That should all make for an entertaining four days in Las Vegas. Here’s a look at the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament.

THE FAVORITE

It’s Arizona. The Wildcats went 15-3 in conference play, which is quite the achievement given the turmoil surrounding the program. Sean Miller and Allonzo Trier are back after missing both games of the Oregon trip for far different reasons, and in DeAndre Ayton the Wildcats have the conference’s best talent. Add in the likes of Rawle Alkins and Dusan Ristic, and this group has the pieces needed to win three games in as many days. Arizona may not defend as well as past Miller-coached teams have, but the Wildcats are still the best that the Pac-12 has to offer.

THE CONTENDERS

There will be no shortage of contenders in Las Vegas, beginning with UCLA and USC. While the Bruins are the four-seed this week, they’ve got one of the conference’s best players in point guard Aaron Holiday and contributors such as Thomas Welsh and Kris Wilkes aren’t slouches, either. The key for UCLA will be the health of Jaylen Hands, who missed Saturday’s win at USC with a sprained ankle. The Bruins can win without Hands, but to play three games in as many days they’ll need all hands on deck.

As for USC, the Trojans are still a force to be reckoned with despite losing Bennie Boatwright to a season-ending knee injury last month. Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu form one of the conference’s best inside/out tandems, and the Trojans have talented options throughout the rotation. And it should also be noted that USC finished conference play second in defensive efficiency (conference games only) per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Utah, which surprised more than a few people by finishing third, and a Stanford team that’s whole after seeing multiple players miss time due to injury, should not be ignored either.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Both L.A. schools are in a position where they would be well-served to pick up at least one win in Las Vegas. But the pick here is Washington, which will begin its tournament with Oregon State in Wednesday’s first round. Mike Hopkins’ Huskies have wins over Kansas (in Kansas City) and Arizona that will certainly help their cause, and with just one Quadrant 3/4 loss (at Oregon State in double overtime) they’ve avoided the kinds of losses that stick out in a negative way. Taking care of the Beavers would set up a matchup with USC, a team the Huskies beat in Los Angeles during the opening weekend of conference play.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The L.A. schools and Washington enter this tournament on the bubble, and as mentioned above the Huskies begin with a matchup against Oregon State that would be damaging to their profile should they lose. Both UCLA and USC have first round byes, and should the games play out according to seed the Bruins would draw a tough matchup in Stanford while the Trojans would get Washington. Arizona State should be safely in the field, but taking care of Colorado and at the very least showing well against Arizona would likely ensure that they’ll wear home uniforms in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

THE SLEEPER

Stanford as the 5-seed may classify as a sleeper, and it should be noted that with Reid Travis leading the way this is a group with the talent needed to make a run in Las Vegas. With Travis, Michael Humphrey and Dorian Pickens the Cardinal don’t lack for experience, and they’ve also got some young talented contributors as well with Daejon Davis and Oscar da Silva being two of the noteworthy underclassmen. Also, Arizona State as the 9-seed makes the Sun Devils a candidate for sleeper status. Bobby Hurley’s backcourt ranks among the best in the country, with Tra Holder leading the way, and they’ve got some big wins to their credit. But in order to make a run, the Sun Devils will have to tighten things up defensively and on the glass.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Aaron Holiday, UCLA. Ayton is the league’s best player and could very well be the first player selected in this summer’s NBA Draft. But given the stakes, not to mention the way in which he’s played throughout the season, Holiday is the one to watch. After ending the regular season with a 34-point, seven-assist, five-rebound masterclass against USC, Holiday is more than capable of carrying the Bruins on a run that would ensure them of an NCAA tournament bid.

X-FACTORS

Arizona vs. Everybody. While the Wildcats won the regular season title, this has not been a smooth run by any stretch of the imagination. This team’s mindset going in, especially if they can properly turn the outside noise into positive fuel, will be something worth keeping an eye on.
Oregon. The Ducks don’t lack for talent, and it could be argued that their portion of the bracket (Washington State, then Utah if they win) sets up well for a run. But it should be noted that the Ducks lost to Wazzu in Pullman last week.
Utah’s defense. The Runnin’ Utes finished seventh in the conference in defensive efficiency (league games only), but they have been better on that end of the floor. And with first team all-conference guard Justin Bibbins and a quality big man in David Collette leading the way, if they can continue that progress it wouldn’t be a shock if Utah managed to reach Saturday night’s final.

NBC SPORTS PAC-12 POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DeAndre Ayton, Arizona

COACH OF THE YEAR: Mike Hopkins, Washington

FIRST TEAM ALL PAC-12

  • Tra Holder, Arizona State
  • Aaron Holiday, UCLA
  • Allonzo Trier, Arizona
  • Chimezie Metu, USC
  • DeAndre Ayton, Arizona

SECOND TEAM ALL PAC-12

  • Justin Bibbins, Utah
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC
  • Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
  • Mathysse Thybulle, Washington
  • Reid Travis, Stanford

Mountain West Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The goal of the Mountain West in recent years has been to get back to the days earlier this decade in which the conference could count on multiple teams going to the NCAA tournament. There’s still work to be done in this regard, as the 11 teams will arrive in Las Vegas knowing that only regular season champion Nevada is well positioned to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

Despite seeing multiple players suffer injuries throughout the course of the season, Eric Musselman’s Wolf Pack won the Mountain West by two games. Led offensively by twins Caleb and Cody Martin, forward Jordan Caroline and guard Kendall Stephens, Nevada may not be that deep but the team doesn’t lack for talent or experience either.

That being said Nevada won’t lack for challenges in Las Vegas, especially with Fresno State and San Diego State on their side of the bracket. Leading the way on the bottom half of the bracket is two-seed Boise State, which has some work to do in order to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid.

Here’s a look at the 2018 Mountain West Tournament, an event that’s been won by the top seed twice in the last five seasons.

THE FAVORITE

Even with Saturday’s loss to San Diego State in the regular season finale, Nevada has earned the label of favorites heading into the tournament. Boasting a 15-3 league record, the Wolf Pack had the Mountain West’s most efficient offense and defensively led the conference in both effective field goal and three-point percentage defense. Nevada’s top four scorers, led by Caleb Martin at 19.5 points per game, have combined to account for nearly 65 points per game on the season. And without Lindsey Drew, who went down with a ruptured Achilles last month, the Martin twins, Caroline and Stephens have even more on their plates.

But if a Josh Hall, who chipped in with ten points in Nevada’s win at UNLV on February 28, or Hallice Cook can step forward this week that would bode well for the Wolf Pack. What also helps this team is the fact that they take care of the basketball, as their 9.1 turnovers per game were by far the least in the Mountain West. That being said, they’ve got a tough half of the bracket to navigate.

THE CONTENDERS

Boise State leads this list, due in large part to the presence of senior guard Chandler Hutchison. Averaging 19.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Hutchison leads the Broncos in all three statistical categories. While Leon Rice certainly has other options he can call upon offensively, led by Christian Sengfelder and Justinian Jessup (who’s shooting 46.7 percent from three), when a big play needs to be made it’s Hutchison who will have the ball in his hands.

After Boise State, New Mexico and San Diego State both deserve mention. Paul Weir led the Lobos to a 12-6 record in league play, and after being stuck on the bench his first two seasons in Albuquerque Anthony Mathis has emerged as the team’s leading scorer. And UNM capped the regular season with a win over Fresno State. As for the Aztecs, after getting blown out by Nevada on February 10 Brian Dutcher’s team won its last six to finish the regular season. SDSU is balanced offensively, with Malik Pope leading four double-figure scorers, and freshman Jalen McDaniels is going to be a star in this league.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Boise State. With Nevada due to pick up an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the tournament, that leaves the Broncos as the only other team in the Mountain West that has a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament if they don’t win the automatic bid. But that would likely require Boise State reaching Saturday’s title game, at minimum. A win over Utah State or Colorado State in the quarters won’t do much for their resume, and neither would a semifinal win over New Mexico/Wyoming/San Jose State. And it should be noted that if Nevada isn’t the opponent in the final, a close loss could spell doom for Boise State there as well.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Boise State. Ranked 41st in the NCAA’s most recent RPI update, Boise State enters the Mountain West tournament with two Quadrant 1 (Loyola-Chicago and Oregon) and four Quadrant 2 wins to its credit. The RPI likes Boise State more than other metrics, which have the Broncos ranked in the fifties with the exception of the KPI (61). Getting to the final may not be good enough, especially if the opponent in that game isn’t Nevada. Why risk it? Just win the whole damn thing and sleep easy Saturday night.

THE SLEEPER

Given the fact that they aren’t listed with the contenders above, Fresno State would be the best choice here. However, this is a group that is now playing without guard Jaron Hopkins as he suffered a right foot injury in a loss at Wyoming on February 24. Hopkins accounted for 20 points and five assists in the Bulldogs’ home win over San Diego State, their quarterfinal opponent, back on February 6. While many like to parrot the phrase “it’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season,” that’s been proven to be false.

Matchups matter, and Fresno State has some guys who can cause trouble in Deshon Taylor and Bryson Williams. The Bulldogs can account for the loss of Hopkins, especially with the time off between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference tournament. The bigger concern regarding Fresno State is the way that San Diego State is playing of late. As for any other sleepers, Wyoming is a team worth monitoring with Justin James and Hayden Dalton leading the way for Allen Edwards’ team. With San Jose State being the opponent in their tournament opener, Wyoming will likely face New Mexico for the third time this season in the quarters (UNM won both meetings).

PLAYER TO WATCH

Caleb Martin, Nevada. Martin, one of the top transfers in the country, is averaging 19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on the season, shooting 47.3 percent from the field, 43.1 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line. Martin going off over the course of three days, especially when he’s scored 20 points or more in 17 games this season, would surprise no one. And frankly, he’s a fun player to watch.

X-FACTORS

– Does Nevada’s lack of depth catch up with it due to the quick turnarounds? Three games in as many days could be a tough ask for the Wolf Pack, but the versatility of the players available should help matters.

– UNLV’s mindset. The Runnin’ Rebels lost five straight to end the regular season, with four of the losses being by double digits. There’s enough talent on this roster to cause some trouble, but given the beating they took at the hands of rival Nevada at Thomas & Mack on February 28 (101-75) who knows what this team will be thinking if the teams meet for a third time on Thursday.

– San Diego State’s defense. Long known for its commitment on that end of the floor, during a stretch in which it went 2-6 SDSU allowed 77 points or more in seven of those games (losing six). The Aztecs have defended better during the current six-game win streak, and if that carries over into Las Vegas maybe they make a run.

NBC SPORTS MOUNTAIN WEST POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State

COACH OF THE YEAR: Eric Musselman, Nevada

FIRST TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Justin James, Wyoming
  • Chandler Hutchison, Boise State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jordan Carolina, Nevada

SECOND TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Sam Merrill, Utah State
  • Deshon Taylor, Fresno State
  • Cody Martin, Nevada
  • Shakur Juiston, UNLV
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV

2014 Big Ten Tournament Preview: Can Michigan State turn things around?

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I’m not sure there is a conference in the country where there is more at stake in the conference tournament.

Even with Sunday’s loss at Nebraska, Wisconsin has a chance to play their was into a No. 1 seed if they can win the conference tournament. Michigan probably can’t be a No. 1 seed, but winning the league tournament should lock them into a No. 2 seed. And neither of those teams have the highest ceiling of anyone in the conference. That would be Michigan State, who is a national title contender if they can get their act together. Iowa is also trying to figure their issues out, as the Hawkeyes look like a top 15 team and play like a No. 8 seed.

Then you get to the bubble, where both Nebraska and Minnesota have their NCAA tournament hopes pinned on their performance this week.

The Huskers are probably in a better spot than the Gophers. If Nebraska, who gets a first round bye, lucks out and gets Ohio State in the quarterfinals, they are probably going to get in whether or not they win that game. Minnesota, on the other hand, probably needs to win at least two games if they want to dance. They are on the outside looking in as of today, and beating Penn State isn’t going to change that.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 13-16

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

Final: March 16, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: Michigan Wolverines

Despite losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the draft, and with Mitch McGary biding his time on the bench with a back injury, John Beilein somehow managed to do something that he wasn’t able to do last season: win the outright Big Ten regular season title. That’s what happens when Nik Stauskas turns into an all-american and Caris LeVert puts together an all-Big Ten caliber campaign. I’m not sure there is a pair of wing players that were better in conference play than those two.

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Perhaps the biggest difference between Michigan now and Michigan four months ago has been the play of Derrick Walton at the point. He’s not Trey Burke, at least not yet, but as his confidence has grown, his ability to handle the rigors of running an offense at this level of basketball has increased exponentially. He’s become more than just the guy that dribbles the ball up the court. He’s a player, and with defenses keying on Stauskas and LeVert, that makes a major difference.

And if they lose?: Michigan State Spartans

I’m going to ride the Spartan bandwagon until the season is over. All the proof I needed was in that second half against Iowa, when Keith Appling finally played like Keith Appling and Michigan State beat the brakes off the Hawkeyes for 20 minutes. That’s the key to any and all success Michigan State will have this month. Appling just isn’t right right now. I don’t know if it’s the wrist injury itself, the fact that sitting out has killed his conditioning or if it is as simple as Appling’s confidence being in the gutter. Whatever the case may be, if he can find the form that he had in that second half against Iowa, Sparty will be awesome once again. And if he can’t? It won’t be a great month in East Lansing.

Other Contenders:

  • Wisconsin Badgers: Outside of the three-week stretch when the Badgers lost five out of six games, they’ve been nearly unbeatable, with their only loss coming at Nebraska on the final day of the regular season. Wisconsin has quite a bit on the line in this tournament. Win it all, and they could be the last No. 1 seed.
  • Ohio State Buckeyes: Ohio State is as tough as anyone defensively. Their issue is the ability to score the ball. On the nights that guys like Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott are scoring, the Buckeyes can beat anyone in the league. On the nights they aren’t, the Buckeyes can lose to anyone. Such is life.

Sleeper: Iowa Hawkeyes

On paper, Iowa looks like one of the best teams in the league. They’re talented, they’re deep and they have two of the best players in the conference in Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White. But they haven’t been able to win close games against elite competition all season long, and they haven’t played a lick of defense for the better part of a month. So which team shows up in Indy?

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Deeper Sleeper: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Tim Miles has done a tremendous job with this Nebraska program, but the question I have about them is whether or not they can beat teams away from home. They did win at Michigan State, but so did Illinois. The Huskers are good — they are the fourth seed after all — so it will be interesting to see what they can do this week.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Terran Petteway, Nebraska: Petteway is the best player on the Huskers. He’s fun to watch because he has a penchant for hitting ridiculously tough shots in critical moments. And his hair is awesome.
  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Indiana has struggled this season, but it’s not Ferrell’s fault. He’s had a terrific sophomore campaign.
  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky is the latest in a long line of talented Wisconsin big men. His ability to score in the post and be a threat in pick-and-pop actions makes him perfect for Wisconsin’s swing offense.
  • Caris LeVert, Michigan: Nik Stauskas gets all the attention for the Wolverines, but LeVert is actually the most improved player on the roster. He may be the team’s most indispensable player as well.

CBT Prediction: Michigan State over Michigan

Best [name of league] Tournament Memory:

2014 Big 12 Tournament Preview: This is going to be good

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If I could only watch one conference tournament this season, it would be the Big 12. That’s what happens when, barring an upset, all eight teams in the quarterfinals have a chance at playing their way into the Big Dance.

The matchups?

The juiciest.

RELATEDRead through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

There’s No. 4 Iowa State and No. 5 Kansas State, two teams that are noted for being unbeatable on their home floors squaring off at a neutral site. No. 3 Texas, who came from nowhere this season to become an NCAA tournament team, takes on No. 6 West Virginia, who needs to make a run to the finals to have a shot at hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. If No. 7 Baylor can beat No. 10 TCU, the Bears will square off with No. 2 Oklahoma, with the best perimeter team in the conference taking on the team with the best front court. And if No. 8 Oklahoma State can get past No. 9 Texas Tech, they’ll take on No. 1 Kansas, a matchup that shouldn’t need explanation.

And that’s just the quarterfinals.

Did I mention they have great barbecue in Kansas City?

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City

Final: March 15, ESPN

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

On paper, Kansas is the most talented team in the Big 12, maybe the country. They have the two guys that will go top three in the NBA Draft in June (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid), another lottery pick (Wayne Selden) and an all-Big 12 caliber role player that could end up being a first round pick himself (Perry Ellis). As you’ve come to expect from a program that has won ten straight Big 12 regular season titles, they’re loaded.

MOREWhere did Andrew Wiggins rate as an NBCSports.com All-American?

But there are two things that could derail a Big 12 tournament title. The first is Embiid’s back. It’s balky. He’s getting a second opinion on it in California and could very well end up sitting out until the NCAA tournament. He’s the defensive rock for a team that has not been consistently great defensively. The other is Naadir Tharpe. For the most part, Tharpe has been very good this season. But when he’s bad, he’s really, really bad. Kansas could end up playing Oklahoma State and Iowa State before the finals. They cannot afford Bad Naadir if Embiid isn’t playing.

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And if they lose?: Iowa State

As crazy as this may sound, the Cyclones actually had more Big 12 Player of the Year candidates than Kansas did. DeAndre Kane has been the best back court player in the conference, and Melvin Ejim has capped a terrific career with an All-American season. Throw in Georges Niang, one of the nation’s biggest matchup nightmares, and the Cyclones are good enough to make a run to the title despite being slotted into the No. 4 seed.

Other Contenders:

  • Oklahoma: The Sooners are better than anyone gives them credit for. The No. 2 seed in the bracket, Oklahoma spreads the floor and gets out in transition as much as anyone in the conference. Buddy Hield and Cameron Clark are as good of a 1-2 punch as you will find in the league, and yes, I do realize how loaded that statement is.
  • Texas: Remember when we all fired Rick Barnes back in October? Well, don’t look now, but the Longhorns finished as the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament and drew a matchup with West Virginia in the quarterfinals. Texas wins with their defense and their massive front line, and on the nights that Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor are shooting well, they’re dangerous.

Sleeper: Baylor

We all wrote the Bears off earlier this season, and rightfully so. They lost eight out of ten games at one point and looked like a sinking ship. But they closed the regular season with seven wins in eight games as Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson started to play better while Kenny Chery embraced his role as lead guard offensively. The issue with this group is always going to be on the defensive end, where they rank 95th in defensive efficiency.

Deeper Sleeper: Oklahoma State

I’m actually picking the Pokes to win the Big 12 tournament despite being the No. 8 seed that will have to beat Texas Tech, Kansas and either Kansas State or Iowa State just to get to the final. Here’s why: Marcus Smart is back to being Marcus Smart. He’s still flopping, but he cut down on his ridiculous threes and he cutback on some of those headlong drives into the lane. He’s playing like an actual point guard instead of trying to be Kobe Bryant. When he does that — when he allows Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash to be the go-to-guys offensively — Oklahoma State looks like the team that was picked in the top ten in the preseason. Oh, and in the last two weeks, they beat Kansas and came within a missed free throws from Phil Forte and a 25-foot three from Naz Long of beating Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Markel Brown, Oklahoma State: Le’Bryan Nash was a top ten recruit. Marcus Smart is, well, Marcus Smart. But Brown has been Travis Ford’s most consistent offensive weapon in Big 12 play.
  • Juwan Staten, West Virginia: It’s a shame that Staten plays in a league with DeAndre Kane and Smart because he’s been overshadowed. He had as good of a year as any point guard in the country.
  • Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield’s development into an all-Big 12 player is one of the biggest reasons that the Sooners are a top 25 team this season.
  • Marcus Foster, Kansas State: He wasn’t a top 100 player coming out of high school but Foster has been one of the nation’s best freshmen.

CBT Prediction: Oklahoma State over Oklahoma

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2014 Big East Tournament Preview: Can Villanova finally beat Creighton?

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It seems weird to write a Big East tournament preview in the realignment era. How can one describe the upcoming four long days at Madison Square Garden without including Syracuse, Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, or Connecticut?

Despite it’s current lean appearance, the Big East, according to Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings, trails only the Big Ten and the Big 12, and sports two teams – Creighton and Villanova – that are threats to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. After that duo, however, the rest of the conference is riddled with question marks, and lacking a strong showing at the Garden, it isn’t inconceivable that only the conference’s top two dance.

RELATED: Read through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

Providence, Xavier, and St. John’s have all missed opportunities to provide any separation during the past two months. Puzzling defeats follow what seemed to be season-defining wins, and without at least one victory in the coming days for SJU and Xavier (in particular), those two squads will be absent from the tournament field (despite the Friars’ 20-win record, PC likely has to make the title game to get a bid).

As the memories of Allen Iverson, the six overtime semifinal, and Kemba Walker, among others, fade and become highlight packages for fans of Dave Gavitt’s Big East, the league’s new era begins on Wednesday – considering it is still the Big East, there should be a few surprises along the way.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

BRACKET

When: March 12-15

Where: Madison Square Garden

Final: March 15, 8:30 (Fox Sports 1)

Favorite: Creighton

Yes, Creighton has serious question marks – following St. John’s blueprint, teams have concentrated on stopping the Bluejays not named Doug McDermott, and the team’s defense (while improved!) is susceptible to undermining lapses – but Greg McDermott’s squad is still the conference’s team to beat. The path to a win on Saturday starts with McDermott, the senior forward who recently topped 3,000 career points, and when the team is clicking offensively, they are unstoppable.

MORE: Who joined Doug McDermott as an NBCSports.com All-American

The key for McDermott and company, however, is Ethan Wragge, the team’s bearded three-point specialist. Since February 1st, the senior has slightly slipped beyond the arc: his three-point percentage has slid to 40 percent, a decline from the 49 percent Wragge had converted during the first month of Big East play. As demonstrated in recent losses to Xavier and Georgetown, when Wragge isn’t connecting from deep, Creighton’s offense becomes stagnant, and open looks (and makes) for the forward enables better half court spacing and clear lanes for the other Bluejays.

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AP Photo

And if they lose?: Villanova

The team most overlooked in many Big East preseason rankings, Villanova has cracked the discussion for a top seed in the tournament field. Non-conference wins over Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis padded the team’s resume, but they still haven’t beaten Creighton during Big East play, which is why the Wildcats aren’t the favorite for the tournament title. What is most impressive about this Jay Wright-led team is their offensive efficiency. Both James Bell and Darrun Hilliard make more than 50 percent of their twos and roughly 40 percent of their threes, and JayVaughn Pinkston ranks behind McDermott as the conference’s toughest one-on-one matchup.

How did a team which only lost one true contributor from a year ago manage to post an offensive rating with a conference efficiency margin of plus .16 from 2013? The squad cut down on their twos, beefed up their three point attempts, and display halfcourt ball movement that recalls the classic four-guard Nova teams from the mid-aughts.

Other Contenders:

  • St. John’s: After losing their first five Big East contests, St. John’s finished the season winning ten of their last thirteen games. The backcourt core of D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan has propelled the Red Storm during their run, but the crux of the Johnnies success lies with JaKarr Sampson.
  • Xavier: Matt Stainbrook’s potential absence severely undermines the Muskeeters’ tourney title chances. The transfer wasn’t just the team’s most consistent scorer within the paint, but Stainbrook was Xavier’s best defensive rebounder. His potential loss will further Semaj Christon’s responsibilities, but the guard, whose sophomore leap helped him crack the conference’s first team list, should be up to the task.

Sleeper: Providence

The Friars are the tournament’s primary sleeper due to Bryce Cotton. Standing only 6-foot-1, Cotton never leaves the floor – he averages 40.1 minutes per game – is quick enough to get into the lane at will, and possesses a 40-plus vertical that helps him unleash jumpers from all over the court, regardless on how tight teams guard him. The most efficient player on PC’s roster, he could solely carry the team to Saturday night.

Deeper Sleeper: Georgetown

Despite a sub-.500 conference record, Georgetown has a slightly easier road to the title game than the other three teams playing on Wednesday. The Hoyas recently beat down on Creighton and Xavier, two potential matchups, and the backcourt of Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is an unpredictable nightmare to defend. Both guards could offensively take control of a game – versus CU and XU, the duo scored a combined 44 percent of the team’s points – or they could disappear.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Josh Fortune, Providence: While he doesn’t play as many minutes as Cotton, Fortune also rarely leaves the court, and his improved three-point touch has made the guard less of the offensive liability he was as a freshman in 2013.
  • Daniel Ochefu, Villanova: The only Wildcat taller than 6-foot-7 who uses consistent minutes, Ochefu’s defensive contributions have helped Nova hold opponents to roughly one point per possession in Big East play.
  • Deonte Burton, Marquette: Freshmen don’t normally plays for Williams unless they have shown a necessary dedication defensively, but Burton is such a versatile threat that Williams has had to give Burton meaningful minutes.
  • Jalen Reynolds, Xavier: Since it is unclear if Stainbrook will play (or if he does, how many minutes he will contribute), Reynolds’ role will increase. Luckily for coach Chris Mack, Reynolds has shined with extra PT.

CBT Prediction: Villanova over Creighton

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