College basketball’s 5 biggest questions heading into Championship Week

The madness before the madness is upon us.

Major conference tournaments get going on Tuesday and won’t slow down until right before the bracket is unveiled on Selection Sunday. Here are the five biggest questions that will be answered over the week ahead.

1. Who will earn the fourth No. 1 seed?

UConn, Purdue, and Houston could all lose the first games of their respective conference tournaments by 35 points, and they’d all still be locks to earn a 1-seed on Selection Sunday.

You might be thinking that “who will be the No. 1 overall seed” might be a logical jumping off point here. While it’s interesting, the reality is that this year it doesn’t matter at all.

The biggest benefit to being the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament is that you get to choose your geographical path to the Final Four. The issue with that this season is that all three teams are fairly spaced out, so all are going to get their preferred geographical designation regardless of what order they’re seeded in.

UConn is headed to Brooklyn and then Boston. Houston will be sent to Memphis and then Dallas. Purdue will play in Indianapolis and then Detroit.

So there’s no real intrigue when it comes to the top three overall seeds. That fourth No. 1 seed though …

There are three teams with a strong case for that final spot, and at least two others with a prayer. Five teams from five different conferences.

Tennessee, despite losing at home to Kentucky on Saturday, would seem to have the inside track. Based on their overall resume, if they win the SEC tournament, they should earn the final spot on the top line.

One thing to keep an eye on here: The SEC tournament final is played on Selection Sunday. For years, there’s been a common thought that the selection committee doesn’t weigh the impact of those Sunday games unless they absolutely have to (in 2015 they actually admitted they didn’t weigh the impact of the SEC title game the year before because of the “time crunch”). So perhaps if North Carolina — the team I think is second in line here — rolls to an ACC tournament championship on Saturday, the committee goes ahead and decides that who’s No. 4 and who’s No. 5 doesn’t matter all that much and goes ahead and awards the top spot to UNC. We’ll have to see.

The Pac-12’s Arizona also has a shot at a No. 1 seed, but they would need to win their conference tournament in convincing fashion and have both the other teams above them lose, preferably before their conference championship games.

Iowa State and Marquette are both longer shots (way longer), but there’s a world where one of them wins their conference title in dominant fashion and everyone else loses early and they wind up jumping to the top line.

2. Which bubble teams will solidify at-large bids?

People love dismissing bubble talk and saying that there’s far too much attention paid during these weeks to teams that have no real shot at doing anything of substance in the NCAA tournament.

I’m here to make the case that those people are mistaken.

For starters, even though the “First Four” — those four games typically played in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday featuring the lowest-seeded four teams in the field and the last four at-large teams to get in — has been fairly controversial and often mocked since its inception in 2011, a team coming out of Dayton has won at least one game in the tournament’s “main draw” in every year but one since the First Four became a thing. The only time it hasn’t happened was in 2019.

Overall, the First Four has produced a total of 22 victories in the “main draw” of the tournament, five Sweet 16 squads, and two Final Four teams, the most recent being UCLA in 2021.

Furthermore, every single Final Four but one since 2012 has featured at least one team seeded No. 7 or worse. Since 2011, a total of 12 teams seeded seventh or worse have crashed the season’s final weekend, and a solid chunk of those teams have been squads who found themselves near or around the center of “bubble” talk during the final weeks of the regular season.

Basically, the bubble matters.

I think we can boil things down to the point where we say that we have four open spots for 14 different teams. One of those teams, Indiana State, has no more basketball to play. Their case is set in stone. Another, James Madison, plays Arkansas State for the Sun Belt championship Monday night. Win and they’re in. Lose and the company has to decide whether they exclude a 30-win team from the field of 68 for the first time ever.

Here are the other 13 teams and when they hit the floor this week:

St. John’s — Thursday, Big East tournament quarterfinals vs. Seton Hall

Villanova — Wednesday, Big East tournament first round vs. DePaul

Providence — Wednesday, Big East tournament first round vs. Georgetown

Wake Forest — Wednesday, ACC tournament second round vs. Notre Dame/Georgia Tech

Virginia — Thursday, ACC tournament quarterfinals vs. TBD

Pittsburgh —Thursday, ACC tournament quarterfinals vs. TBD

New Mexico — Wednesday, Mountain West tournament first round vs. Air Force

Iowa — Thursday, Big 10 tournament second round vs. Ohio State

Ohio State — Thursday, Big 10 tournament second round vs. Iowa

Texas A&M — Thursday, SEC tournament second round vs. Ole Miss

Mississippi State — Thursday, SEC tournament second round vs. LSU

Colorado — Thursday, Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals vs. Utah/Arizona State

Kansas State — Wednesday, Big 12 tournament second round vs. Texas

Bubble madness gets going in about 48 hours. Get your rest now.

3. Which teams will eliminate themselves from national title contention before the tournament even starts?

My favorite March tidbit is that no team has ever lost the first game of its conference tournament and gone on to win the national championship.

The closest a team has come to snapping this trend was Texas Tech in 2019. The Red Raiders were upset by West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament and then three weeks later came one shot away from knocking off Virginia to claim the national title.

When an unexpected early exit happens during Championship Week, fans (and sometimes coaches) love to act like it’s a blessing in disguise that the team is getting a few extra days of rest before the Big Dance. The reality is that the numbers say this isn’t the case.

4. Will this week feature a bid thief or multiple bid thieves?

As mentioned earlier, bubble boys should be rooting hard for James Madison on Monday night in the Sun Belt championship game. If the Dukes are upset by Arkansas State — the tournament’s No. 7 seed — there’s a chance their sparkling 30-4 record, which includes a road win over Michigan State, will be enough to get them into the dance. Two teams from the Sun Belt would mean one less spot for everyone else.

Obviously, if we have a 2021 Georgetown or 2021 Oregon State situation where a team with no shot at the tournament gets hot and win four or five games in four or five days, that wouldn’t bode well for anyone on the bubble either.

In the American Athletic Conference, Florida Atlantic is an NCAA tournament lock, while everyone else in the league — even Memphis and South Florida — likely needs to win the conference tournament to get in. That is certainly possible.

The big league to keep an eye on for a bid theft this week will be the Atlantic 10. Dayton is the tournament’s No. 3 seed, but the Flyers are the only squad from the conference that is locked into the field of 68. The A-10’s tournament final is played on Selection Sunday. Multiple times in recent years, a team on the outside looking in has punched its ticket hours before the bracket was revealed, and broken the collective heart of the team that was unknowingly sitting in spot No. 68. Don’t be shocked if the A-10 brings the cruelest of drama again this year.

5. Who’s going to get fired?

Mike Hopkins is already out at Washington, and Louisville’s Kenny Payne seems to be a surefire bet to get the axe within 24-48 hours of the Cardinals’ elimination in the ACC tournament. But there are a handful of other names from power conferences who might be coaching for their jobs this week.

Here’s a list of guys to keep an eye on this week:

Jerod Haase (Stanford)

Jerry Stackhouse (Vanderbilt)

Wayne Tinkle (Oregon State)

Mike Boynton (Oklahoma State)

Juwan Howard (Michigan)

Bobby Hurley (Arizona State)

Guys like Kevin Keatts (NC State), Johnny Dawkins (UCF) and Andy Enfield (USC) might not be on seats that are quite as hot as the others on the list, but would be well-served to not embarrass themselves this week (the Wolfpack play Louisville in the ACC tournament first round on Tuesday). A guy like Pitt’s Jeff Capel would also be well-served to lock up an NCAA tournament bid with at least one win in D.C.

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