The first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is widely regarded as the most exciting four days in sports. But the tournaments before the tournament? If you’re into nonstop hoops, they’re a close second.
Beginning Thursday, college basketball takes over TV screens for good, often from before noon until after midnight. The ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC aren’t the only conferences who’ll crown postseason champions this week. But they’ll get top billing. And we are here to get you ready for them.
Below is a conference-by-conference breakdown of the major tournaments this week, complete with brackets and betting lines and storylines and more. We’ve assigned each a watchability score out of 10. We’ve made our picks. All you have to do is dig in.
Watchability: 4 out of 10. The ACC tournament is almost always one of the most intriguing, but the stakes are uncharacteristically low in a down year for the conference.
One big storyline: Last year saw three teams earn No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. This year, there will likely be none. Depth is an issue as well, with five NCAA bids looking like the ACC’s ceiling. But Florida State, Duke and Louisville are all capable of making deep runs, while reigning NCAA champion Virginia is getting hot at the right time, having won eight straight, including victories over Louisville and Duke. The Seminoles will look to follow their first-ever regular-season ACC championship with a tournament championship.
Bubble implications: No. 5 seed NC State finds itself squarely on the bubble, and cannot afford an early exit. The Wolfpack open play on Wednesday against either No. 13 seed Pittsburgh or No. 12 seed Wake Forest. With a win there, they would take on No. 4 seed Duke, a team they split their season series with. Two wins this week would almost certainly punch the Wolfpack’s ticket, while falling victim to a first-round upset would deliver a big blow to their tournament hopes.
Potential March stars to scout: Duke doesn’t look like its usual juggernaut self heading into March, but still has a pair of All-ACC-caliber players in sophomore point guard Tre Jones and dynamic freshman center Vernon Carey, a potential lottery pick. Both closed the regular season strong and are capable of carrying the Blue Devils to the Final Four. Florida State guard Devin Vassell is a big reason the Seminoles nabbed their first-ever top seed in the ACC tournament. If he gets on a hot streak, so can the Seminoles. Forward Mamadi Diakite has evolved from a role player and defensive specialist on a championship team to Virginia’s most dangerous weapon and a potential NBA prospect. Louisville forward Jordan Nwora is a dynamic scorer who can light it up from deep and stuff the stat sheet.
BetMGM favorites: Florida State (2-1), Duke (2.3-1), Louisville (3.3-1), Virginia (7-1)
Sleeper: It’s hard to fathom any team outside of the top four seeds making a run in Greensboro. But North Carolina has an NBA lottery talent in point guard Cole Anthony, and lost a ton of close games in conference play. If Anthony gets hot, then UNC has the potential to swing some of those close matchups its way and string together multiple wins.
Our pick: Duke over Virginia. The Cavs are scorching hot right now, but so are Jones and Carey. The Blue Devils were a buzzer-beater away from winning in Charlottesville last week. We’ll give them the edge when the venue switches to Greensboro. — Jason Owens
Watchability: 6 out of 10. (It hurts that Kansas has nothing to play for, with the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed locked up, but there’s plenty at stake for the rest of the conference.)
One big storyline: Dropping three out of five to close the regular season didn’t just torpedo Baylor’s hopes of claiming at least a share of the Big 12 title. That late-season skid has also put a dent in the Bears’ once-airtight case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Thanks to its 11-2 record in Quadrant 1 games, Baylor would probably still be a No. 1 seed entering the Big 12 tournament, but the Bears would be wise to avoid an early exit. Otherwise they could be vulnerable to being overtaken by a surging tournament champion from one of the other power conferences.
Bubble implications: Just when it seemed Texas was on the verge of playing its way onto the right side of the bubble, the Longhorns threw in an ill-timed dud. Oklahoma State ended Texas’ five-game win streak on Saturday in Austin with an 81-59 rout. At 19-12 overall and 9-9 in the Big 12, Texas is a true bubble team that could use a strong Big 12 tournament to seal a bid. Quality wins against Texas Tech, West Virginia and Purdue help, but the Longhorns are just No. 68 in the NET and 7-12 against Quadrant 1 and 2 competition. In addition to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech might need to win their quarterfinal games. For the Red Raiders, a top 30 NET ranking masks a surprisingly empty resume full of close losses.
Potential March stars to scout: Kansas coach Bill Self has called Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike one of the best duos he has ever coached – high praise considering the talent that has come through Allen Fieldhouse in recent years. Dotson is a dynamic scorer off the dribble with sprinter’s speed, while the skilled but mammoth Azubuike controls the paint at both ends. The league’s best player outside of Lawrence might be Baylor’s Jared Butler, who averages a team-high 16 points per game and shoots 38 percent from behind the arc. One to watch for NBA fans: West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe. The physical 6-foot-9 forward will be one of next year’s top big men assuming he opts to return for his sophomore season.
BetMGM favorites: Kansas (1.05-1), Baylor (2.25-1), West Virginia (6-1), Texas Tech (8.5-1)
Sleeper: Kansas and Baylor only lost two Big 12 games all season to teams besides each other, so anyone else in the league qualifies as a sleeper. Of those eight teams, Texas Tech has the best chance to celebrate a championship next weekend in Kansas City. The Red Raiders pushed Kansas and Baylor to the brink in all four meetings this season and came away with nothing to show for it. They also have more at stake than either the Jayhawks, who have the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed locked up, or the Bears, who are just trying to protect a No. 1 seed.
Our pick: Texas Tech over Baylor. Kansas is the best team in college basketball, but motivation matters. Look for the Red Raiders to lock up an NCAA bid, build some momentum, and prove that their top-25 KenPom and NET ranking isn’t an aberration. — Jeff Eisenberg
Watchability: 7 out of 10. The Big East ended in a three-way tie for first place between Creighton, Seton Hall and Villanova. And it’s most likely sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament – its most since 2017.
One big storyline: This is Creighton’s year. The Bluejays haven’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 1974, and have never made it to the Elite Eight or beyond. But this team, one of Creighton’s most talented in years, could change that. It’s led by a deadly backcourt with Marcus Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock and Ty-Shon Alexander. Combined, the three of them are scoring nearly 45 points per game.
Bubble implications: On the regular season’s final weekend, Butler hit a three at the buzzer to down Xavier. That gave the Musketeers the No. 7 seed in the Big East tournament, and a matchup with last-place DePaul. A loss to the Blue Demons would put Xavier’s tournament status in doubt. Elsewhere, after winning six straight games to close out the season, Providence appears to be in. Marquette’s at-large bid, however, is no longer a lock after losing six of seven to close the season.
Potential March stars to scout: Zegarowski, the younger brother of Michael Carter-Williams, is shooting 43 percent from 3. Villanova’s Saddiq Bey, a 6-8 wing, can let it fly from deep or can get to the rim off the dribble. The conferences two best scorers, though, are Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Marquette’s Markus Howard. Powell tested the NBA waters last year, elected to return for his senior year, and has a hot hand that could propel a very dangerous Seton Hall team on an NCAA tournament run. Howard is leading the nation in scoring at 27.6 points per game.
BetMGM favorites: Villanova (2.75-1), Creighton (3-1), Seton Hall (3.5-1), Butler (5-1)
Sleeper: Butler. Every year around this time, Butler seems to pull it all together. Right now, the Bulldogs are a projected 5 seed, but could rise to a 4 if they win the Big East tournament. With an NCAA tournament record of 24-16, they have historically done well in postseason play.
Our pick: Villanova over Creighton. This would be a rubber match after these teams split their regular-season series. They’re evenly matched on the floor. Villanova freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is picking things up late in the season, so he could be the X-factor for the Wildcats in the conference tournament. — Krysten Peek
Watchability: 8 out of 10. There’ll be great matchups every day Thursday through Sunday.
One big storyline: Will a true national title contender emerge? Perhaps Michigan State? Or Maryland, or Ohio State? The 2019-20 Big Ten was arguably the deepest conference ever. Ten of 14 teams are in the KenPom top 30. Twelve of 14 are in the top 40. As many as 11 could make the NCAA tournament. But nobody remembers depth if most of it flames out on the first weekend and none of it makes the Final Four. So, is the Big Ten full of great teams who’ve beaten up on one another? Or good-but-not-great teams who’ll be irrelevant by the end of the month? This week could give us some strong hints.
Bubble implications: Nine teams – including Rutgers! – appear to be comfortably in. The true bubblers are Indiana and Purdue. The Hoosiers sit on the sunny side, despite Archie The Grouch’s bracketology rant, and are probably in if they avoid a Wednesday loss to last-place Nebraska. The Boilermakers, meanwhile, have work to do. The first step is beating Ohio State on Thursday. But a second win, over Michigan State on Friday, might be necessary as well. So, uh, all Purdue has to do is beat the two best teams in the conference on back-to-back days. No big deal.
Potential March stars to scout: You’re probably familiar with Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston. So we’ll pick one big and one guard beyond Sparty’s catalyst. Iowa center Luka Garza is a classic Big Ten post player who can bully just about anybody in college basketball around the rim, or step out and drain a 3. And Rutgers guard Geo Baker may very well be the best late-clock shot-maker in the country.
BetMGM favorites: Michigan State (3.25-1), Maryland (4-1), Penn State (5.5-1), Michigan (6-1)
Sleeper: Michigan is the No. 9 seed … and the best team on the top half of the bracket. It’s 10-1 in this tournament over the past three seasons. So it’s an easy pick here. But any team seeded 1-10, Purdue included, could legitimately win this thing.
Our pick: Michigan State over Michigan. Izzo in March, etc., etc. The Spartans haven’t lost since Feb. 15, and could carry an eight-game winning streak into the Big Dance.— Henry Bushnell
Watchability: 6 out of 10.
One big storyline: We already know that this is the deepest the Pac-12 has been in a few years. Now it’s time to find out if any team from the conference’s balanced upper echelon is actually a threat to make a memorable NCAA tournament run. The team that appears to have the best chance is Oregon, which is peaking at the right time yet again. The outright Pac-12 champs have won six of seven and could get second-leading scorer Chris Duarte back for the NCAA tournament. If you have concerns about Arizona and Colorado, well, you are not alone. Arizona remains a darling of the predictive metrics but the young Wildcats don’t win close games. Colorado has dropped four straight and is fading to the finish line. Of the league’s four bubble teams, UCLA has been playing best of late. The Bruins had won 11 of 13 before a loss at the buzzer at USC on Saturday.
Bubble implications: The bubble capital of conference tournament week will be Las Vegas. A quartet of Pac-12 teams will be trying to erase any remaining doubt about their NCAA tournament worthiness heading into Selection Sunday. The team in the strongest position is USC, which might be in regardless of how it fares in Las Vegas and would feel relatively safe by defeating Arizona or Washington in the Pac-12 quarterfinals. The pressure is a little higher on Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA. Stanford cannot afford to take a Quadrant 3 loss to Cal in the opening round, and might need to beat UCLA in a bubble battle in the quarterfinals. An early loss would be damaging for the Bruins because so much of their case is that they’re peaking entering March.
Potential March stars to scout: The evolution of Oregon’s Payton Pritchard has been a joy to watch. The senior has blossomed from a capable role player to one of college basketball’s most dynamic point guards, a triple threat who is at his best when the game is at stake. High-scoring guard Remy Martin spearheaded Arizona State’s February surge into NCAA tournament contention, while USC’s Onyeka Okongwu has been the conference’s top big man and one of the nation’s most productive freshmen. A name to watch for the future is Stanford freshman point guard Tyrell Terry. He needs to add muscle to his slender frame, but he has the quickness, range and vision to be special.
BetMGM favorites: Oregon (2.5-1), Arizona (3.5-1), Colorado (4-1), UCLA (6-1)
Sleeper: Oregon is the favorite. Arizona has the most NBA talent. UCLA is the hot team. But if there’s one team who can win the Pac-12 tournament besides that trio, it’s probably USC. The Trojans have been the Pac-12’s top defensive team all season thanks to their ability to extend pressure, take away the 3-point arc and rely on Okongwu to protect the rim. Their offense is not a work of art, but if they take care of the ball and make free throws, they can be dangerous. An even deeper sleeper: 12th-seeded Washington. It’s a stretch to think the young, talented Huskies can reel off four wins in four days when they only won five league games all season, but they showed signs of emerging from their slumber with road wins at Arizona State and Arizona last week.
Our pick: Oregon over Arizona State. Don’t bet against the Ducks this time of year. Dana Altman’s program is 40-11 in the month of March over the past seven seasons and has won Pac-12 tournament titles in 2013, 2016 and 2019. — Jeff Eisenberg
Watchability: 4 out of 10. Kentucky and Auburn are the only two teams ranked in the top 25, but this conference has a lot of talent. Georgia, Arkansas and Auburn all have potential first-round NBA draft picks.
One big storyline: Has Kentucky peaked too early? The Wildcats barely squeaked by Florida on the road without star point guard Ashton Hagans this past weekend. John Calipari said Hagans’ absence was due to personal reasons and that he will be back for the conference tournament. When Kentucky has the full strength of its backcourt with Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, this is a very dangerous team. We’ll have to see how the team responds with Hagans’ return, and how much Keion Brooks and E.J. Montgomery will step up to help out Nick Richards in the post.
Bubble implications: Arkansas and Mississippi State both have work to do. Starting with Mississippi State, forward Reggie Perry is doing everything he can for his team recording back-to-back double-doubles in a win over Ole Miss and a loss to South Carolina. The best bet for the Bulldogs is to face Florida and get a Quad 1 win to help their chances. Arkansas needs to make a run to the semifinals in the conference tournament to even be considered on Selection Sunday. After starting out the season 12-1, Eric Musselman’s team has since lost more games than won and are only 7-11 in conference play.
Potential March stars to scout: Auburn’s Isaac Okoro (Auburn), a high flyer and great defender, gets to the rim with ease, and is a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. The freshman forward doesn’t have a strong outside jumper, but makes up for it with his downhill game, and is especially dangerous when catching on the wing and driving baseline. Quickley, a sophomore guard, leads Kentucky with 16.3 points per game. LSU guard Skylar Mays (LSU) led the Tigers with 16.7 points per game. Florida’s Keyontae Johnson, as a 6-5 forward, is a little undersized for his position, but is a great rebounder and above-the-rim finisher.
BetMGM favorites: Kentucky (1.9-1), Auburn (3-1), Florida (3.75-1), LSU (6-1)
Sleeper: Florida. A preseason Final Four favorite, the Gators have all the tools to make a run in the tournament. It would be nice to see it all come together for a late push. Andrew Nembhard and Noah Lock are the keys to this Florida offense, and to its postseason success.
Our pick: LSU over Kentucky. There are a few questions surrounding Kentucky. LSU matches up very well with the Wildcats, and has two bigs in Trendon Watford and Emmitt Williams that can give Richards problems in the lane. — Krysten Peek
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