The first annual Grace Gazette Tournament Challenge is taking place this year and as the resident college basketball experts at the Gazette, here are our teams to look out for. This list shows our projected NCAA conference tournament winners that will make a run in March Madness.
Big East – The Pick is Marquette
Would it be crazy to not pick the defending National Champions to win out in a weak Big East conference, maybe. After a slow start to the year, the Wildcats have quietly made a run back into the top 25 and hold the number one seed heading into the conference tournament. Call me crazy, but we like Marquette led by standout guard, Markus Howard, to win the Big East tournament. Howard, who is fifth in the nation in scoring and leads all players in the power 5 conferences, is a player whose game likely won’t translate to the NBA level. His NBA comparison is that of Steph Curry or Jimmer Fredette: he will either set the NBA on fire or have a very disappointing career in the league.
The Cinderella is Seton Hall
A team looking to break into the NCAA tournament is Seton Hall, led by guard, Myles Powell, averaging 22.6 points per game. In their last game of the season, Seton Hall made a statement victory with its gritty win, defeating Villanova, the #1 seed in the Big East tournament as well as the winner of the tournament the last 5 of 6 years. This came after a victory against Marquette, the #2 seed in the conference, where Seton Hall ended the game on an 18-0 run. This team has underdog written all over it, and the Seton Hall Pirates are ready to dethrone Villanova and win the Big East.
Big 10 – The Pick is Michigan State
Some would think predicting a team to win their conference tournament three years in a row would be ridiculous… and it is. After getting swept by Michigan State, We don’t think that Michigan has the strength to outlast Michigan State or Purdue if they meet in the conference tournament. Cassius Winston is going to lead Michigan State to a Big 10 Tournament Championship, and then to the Elite 8 of the tournament, if not the Final Four. The team was clicking as they beat Michigan for the second time at home and they look even scarier with forward Nick Ward set to return in the conference tournament. We like Michigan State a lot this year and if you know Jackson, that is something that you would think he’d never say (Michigan fan). Purdue is a team that could make a run in the tournament because of the way that they play team basketball led by Carsen Edwards, a Wooden Award finalist expect the Boilermakers to keep the train moving going into the B1G tournament and the NCAA tournament.
The Cinderella is Indiana
Coached by Archie Miller, the Indiana Hoosiers’ ranking does not reflect the caliber team that they are. The team ended the season with a record of 17-14 but they went 1-12 when Romeo Langford, star Freshman guard, was held out due to injury. When the former #4 high school recruit in the nation played, the team lost just 2 of 18 games. Recently, Indiana has defeated Michigan State who holds the #1 seed in the Big 10 tourney, and they beat them earlier in the season, too. They’re destined for a third round matchup with each other and whoever comes out victorious will most likely end up winning the conference tournament with ease. Indiana is definitely a team to watch in both the Big 10 tournament and throughout March Madness.
ACC – The Pick is Virginia
In a stacked ACC conference the pick is Virginia although North Carolina and Duke are both having fantastic seasons. Duke, who has one of the most highly touted players to ever touch a basketball court, Zion Williamson, is out due to an injury sustained through a pair of PG 2.5’s i. All jokes aside Duke has looked like a shell of itself with Zion and projected lottery picks Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett have not been able to pick up the slack. North Carolina led by Coby White swept Duke for the first time in over a decade yet the tar heels have had some bad losses on the year making it hard for us to feel confident picking them. Virginia has two losses this year, as they did last year going into the ACC tournament, where they won it, going into the tournament as a #1 seed. Then, they proceeded to be the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed when they lost to #16 UMBC. Virginia is different this year as they look hungrier and have one of the deepest teams, heading into conference tournament play. Led by Deandre Hunter and Kyle Guy, give us the Cavaliers to run the table in the ACC tournament and make a run to the Final Four.
The Cinderella is Louisville
Louisville is a bracket-buster, for sure. A Cinderella
has to have its ups and downs over the course of a season, it’s just a matter of whether a team can withstand the losses and heartbreaks. Louisville has stuck together over their rollercoaster season as they have wins against multiple top 25 teams including Michigan State, Virginia Tech, and UNC. However, they have yet to defeat the top tier teams in their conference, Duke and Virginia. Led by Sophomore Jordan Nwora who’s averaging just over 17 points per game, the Louisville Cardinals are ready to make a miraculous run in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments… and I believe they have what it takes to do so.
Pac 12 – The Pick is Washington
The Huskies are good this year, but to be honest no team from the Pac 12 is going to make a deep run. Will some fun basketball be played on the West Coast, Yes! But will it bust your bracket? We think that is highly unlikely.
Big XII – The Pick is Texas Tech
For the first time in forever Kansas is not your regular season Big XII conference champion. This year Kansas State and Texas Tech split the regular season championship. Texas Tech is good really good and they should be primed for a DEEP run into the tournament this year. Jarrett Culver is really good and was named BIG XII player of the year. If you are a fan of a struggling NBA team you might want to get familiar with him because he might end up on your team next season. Back to the Red Raiders, they have an incredibly deep bench and should build off last years impressive finish in the Elite Eight and go to the Final Four this year.
The Cinderella is non-existent in the Big 12 this year. To be perfectly blunt, we strongly believe that Texas Tech has every team’s number in their conference. Just 4 teams are above .500 and Baylor, who sits at 10-8, has been in a recent rough patch, losing their last 3 games of the regular season. Kansas State is no Cinderella story as it is a top seed who’s been playing great basketball all year. The final possible team is definitely no underdog: Kansas. This is a rare sight for Kansas fans… not being the 1st seed in their conference is not a common occurrence. Bill Self, the legendary coach of the winning program, and the Kansas Jayhawks just haven’t found their groove this year and seem to be no match for the dominant Red Raiders this year.
SEC – The Pick is LSU
In a conference historically dominated by Kentucky and Florida, LSU is a school that is often forgotten yet the Tigers have a rich history themselves and have added to it by winning there 11th SEC regular season title. Led by Tremont Waters and Naz Reid the Tigers will not be projected to go far in the NCAA tournament due to the suspension of coach Will Wade for potentially paying players. The Tigers should be able to keep there great momentum going and win the SEC tournament, but if that is not the case Kentucky who is no stranger to winning the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament the Wildcats are the team that will go the furthest out of all the teams in the Tournament this year. If you are looking for storylines look no further than LSU playing without there coach.
The Cinderella is Auburn. Boy, do we love this pick. Auburn is the team that will shock people this year in the NCAA tournament… they are the definition of “A Team to Watch.” The Auburn Tigers have been a strong program in recent years but this year, they have had major success, mainly coming from their two starting guards, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, each averaging just under 16 points per game. The Tigers lost to Duke, who was fully healthy at the time, by just 6 points, they lost to Kentucky by 2, and LSU by 5. These tough losses were heartbreaking to the team but they have only made the bond closer and the team stronger. The last game of the regular season was a challenging one for Auburn as they were tasked to face the #5 team in the nation, Tennessee. The Tigers came out victorious, winning by 4 points. Auburn has the talent, the spark, and the willingness to be the Cinderella story that everybody wants, the Cinderella story that everybody needs.
MWC – The Pick is Nevada
The Wolfpack are by far the best team in the MWC and it would be shocking if they didn’t win the tournament. Led by twin brothers Cody and Caleb Martin and big man Jordan Caroline the Wolfpack are a team to be reckoned with. They play with pace and shoot the three well, and have retained all their starters from last years elite eight team. Although Utah State is the two seed and had the same conference record as the Wolfpack, they don’t have the same level of talent and were defeated by 23 points earlier in the year. Expect the Wolfpack to win when favored.
The Cinderella is Utah State. Utah State is another team to look out for. This team has been amazing throughout the entire season but it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because of its weak conference and a not-so-popular basketball program. Despite this, Utah State is 25-6 on the season and has lost some nail-biters over the course of the year. As they own the same record as Nevada, there is a question of why are they such a big underdog but the answers starts and ends with the fact that they have come out of nowhere and balled out this year. Guard Sam Merrill is averaging 21 points per game and put on a shooting clinic, scoring 29 points, in the second to last game of the season when Utah State defeated Nevada. This team can definitely surprise a lot of people and win the MWC this year and turns heads even more by the time March Madness rolls around.
OVC – Murray State (Pick is Correct: they won their tournament)
Usually, the Ohio Valley Conference would not be talked about in any Tournament preview, but Murray State has a history of producing solid NBA players such as Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne. However the Racers this year have one of the can’t-miss prospects in this years NBA draft in Jah Morant. Morant is projected to be the #2 pick in the NBA draft making the racers must-see TV.
WCC – The Pick is Gonzaga
The Zags have been a tournament regular since Mark Few took the head coaching job in 1999. Lead by forwards Brandon Clark and Rui Hachimura the zags are one of the few teams to have beaten the “unbeatable” Duke team this year having done so at the Maui Jim invitational in November. As the number one seed overall in the West Coast Conference and in the nation, the zags should win out easily collecting a number one seed in the tournament in the meantime.
The Cinderella is unfortunately not coming out of the WCC anytime soon. Gonzaga is a high-flying team in a conference which they reign supreme each year. St. Mary’s, who went 20-11 this year, has been their toughest competition in recent history. However, earlier this year, Gonzaga defeated them 94-46, more than doubling their score. We all love to see underdog stories and we sure love to pick them, but in the WCC, Gonzaga’s dominance takes that option away.