Key storylines during Championship Week
THE HEALTH (AND RETURN?) OF ZION WILLIAMSON
College basketball’s best player, and most popular star, is supposed to make his return in Charlotte this week.
Missing the final five full games of the regular season with a knee injury suffered during the first North Carolina game, Williamson is supposed to get some minutes for this week to help get him back into game shape for the NCAA tournament.
The bizarre nature of the injury (an exploding shoe!) and Duke’s status as national-title contenders add even more fuel to this story as it’s sure to be the biggest thing in college hoops this week. If Williamson comes back and looks healthy, many fans are going to pick the Blue Devils to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
But if Williamson doesn’t look fully healthy, or at least close to the dominant force that won him numerous Player of the Year honors (including NBC), then it’s only going to raise more questions than answers. The Blue Devils need the old Williamson to return so they can potentially earn a No. 1 seed and make a Final Four push. We won’t know for sure how Williamson looks until he’s officially back.
THE HEALTH OF KEY PLAYERS ON TITLE CONTENDERS
Zion Williamson isn’t the only injured player to check in on this week. Plenty of title contenders and bubble teams have stars who might return this week in preparation for the Big Dance.
The Big Ten conference tournament has some injury subplots to follow as Michigan State big man Nick Ward (hand), the team’s second-leading scorer, is expected back during the week. Michigan’s Charles Matthews (ankle) has also been out the past few weeks as the Wolverines would love to get their two-way wing back into the rotation.
In the Big 12, top seed Kansas State looks like they’ll have to play without star senior forward Dean Wade (foot) as he suffered an injury in the regular-season finale win over Oklahoma. Baylor star guard Makai Mason (foot) is questionable to play this week for the Bears.
If those players return, it’ll be worth noting how they might fit in during the NCAA tournament. Will there be minutes restrictions? A new role perhaps? These four players, in particular, could shift their team’s entire seasons with their comebacks.
WHICH POWER CONFERENCE JOBS OPEN UP
The most unfortunate past of this week is that we’re seeing the final run of some coaches who are likely moving on to different jobs.
Texas A&M has already reportedly moved on from head coach Billy Kennedy as this will be his final week with the team. There has been rampant speculation regarding the future of Arizona head coach Sean Miller after the long-time Wildcat head coach gave an emotional speech to Arizona fans during the team’s regular-season finale.
Nebraska players have already been making public comments about playing hard for Tim Miles as he’s potentially coaching his final games with the Huskers. Danny Manning might have already coached his final game at Wake Forest as the Demon Deacons were eliminated from the ACC tournament on Tuesday.
And that’s not even getting into LSU’s Will Wade (more on the Tigers below) and the uncertainty regarding that whole program.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH LSU GIVEN THE SCANDAL THEY’RE EMBROILED IN?
The most fascinating individual team to watch during conference tournaments might be LSU. After shockingly winning the SEC’s outright title with a young team this season, the Tigers are facing a major scandal as they enter the conference tournament this week.
After allegedly discussing illegal payments for recruits on a wiretap with known runner Christian Dawkins, LSU suspended head coach Will Wade indefinitely -- an unprecedented step for a team with real Final Four aspirations right before the postseason. Besides for the controversial decision to sideline Wade, starting freshman guard Javonte Smart was also held out of the team’s regular-season finale against Vanderbilt since his name was allegedly brought up in that wiretapped conversation.
It means LSU is likely going to have to play the postseason without its head coach and one of its top players. The Tigers will still be a dangerous team. Tremont Waters is one of the country’s best floor generals and LSU hits the offensive glass at a very high level. But what is the true ceiling of this team if they’re dealing with all of this controversy?
WHO GETS A NO. 1 SEED?
One of the most important topics during conference tournament week is setting the final No. 1 seeds. While many believe Virginia and Gonzaga have already solidified spots on the No. 1 line -- even with Gonzaga’s dreadful performance in a WCC title game loss to Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night -- the final two spots still feel like they’re up for grabs.
North Carolina and Kentucky recently grabbed No. 1 seeds in the latest NBC Sports Bracketology. Others like Duke, LSU, Michigan State and Tennessee could all make a move depending on performance this week. If someone like North Carolina or Kentucky falters -- particularly head-to-head against North Carolina or LSU/Tennessee -- then it could make things very interesting for the committee.
On Tuesday, I went over 13 dangerous teams with the potential of taking a spot from a bubble team.
In an ideal bubble world, all of the bubble teams would win all of the bubble games they need. Teams with mediocre regular seasons would never make a deep run. Traditional one-bid leagues with at-large-quality teams like Buffalo in the MAC would always win their conference tournaments.
None of those things will go according to the plan.
We already saw Saint Mary’s steal a bid from a bubble team by earning the WCC’s autobid on Tuesday night, and there will surely be more stolen bids by the time we reach Selection Sunday.
THE ONLY WEEK THIS SEASON THE PAC-12 WILL BE WATCHABLE
Championship Week is the only time this season the Pac-12 will be worth paying attention to.
After a dreadful regular season in which the league might have played itself into a one-bid league, you could not blame college basketball fans for calling it a night and going to bed before these games started.
That all changes this week with the autobid on the line.
Since the Pac-12 has been so bad and wide open, it wouldn’t be shocking to see anyone take this title. Oregon just ran past league-leading Washington on the road to end the Pac-12 regular season. Arizona State -- the league’s only other at-large contender -- has been shaky throughout conference play. The caliber of ball won’t be as good as the other “power” conference. But with the exception of maybe the Big East, no other conference tournament from that tier will be so wide open.
IS ANYONE IN THE BIG EAST ACTUALLY GOOD?
Madison Square Garden will be another place to track this week.
Although Villanova won the Big East regular-season title outright over Marquette, those top two teams in the conference are struggling as we enter the postseason. The Wildcats have lost four of their last six games. The Golden Eagles have generously done everything in their power to single-handedly keep the Big East’s bubble teams afloat by dropping four straight games.
Even though DePaul is a No. 10 seed, they’re an over .500 team for the first time in 12 years entering this event with a star in Max Strus who can go for 40 on any night. There are multiple bubble teams (Creighton, St. John’s) who likely need to win multiple games to feel safe on Sunday. Seton Hall and Xavier are both getting hot at the right time.
Any team in the field could conceivably win this thing and it wouldn’t come as a that big of a surprise. The Big East beat each other up all season. It could make for another memorable week at MSG.