Author: Zack Cherney
MADISON- This men’s college basketball season has been wild from start to finish with upsets galore and teams jumping all around the AP Top 25 Poll, which has shaken up conference standings week after week. As the regular season comes to a close the next matter of business is conference championship tournaments. This article will predict the championship game matchups and the winners.
- Championship Matchup: Virginia (Seed: 1) vs. Florida State (Seed: 2)
- Winner: Florida State
The ACC is one of those conferences that can easily be shaken up by a few upsets and leave even the highest respected “experts” confused. There is an argument that any team could make a run because each of these teams from the very bottom at Boston College (4-15) to the very top at Virginia (17-6) is capable of winning big games and is prone to big losses. Boston College was given their biggest test of the season in their very first game when the matchup against Villanova and only lost by nine so sure hypothetically there is a chance they could win the ACC tournament, but based on the teams at the top it seems highly unlikely. It is crazy to think of Virginia as the reigning National Champions because it feels like it has been ages since they claimed the title and in some sense it has, it’s been two years. With no March Madness in 2020, they were able to hang on to that title of reigning champs for longer than any team in history, which has to feed their internal fire as they look to repeat. Virginia started the season at No. 4 on the AP Top-25. Their season did not exactly start as planned. They were upset by San Francisco in their second game of the season and then a month later were obliterated by Gonzaga. As 2020 came to a close, Virginia dropped to No. 23, their lowest ranking of the season. They were able to work their way back up to No. 7 after going 11-1 between Dec. 30 and Feb. 13 but the end of February was as bad as could be. They lost three straight and dropped down to No. 21. They were able to win their last two to move back up to No. 16. The success of this team can definitely be accredited to the top two performers: senior forwards Sam Hauser and Jay Huff. Both of these players were major contributors during their championship run and they have only gotten better. Hauser averaged 15.8 ppg and 6.8 rpg and Huff averaged 13.1 ppg and 6.9 rpg. There is some depth to this team, but they rely too heavily on these two based on their experience. Virginia proved to not just every team in the ACC, but every team in men’s basketball that they have plenty of flaws. Virginia is the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and I feel they will fight hard enough to make it to the championship game, but my expectation is that the team just below them in the seeding is going to be victorious: Florida State.
FSU (15-5) came into the season at No. 21 on the AP poll, but just like Virginia, it was a bit of a bumpy start, as well as a bumpy finish. After losing two out of three to UCF and Clemson to end December, they were knocked out of the AP Top 25. They were able to work their way up to No. 11, but to finish the season they lost two of their last three to UNC and Notre Dame which dropped them to No. 15. Florida State has potential up and down their roster as they have eight players who have scored 100 or more points. Plenty of teams have a few guys they truly rely on, but FSU feels comfortable they can trust any number of players in big-moment situations. Some of their biggest names include senior guard M.J. Walker, who leads the team with an average of 13.1 ppg, but right behind him is junior forward RaiQuan Gray who has bettered himself in almost all categories since his freshman year and this year he leads the team with an average of 6.9 rpg. A very young and talented player is Scottie Barnes who is third in points as he averages 10.4 ppg and 4.3 rebounds and assists per game. Players of all ages are making their mark with this team. Both of these teams bounced around the AP poll and have shown they are vulnerable to upsets, but the reason I am convinced FSU will win is that they are the team most responsible for rattling the confidence of Virginia at the end of February because, unlike the two losses following this game, it was a blowout 81-60 victory. The confidence of both of these teams is a bit low, but FSU will want to show they deserve the automatic bid to March Madness, and most importantly: they want to take down a rival and reigning national champion.
- Championship Matchup: Oklahoma State (Seed: 4) vs. Kansas (Seed: 2)
- Winner: Kansas
With so much talk about the success of so many Big Ten teams, the strength of the Big-12 gets overshadowed a little bit. As the season came to a close, there were seven of the 10 teams in the AP Top 25, meaning this tournament is going to see hard-fought battles in all nine games. I hate just predicting the championship matchup as the top two seeds in the tournament so for this conference, I am mixing it up. Oklahoma State (18-7) comes into the tournament as the four seed with an immediate test against West Virginia, who they were able to beat in their final game of the regular season, and if they win will most likely play the mighty Baylor Bears (21-1) who concluded the season at No. 2 on the AP Poll. Baylor swept the season series and won by an average of 13 points in both wins which was a constant theme with many of Baylor’s games. I feel if Oklahoma State gets a third chance to take down Baylor, they will be looking for redemption. This is a team that did not crack the Top 25 until Feb. 8. The week they got their ranking they lost to Kansas and immediately fell out. Thanks to a couple of big OT wins against No. 18 Texas Tech and No. 7 Oklahoma, they jumped from unranked to No. 17. They finished the season with two big wins against Oklahoma to sweep the season series and West Virginia, but also suffered their second loss to Baylor. They were able to end up just outside the Top 10 at No. 12. Seven of their last eight wins were by eight or fewer points, which means they know how to handle good teams. Oklahoma State saw some incredible performances from one of the best college basketball players in freshman guard Cade Cunningham, who led the team in almost every category. He put the cherry on top when he put up 40 points in their 94-90 OT win over Oklahoma. But this team is more than just Cunningham, which was proven in their final game of the season against WVU where without Cunningham, sophomore guard Avery Anderson III was able to put up 31 points on 11-14 shooting. Seven players have recorded 186 or more points on the season showing just how much depth this team has. Getting past Baylor would be their biggest win of the season, but their luck would run out against Kansas.
In the first game of the season No. 6 Kansas (19-8) was matched up against No. 1 Gonzaga which resulted in one of the highest-scoring college basketball games of the season with Gonzaga winning 102-90. Since this was a Top 10 matchup, it did not hurt Kansas much and by the end of December, they were sitting at No. 3. January was not kind to them as they went 3-5, which caused their ranking and confidence to drop. After a 91-79 loss to WVU in early February, the unthinkable happened: Kansas fell off the Top 25 for the first time in 12 years. They bounced back immediately with four double-digit point victories and then beat No. 15 Texas Tech. They then lost a thriller against No. 14 Texas, but were able to bounce back again and were able to show their newfound confidence as they walloped Baylor 71-58 to end February. To fall out of the AP Poll for the first time in over a decade and then beat the second-best team in the country just a couple of weeks later and work their way back to No. 11 is really impressive. At this point, they feel they can beat any opponent making them a dangerous team going forward. Kansas is stacked with talent as their five starters Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Jalen Wilson, Marcus Garrett and Christian Braun all had an average of 320.4 points on the season. It is hard to say that any one of them is the true leader because they all have had spectacular seasons and had moments where they led the team to important wins. Kansas has the team and the talent to claim the Big-12. As stated earlier this conference is full of championship-caliber teams which will make this tournament exhilarating.
- Championship Matchup: Villanova (Seed: 1) vs. Creighton (Seed: 2)
- Winner: Creighton
The popular opinion would be that Villanova (16-5) will win the Big East title and it makes sense why. Villanova has won the regular-season trophy seven of the last eight years, has won the Big East tournament four of the last five years and has won the National Championship two of the last four years (2016 and 2018). It makes sense why Villanova has been successful for so long with an incredible coach in Jay Wright and spectacular teams which included players like Josh Hart, Daniel Ochecfu, Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges just to name a few. This season has been spectacular as many expected as they finished 16-5, but to their dismay four of their five losses have been to unranked teams. Their first loss came in the third game of the season in late November, but they smoothed out any issues as they were perfect the next two months. Once, February hit they fell apart and lost three games all by double digits. In the final months, teams played some of their most important games and Villanova was having an uncharacteristically difficult time. To make matters worse, they lost their final regular-season game to a 12-12 Providence team. Despite these struggles, Villanova is still one of the best teams in the country as they finished ranked No. 14, but there is one more reason why they will be hindered. Senior guard Collin Gillespie, who is top 3 on the team in minutes, points, assists, steals and free throw percentage, has a torn MCL and is expected to miss the remainder of the season. This is a very young and resilient team that has many great players including sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and sophomore Justin Moore, who can make up for him not being there, but they will be without a major spark and leader. The team that has the best chance of stopping Villanova from a four-peat is Creighton.
Creighton (18-7) has proven themselves all season long and despite losing five of their seven games to unranked opponents, all of their losses, outside of their loss to Villanova, were by single-digits. Not getting blown out and keeping games close, no matter the opponent, is key to success. Creighton started the season ranked No. 11 and finished the season just below that at No. 17 under the strong performances of junior guard Marcus Zagarowski and senior guard Denzel Mahoney. Creighton is going through some issues with their head coach Greg McDermott who was suspended in early March, but the length is unknown so whether or not he will be their coach during the tournament is going to be important to watch. Creighton won their 18 games by an average of 14.7 points, Villanova won their 16 games by an average of 14.7 as well. Both teams win big consistently and the fact that these numbers are identical makes seeing these two matchups for the third time very intriguing. These two teams went toe-to-toe twice during the regular season, which ended in a tie. Creighton won their first matchup 86-70, but Villanova responded a couple of weeks later with a 72-60 win. Both games were won by double-digits (and an average of 14) which means their third matchup should even out and be a close game. There are plenty of other strong teams in the Big East who will battle it out for a chance at the title, so there might not even be a tie-break game between these two for the conference title.
- Championship Matchup: Michigan (Seed: 1) vs. Illinois (Seed: 2)
- Winner: Illinois
The Big Ten has been the best conference in all of Division-1 Men’s College Basketball from the first week with over half of the teams in the AP Poll at times and multiple teams consistently in the Top 5. This prediction could easily be put in the shredder because any of the teams seeded up to 10 has the chance to win the Big Ten title. It seems so easy to make the matchup between the top two seeded teams, but Michigan and Illinois have been the most dominant teams all season long and are strong on both sides of the ball with star power from top to bottom making them incredibly hard to take down. At the start of the season, Michigan (19-3) was barely ranked as they sat at No. 25, but after barely beating Oakland in the second game of the season they dropped out of the AP Poll. Despite this minor setback, they easily plowed through December and the first half of January with ease to move up to No. 7. Their first loss came on Jan. 16 against Minnesota, but that did not affect them one bit as they went undefeated in February to move to No. 2. Once March hit though, it started falling apart. In their last three regular-season games they lost two, including their last game of the season to unranked rival Michigan State, this led to them barely falling to No. 4 to finish the season. This is a team that has sat at the top behind the leadership of head coach Juwan Howard and star athletes like freshman center Hunter Dickinson (averages 14.7 ppg and 7.8 rpg), senior forward Isaiah Livers (averages 13.9 ppg and 6.2 rpg) and sophomore guard Franz Wagner (averages 13 ppg and 6.3 rpg). They have talent at all ages and positions which makes them extremely scary to try to go the full 12 rounds with. The team with the most likely chance of taking the title is the team that had already put a dent in their season: Illinois.
These two teams battled it out in their first game of March and Illinois (20-6) was able to cruise through Michigan with a 76-53 win. Unlike Michigan, they started the season near the top at No. 8. They lost three games in December which dropped them to No. 18 and after back-to-back losses in mid-January, they fell to No. 22. They bounced back well and finished the season 11-1 and worked their way back into the Top 5 at No. 3, just above Michigan. Luckily, the biggest struggles came early in the season and they were able to smooth out any wrinkles which allowed them to win some of their most important games late in the season to work their way back to the top. Illinois has been led by two of the best players in all of basketball in junior guard Ayo Dosunmu (averaged 20.9 ppg and 5.2 apg) and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn (averaged 17.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg as well as a 66 FG%). Both of these teams have so much potential, but the biggest factor is that Michigan’s problems began late when Illinois has been playing their best basketball. The Big Ten as a whole is so dominant that any team has the chance to win, even the Badgers.
- Championship Matchup: Alabama (Seed: 1) vs. Arkansas (Seed: 2)
- Winner: Arkansas
The SEC has seen many teams venture down the bumpiest paths. Tennessee (17-7) worked their way up to No. 6 and then fell off at the start of March. Florida (13-8) was able to play well enough to get on the AP Poll in early February, but soon after fell back out. Missouri (15-8) started out of the poll, but made it all the way up to No. 10 in early February, but tanked and finished outside of the poll. Kentucky (5-11) was supposed to be amazing as usual, but quickly fell from their spot at No. 10 and have struggled to win a game. Outside of these teams, there are two who have surprised a lot of people with their success. As if football was not enough, Alabama is now aiming for prime seeding in March Madness. They claimed the regular-season SEC title with a record of 21-6. They sat out of the AP Poll for almost the first two months, but after dominating January they made huge leaps from unranked to No. 18 to No. 9 all in the span of a week and a half. They finished the season at No. 6 after winning six of their last seven. They went from no respect to the entire country paying attention to them. They were able to be so successful behind the success of sophomore guard Jaden Shackelford (averaged 14.4 ppg and 4 rpg), senior guard John Petty Jr. (averaged 12.8 ppg and 5.1 rpg) and senior forward Herbert Jones (averaged 10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 3.1 apg). Based on how many of the other conference teams they have played, their success makes sense, but their biggest area of concern is that they played three games against ranked opponents and lost all three. One of those losses was to Arkansas (21-5) on Feb. 24, which the Razorbacks won 81-66 and would not mind the chance to do it again.
Arkansas took a lot longer to get on the radar, but they have shown they deserve the attention with their 21 wins. The reason it took so long was that they had an abysmal January where they started off by losing four of their first five games (all by an average of 17) meaning they really had to play well and besides a loss in their final game of January, that is exactly what they did. After losing by 31 to Alabama on Jan. 16, they finished the season 11-1, where they won by an average of 11.7 ppg games which shows just the kind of turnaround they were able to orchestrate. As the season came to a close they were able to shock many college basketball fans by playing well enough to crack the Top 10 as they finished ranked No. 8. What makes Arkansas so special is they do not just rely on a couple of talented guys because they utilize everybody. Four players average 10 or more ppg, six average 1.5 or more apg, six average 1.0 or more spg and seven average 3.2 or more rpg. To be successful in each category at any time during the game, teams need to be able to put their full confidence in any number of guys and Arkansas is one of the rare teams that can. The season series is split between these two and both games have been blowouts so if this is the SEC Championship Game, it will be a battle.