Welcome to Championship Week. Within the next week, 32 conference champions will be crowned, sending one team from each league to March Madness with an automatic bid. Then, it’ll be up to the Selection Committee to decide which 36 of the other 319 Division I teams are deserving of at-large bids. You’ll see tomorrow who I currently have in my tournament field, but for now, let’s look at some of the major storylines over the weekend.
1) Four Bids Locked Up: On Saturday, Jacksonville State defeated UT-Martin in the Ohio Valley championship, becoming the first team to punch their bid to the Big Dance. Today, Winthrop, Wichita State, and Florida Gulf Coast followed suit, victorious in the Big South, Missouri Valley, and Atlantic Sun, respectively. Jacksonville State entered their tournament as the #4 seed and had to pull a pair of upsets against top seeds Belmont and UT-Martin to be the last team standing. The other three teams all entered as #1 seeds and tournament favorites, with the exception of Wichita State, who finished conference play tied at 17-1 with the Illinois State Redbirds.
2) Absolute Madness in the Horizon League: Entering tomorrow’s semifinals of the Horizon League tournament, the favorite, and only remaining team with a winning record is Northern Kentucky. How, just how? Well, the Norse, who finished fourth in the conference, took care of business against Wright State. The same can’t be said for Oakland, Valparaiso, and Green Bay, who were all victims to big upsets. Top seed Oakland fell to a last-second layup against Youngstown State, a team they beat twice in the regular season by a total of 43 points. Valparaiso scored just 12 first half points in a 43-41 loss to Milwaukee, and Illinois-Chicago took down Green Bay.
3) The Big East Gets it Done: Regular season play in the Big East wrapped up on Saturday, and each of the league’s four bubble teams (Seton Hall, Marquette, Providence, and Xavier) needed wins to keep themselves in good shape. Seton Hall and Marquette earned big victories against the second and third-place teams in the league. Seton Hall took to the road and knocked off #13 Butler in Indianapolis, and Marquette defended their home court against Creighton. Providence put away St. John’s without much trouble, and Xavier snapped a devastating six-game losing streak against DePaul. None of the teams are locks yet, but all are in good shape.
4) Painful Losses for Bubble Teams: Illinois had won four straight, including a win over Northwestern which gave them a sweep of the tourney-bound Wildcats. All they had to do to finish strong heading into the Big Ten tournament was not lose to Rutgers, just 2-15 in the Big East. You can guess what happened next. Now, the Illini are in a tough place, and probably need multiple Big Ten tournament victories. They’re still in an enviable position compared to Cal, who has lost five of six and lacks quality wins. Illinois State missed a huge opportunity by falling to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Championship.
5) 14-Loss Vanderbilt Gets a Statement Win: Vanderbilt seemed the most likely of the potential teams to become the first 15-loss team to earn an at-large bid on Selection Sunday. Still, despite their #2 strength of schedule, the Commodores still almost certainly needed a win against 12th ranked Florida in order to have any chance of getting in the 68-team field without winning the SEC tournament. Florida entered the game hot, winners of 10 of 11 games since their 68-66 home loss to Vandy earlier in the season. It was a back-and-forth game which went down to the wire, but Vandy prevailed, saving their season, and making their case for Madness.