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The Mayhem Begins

   by Larry Ness - 03/06/2009

This week's Sports Illustrated cover reads Up For Grabs (The Mayhem Before March Madness). That's a pretty good way to put it. The Big South, the Horizon League and the Ohio Valley Conference all began their conference tourneys on Tuesday (March 3), the first of what will be 30 played through Sunday, March 15 (Selection Sunday). The Atlantic Sun, Patriot League and Sun Belt Conference opened play on Wednesday.

The Missouri Valley Conference (called "Arch Madness'"because of its location, St Louis) and the Northeast began on Thursday, while eight more conferences will begin play over the weekend, most notably the Colonial Athletic Association and the West Coast Conference, which both begin on Friday. The CAA is being played in Richmond (Va), while the WCC has a first-time location, The Orleans Arena in Las Vegas (supposedly sold-out).

U Conn began the week back at No. 1, topping the AP poll for the fourth time in the last five weeks. North Carolina is No. 2, Pitt (last week's No. 1) is No. 3, Oklahoma at No. 4 and Memphis at No. 5. U Conn visits Pitt on Saturday (Panthers have already beaten the Huskies in Connecticut) and No. 2 North Carolina will host No. 7 Duke on Sunday, in the two biggest contests of what will be eight meetings between top-25 opponents for the week.

No. 15 Missouri beat No. 4 Oklahoma 73-64 on Wednesday and one wonders if Oklahoma, a shoo-in for a No. 1 seed just two weeks ago, is still in line for one? The Sooners will have to win the Big 12 tourney but even that may not be good enough. Memphis, winners of a nation-best 21 straight games after beating Houston 69-60 on Wednesday, has won 57 straight C-USA games.

With the C-USA tourney on its home floor, the Tigers will likely win-out, which almost guarantees them a No. 1 seed. Memphis had last year's championship game in its hands (led by nine points with 2:12 remaining) but the Tigers eventually lost 75-68 in overtime to the Jayhawks. Many will question Memphis getting a No. 1 seed out of C-USA but as of now, the Tigers trail only Kentucky's 1945-50 run, when Adolph Rupp-coached teams won 64 consecutive games against SEC foes and West Virginia's 1955-60 stretch, when the Mountaineers won 59 straight games in the Southern Conference (Jerry West had a hand in many, but not all, of those wins).

The six so-called BCS conferences (a football term but it's the same six conferences) could get as many as 30 of the 34 at-large bids. The ACC, Big East and Big 10 will likely get between 20 and 22 teams in the field, meaning 17 to 19 at-large bids. The Big 12 figures to land at least five teams in the field (maybe six?), I have the Pac 10 at five teams and the SEC at four. The Mountain West Conference has regularly put multiple teams in the "Big Dance" and I think three will (should) make it this year, while the Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley Conference could also get two teams.

I don't believe C-USA gets a second team unless somehow Memphis loses (is that even possible?), while the Horizon League and WCC (had three teams in last year) are one-bid leagues this year, unless Butler and Gonzaga (both would be at-large 'locks') were to lose in their respective conference tourneys. There's a chance that Davidson of the Southern Conference (the country sure wants to see Stephen Curry again) and Utah St of the WAC could be extended at-large bids if they don'tt win their tourneys but that's sure not a given.

By the time the BCS conferences begin their tourneys (Big East begins on Mar 10, the Big 12 and Pac 10 on Mar 11, while the ACC, Big 10 and SEC all start on Mar 12), we'll know whether schools like Butler, Creighton (or maybe Northern Iowa), Davidson, Gonzaga and Utah St will be automatic qualifiers, or be among the schools waiting in the at-large 'pool.'

I'll be back next Wednesday with an update.

Good luck...Larry

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