by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After more than five decades of publishing THE GOLD SHEET, we have quite a group of memories to call upon. And inevitably, some of our favorite recollections throughout the years are of college hoops conference tournament time. Remember, we predate all of the conference tourneys save the ACC event, but there remains an unmistakable buzz each year when we move into late February, and begin to anticipate conference tourney action and the subsequent Big Dance, all set to commence in March.

We don't think there was ever quite as exciting a time for us as the early '80s, when the ACC finally had some company with its postseason event, and the conference tournaments became standard fare. To this day, we still think those early days of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden were some of the most magical for us, with the realization that college basketball had finally arrived as a big-time sport, with wall-to-wall TV action (thanks largely to ESPN's arrival on the scene) providing the sort of coverage we had only dreamed about in previous years.

Which is another reason why we view the pending break-up of the Big East with great sadness; it has not only been highly entertaining for decades, but reminds us of some of our most treasured times in the business. More on all of that in a few weeks; in the meantime, we'll try to enjoy the last days of the truly "Big" East while we can.

Personally, I caught conference tourney fever in the mid 1970s when the old PCAA (eventually to become the Big West) conducted its second tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center; the initial tourney in 1976 was held at the old Stockton Civic Auditorium, but the 1977 renewal moved several hundred miles south to across the street from Disneyland. It featured a semifinal doubleheader resulting in a pair of pulsating one-point decisions, with San Jose State upsetting San Diego State and then Long Beach State winning a thriller in overtime against Cal State Fullerton before the 49ers took the crown the following day against the Spartans. So captivated was I by the spectacle of the semifinals that I changed course on a tradition of attending the Santa Anita Handicap the following day in Arcadia, bypassing that for another evening of college hoops in Anaheim.

I was hopelessly hooked, and followed the PCAA Tourney through subsequent years in Anaheim, then its move to the old Inglewood Forum in 1983 and subsequent years in which I would look upon the first day of the tourney as a sort of Christmas in March, watching four games in person, with good friends Greg Pappas and Rick Manoogian always along for the show as well. TGS founder Mort Olshan, who recalled his own memories of days watching the old Los Angeles Classic during the holidays in the early '60s, had no problem giving me those days off to watch hoops in person.

In later years I would expand my visits to the Pac-10/12, West Coast, Mountain West, WAC, and eventually Big Ten and SEC Tourneys in one memorable three-day jaunt in 2008, recalled in a story we'll reprise again on our web pages when tourney week rolls around in March.

So, it's no surprise that we're getting excited, as we at TGS are again fast approaching our favorite time of the year! Indeed, from this point forward, "March Mayhem" will become the major talking point of the college basketball campaign. And the postseason is approaching quicker than you might imagine, as, believe it or not, we'll be starting our conference tournament previews later next week.

Hey, didn't they just play the Super Bowl?

We first began an early "scoping" of the conference tournaments and an early lookahead to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, and it quickly became one of our favorite editorial assignments of the hoops season. Now is the time we really begin to count the days toward the conference tourneys and Selection Sunday, now less than four weeks away. And we have long believed that a mid-February look at college hoop squads vying for potential NCAA invitations to be a worthwhile exercise. Knowing where teams might (or might not) fit into the postseason equation can be especially useful handicapping information this time of the year. The Big Dance prospects of many teams (especially those on the proverbial "bubble") will be decided in the next few weeks, adding an extra factor to be considered when forecasting their upcoming games.

Beyond the aforementioned "bubble" teams that need every win to stay in the good graces of the NCAA Tourney Committee, it's also worth paying attention to the squads with Big Dance bids securely in hand. Those squads might not all approach the final weeks of the regular season (or conference tourneys) in the same manner, some seeking to develop extra depth and avoid key injuries, others emphasizing a strong drive through the regular-season tape to hopefully carry that momentum into the postseason.

Following is our annual mid-February look at the major "board" conferences and their chances of sending multiple entries to the NCAA Tournament. As you've no doubt noted from our featured storylines throughout recent season, we're also our own "Bracketologists" at TGS and have divided the teams into three categories--Solid, Looking Good, and Bubble. Solid is self-explanatory. Looking Good teams can expect an NCAA invitation as long as they don't slump badly in the next few weeks. Bubble teams, however, remain at the mercy of the Tourney Committee, and desperately need every win to keep their Big Dance hopes alive.

Keep in mind that nearly every Division I team can qualify for an automatic Big Dance berth by winning its conference tournament. With the Big Ten finally relenting early in the last decade, and the Pac-10 (12) reinstituting its tourney in 2002 after a 12-year hiatus, the Ivy League remains the lone conference tourney holdout--and even the Ivies are now talking about conducting their own postseason bash in the near future! Stay tuned for further developments. In the meantime, as always, the number of upsets in conference tournaments can alter the look of the Big Dance. Also included below are conference tourney sites and dates; Conference Power Rankings (thru Feb. 20); and last year's postseason participants, including NCAA, NIT, CBI, and CIT action. We will be providing similar conference previews for the remainder of the D-I leagues within the next two weeks.

ACC--Solid...Miami-Florida, Duke, NC State. Looking Good...North Carolina. Bubble...Maryland, Virginia. Conference Power Rating-4th. Notes...Tourney March 14-17 at Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC. Last year...NCAA-5 (North Carolina-Elite Eight, NC State-Sweet 16, Florida State-3rd round, Duke-2nd round, Virginia-2nd round); NIT-1 (Miami-Florida-2nd round).

ATLANTIC TEN--Solid...Butler, VCU. Looking Good...Saint Louis, La Salle. Bubble...Temple, Charlotte, UMass. Conference-7th. Notes...Tourney March 14-17 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY. Last year...NCAA-4 (Xavier-Sweet 16, Saint Louis-3rd round, St. Bonaventure-2nd round, Temple-2nd round); NIT-4 (UMass-semifinals, Dayton, La Salle, Saint Joseph's); CBI-1 (Butler-semifinals).

BIG EAST--Solid...Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati. Bubble...Villanova, St. John's. Conference-3rd. Notes...Tourney March 12-16 at Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY. Last year...NCAA-9 (Louisville-Final Four, Syracuse-Elite Eight, Cincinnati-Sweet 16, Marquette-Sweet 16, Georgetown-3rd round, South Florida-3rd round, UConn-2nd round, Notre Dame-2nd round, West Virginia-2nd round); NIT-1-(Seton Hall-2nd round), CBI-1 (Pittsburgh-Champs).

BIG TEN--Solid...Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin. Looking Good...Illinois. Bubble...Iowa, Minnesota. Conference-1st. Notes...Tourney March 14-17 at United Center, Chicago, IL. Last year...NCAA-6 (Ohio State-Final Four, Indiana-Sweet 16, Michigan State-Sweet 16, Wisconsin-Sweet 16, Purdue-3rd round, Michigan-2nd round); NIT-3 (Minnesota-2nd place, Iowa-2nd round, Northwestern-2nd round).

BIG XII--Solid...Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State. Looking Good...Oklahoma. Bubble-Iowa State, Baylor. Conference-5th. Notes...Tourney March 13-16 at Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO. Last year...NCAA-5 (Kansas-2nd place, Baylor-Elite Eight, Iowa State-3rd round, Kansas State-3rd round, Texas-2nd round).

BIG WEST--Conference tourney champ will be only Big Dance rep. Conference-20th. Notes...Tourney March 14-16 at Honda Center, Anaheim, CA. Last year...NCAA-1 (Long Beach State-2nd round); CIT-2 (UC Santa Barbara, CS Fullerton).

COLONIAL--Conference tourney champ will be only Big Dance rep. Notes...Tourney March 9-11 at Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA. Last year...NCAA-1 (Virginia Commonwealth-3rd round); NIT-1 (Drexel-Quarterfinals); CIT-2 (Old Dominion-Quarterfinals, Georgia State).

CONFERENCE USA--Solid...Memphis. Bubble...Southern Miss. Conference-11th. Notes...Tourney March 13-16 at BOK Center, Tulsa, OK. Last year...NCAA-2 (Memphis-2nd round, Southern Miss-2nd round); NIT-2 (Marshall, UCF); CIT-1 (Rice-Quarterfinals).

HORIZON--Bubble...Valparaiso, Detroit. Conference-12th. Notes...Tourney first round March 5 at campus sites; quarters and semis March 8-9 at home of regular-season champion, also the number one seed; Final March 12 at home of highest-remaining seed. Last year...NCAA-1 (Detroit-2nd round); NIT-2 (Cleveland State, Valparaiso); CBI-1 (Butler-Quarterfinals); CBI-(UW-Milwaukee).

MID-AMERICAN--Looking Good...Akron. Bubble...Ohio. Conference-17th. Notes...Tourney first round March 11 at campus sites; quarters, semis, and Final March 13-16 at Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Last year...NCAA-1 (Ohio-Sweet 16); NIT-1 (Akron); CIT-3 (Buffalo-2nd round, Bowling Green, Kent State).

MISSOURI VALLEY--Solid...Wichita State, Creighton. Bubble...Indiana State, Northern Iowa. Conference-9th. Notes...Tourney ("Arch Madness") March 7-10 at Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO. Last year...NCAA-2 (Creighton-3rd round, Wichita State-2nd round); NIT-2 (Illinois State-2nd round, Northern Iowa-2nd round); CBI -1 (Evansville); CIT-2 (Drake-2nd round, Indiana State).

MOUNTAIN WEST--Solid...New Mexico, Colorado State, UNLV, San Diego State. Bubble...Boise State, Air Force, Wyoming. Conference-2nd. Notes...Tourney March 12-16 at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-4 (New Mexico-3rd round, Colorado State-2nd round, San Diego State-2nd round, UNLV-2nd round); CBI-2 (TCU-2nd round, Wyoming-2nd round).

PAC 12--Solid...Arizona, Oregon. Looking Good...Colorado, UCLA. Bubble...Arizona State, Cal. Conference-6th. Notes...Tourney March 13-16 at MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-2 (Colorado-3rd round, Cal-First Four); NIT-4 (Stanford-Champs, Washington-Semifinals, Oregon-3rd round, Arizona); CBI-2 (Washington State-2nd place, Oregon State-3rd round).

SEC--Solid...Florida. Looking Good...Missouri. Bubble...Ole Miss, Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee. Conference-8th. Notes...Tourney March 13-17 at Bridgestone Arena (home of NHL Predators), Nashville, TN. Last year...NCAA-4 (Kentucky-Champs, Florida-Elite Eight, Vanderbilt-3rd round, Alabama-2nd round); NIT-4 (Tennessee-2nd round, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss).

SUN BELT--Looking Good...Middle Tennessee. Conference-14th. Notes...Tourney March 8-11 at Summit Arena, Hot Springs, AR. Last year...NCAA-1 (Western Kentucky-2nd round); NIT-1 (Middle Tennessee-Quarterfinals); CIT-1 (UL-Lafayette).

WEST COAST--Solid...Gonzaga. Bubble...Saint Mary's, BYU. Conference-10th. Notes...Tourney March 6-11 at Orleans Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-3 (Gonzaga-3rd round, BYU-2nd-round, Saint Mary's-2nd round); CBI-1 (San Francisco).

WAC--Bubble...Louisiana Tech. Conference-13th. Notes...Tourney March 12-16 at Orleans Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-1 (New Mexico State-2nd round); NIT-1 (Nevada-Quarterfinals); CIT-2 (Utah State-2nd place, Idaho-2nd round).


Speaking of the demise of the Big East as we know it, this weekend is also a farewell to a concept we have grown to embrace and enjoy in recent years. ESPN's "Bracket Busters" was a noble concept introduced in 2003 that was designed to give mid-major reps more late-season exposure in a series of highlighted, nationally-televised matchups that would ostensibly improve their chances for at-large invitations to the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Although it never quite worked that way in practical application, Bracket Busters weekend was still a unique concept that added some extra spice and a tournament-like feel to later stages of the regular season.

Bracket Busters, however, would lose a little bit of its luster, as many higher-profile mid-majors would try to beg out of assignments if at all possible, knowing that a loss in a Bracket Buster game could often be more damaging to NCAA tourney hopes that a win would provide benefit. Moreover, the concept became a bit too unwieldy and not all that popular with the masses from the mid and lower-level leagues; while the higher profile mid-majors would benefit form national TV coverage of their games, the lower-rung sides in many of those loops were stuck with unattractive late-season intersectional matchups that stipulated return matches at home of the opposing team had to be played the following year. With no TV coverage and unappealing matchups for many Busters games, it's no wonder the concept began to lose its original appeal. So it came as no surprise when ESPN announced a few months ago that it was pulling the plug on Bracket Busters after this season.

We hope that ESPN revisits the idea in a more common sense fashion, and instead of scheduling entire leagues to participate, will merely identify likely contenders before the season and convince the schools to schedule the games regardless. Although the network and leagues liked the sort of flexibility the schedule would provide by not announcing the matchups until a month or so prior, it would not have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that a battle like this weekend's Creighton-Saint Mary's would have some real appeal, with possible NCAA Tourney consequences, if scheduled prior to the season to be played in late February.

We would also remind Bracket Busters critics that the games have not always harmed Big Dance at-large prospects of teams involved; sometimes the Busters helped the NCAA Tourney Selection Committee come to conclusions regarding its invitees. Although no one came out and said so publicly, it was pretty obvious that the Committee members paid rapt attention to the Busters two years go, with favorable rulings on those mid-majors who won Busters games. Virginia Commonwealth's NCAA credentials seemed dubious at best two years ago, but the Rams won their Bracket Buster at Wichita State, and that seemed to be the deciding factor in granting perhaps that season's last invitation to the Dance. From where VCU began an improbable run to the Final Four. Similarly, we wonder if George Mason would have received an at-large bid back in 2006 had it not won its Bracket Buster in similarly thrilling fashion, also at Wichita; that Patriot edition subsequently lost in the CAA Tourney, and its Busters win might have been the deciding factor in awarding an at-large berth to Jim Larranaga's crew, which embarked upon a magical run to the Final Four thereafter.

After the Bracket Busters are gone, those are the kind of memories we will recall.

We preview various Busters matchups this weekend in our College Forecast section. In our next issue, we'll review the Bracket Buster results one last time in some detail as we also prepare a new Bracketology update.

Whatever, as will be the case with the Big East Tournament next month, we suggest enjoying the last Bracket Busters weekend while you can.

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