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NCAA conference tournaments: What to watch this week

College basketball can be a cruel sport in March.

Poor Belmont. Monmouth, too. They completely dominated their conferences this year, got dumped in their league tournaments and, poof, they won’t be heard from again. Ditto, Valpo. Buh-bye. No NCAA moment for you. Oh, but you can make those NIT reservations.

Such is life in the one-and-done conference tournaments, where everything a team did over four months can be wiped out by one fall-away jumper at the buzzer.

Now the eminently more forgiving power conferences and high majors take over, where just about everybody with a winning league record gets an NCAA bid. Still, there are reasons to pay close attention leading up to Selection Sunday this coming weekend, and here are five of the biggest:

1. Better win to get in.

Plenty of big names are projected to be just above or just below the NCAA Tournament cut line. Marquette (19-11), Providence (20-11), Syracuse (18-13), Wake Forest (18-12) and even Vanderbilt (17-14) all are playing well and might have worked their way “in” as of today, but a slipup in a conference tournament opener could be enough to knock any of them out.

California (19-11), USC (23-8) and Xavier (19-12) are trending in the wrong direction. For most of February, each looked solid. Now each has work to do this week to punch a ticket. Same for Kansas State (19-12), which won its past two games but was 2-8 before those wins.

2. Making a late push.

Iowa (18-13, 10-8) and Illinois (18-13, 8-10) were long shots as recently as two weeks ago. The Hawkeyes closed 4-0; the Illini 4-1. Keep a close eye on them in the Big Ten Tournament, which incidentally is in Washington, D.C., for the first time.

Rhode Island (21-9, 13-5) is a talented team that finally got healthy. The Rams could make a push in the Atlantic 10 bracket. Utah (20-10, 11-7) has come alive in the Pac-12. And overlooking its ugly record in the ACC, Clemson (16-14, 6-12) has lost 11 games by six or fewer points.

3. Bid stealers.

There aren’t many because the mid-majors are down this season, but Middle Tennessee (27-4, 17-1) deserves to be in the field if it doesn’t win the Conference USA Tournament. The Blue Raiders beat Michigan State in the first round of the NCAAs last year and have basically the same team back.

Nevada (25-6) can make a pretty fair case for itself if the Wolf Pack, with a 35 RPI, fail to win the Mountain West Tournament.

4. Top of the crop.

Kansas, Villanova and probably North Carolina have locked up No. 1 seeds. They won the three best leagues. Case closed. Gonzaga needs to grab the WCC Tournament title Tuesday night to possibly nail down the final top seed. The Zags should worry about Oregon, UCLA or Arizona winning the Pac-12 Tournament.

5. The Texan connection.

Best guess is that just three or four teams from the state will make it. Baylor has solidified its position as a No. 2 seed. Surging SMU, with a 13-game winning streak, is up to a No. 5 in our projections, with an outside shot at a No. 4.

After that, Sun Belt champ UT-Arlington, which just had an eight-game win string snapped, will almost certainly have to survive the conference tournament, even though the Mavericks have a solid 39 RPI. SWAC champ Texas Southern is the heavy favorite in its league, which is known for unpredictable tournament results.

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