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March 9, 2009

Major conference tourney story lines to watch

The college basketball regular season is over, and conference tournament season has begun.

Some automatic bids to the NCAA tournament have already been decided, but the so-called "Big Six" leagues have their conference tournaments this week.

As a quick primer, we take a look at the storylines surrounding the major conference tournaments.

A North Carolina-Duke championship game certainly would garner big ratings, but the real intrigue in this tournament will come in the early rounds. Maryland, Miami and Virginia Tech need strong tournament runs to be considered for NCAA at-large bids. In fact, the late-season slides by Miami and Virginia Tech could force them to win the ACC tournament to be assured of a spot in the 65-team field. Boston College is in better position, but the Eagles might need to win at least one tournament game to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

Big 12
Did Oklahoma's late-season slide reveal the Sooners' vulnerability, or will a healthy Blake Griffin heal whatever has been ailing his team? The Big 12 tournament could give us an answer. Oklahoma probably needs to win the tournament to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA brackets. Kansas also has an argument for a No. 1 seed if it wins the tournament.

Big East
Notre Dame and Georgetown were two of the most disappointing teams in the nation, but the Big East tournament gives them a final chance to salvage the season. The format of this 16-team tournament makes it unlikely the Irish or Hoyas would go on a remarkable run similar to Syracuse's path to the 2006 title. The top four teams in the conference earn byes to the quarterfinals, so Notre Dame or Georgetown would have to win five games to win the tournament, while the top four teams only need three victories.

Big Ten
This tournament is worth watching just to see how two of the conference's top players Michigan State's Raymar Morgan and Purdue's Robbie Hummel have recovered from their midseason health problems. Morgan was slowed by a case of walking pneumonia midway through the year, while Hummel struggled with a stress fracture in his back. Both players have looked stronger lately, which is good news for their teams' potential postseason fortunes. Michigan State has an outside shot at a No. 1 seed if it wins the Big Ten tournament.

UCLA doesn't have quite as much talent as usual this season after reaching the Final Four each of the past three seasons, but the Pac-10 tournament gives Darren Collison and Co. a chance to build momentum toward a potential fourth consecutive regional championship. The tournament also gives Arizona State a chance to break out of its late-season slump, while Arizona tries to prove it's worthy of an NCAA bid.

The desperation should be evident whenever anyone takes the floor in this tournament. LSU and Tennessee are virtual locks to earn NCAA bids, but everyone else in the conference has reason to worry. It's tough to imagine the SEC receiving only two NCAA invitations, so plenty will be at stake in Tampa. The lack of elite teams in this conference also provides hope that someone can turn into this season's version of Georgia, which won the SEC tournament a year ago after finishing the regular season in the Eastern Division basement.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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