Major Theme: 2016 belongs to the power conferences

You don’t need to be told again that this college basketball season is crazy, bonkers, bananas, silly-pants, looney tunes, and all the rest. We have that part down, especially after a Saturday in which six top-15 teams and eight top-25 teams fell.

Another theme is worth emphasizing after a full Saturday of plot twists and passion plays. We’ve mentioned it at some points in previous weeks, but not quite with the same forcefulness or clarity: Very simply, this will be an NCAA tournament for the power conferences.

Yes, you’re likely to see a fair amount of bracket chaos in a month. Rarely have top seeds or number two seeds — not in isolation, but as a group — felt as vulnerable entering an NCAA tournament. However, if an uprising occurs this March, it’s probably not going to be the product of a small Catholic school or a team from a mid-major conference, as we saw in 2011 with Butler and VCU meeting in an 8-versus-11 national semifinal.

It will come from a power-conference school, albeit one with a “[7]” or an “[11]” next to its place in the bracket.

Why can this be said with such confidence? Consider what happened on Saturday.

Wichita State watched its 43-game home-court winning streak disappear against a Jekyll-and-Hyde Northern Iowa team which also defeated North Carolina but has struggled for the balance of the season. The Shockers must win out before the Missouri Valley Tournament final to have any shot at an at-large bid. The Valley is quite likely to be a one-bid conference this year.

In the Horizon League, the same basic reality is going to emerge. Valparaiso, the class of the conference, fell to Wright State at home, snapping the Crusaders’ 25-game home-court winning streak. Valpo will have to win its league tournament to crash the Dance.

Gonzaga could have created a much more comfortable situation with a win at tournament-ineligible but highly-ranked SMU. The Zags’ loss in Moody Coliseum increases the odds that Mark Few’s team will have to win the West Coast Conference Tournament in order to reserve a spot in the field of 68.

In light of San Diego State’s loss to Fresno State earlier in the week (the Aztecs beat Air Force on Saturday), the Mountain West is almost certain to be a one-bid league. From one mid-major or tweener conference to another, the number of low-bid allocations is rather striking.

As a result, this tournament will be “The Attack Of The Big Schools.” The lack of at-large candidates from the smaller conferences means that the ACC and Pac-12 should feast at the banquet table, and that the SEC — which is not particularly good as a whole — might still get six teams (!) into the field. Alabama is making it very hard to deny that last claim after winning at Florida on Saturday. (The Tide hadn’t won in Gainesville since 1995, and they hadn’t beaten the Gators anywhere since 2008.)

How can this season still belong to the smaller conferences in college basketball? Overall NCAA tournament representation won’t be the answer to that question. The one remaining portal to prominence for these schools is to knock off the high seeds in the round of 64.

If that doesn’t happen, however,  this March will be noticeably devoid of the small-school charm which adds to the texture of America’s “maddest” month.

Yes, this season is crazy, but do keep in mind that the state schools and power conferences will likely author almost every significant moment in the coming weeks.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.