Other than the Super Bowl, no sporting event takes hold of the nation’s attention on an annual basis like March Madness. While the NCAA tournament is the focal point of the country’s collective attention, and deservedly so, the preceding conference tournaments always serve as a great appetizer to the insanity that will inevitably ensue in the Big Dance.
So as Americans all across the country put the finishing touches on their brackets, let’s take a look back on the best games and individual performances of this year’s conference tournament season.
Top 10 Games
10. Big 12, championship game: Iowa St. 74, Baylor 65
The Big 12 conference tournament final between Iowa St. and Baylor started out looking like anything but an instant classic. Both teams’ offenses were anemic in the early going, with the Cyclones missing their first 13 shots from the field. But behind the Sprint Center’s electric, pro-Iowa State crowd, the Cyclone offense came alive in the second half, shooting 63.2 percent from the floor after having shot just 31.8 percent in the first half. Led by DeAndre Kane, Iowa State downed a red-hot Baylor team that came into the game having won nine of its last 10. For the Cyclones, it was their third conference tournament title in program history, and first since 2000.
9. Big Ten, first round: Northwestern 67, Iowa 62
The most impressive part of the Big Ten this season was the parity within the conference. It seemed as if even the teams at the bottom of the standings could beat anybody else on any given night. Case in point: Northwestern upsetting Iowa in the first round of the conference tournament. Sure, the Hawkeyes were struggling entering the game, having lost five of their last six, but they were still expected to have no trouble beating the Wildcats, who themselves had lost seven of eight. But Northwestern’s offense was on fire throughout much of the game, shooting 52.3 percent from the field on its way to becoming the first 11-seed to win a game in the Big Ten tournament.
8. Horizon League, semifinals: Milwaukee 73, Green Bay 66
Not too many people gave the Milwaukee Panthers – picked to finish last in the Horizon League in the preseason – much of a chance of beating top-seeded Green Bay when the two teams met in the conference tournament semifinals. But the fifth-seeded Panthers rallied from a late four-point deficit in regulation to force overtime, where they outscored the Phoenix 11-4 to pull off the shocking upset. Not only did the Panthers deny Green Bay a spot in the Big Dance, they went on to beat Wright St. to clinch their first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.
7. ACC, quarterfinals: North Carolina St. 66, No. 11 Syracuse 63
Heading into the ACC conference tournament, North Carolina St. was in desperate need of one more signature win to boost its NCAA tournament resume. When presented the opportunity, the Wolfpack rose to the occasion, beating No. 11 Syracuse. North Carolina St. did blow a 10-point lead in the second half, and had to endure a frantic final possession by the Orange. Down three, Syracuse got off six shots, including four 3-pointers, on its final possession, but was unable to convert. In the end, this win was likely the difference between the Wolfpack making the NCAA tournament and being on the outside looking in.
6. SEC, championship game: No. 1 Florida 61, Kentucky 60
Despite failing to live up to preseason expectations, Kentucky had a chance to earn a measure of redemption and head into the NCAA tournament with some momentum when the Wildcats faced No. 1 Florida in the championship game of the SEC tournament. After trailing by as much as 16, the Wildcats used a 14-0 run in the second half to turn the game into a nail-biter and set up a thrilling finish. The Gators had a chance to secure a win in the closing minute of the game, but they missed the front of a 1-and-1 on two consecutive occasions. This gave the Wildcats a chance to steal the conference title, but James Young slipped while driving into the lane, allowing Florida to escape with the victory, extending its school-record winning streak to 26 games.
5. Sun Belt, championship game: Louisiana-Lafayette 82, Georgia St. 81 OT
Going up against a top-seeded Georgia St. team that went 17-1 in conference play, Louisiana-Lafayette was unquestionably the underdog heading into the finals of the Sun Belt tournament. But that didn’t matter to the third-seeded Ragin’ Cajuns, who erased a 10-point deficit in the second half and forced overtime on Bryant Mbamalu’s putback with 1.4 seconds to go. They went on to win in the extra frame.
Louisiana-Lafayette clinched their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2005, overcoming an outstanding performance by Ryan Harrow, who scored 37 points for the Panthers. With the win, the Ragin’ Cajun players also won a bet with their coach, Bob Marlin, who promised to get a tattoo if they made the Big Dance.
4. Pac-12, championship game: UCLA 75, No. 4 Arizona 71
Naturally, Steve Alford faced a lot of uncertainty heading into his first season as the coach of the UCLA Bruins. In a season that had its fair share of ups and downs, Alford’s Bruins will head into the NCAA tournament with plenty of confidence after upsetting No. 4 Arizona in the finals of the Pac-12 tournament. Behind a great performance by Kyle Anderson, the Bruins scored 75 points against the Arizona’s stellar defense, and fended off the Wildcats down the stretch to secure their first conference tournament title in six years.
3. Atlantic 10, quarterfinals: St. Bonaventure 71, No. 18 Saint Louis 68
The Atlantic 10’s quarterfinal matchup between St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis combined March Madness’ two greatest features: upsets and buzzer-beaters. The ninth-seeded Bonnies entered the conference tournament on a four-game losing streak, but beat LaSalle to get the chance to face the top-seeded Billikens.
Despite trailing by 10 at halftime, the Bonnies rallied to set up a thrilling finish to the game. With the score tied 68-68, Jordan Gathers – nephew of Loyola Marymount legend Hank Gathers – drilled a 3-pointer as time expired to secure the stunning upset for St. Bonaventure.
2. Atlantic 10, championship game: St. Joseph’s 65, No. 23 VCU 61
Entering his 19th season as the head coach at St. Joseph’s, Phil Martelli faced both personal and professional obstacles. Martelli had lost both his sister and sister-in-law during the offseason, and a petition was started by upset fans and alumni calling for his ouster in response to Martelli leading the Hawks to just one NCAA tournament berth since 2004.
After a solid regular season, St. Joe’s likely needed just one win to secure a berth in the Big Dance. However, the Hawks did more than that, winning three games in as many days, including an exciting win in the finals against VCU. Senior Langston Galloway gave his team the lead for good on a 3-pointer with 17.9 seconds left in regulation, and Martelli broke down in tears of joy after his team clinched its first Atlantic 10 tournament title since 1997. It was a touching moment that reminded fans everywhere what’s so special about college basketball and even sports in general.
1. Big East, quarterfinals: Seton Hall 64, No. 3 Villanova 63
Despite conference realignment causing major changes to the Big East, the conference tournament wasn’t short on great games or exciting moments. But no game in the Big East tournament, or any conference tournament for that matter, better encapsulated what makes college basketball in March so special than Seton Hall’s stunning upset of Villanova in Madison Square Garden.
The eighth-seeded Pirates weren’t expected to pose much a threat to the top-seeded Wildcats, but held their own throughout the course of the game. After Villanova took a one-point lead on a Darrun Hilliard basket with 7.8 seconds to go, the Pirates took a timeout to set up a final play to try and pull of the upset. The result: Sterling Gibbs hit a step-back jumper at the buzzer to give Seton Hall the improbable 64-63 win, ruining the Wildcats’ hopes of getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Top 5 Performances
5. Ben Brust, Wisconsin: 29 points, three rebounds, two assists, three steals (vs. Minnesota, 3/14/14)
For the most part, Ben Brust has flown under the radar during his career with the Wisconsin Badgers. So it should come as no surprise that his tremendous performance against Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten conference tournament went largely unheralded nationally. In the game, Brust scored a career-high 29 points while shooting 8-for-15 from the field, including going 4-for-10 from behind the arc. He also played excellent defense against the Gophers, recording three steals to lead the Badgers to an 83-57 blowout win over their rival.
4. Doug McDermott, Creighton: 35 points, on 14-of-22 shooting (7-of-10 on 3-pointers), five rebounds, three assists (vs. DePaul, 3/13/14)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Doug McDermott put on a clinic on offense in the final conference tournament of his collegiate career. Of Creighton’s three games in the conference tournament, McDermott’s most impressive performance came in his Big East tournament debut against DePaul. He dropped 35 points on the Blue Demons, which included making six of his first seven shots from beyond the arc. In addition to his outstanding display of shooting, McDermott recorded five rebounds and three assists. Not bad for his first game in Madison Square Garden.
3. Akeem Richmond, East Carolina: 36 points, 11-of-19 shooting (all 3-pointers), four rebounds, two steals (vs. Texas-San Antonio, 3/11/14)
The matchup between 12th-seeded East Carolina and 13th-seeded UTSA in the first round of the Conference USA tournament may have not seemed like much on paper, but it ended up featuring a phenomenal performance by Akeem Richmond for the Pirates. Richmond dropped 36 points and made a school-record 11 3-pointers, with all 19 of his shots coming from behind the arc. Thanks to his spectacular play, East Carolina outlasted the Roadrunners to pick up a 79-76 victory.
2. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: 21 points, 5-of-12 shooting, 15 rebounds, five assists (vs. Arizona, 3/15/14)
At 6-foot-9, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson definitely isn’t your conventional point guard. However, he has proven to be one of the most dynamic and all-around and complete offensive players in the country. In the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament against No. 4 Arizona, Anderson was at his very best. He scored 21 points to go along with 15 rebounds and five assists, leading the Bruins to the upset over the Wildcats. Thanks in large part to his performance against Arizona, Anderson was honored as the Most Outstanding Player of the Pac-12 tournament.
1. Russ Smith, Louisville: 42 points, three rebounds, three assists (vs. Houston, 3/14/14)
After helping the Louisville Cardinals capture a national championship last year, Russ Smith has been nothing short of spectacular during his senior season. But for all his great games this year, none were quite as “Russdiculous”, as coach Rick Pitino likes to call him, as his performance against Houston in the American Athletic Conference semifinals. Smith scored a career-high 42 points on 14-of-22 shooting from the field, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range. Behind his sensational shooting, Louisville cruised to an easy 94-65 win over the Cougars.