The final week of the NCAA regular season is kind of like the final episode of a reality show -- a lot of drama is unfolding. Three major conferences (the Southeast, Big East and Pac-12) have yet to crown a regular season champion, which means the pressure will be on all through these final days.
Three conferences have already been determined: No. 1 Baylor clinched the Big 12 title with its win over Texas on Saturday; No. 5 Duke -- despite losing point guard Chelsea Gray for remainder of the season -- spanked No. 9 Maryland 75-59 on Sunday to win the ACC; and No. 7 Penn State claimed a share of the the Big 10 title after defeating Michigan and will own it outright as long as the Nittany Lions don’t slip up in their final two games.
In the Southeastern Conference, however, the regular season title is Tennessee’s to lose. The No. 8 ranked Lady Vols (22-5, 13-1) are currently in first place and close out the season by playing No. 10 Kentucky (23-4, 11-3) and No. 12 Texas A&M (21-7, 11-3), who are tied for second place -- along with No. 11 Georgia (23-4, 11-3).
If the Lady Vols win at home on Thursday against the Aggies, they will win the SEC outright for the 17th time. However, a loss by the Vols opens the door for up to four teams to win a share of the conference title, something that has never happened in the history of the SEC. If Georgia, Kentucky and Texas A&M win their remaining games -- which would mean two losses for Tennessee -- then all four teams would finish the season 13-3 in a four-way tie. The SEC would then have the monumental task of figuring out how to would seed the teams in the conference tournament (we won’t attempt to dive into that until it happens).
Earlier this month, the Lady Vols showed they are vulnerable when they suffered an 80-63 thrashing on the road against unranked Missouri, their only conference loss. However, Tennessee has never lost to Texas A&M and the Lady Vols are undefeated at home in SEC play this year, and have only lost two SEC games in Knoxville in the last four years.
The Pac-12 has a similar battle for the regular season spot between No. 4 Stanford (26-2, 15-1) and No. 6 Cal (25-2, 15-1), who split their regular season meetings this year. If both teams win out, they will split the conference title, which would still be a huge success for Cal, which has never won a Pac-12 title. It would be old hat for Stanford, of course, which has dominated the conference by winning the regular season (outright or shared) 21 times in the 26-year history of the Pac-12.
A tiebreaker for seeding in the tournament would be determined first by win-loss record against other teams in the conference, but since neither team has lost to any other conference opponents, it then goes to overall win-loss record, which would favor Stanford, since the Cardinal have one more win than Cal.
Both teams finish the season with a Northwest swing by playing Washington (19-8, 11-5) and Washington State (10-17, 6-10). The Huskies, under second year coach Kevin McGuff, could potentially be a party spoiler and Cal has traditionally struggled in Pullman.
The biggest showdown of all though, may come in the Big East, where No. 2 Notre Dame will host No. 3 UConn on March 4. Assuming both teams win all their games between now and then, if Notre Dame defeats UConn, the Irish will clinch the regular season title and likely be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. If UConn wins, the two teams would share the regular season crown, but then go to an elaborate tiebreaking system to determine which will be the number one seed in the Big East.
According to Big East rules, the tiebreaker would be determined by the highest ranked conference opponents that each team has played twice during the regular season. Notre Dame will played Providence twice and UConn has played Marquette twice. Since Marquette is ranked higher in the conference standings than Providence, UConn would win the tiebreaker and be the number one seed in the Big East Tournament.
One other point to make -- Notre Dame has to get by No. 22 Syracuse (22-4, 10-3) on Tuesday night, which is currently third in the Big East behind UConn.
But anyway you look at it, the last week of the regular season matters, at least in three hotly contested conferences.