Ultimate guide to Saturday’s conference title games

Champ Week is drawing to a close and Saturday features tournament finals in four top leagues.

Here’s what you need to know for these league title games:


No. 12 North Carolina (25-9) vs. No. 1 Virginia (30-2)
8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Six weeks ago, North Carolina was on a three-game losing streak and dropped to 5-5 in the ACC. The Tar Heels were never in danger of falling too far in the national scope, but they also weren’t anywhere close to the conversation about the nation’s best teams.

Fast forward to Saturday, where North Carolina will have a chance to make its case for a 1-seed in the ACC tournament championship game against No. 1 Virginia.

The Tar Heels a 1-seed? With nine losses? With a home loss to Wofford?

If Kansas loses in the Big 12 tournament and the Tar Heels beat Virginia, North Carolina will absolutely be in the discussion. And with what happened on Friday night — Xavier blowing a 16-point lead to Providence in Manhattan and North Carolina beating Duke on the other side of the East River — the Tar Heels are already putting pressure on the teams on the top line.

Right now, North Carolina has the most Quadrant 1 wins in the country with 13. A win over Virginia — the No. 1 team in the polls and the RPI — would give the Tar Heels a 14th Quadrant 1 win. There’s only one other team (Kansas) that even has double-digit wins in that category. North Carolina has a top-five RPI, a top-10 nonconference strength of schedule and the No. 1 overall strength of schedule in the country. The Tar Heels have two wins over Duke, a win at Tennessee, wins over Michigan and Ohio State, and a win over Clemson.

The pluses on the resume are absolutely there. Yes, no team has ever received a 1-seed with nine losses, but most nine-loss teams haven’t possessed this many good wins and a conference tournament title.

Of course, all this is predicated on North Carolina beating Virginia on Saturday night. Given the Cavaliers have lost twice all season and beat the Tar Heels by 12 in Chapel Hill in January, that won’t exactly be easy.

“They’re the No. 1 team in the country,” coach Roy Williams said. “They are the No. 1 team unanimously and they beat us by 77 points or whatever. So we’ve got to go in there and try to play the perfect game and play as close as we can possibly play to that, then we’ll have a chance to win.”

In the first meeting between the two teams, North Carolina scored just 49 points — the Tar Heels’ second-worst offensive outing of the season. They turned it over 19 times and shot 8-for-31 on 2-pointers. At the other end, they allowed Virginia to shoot better than 50 percent inside the arc.

North Carolina is vastly different than it was two months ago. The Tar Heels have received more consistent contributions from guys not named Joel Berry II and Luke Maye, with Theo Pinson becoming more of a factor every game. Williams has also gone to a smaller lineup for longer stretches, with Maye, Pinson and Cameron Johnson handling the frontcourt duties. They’ve won nine of their last 12.

“We’ve just got to make sure we’re taking good shots and making sure we’re moving them on the defensive end,” Berry said of Virginia. “They’re great defensively, and we’ve just got to make sure we limit our mistakes. If you make a turnover, you know that you’re going down and you’re about to play defense for 30 seconds because they keep moving the ball until they get what they want to get, so we have to limit our turnovers and make sure that we’re getting great shots on the offensive end.”

North Carolina receiving a 1-seed on Sunday is still not a likely scenario, all things considered, but given where the Tar Heels were at the end of January, Williams and the Tar Heels will relish their opportunity against Virginia on Saturday night.

— Jeff Borzello

Big 12

No. 18 West Virginia (24-9) vs. No. 9 Kansas (26-7)
6 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App

Maybe it was good for Kansas on Friday night that Kansas State exposed the Jayhawks’ soft interior defense.

Because if not Friday in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, it was going to happen on Saturday against West Virginia in the championship game. It still might, in fact. The Mountaineers are rugged and determined and motivated after a 66-63 victory over Texas Tech in the second semifinal Friday at the Sprint Center.

They’re still feeling the sting of a loss last month at Allen Fieldhouse in which Kansas overcame a 12-point, second-half deficit and shot 35 free throws to the visitor’s two.

WVU has never won this tournament, losing last year in the final to Iowa State and in 2016 to the Jayhawks.

Arguably, Bob Huggins’ team has more for which to play on Saturday, what with the Mountaineers bidding for a spot among the top four seed lines in the NCAA tournament and KU perhaps locked into a No. 1 after its 26th win.

“No, no,” Bill Self said to that suggestion. “If you play, you might as well win.”

Kansas didn’t roll to 14 straight Big 12 regular-season titles by resting on its accomplishments and looking ahead to the Big Dance. Self, the coach in his 15th season with the Jayhawks, finds plenty of motivation within the daily minutiae of the season.

Friday, it was all about how KU performed in an 83-67 win over the short-handed Wildcats.

“If I sleep two hours tonight,” Self said, “it will be more than what I think I probably should after how we played.”

Kansas State lost All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade to a foot injury suffered Thursday. And one minute after the tip on Friday, guard Barry Brown, tied for the team lead in scoring with Wade, went down hard from an arm to the right eye from Devonte’ Graham and never returned.

Still, the Wildcats chopped a 16-point lead to two midway through the second half. K-State forward Makol Mawien raced past his career high with 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting. Young Kansas post players Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa, filling in for injured center Udoka Azubuike, offered “no resistance at all,” said Self.

“I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly,” Self said of Mawien, “because he was by far the best player in the game. And he whipped us.”

Lightfoot got the message.

“I played bad today,’ he said. “We’ve got to defend better.”

Graham said Kansas took its collective “foot off the gas” when Brown exited. — Mitch Sherman

Big East

Providence (21-12) vs. No. 2 Villanova (29-4)
6:30 p.m. ET

Two of the Big East’s old guard will tangle on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, with a trophy at stake.

Villanova (29-4, 14-4) surely has already sewn up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Providence (21-12, 10-8) is now a lock for the field of 68. But a Big East tournament title will be on the line — a crown the Wildcats will be looking to win for a fourth time, and the Friars for a third.

It’s been easy work this week for the second-seeded Wildcats, who blew out Marquette in the quarterfinals, 94-70, and did the same to Butler in the semis, 87-68.

Jay Wright’s bunch raced out to a 19-0 lead against the Bulldogs on Friday night and never looked back.

Bubble Watch: Who is locked and who still has work to do?

Some teams are comfortable. Some aren’t sure things for the NCAA tournament, but should still feel good about themselves. And some have work to do in the final hours before Selection Sunday.

“That was one of our best defensive performances,” Wright said. “We played well. They’re a really good offensive team.”

It’s been a different story for fifth-seeded Providence, which needed overtime to knock off Creighton, 72-68, and played five extra minutes again to complete their stunning upset of regular season conference champs Xavier, 75-72.

Ed Cooley’s crew is only the second team in Big East tournament history to win back-to-back OT games. And they erased a 17-point second-half deficit against the Musketeers on Friday night — led by senior guard Kyron Cartwright, who scored 12 of his 15 points after halftime and also had a game-high six assists.

“Seniors have to step up to the moment and help the team,” Cartwright said. “And I thought I did that tonight. And I’m going to try to do that tomorrow night and hopefully try to will my team to a championship.”

Villanova is spearheaded by juniors – in particular Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, both named to the All-Big East first team. They led the Wildcats with 25 and 21 points respectively against Marquette, and then scored 18 and 17 against Butler.

But all five starters finished in double figures on Friday, and that was nearly the case on Thursday — freshman forward Omari Spellman came up one point short. This is a talented team across the board.

“That’s really the key to our team is the balance, when we have balance,” Wright said.

Villanova will obviously be the favorite, and will be playing in their fourth straight Big East championship game. But these teams split their two regular season meetings, with Providence winning at home 76-71 less than a month ago, on Valentine’s Day. The Friars also split with Xavier, before knocking them off for a second time on Friday — making them the only team to defeat both of the Big East’s beasts this season.

Can they do it one more time? Cooley said “we’re built for the moment” after their victory on Friday.

Another big moment awaits. — Kieran Darcy


USC (23-10) vs. No. 15 Arizona (26-7)
10 p.m. ET

LAS VEGAS — For several months, Arizona and USC have lived somewhat parallel existences.

That was already going to be the case, to a degree, for the pair of preseason top-10 teams, but everything changed Sept. 26, when the FBI arrested USC assistant coach Tony Bland and Arizona assistant Book Richardson as part of an investigation into corruption in college basketball. There would be no avoiding it: the arrests would hang over both programs for the rest of the season.

For the Pac-12’s two most talented teams, though, that dark day had no bearing on the goals in front of them: Win the Pac-12 and make as deep a run in the NCAA tournament as possible. They would simply have to move on without their well-liked assistant coaches and USC without star guard DeAnthony Melton, who was suspended – first indefinitely and eventually for the entire season – due to his association to the ongoing investigation.

Arizona won the only regular-season matchup between the program on its way to finishing atop the Pac-12 standings, while USC finished second. Their paths will cross again Saturday in the championship of the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena (10 p.m. ET, FS1).

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, asked about the possible matchup Thursday, said he wasn’t concerned by the potential perception it could create for the conference by having its championship game feature a pair of teams wrapped up in the scandal.

“I know both the schools are, at the highest levels of the university, treating the allegations very, very seriously,” Scott said. “Both those schools have taken concrete steps with assistant coaches, in the case of USC a player, that they deemed ineligible to play the whole year and has since left the school. Arizona obviously sat out their coach while they were investigating and looking into the situation.”

Arizona (26-7) advanced to the championship game on the back of freshman center Deandre Ayton, who turned in one of the most dominant performances in college basketball this season as the Wildcats beat UCLA 78-67 in overtime. Ayton’s career-high 32 points came on 13 of 16 shooting as he strengthened his case for national player of the year.

“He’s a special talent,” Arizona guard Rawle Atkins said. “I see it every day in practice, so it’s nothing new to me. But to you guys, you know, you guys can see what we see every day. It’s just another day in the office for him.

“But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s becoming in talks for the national player of the year. He should be player of the year in the country. I don’t see anyone playing better than him right now.”

After Friday’s performance, it’s hard to argue against it.

USC (23-10) reached the final with a 74-54 thumping of Oregon, a Final Four team a year ago, in what some viewed as a must-win game for the Trojans’ NCAA tournament hopes. The Trojans would take the selection committee out of the equation with a win against the Wildcats, but even if they lose, coach Andy Enfield is confident his team has already done enough.

In fact, he felt that way even before the Trojans beat Oregon.

“We came in second in the Pac-12 this year,” Enfield said Thursday. “Our RPI is in the low 30s, and that’s enough said.”

— Kyle Bonagura