For Championship Week, let’s quickly point out that the hard choices a viewer has to make are confined to three days rather than all seven. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the small conference tournaments host their semifinals and title games while the big conferences gear up for their shindigs later in the week. On Wednesday, some of the big conferences begin their tournaments, but a lot of the offerings are matchups between a 5 seed and a 12, or between a 6 and an 11.
Here’s an important note to digest: In the NCAA tournament, a 5-12 game is an interesting game. In a conference tournament, a 12 seed is a last-place team in a 12-team conference. Similarly, a 10 seed is a last-place team in a 10-team league such as the Big East or Big 12. Therefore, on Wednesday, you’re picking through scraps. There’s no reason to call in sick on that day. If you see a matchup with the slightest degree of bubble significance, you won’t find much competition in the same time window from other games on other networks.
The fourth day of Championship Week that really doesn’t require any decision making is Selection Sunday. Only a handful of games are played that day, and the ACC Tournament final is always the signature event in the early window at 1 p.m. Eastern. The Atlantic 10 final is important only if you have a bubble-team interest or an emotional attachment to a team. This year, the SEC Tournament final moves from 1 Eastern to 3:15 (ESPN), but with Florida lording itself over the rest of the SEC, it’s likely that it will be the undercard to the Big Ten final at 3:35 p.m. Eastern (CBS). You know what happens next: the Selection Show on CBS, the analysis on ESPN, and the Selection Sunday night 30 for 30 with a college basketball theme.
The job of this piece is to give you, the viewer, a way to deal with Thursday through Saturday. Naturally, Thursday and Friday – especially during the day sessions – will be harder to manage if you’re at work, but Saturday is also quite cluttered in the midday hours.
Let's get this party started.
Let's simplify this viewer's guide at the outset — after all, you're going to be the one with the remote (or the computer screen, or the hand-held device).
If you want to watch a certain team or conference, coverage for the big conferences will be extensive and widely available. There are only a few spots in which a portion of a big conference tournament won't have a maximum of TV availability (at least as measured by the exposure afforded by ESPN, ESPN2, or ESPNU).
On Thursday, the night session of the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals will be on regional television (Big 12 Network). On Friday, the night session of the SEC Tournament quarterfinals will be on SEC TV and ESPN3 — a computer screen will be the best way to watch those games, one of which will feature Kentucky (7 p.m. Eastern on Friday night). It should also be noted that ESPN's Buzzer Beater channel will have day-long coverage on both Thursday and Friday — that's an important and welcome service to viewers across the land.
On with the show…
Here are a few more general notes to file away:
As we go forward with this guide, let's assume that you don't have a team-specific allegiance and are looking for the best, most watchable games and/or the games with the most bubble or seeding significance on the road to Selection Sunday evening. These three days will feature so much action, crammed into a small number of viewing windows, that the choice of announcers for these games shouldn't make you want to change channels. Using the mute button? That's another story.
This guide will be focused on the quality of the matchup, and only a little bit on the networks. The main challenge for viewers this year is to merely find certain tournaments in the first place. For instance, the Big East Tournament is now on Fox Sports 1 instead of ESPN. You'll get Bill Raftery at Madison Square Garden, but you won't get Sean McDonough or Jay Bilas with him this year.
The American Athletic Conference trots out its first-ever tournament this March. ESPNU has most of the early games, while ESPN2 has the semis and ESPN the final. As is the case with the Big East Tournament, the quarterfinals are played on Thursday, meaning that the final will be staged on Saturday.
There's only one more all-purpose note to get out of the way for Championship Week: When a network (ESPN is usually the worst offender here, not CBS or Big Ten Network) says that the second game in a session starts two hours after the first game, disregard that information and add at least 25 minutes to the actual tip time.
You might notice in TV listings or on an ESPN broadcast that ACC quarterfinal No. 3 (7 p.m., Friday night, ESPN2, featuring Syracuse) will be followed at 9 p.m. Eastern by ACC quarterfinal No. 4, featuring Duke. There's always a break of at least 25 minutes between games in a day or night session, so that fourth quarterfinal with Duke won't start until at least 9:25, and probably not until 9:35 or even 9:45 if the game runs long (which it often will if there's a parade of foul shots and timeouts in the closing minutes).
For a day session, the first game of a session will start at noon Eastern on a Thursday or Friday for most conference tournaments, 1 p.m. on Saturday. If you see the second game listed as a 2 p.m. Eastern tip (Thursday/Friday) or a 3 p.m. tip (Saturday), push those tip times 25 minutes back to 2:25 and 3:25, adding more time if the game runs beyond the two-hour window. Especially for anyone working on Thursday or Friday, this information matters.
For example, don't take a lunch break in the West at 12:30, thinking that a key quarterfinal game begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. No, that quarterfinal will begin and 11:30 and end near 1:45. Take your lunch break at 1:15 or so. (See how this works?)
The preliminaries are over. On to the meat of this viewer's guide: the matchups themselves.
GENERALLY ACCEPTED GAME WINDOWS ON THURSDAY, MARCH 13 AND FRIDAY, MARCH 14
Window 1: Noon-2:30 p.m. Eastern
Window 2: 2:30-5 ET
Window 3: 6:30 (Big Ten first round/quarters only; other tournament games at 7) to 9:30 ET
Window 4: 9:30-Midnight ET
THURSDAY, MARCH 13
In the first window of games, the best pure matchup on the board is the Big 12 quarterfinal between (5) Kansas State and (4) Iowa State on ESPN2 at 12:30 Eastern.
If you want to watch the games with the most bubble significance, neither Kansas State nor Iowa State are part of that discussion, so you'll want to catch Florida State-Maryland (ACC second round) at noon on ESPN.
In the second window of games on Thursday, a play-out bubble game between (5) St. John's and (4) Providence in the Big East quarters is definitely worth a look on Fox Sports 1 at approximately 2:30 Eastern, following the first quarterfinal game involving Villanova and the winner of an 8-9 first round game. You can also catch bubble team Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament on ESPN, against the winner of the 12-13 first-round game.
The second window on Thursday is when action really begins to splinter into multiple windows. The Pac-12 quarterfinals begin at 3 p.m. ET, in the middle of the window. Top-seeded Arizona will fill the 3 p.m. slot and play a potentially intriguing game. Utah is just about done as a bubble team, but if it can play and beat Arizona (it must handle Washington in Wednesday's first round), it could make some noise in Las Vegas. That game, like each of the first three Pac-12 quarters on Thursday, is on Pac-12 Network.
The best daytime game on Thursday (if no surprises happen Wednesday night in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament) might be a Big 12 quarterfinal between top-seeded Kansas and (if it beats Texas Tech) Oklahoma State. The approximate tip time is 3 Eastern. The Jayhawks against Marcus Smart would make for compelling television on ESPN2.
If you're really addicted to hoops, you'll watch the Pac-12 quarterfinal in the late-afternoon period between the second and third viewing windows. (4) California will likely play (5) Colorado at roughly 5:30 Eastern, as long as the Buffaloes don't stumble against (12) USC on Wednesday. That's a game Cal might need to win in order to get in the field of 68. Yet, other tournaments around the country will be quiet until 6:30, so if you need to take a break and do errands, you might need to sacrifice Cal-Colorado for the greater good and the emergence of the night session windows.
As said above, the night window begins at 7, but the Big Ten starts a bit early, at 6:30. On Thursday, this game is an ESPN2 first-rounder between bubble-hugging (7) Minnesota and (10) Penn State. Minnesota must win this game to make the field of 68, so there's potential bubble drama to be found if Penn State can keep things close heading into the final five minutes of regulation.
At 7 p.m., all the other tournaments roar into action, but with the ACC, Atlantic 10, and SEC Tournaments working through comparatively meaningless early-round matchups, there will only be some games worth focusing on. In the Big East quarters, (7) Georgetown (if it gets past DePaul) could make the field with a win over (2) Creighton on Fox Sports 1. That will highlight the first window in the night session.
At 9 p.m. on Pac-12 Network, (2) UCLA will probably face (7) Oregon in the Pac-12 quarters, as long as the Ducks fend off Oregon State on Wednesday. Oregon should be in the tournament, but this could be worth a watch simply because it could be highly entertaining.
At 9:30, the featured attraction is an American Athletic Conference quarterfinal between (5) Memphis, the host school for the tournament, and (4) Connecticut, a team that beat Memphis twice during the season.
If you want to (and can) stay up late, Fox Sports 1 gets the last Pac-12 quarter on Thursday at roughly 11:30 p.m., with (3) Arizona State likely facing (6) Stanford, provided that the Cardinal beat (11) Washington State on Wednesday. Stanford and ASU might both need that game just to feel 100-percent safe on Selection Sunday, so there's some significance attached to that clash.
Now, on to Friday.
FRIDAY, MARCH 14
Thursday of Championship Week is a mixture of first-round games and quarterfinals in conference tournaments. Friday is a mixture of quarterfinals (in the four conference tournaments that finish on Sunday) and semifinals (in the tournaments that end on Saturday). One basic distinction, then, to be made about this day is that the semifinals are all night-session games, starting no earlier than 7 p.m. Eastern. The day session is comprised solely of quarterfinals.
The other obvious note to mention is that for the quarterfinals and beyond in the conference tournaments, matchups are almost all projected; in other words, one half of a matchup is not currently set. You'll have to watch for results on Wednesday and Thursday. In the meantime, we'll simply mention featured teams or featured potential matchups for Friday and, for that matter, Saturday.
In the first window on Friday, Virginia plays its ACC quarterfinal at noon on ESPN, while Michigan plays its Big Ten quarter at the same time on ESPN2. The SEC plays its daytime quarterfinals in between windows, meaning that Florida will play its quarterfinal at 1 p.m. on ESPNU.
In the second window, Pittsburgh could play North Carolina at 2:30 on ESPN in the ACC quarters, gaining a chance to play its way into the field. Nebraska, likely in the field, can make sure of its inclusion in the Dance by winning its Big Ten quarterfinal at 2:30 on ESPN2.
There's an extra viewing option on Friday. The Atlantic 10 Tournament won't offer many compelling matchups, but the 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal (second in the day session) involving (4) Saint Joseph's will have bubble implications. The Hawks, following a bad loss to La Salle this past Sunday, probably need to win that game to avoid the NIT. They might need to beat (1) Saint Louis in Saturday's semifinals to feel secure. This Saint Joseph's quarterfinal on Friday afternoon will be televised by NBC Sports Network. Saturday's semifinals go to CBS Sports Network, and Sunday's final is on CBS.
In between windows, the biggest bubble game of Friday afternoon arrives at 3:30 on ESPNU. A likely meeting between (5) Arkansas and (4) Tennessee in the SEC quarters is a play-out game, with the winner gaining crucial leverage in the chase for an at-large berth.
The Big Ten (again) gets the jump on everyone else as far as the night session is concerned, tipping things off at 6:30 on Big Ten Network with a quarterfinal involving (2) Wisconsin. If Minnesota is Wisconsin's opponent, the Golden Gophers could play their way into the field with a win, so that will be a game to keep an eye on.
At 7 p.m., Friday night of Championship Week becomes arguably the best five hours of college basketball all season long, other than the NCAA tournament.
Why? As mentioned above, this is when several tournaments play their semifinals up against other tournaments' quarterfinals.
Here's what you'll have available at 7:
— Semifinal games likely involving Villanova (Big East – FS1), Louisville (American – ESPN2), and Kansas (Big 12 – ESPNU).
— An ACC quarterfinal involving (2) Syracuse (ESPN).
At 9, you'll have an entertaining Big Ten quarterfinal featuring (3) Michigan State (Big Ten Network), along with a Pac-12 semifinal featuring (1) Arizona (Pac-12 Network).
Then comes this big wave of games at 9:30:
— Semifinal games involving Creighton (Big East – FS1), Cincinnati (American – ESPN2), and Oklahoma/Texas (Big 12 – ESPNU).
— An ACC quarterfinal involving (3) Duke (ESPN).
You're going to have a chance to wear out your remote on Friday night.
The best recommendations by category:
At 7, Villanova against St. John's or Providence is a likely "in-or-out" decider for the Johnnies or Friars. That's the best bubble game. A Kansas-Iowa State Big 12 semi would probably offer the most pure entertainment.
At 9:30, Cincinnati's American semi will probably be the best view, because homestanding Memphis could be the opponent, creating a thorny situation for the top-seeded Bearcats.
At 11:30, you can finish Friday with a Pac-12 semi on FS1, though this game probably won't have bubble significance — any team in this game will almost surely have played its way into the field Thursday night.
SATURDAY, MARCH 15
On Saturday, you can get up early if you want to. CBS has the Conference USA final, and ESPN2 has the America East final at 11:30 a.m. Eastern.
It's at 1 p.m. when the remaining tournament semifinals begin.
The ACC is on ESPN. Projected matchup: (1) Virginia vs. (4) North Carolina.
The SEC is on ABC. Projected matchup: (1) Florida vs. (4) Tennessee/(5) Arkansas. Tennessee or Arkansas would be playing to get into the field here, so this will be even more intriguing than Virginia-Carolina.
The Big Ten steps in at 1:40 on CBS. Projected matchup: (1) Michigan vs. (5) Ohio State.
The next wave of semifinals begins at 3:30. Duke-Syracuse is the projected highlight here (ACC, ESPN), but a Wisconsin-Michigan State Big Ten semi (4:10, CBS) wouldn't be chopped liver. The second SEC semifinal (Kentucky-Georgia) would clearly take a back seat to the other projected matchups, if they in fact unfold.
Starting at 4:30 and continuing until roughly 1 a.m., ESPN2 will air the finals in four smaller (read: one-bid) conference tournaments.
Then, at 6 p.m. Eastern on Saturday of Championship Week, the finals commence in the big conference tournaments:
FS1 has the Pac-12. ESPN has The American. CBS has the Mountain West.
Which game to pick?
You probably know more about Louisville and Cincinnati than you know about San Diego State and New Mexico. If SDSU and New Mexico do meet in the Mountain West final, that's the matchup to watch. If the MWC creates a different final, you'll actually still want to watch, because any team other than SDSU or UNM will not make the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection, only as the holder of an automatic bid as tournament champion. There's no reason to watch the Mountain West Tournament before Saturday, but you'll want to catch the final.
Rounding out Saturday's schedule (and this viewer's guide), the Big East final airs at 8:30 Eastern on FS1, while ESPN has the Big 12 final at 9.
If the Big East matches Villanova and Creighton, that's worth a view, even though Creighton won both regular season matchups by huge margins. If it's anything other than Wildcats-Bluejays, just head on over to ESPN at 9 for the full broadcast of the Big 12 final.
That's your viewer's guide. Feel free to ask questions in the comments or on Twitter.
Follow Matt Zemek on Twitter @MattZemek and visit Run The Floor for in-depth college basketball coverage throughout March Madness.