Though the birds are not yet chirping and there is still
snow on the ground, spring is imminent, and that?s a great sign for college
basketball fans. With March Madness around the corner, conference tournaments
are the final chance for teams to make their case before the NCAA Tournament.

This year more than in years past, the field that looks to
enter the tournament is so deep that some team?s lone chance is to win their
respective tournaments in order to make the Big Dance.

So far, this is not the year a team wants to be on the
bubble. While in recent years, a team like Ohio State (18-12, 9-8 Big Ten)
would be a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament, this year it must go deep into the
Big Ten Tournament in order to show the bidding committee that it belongs in
the tourney.

Automatic bids will be key for several teams throughout the
country, not just in the powerhouse conferences. In the Big West Conference for
example, the UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos are hoping to be the second team from the
conference in the tournament. But in order to do so, they must win the Big West
Tournament to enter the NCAA Tournament as a low seed and take a spot away from
a different ? and perhaps more deserving ? team.

With conferences like the Big East, Pac 10 and the Big 12,
all of which can send around five teams to the NCAA Tournament, some other
teams that may have deserved spots in past years will be left out. This will
result in a major problem for some perennial powerhouses that are having off-years.

This, fortunately for the NCAA, is a good problem to have.

In the tournament field this year, there will be several
teams beyond the high seeds that will be capable of making a Final Four run.
Look at USC and Kansas State, for example ? the two schools are projected at
No. 9 seeds right now and have both beaten top-five teams, UCLA and Kansas,
respectively.

Looking back at history, arguably no team made more news
than George Mason did in 2006. In that season, the Patriots were a No. 11 seed.
In retrospect, teams like Maryland and Arizona are projected to be No. 11
seeds, and Maryland was the first team to beat up on North Carolina, shocking
the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.

So, for now, it looks as if the NCAA has its publicity
covered with the high level of team and individual play in the lower seeds
making its presence known. The tournament this year is sure to have its fair
share of upsets, hallmark endings and surprises.

That being said, for those teams who are currently on the
bubble, winning their conference tournament may be the only way to get to the Big
Dance and show the nation that they are able to compete with the best. Some
good teams ? though playing well recently ? will not make the tournament
because of their poor play earlier in the season. And with such a deep field,
those cases cannot be looked at with distaste.

For the conferences having their off-years ? the Big Ten and
SEC, for example ? big wins within the conference do not necessarily add up to
a ticket to the big show. Right now the Big Ten boasts an impressive four
ranked teams. But for the rest of the conference, it will take more than a .500
record to impress the bidding committee.

While some may look at the low level of play in some of the
country?s better conferences as a gateway for worse teams to enter the
tournament, this is clearly not the case. Minnesota will not get a bid because
Ohio State is having an off-year. A more deserving team from a better
conference will grab the opportunity.

This year, the competition within the tournament will
challenge the top teams to play at the top of their games for the entire
tournament. Watch out for close games in early rounds, especially from the No.
8 and No. 9 seeds, many of which can go very deep into the tournament.

For some, the only chance to be that surprise team is to win
their conference tournament, and that fact alone is enough incentive for teams
on the bubble to play above their ability. For teams that are already in, this
may be the year for a low seed to make more noise than usual.

Like most recent ones, this year will not disappoint
basketball fans. With the deep field, the nation will not hope to see upsets,
but instead it will have to take time to count all of them. The coming conference
tournaments are a mere foreshadowing of what the nature of the bigger picture
will look like.

Now the question remains: If the field is so deep this year,
what team will emerge to become the George Mason of 2008?

Well, the great thing about March Madness is the craziness
that comes with it. No matter what the result, this year promises to be one of
the most entertaining in recent memory.