Championship Week(s) started last night as the Atlantic Sun Championship got underway. Today, we’ll preview a few mid-major tournaments that get started early this week.
ATLANTIC SUN: Before the season started, Florida Gulf Coast was the heavy favorite to win the league title and while the Eagles did win the regular season crown outright, they haven’t seem to put it all together yet. It started before conference play when they lost to Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Oral Roberts. Then down the stretch, they lost home games to Kennesaw St and Lipscomb. They’re vulnerable and something isn’t quite right and that’s why Lipscomb will make its first ever trip to the Big Dance.
BIG SOUTH: This should be one of the more entertaining mid-major tournaments. UNC Asheville won the regular season outright, but only by a game and they lost to both Radford and Winthrop, the two teams that tied for second. Throw in Campbell’s penchant for buzzer beaters and this will be must-see TV. Asheville gets to host every game it plays and that will make the difference as the Bulldogs will make another trip to the tournament.
PATRIOT: Bucknell, like Florida Gulf Coast, was the prohibitive favorite to win its conference. Unlike the Eagles, though, the Bison made it clear all season long that they were the best team in the Patriot League. Strange things have happened in this tournament in recent years, but don’t expect another sub .500 team like Holy Cross to win this tournament as the Crusaders did in 2016. Bucknell will roll to the second of back-to-back tournament berths.
Here’s an Update on three teams that have been playing well recently.
Saint Mary’s had a disappointing time in the Wooden Legacy tournament earlier this season. The Gaels went 1-2 as they lost games to Washington St and Georgia. They have been on cruise control ever since.
They’re 18-2 and 7-0 in league play – already beating top challengers BYU and No. 13 Gonzaga on the road. Tomorrow they travel to Pacific in what will be a trickier game than most people know. However, the Gaels have set themselves up for a huge finish.
They’ll have opportunities for more quality wins at home and their Kenpom rating of 15 is the best for any team not in a power conference. I thought the Gaels would be the best team in the West Coast Conference before the season started and right now they’re proving that to be true.
Western Kentucky is quietly doing work in Conference USA. The Hilltoppers are 6-0 in league play and are building a solid NCAA tournament resume.
Their RPI is 34 and their Kenpom rating is 46. They have neutral-court wins over SMU and No. 3 Purdue. They have a non-conference strength of schedule (SOS) of 12 with their overall SOS expected to drop to 79 by the end of the regular season due to the competition within the league.
They have two tilts with Middle Tennessee remaining, including at home tomorrow, and have already beaten Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech in league play with another game with Old Dominion coming next month. The Hilltoppers can probably take at least 2 losses and still be ok for an at-large bid.
There was much hand-wringing about Florida Gulf Coast’s non-conference struggles. The Eagles lost to Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Oral Roberts and Bowling Green during non-league play.
All those concerns have been put to bed as they’re in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Sun at 4-0 after beating Lipscomb 88-83 last night.
Those struggles may hurt them a seed line or two on Selection Sunday, but with a conference tournament that’s played on the home court of the higher-seeded team; the Atlantic Sun title will once again go through Fort Myers. They’re still the team to beat.
All year long, Steve Alford has been brewing something in Los Angeles. The embattled coach has had a superb bounce back season for UCLA. That was no more evident then on Saturday night as the Bruins took down the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson.
UCLA’s resurgence can be attributed to freshman sensation Lonzo Ball. The sure-fire lottery pick has proven himself to be the best pure point guard in a draft class filled with talented point guards. He leads one of the most explosive teams in the country.
UCLA isn’t always dialed in defensively because they’re so adept on the other end. The Bruins will certainly need to defend better in March, but if they don’t it won’t stop them from being one of the toughest outs in the Big Dance.
Let’s do some conference tournament previews.
ATLANTIC SUN: Florida Gulf Coast, once again, proved to be the class of the Atlantic Sun as it won another regular season title. With many of its primary challengers defecting from the conference recently, the Eagles have enjoyed life at the top. Despite that, they’ll have a difficult time winning the automatic bid here. Lipscomb watched crosstown rival Belmont dominate this league before it left and is ready to step up to primetime. The Bisons have already beaten the Eagles on their home court and that’s why they’ll win the automatic bid.
BIG SOUTH: Winthrop and UNC-Asheville tied for the regular season title at 15-3 with Liberty right on their heels at 14-4. Those three have separated themselves from the pack and look primed to take the bid. UNC-Asheville has the most experience here and thus the Bulldogs are the team no one wants to see in this tournament. Too bad. The Bulldogs will be the team that wins it.
OHIO VALLEY: This one is simple. If Belmont doesn’t breeze through the conference tournament it will be one of the more shocking results in any conference tournament. The Bruins finished five games ahead of their next closest competition and look like a team that can pull off an upset in the Big Dance.
NORTHEAST: Mount St. Mary’s looked to be clear favorites in the NEC until last week when LIU beat the Mountaineers on their home court. It’s going to be a slugfest for the Mountaineers as 7 of the 8 teams that qualified for the conference tournament finished at .500 or above. This will be competitive, but the regency of the the loss to LIU will work in their favor and they’ll return to the dance for the first time since 2014.
AMERICA EAST: The Vermont Catamounts went 16-0 in conference play and are as heavy favorites as Belmont is in the OVC. This tournament will be played on the home court of the higher seeded team. That means teams will have to travel to Vermont to attempt to do something none of them have been able to do all season – beat the Catamounts. That won’t happen. Vermont goes dancing.
On to the bracket.
Last Four In: Syracuse, Illinois, Georgia Tech, Rhode Island
Last Four Out: Marquette, California, Wake Forest, Houston
In the Big Ten, the newest team is the fastest team and last week Wisconsin found out just how good it was. The Maryland Terrapins are blazing a trail along the midwest guns blazing.
Leading the Terps is their backcourt, specifically their freshman phenom Melo Trimble. He’s been outstanding for Maryland averaging over 16 points and 3 assists per game. Joining Trimble is senior Dez Wells who has been having an outstanding season himself scoring over 15 points per game himself.
Coach Mark Turgeon was on the hot seat before the season started, but he’s squelched any thoughts about his lack of job security. He has his backcourt to thank for that. It’s one that could take Maryland to the Final Four
Conference Tournaments start this week so here are some previews.
ATLANTIC SUN: The Atlantic Sun has gone in a different direction and is holding the entire tournament at campus sites. North Florida won the regular season title and the only team to beat the Ospreys on their homecourt is the South Carolina-Upstate Spartans. The good news for the Ospreys is the Spartans are on the other side of the bracket. I expect North Florida to ride homecourt to the NCAA tournament.
HORIZON LEAGUE: Last year, Milwaukee shocked everyone and made a run to the Big Dance. This year it doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Valparaiso, Green Bay and Detroit are all capable of winning this tournament. Given the fact that the tournament will be played on Valpo’s homecourt and the format protects the higher seeds and I think we’ll see Green Bay and Valpo in the final. In that scenario I expect the Green Bay Phoenix to go dancing.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: This has been a disappointing year overall for the Patriot League. In the past, this has been a league that provided upsets in the tournament. There’s little chance of that happen as the champion will most likely have to play in the First Four. Bucknell is the best program in the league and routinely navigates this tournament. That’ll happen again and the Bison will go dancing.
OHIO VALLEY: Murray St has been the class of the OVC for decades. This year the Racers have been special. They blew through the conference finishing 16-0 in league-play. The next closest teams, Belmont and Eastern Kentucky, have five losses. That means there was no one even close. I don’t expect there to be anyone close to Murray St this week in Nashville. The Racers are going dancing.
BIG SOUTH: This should be one of the better tournaments of the early part of championship week. Charleston Southern and High Point finished atop the league with 13-5 records while Coastal Carolina, Radford and Winthrop all had 12-6 records. In total, seven teams had winning conference records. The tournament will be played at the home of defending champion Coastal Carolina so expect the South Carolina teams to have a strong presence. It will be a Coastal vs. Charleston Southern final with CSU heading back to the tournament.
NORTHEAST: If there has been any truth here its that the homecourt in this tournament has never really mattered. Teams have gone on the road and won in this tournament on a consistent basis. St. Francis (NY) won the regular season title, but I’m willing to bet the Terriers don’t want to see Mount St. Mary’s. The Mountaineers beat the Terriers at home and took them to overtime on the road. I expect the Mountaineers go dancing.
On to the bracket.
Last Four In: UCLA, Texas A&M, Michigan St, Purdue
Wichita St is rolling. So is Florida and Arizona. However, there is one team that hasn’t got a whiff of the publicity of those teams. That team plays in the Southland Conference and it hasn’t lost since Nov. 23.
The Stephen F. Austin (SFA) Lumberjacks sport a gaudy 27-2 as they steamroll toward the finish in conference play. While the Southland isn’t one of the best mid-major leagues in the country, SFA’s accomplishment should be celebrated.
It’s hard to go through any conference unscathed and the Lumberjacks are two games away from completing that. This team ranks No. 21 nationally in offensive efficiency and averages over 76 points per game. It has veterans and will be hell to beat if it earns a bid.
It’s March. Time for conference tournament previews.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: For much of the season, people raved at the turnaround being made at American under new coach Mike Brennan. However, the conference figured out how to play against his Princeton-style system during the second half of the season leaving the experienced Boston Terriers as the regular season champs. The only problem with either one of those squads winning is Bucknell, who’s been to two of the last three NCAA tournaments is the hottest team in the conference and won at American and Boston over the past eight days. That’s why the Bison will be going dancing.
ATLANTIC SUN:Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer finished tied for the regular season title in the Atlantic Sun with 14-4 record conference records. They split the regular season match-ups with Mercer winning by 13 on its home court and Florida Gulf Coast winning by 14 on its home court. The two teams are evenly matched, but the conference’s decision to play the tournament at campus sites and Florida Gulf Coast winning the tiebreaker has me picking the Eagles to return to the dance.
HORIZON LEAGUE: This is a league that’s seen two programs leave recently in Butler and Loyola-Chicago, but really skipped a beat. That’s because the Green Bay Phoenix staked it’s claim early this season as a team to be reckoned with. The tournament will be played on Green Bay’s home court and it will be protected to the semifinals. Expect this fringe at-large candidate to capture an automatic bid.
OHIO VALLEY: Is there any surprise who the two best teams in the conference are. Perennial NCAA tournament contenders Belmont and Murray St continue to dominate the OVC. College basketball fans should expect this to happen for the foreseeable future. I expect to see the two teams in the finals with Belmont going back to the tournament.
BIG SOUTH: The Big South Conference was one of the more competitive leagues all year long with seven teams with 10-6 or better conference records. That will make for a lot of fun this week in Myrtle Beach. What won’t be fun for most of the conference is having to play the tournament on Coastal Carolina’s home court. That hasn’t always guaranteed a win for the Chanticleers, but it will this year.
NORTHEAST: Last season, in the postseason NIT, seeds were planted that have carried over to this year. Robert Morris upset Kentucky at home. This year, the Colonials continued their winning ways winning the league outright for the second season in a row. There’s no team like Long Island in their way this year though. Robert Morris is going dancing.
On to the bracket.
Last Four In: Nebraska, Dayton, Florida St, Colorado
Last Four Out: Tennessee, Minnesota, Providence, Missouri
Marquette was expected to be among the favorites in the Big East, but I’m not sure many people thought the Golden Eagles would be this good. Their currently second in the conference with a 13-3 league record losing just one of their last 13 games.
Marquette doesn’t have a lot of size, but have two outstanding players in Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. These are two players that can carry the Golden Eagles in March. Johnson-Odom, the Tobacco Road-native, is one of the best shooters in the Big East as he makes over 40 percent of his three-pointers. Crowder is a matchup nightmare who’s physical enough to score in the paint, but can also step outside and show range on his jumper.
This team may not rebound the ball well and may be unconventional, but it’s going to play hard and defend to the best of its ability. When you can do that with two all-Big East caliber players, you can make some noise.
No Stock Report this week as we preview some mid-major conference tournaments.
BIG SOUTH: This is pretty simple. UNC-Asheville is the most experienced and clearly the best team in this conference. The Bulldogs finished four games better than it’s next closest rival, Coastal Carolina. Throw in the fact that all games would be played in Asheville and it will be extremely difficult to unseat the Bulldogs as Big South champions.
HORIZON LEAGUE: This figures to be one of the more competitive tournaments in all of college basketball. Valparaiso won the conference outright with a 14-4 record, but showed some kinks in the armor down the stretch. The Crusaders along with Cleveland St will be protected seeds getting byes until the semifinals, but I’m not sure that’s going to protect them. I’m picking the Detroit Titans to find a way to dance.
OHIO VALLEY: In the games leading up to its loss to Tennessee St, Murray St did not look like an at-large candidate. Since that loss, they’ve been playing like a team possessed. The Racers have their mojo and motivation back and is out to prove a point. They’ll be going dancing.
ATLANTIC SUN: At one point this season, the race for the regular season title was heated. That was before Mercer lost three of its last four games to hand Belmont the league title. There’s good news for Mercer though, it’s hosting the conference tournament and had Belmont on the ropes in the regular season finale. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season. I don’t think Belmont can do it. Mercer is going dancing for the first time in 27 years.
This Week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: Dayton, Northwestern, Miami(FL), Texas
Last Four Out: St. Joseph’s, Colorado St, Arizona, UCF
Good for Games through 2/26
1.Kentucky16.Stony Brook/Savannah St Louisville
5.Indiana12.West Virginia Louisville
6.Murray St11.Connecticut Albuquerque
7.Florida St10.Cincinnati Pittsburgh
1.Michigan St16.UNC-Asheville/Mississippi Valley St Columbus
Last month, it looked like Ohio St was going to win the Big Ten championship in a landslide. Now the Purdue Boilermakers are making their claim for a piece of that title.
Some wrote the Boilermakers off after Robbie Hummel suffered another torn ACL. However, there was still plenty of talent left in the cupboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore have been outstanding for the Boilermakers averaging 20.4 and 18.5 points per game respectively. They have more than picked up the slack for Hummel and look like they’re positioning themselves for a deep run this March.
The Boilers are ending the season with two very winnable games at home against Illinois and on the road at Iowa. If Wisconsin can manage to upset Ohio St on Sunday, they can possibly claim a share of the Big Ten title and an outstanding chance for a No. 1 seed.
No Stock Report this week as we preview some mid-major conference tournaments.
BIG SOUTH: This one is hard to call. Coastal Carolina was cruising before an injury to Kierre Greenwood and a suspension to Desmond Holloway derailed its dreams. Now head coach Cliff Ellis is hiring lawyers in response to media reports about the state of his program. It doesn’t smell like a team ready to claim a NCAA bid. It’s sad to see, but I don’t see Coastal getting past the semi-finals. In the Chanticleers place will be the Liberty Flames.
OHIO VALLEY: Anybody who doesn’t want to see Murray St and Morehead St duke it out one more time doesn’t like college basketball. Murray St is a squad that I thought would be in position for an at-large bid this season, but the Racers struggled against their ramped up schedule. Meanwhile, Morehead St has one of the best players in the nation in Kenneth Faried, the NCAA all-time rebounding leader. I expect the two to meet again in the finals with Murray St coming out on top.
ATLANTIC SUN: Belmont has been in complete control of the Atlantic Sun the entire year. The Bruins have lost four games all year and only one of those came in league play. This team has been one of the dominant programs in the Atlantic Sun since it joined the league and this year reinforced that. There’s nothing indicating any team other than Belmont has a chance. The Bruins are going dancing.
HORIZON LEAGUE: This will be one of the more competitive conference tournaments in all of college basketball. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Butler and Cleveland St tied for the league title at 13-5 with Valparaiso finishing in fourth at 12-6. In fact, only 3 games separate first and sixth place. This is pretty much a toss up, but you have to go with the experience of the underachieving Butler Bulldogs to return to the NCAA tournament.
This Week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: Washington St, Baylor, Richmond, Alabama
Last Four Out: Memphis, Butler, Penn St, California
Good for Games through 2/27
1.Kansas16.McNeese St/Texas Southern Tulsa
5.Xavier12.Missouri St Tucson
6.Villanova11.Washington Washington, D.C.
7.Missouri10.Virginia Tech Chicago
2.Notre Dame15.Murray St SOUTHEAST
1.Purdue16.Long Island Chicago
6.Texas A&M11.Alabama/Washington St Washington, D.C.
7.UNLV10.Michigan St Charlotte
1.BYU16.Coastal Carolina Denver
6.Kansas St11.St. Mary’s Charlotte
2.Pittsburgh15.Long Beach St EAST
1.Ohio St16.Northern Colorado/Bethune-Cookman Cleveland
8.West Virginia9.Florida St
4.San Diego St13.Charleston
7.George Mason10.Cincinnati Tulsa