OHIO VALLEY: The OVC protects its best teams until the semifinals. That means Belmont and Murray St won’t be playing until Friday night. On the other hand, the 5-8 seeds will have to win four games to win the championship. It’s happened before, but I have a hard time seeing that happening with how dominant the Bruins and Racers have been. Belmont clipped Murray St earlier this season, but that was at home. It was the only time the two squads played and here’s hoping we get a rematch. If we do, I predict Belmont to win that one too.
NORTHEAST: Wagner is one of the better mid-majors in the country and its 14-4 NEC record justifies that. The Seahawks performed admirably in the non-conference and are the favorites as they’ll have homecourt throughout. They made a critical mistake though. They let tournament-tested Mount St. Mary’s beat them in the last regular season game. That’s the last team you need to give confidence to. For that reason the Mountaineers will make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
MISSOURI VALLEY: Loyola-Chicago is the favorite after having one of the more impressive seasons in all of conference basketball. The Ramblers have a sneaky at-large resume as well. They’re one of the newer programs in the MVC so they don’t have much history in this tournament. That being said its difficult to see a team that did what Loyola did in and out of conference losing in this version of the MVC.
METRO-ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: This is a tournament that always seems to provide upsets. There have been pretty good Iona and Monmouth teams in the past that have failed to finish the deal. This year Canisius and Rider finished in a first-place tie. Rider won the tiebreaker and gets the No. 1 seed. That helps the Broncs avoid a possible quarterfinal road game against Siena. That said I expect to see Canisius and Rider in the final. They split both games – winning on their homecourt by one point. Canisius will find away to get it done in its home state.
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
In the American Athletic Conference, more ballyhooed basketball programs like UConn, Temple, Memphis and Cincinnati were supposed to keep the league afloat in its second year of existence. However, it’s a program that was left behind that is making the most noise.
Tulsa is 7-0 in league play and has continued it’s great run after ending last season with a blitz through the Conference-USA tournament to the Big Dance.
The Golden Hurricane has managed to sneak its way to an undefeated start by excelling at the free-throw line. No one is as adept at getting to the line as Tulsa as it gets almost a quarter of its points from the charity stripe.
When Frank Haith left Missouri to take this job at the end of last season, everyone wondered why. Now it appears he was just ahead of the curve.
Stock Up: Murray St. It’s been a couple years since the Racers have gone dancing, but they looked primed and ready to not only being the Ohio Valley representative in the NCAA tournament, but also a dangerous out once they get there.
Stock Down: Seton Hall. At the beginning of January, the Pirates looked like a force to be reckoned with. Now they just look like a wreck. They need Isaiah Whitehead back badly.
Stock Up: D’Angelo Russell. The Ohio State freshman is quietly having an All-American season. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game for a team that needs him to be as good as he’s been in all three of those areas.
Stock Down: Saint Mary’s. The Gaels will inevitably be on the bubble. Their SOS and lack of strong wins will do them in. They’ll have to win the West Coast Conference tournament to get in despite the predictable pontificating on their behalf, which is sure to come.
On to the Bracket
Last Four In: Washington, NC State, Old Dominion, Tennessee
Last Four Out: Michigan St, Seton Hall, Mississippi, Texas A&M
The rumors of UCLA’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Early in the season it looked bleak for UCLA after struggling to beat Georgia and losing to Cal Poly. The Bruins chemistry looked shoddy and they were working to incorporate Shabazz Muhammad into the lineup.
Now the Bruins are tied for first in the Pac-12 and Muhammad, along with other freshmen Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are key contributors to the team’s success.
Those freshmen are now meshing with North Carolina transfers, David and Travis Wear and Larry Drew II, to form a team that can score and will put fear in the hearts of any team in March.
That being said; regular season success isn’t the measuring stick in Westwood. It’s Final Fours and national championships and any season when neither happens is a disappointment. So while I commend the Bruins for figuring it out, they have a long way to go to please their fans.
It’s March. No stock report this week as we have conference tournament previews.
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE: This is a league that’s grown in numbers and appears to be undergoing a changing of the guard. UNC-Asheville and Coastal Carolina had been at or near the top of the standings lately, but this year Charleston Southern and High Point have taken over that mantle. I like experience and until proven otherwise, I think UNC-Asheville will find itself in the NCAA tournament again.
HORIZON LEAGUE: Butler is gone, but the top of the conference looks similar to last season. Valparaiso finished in first, the same place it finished in 2012 while Detroit finished second – one spot above where it finished last year. In the conference tournament Detroit avenged regular season losses to Valpo to get to the dance. I think Detroit is the more talented and more explosive team and will go dancing again.
OHIO VALLEY: One of the more underrated moves in conference realignment was Belmont leaving the Atlantic Sun to go to the OVC. That move has proven to be a good one for the Bruins as they won the regular season title in the league while gaining a conference mate that rivals them in quality in Murray St. The Racers return one of the best players in the country in Isaiah Canaan, but did not finish the season well. Watch out for Eastern Kentucky, but I think you have to go with the Bruins in this league.
ATLANTIC SUN: Florida Gulf Coast beat Miami earlier this season and looked to be in good shape. However, Mercer walked the Eagles down even with a loss to them last week. Mercer is hosting the conference tournament and I expect the Bears to be tough to beat on their home court.
On to the Bracket.
Last Four In: Tennessee, Saint Mary’s, Villanova, Iowa St
Last Four Out: Kentucky, Alabama, Iowa, Arizona St
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
I can’t remember when BracketBuster games were more important. Saint Mary’s vs. Murray St is probably the marquee matchup as both teams badly need to win. I can say the same about Creighton, but Long Beach St may solidify an at-large berth with a win. CAA can make a big move as a conference with a good weekend.
Watch Loyola Marymount as a potential at-large candidate
Last Four In: Northwestern, Miami(FL), Illinois, NC State
Last Four Out: Minnesota, Washington, UCF, St. Josephs
1.Kentucky16.Vermont/Savannah St Louisville
5.Wichita St12.Kansas St Nashville
4.Temple13.Middle Tennessee St
6.San Diego St11.Seton Hall Portland
7.St. Mary’s10.Iowa St Greensboro
1.Ohio St16.Long Island Pittsburgh
4.Notre Dame13.Long Beach St
1.Missouri16.UNC-Asheville/Mississippi Valley St Omaha