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.
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
WEST COAST: This one is academic. There is one team in this league that will potentially be a No. 1 seed and then there is one team who may get an at-large bid. Gonzaga went 16-0 in league play this year with some really impressive victories. In Las Vegas this weekend, I can’t see anyone beating the Bulldogs on a neutral floor. Saint Mary’s is playing for its NCAA tournament life, but I don’t think it will be enough to overcome the talent Gonzaga has.
NORTHEAST: Robert Morris finished two games ahead of the crowded bunch of teams which includes Wagner, Bryant and Long Island University. In fact, the top seven finishers in the NEC finished .500 or above so I expect this to be one of the craziest conference tournaments in all of college basketball. In a situation like this I give the edge to a team that’s been there before and that team is LIU. The Blackbirds know how to navigate this tournament and I expect them to go dancing again.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: This year was supposed to be nothing short of a coronation for Lehigh. However, C.J. McCollum injured his foot and Lehigh wasn’t able to sustain early season success. One school that has been able to is Bucknell. The Bison have lost only two games in conference play and five overall and since this tournament is played on the home court of the higher seeded team, I’d say its the heavy favorite to win this tournament.
MISSOURI VALLEY: The eyes of the nation were on Creighton and Wichita St in the Missouri Valley this season. While many expected the two to dominate; history tells us that this conference has been known to eat its own and that’s why Indiana St’s at-large hopes have gone up in smoke. This is always one of the more competitive tournaments and this year should be no different. I expect one of the hottest teams in the league to shock the world. Evansville will cut down the nets in St. Louis.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: Defending champion Bucknell was rolling along in the Patriot League until mid-February when two losses tarnished its perfect league record. The fact that one of those loses came to second-place finisher Lehigh at home would make me extremely nervous if I were a Bison fan. For that reason, and the fact that the Mountain Hawks have been just as good, I’m taking Lehigh to go dancing.
WEST COAST: Saint Mary’s won the league outright in a minor upset. However the Gaels finished just one game ahead of Gonzaga and two ahead of BYU. This will be a competitive tournament with the four teams having a legitimate shot at cutting down the nets in Las Vegas. BYU in its first season in the WCC is used to playing in Vegas, is relatively close to Vegas and will take the matter out of the committee’s hands by winning the WCC championship.
MISSOURI VALLEY: Wichita St and Creighton has been the class of the Missouri Valley this season, but this is a tournament that has seen its fair share of upsets over the years. That being said I find it very hard to pick against the Shockers the way they’re playing right now. I expect them to beat a scrappy Missouri St team in the finals.
NORTHEAST: Wagner got everyone’s attention in December after it upset Pittsburgh. The Seahawks followed that with an impressive conference record of 15-3. The problem though is that two of those losses came at the hands of the regular season and defending tournament champion Long Island. The Blackbirds wouldn’t have to play Wagner or Robert Morris until the finals and will play every game of the tournament at home. I like them to repeat.
AMERICA EAST: This will be a good one. I would not be surprised if regular season champion Stony Brook, Vermont or 2011 NCAA tournament team Boston University won this tournament. I think Vermont is due for the win I thought they’d get last season. The Catamounts are going dancing.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: Bucknell and American are way ahead of the pack in this league. Bucknell ran through Patriot League competition with only one loss and American only three. Too bad for the Eagles, two of those losses came from the Bison. Nothing really to say here, but to expect part three with Bucknell winning again.
MISSOURI VALLEY: I’m used to seeing multiple bids come from this league, but the trend of it being one-bid the past few seasons has to be troubling for commissioner Doug Elgin. Despite this, there are still teams in this conference who can win a game in the NCAA tournament. The Missouri St. Bears finished in first with the Wichita St. Shockers one game behind. The two teams were the most consistent all year and appear to be on a collision course. In round three, expect the Shockers to come out on top.
NORTHEAST: Long Island’s uptempo style has led it to an impressive 16-2 league record. In fact, the Blackbirds have only loss once in the 2011 calendar year. Given the fact that this tournament is played entirely on home courts give them an extra advantage. The Blackbirds should expect a challenge from the tournament-tested Robert Morris Colonials, but this team is head and shoulders above the rest of the league and will make their way to the NCAA tournament.
COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION: This one should be interesting. After back-to-back losses to Hofstra and Old Dominion, George Mason ran off 15 wins in-a-row to put a stamp on an at-large bid. Old Dominion, by virtue of stellar play in the non-conference did the same. The question right now goes to the hunger of both teams and I believe both may already know they’re dancing. One team however, isn’t going to be dancing without an automatic bid and I expect it to come out firing on all cylinders. Virginia Commonwealth, at home in Richmond, will “steal” a bid and punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: After its impressive showing in BracketBusters, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) became one of the most intriguing leagues in the country. The conference tournament is usually entertaining and this year should be no different. Fairfield finished in first in the regular season, but show kinks in the armor in losses to Rider and Iona, the two teams that tied for second. Iona, by virtue of being hot at the right time seems to be surging towards a NCAA bid, which it’ll get.
SOUTHERN: College of Charleston was cruising through league play until the last week of the regular season where it lost its final two games. That brought into a tie for the South Division and league title with defending champion Wofford. Although Charleston has a win over Tennessee and an almost win at Maryland, I think its going to be tough for it to navigate through this tournament. Chattanooga and Wofford will meet for round 3 with Wofford making a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament.
WEST COAST: St. Mary’s and Gonzaga both have at-large hopes with Gonzaga’s chances being a tad bit better at the moment. Given that the tournament is set up to give top two teams an advantage expect to see the two class programs in the conference go at it one more time. It will be a heavyweight slugfest in Vegas with St. Mary’s getting an automatic bid ensuring two WCC teams go dancing.
AMERICA EAST: Vermont and Boston University have been the two best teams in league play, but neither is perfect. Maine had a run at the both of them and should be in the mix this weekend in Hartford. However, I still believe that Vermont and Boston will get through a tough tournament to meet for all the marbles once again. Boston will not be able to finish Vermont for a third time and the Vermont Catamounts will go dancing.