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
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
The Maryland Terrapins, who welcome Duke on Wednesday, are one of the hottest teams in the nation. They’ve won five in-a-row and 11 of 13.
Everyone knows about the guard ACC fans love to hate, Greivis Vasquez, but the revelation for the Terps has been freshman post player, Jordan Williams. Williams is averaging nine points-per-game, but what’s more impressive is the 8.4 rebounds a game. He gives the Terrapins a legitimate presence in the paint that they can rely on in a half-court game.
Gary Williams has been criticized a lot in the Washington, D.C. media and by Terrapin fans, but now is the time for folks to be quiet and give Gary Williams a round of applause for the job he continues to do in College Park. This team is playing hard and playing well and people should thank Gary for that.
We’re forgo the Stock Report this week for conference tournament previews.
BIG SOUTH: For some reason, this might be my favorite low-major conference. Whenever I watch a Big South game, it’s always entertaining. I expect more of the same from the tournament. I killed Coastal Carolina earlier this season for not beating Radford at home. Well, Coastal went traveled to Radford on Valentine’s eve and shut me. At 26-5, it’s Coastal Carolina’s year. Expect the Chanticleers to go dancing for the first time in 17 years.
OHIO VALLEY: On Bracketbuster Saturday, I finally got a glimpse of Murray St and boy was I impressed. They were running through the OVC and took a pretty good Morgan St team apart down the stretch. Then the Racers paid a trip to Morehead St to play the Eagles and had their quest of a perfect league record eliminated. After a disapointing loss in the the OVC semi-finals and the recent loss to Morehead St, expect to see a very motivated Murray St team this week. Motivated for a trip to the Big Dance.
ATLANTIC SUN: It’s hard to find words to describe this season in the Atlantic Sun. The first place team changed weekly it seemed so it was only fitting that there was a four-way tie for first. Lipscomb, Belmont, Jacksonville and Campbell finished with identical 14-6 conference records while East Tennessee St was just a game back at 13-7. No program in the Atlantic Sun knows how to navigate this tournament like Belmont. It had a down year last year but it’s back this season and will make a return to the NCAA Tournament.
HORIZON LEAGUE: Butler completely dominated the Horizon this season. It was the only team to finish with an undefeated league record in conference. The Bulldogs are six games ahead of their closest competitors. There is no reason to believe that someone is going to be able to beat them at home this weekend. Butler will win the Horizon League tournament and make a bubble team somewhere very happy.
This week’s bracket projections:
Last Four In: San Diego St, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Connecticut
Last Four Out: Mississippi St, Virginia Tech, Mississippi, Rhode Island