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 first time since both universities have been Division I participants, both North Dakota and North Dakota St have legitimate shots to go dancing.
At the publishing of this post, North Dakota is in first place by a half-game in the Big Sky while North Dakota St is tied for first in the Summit with South Dakota.
This would be quite the feat for the two universities and would give the state bragging rights over the Dakota to the South. Both schools will most likely be 15/16 seeds, but that doesn’t take away of how historic this will be for the state. Besides, the world needs to see North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker in the Big Dance.
Stock Up: Wichita St. As you will see below the Shockers are an No. 8 seed without an at-large resume. That’s because I believe what my eyes tell me when I watch them play. This is a tournament team. They are destroying the Missouri Valley. In 13 of their 15 conference wins, the margin has been double digits. In fact they beat Illinois St, the team they’re tied with for first place, by 41 points earlier this month. You don’t want to see this team in March.
Stock Down: Virginia. I’m starting to wonder if the rest of the ACC has figured Tony Bennett out. It happens from time-to-time, but the Cavaliers are currently on a four-game losing streak and haven’t looked good in the process. There is now a scenario where Virginia is playing in a 7/10 or 8/9 game in the Big Dance.
Stock Up: Bucknell. On Sunday, Bucknell traveled to Boston University to play a game for first place in the Patriot League. When the game was over; there was no doubt. Bucknell throttled Boston 86-66 to take a two-game lead and are now the odds-on favorite to win the automatic bid.
Stock Down: Mountain West. Last week we spoke about the downturn of Conference USA and this week it’s the Mountain West, which appears to be a one-bid league again. Long-term this appears to be more of a blip than a trend as it has major state universities. However, more is expected of this league.
Last Four In: TCU, Seton Hall, Syracuse, California
Last Four Out: Alabama, Marquette, Providence, Illinois St