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.
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