Conference Tourney Preview: March 1

Isn’t that date just a beautiful sight? March Madness is here folks, and it couldn’t come fast enough! This has been one of the wildest, craziest, most wacky college basketball seasons in recent memory, and starting this week for some teams and next week for the rest, it is postseason time, and it’s about to get really crazy.

I just get this feeling, based on how the season has gone, that some truly wild is going to happen. Maybe a 10 or 11-seed in a conference makes a run to a title and earns an auto-bid to the big dance. Maybe a team with little-to-no shot at making the Tournament goes on an epic run next week and steals a bid from an at-large. I think of a team like LSU or Ohio State, or maybe a Houston or an Evansville. Maybe this will finally be the year that a 16-seed knocks off a 1-seed in the Round of 64. It’s never happened, but after everything that has occurred this season, I find it hard to not think of that as a possibility.

Today officially marks the beginning of the 2016 postseason for college basketball, as several conference tournaments will get underway tonight. The following is a short preview of each of the conference tourney’s getting underway this week.

America East Tournament
March 2, 7, 12
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Sat March 12, 11:00 am ESPN2
The America East Championship Game figures to be one of the more highly anticipated lower conference title games this season. The 1 and 2-seeds in the tourney, Stony Brook and Albany respectively, have met in the conference tournament in each of the last six seasons, including the last two in the Title Game, with Albany winning both. Stony Brook forward Jameel Warney is not only the best player in the America East, but he is one of the best players in all of America. He has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament in his college career, and it would be a shame if he doesn’t get to showcase his talent in front of a huge audience. Stony Brook is the clear favorite to win this conference, and I’ll be shocked if it’s anybody but them in the end.

Atlantic Sun Tournament
March 1, 3, 6
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Sun March 6, 12:30 pm ESPN2
The winner of the Atlantic Sun will most likely be a 15 or 16 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean that they lack quality teams. In 2013, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles shocked the world by advancing to the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed out of the Atlantic Sun. The Eagles are the 4-seed in this year’s conference tourney, with the 1-seed and odds-on favorite being the North Florida Ospreys, who are looking to return to the Tournament for a second consecutive season. Last year was North Florida’s first ever trip to the Big Dance, and they unfortunately went down in a First Four game to Robert Morris. They will have a few tough teams in their way though, with NJIT and Jacksonville joining FGCU as teams that could very easily spoil the party for North Florida.

Big South Tournament
March 3-6
Buies Creek, NC
Championship Game: Sun March 6, 2:30 pm ESPN2
You could easily argue for any of the top four teams in this conference being the favorite to win the title. Winthrop and High Point finished the regular season tied at the top with a 13-5 conference record, with Coastal Carolina and UNC Asheville finishing just a game behind. High Point will be the 1-seed and Coastal Carolina the 3-seed. The top five teams get a bye to the quarterfinals (4-seed UNC Asheville will take on 5-seed Liberty, while the other three teams await first round results). The player to watch in this conference is High Point forward John Brown, one of the most athletic players in the country. He could be a possible 2nd round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and he’ll look to showcase his skills here en route to a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Winthrop, Coastal Carolina and UNC Asheville have all played in the tourney in recent years, and that experience factor could push any of them to a Big South title.

CAA Tournament
March 4-7
Baltimore, MD
Championship Game: Mon March 7, 7:00 pm NBC Sports Network
Another exciting regular season race saw UNC Wilmington and Hofstra each finish 14-4 in conference play to share the regular season title. Three other teams, James Madison, William & Mary and Towson, each finished 11-7 in CAA play, not far behind the top two. Hofstra is the 1-seed, and if they win their quarterfinal, they will play the winner of William & Mary vs James Madison, while UNC Wilmington is the 2-seed, and if they win their quarterfinal, they’ll take on either Towson or Northeastern, last season’s CAA Champion. KenPom ranks James Madison as the best team in the CAA, but they have UNC Wilmington and Hofstra not far behind. Any of those three teams would be a good pick to win the CAA Tournament.

Horizon League Tournament
March 5-8
Detroit, MI
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 7:00 pm ESPN/ESPN2
The Horizon League always seems to have at least one really good mid-major team, and more often than not, that team is able to win the league and head to the Big Dance. One of the reasons for that is the top two teams in the regular season standings get a bye to the semifinals of the conference tournament. That is something I wish more lower-level conferences would do, to try to ensure that they send one of their best teams to the NCAA Tournament. This year, Valparaiso is the clear favorite after finishing 16-2 in conference play, and 26-5 overall. They have wins over Iona, Rhode Island and Oregon State, and KenPom ranks them as the 4th most efficient defensive team in the nation. Their toughest challenge will be the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, who finished tied with Wright State at 13-5 in Horizon play. Oakland is the 2-seed by way of tiebreakers, and they feature one of the best players in the country in guard Kay Felder. Felder is averaging 24.4 points and 9.4 assists a game this season, and if they get to the NCAA Tournament, Felder has the potential to become a superstar.

MAAC Tournament
March 3-7
Albany, NY
Championship Game: Mon March 7, 7:00 pm ESPN
The team you want to know in the MAAC is the Monmouth Hawks, and not just because they have the most entertaining bench in the history of basketball. Monmouth scored non-conference wins this year over likely tournament teams Notre Dame and USC, as well as victories over UCLA and Georgetown. There is a real possibility that if Monmouth falls in the MAAC Tournament they could get an at-large bid to the dance. So, if you are a fan of a Bubble team, you should be rooting hard for Monmouth to win the MAAC. They are the clear favorite, but the Iona Gaels, the 2-seed in the MAAC, are a very good team in their own right, and I could easily see them advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Iona defeated Monmouth by 16 points on the road in their last meeting, and if they meet again in the conference title game, Iona might be the favorite to win it.

Missouri Valley Tournament
March 3-6
St. Louis, MO
Championship Game: Sun March 6, 2:00 pm CBS
Arch Madness, as they like to call it, will have a clear favorite this season in the experienced Wichita State Shockers. This is the last year for stars Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker to try and make some more magic. They played in the Final Four as freshmen, and helped lead the Shockers to an undefeated regular season the following year. They finished four games ahead of Evansville and Illinois State in the regular season standings, and I expect them to be extremely determined to get another MVC title before their time in Wichita is done. There are a couple teams who could stand in their way, including the aforementioned Illinois State Redbirds, who were one of the teams to defeat Wichita State this season, and the Northern Iowa Panthers, who have experience, a road win over the Shockers and victories against North Carolina and Iowa State to their name this season. Beyond those two teams, Evansville might be the most talented team in the conference that isn’t Wichita State, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see the Aces pull off a conference championship. Wichita State is a definite bid-stealer, so Bubble teams should be rooting hard for the Shockers to take the MWC crown.

Northeast Tournament
March 2, 5, 8
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 7:00 pm ESPN/ESPN2
The Northeast Conference is one of the weakest in the country this season, and you can expect a lot of close games in this tourney. Seven of the eight teams that made the Northeast Tournament finished the season .500 or better in conference play. It is almost a sure bet that whoever comes out of the conference will be placed in a First Four game in Dayton. Wagner is the 1-seed in the conference tourney, and they are the only team in the conference who hasn’t lost double-digit games this year. They are also the only team in the conference ranked in KenPom’s Top-250. They will be the favorite to get the league’s auto-bid, but don’t be surprised to see some madness occur in the Northeast.

OVC Tournament
March 2-5
Nashville, TN
Championship Game: Sat March 5, 6:00 pm ESPN2
The Ohio Valley Conference is another conference that sends it’s top two teams straight to the semifinals, but with a little wrinkle. The conference is split into two divisions,and the 1st place team in each division gets the double bye. UT-Martin is the beneficiary of the rule this year, as they get a spot in the semifinal despite having the 5th best conference record. The other bye goes to Belmont, who will enter the postseason as the most experienced team in the conference, having won the OVC title in four of the last five seasons. Head Coach Rick Byrd has a sterling postseason record, and it will take a monumental effort in my eyes to keep Belmont from another conference title and another chance in the NCAA Tournament. If any team can do it, I think it would be the 3-seed Morehead State Eagles, who are actually the highest ranked team in the conference by KenPom.

Patriot League Tournament
March 1, 3, 6, 9
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Wed March 9, 7:30 pm CBS Sports Network
This is another conference that will likely have their representative playing in a First Four game, but that doesn’t make the conference tourney games any less exciting. Bucknell has been the top team in the conference for much of the season, but the Lehigh Mountain Hawks have made an incredible run down the stretch. Lehigh, who owns the league’s last NCAA Tournament win when they knocked off Duke as a 15-seed in 2012, lost their first seven games of the season and entered February at 6-14 on the season. They have since rattled off nine straight wins, and will enter the conference tournament as the 2-seed, and possibly the favorite. One of their nine February wins was an 80-65 blowout win on the road over 1-seed Bucknell. They are led by junior forward Tim Kempton, who is without a doubt the best player in the conference. He has scored in double digits in all but two games this season. If Lehigh continues this magical run with a Patriot League title, expect Kempton to be a big reason why.

Southern Tournament
March 4-7
Asheville, NC
Championship Game: Mon March 7, 9:00 pm ESPN2
It will be a relative disappointment if any team other than Chattanooga gets the Southern auto-bid to the Big Dance. The Mocs are easily the best team in the conference, ranked 110th in the nation by KenPom, and they have wins this season over Georgia, Illinois and Dayton. They have proven that they can beat major conference teams, and they will be a trendy pick to pull off an upset in the NCAA Tournament. That is if they make it. Their biggest roadblock will be East Tennessee State, who is led by Cincinnati-transfer Ge’Lawn Guyn. Guyn played in two NCAA Tournament games in his time at Cincinnati, so he knows what it feels like to accomplish making the Field of 68. That kind of experience could be a huge difference maker this time of year.

Summit League Tournament
March 5-8
Sioux Falls, SD
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 9:00 pm ESPN2
The Summit League was a two horse race for the majority of the season, and those two horses finished in a dead heat. IPFW and South Dakota State each finished the season 12-4 in conference play, with the Mastodons (That’s IPFW for those who don’t know) winning the tiebreaker and earning the 1-seed in the Summit League tourney. The two teams split their season series, but most rankings and advanced statistics say that South Dakota State is the better team. KenPom ranks them 69th in the country, and they are 40th in the RPI, which is way higher than I would’ve expected. Jackrabbit freshman Mike Daum might be the the best player in the conference, and I expect him to lead them to a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

WCC Tournament
March 4-5, 7-8
Las Vegas, NV
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 9:oo pm ESPN
It is really strange to say this, but Gonzaga needs to win the West Coast Conference Tournament if they want to play in their 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Zags went 1-3 this season against Saint Mary’s and BYU, the 1 and 3-seeds in the conference tournament respectively. A possible semifinal match-up between Gonzaga and BYU, a rubber match between those teams, is likely a Tournament elimination game. Saint Mary’s has been the best and most consistent team in the WCC this year, but they have a scary possible semifinal match-up against Pepperdine, who handed the Gaels two of their four losses this season. There is the potential for some madness in this tournament, but the game most will want to see is Saint Mary’s versus Gonzaga. I am in the camp that believes that’s what we will see, with the Bulldogs’ tourney hopes hanging in the balance.

It’s “Win or Go Home” time in college basketball, and I hope you are all as excited as I am!


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