Conference Tourney Preview: March 8

Three more tickets were punched last night, with UNC Wilmington (CAA), Iona (MAAC) and Chattanooga (SoCon) earning bids to the NCAA Tournament by winning their conference tournaments. Four more teams will earn an invitation to the Big Dance tonight as these conference championship games will take place:

NEC Championship: #2 Fairleigh Dickinson vs #1 Wagner
Horizon League Championship: #4 Green Bay vs #3 Wright State
Summit League Championship: #5 North Dakota State vs #2 South Dakota State
WCC Championship: #2 Gonzaga vs #1 Saint Mary’s

Since our last conference tourney preview post, two more major conferences have their fields set, so today we’ll be previewing those tourneys, as well as the rest of the smaller conference tourneys kicking off this week.

American Tournament (Orlando, FL)
Opening Round: March 10
Game 1: No. 9 USF vs. No. 8 East Carolina, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 2: No. 10 Tulane vs. No. 7 UCF, 6 p.m. (ESPNEWS)
Quarterfinals: March 11
Game 3: Winner Game 1 vs. No. 1 Temple, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 4: No. 5 Connecticut vs. No. 4 Cincinnati, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 5: Winner Game 2 vs. No. 2 Houston, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 6: No. 6 Memphis vs. No. 3 Tulsa, 9:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Semifinals: March 12 (ESPN2)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 3 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6, 5:30 p.m.
Championship: March 13 (ESPN)
Game 9: Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8, 3:15 p.m.

Favorite: Temple
It’s really hard to pick a favorite in the American, as I could see any of the top five seeds here winning the tournament, but I’ll go with Temple based off of their 14-4 conference record, which includes at least one win over every other team in the conference, including SMU, who is ineligible for the postseason and therefore will not participate.
Dark Horse: Tulsa
The top five teams in the AAC are incredibly close as far as talent goes, but I think the one team with a shot to win this thing that is kind of laying in the weeds is Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane boast one of the more experienced groups in the country, and are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season.
Most to Gain: UConn/Cincinnati
These teams will face each other in the quarterfinals, and they are in the same boat as it currently sits. Many experts believe this is an elimination game, and whoever wins it should also get a chance to knock off the regular season champs. I believe the team that wins this game will get in, and the loser will be left out.
Prediction: Tulsa
They’re the dark horse, but I think they have the easiest path to the title game of the top seeds, and if they can get there, I think they’ll be motivated enough to get the job done and reach the Big Dance.

Big Ten Tournament (Indianapolis, IN)
First Round: March 9
Game 1: No. 13 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Illinois, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 2: No. 14 Rutgers vs. No. 11 Nebraska, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Second Round: March 10
Game 3: No. 9 Northwestern vs. No. 8 Michigan, 12 p.m. (BTN)
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. No. 5 Iowa, 2:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 5: No. 10 Penn State vs. No. 7 Ohio State, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs. No. 6 Wisconsin, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
Quarterfinals: March 11
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs. No. 1 Indiana, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs. No. 4 Purdue, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs. No. 3 Maryland, 9 p.m. (BTN)
Semifinals: March 12 (CBS)
Game 11: Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8, 1 p.m.
Game 12: Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 10, 3:30 p.m.
Championship: March 13 (CBS)
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs. Winner Game 12, 3:30 p.m.

Favorite: Michigan State
Indiana has been red hot, and there’s a reason they won the regular season title outright, but at this moment in time, there might not be a team in the nation playing better than the Spartans. Maybe Kansas, but that’s it. Tom Izzo’s bunch looks to be peaking at the right time, and I’ll be shocked if they don’t make it to the Final Four this year.
Dark Horse: Iowa
If you’ve watched this team play as of late, you’d think I’m crazy, but that’s exactly what makes them a dark horse. This team beat Michigan State twice this season. Think about that. Yes, they have not looked very good down the stretch, but if they can flip the switch and get back to their midseason selves, they could easily win this tournament.
Most to Gain: Michigan
You could put this team in the most to lose category as well, but they should get past Northwestern, and that would give them a chance for the marquee win that they desperately need against Indiana in the quarterfinals. Two wins in this tournament and Michigan will reach the NCAA’s. Less than that, and they’re probably headed to the NIT.
Prediction: Michigan State
Denzel Valentine guaranteed a national championship. That will put some pressure on the Spartans, but I think they are clearly the best team in this conference, and thus will be able to win the Big Ten Tournament, getting a 1-seed in the NCAA’s in the process.

Big Sky Tournament
March 8, 10-12
Reno, Nevada
Championship: Sat 3/12, 8:45 pm ESPNU
Weber State and Montana, the 1 and 2-seeds in the Big Sky respectively, jockeyed for the regular season conference crown all year, and they now have to be considered the favorites to reach the Big Sky final and battle for the league’s bid to the NCAA Tournament. They only played once during the regular season, with Weber State winning on their home floor 60-54. Weber State is the best defensive team in the conference, while Montana is one of the best offensive teams in the conference, so if they meet again in the final, it will be a strength versus strength battle. If anybody is to spoil the party, it would probably be Idaho, who defeated both Weber State and Montana this year, or Eastern Washington, last year’s conference champion, and the team with the conference’s most efficient offense according to KenPom.

Big West Tournament
March 10-12
Anaheim, California
Championship: Sat 3/12, 11:30 pm ESPN2
While anything is possible in March, I am very comfortable saying that one of three teams will win this conference tournament. 1-seed Hawaii, 2-seed UC Irvine and 3-seed Long Beach State are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. 4-seed UC Santa Barbera could join that group, but I don’t see it. Hawaii has been the most consistent team all season long, and they took Oklahoma down to the wire early on this year. Two of their three losses in conference play were at the hands of Long Beach State though, and the 49ers played a tough out of conference schedule, so they’re battle tested. But two of their conference losses were to UC Irvine, who is looking to return the NCAA Tournament after nearly knocking off Louisville in the Round of 64 last year.

Conference USA Tournament
March 8-12
Birmingham, Alabama
Championship: Sat 3/12, 2:30 pm FOX Sports 1
This tournament is UAB’s to lose. Not only is the tournament being played in their home city, but they finished the regular season three games clear of second place Middle Tennessee, making them without question the best the C-USA has to offer. They are an extremely balanced team, ranking 3rd in the conference in offensive efficiency and 2nd in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. It will be a massive upset if anybody is able to keep UAB from heading to the NCAA Tournament, where they’ll look to pick up a huge victory for a second straight season.

MAC Tournament
March 7, 10-12
Cleveland, Ohio
Championship: Sat 3/12, 7:30 pm ESPN2
This tournament kicked off yesterday with two major upsets, as 12-seed Bowling Green and 11-seed Miami (OH) defeated 5-seed Kent State and 6-seed Ball State respectively, advancing to the quarterfinals, which take place on Thursday. This is another conference tourney with a clear favorite, as it will be a complete shock if anybody but Akron is able to win the MAC. The Zips went 24-7 overall this season, and won the MAC regular season title by two games over Ohio. They will look to get back to the Tournament for the first time since 2013.

MEAC Tournament
March 7-12
Norfolk, Virginia
Championship: Sat 3/12, 1:00 pm ESPN2
Another tournament that kicked off yesterday with a big upset was the MEAC Tournament, which saw 11-seed Coppin State upset 6-seed NC A&T in double overtime to advance to the quarterfinals. The favorite to win the MEAC this year is the Hampton Pirates, who are looking to head to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. The Pirates shockingly won the MEAC, and then upset Manhattan in a First Four game before losing to Kentucky. They are led by seniors Quinton Chievous and Reginald Johnson, who will look to lead their team back to the Big Dance. Standing in their way could be the Norfolk State Spartans, who are the highest ranked team in the conference according to KenPom and are looking to return to the Tournament for the first time since 2012, when they upset 2-seed Missouri in the Round of 64.

Mountain West Tournament
March 9-12
Las Vegas, Nevada
Championship: Sat 3/12, 6:00 pm CBS
Bubble teams and their fans will be keeping a watchful eye on this tournament, as 1-seed and odds-on favorite San Diego State is a bid-stealer if they are to go down in the MW Tournament. The Aztecs went 16-2 in conference play this year, as Steve Fisher continues to churn out really good teams. This San Diego State team isn’t as good as some in the recent past, but they rank 2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency according to KenPom, and they will be a trendy pick to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA’s, if they get there of course. 2-seed Fresno State is likely the biggest roadblock for the Aztecs, as the Bulldogs were one of the two teams to defeat SDSU in conference play this season.

Southland Tournament
March 9-12
Katy, Texas
Championship: Sat 3/12, 9:30 pm ESPN2
Of all the teams playing in conference tournaments, no team will be favored to win more than Stephen F. Austin in the Southland. The Lumberjacks were the only team in Division I this year to go undefeated in conference play, as they went 18-0 in Southland competition. The Lumberjacks are ranked as the 40th best team in the country by KenPom, and are led by senior Thomas Walkup, who will look to end his outstanding college career by advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the third time. They get it done on both ends of the floor, but mainly on the defensive end, as they lead the nation in turnover percentage. The definition of “March Madness” would be if Stephen F. Austin loses a game in the Southland Tournament.

SWAC Tournament
March 8-12
Houston, Texas
Championship: Sat 3/12, 6:30 pm ESPNU
Texas Southern, the 1-seed in the SWAC, is expected to cruise to the tournament championship and head back to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season. Part of the reason for it is that coach Mike Davis, formerly the head coach at Indiana, tests his squad in the non-conference every year, and they are better prepared for the postseason because of it. They went just 1-11 in non-conference play this year, but they played teams like Creighton, Clemson, Mississippi State, Stephen F. Austin, Iona, Syracuse and Baylor. This team is battle-tested, and should win the SWAC fairly easily.

Sun Belt Tournament
March 10-13
New Orleans, Louisiana
Championship: Sun 2/13, 1:00 pm ESPN2
Last season, Georgia State was the favorite to win the Sun Belt, and they did. The Panthers then went on to the NCAA Tournament as a 14-seed and upset 3-seed Baylor in the Round of 64. The conference would love for a repeat of that, but this year, instead of Georgia State, it’s Arkansas-Little Rock that could do some damage here in March. The Trojans went 27-4 this season with wins over San Diego State and Tulsa, and they are going to be a trendy upset pick on many brackets if they are able to secure a bid to the Tournament. Louisiana Monroe, who defeated UALR once this year, is probably the biggest thing standing in the way of the Trojans and making their dream a reality.

WAC Tournament
March 10-12
Las Vegas, Nevada
Championship: Sat 3/12, 11:00 pm ESPNU
With Grand Canyon ineligible for the postseason as they transition toward Division I membership, this will be a two horse race between regular season champion New Mexico State and 2-seed Cal State Bakersfield. New Mexico State is led by star sophomore Pascal Siakam, who was unanimously voted WAC Player of the Year. The Aggies are looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the 5th consecutive season. New Mexico State beat CS Bakersfield in both meetings this season, but one of those was in double overtime. A potential third match-up in the WAC final is expected, and should be exciting.

That does it for Bracketball’s preview of the rest of Championship Week. Just five more days until we find out the field for the 2016 NCAA Basketball Tournament. We’re going to see four winners from tonight on Selection Sunday, and I predict that it’ll be Wagner, Green Bay, South Dakota State and Gonzaga (So put your money on the teams they’re playing).

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