Conference Tournament Weekend Preview

This post will be a little longer than most, so I’ll keep the intro short and sweet. If you don’t enjoy watching college basketball this time of year, I’m not sure what is wrong with you. I got called off work yesterday and was able to just sit and watch games all day, and it was fantastic.

So many games, so many exciting finishes. March Madness it was indeed. I’m totally prepared for another day jam-packed with incredible action, and here’s a look at all of the games coming your way today.

America East Championship (Burlington, Vermont)
#3 Albany vs #1 Vermont
11:00 am, ESPN2
Vermont has been one of the most dominant teams in the nation this season. Granted, it has been against mostly poor competition, but you have to play the teams on your schedule, and Vermont has beaten most of them. The Catamounts have won 20 games in a row, and their five losses this season include games against Providence, Butler and South Carolina, all Tournament teams. Vermont beat Albany by double digits in both meetings during the regular season, but don’t sleep on the Great Danes. They have a win at Penn State this year, so they are definitely capable. But on their home floor, I’ll go with Vermont to get the win, their 21st in a row.

Sun Belt Semifinals (New Orleans, Louisiana)
#4 Texas State vs #1 UT Arlington (12:30 pm, ESPN3)
#6 Troy vs #2 Georgia State (approx. 3:00 pm, ESPN3)
Championship Game: Sunday 2:00 pm, ESPN2
The team to know here is the 1-seed, UT Arlington. The Mavericks are one of the better mid-majors in the country this season, boasting wins at Texas and Saint Mary’s, and a near miss at Arkansas. If they can win the Sun Belt, they’ll head to the Tournament likely as a 12-seed, and one that no 5-seed will want to play.

MEAC Championship (Norfolk, Virginia)
#2 Norfolk State vs #1 NC Central
1:00 pm, ESPN2
I won’t spend too much time on this game, mostly because I don’t know much about either of these teams. The winner of this game will almost definitely head to Dayton to play in one of the First Four games on Tuesday and Wednesday. NC Central is the clear favorite here, as they are the only MEAC team ranked inside of KenPom’s Top-300. They are looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, and I believe they will get the job done.

Atlantic 10 Semifinals (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
#9 Davidson vs #4 Rhode Island (1:00 pm, CBSSN)
#3 Richmond vs #2 VCU (approx. 3:30 pm, CBSSN)
Championship Game: Sunday 12:30 pm, CBS
Dayton was the best team in the A-10 all season long, and had pretty much clinched their spot in the Big Dance already, so they didn’t appear to have a whole lot to play for on Friday. It showed, as Jack Gibbs scored 34 points, leading 9-seed Davidson to the upset of Dayton. That leaves Davidson and the 2 through 4-seeds in the conference semifinals Saturday afternoon. Davidson and Richmond need to win the conference to reach the Tournament. VCU is most likely in already like Dayton. Rhode Island is the interesting case. They are squarely on the Bubble, and probably could have used a win over Dayton to improve their resume. I expect them to play as if they think they need to earn the automatic bid, and get to the finals, where I think they will meet VCU.

Big Ten Semifinals (Washington, D.C.)
#8 Michigan vs #4 Minnesota (1:00 pm, CBS)
#6 Northwestern vs #2 Wisconsin (approx. 3:30 pm, CBS)
Championship Game: Sunday 3:00 pm, CBS
Two of the best stories in college basketball right now are both going to be a part of the Big Ten semifinals. Michigan’s plane crashed off the runway on Wednesday, forcing them to fly to D.C. early Thursday morning. They didn’t even have their uniforms because they had to stay on the plane as part of the police investigation. Despite all of that, they defeated Illinois (while wearing practice jerseys), and then knocked out 1-seed Purdue en route to a matchup with Minnesota in the semifinals. Meanwhile, Northwestern, the only original D-I team from a major conference to never reach the NCAA Tournament, has won games against Rutgers and 3-seed Maryland, all but stamping their ticket to the Dance. They are two amazing stories, and it just feels right that they’ll both win their semifinal games and meet up in the title game, which would be a rematch of a game on March 1 that saw Northwestern win on a buzzer-beating layup. I’m all in for that rematch!

SEC Semifinals (Nashville, Tennessee)
#5 Alabama vs #1 Kentucky (1:00 pm, ESPN)
#7 Vanderbilt vs #3 Arkansas (approx. 3:30 pm, ESPN)
Championship Game: Sunday 1:00 pm, ESPN
It’s been a down year overall for the SEC, but the one constant all year has been Kentucky, so it’s no surprise that they are in the semifinals. They’ll take on an Alabama team that is finally starting to live up to expectations. They probably need to win the conference to make it to the Tourney, and I don’t see them getting by the Wildcats. On the other side, Bubble team Vanderbilt defeated Florida for the third time this season in the quarterfinals, making it pretty likely that they will make it to the Field of 68. Arkansas is likely going to the Tournament as well, but Vanderbilt is one of the hotter teams in the country, and I expect them to get another upset en route to the finals.

Ivy League Semifinals (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
#4 Penn vs #1 Princeton (1:30 pm, ESPNU)
#3 Yale vs #2 Harvard (approx. 4:00 pm, ESPNU)
Championship Game: Sunday 12:00 noon, ESPN2
The Ivy League has finally joined the postseason tournament party! Up until this season, the regular season champion in the Ivy would go to the NCAA Tournament, but this year, the league’s four best teams will play a two day tournament at the historic Palestra in Philly. Penn just barely got in, winning their regular season finale to earn the 4-seed, and now they’ll get to host 1-seed Princeton in the semis. Then it’ll be followed by the most historic rivalry in collegiate sports, Yale and Harvard. I think these games are both toss-ups, and I don’t even want to try to predict who will win them.

AAC Semifinals (Hartford, Connecticut)
#4 UCF vs #1 SMU (3:00 pm, ESPN2)
#6 UConn vs #2 Cincinnati (approx. 5:30 pm, ESPN2)
Championship Game: Sunday 3:15 pm, ESPN
The UConn Huskies in March, it’s about as sure a thing as death and taxes. The 6-seed knocked off Houston in the quarterfinals, and will look to keep their Tourney hopes alive with a win over Cincinnati in the semis. I don’t see it happening, though. The Bearcats are just too good. The other team that’s too good is SMU. They survived a late surge from 9-seed East Carolina yesterday, but I think that’ll be a wake-up call for them more than anything. UCF is a great defensive team, but they don’t have the talent to keep up with SMU.

Big East Championship (New York City)
#6 Creighton vs #1 Villanova
5:30 pm, FOX
The defending National Champions are back in the Big East title game for the third straight year. Seton Hall defeated them last year, but they got their revenge last night thanks to a Josh Hart follow of a missed Kris Jenkins shot with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game. They didn’t play their best, but they got the job done. Creighton had to squeak out their semifinal as well, with Marcus Foster draining a 3-pointer with 6.5 seconds on the clock to defeat 7-seed Xavier 75-72. Both of these teams will make the Tournament, so it comes down to which team will want this game more. I think Villanova will come flying out of the gates and will hang on down the stretch to win their second Big East title in the last three years.

Big 12 Championship (Kansas City, Missouri)
#4 Iowa State vs #2 West Virginia
6:00 pm, ESPN
Iowa State is en fuego right now. After defeating Oklahoma State in the quarters, they blitzed TCU in the semifinals, and they have to be considered the favorites in this game, and they’ll be a very dangerous team in the Tournament. But don’t think for one second that West Virginia won’t at the very least give the Cyclones all they can handle and then some. Kansas State may have been playing for their Tournament lives last night, but the Mountaineers found a way to steal a 51-50 victory. West Virginia’s pressure will give Iowa State some fits, but I just love the way they are playing right now. Monte Morris and Deonte Burton will lead the Cyclones to their third Big 12 title in the last four seasons.

Mountain West Championship (Las Vegas, Nevada)
#2 Colorado State vs #1 Nevada
6:00 pm, CBS
How the mighty have fallen. Recent history has the Mountain West on the verge of being considered a major conference, sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament year in and year out. Not so much in 2017. This has become a one-bid league, and the winner of this game will likely be a 12 or 13-seed in the Dance. At least, for the conference’s sake, they’re going to send one of their best teams, as 1-seed Nevada and 2-seed Colorado State battle for the championship. These teams only played once in the regular season, and it was in the finale just a week ago, with Nevada winning 85-72 on their home floor. Revenge could be a factor for the Rams, but Nevada is the better team, and I think they will get the job done and advance to the Field of 68.

SWAC Championship (Houston, Texas)
#2 Alcorn State vs #1 Texas Southern
6:30 pm, ESPNU
Texas Southern is lead by former Indiana and UAB head coach Mike Davis, and he makes sure they are well prepared for this time of year with their non-conference schedule. They played their first 16 games of the season on the road, and that included games against Arizona, Louisville, Cincinnati, TCU and Baylor. The good thing for them is that they’ve already clinched their spot in the NCAA Tournament, as Alcorn State is ineligible for the Tournament this season. That makes this game pretty meaningless, but I think Texas Southern is the better team and will still win this game.

MAC Championship (Cleveland, Ohio)
#6 Kent State vs #1 Akron
7:30 pm, ESPN2
Kent State is the darling of the MAC Tournament, outlasting the country’s leading scorer Marcus Keene and Central Michigan in overtime in the opening round, then upsetting 3-seed Buffalo and 2-seed Ohio to make it to the title game and a shot at reaching the NCAA’s. They’ll have to go through 1-seed Akron, who survived an upset attempt by Ball State yesterday in the semifinals. Akron has easily been the best team in the conference this season, and their height could cause some problems for Kent State. These teams split their regular season meetings, so it’s anyone’s game, but I’ll take Akron to get the victory and move on to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.

Conference USA Championship (Birmingham, Alabama)
#6 Marshall vs #1 Middle Tennessee
8:00 pm, CBSSN
Middle Tennessee is looking to return to the Tournament for the second consecutive season, after picking up probably the biggest upset in last year’s Tourney, dominating 2-seed Michigan State in the First Round as a 15-seed. A lot of people had the Spartans picked to win the whole thing, and Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw and the rest of the Blue Raiders went in and ran Michigan State out of the building. They have kept the momentum from the end of last season going into this year as they are 29-4 with wins over UNC Wilmington, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. This is a very good, experienced basketball team that I would not want to face in the NCAA Tournament. Marshall is looking to play Cinderella here, having already knocked off 3-seed Old Dominion and 2-seed Louisiana Tech to get to this point. Can they get it done? I don’t think so. The Blue Raiders should get the victory.

Big Sky Championship (Reno, Nevada)
#3 Weber State vs #1 North Dakota
8:30 pm, ESPNU
The North Dakota Fighting Hawks won the Big Sky regular season title, but they have much loftier goals. The Hawks are looking to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history (they have been playing D-I basketball since the 2009-2010 season). To get there, they’ll have to defeat Weber State for the third time this season, which is a very difficult thing to do. The Wildcats reached the NCAA Tournament last season, knocking North Dakota out of the Big Sky Tournament in overtime in the semifinals along the way. That’s just extra incentive for North Dakota to play well, which I believe they’ll do, reaching their first NCAA Tournament.

ACC Championship (Brooklyn, New York)
#5 Duke vs #3 Notre Dame
9:00 pm, ESPN
I guess it makes sense that the two hottest teams in the conference would end up meeting in the title game, but I have to say that I’m a little shocked at this matchup. Duke came from behind in the second half to defeat rival UNC 93-83. The Blue Devils are finally showing the form that everyone has been waiting to see from them this season. They are arguably the most talented team in the country, and they are starting to live up to expectations. Don’t sleep on the Irish though. Mike Brey has done an amazing job with this team, picked to finish 7th in the ACC in the preseason. Bonzie Colson is the league’s leading rebounder at 6-5, and the team has been shooting the lights out from distance. If the Irish get hot, they can certainly get the win here, but Duke is just playing too well right now. I like the Blue Devils to go into the Tournament with the momentum of an ACC championship.

Southland Championship (Katy, Texas)
#2 Texas A&M-CC vs #1 New Orleans
9:30 pm, ESPN2
Another 16-seed is on the line in this game, and it should be a really good one. New Orleans and Corpus Christi faced each other just once in the regular season, and it was a 73-72 overtime home win for New Orleans. I did not see that game, but based on those facts, I’m sure Corpus Christi easily could have taken it had the ball bounced their way one or two more times. It’s a relative toss-up, and I’ll go with Corpus Christi to pull off the mild upset and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

WAC Championship (Las Vegas, Nevada)
#2 New Mexico State vs #1 CSU Bakersfield
11:00 pm, ESPNU
It was on really late, and you could only access the broadcast via WatchESPN, but I hope I wasn’t the only one who got to watch the end of CSU Bakersfield’s FOUR OVERTIME thriller with Utah Valley in the semifinals last night. I didn’t catch it until the overtimes had started, but that was clearly the most exciting part of the game. Utah Valley gave the Roadrunners everything they could handle, but Bakersfield was able to survive and advance. They’ll take on a New Mexico State team that routed UMKC in the semis, making them the fresher team if you will. That could be a big advantage, but I’m a believer in momentum, and the momentum from a 4OT victory will put Bakersfield over the top and into the NCAA Tournament.

Pac-12 Championship (Las Vegas, Nevada)
#2 Arizona vs #1 Oregon
11:00 pm, ESPN
West Coast basketball is back! The top three teams in the Pac 12 have been fantastic this season, and we’ll see the two best do battle for the championship late tonight. Could this game be for a 1-seed in the Tournament? It’s certainly possible, but at the very least, the winner of this game will get to stay in the West Region while the loser will have to travel elsewhere in the Tournament. These teams played just once in the regular season, with Oregon dominating the game in every facet, winning 85-58 in Eugene. Arizona will be out for revenge, but I love this Oregon team. They are extremely balanced, and they have a star in Dillon Brooks that can take over any game. They also have more postseason experience than a young Arizona team. I like the Ducks to win their second consecutive Pac 12 title.

Big West Championship (Anaheim, California)
#2 UC Davis vs #1 UC Irvine
11:30 pm, ESPN2
The final game of conference tournament Saturday will be for the Big West championship between 1-seed UC Irvine and 2-seed UC Davis. Both had difficulties getting to this point. UC Irvine held off Long Beach State 62-57, while UC Davis needed overtime to take out Cal State Fullerton 66-64. These teams split their season series, but the last game was exactly a week ago, and it was a 30-point Irvine victory. You’d think that would make them the easy pick, but Davis beat them in the other meeting, and the wound from that 30-point loss is still fresh. I think revenge will play a bigger role here than in other games, fueling UC Davis to an upset victory and a trip to the Big Dance.

 

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