Championship Week is just heating up, and the list of teams who have clinched their spots in the Big Dance looks like this:
Jacksonville State (OVC)
Winthrop (Big South)
Wichita State (MVC)
Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)
UNC Wilmington (CAA)
East Tennessee State (SoCon)
Four more automatic bids will be handed out tonight, and we also now have a look at what the American and Big Ten Tournaments will look like, with those tourneys kicking off on Thursday and Wednesday respectively.
American Tournament (Hartford, CT)
First Round: March 9
Game 1: #9 East Carolina vs #8 Temple, 3:30 pm (ESPNU)
Game 2: #10 Tulane vs #7 Tulsa, 6:00 pm (ESPN NEWS)
Game 3: #11 USF vs #6 UConn, 8:30 pm (ESPN NEWS)
Quarterfinals: March 10
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs #1 SMU, 12:00 pm (ESPN2)
Game 5: #5 Memphis vs #4 UCF, 2:30 pm (ESPN2)
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs #2 Cincinnati, 7:00 pm (ESPNU)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs #3 Houston, 9:30 pm (ESPNU)
Semifinals: March 11 (ESPN2)
Game 12: Winner Game 8 vs Winner Game 9, 7:00 pm
Game 13: Winner Game 10 vs Winner Game 11, 9:30 pm
Championship: March 12 (ESPN)
Game 14: Winner Game 12 vs Winner Game 13, 9:00 pm
You could flip a coin between SMU and Cincinnati to decide who the favorite is in this tournament, because in the American this year, it’s those two teams, and then everybody else. They split the season series, but SMU lost by just two points at Cincy, and that was their last loss, entering the postseason on a 13-game winning streak. For that reason, SMU has to be considered the favorite here.
Dark Horse: UConn
Boy oh boy, what a disappointing season it’s been in Storrs. The preseason pick to win the American enters the conference tourney as the 6-seed with a losing record and a 4-game losing streak. Despite all of that, they are basically hosting this tournament, and the Huskies usually tend to play well in the postseason. Stranger things have happened…
Most to Gain: Houston
SMU and Cincinnati are locks to make the NCAA Tournament. After that, there isn’t a team here that deserves to get in without the league’s auto-bid. I guess you could argue Houston’s case, so I’ll highlight them as the team with the most to gain. A win over Cincinnati in the semifinals will improve their resume, but I doubt that would be enough to get them in.
SMU is easily one of the most underrated teams in the country, and I think they have a legit shot to advance to the second weekend (or further) of the Tournament. I think they’ll enter the Tourney coming off a loss to Cincy in the American title game though. The Bearcats are underrated as well, and they’ll play with a chip on their shoulder this postseason.
Big Ten Tournament (Washington, D.C.)
First Round: March 8
Game 1: #13 Penn State vs #12 Nebraska, 4:30 pm (ESPN2)
Game 2: #14 Rutgers vs #11 Ohio State, 7:00 pm (BTN)
Second Round: March 9
Game 3: #9 Illinois vs #8 Michigan, 12:00 pm (BTN)
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs #5 Michigan State, 2:30 pm (BTN)
Game 5: #10 Indiana vs #7 Iowa, 6:30 pm (ESPN2)
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs #6 Northwestern, 9:00 pm (ESPN2)
Quarterfinals: March 10
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs #1 Purdue, 12:00 pm (ESPN)
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs #4 Minnesota, 2:30 pm (ESPN)
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs #2 Wisconsin, 6:30 pm (BTN)
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs #3 Maryland, 9:00 pm (BTN)
Semifinals: March 11 (CBS)
Game 11: Winner Game 7 vs Winner Game 8, 1:00 pm
Game 12: Winner Game 9 vs Winner Game 10, 3:30 pm
Championship: March 12 (CBS)
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs Winner Game 12, 3:00 pm
The Boilermakers absolutely earned the outright Big Ten regular season title down the stretch, closing the season having won eight of their last nine games. They look like the Big Ten team with the best chance to make a deep run in the Tournament, and as such, they have to be considered the favorites to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Dark Horse: Michigan
That one loss Purdue suffered? That was in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines. Michigan closed strong, winning six of their last eight, with the two losses coming in overtime at Minnesota and on a last second prayer at Northwestern. This team has a ton of momentum heading into the postseason, and I would not be surprised to see them make a deep run in this tournament.
Most to Gain: Iowa
No team has vaulted themselves up the Bubble faster than Iowa here at the end of the season. They lost three in a row in early February, seemingly ending their Tournament hopes, but they have responded with a four-game winning streak to end the regular season, including wins at Wisconsin and Maryland. I still think they need to get to the Big Ten title game to have a chance at an at-large bid, but they are set up to improve their resume with potential games against Wisconsin in the quarters and Maryland or Northwestern in the semis.
Prediction: Michigan State
Are you going to bet against Izzo in March? I’m still not, even though they burned me in the Tournament last season. They have a decent draw here, and their last two games were close road losses, so I’m discounting them. It’s hard to rationalize this pick, just feels right to me. Don’t be shocked when Sparty makes a run to a Big Ten Tournament title.
Five more automatic bids will be given out over the next two nights as well, in these conference championships:
Horizon League Championship
#10 Milwaukee vs #4 Northern Kentucky
Tuesday 3/7, 7:00 pm, ESPN
I promise you, that is not a typo. 10-seed Milwaukee, the last place team in the Horizon League during the regular season, has won three straight games against 7-seed Detroit, 2-seed Valparaiso and 6-seed Illinois-Chicago to reach the conference championship game with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line. If they win, they will enter the Tournament with a 12-23 record, becoming one of the worst teams in history to reach the NCAA Tournament. It’s still an incredible story, considering that this team won just four conference games in the regular season, and might win four straight in the conference tournament. And if they don’t already have the confidence/momentum, their opponent here, Northern Kentucky, is one of the four teams that Milwaukee defeated in the regular season. They played them tough in the second meeting as well. I’ll honestly be rooting for Milwaukee, but you know what they say, the cream rises to the top, and Northern Kentucky, the better team, should win this game and advance to the Big Dance.
Northeast Conference Championship
#4 St. Francis (PA) vs #1 Mount St. Mary’s
Tuesday 3/7, 7:00 pm, ESPN2
KenPom has the Northeast as the third worst conference in college basketball this season, so this will be a battle for a 16-seed in the Tournament, likely in one of the First Four games. Mount St. Mary’s was the regular season champion of the league, led by guards sophomore Elijah Long and 5-5 junior Junior Robinson. They will take on 4-seed St. Francis (PA), who made it here thanks to an acrobatic, buzzer-beating 3-pointer from freshman Keith Braxton, knocking off 3-seed Wagner 71-70. Sophomore Isaiah Blackmon scored 20 to lead the way in that game for the Red Flash. I admittedly do not know much about either of these teams, so I’ll go with the favorites and pick Mount St. Mary’s to come out on top, probably getting themselves a trip to Dayton where they’ll play for the chance to lose to a 1-seed next Thursday or Friday.
West Coast Conference Championship
#2 Saint Mary’s vs #1 Gonzaga
Tuesday 3/7, 9:00 pm, ESPN
There isn’t much I should have to say to convince you to watch this game, but I’ll give you a little something anyway. Gonzaga is on it’s way to the NCAA Tournament for the 18th straight season, which is incredible. Even more amazing, though, is that this might be the best team in Gonzaga’s history. This team has a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four. Saint Mary’s was expected to be the biggest challenge to the Zags in the WCC this season, but the Gaels were beaten rather easily in both meetings with Gonzaga this season. Both of these teams are going to the Tournament, but a 1-seed is likely for Gonzaga with a win here. A loss, and that could be less certain. That will be all the motivation they need to win this game.
Summit League Championship
#4 South Dakota State vs #3 Omaha
Tuesday 3/7, 9:00 pm, ESPN2
The Summit was a very tight league this season, with six teams finishing at least .500 in conference play, so it’s no real surprise that the 1 and 2-seeds were knocked out prior to the championship game. 4-seed South Dakota State knocked off 1-seed South Dakota 74-71 on a last-second 3-pointer from senior guard Michael Orris. 3-seed Omaha was able to avoid 2-seed North Dakota State, instead dominating 7-seed IUPUI in the semifinals. This game will pit what most consider to be the league’s two best players in SDSU sophomore Mike Daum and Omaha senior Tra-Deon Hollins. Daum is second in the nation in scoring at 25 points per game, while Hollins is one of the best two-way guards in the nation, being the team’s main scoring threat and best lockdown defender. This should be a great game, but I think experience will play a factor. SDSU won the Summit League last season, reaching the NCAA Tournament, and I expect Daum to lead them there once again.
Patriot League Championship
#3 Lehigh vs #1 Bucknell
Wednesday 3/8, 7:30 pm, CBS Sports Network
Despite Lehigh being the 3-seed, this is a matchup between the top two teams in the Patriot League this season, and they’ll battle Wednesday night for a berth in the Big Dance. Lehigh needed double overtime to get a win at Boston U in the semifinals, and they’ll look to carry that momentum into another road game in the conference championship. Bucknell might be the best team, but Lehigh has the best player in the league in senior forward Tim Kempton. Kempton had 31 points and 13 rebounds in the semifinals, and he is being fueled by the fact that he has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament, after the Mountain Hawks lost to Holy Cross in the title game last season. Bucknell has been the best team in the conference this year, and they even have wins over Richmond and Vanderbilt to their name, but they lost to Lehigh twice during the regular season. Can they get over the hump and finally knock off Lehigh? I don’t believe so. Kempton is on a mission to get to the Big Dance, and this is his last chance. His supporting cast will help him out enough to send the Mountain Hawks back to the Tournament for the first time since 2012, when they defeated 2-seed Duke in the First Round.
That concludes Part Two of my Conference Championship Preview! I’ll be back later this week with a new edition of Bracketology. In the meantime, enjoy all of the basketball over the next week, leading into the best four days of the calendar year starting next Thursday!