NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: South Region

In my fourth and final First Round Preview article for this year’s NCAA Tournament, I’ll now take a look at the South Region, featuring a gauntlet of historic men’s college basketball programs.

The 1-seed in the South is the ACC regular season champion North Carolina Tar Heels, who some believe did not deserve a 1-seed over teams like Duke and Arizona, but here they are. If they can reach the Elite Eight, they could have a really difficult opponent, either 2-seed Kentucky, the SEC regular season and tournament champs, or 3-seed UCLA, who failed to win either Pac-12 titles, but were ranked as high as 3rd in the nation down the stretch.

The popular opinion is that the South Region is the most difficult in this year’s bracket, so the team that gets out of Memphis will have certainly earned their trip to the Final Four. Here is my preview of the First Round in the South Region!

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

South Region

Greenville, SC
#1 North Carolina (27-7) vs #16 Texas Southern (23-11)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Despite seven losses, which ties the most losses ever for a 1-seed, North Carolina has an extremely impressive resume. They dominated Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in non-conference play, and then picked up wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame in ACC play. For those keeping track at home, those are the teams who finished 2nd through 6th in the league, behind the Tar Heels. Texas Southern, under former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis, has been known to play a brutal out-of-conference schedule, earning money for the athletic department, and preparing the team for the postseason. Since conference play started, the Tigers are 19-2. UNC struggled against 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast last year, and Texas Southern will not be intimidated.

Key Players: Marcus Paige led this Tar Heel team on their run to the National Championship game last year, and junior guard Joel Berry has nicely taken over that role for this year’s team. Berry is averaging 14.8 points, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Fellow junior Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) is another very important player for UNC. The Tigers have one of the shortest players in the Tournament in 5-7 freshman Demontrae Jefferson, and he is second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. The leading scorer for Texas Southern is junior guard Zach Lofton, who averages 17.0 points a contest.

Why UNC will Win: I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but a 16 has never beaten a 1, and it’s not going to happen here. North Carolina is a popular pick to go all the way, and I think that’s because they do everything well. This team does not have a weakness. Good guards, size, speed, shooting ability, they are the total package, and when they are clicking, their isn’t a team in the nation that can beat them.

Why TXSO will Win: I’m getting a little lazy at this point, but they won’t win. If the Tar Heels have a weakness, it’s that they are susceptible to being denied at the rim, and they struggle with fouls. If Texas Southern can attack the rim on the offensive end and defend the rim well on defense, maybe they can keep this game close.

 

Greenville, SC
#8 Arkansas (25-9) vs #9 Seton Hall (21-11)
Friday 3/17, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: I must admit, I did not realize how good a season Arkansas was having until they reached the SEC title game as the 3-seed in the conference. I am still shocked that this team didn’t lose double digit games. Even I, a huge college basketball fan, had to look up their roster because I did not know a single player on their team. That’s about as innocuous a season you can have. Meanwhile, it was another really good season in the Big East for Seton Hall, coming on strong down the stretch winning four in a row to end the regular season before losing by two in the Big East Tournament to Villanova. The Pirates are a dangerous team.

Key Players: One of the biggest reasons Seton Hall is dangerous is their biggest player, 6-10 junior Angel Delgado. He is an absolute load to handle in the paint, averaging 15.3 points and a whopping 13.1 rebounds a game. He is one of the best rebounders in the nation. The Pirates have a couple talented perimeter scorers as well in fellow juniors Khadeen Carrington (16.9 PPG) and Desi Rodriguez (15.9 PPG). I said earlier that I didn’t know any of the Razorback players, but they are talented if the stats are to be believed. It would appear that the key players are a couple seniors, 6-3 guard Dusty Hannahs (14.6 PPG, 90.3 FT%) and 6-10 forward Moses Kingsley (11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG). A couple juniors, guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, also average double-figures for Arkansas.

Why ARK will Win: Arkansas has a good record, but they have a spotty resume. They only have four wins against teams in the Field, and two of those games are against Vanderbilt, a 9-seed. If they are going to win this game against a hot Seton Hall team, they will need to stick with what they do best, and that is play up-tempo (which Seton Hall is not great at) and get to the free throw line (where they are one of the 25 best teams in the country in free throw percentage). Do that, and the Razorbacks should win.

Why SHU will Win: As you already know if you’ve been reading my preview articles, I am a believer in momentum this time of year. There are a lot of teams in this tournament that are better than Seton Hall, but there aren’t many playing with the momentum that they are. I believe that Seton Hall has better interior players than Arkansas, and they have better guards than Arkansas. If you make that into an equation, that equals a victory here. Run the offense through Angel Delgado and crash the boards, and the Pirates should have no issues moving on.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#5 Minnesota (24-9) vs #12 Middle Tennessee (30-4)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, has done a fantastic job with this Golden Gopher team. The Pitino’s are now the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament. It’s been a great season for Minnesota, with wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Maryland and Michigan. It’s one of the best seasons in Minneapolis in a very long time. But it could all go for naught considering the draw that they received in the Tournament, facing a Middle Tennessee team that people have been looking forward to seeing back in the Tournament since the season began. If you remember, the Blue Raiders knocked off national title favorite Michigan State last season in the First Round as a 15-seed. The stars from that game are back this year, and this team had an even better season, earning a 12-seed (and I thought they should have been higher). This will be a fun game.

Key Players: The Gophers have a nice blend of upperclassmen and underclassmen, led by junior guard Nate Mason (15.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and freshman forward Amir Coffey (12.1 PPG). Those are the leading scorers for Minnesota, and they will need to play well for this team to win. I mentioned the stars for Middle Tennessee last year returning. They are senior forward Reggie Upshaw (21 points versus MSU last season) and junior guard Giddy Potts (19 points, 3-5 from 3PT range against MSU). Those guys are happy to be back, but neither of them are the Blue Raiders’ best player. That is senior Arkansas-transfer JaCorey Williams, who averages 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and had to watch the huge victory over Michigan State last year on the sidelines, sitting out a year due to transfer rules. He will be chomping at the bit for this game.

Why MINN will Win: Middle Tennessee is a great story, and a really good team, but it’s been a wonderful season for Minnesota, and with the Blue Raiders being a trendy upset pick, the Gophers will love to bust a few brackets. Minnesota will be one of the best defensive teams that MTSU will have played this season, so who knows how their talented offense will respond. The Gophers will need to play up-tempo and limit good looks from the perimeter (which Michigan State couldn’t do last year), but if they do those things, they’ll come out on top.

Why MTSU will Win: They beat a really good Michigan State team last year, and if nothing else, that experience will have this team believing that they can beat anybody in this Tournament. Potts and Upshaw know what it’s like to win games in this thing, and the addition of JaCorey Williams only makes them better. Minnesota is an over-seeded team in my estimation, and the Blue Raiders are good on both ends of the floor. As long as they don’t get caught playing the game Minnesota wants them to play, meaning they slow the game down and take good shots (and make them of course), I like the Blue Raiders to win a game for the second straight Tournament.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#4 Butler (23-8) vs #13 Winthrop (26-6)
Thursday 3/16, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: Another year, another overachieving Butler team. I’m starting to think that Chris Holtmann is just a fantastic coach. This team was expected to be a fringe-Tournament team, possibly winning a few big games in Big East play. Instead, they finished second in the conference, sweeping the season series with the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Their 8-point win in Philly on February 22 is one of the most impressive wins any team has this season. It was a very good season for the Winthrop Eagles as well, returning to the Tournament for the first time since 2010. Two of their six losses this year came in overtime, and they have a win over a major conference team in Illinois, a better win than a lot of 13-seeds or lower have this year.

Key Players: When it comes to short players in this Tournament, none are better than 5-7 senior guard Keon Johnson for the Eagles. Johnson is extremely talented, averaging 22.5 points a game, shooting better than 86 percent from the free throw line and 40.4 percent from 3-point range. He is one of the best scoring guards in this entire Tournament, and he could become a household name when this is all said and done. For Butler, it pretty much comes down to how 6-7 junior guard/forward Kelan Martin plays. He leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game, and in rebounding with 5.7 boards a game. If he plays well, they usually win. If he struggles, they struggle.

Why BUT will Win: Winthrop is a fun team to watch (trust me, this will be a game you’ll want to tune in to), but Butler is just too much for them. Butler is great at controlling the tempo of the game, protecting the ball, and they are very efficient on offense, especially inside the arc, where Winthrop just doesn’t have the size to compete with the Bulldogs. Some may pick this to be an upset, but I like Butler to advance fairly easily.

Why WU will Win: Crazy things happen in March, and really good players have been known to thrive in the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament provides. Winthrop will try to speed this game up and make Butler uncomfortable. If they can do that, they have a shot. Keon Johnson could also just go off, and there might not be anything Butler can do about it.

 

Sacramento, CA
#6 Cincinnati (29-5) vs #11 Kansas State (21-13)
Friday 3/17, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: Mick Cronin has led Cincinnati to the Tournament for the 7th consecutive season, and I honestly believe that this might be his best team yet. It was the Bearcats and SMU at the top of the American, and then it was everybody else. They did beat SMU once this season, and they also scored victories over Iowa State and Xavier along the way. They are a Top-10 defensive team, which gives them a chance in any game. Kansas State was able to get past Wake Forest in the First Four, winning 95-88. Since the start of the First Four in 2011, a team from those games has advanced to at least the Round of 32 every season. Could it be K-State?

Key Players: I cannot believe Troy Caupain is still at Cincinnati, because it feels like he’s been there forever, but he is still one of the most important players to the Bearcats’ success. He does a little bit of everything for the Cats, averaging 10.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, while leading the team in minutes. Junior forward Kyle Washington is another key player for Cincy, averaging 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. K-State has gotten here thanks to the efforts of senior Wesley Iwundu, who scored 24 points to go along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the win over Wake Forest. Sophomore guard Kamau Stokes played well also, tallying 22 points on 5-8 shooting from 3-point range.

Why CIN will Win: I mentioned that this is probably the best team Mick Cronin has had in his tenure at Cincinnati, and they will look to buck the trend of the Bearcats underwhelming in the NCAA Tournament. Cronin is due for a deep run in this thing, and this will be his best chance. They will win here if they can take care of the ball and get hot from 3-point range, as K-State really struggles to force turnovers and defend the arc. Cincinnati can win from inside or outside, so I think they focus on getting open perimeter shots, and shoot their way into the Second Round.

Why KSU will Win: History suggests that a First Four team will go onto the First Round and get a victory, and I really don’t like Providence or USC’s chances against SMU, so that leaves Kansas State to be the First Four’s representative in the Round of 32. They have a game under their belt, so the pressure is off. A team playing with no pressure in the Tournament is a dangerous team. The Wildcats had one of the best shooting performances in school history against Wake. If they can come close to that kind of performance here, they’ll get the victory.

 

Sacramento, CA
#3 UCLA (29-4) vs #14 Kent State (22-13)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: This UCLA team is probably the most polarizing team in this entire field, and that may or may not be due to the outspokenness of one named LaVar Ball. I wish I could say he’s a player, but he’s actually the father of star freshman guard Lonzo Ball, and for me, his dad is wrongfully taking the attention away from the magnificence that is Lonzo on a basketball court. This is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they’ll look to shoot their way to a National Title. Kent State came from out of nowhere to win the MAC title as the 6-seed in the conference, winning four games total, three in three days, to earn their trip to the Dance. Despite their finish in the MAC regular season, this is one of the best teams in the conference, and they will not be a pushover for UCLA.

Key Players: Lonzo Ball has a chance to be the 1st overall pick in the NBA Draft, and for good reason. He does it all for the Bruins, averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is important for UCLA as well, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game. And don’t forget about the coach’s son, senior shooting guard Bryce Alford (15.8 PPG, 43.5% 3PT). Kent State has a star of their own in 6-8 senior forward Jimmy Hall. Hall leads the team 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, and he’ll need to have a great game if the Golden Flashes have a shot at the upset.

Why UCLA will Win: It’s going to take a really good defensive team to knock off the Bruins, and Kent State is not that team. UCLA likes to play fast, and they are extremely efficient. KenPom has them in the top-6 most efficient offenses inside and outside the arc. A team that plays fast and doesn’t miss is a team that is tough to beat. Way too tough for Kent State at least.

Why KENT will Win: It’s not impossible, believe it or not. 14-seeds have beaten 3-seeds before, and honestly, if UCLA struggles at all on offense, they can lose, because they don’t play a lick of defense. You need to outscore the Bruins to beat them, but Kent State is capable of that. They are a great offensive rebounding team, so if they can attack the offensive boards and get a lot of second chance points, they might be able to pull off the shocker.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#7 Dayton (24-7) vs #10 Wichita State (30-4)
Friday 3/17, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: I feel so bad for Archie Miller and Dayton. They had a fantastic season, winning the A-10 regular season title while picking up great wins over Alabama, Vanderbilt, Rhode Island (twice) and VCU. They deserved a better draw than this. Wichita State has the resume of a 10-seed. They have just one win over Tournament teams, and that was against South Dakota State, a 16-seed. However, advanced analytics LOVE the Shockers. KenPom has Wichita State as the 8th best team in the nation. This team will fuel the argument for the Committee to use more advanced statistics in choosing the NCAA Tournament Field. Unfortunately, that won’t make Dayton feel any better.

Key Players: Don’t automatically count out the Flyers though. They are a very experienced team, led by a trio of seniors that want to go out on the right foot. Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard are three fantastic players, and they combine for over 43 points a game. They will not be scared of the Shockers. It’s a little strange to see a Wichita State team without Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, but Gregg Marshall has reloaded nicely. The Shockers have five players who average better than nine points a game, and they are led by 6-8 sophomore Markis McDuffie, who averages a team-leading 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He is key to Wichita’s success.

Why DAY will Win: I feel like there isn’t much pressure on Dayton in this game. The majority of people don’t expect them to win, and I think that actually will make them play with a little added motivation. Wichita State does not force many turnovers, so if Dayton can control the ball and play the game at their tempo, they can very easily win this game.

Why WSU will Win: There might be some pressure on the Shockers for the same reason that there isn’t much pressure on Dayton, but this team under Gregg Marshall has rarely buckled under any pressure. This team hasn’t beaten anybody of note, but they are extremely efficient on both ends of the floor. They are extremely good on the perimeter, so if they work the ball and don’t settle for bad shots, they will look like the Wichita State team that everybody expects, and they’ll move on to the next round.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#2 Kentucky (29-5) vs #15 Northern Kentucky (24-10)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: It’s the in-state battle that nobody knew they wanted until now! Okay, I joke a little bit, but maybe a little rivalry can be born from this matchup. John Calipari’s Wildcats went through a lot of growing pains this season, but they are rounding into form at the right time, winning the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and they enter the Dance riding an 11-game winning streak. Northern Kentucky, meanwhile, benefited from some big upsets in the Horizon League Tournament, defeating 5-seed Wright State, 9-seed Youngstown State and 10-seed Milwaukee to earn their spot in the Tournament.

Key Players: Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo are the stars of this team, all freshmen, and all likely NBA lottery picks. They are the three leading scorers for this team (20.4, 16.1 and 13.3 PPG respectively), and they will be key to Kentucky’s success in this Tournament. For the Norse, it’s sophomore forward Drew McDonald who makes things go. He leads the team with 16.4 points and 7.7 boards a game, and he is talented inside and outside the arc. His floor spacing could open things up for the rest of the team.

Why UK will Win: Malik Monk is arguably the best pure scorer in this Tournament. When he is on, he scores in bunches, and he is extremely difficult to contain. But he is very streaky, and is just getting out of a really bad funk. As long as he doesn’t revert back to that, he will score at will against Northern Kentucky, and the Norse won’t stand a chance.

Why NKU will Win: 15-seeds beating 2-seeds, as I’ve mentioned before, is not unprecedented. Especially when the 15-seed is as good offensively as Northern Kentucky is. Kentucky will look to get out and run, but they won’t be successful with that if the Norse can make shots. Make some shots early, get Kentucky out of their comfort zone, and we could see a massive upset.

 

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NCAA Tournament Preview: First Four

IT’S HERE! IT’S FINALLY HERE! The 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed on Sunday to much fanfare, and thankfully, to very little surprise. The 68 teams that made the field were the 68 teams that most expected, which is a welcome sight. I usually expect the Selection Committee to make a mistake or two, but they did an extremely good job this season.

Although, you could wait to see how it all plays out before you make that decision! The Tournament will kick off, as it has the last few seasons, with the First Four games in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I am here to give you the lowdown on each of those four games. Let’s not waste any more time, here is a preview of this year’s First Four games.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

East Region
#16 Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) vs #16 New Orleans (20-11)
Tuesday 3/14, 6:40 pm TruTV

Overview: The first game of this year’s NCAA Tournament will see the Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary’s take on the Privateers of New Orleans. MSM really challenged themselves in their non-conference schedule this year, taking on teams like West Virginia, Iowa State, Arkansas, Michigan and Minnesota. They lost all of those games, but they’ve played good teams. New Orleans didn’t play quite as difficult a schedule, but they tested themselves a few times with games against USC, Northwestern and Oklahoma State. They also have a win over a power conference team, defeating Washington State 70-54 on December 3. Each of these teams is better on the defensive end, so it could come down to whichever team is able to make more stops.

Key Players: Each of these teams is led by a “mighty mite” if you will, Christavious Gill (5-8, 11.6 PPG) for New Orleans and Junior Robinson (5-5, 14.1 PPG) for MSM. They are two of the four shortest players in the Tournament this season, but they are joined by some really good taller players, guard Elijah Long for the Mountaineers (team leading 15.4 PPG) and forward Erik Thomas for New Orleans (19.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG).

Why MSM will Win: The Mountaineers have been playing great after starting their season playing really good teams on the road. Since Christmas, they are 17-4. They also are one of the better teams at forcing turnovers, while New Orleans can be susceptible to giving the ball away. The Mount forces enough turnovers to get the victory.

Why NO will Win: What a story this program is. Following Hurricane Katrina, monetary issues nearly forced them to leave Division I and head to Division III. Over 10 years later, and the Privateers are back in the Tournament for the first time since 1996. And you know who else is good at forcing turnovers? New Orleans is. In fact, they’re 12th in the country in opponent TO percentage. They win the turnover battle, and end up winning the game as well.

 

South Region
#11 Kansas State (20-13) vs #11 Wake Forest (19-13)
Tuesday 3/14, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Two teams that probably earned their way into the field thanks to big wins at the end of the season will battle it out to see who goes on to face 6-seed Cincinnati in the First Round. Kansas State struggled in Big 12 play, going 8-10, but a quarterfinal win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament likely pushed the Wildcats over the edge of the Bubble. On the flip-side, Wake Forest lost twice to Clemson and at Syracuse, but their other 10 losses were all to teams who reached the Tournament. The Demon Deacons beat Louisville at home and Virginia Tech on the road in the last week of the regular season, which was enough to earn this at-large bid.

Key Players: Wake is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they are led by 6-10 sophomore forward John Collins (18.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG), who may have improved his NBA Draft stock more than any player in the country this season. Kansas State is a more balanced offensive team, with five players averaging over 9 points per game. Seniors Wesley Iwundu (6.4 RPG) and D.J. Johnson (1.5 BPG) add a lot on the defensive end as well for the Wildcats.

Why KSU will Win: Kansas State struggled in the Big 12, but it was probably the toughest league top to bottom this season, so they are definitely battle tested. They are a very good defensive team, and they do a terrific job defending the paint. Wake Forest struggles to get good looks on the interior, and K-State does enough offensively to win a more low-scoring battle than many expect.

Why WAKE will Win: I mentioned that the Deacons are really good on the offensive end. KenPom has them rated as the 8th most efficient offensive team in the country. John Collins is the best player on the floor, and he’ll flex his muscle, going for over 20 points, and late success from the free throw line, where Wake shoots over 77 percent (12th in NCAA), keeps K-State from making a comeback. Wake Forest moves on to face Cincinnati.

 

Midwest Region
#16 NC Central (25-8) vs #16 UC Davis (22-12)
Wednesday 3/15, 6:40 pm TruTV

Overview: UC Davis is one of five teams making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament this year, and the Aggies needed to upset UC Irvine in the Big West finals to get here. You might be surprised to see a 25-8 team in the First Four, but NC Central was the only team in the MEAC ranked inside of KenPom’s Top-300. There’s only 351 D-I teams, so the competition Central has faced this season has not been the best, hence their placement here.

Key Players: The best player on the court will be NC Central senior guard Patrick Cole, who does just about everything for the Eagles (19.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 5.7 APG). UC Davis is led by a senior guard as well, 6-4 Brynton Lamar (16.1 PPG). Lamar scored 20 points in the Big West final to get the Aggies to this point.

Why NCCU will Win: Don’t get stuck on the competition that the Eagles have faced this season, this is a pretty good team, and they deserve to be here. Head Coach LeVelle Moton has been discussed as a potential option for NC State’s coaching search, and he’ll have his team ready to go. They are one of the best teams in the nation at defending the 3-point arc (3rd in the nation according to KenPom), which is where UC Davis does most of their damage. Davis has trouble getting open looks from the perimeter, and NC Central is able to outscore them because of that and pick up the victory.

Why UCD will Win: Simply put, the Aggies have faced tougher competition this season, and that experience will do wonders for them here. They tend to struggle on offense, but they have a lot of size, which NC Central really does not. They have some height, but they don’t use it well. That advantage allows UC Davis to win a low-scoring affair.

 

East Region
#11 Providence (20-12) vs #11 USC (24-9)
Wednesday 3/15, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Talk about two teams that had polar opposite seasons. Providence was barely on the Tournament radar as recently as February 8, when they lost to Seton Hall in overtime, dropping them to 14-11 overall, 4-8 in the Big East. The Friars proceeded to rattle off six straight wins to end the regular season, including wins over Butler, Xavier, Marquette and Creighton, all Tournament teams. Meanwhile, it was a fantastic start to the season for the Trojans, going a perfect 13-0 in non-conference play, including wins over Texas A&M, BYU and SMU. However, USC struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last six, and going just 1-5 against the Pac-12’s other three Tourney teams.

Key Players: Providence is led by a pair of juniors with Tournament experience, point guard Kyron Cartwright (11.4 PPG, 6.7 APG) and forward Rodney Bullock (15.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG). The Friars are extremely athletic, but the Trojans might be even more athletic. They are led by a couple really long, talented sophomore forwards, 6-10 Bennie Boatwright and 6-11 Chimeize Metu, who both average over 14.5 PPG. Boatwright missed 17 games this season, but he is healthy now, and that is huge for USC.

Why PROV will Win: Momentum could play a huge factor in this game. It’s no question that Providence is the hotter team in this matchup. The Friars don’t have the size or length that USC has, so they will play this game on the perimeter. A good outside shooting team going up against a poor perimeter defense. Advantage Providence. They make enough shots to get the win and move on to the First Round.

Why USC will Win: You can easily argue that USC is the more talented team, and sometimes, that’s all it takes. But on top of that, the Trojans have a massive size advantage, and if they can post up their big men and attack with their guards, they can dominate Providence on the interior and get the victory.

That does it for my preview of the First Four games in this season’s NCAA Tournament. It’s looking like we may be snowed in here in Southeast PA on Tuesday, so there’s no excuse for you to not tune in to at least the games on Tuesday night. We usually get some pretty exciting games in the First Four, making it a perfect appetizer for the First Round on Thursday and Friday!

Be sure to stay tuned to the Facebook page as I’ll be posting previews for each Region of the Tournament over the next few days in anticipation of the First Round, which will kickoff Thursday at 12:15 pm!

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.

 

How to Fix Conference Tournaments

Let me just start by saying that the title of this post may be a little misleading, as I do not think the conference tournaments need fixing. I very much enjoy the current set-up, with leagues handing their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to the winner of their conference tournaments.

Does that ultimately result in a few regular season champions being left heading to the, for all intents and purposes, meaningless NIT? Yes, it does. Do I feel somewhat bad for teams like Belmont and Monmouth, who dominated their league competition during the regular season, only to slip-up in the tournament and miss out on a trip to the Big Dance? I genuinely do.

But on the other hand, if your team is that good, and that dominant, then I am of the belief that you should be able to win the games when they matter the most. Especially when some conferences give their regular season champs advantages in their conference tournaments. Belmont got a bye to the semifinals. All they needed to do was win two games against teams that they had already beaten at least once this season. They couldn’t get the job done.

belmont
Rick Byrd’s Belmont Bruins dominated the OVC all season long, but they couldn’t get the job done when it counted the most (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

The system has its flaws, I can admit that. Despite the loss, Belmont is the team that would have best represented the Ohio Valley Conference in the NCAA Tournament this season. That is not a knock on Jacksonville State, the eventual champion, but more praising how good Belmont was this season. This is just one example, and we get at least one just about every season.

Many complain that the regular season is basically meaningless in the current set-up. I don’t feel that way, but I understand the viewpoint. Another widespread complaint is that the conference tournaments are just a money grab. In a sense, yeah, that’s exactly what they are, but you can’t blame conferences for doing something that will get them more money. That’s the world we live in, get used to it.

The reason I do not think the system needs to be changed is that it can create magical moments and unbelievable excitement. Championship Week is must-see TV for any college basketball fan. I spend most of this week in front of televisions, laptops, tablets and cellphones, watching multiple conference tournament games.

Just last night, at 7:00 pm, I had the Horizon League championship game on my TV, the NEC title game on my tablet and an ACC first round game between Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh on my laptop, watching all three simultaneously. Why? Because these games were all win and advance, lose and go home, and I didn’t want to miss anything amazing. And that is what we get this time of year. Amazing moments. Go on YouTube and type “March Madness” into the search bar. There is no end to the amount of incredible games and shots that have occurred during March throughout the last 50 years, and even prior to that.

For those reasons and more, I think “March Madness” is fine just the way it is. Is it perfect? Not by any stretch, but it is extremely exciting, and it is a wonderful time for basketball fans. Championship Week is the perfect lead-in to the NCAA Tournament, with teams fighting and clawing their way towards the chance to play in the Big Dance.

champ week
Championship Week is massive for ESPN and other networks every season, meaning it’s not going anywhere fast (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

Despite how I feel about it, many basketball people are clamoring for a change. ESPN’s Jay Williams said two nights ago that he hates conference championship tournaments because they devalue the regular season. His word choice might not have been the best (I doubt he actually hates these games), but I see his point.

Some have given their ideas for how to fix the system. CBS’s Gary Parrish thinks that one-bid conferences should give their regular season champs a bye to the championship game, so that winning the regular season means something great, but it still gives the other teams a shot to make it to the NCAA Tournament. I would not be completely against that proposal. He also said that the 1-seeds should be given a 10-0 lead to start off the championship games. That I’m not so crazy about.

The overwhelming problem that basketball people have with the current system is that it renders the regular season somewhat meaningless. I don’t feel that way completely, but I see what they are getting at. I do not think we need to change anything, but since a lot of people do, I have an idea that I believe would be good for just about everybody involved. Regular season champs in one-bid leagues, tournament champs in one-bid leagues, Bubble teams and conference figureheads would all benefit from my idea. There are a lot of people who would be opposed to my idea, for reasons that I definitely recognize, but you can’t make everyone happy. My idea, is to increase the number of teams in the NCAA Tournament from 68 to 96.

This has been discussed as a possibility in the past, recently in years where the Bubble seems to be strong, and teams that deserve to make it to the NCAA Tournament are left out. Talk of increasing the number of teams in the Big Dance has not been as prevalent in the last few seasons, but I think it is the best way to make the regular season meaningful while maintaining the luster and excitement that surrounds Championship Week. Here is how this whole plan would work:

The regular season champions in each of the 32 Division-I conferences would receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. This solves the issue of the regular season not meaning very much. Some people wish that the conferences would do it this way in the current setup, but there is just too much money in conference tournaments for this to happen. Remember, money will always come first.

By increasing the number of teams in the NCAA’s to 96, you can give an auto-bid to the regular season champs AND the conference tournament champs. I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen an idea like this discussed. It certainly may be out there somewhere on the interwebs, but I have not seen it. This way, a 1-seed can lose in the conference tournament and still make it to the NCAA Tournament by way of having the best record in the regular season.

Now, I realize there are a few kinks in this plan that would need some figuring out. For example, what happens when there’s a tie at the top of the conference, like in the SoCon this year, where UNC Greensboro, Furman and East Tennessee State all finished with a 14-4 record in league play. My plan would be to leave it up to the conferences. The conferences are not required to give their automatic bid to the team that wins their postseason tournament. They choose to do so. The Ivy League has given the regular season champ the auto-bid every year until this season, finally joining the postseason tournament party. Let the leagues decide how to deal with a tiebreaker. In the case of a two-way tie, head-to head could be used, or best overall record. Or you could even have a playoff game prior to the conference tournament, with the winner earning the regular season championship. There’s another opportunity for more money right there!

etsu
East Tennessee State entered the SoCon Tournament as the 3-seed despite having just as many conference wins as Furman and UNC Greensboro. They won when it counted though (Photo courtesy of TriCitiesSports.com)

Three-way ties could be handled similarly. Do a round-robin tournament between the three teams, with a point-differential system being used in the case of each team winning one game. It could be similar to how soccer uses aggregate scoring. There are many ways this could be done, this is just one example.

Another pitfall would be if the regular season champion also wins the conference tournament. What would happen then? Some would argue that the regular season champion would have no reason to even play in the conference tournament since they already earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a fair assessment, and again, I believe you could leave it up to the conferences to decide how they want to handle it. Maybe you give the regular season champion the option of playing in the conference tournament. If they would choose not to, then you have the other teams in the league battling for one more spot in the Big Dance.

But if the regular season champion chooses to play in the conference tournament and wins it, I have two potential ideas. The first would be for the team that reached the championship game and lost to be given the league’s second auto-bid. The problem with this would be the conference championship game would then be pretty meaningless if both teams are going to advance to the NCAA’s no matter who wins. I could see losing viewers if that were the case.

The other possibility would be for that league’s second auto-bid to become an extra at-large bid. There are flaws with this as well, as the conference, in all likelihood, would lose the chance to send two teams to the Tournament, but a more deserving team would probably end up making it in this scenario.

An NCAA Tournament with 96 teams would be set up mostly the same, with the First Four games in Dayton becoming the First Round, with the top eight seeds in each region getting a bye to the Second Round. Each region would now have 24 teams. The 16-seed would play the 17-seed with the winner facing the 1-seed in the Second Round. The 9-seed would face the 24-seed with the winner facing the 8-seed in the Second Round. You could set it up as simply as that, resulting with an extra two days of 16 games each. Hey, that’s more money (see what I’m getting at).

96teambracket
Could this be the future look of the NCAA Tournament bracket? It would solve a lot of problems people have with the current setup (Photo courtesy of AllKyHoops.com)

You could also re-seed after the First Round, allowing the 1-seed to play the lowest remaining seed in their region. So if the 24-seed would upset the 9-seed, they would automatically face the 1-seed in the Second Round, and then the Tournament would play out just like it does now from there on out. I personally just don’t see the NCAA balking at the idea of adding 32 more games to the Tournament when they consider the potential increase in revenue.

Let me reiterate, I am totally fine with the set-up the way it is right now. With the conference tournament champions going to the Big Dance, and 68 teams in total making it to the Tournament. But if so many people have a problem with it, and change needs to be made, I think expanding the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams would be the best way to make as many people happy as possible. You can’t make everyone happy, but I can’t figure out who wouldn’t be happy with this.

2017 Conference Tournament Preview: Part Two

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)
Iona (MAAC)

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

Favorite: SMU
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.
Prediction: Cincinnati
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

Favorite: Purdue
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!

2017 Conference Tournament Preview: Part One

The season began back in mid-November, and after four months of action, we have finally reached Championship Week in the 2016-17 college basketball season.

The first four automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament were given out this weekend, and they went to the following teams:

Jacksonville State (OVC)
Winthrop (Big South)
Wichita State (MVC)
Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)

Over the next week, 28 more teams will punch their tickets to the Big Dance. Selection Sunday is less than a week away, but there is still so much yet to be determined!

For Part One of my Conference Tournament Preview, you’ll see the brackets for six major conference tournaments, and I’ll give you who I believe is the favorite, a dark horse, which teams have the most to gain in the tournaments, and also who I believe will come out on top. At the end, I also have short previews for three conference title games taking place on Monday night, which will get us to seven official teams in the NCAA Tournament.

We’ll kick it off with the tournament that has had no shortage of excitement over the last few seasons.

ACC Tournament (Brooklyn, NY)

First Round: March 7
Game 1: #13 NC State vs #12 Clemson, 12:00 pm (ESPN2)
Game 2: #15 Boston College vs #10 Wake Forest, 2:30 pm (ESPN2)
Game 3: #14 Pittsburgh vs #11 Georgia Tech, 7:00 pm (ESPNU)
Second Round: March 8
Game 4: #9 Miami FL vs #8 Syracuse, 12:00 pm (ESPN)
Game 5: Winner Game 1 vs #5 Duke, 2:30 pm (ESPN)
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs #7 Virginia Tech, 7:00 pm (ESPN2)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs #6 Virginia, 9:30 pm (ESPN2)
Quarterfinals: March 9 (ESPN)
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs #1 North Carolina, 12:00 pm
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs #4 Louisville, 2:30 pm
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs #2 Florida State, 7:00 pm
Game 11: Winner Game 7 vs #3 Notre Dame, 9:30 pm
Semifinals: March 10 (ESPN)
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 11 (ESPN)
Game 14: Winner Game 12 vs Winner Game 13, 9:00 pm

Favorite: North Carolina
The ACC is stacked once again, and figures to send at least nine or so teams to the Big Dance, but one of the hottest teams in the conference the second half of the season, and one of the hottest teams in the country, is North Carolina. They have wins over Virginia, Louisville and Duke all within the last two weeks. Their side of the bracket is going to be tough to get through, but if they get to the title game, it will be hard to pick against them.
Dark Horse: Notre Dame
Hard to call a 3-seed in a league as tough as this one a dark horse, but when people talk about the top teams in the ACC, you hear UNC, Duke, Louisville, Florida State and Virginia most often. A lot of people, yet again, are sleeping on Notre Dame. They have been to the Elite 8 two year in a row, and I believe they are talented enough to get there yet again this season. They have the postseason experience that can make all the difference in a conference tournament.
Most to Gain: Georgia Tech
Wake Forest could have gone in this spot as well, but I look at Georgia Tech as the team best positioned to improve their Tournament resume. If they get past Pitt in the opening round, they’ll face 6-seed Virginia, who is a good team, but is very beatable. Get past Virginia, and a quarterfinal match-up with Notre Dame awaits. Wins over Virginia and ND probably would be enough to put the Yellow Jackets onto the right side of the Bubble.
Prediction: Louisville
A new venue for the ACC Tournament could play a much bigger factor than you may think. When the tourney was in Greensboro or Washington D.C., it gave teams like Duke and North Carolina an advantage. With it moving to Brooklyn this season, that advantage might be no more. Whichever team gets out of the top half of this bracket will have earned it. After wins over Duke and North Carolina, the Louisville Cardinals will win the ACC Tournament, and have their fans campaigning for a 1-seed in the Big Dance (but they’ll settle for a 2-seed).

Atlantic 10 Tournament (Pittsburgh, PA)

First Round: March 8 (American Sports Network)
Game 1: #13 St. Joseph’s vs #12 Massachusetts, 6:00 pm
Game 2: #14 Duquesne vs #11 Saint Louis, 8:30 pm
Second Round: March 9 (NBC Sports Network)
Game 3: #9 Davidson vs #8 La Salle, 12:00 pm
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs #5 St. Bonaventure, 2:30 pm
Game 5: #10 Fordham vs #7 George Mason, 6:30 pm
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs #6 George Washington, 9:00 pm
Quarterfinals: March 10 (NBC Sports Network)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs #1 Dayton, 12:00 pm
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs #4 Rhode Island, 2:30 pm
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs #2 VCU, 6:30 pm
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs #3 Richmond, 9:00 pm
Semifinals: March 11 (CBS Sports Network)
Game 11: Winner Game 7 vs Winner Game 8, 1:00 pm
Game 12: Winner Game 9 vs Winner Game 10, approx. 3:30 pm
Championship: March 12 (CBS)
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs Winner Game 12, 12:30 pm

Favorite: Dayton
Death, taxes, Dayton at the top of the Atlantic 10. It’s certainly been that way for the last four years. Seniors Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith lead this team, which has been to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament two of the last three years. They enter the postseason coming off a loss to George Washington, which could be the fuel that they need to go out and win the A-10 Tournament.
Dark Horse: George Washington
This was tough, as I don’t think there are many teams that have a legit chance to win this tournament this season, but I’ll go with a GW team who has won six of seven to finish the regular season, including a big win over 1-seed Dayton to cap it off. I also believe that they have the easiest road to the semifinals of any team that did not receive a double-bye. Don’t be surprised if the Colonials make a run.
Most to Gain: Rhode Island
The Rams are squarely on the Bubble right now, with some experts having them in and some having them out. Right now they are ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s first team out of the field. They’ll need to win their first game here, likely against St. Bonaventure, but then they will probably get another crack at Dayton in the semifinals. A win there and I think they can get into the Tournament without the auto-bid.
Prediction: Dayton
The Flyers are the best team in the conference, and I expect them to prove that by beating Rhode Island for the third time this season in the semis, then taking the rubber match against VCU in the finals.

Big 12 Tournament (Kansas City, MO)

First Round: March 8 (ESPNU)
Game 1: #9 Oklahoma vs #8 TCU, 7:00 pm
Game 2: #10 Texas vs #7 Texas Tech, 9:30 pm
Quarterfinals: March 9
Game 3: #5 Oklahoma State vs #4 Iowa State, 12:30 pm (ESPN2)
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs #1 Kansas, 3:00 pm (ESPN2)
Game 5: Winner Game 2 vs #2 West Virginia, 7:00 pm (ESPNU)
Game 6: #6 Kansas State vs #3 Baylor, 9:30 pm (ESPNU)
Semifinals: March 10 (ESPN2)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs Winner Game 4, 7:00 pm
Game 8: Winner Game 5 vs Winner Game 6, 9:30 pm
Championship: March 11 (ESPN)
Game 9: Winner Game 7 vs Winner Game 8, 6:00 pm

Favorite: Kansas
“Not only is Kansas the favorite to win the Big 12 Tournament, but right now, they’re the favorite to win the National Championship. The Jayhawks have looked borderline unbeatable the last few weeks. If any team can beat Kansas, that will be mighty impressive.” -Me, in this same post from last season. New year, same Kansas. They might seem a little more beatable this year, but I’ll still be impressed if anybody beats them.
Dark Horse: Oklahoma State
They lost their last two regular season games (at Iowa State and vs Kansas), but before that, the Cowboys had won 10 of 11 games with the only loss coming by three against Baylor. This is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and if they can get hot, they can go on a run. They face Iowa State in the quarterfinals, and it’s very hard to beat a team three times in one season, which is what the Cyclones will look to do. A win, and they’d get another shot at Kansas, who would also be looking to beat OK State for the third time this season. Look out for the Pokes.
Most to Gain: Kansas State
Another Bubble team with a massive opportunity thanks to their conference tourney draw. The Wildcats will take on Baylor in the quarterfinal, and a win over the Bears could be enough to get Kansas State into the field of 68. But just in case, a semifinal win over West Virginia would definitely get them in. Bruce Weber’s team controls their own destiny in my opinion at this stage.
Prediction: West Virginia
I’m not even sure why exactly I didn’t go with Kansas here, but the potential for a Kansas-West Virginia grudge match in the championship game is intriguing to me, and if it comes down to that, I like the Mountaineers to avenge their absolutely deflating overtime loss to the Jayhawks back on February 13th by stealing the Big 12 Championship.

Big East Tournament (New York City)

First Round: March 8 (FS1)
Game 1: #9 Georgetown vs #8 St. John’s, 7:00 pm
Game 2: #10 DePaul vs #7 Xavier, 9:30 pm
Quarterfinals: March 9 (FS1)
Game 3: Winner Game 1 vs #1 Villanova, 12:00 pm
Game 4: #5 Seton Hall vs #4 Marquette, 2:30 pm
Game 5: Winner Game 2 vs #2 Butler, 7:00 pm
Game 6: #6 Creighton vs #3 Providence, 9:30 pm
Semifinals: March 10 (FS1)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs Winner Game 4, 6:30 pm
Game 8: Winner Game 5 vs Winner Game 6, 9:00 pm
Championship: March 11 (FOX)
Game 9: Winner Game 7 vs Winner Game 8, 5:30 pm

Favorite: Villanova
The defending National Champions have won the Big East regular season title for the fourth straight season, establishing themselves a one of the favorites to win the National Title yet again this year. The Wildcats won the Big East Tournament two years ago, but the other two years, they were knocked out by Seton Hall (quarters in 2014, finals in 2016). Avoid them and Butler, who swept Nova this season, and they have a great shot to win this tournament.
Dark Horse: Seton Hall
Speaking of Seton Hall, they have quietly put together a nice stretch to close the regular season, winning five of their last six, with the lone loss there coming against Villanova. The Pirates are the defending Big East Tournament champs, and they’ll meet Marquette in the quarterfinals in a rubber match, and with a win, they will get a chance to eliminate Villanova from the Big East Tournament for the third time in the last four seasons.
Most to Gain: Providence
Despite six wins in a row to finish the regular season, the Friars are still on the Bubble (in fact, they weren’t even on the Bubble prior to the beginning of this winning streak), and they received a draw that appears designed to improve their Tournament resume. They get likely Tournament team Creighton in the quarterfinals, and if they get past them, they’ll probably face Butler in the semis. If Providence can get to the Big East Final, they’ll get into the Tourney no problem. A loss prior to that, and they might sweat it out on Selection Sunday.
Prediction: Villanova
It won’t be easy, but it just feels like Villanova is on a mission this year despite coming off a National Championship, and I like them to enter this year’s Tournament with the momentum of a Big East Championship. They’ll get over the Seton Hall-Big East Tournament hurdle in the semis, and then they’ll finally get the best of Butler this season in the Title game.

Pac-12 Tournament (Las Vegas, NV)

First Round: March 8 (Pac-12 Network)
Game 1: #9 Stanford vs #8 Arizona State, 3 p.m.
Game 2: #12 Oregon State vs #5 California, 5:30 p.m.
Game 3: #10 Washington State vs #7 Colorado, 9 p.m.
Game 4: #11 Washington vs #6 USC, 11:30 p.m.
Quarterfinals: March 9
Game 5: Winner Game 1 vs #1 Oregon, 3:00 pm (Pac-12 Network)
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs #4 Utah, 5:30 pm (Pac-12 Network)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs #2 Arizona, 9:00 pm (Pac-12 Network)
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs #3 UCLA, 11:30 pm (ESPN)
Semifinals: March 10
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs Winner Game 6, 9:00 pm (Pac-12 Network)
Game 10: Winner Game 7 vs Winner Game 8, 11:30 pm (ESPN)
Championship: March 11 (ESPN)
Game 11: Winner Game 9 vs Winner Game 10, 11:00 pm

Favorite: UCLA
The Bruins are ranked #3 in the AP Poll for a reason. Despite not having a Tournament resume normally befitting of a highly ranked team at this point in the season, UCLA is playing it’s best basketball of the season right now, and that makes them the Pac-12 Tournament favorites in my eyes.
Dark Horse: Arizona
I know, it’s a major stretch to call a 2-seed a dark horse, but I think most people believe UCLA and Oregon are the top two teams in this conference, and Arizona is a pretty large step below those two teams. I tend to agree, but that doesn’t mean this team can’t go and win the Pac-12 Tournament. I’d love to see a UCLA-Arizona rubber match in the semis. That would be a fun game.
Most to Gain: California
Even though their opener is against lowly Oregon State, the win will still help a little bit. They have to beat Utah in the quarterfinals, and then they might even need to beat Oregon in the semifinals to earn a trip to the Tournament. That all seems unlikely, but Cal is the team in the Pac-12 with the most to gain.
Prediction: Oregon
The Ducks are the most complete team in the Pac-12, and they have the easiest path to the Championship game. A final against UCLA or Arizona will be a great game late next Saturday night, but on a neutral floor, I like Oregon to defeat either of those teams.

SEC Tournament (Nashville, TN)

First Round: March 8 (SEC Network)
Game 1: #13 LSU vs #12 Mississippi State, 7:00 pm
Game 2: #14 Missouri vs #11 Auburn, 9:30 pm
Second Round: March 9 (SEC Network)
Game 3: #9 Tennessee vs #8 Georgia, 1:00 pm
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs #5 Alabama, 3:30 pm
Game 5: #10 Texas A&M vs #7 Vanderbilt, 7:00 pm
Game 6: Winner Game 2 vs #6 Ole Miss, 9:30 pm
Quarterfinals: March 10 (SEC Network)
Game 7: Winner Game 3 vs #1 Kentucky, 1:00 pm
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs #4 South Carolina, 3:30 pm
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs #2 Florida, 7:00 pm
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs #3 Arkansas, 9:30 pm
Semifinals: March 11 (ESPN)
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 (ESPN)
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs Winner Game 12, 1:00 pm

Favorite: Kentucky
The young Wildcats have had their ups and downs this season, but they enter the postseason having won eight games in a row, and they definitely look like a National Championship contender. I personally can’t say that for any other team in the SEC (sorry Florida), so Kentucky is my favorite here.
Dark Horse: Vanderbilt
The Commodores were my dark horse in the SEC Tournament last year, but they were upset by Tennessee in a nail-biter. They have a little more momentum this year, having won five of their last six in the regular season, including a victory over South Carolina and a second win this season over Florida. A chance to beat Florida a third time will come in the quarterfinals if they get past Texas A&M. Vandy needs a run to get into the Tournament. I think they can do it.
Most to Gain: Georgia
Easily could have put Vandy here as well, but I’ll go with the Bulldogs. They’ll face fellow Bubble team Tennessee in the second round, and if they get the win there, they’ll take on Kentucky in the quarterfinals. They gave Kentucky all they could handle this season, losing in overtime in Rupp Arena and then by just five points at home back on February 18. Georgia needs to make a deep run if they want to go to the Big Dance, and quality wins are there on that path.
Prediction: Vanderbilt
There’s usually at least a little bit of craziness among the major conferences this time of year. I’ve watched a lot of Vanderbilt over the last few weeks, and I really like what I see. I’ll make a bold prediction, saying they knock off Florida for a third time in the quarters en route to a title game victory over Kentucky to win the SEC and take things out of the Selection Committee’s hands.

On Monday night, three more auto-bids to the NCAA Tournament will be handed out in the following conference championship games:

Colonial Athletic Association Championship
#2 College of Charleston vs #1 UNC Wilmington
7:00 pm, CBS Sports Network
This game should be extremely fun, as the teams split their two regular season meetings, each winning on the other’s home floor. UNC Wilmington won the CAA last season and went to the NCAA’s as a 13-seed, giving 4-seed Duke everything they could handle in the opening game of the First Round, eventually falling 93-85. Three of the Seahawks’ four leading scorers from that game are back this season, and looking for a return trip to the Big Dance. Standing in their way are the Cougars of Charleston, who have been knocked out of the CAA Tournament by UNC Wilmington the last two seasons. The Cougars haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999, and are seeking their 5th trip all time. On a neutral floor, this will be a true rubber match, but I think UNC Wilmington is the more talented team, and should win this game. They’ll be a dangerous 12 or 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Southern Conference Championship
#3 East Tennessee State vs #1 UNC Greensboro
7:00 pm, ESPN
UNC Greensboro is the higher seed, but East Tennessee State is the team you’ll want to pay attention to here, as they are the team more likely to bust your bracket if they make it to the Big Dance. The Buccaneers are ranked 66th on KenPom, and are a very experienced group led by seniors TJ Cromer, Wichita State-transfer Tevin Glass and Indiana-transfer Hanner Mosquera-Perea. The Bucs are looking for their first trip to the Tournament since 2010. The Spartans of UNC Greensboro have been a thorn in their side this season though. They beat ETSU in both meetings in the regular season en route to a three-way tie at the top of the league’s standings along with ETSU and Furman. UNC Greensboro is looking to return to the NCAA’s for the first time since 2001, when they were coached by current Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. I’ve discussed already how difficult it is to defeat a team three times in one season, and I think that will rear it’s head in this game. East Tennessee is the better team, and I expect them to get over the hump and defeat UNC Greensboro, stamping their ticket in the process.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Association Championship
#4 Siena vs #3 Iona
9:00 pm, ESPN2
Monmouth was the overwhelming favorite to win the MAAC and head to the Tournament. Siena was having none of that, or maybe more specifically, Siena senior Nico Clareth, who came off the bench to score 27 points on 7-9 shooting from 3-point range in the massive upset of Monmouth in the semifinals. Oh yeah, and all of that scoring came in the second half of the game. Clareth didn’t score in the first half. He only took one shot before halftime. It was an incredible performance, something that really shouldn’t be that surprising because, well, March. Clareth and the Saints will look to ride that momentum to their first trip to the NCAA’s since 2010, when Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery was at the helm. Hey, wait, I feel like I recently mentioned McCaffery… Anyway, Iona is the team that will try to keep them from making that trip, and a fair amount of the Gaels’ players knows what it takes to get there, having won the MAAC Title last season, and going on to the NCAA Tournament, falling to Iowa State 94-81. Iona is led by senior Jordan Washington, who played second-fiddle to AJ English last season, but has emerged as the go-to guy for Coach Tim Cluess this season. A win would result in the 12th trip to the NCAA Tournament in school history. The teams split the season series, each winning on the road, so this could go either way. I truly believe in momentum as a major factor this time of year, and for that reason, I expect Siena to pull off another *upset* and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

That’s it for Part One of my Conference Tournament preview, stay tuned very soon for Part Two! I hope you all enjoy a week chock full of college basketball, a nice appetizer for the real “Madness” next week!

CBB Top-25: 1/24/17

We are almost in February already. Can you believe it? I can’t, especially considering the lack of snow we’ve had so far this winter in southeast Pennsylvania. Anyway, this is significant because it means we are that much closer to March Madness!

There’s a big week in store for college basketball fans with a number of huge games, starting tonight when #2 Kansas travels to Morgantown to take on #18 West Virginia. In addition, the Jayhawks will then travel to Rupp Arena on Saturday to take on #4 Kentucky in a non-conference clash between two traditional powers.

For this week’s Top-25, I have included with each team a key number/statistic, just for something a little different. Trying to mix it up a little each week, I hope you all can appreciate that. Without any more hesitation, here is this week’s Top-25!

 

  1. South Carolina

14.6: Points that PG P.J. Dozier averages per game this season. Dozier missed the game Saturday against Kentucky with back spasms. When fully healthy this season, the Gamecocks are undefeated. They could make a run at Kentucky in the SEC if they can get back to full strength.

This Week: Tue 1/24 vs Auburn (6:30 pm, SECN); Sat 1/28 @ Missouri (8:30 pm, SECN)

 

  1. Northwestern

0: The number of times Northwestern has made it to the NCAA Tournament in school history. They are one of five original D-1 programs to never reach the Tourney, but they have a really, really good shot to leave that club this season.

This Week: Thu 1/26 vs Nebraska (8:00 pm, BTN); Sun 1/29 vs Indiana (6:30 pm, BTN)

 

  1. Creighton

8.5: Assists per game average this season for PG Maurice Watson Jr., whom the Bluejays recently lost for the season to an ACL injury. Watson led the nation in assists, and it will be near impossible for Creighton to make up for his production. They are still good enough to reach the Tournament, but any hopes of making a deep run were likely dashed.

This Week: Wed 1/25 @ Georgetown (7:00 pm); Sat 1/28 vs DePaul (2:30 pm, FS1)

 

  1. Xavier

0-4: The Musketeers record against teams in KenPom’s Top-25. For a team considered one of the best 25 teams in the country by most pollsters, it is alarming that they have yet to secure a signature win. Their best win so far is at home against Utah, who is just now gaining some steam. That needs to change soon if Xavier is going to be taken seriously.

This Week: Thu 1/26 @ Cincinnati (7:00 pm, ESPN2); Sun 1/29 @ St. John’s (6:00 pm, FS1)

 

  1. Duke

26.8: Percentage of bench minutes this season. It is alarming that a team that should have more talent than anybody in the country isn’t very deep at all. That percentage is ranked 308th in the country out of 351 teams. Deeper teams usually have an advantage come Tourney time, so this could hurt the Blue Devils come March.

This Week: Sat 1/28 @ Wake Forest (3:00 pm, ESPN3/ACCN)

 

  1. Kansas State

1: Number of teams in KenPom’s Top-100 that Kansas State played in non-conference this season. The Big 12 will give K-State plenty of chances to improve their resume, but that one team they played was Maryland, and they lost to them. That weak non-conference slate could come back to haunt the Wildcats if they struggle at all in conference play.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ Iowa State (9:00 pm, ESPNU); Sat 1/28 @ Tennessee (2:00 pm, ESPN2)

 

  1. Saint Mary’s

60.2: The Gaels’ adjusted tempo (according to KenPom), which is 2nd slowest in the nation. Saint Mary’s loves to grind games virtually to a halt, in the same mold of teams like Virginia, which is the only team with a slower tempo this year. As efficient as Saint Mary’s is on offense, playing slow could be their key to a deep run in the Tournament.

This Week: Thu 1/26 vs San Francisco (11:00 pm); Sat 1/28 @ Santa Clara (11:00 pm)

 

  1. Cincinnati

5.6: Offensive steal percentage (according to KenPom), which is the second best in the country. What this basically amounts to is the Bearcats’ opponents get a steal on just 5.6% of their possessions, so in layman’s terms, Cincinnati takes care of the basketball. That will do them wonders when the postseason rolls around.

This Week: Thu 1/26 vs Xavier (7:00 pm, ESPN2); Sun 1/29 vs South Florida (4:00 pm, CBSSN)

 

  1. Wisconsin

0-3: Record against KenPom’s Top-25. Similarly to Xavier, Wisconsin has a weak resume for a top team. Making matters worse is that as of this writing, Wisconsin does not have a game left on their schedule against KenPom’s Top-25. They have only three games left against the Top-40, and all three of those games are at home. Any loss from here on out will be considered a bad loss for the Badgers.

This Week: Tue 1/24 vs Penn State (9:00 pm, BTN); Sat 1/28 @ Rutgers (12:00 pm, BTN)

 

  1. Virginia

3: Number of wins against teams in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology (posted yesterday, 1/23). KenPom always loves Tony Bennett’s squad, but a deeper look shows a lack of quality wins. Their win at Louisville is great, but their next best victory is at home against Wake Forest, who Lunardi has as one of his “Last Four Byes.” The third victory is over current SoCon leaders UNC Greensboro, who Lunardi has as a 16-seed. The Cavaliers will get two huge chances this week to improve their resume.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ Notre Dame (8:00 pm, ESPN3/ACCN); Sun 1/29 @ Villanova (1:00 pm, FOX)

 

  1. West Virginia

10: Ranking in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency on KenPom.com. The Mountaineers, despite two consecutive losses, are one of just two teams ranked in the Top-10 in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency by KenPom (Gonzaga, KenPom’s #1 team, is the other). I still believe West Virginia is a title contender, but they need to bounce back tonight against Kansas, a massive opportunity.

This Week: Tue 1/24 vs Kansas (7:00 pm, ESPN); Sat 1/28 vs Texas A&M (12:00 pm, ESPN)

 

  1. Butler

7: Butler has played the 7th toughest schedule in the country according to CBS Sports. It is extremely impressive that the Bulldogs have been able to go 17-3 so far against their brutal schedule. Even more so when you consider that two of their losses are to St. John’s and Indiana State, two teams that barely have a prayer of making the Tournament.

This Week: Wed 1/25 @ Seton Hall (8:30 pm, FS1); Sat 1/28 vs Georgetown (8:00 pm, CBSSN)

 

  1. Purdue

4: Number of games this season in which Caleb Swanigan has scored at least 20 points AND secured at least 20 rebounds. The number of games Swanigan has done this in is greater than the number of different players who have done it once this season. The dreaded sophomore slump has not happened to Swanigan, as he is instead leading the Boilermakers towards a possible Big Ten crown.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ Michigan State (7:00 pm, ESPN2); Sun 1/29 @ Nebraska (4:30 pm, BTN)

 

  1. Louisville

6.3: The Cardinals are one of the top defensive teams in the country, and they average 6.3 blocks per game, led by their trio of big men: 6-10 sophomore Ray Spalding, 7-0 junior Anas Mahmoud and 6-10 senior Mangok Mathiang. The trees in the middle force teams to beat Louisville from the perimeter, where the Cardinals are also extremely talented defensively.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ Pittsburgh (7:00 pm, ESPNU); Sun 1/29 vs NC State (1:00 pm, ESPN3/ACCN)

 

  1. Notre Dame

82.9: ND’s free throw percentage this season, good for #1 in the nation. There are a few things that tend to separate teams come March. Good guard play, suffocating defense and free throw shooting are probably the three biggest things. The Irish are the top free throw shooting team in the country, and that could help them win some close games late down the stretch and into the postseason.

This Week: Tue 1/24 vs Virginia (8:00 pm, ESPN3/ACCN); Sat 1/28 @ Georgia Tech (12:00 PM, ESPNU)

 

  1. Oregon

16: Consecutive wins for the Ducks. A tough start to the season saw Oregon lose two of their first four games, but since a loss to Georgetown in the Maui Invitational opening round, Oregon has rattled off 16 wins in a row. They just lost star Dillon Brooks to a foot injury, so it will be interesting to see if they can keep it going.

This Week: Thu 1/26 @ Utah (10:30 pm, FS1); Sat 1/28 @ Colorado (9:30 pm, P12N)

 

  1. UCLA

93: Points per game for the Bruins this season, second best in the country. They are the most efficient offensive team in the nation according to KenPom, as in addition to the 93 points per game, they lead the country in field goal percentage and are second in three-point percentage. A good offensive team can score on their porous defense, so if they have any off games offensively in March, they could be in a lot of trouble.

This Week: Wed 1/25 @ USC (11:00 pm, FS1)

 

  1. Arizona

14.8: Points per game last season for Allonzo Trier, who the Wildcats just got back from suspension Saturday in their huge road victory over UCLA. Arizona had been playing great without Trier, so getting back a star like him only catapults them to the next level. I think they are probably now the favorites to win the Pac 12.

This Week: Thu 1/26 vs Washington State (9:30 pm, P12N); Sun 1/29 vs Washington (3:30 pm, FOX)

 

  1. Baylor

29: Number of turnovers in Baylor’s only loss of the season, 89-68 at West Virginia. Now, I realize that West Virginia forces turnovers at a greater clip than any team in the nation, but 29 turnovers is absolutely horrendous. It’s clear that if you can get Baylor uncomfortable, they can crumble. It’s also clear that since the Bears haven’t lost another game this season, that it’s difficult to make them uncomfortable.

This Week: Wed 1/25 vs Texas Tech (8:00 pm, ESPNNEWS); Sat 1/28 @ Ole Miss (6:00 pm, ESPN2)

 

  1. North Carolina

6: Number of regular season games in February/March that UNC will play against teams in KenPom’s Top-20. The Tar Heels have played a tough schedule this season, but it will only get tougher, as six of their last eight games will be against Top-20 teams, including two games each against Duke and Virginia. That is a tough way to close a regular season, so if North Carolina gets a 1-seed in the Tournament, they will have earned it for sure.

This Week: Thu 1/26 vs Virginia Tech (8:00 pm, ESPN); Sat 1/28 @ Miami FL (1:00 pm, CBS)

 

  1. Florida State

6: Yes, same number, but this time it is the number of consecutive games Florida State has played against ranked opponents, going an extremely impressive 5-1 in those games. The last team to face that many consecutive ranked opponents in the ACC was Maryland in 1993. They went 0-6. Before that it was NC State and Duke in 1980, with those teams going 2-4 and 5-1 respectively in those stretches. The Seminoles are for real, and they have a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way.

This Week: Wed 1/25 @ Georgia Tech (7:00 pm, ESPN3/ACCN); Sat 1/28 @ Syracuse (12:00 pm, ESPN2)

 

  1. Kentucky

62-3: Kentucky’s record in Rupp Arena over the last four season (including this year). The Wildcats are one of the toughest teams to beat at home in the nation, and this Saturday they’ll host #2 Kansas in what is probably the biggest game of the season for each team. Kentucky can truly establish themselves as one of the top two or three teams in the country with a win over the Jayhawks.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ Tennessee (9:00 pm, ESPN); Sat 1/28 vs Kansas (6:15 pm, ESPN)

 

  1. Gonzaga

18: Number of consecutive seasons Gonzaga has reached the NCAA Tournament. Mark Few is a perfect 18 for 18 in getting the Bulldogs to the Big Dance, and he might have his best team yet this season. The Zags have a legit chance to enter the Tournament undefeated, something that hasn’t been accomplished since Kentucky in the 2014-15 season.

This Week: Thu 1/26 vs San Diego (9:00 pm, ESPN3); Sat 1/28 @ Pepperdine (10:00 pm, ESPN2)

 

  1. Kansas

4: Number of games this season versus KenPom’s Top-30. The Jayhawks have won 18 straight following a season-opening loss to Indiana, but they have faced just four teams in KenPom’s Top-30, and none of those teams are in the Top-15. It’s about to get tough though, as their next three games and five of their next eight are against teams in KenPom’s Top-10. If Kansas can get through these next eight games with a 6-2 or better record, I’ll be extremely impressed.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ West Virginia (7:00 pm, ESPN); Sat 1/28 @ Kentucky (6:15 pm, ESPN)

 

  1. Villanova

7: Number of schools that have won consecutive NCAA D-1 Championships in men’s basketball. Villanova is looking to join that group, which includes Florida, Duke, UCLA, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Kentucky and Oklahoma State, this season, and right now, they look like the favorites to take home the title this season. It’s going to be a difficult task, but the Wildcats seem up to the challenge.

This Week: Tue 1/24 @ Marquette (8:00 pm, FS1); Sun 1/29 vs Virginia (1:00 pm, FOX)