NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: Midwest Region

The Kansas Jayhawks had a fantastic season led by star guard, and likely National Player of the Year, Frank Mason III, and they have been handsomely rewarded for their success, getting the 1-seed in the Midwest Region, which will see the regional semis and finals take place in Kansas City, Missouri, a virtual home arena for the Jayhawks.

There are a lot of differing views of this region, with most experts giving Kansas the easiest path to the Final Four of any of the 1-seeds, while it is my opinion that the Midwest is the toughest region in this year’s Tournament. Outside of Kansas and the 2-seed Louisville, I believe that every other team has one of the toughest possible First Round games they could have had.

This region is home to three regular season champions of major conferences, and two additional teams who won major conference tournaments (and that doesn’t even include Louisville). Here is my preview of the First Round matchups in the Midwest Region.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Midwest Region

Tulsa, OK
#1 Kansas (28-4) vs #16 NC Central/UC Davis
Friday 3/17, 6:50 pm TNT

Overview: It was an unceremonious exit from the Big 12 Tournament for the Kansas Jayhawks, as they were upset in the quarterfinals by TCU. This came after the Jayhawks won their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, calling into question whether the motivation was truly there in that TCU game. Nevertheless, this is one of the best teams Bill Self has ever had at Kansas, and they will be a popular pick to go all the way and win the National Title.

Key Players: You can go back to my First Four preview post to see who the key players for NCCU and UC Davis are, but for the Jayhawks, I already mentioned Frank Mason III at the beginning of this article. Mason is averaging 20.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a game this season, and he is the type of player that can carry a team to a title almost by himself. He has lots of help though, and the most polarizing player on this team is future NBA lottery pick, 6-8 freshman forward Josh Jackson. Jackson is a talented defender and a freakish athlete, and he was suspended for the TCU loss. If he plays, the Jayhawks almost certainly win, so he’s a definite factor.

Why KU will Win: Again, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, because a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed. I don’t see it happening here. Kansas is extremely talented, especially on the offensive end of the floor. A lot of times in March, guard play makes the biggest difference. Well, Kansas has one of the best backcourts in the nation. They move on without an issue.

 

Tulsa, OK
#8 Miami FL (21-11) vs #9 Michigan State (19-14)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:20 pm TNT

Overview: Two teams that are trending in the positive direction will battle for the chance to upset the Kansas Jayhawks in the Second Round of the Tournament. You could argue that things aren’t great for Miami right now, having lost three of four entering the Tourney, but all three losses were to Tournament teams, and it was preceded by wins over Virginia and Duke. The Hurricanes are playing well right now. It has been a wacky season for Tom Izzo’s Spartan team, and they have also lost three of four heading into the Big Dance, but they are finally healthy, and it’s hard to bet against a healthy Michigan State team in March, even after what happened last year.

Key Players: Miami has a collection of very talented players, led by a trio of impressive guards in senior Davon Reed (15.0 PPG), junior Ja’Quan Newton (13.4 PPG) and freshman Bruce Brown (11.9 PPG). Those three will have to play well for Miami to have success. On the other side, the Spartans have one of the most talented freshmen in the country in forward Miles Bridges (16.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG), but another freshman who has come on strong as the season has progressed is center Nick Ward, who is averaging 13.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He has become the most important player for Michigan State.

Why MIA will Win: It’s been a strange season for Michigan State, and I think if you look at these teams from top to bottom, all things considered, you have to consider Miami the better team. Both squads are better on defense than offense, but I believe the Hurricanes have more options offensively, giving them an advantage in this matchup. They won’t let the Spartans get anything easy because MSU really struggles at the free throw line. Miami ends up making the stops when they need to and they get the win.

Why MSU will Win: Are you going to bet against Izzo in March? Me either. I got burned by them last year, picking them to win it all only for 15-seed Middle Tennessee to play a perfect game and end my bracket pool chances from the get-go. This team is fairly inexperienced, but that could actually be a good thing. They’ll play like they have nothing to lose, and the freshmen Bridges and Ward will have huge games, leading the Spartans into the Second Round.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#5 Iowa State (23-10) vs #12 Nevada (28-6)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: What a finish to the season for the Iowa State Cyclones. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they had a really good season from the start, including ending Kansas’s 50-plus game home winning streak, but they really turned it on at the end, winning six of their last seven in the regular season, and then winning three games in three days to win the Big 12 Tournament. Iowa State is peaking, and they are a dangerous team. But they can’t get too far ahead of themselves, because Nevada is not going to go down easy. The Wolfpack dominated the Mountain West this season, defeating Colorado State 79-71 in the championship game. This is a trendy upset pick.

Key Players: Iowa State, according to KenPom, is the 2nd most experienced team in this Tournament, and they are led by a talented quartet of senior starters, forwards Naz Mitrou-Long and Deonte Burton (combined 30.3 PPG), shooting guard Matt Thomas (44% 3PT) and star point guard Monte Morris (16.3 PPG, 6.1 APG). Morris is capable of taking over any game he is in. Nevada is extremely good as well, led by a couple potential future NBA players in 6-3 senior guard Marcus Marshall (team-leading 19.8 PPG) and 6-8 sophomore forward Cameron Oliver (15.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG). If these two play well, Nevada could shock a lot of people.

Why ISU will Win: Nevada is an extremely talented 12-seed, but Iowa State is one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, and I simply don’t see them losing this game. The Cyclones do a great job taking care of the basketball, and Nevada really struggles with forcing turnovers. That doesn’t bode well for the Wolfpack. Deonte Burton continues his impressive play (over 18 PPG in the Big 12 Tournament), and the Cyclones get past Nevada and into the Second Round.

Why NEV will Win: It’s no secret that sometimes all it takes in the Tournament is for one player to get hot, and the team just rides the wave of that player. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier single-handedly led UConn to national titles, for just a couple examples. Marcus Marshall is a game-changer in the same mold. Nevada does a fair amount of damage from the perimeter, and Iowa State tends to struggle playing defense out there. The Wolfpack get hot from distance, and win a shootout.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#4 Purdue (25-7) vs #13 Vermont (29-5)
Thursday 3/16, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: It was a down year for the Big Ten, but Purdue was clearly the best team in the league from beginning to end. For the Big Ten regular season champs to only get a 4-seed is all you need to know about how poor a season the league had. But don’t let that discourage you from believing in Purdue. They took Villanova and Louisville to the limit early in the season, and they have wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Maryland and Northwestern (twice) to their credit. They are the more talented team in this matchup, but they don’t have the most momentum, as the Vermont Catamounts enter the Tournament on a 21-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the country.

Key Players: Purdue has a Player of the Year candidate in 6-9 sophomore forward Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan. Swanigan had 26 double-doubles this season (!!!!!!!), averaging over 18 points and 12 boards a game. He is an absolute beast in the paint, and he can step out and hit jumpers too. He’s the ultimate weapon. Vermont will have trouble stopping Swanigan, so they’ll need their star point guard, junior Trae Bell-Haynes (11.1 PPG, 3.8 APG) to play well. Freshman forward Anthony Lamb (team-leading 12.6 PPG) might be tasked with defending Swanigan, and while he is an impressive player, he’ll have his hands full.

Why PUR will Win: I mentioned the strong possibility that Vermont won’t be able to defend Swanigan, and it’s because they simply don’t have the size or talent necessary to limit Biggie. Especially when you consider that the Boilermakers have 7-2 Isaac Hass that they can put in there, causing even more matchup problems for the Catamounts. Purdue shoots it extremely well from the outside, but here, they will take advantage of their huge size/strength advantage and overwhelm Vermont.

Why UVM will Win: If you believe in momentum, then you’re probably picking Vermont here. The Catamounts hardly know how to lose, and that can be an invaluable trait for a basketball team. I think Vermont can let Swanigan get his, and focus on limiting the rest of the Boilermakers. That is the way I would attack this game if I were them. Do that, and I think they have a chance to pull the upset.

 

Sacramento, CA
#6 Creighton (25-9) vs #11 Rhode Island (24-9)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:30 pm TBS

Overview: There are a lot of teams in this year’s field that have basically had two different seasons in one. That might not be more true for a team than it is for Creighton. Star point guard Maurice Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury in a January 16 game against Xavier. Up to and including that game, the Bluejays were 18-1. Without Watson, they are 7-8. They did build some momentum in the Big East Tournament though, reaching the title game, where they fell to Villanova. For Rhode Island, it was a major question if they were going to get into the Tournament as an at-large team. Their profile was shaky at best. Luckily for their fans, Danny Hurley’s squad took it out of the Committee’s hands, defeating VCU 70-63 to win the A-10 and earn the league’s auto-bid. The Rams are finally healthy and playing their best basketball of the season.

Key Players: E.C. Matthews is a stud basketball player who has been ravaged by knee injuries in his career. When healthy, he’s been spectacular. He played in every game this season, averaging a team-leading 14.9 points per game. Senior Hassan Martin is another outstanding player for the Rams, but he too has been slowed a tad by injuries in his career. With these two guys healthy, Rhody is a dangerous team. Creighton really misses Maurice Watson, but they still have some great players. Kansas State-transfer Marcus Foster (18.3 PPG) is an extremely talented scorer, and freshman big man Justin Patton (13.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG) has been a revelation this year, coming out of nowhere to become a potential NBA lottery pick.

Why CRE will Win: I would feel really good about the Bluejays if they still had Watson, but I also think they’d be a much higher seed had he not gotten hurt. Creighton is still one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and they like to play fast. That is a lethal combination if they  are making shots. Rhode Island prefers to slow the game down, so if Creighton can play up-tempo and pour in shots like they normally do when they play well, the Rams don’t stand a chance in this one.

Why URI will Win: As I mentioned before, a healthy Rhode Island team is very dangerous. Don’t forget, they were a Top-25 ranked team coming into the season, so the talent is evident. They showed their potential down the stretch, and they enter this game on an eight-game winning streak. They play really tough defense both inside and outside, and if they can slow the game down and play at their pace, and force Creighton to take tough shots, I like the Rams to get the upset and move on to the Round of 32.

 

Sacramento, CA
#3 Oregon (29-5) vs #14 Iona (22-12)
Friday 3/17, 2:00 pm TBS

Overview: The Ducks have had a fantastic season following their trip to the Elite Eight last season. They won the Pac-12 regular season title, and they reached the Pac-12 title game, barely falling to Arizona. It’s been great, but they will now have to overcome some adversity after senior center Chris Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semis. He is a terrific rim protector, and they will miss him a lot. The Gaels of Iona are back in the Tournament for the second consecutive season, needing overtime to take down Siena in the MAAC title game. Tim Cluess knows how to coach offense, and believe me, this team can score in bunches. They are fun to watch.

Key Players: The Ducks have a bonafide star in 6-7 junior Dillon Brooks. Brooks just has a knack for this game, and he led the team this season with 16.3 points per game while shooting over 41 percent from distance. I mentioned how this team will miss the interior presence of Chris Boucher, and that means that 6-9 Jordan Bell and 6-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams will need to step up to pick up the slack. I mentioned the Gaels’ great offense, and it is led by senior forward Jordan Washington. He was originally supposed to play at Arizona State, but ended up at Iona, and he has been stellar this season, leading the team with 17.9 points and 7.4 boards a game. Washington will likely benefit from the absence of Boucher protecting the rim.

Why ORE will Win: Many people have Oregon as one of the teams capable of winning a title this year, but some are backtracking off of that with the loss of Boucher. The Ducks should be out to prove that they are still one of the best teams in the country, and in this game, they just have way too much talent for Iona to keep up. The Gaels struggle to defend the perimeter, and Oregon can really shoot it. The Ducks get hot from distance and win this one going away.

Why IONA will Win: Iona is a good enough offensive team that if they can get hot, they will simply outscore teams. If Oregon struggles at all, the Gaels may smell blood in the water and take off en route to a massive upset. Iona will look to speed the game up, something Iowa State kept them from doing for the most part in last year’s 94-81 First Round loss to the Cyclones. If Iona can play their game, they’ll have a shot.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#7 Michigan (24-11) vs #10 Oklahoma State (20-12)
Friday 3/17, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: What an incredible story this Michigan team is right now. Their plane crashed off the runway last Wednesday, delaying their trip to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament. They were very close to not make the trip, forfeiting their first round game against Illinois. The team decided they wanted to play, and they went on to win four games in four days, defeating Wisconsin on Sunday to win the Big Ten championship. It’s a little different, but this team is starting to remind me of the UConn team that won five games in five days to win the Big East, and then went on to win the National Title. This is a magical story, but it’s one that Oklahoma State would love to end in the First Round of the Tournament. The Cowboys started 0-6 in Big 12 play before winning 10 of their next 11 games. They limp into this game though, having lost their last three games.

Key Players: Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. played out of his mind in the Big Ten Tournament, going for 29 points and 9 assists in the semis against Minnesota, and tallying 22 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the title game. He has put this team on his back, and they’ll need that to continue if they’re going to make a deep run. However, the best player on the floor in this game, and one of the best players that you know nothing about in this entire Tourney, is Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Jawun Evans. Evans is averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game this season, and he will be looking to become a household name.

Why UM will Win: This team’s story could be featured in a movie one day, it’s that bizarre and that amazing. But if that’s going to be the case, it can’t end with a loss in the First Round. The Wolverines have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, and that does not bode well for an Oklahoma State team that is downright putrid on defense. They are especially bad on the interior, while Michigan loves to attack the rim. The Wolverines will dominate the paint and move on to another chapter in the story.

Why OSU will Win: For as good as Michigan’s offense is, Oklahoma State’s is better. KenPom says that the Cowboys have the most efficient offense in the nation this year, and they are battle tested having played in the toughest conference in the country. Win or lose, you are going to know the name Jawun Evans after this game. The Cowboys will run Michigan to death, Evans will go off for 30-plus, and Oklahoma State ruins any future movie plans based on this Michigan team.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#2 Louisville (24-8) vs #15 Jacksonville State (20-14)
Friday 3/17, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: First off, I have a confession to make. It was not until watching the OVC title game that I learned that Jacksonville State is located in Jacksonville, Alabama, not Jacksonville, Florida. And I bet I just taught you all something as well! Anyway, the Gamecocks were able to knock off #1 Belmont and #2 UT Martin to earn their first trip to the Big Dance in school history. They don’t stand much of a chance here against Louisville though. The Cardinals have been a top team all season long, and they will be looking to rebound from a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament.

Key Players: A pair of talented guards do the majority of the damage for Louisville. Their leading scorer is 6-3 sophomore Donovan Mitchell, averaging 15.7 points per game. He is also a fantastic defender, notching 2.1 steals a game. His partner in crime is 6-2 junior Quentin Snider, who averages 12.7 points and a team-leading 4.1 assists per contest. Four different players average double-figures for the Gamecocks, led by junior guard Malcolm Drumwright (12.6 PPG). 7-0 junior Norbertas Giga will be tasked with dealing with the deep Louisville frontcourt, and I believe he is capable, averaging a team-leading 8.1 rebounds per game.

Why LOU will Win: Despite earning a 2-seed in the Tournament, I think Rick Pitino is probably a little disappointed with the regular season, and will look for his team to make up for it with a deep run in the Tournament. The Cardinals aren’t very efficient offensively, but they are balanced, and they will quickly be able to figure out where they are having success, and exploit that against an inferior team.

Why JSU will Win: We have seen 15-seeds beat 2-seeds before, and while it usually comes from out of nowhere, it’s almost always impossible to predict. There is no part of this matchup where I would give JSU the advantage, but they call it March Madness for a reason. Maybe Louisville has a cold shooting night, and the Gamecocks are able to take advantage and steal the game. Stranger things have happened, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: East Region

I started with the West Region, and now we move up the bracket to the East, which is led by the #1 overall seed in this year’s Tournament, the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Jay Wright’s squad lost its leader in Ryan Arcidiacono and it’s best interior presence in Daniel Ochefu, yet despite that, this season’s team might actually be better.

Josh Hart is a NPoY candidate, Kris Jenkins can still hit the big shot, and Jalen Brunson has taken a massive leap forward, showing the promise that had many expecting him to be a one-and-done coming out of high school. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, but the Cats are the team best positioned to get it done since.

They will have their fair share of roadblocks though, including a potential Elite Eight matchup with the hottest team in the country, the ACC Champion Duke Blue Devils. A Second Round meeting with grossly under-seeded Wisconsin could be tricky for Nova as well.

The team that emerges from Madison Square Garden unscathed will head to Phoenix to take on the winner of the previously previewed West Region. Here is a preview of the First Round in the East.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

East Region

Buffalo, NY
#1 Villanova (31-3) vs #16 Mount St. Mary’s/New Orleans
Thursday 3/16, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: I am on record as saying that I believe this year’s Villanova team is better than the one that won last year’s National Championship game over North Carolina. The Wildcats have an extremely impressive resume, with wins over Purdue, Virginia, Notre Dame and Wake Forest out of conference, and a dominating season in the Big East, winning the regular season and tournament titles. They were beaten twice by Butler, so if they can avoid the Bulldogs, they should be good to go!

Key Players: I mentioned potential National Player of the Year Josh Hart earlier, but he is still the most important player for this team. Hart is averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Hart struggled with his jump shot last season, and it is evident that he has improved in that area this year, turning himself into a potential 1st round NBA Draft pick. You also know about Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, but another extremely important player for Nova is 6-9 senior forward Darryl Reynolds. The Cats do not have very much depth, especially on the interior, so Reynolds needs to stay out of foul trouble and stay healthy, two things that have been easier said than done at times this season.

Why NOVA will Win: I won’t even put a note here about the potential for MSM or NO to win, because as of this writing we’re not sure who will be facing Villanova, and let’s be real, they won’t beat them anyway. But Villanova will win this game because they are on a mission to prove to everybody that they are every bit as good this year as the team that took home the championship last year. This team has way too much talent to slip up and become the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed.

 

Buffalo, NY
#8 Wisconsin (25-9) vs #9 Virginia Tech (22-10)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: Overall, I was very happy with the job the Selection Committee did this season. All of the teams that most deserved to get in are here, but they did misfire on some seedings. Maybe none more so than Wisconsin as an 8-seed. The Badgers had a rough stretch at the end of the year, losing five of their last seven games in the regular season, and their non-conference strength of schedule left a lot to be desired. They also were able to gain some momentum in the Big Ten Tournament, destroying Northwestern and falling to Michigan in the title game, but they definitely deserved a higher seed. They will not have an easy First Round game though, taking on Buzz Williams’s Virginia Tech team that had a very good season in the tough ACC. The Hokies went an impressive 10-8 in conference play which included wins over Duke and rival Virginia. VT is a very good offensive club, and will challenge the Badgers.

Key Players: Wisconsin is a very experienced squad, with seniors Bronson Koenig (14.1 PPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG) already having 14 NCAA Tourney games under their belts, but the best player on this team is sophomore forward Ethan Happ (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.9 SPG). Happ finished 6th in KenPom’s POTY ranking, and he is a dominant post player that can create problems for any team. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they lost star forward Chris Clarke to an injury late in the regular season, severely hampering their hopes for a deep Tournament run. They still do have four other players who average double-figures, led by 6-7 senior forward Zach LeDay (16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG).

Why WISC will Win: The experience factor should play a huge role here. Koenig and Hayes have been to the Final Four twice in their careers already, and this team just seems to up the intensity come Tournament time. The Badgers are great on defense this season, and they’ll be able to force missed shots, clean up on the boards, and do enough on the offensive end to win fairly easily over the Hokies.

Why VT will Win: I don’t think there are many people who believe Virginia Tech can defeat Wisconsin. The Badgers are better than an 8-seed, and the Hokies are kind of getting screwed because of that. Don’t sleep on them though. They are a very good offensive team, in the Top-20 in 2-point and 3-point percentage (according to KenPom). If they get hot, Wisconsin might not have enough on the offensive end to keep up with the Hokies.

 

Orlando, FL
#5 Virginia (22-10) vs #12 UNC Wilmington (29-5)
Thursday 3/16, 12:40 pm TruTV

Overview: Virginia is once again one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Tony Bennett knows how to teach defense, and it is extremely difficult to score against them. They even held North Carolina to 43 points in one of their meetings this year. That is crazy. The issue for the Cavs is that unlike the past few years, they really struggle on offense. They play at a snail’s pace, so if they aren’t making shots, they don’t give themselves enough opportunities. UNC Wilmington opened up last season’s Tournament with a near upset of 4-seed Duke, giving the Blue Devils everything they could handle. They have returned three of the top four scorers from last year’s team, and they will be extremely motivated to finish the deal this year with another shot to upset a top ACC team.

Key Players: Four UNC Wilmington players average double-figures, led by sophomore CJ Bryce (17.6 PPG) and seniors Denzel Ingram (14.5 PPG) and Chris Flemmings (15.8 PPG). The trio scored 51 combined points in the game against Duke in last year’s Tournament. I mentioned Virginia’s struggles on the offensive end, but when they have good games, they get a significant output from freshman guard Kyle Guy. He averages just 7.8 points per game, but he has had some big games down the stretch, including a 19 point output in a 53-43 win over UNC on February 27. They will need Guy to score if they are going to get the win here.

Why UVA will Win: If you can hold North Carolina to 43 points, you should have no issues beating a team like UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks are better on the interior, but that is where Virginia thrives on defense. They will force UNCW into taking bad perimeter shots, and will be able to get enough done on the offensive end of the floor to escape with a victory.

Why UNCW will Win: They really felt like they should have beaten Duke last year, and that will motivate them in their return to the Dance this season. If the Seahawks can make some shots and get an early lead, they can win this game. Virginia doesn’t have the firepower to make a comeback. UNC Wilmington will make some shots early, build a lead, and force Virginia to play a game that they don’t want to play. The Seahawks will hold on down the stretch, and move on to the Second Round.

 

Orlando, FL
#4 Florida (24-8) vs #13 East Tennessee State (27-7)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Mike White has done a fantastic job in his second season in Gainesville, leading the Gators to an impressive 24-win season, which included multiple 7-plus game winning streaks and victories over Seton Hall, Miami, Arkansas (twice) and Kentucky. Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country, but they can also shoot the lights out of any gym they play in. They lost three of their last four entering the Tournament, but this is still a team that can make a deep run. On the other side is East Tennessee State, who was a team considered to be very dangerous if they could win the SoCon and reach the Tournament. The Buccaneers are loaded with talented players, most of which have come from other programs. Head Coach Steve Forbes is very well regarded in basketball circles, and could be on his way to a higher-profile job if he can lead his team to a victory or two in this postseason.

Key Players: Florida’s leading scorer is 6-2 sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, who averages 13.9 points per game, shooting a shade under 40 percent from 3-point range. A very important player off the bench for the Gators is junior point guard Chris Chiozza. He is the only true point guard on this team, and he is capable of a triple-double, going for 12 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Missouri earlier this season. ETSU has more talent than your typical mid-major team, and they are led by 6-3 junior college-transfer T.J. Cromer, who is averaging 19.1 points per game. In the SoCon semis against Samford, Cromer dropped 43 points, going 9-12 from 3-point range and 10-11 from the free throw stripe. He shot just one 3-pointer in the title game, but still went for 23 points, and was a perfect 11-11 from the FT line.

Why UF will Win: ETSU will not be a pushover, but Florida is a better team than a lot of people realize. The fact that they lost to Vanderbilt three times this year makes people question how good this team is, and they will be without center John Egbunu who was lost for the season to a knee injury, but this is still a talented team that can make a deep run in this Tournament. They will refuse to give the Bucs any clean looks on offense, frustrating them to the point where they force the issue, which is exactly what the Gators want.

Why ETSU will Win: This team has the resume of a 13-seed, but the talent of a 10-seed, or possibly even higher. Cromer is capable of taking over any game that he plays in, and I expect him to be out to become one of the stars of this Tournament. Cromer goes for over 25 points, and the Gators struggle offensively against a sneaky good Bucs defense. ETSU pulls the upset and moves on to the next round.

 

Tulsa, OK
#6 SMU (30-4) vs #11 Providence/USC
Friday 3/17, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV

Overview: I had another seeding gripe here, but not as big as the one with Wisconsin. I know the American Conference had a down year, but this SMU team is scary good, and they go 30-4, and they’re a 6-seed? They should be at least a 5-seed, if not a 4-seed. The regular season and tournament champs in the AAC are one of the best teams that you don’t know very much about. They have won 16 games in a row as they enter the postseason, but they’ll have to sit back and wait until Wednesday night to find out who they’ll be playing on Friday afternoon.

Key Players: You can look back to my First Four preview to see who the key players are for Providence and USC, but for the Mustangs, the best player in Duke-transfer, 6-7 junior Semi Ojeleye, and he is an outstanding basketball player. Ojeleye averages 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game this season, and he is capable of carrying this team to a Final Four. He, and they, are that good, trust me.

Why SMU will Win: I don’t see either Providence or USC stopping an SMU team that is just on an absolute roll right now. Ojeleye and Ben Moore are great interior players, but Ojeleye can shoot the jumper too, and the Mustangs do a lot of damage from the outside. They are 5th in the nation in 3-point percentage according to KenPom. The talent will be too much, and SMU will get hot from the outside en route to an easier victory than some may expect from a 6/11 matchup.

Why PROV/USC will Win: Well, one of SMU’s four losses this season came on Black Friday in Los Angeles, when the Trojans came away with the 78-73 win. That absolutely means that they have a shot to knock out the Mustangs, but this is a different SMU team now than it was back in November. That being said, USC’s size could cause problems for the relatively undersized Mustangs. Providence plays a similar style to SMU, and is a similar team from top-to-bottom, but less talented, so I think it’s less likely that Providence will be able to defeat SMU.

 

Tulsa, OK
#3 Baylor (25-7) vs #14 New Mexico State (28-5)
Friday 3/17, 12:40 pm TruTV

Overview: At one point this season, the Baylor Bears were the #1 ranked team in the country. They started 15-0 with wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville, Xavier and Iowa State. That is nuts. They were finally defeated by West Virginia, but then won five more games to put them at 20-1. If you look above, you can then figure out that they finished the season 5-6, including a loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 quarterfinals. It was a tale of two seasons for the Bears, and they are limping into the Tournament. There were two good teams in the WAC this year, and it was the #2 team (but the team that KenPom believes is better), New Mexico State, who won the title game over #1 CSU Bakersfield to get into the Field of 68. Head Coach Paul Weir has done a great job in his first year with the Aggies, getting this team to the Tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons.

Key Players: Baylor is an extremely long and athletic club, and that starts with 6-10 junior Johnathan Motley, who is averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game this season. His frontcourt mate, 7-0 junior Jo Lual-Acuil is one of the best shot blockers in the nation, averaging 2.6 blocks a game. They have talent in the backcourt as well, led by second-leading scorer Manu Lecomte (12.4 PPG). The Aggies best player is 6-0 senior guard Ian Baker, who has been a significant contributor for this team for all four of his seasons in Las Cruces. This year, Baker is averaging a team-leading 16.6 points and 4.1 assists per game.

Why BAY will Win: This is not a great matchup for New Mexico State. They are a good team, and I might have picked them to win against a different 3-seed, but the Aggies do most of their damage in the paint, which is where Baylor has a bunch of large human beings who are very adept at denying chances at the rim. This is mostly a matchup thing, because Baylor has not played well as of late, but they will lock down the interior and get the victory.

Why NMSU will Win: Two years ago, 14-seed Georgia State upset 3-seed Baylor in a First Round game that took place in an early afternoon game. When it comes to the matchup, the Aggies don’t stand a chance. But history tends to repeat itself, and crazy things happen in March.

 

Greenville, SC
#7 South Carolina (22-10) vs #10 Marquette (19-12)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: South Carolina has done the same thing two seasons in a row. They start off really well, and then fade down the stretch. This season, a win over Florida put them at 15-3 and 5-0 in the SEC. They finished 7-7 with two losses to Alabama and a loss to Ole Miss. Frank Martin’s squad is the 3rd most efficient defensive team in the nation (according to KenPom), but they have a heck of a time putting up points. It was an up and down season for Marquette, with some really big highs (a win over #1 Villanova) and some really bad lows (a loss to St. John’s). The Golden Eagles really know how to put the ball through the hoop, but teams tend to have an easy time scoring against them as well. That means this game could come down to SC’s offense versus Marquette’s defense.

Key Players: The best player on the floor in this game will be South Carolina’s 6-5 senior guard Sindarius Thornwell (21.0 PPG). For as bad as the Gamecocks are on offense at times, Thornwell is more than capable of getting hot and taking over a game. The Golden Eagles are very balanced on the offensive end, with five players averaging double-figures. Senior guard JaJuan Johnson wreaks havoc on the defensive end as well (1.9 steals per game), while 6-11 senior Luke Fischer is the team’s best rebounder, grabbing 5.9 boards per contest.

Why SCAR will Win: You cannot ignore the struggles for the Gamecocks down the stretch of the season, but with a player as good as Sindarius Thornwell, you can’t count them out, especially in a 7/10 matchup that equates to a toss-up on most occasions. Marquette wants to play fast, so to win, South Carolina will need to make some shots and play really good defense. They are usually pretty good at one of those two things. Marquette struggles to get into a groove offensively, and Thornwell hits some late free throws to seal the win for the Gamecocks.

Why MARQ will Win: They normally say that defense wins championships, but when it comes to March Madness, it’s usually the teams that get hot offensively who go on to make deep runs. Marquette is a Top-10 offensive team this year, and they have been able to score against some really good defensive teams. According to KenPom, they are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation, and they get hot from distance and blitz South Carolina, moving on to the Second Round.

 

Greenville, SC
#2 Duke (27-8) vs #15 Troy (22-14)
Friday 3/17, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: About a month and a half ago, the question was how far down the seed-line was Duke going to fall, and will they every realize the potential or live up to the expectations that everybody bestowed upon them heading into the season. Now, after winning four games in four days, including three against Top-25 teams, to win the ACC Championship, and people started talking about this team possibly being a 1-seed. That was a little far fetched, but what isn’t is having the Blue Devils as one of the favorites to win this whole thing. The Troy Trojans made an impressive run in the Sun Belt Tournament, winning four games in five days as the 6-seed. They are very good on the offensive end of the floor, but have their struggles defensively.

Key Players: I could just start listing Duke players here, because they have so many good ones, but the key is Grayson Allen, the most hated player in basketball. He’s a terrible human being (he no longer gets the benefit of the doubt from me), but when he’s right, he is one of the best basketball players in the country. Coach K has Allen coming off the bench right now, and that appears to have helped get him back on track. He was scoreless against Clemson, but scored 18 points each in the games against Louisville and North Carolina. Duke needs Grayson to be Grayson if they are going to win a title. For the Trojans, 6-6 sophomore Jordan Varnado is the one to watch, leading the team with 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.

Why DUKE will Win: They are clicking at the perfect time, showing flashes of what had everyone picking them as the title favorites prior to the season. They are healthy, they are talented, and they are simply winning basketball games. I feel like Troy could play really well, and still lose by double-digits. The Trojans struggle on defense, and you have to play defense to have any prayer of beating the Blue Devils. Duke wins going away.

Why TROY will Win: I just said you have to play defense to beat Duke, but what happens if Duke has an off night? The Blue Devils biggest weakness is their interior defense, and Troy shoots it better inside the 3-point arc. The Trojans do a good job getting to the rim, they get Duke in foul trouble, and they make enough plays down the stretch to pull off one of the biggest shockers in Tourney history!

 

NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: West Region

I’m going to start of my Regional previews with the West Region, and it’s for no other reason than that each of the eight First Round games in this region will take place on Thursday. So it makes sense for me to get this one out there first.

The West Region is led by the #4 overall seed, the 32-1 Gonzaga Bulldogs, who despite what some people may say, more than deserved to be a 1-seed. They did not play in a very difficult conference this season, but they challenged themselves out of conference, and if you go an entire regular season losing just one game, you deserve to be a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

In the immediate aftermath of the bracket reveal, the popular opinion was that the West is the weakest region in this year’s Tournament. But just because the region is considered “weak” overall, doesn’t mean that the team to make it out of San Jose didn’t earn their trip to the Final Four just as much as the teams in the other three regions. Without any further delay, here is a preview of the First Round in the West Region.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

West Region

Salt Lake City, UT
#1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs #16 South Dakota State (18-16)
Thursday 3/16, 2:00 pm TBS

Overview: The Zags had a really good shot to enter the Tournament undefeated, but BYU had other ideas, defeating them 79-71 in the Bulldogs’ regular season finale. They rebounded though, winning the conference title beating Saint Mary’s, the WCC’s only other Tourney team, for a third time in the finals. Don’t let the past fool you, this team is legit. South Dakota State is in the Tournament for the second straight year after defeating Omaha in the Summit League title game 79-77. The Jackrabbits enter the Dance as the team with the most losses in the Field.

Key Players: Washington-transfer Nigel Williams-Goss is the leader for the Zags, and not only that, but he’s easily one of the best players in the entire nation. Williams-Goss averages a team-leading 16.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. He has lots of help though, as four teammates also averages double-figures, including senior center Przemek Karnowski (12.6 PPG) and freshman big man, and future NBA’er, Zach Collins (10.2 PPG in just 17.1 MPG). The fact that a probable 1st rounder in the NBA Draft comes off the bench for Mark Few is all you need to know about this team’s talent. South Dakota State does have a star of their own though in 6-9 sophomore Mike Daum. Daum is 2nd in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, and he put up 37 points in the title game victory over Omaha.

Why GONZ will Win: The most simple answer is because no 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. I believe it will happen one day, but I don’t see it happening here. This team is a legit National Title contender. SDSU is an extremely poor defensive team, and Gonzaga just has too much firepower. They are 2nd in the nation in effective FG percentage according to KenPom, and they’ll be too much for the Jackrabbits to handle. Gonzaga easily moves on.

Why SDSU will Win: I just said a 16-seed has to beat a 1-seed at some point, so why not South Dakota State? As a legitimate point, there haven’t been many 16-seeds in history with a player as talented as Mike Daum. He could certainly go off for another huge game, and if that happens, it’s possible that the Jackrabbits could keep it close, and maybe even pull off one of the biggest upsets in history.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#8 Northwestern (23-11) vs #9 Vanderbilt (19-15)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:30 pm TBS

Overview: One of the best stories of this entire basketball season is Northwestern finally reaching the NCAA Tournament. The school that hosted the very first NCAA Tournament is dancing for the very first time. They are the last major conference team to play in an NCAA Tournament, and don’t think just making it here is all they wanted. This team believes they can make a run in this thing, and so do I. They drew a tough First Round matchup though in Vanderbilt, a team much better than their record suggests. 15 losses is the most for an at-large team in Tournament history, but Vandy got in based on their strength of schedule (17th according to KenPom) and a number of big wins, knocking off Big 12 champion Iowa State and defeating Florida three times!

Key Players: The straw that stirs the drink for the Chris Collins’s Wildcats is junior point guard Bryant McIntosh (14.4 PPG, 5.7 APG). McIntosh and fellow junior Scottie Lindsey (14.2 PPG) have been on a mission to get this team into the Tournament, and they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to make sure this team makes a great showing in their first trip. Vanderbilt is an extremely talented team as well, led by a couple upperclassmen in senior big man Luke Kornet (13.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.6 PPG, 37% 3PT). Fisher-Davis has struggled down the stretch, and he’ll need to play well if they’re going to win this game.

Why NW will Win: The Wildcats have finally gotten here, and I have a hard time believing that they aren’t going to make the most of it, and that means getting at least one victory. This team is extremely balanced, talented in the paint and on the perimeter. Bryant McIntosh is probably the best player on the floor, and he leads a group of guards that I believe has the clear advantage in this game. They will make enough shots down the stretch to win a tight one.

Why VAND will Win: Northwestern is a great story, but it’s certainly possible that Vanderbilt is the better team. The Big Ten had a down year, and Vandy beat Florida three times, a team that is better than just about every team Northwestern played this season. Luke Kornet is a big man that likes to play on the perimeter, and the floor spacing Vandy brings will open up driving lanes, allowing the Commodores to get to the free throw line, where they shoot over 77 percent, and win a close game, ending the dream season for Northwestern.

 

Buffalo, NY
#5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs #12 Princeton (23-6)
Thursday 3/16, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: The first game of the Tournament this year will pit the only team to reach the Elite Eight in each of the last two seasons against the winners of the very first Ivy League Tournament. Coming into the season, Notre Dame was expected to have a drop-off, picked to finish 7th in the ACC. Instead, Mike Brey reminded everyone why he is one of the best coaches in basketball, leading the Irish to the ACC title game. They’re going to be tested here though by a very experienced Princeton team. The Tigers have a little momentum (19-game winning streak, second longest in the nation entering the postseason) and history on their side as well. The Ivy League representative in the Tournament has won a game three out of the last four seasons.

Key Players: Bonzie Colson is one of the best rebounders in the nation (10.2 per game, best in the ACC), and he also leads the Irish in scoring at 17.2 points per game. Oh yeah, and he’s only 6-5. He does have a 7-2 wingspan though, which definitely helps. ND also has one of the most improved players in the country in point guard Matt Farrell. Farrell came on late last season, playing well in the NCAA Tournament. He put a full season of success together this year, and I’m sure that will carry over to the postseason. I mentioned Princeton’s experience earlier, and they are led by seniors Spencer Weisz (team leading 32.9 minutes per game) and Steven Cook (13.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Cook shoots over 42 percent from 3-point range, one of three starters who shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc.

Why ND will Win: Once again, the Irish are an overlooked team heading into the Tournament. They feel slighted by Committee giving them a 5-seed, and will play with a chip on their shoulders because of it. I don’t think Princeton has a player that can deal with the matchup problem that is Bonzie Colson. Colson and company have way too much talent, and they will overwhelm the Ivy League champs. Notre Dame wins this one going away.

Why PRIN will Win: 12-seeds over 5-seeds is always a favorite upset pick in the Tourney. Over the last five Tournaments, 12-seeds are 10-10 in the First Round. Only four times since the field expanded to 64-plus teams in 1985 has no 12-seed advanced to the Round of 32. What else does Princeton have going for them? There isn’t science to back this up, but a fair amount of upsets in the Tournament tend to happen in the early afternoon games. This game will lead off the First Round, and the Tigers will be fired up to start the Tourney off with a bang. If they can find a way to pressure the Irish on defense while keeping them off the free throw line (ND is the best FT shooting team in the nation), they can score the upset.

 

Buffalo, NY
#4 West Virginia (26-8) vs #13 Bucknell (26-8)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: Early going in the season, I, along with a fair amount of experts, pegged West Virginia as a team that could contend for a National Championship. After that, the season had its ups and downs, with the Mountaineers scoring victories over Virginia, Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa State twice, but also losing Texas Tech and Oklahoma, and blowing a 12-point lead with less than three minutes left in a game at Kansas. On the other side, we have a Bucknell team that dominated the Patriot League, going 15-3 in conference play, defeating Lehigh in the championship game, the team that was responsible for two of the Bison’s three conference losses. This is a very young team, as out of the nine players who average over 10 minutes a game, zero are seniors.

Key Players: A couple junior forwards are the ones to watch out for on the Bucknell side. 6-7 Zach Thomas (16.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG) and 6-9 Nana Foulland (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) are the top two scorers and rebounders for the Bison. West Virginia plays a suffocating style of defense, and that is spearheaded by senior Tarik Phillip and junior Jevon Carter, who average 1.8 and 2.6 steals per game respectively. The Mountaineers have a very balanced scoring attack, with just two players averaging double-figures.

Why WVU will Win: A team with good guard play can give West Virginia problems. They thrive on being able to force turnovers and score quickly off of them. Bucknell’s guard play is not the best, and they are in the bottom half of the nation in offensive turnover percentage. That does not bode well for them. “Press Virginia” will do exactly that, and win this game going away.

Why BUCK will Win: The West Virginia team we have seen lately has not been the same one that many pegged as a title contender at the beginning of the season. If the Bison can limit turnovers and be able to set up their offense, they can dominate WVa on the interior. Big games from Thomas and Foulland are enough to fuel Bucknell to the upset.

 

Orlando, FL
#6 Maryland (24-8) vs #11 Xavier (21-13)
Thursday 3/16, 6:50 pm TNT

Overview: It’s been a tale of two seasons for both of the teams in this game. Maryland started an impressive 20-2 this season, but limped down the stretch going 4-6 over their last 10 games, including a quarterfinal loss to N’Western in the Big Ten Tournament. I believe a 6-seed was a little high for them. Xavier started well also, going 15-6 to start their year. Then star point guard Edmond Sumner suffered a season-ending knee injury. They were able to win their first three games after the injury, but then fellow star guard Trevon Bluiett was injured. He missed just two games, but the team ended up losing six of their last seven, before picking up a couple wins in the Big East Tournament.

Key Players: The Musketeers really miss Edmond Sumner, but they do still have junior Trevon Bluiett, who averages a team-leading 18.1 points per game. The only other Xavier player not injured who averages double-figures is guard J.P. Macura at 14.5 points per game. Maryland is lead by one of the most talented guards in the country in junior Melo Trimble (17.0 PPG). He has five NCAA Tournament games to his credit, and that experience could play a major factor for the Terps.

Why MARY will Win: Xavier, despite having very good outside shooters, tend to try to do their most damage on the interior. Maryland has a lot of size, and it is tough to get good looks in the paint against them. Melo Trimble will be the best player on the floor, and he will take over this game and hit a late shot to send Maryland to the Second Round.

Why XAV will Win: They struggled down the stretch, but they picked up some steam in the Big East Tournament, knocking off Butler and nearly beating Creighton. Trevon Bluiett has a penchant for hitting the big shot. I think this will be a very close, low scoring game, and it could come down to which team has the ball last. If it comes down to one shot, I want Bluiett taking the shot. He hits it, and the Musketeers advance.

 

Orlando, FL
#3 Florida State (25-8) vs #14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:20 pm TNT

Overview: A little in-state Tourney battle, and it’s taking place in their state! I am a fan of this “coincidence.” Florida State earned this high a bid at the beginning of ACC play, going 6-1 to start conference play, with all but the first one against ranked teams (wins over Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville in that span). They had struggles after that, losing to teams like Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Pitt. On the other side, Dunk City is back in the Tournament! You probably remember FGCU from their Sweet 16 run as a 15-seed in 2013, the birth of Dunk City. Believe it or not, they have more dunks this season than they did that year. The Eagles were not playing at full strength for a portion of this season, but they are at their fullest right now, and they are probably better than a typical 14-seed.

Key Players: The Seminoles are one of the most athletic teams in the country, led by star freshman and future 1st round NBA Draft pick, 6-10 Jonathan Isaac (11.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.5 BPG). He has some fantastic teammates as well in guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes (10.4 PPG, 4.8 APG) and Dwayne Bacon (team-leading 16.9 PPG). 6-8 senior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia is a beast for FGCU, but he missed 10 games during the season due to personal issues (team was 6-4 in those games, including single-digit losses to Baylor and Michigan State). He is back (which is HUGE for the Eagles), and in his absence, UCF-transfer Brandon Goodwin became a star in his own right, averaging 18.4 points per game.

Why FSU will Win: For as talented as FGCU is, they don’t even come close to what the Seminoles have to offer. Florida State is great on both sides of the floor, and they should have an easy time playing their style against the Eagles. FSU will run the Eagles to death and simply outscore them en route to victory. No fun for Dunk City this year.

Why FGCU will Win: This team will come into this game thinking that they are the better team. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to push a team over the edge. For as talented as Florida State is, they have really struggled at times away from Tallahassee. Orlando isn’t very far, but it’s still not Tallahassee. Dunk City will prove to be alive and well, getting the Florida crowd on their side, rekindling some of the magic from 2013, and pulling off the huge upset.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#7 Saint Mary’s (28-4) vs #10 VCU (26-8)
Thursday 3/16, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: When you talk about teams that are flying under the radar, Saint Mary’s is one of the first teams that comes to mind this year. They have just four losses this season, and three of them are to Gonzaga, who as it was noted earlier, is an extremely good team. The Gaels did not play a difficult schedule this year, but they know how to win, and KenPom has them as the 14th best team in the country. VCU has flown under the radar a little bit this year as well, finishing second in the A-10 in both the regular season and the tournament. Will Wade is one of the biggest names in coaching right now in terms of major conference openings, and he has done a great job with this team.

Key Players: Saint Mary’s has a player named Jock Landale, and he is a 6-11 junior who is averaging 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and he finished second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings. So yeah, he’s extremely good. VCU has some talented players as well, with senior JeQuan Lewis (14.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 1.7 SPG) and junior Justin Tillman (12.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG) leading the way. They also have a monster in the middle, 6-7 senior Mo Alie-Cox, who I think has been at VCU for 18 years. At least it’s felt like that long.

Why SMC will Win: You can knock the Gaels for playing an easy schedule, but you can’t knock them for losing to Gonzaga three times. They are a much better team than most people realize, led by one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. They are in the Top-15 in the country in both 2-point and 3-point percentage, so it’s not like you can just take one of them away and expect to beat them. They will slow the game down, play their pace, work through their star Landale, and get the victory.

Why VCU will Win: This is going to be a low scoring game, as both teams are better on the defensive side of the ball. Athleticism is going to be a major advantage for the Rams, and I think if they can force some missed shots and get out and run, they can beat Saint Mary’s.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#2 Arizona (30-4) vs #15 North Dakota (22-9)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: A few weeks ago if you asked people who the best team in the Pac-12 was, most probably said Oregon or UCLA. Arizona laughs at those people now, having beaten the Bruins and the Ducks in consecutive nights to win the Pac-12 Tournament and earn the 2-seed in the West. This team’s strength of schedule was not strong, but here are the four teams they lost to: Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, UCLA. All teams on the top four seed lines in this Tournament. They are totally healthy right now, and peaking at the perfect time. North Dakota is in the Tournament for the first time in school history, needing overtime to defeat Weber State in the Big Sky title game.

Key Players: Allonzo Trier might be the best player for Arizona, and he missed the first 19 games of the season. Trier is averaging 17.3 points per game, and his return has transformed this team. Lauri Markkanen is another player you should pay attention to on the Wildcats. The 7-0 freshman is drawing Dirk Nowitzki comparisons, and it’s spot on. 6-0 senior guard Quinton Hooker is the man for the Fighting Hawks, averaging 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

Why AZ will Win: They are playing their best basketball right now, and a lot of times, it’s the teams that get hot down the stretch who go on to make deep runs in the Tournament. North Dakota isn’t great on defense, and they tend to struggle to guard the 3-point arc most of all. Arizona has a bunch of great shooters. They will make more than 10 from behind the 3-point line en route to a huge win.

Why UND will Win: It’s going to be tough for the Hawks to even compete in this game, as Arizona is considered by most to be the favorite to advance to the Final Four out of this region. Arizona likes to slow the pace on offense and set up in the half court, while North Dakota would much rather speed the game up. If they can force some missed shots and push the tempo, maybe North Dakota has a shot to shock the world.

 

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.

 

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!