By Kevin Sweeney
While the third weekend of March is, for most college basketball fans, the best weekend of the year, the previous two weeks serve as an outstanding intro. Those two weeks are stuffed with conference tournament games from noon until midnight, with mid-majors fighting to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive and high-majors doing everything they can to give the best final showing to the selection committee that they can. While almost all conference tournaments are incredibly exciting to watch, there are a few in particular that I’ll be watching closest:
ACC Tournament (March 7-11, Brooklyn, NY)
I typically don’t enjoy power conference tournaments as much as mid-major ones, as they don’t tend to have the “win-or-go-home” style that makes mid-major tournaments so appealing. However, this year’s ACC Tournament will incredibly exciting, at least for the first few days. With nearly every ACC squad in contention for an at-large bid, the opening rounds will feature plenty of teams with their seasons on the line. Some of the first and second round matchups may turn out to be play-in games to the NCAA Tournament, with the losers going to the NIT and the winners hearing their names called on Selection Sunday. Last year in the American Conference Tournament, we saw Tulane rally around embattled head coach Ed Conroy to pull a pair of upsets. We could see the same type of run from NC State, a very talented team that has severely underachieved. With Mark Gottfried’s expected dismissal at the end of the season, it’s possible that the Wolfpack could turn things around and stun some people in Brooklyn.
Atlantic 10 Tournament (March 8-12, Pittsburgh, PA)
Despite being a mid-major tournament, everyone will be watching to see who can take home the A-10’s automatic bid. That’s because the A-10 seems like the most likely conference for a “bid thief” to emerge, which could spell doom for many bubble teams fighting for their lives. Most consider Dayton and VCU safely in the NCAA Tournament field at this point, while Rhode Island is the only other team receiving much consideration for an at-large bid. However, there are a bevy of teams who could make a run in the conference tournament and burst a few teams’s bubbles. Richmond has played outstanding basketball for much of A-10 play, but a horrendous non-conference has removed them from consideration for an at-large berth. St. Bonaventure is another dangerous team, with two of the league’s top scorers in Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. That duo can keep a team in any game, and could lead the Bonnies to a cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament. George Mason and La Salle, two teams who have been inconsistent but impressive at times, could also make a serious run come March.
MAAC Tournament (March 2-6, Albany, NY)
I’ll be covering all the action in Albany come the first weekend in March, and I couldn’t be more excited. The favorite is still defending regular season champion and NCAA at-large snub Monmouth, who will undoubtably come into Albany on a mission to avenge last season’s championship game stumble. However, there is a whole host of other contenders standing in the way of the Hawks. While Iona was blown out by Monmouth earlier this season, the Gaels are still one of the most talented and well-coached teams in the league, and are certainly capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the second season in a row. St. Peter’s came into the season without much buzz, but John Dunne’s team sits at 10-6 in conference play and has played extremely well against the Hawks this season, beating them at home and falling in overtime on the road. There’s also Siena, who has had a very up-and-down season but looks to be peaking at the right time. Picked 2nd in the preseason, expectations dropped after a 4-11 start to the season, but the Saints have started to get hot at the right time. The only team in the country with four 1,000-point scorers, the Saints are certainly talented. They also get the luxury of playing the conference tournament on their home floor, which should be an advantage for the Saints. Perhaps the wild card team is Canisius, a team that has overachieved in year one of the Reggie Witherspoon era. The Golden Griffins have an explosive offense that can get hot at any time, making them a scary matchup in a win-or-go-home situation.
MAC Tournament (March 6 at Campus Sites, March 9-11 in Cleveland, OH)
The nation’s leading scorer. The quest for a 3-peat. Revenge.
These are some of the many storylines for what should be some incredibly entertaining MACtion this March. Naismith Trophy nominee Marcus Keene will look to carry Central Michigan back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2003, while red-hot Buffalo will look for its third consecutive trip. This year’s favorite, Akron, has just 4 losses all season, but will likely have to beat a Buffalo team that has knocked the Zips out of the MAC Tournament in each of the last 2 seasons. Not to be forgotten in this title race is Ohio, who is still right in the thick of things despite losing defending MAC POY Antonio Campbell for the season due to a foot injury. A key battle to watch down the stretch is the fight for a Top-4 seed, as earning one ensures one less game to win in order to cut down the nets. With 5 teams sitting just 1 game behind for the 4th seed right now, it should be fascinating to see who can earn the final bye.
Sun Belt Tournament (March 8-12, New Orleans, LA)
If you asked me which conference tournament would be the most wide-open, I would go with the Sun Belt. Simply put, no team has been able to take any sort of control at the top of the conference. The preseason pick, UT-Arlington, stumbled to a pair of early losses in conference play, but has won 7 of 8 since to regain a slight lead at the top of the standings. Right behind the Mavericks is the trio of Arkansas State, Georgia State, and Georgia Southern, all of whom have been at first place at one point this season. Then, there’s a pair of sleepers in Texas State, who sits just a game out of first place after being picked last in the preseason, and Coastal Carolina, the conference newbies who continue to impress save a 3-game skid mid-season. I still would consider UT-Arlington the favorites, but a close second for me would be Georgia State. The Panthers are on a two game losing streak thanks to close road losses to Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, but recently won 8 in a row and have been a much better team since freshman sensation D’Marcus Simonds returned from injury. In the past 9 games, Simonds is averaging over 18 points per game and has asserted himself as a dominant wing scorer to compliment senior big man Jeremy Hollowell.