By Kevin Sweeney
Here we go.
For the next 14 days, teams will fight for their lives in single-elimination format, hoping to make their NCAA Tournament dreams a reality. So, I figured I try picking the champion of every conference tournament, knowing full well that the magic of March will likely transcend logic and leave my picks in a state of disarray.
America East Conference (March 1, 6, 11, Campus Sites): Vermont
The only team that can beat Vermont in the America East Tournament is Vermont. UVM cruised to a 16-0 A-East regular season, winning by an average of over 14 points per game. The Catamounts are the deepest and most talented team in the conference, and get to play all of its games at Patrick Gymnasium, where they have the best home-court advantage in the league.
American Athletic Conference (March 9-12, Hartford, CT): SMU
Storylines will be aplenty from the American Conference come the second weekend in March. Cincinnati and SMU will be the favorites, but are already NCAA Tournament locks. Houston, Memphis, UCF, and UConn come in as formidable foes who likely need to win the tournament to advance to the Big Dance. However, since defense wins championships, I’ll roll with the Mustangs. SMU has lost just 1 game since December 1, and I believe that they will carry that mark with them into the NCAA Tournament.
Atlantic Coast Conference (March 7-11, Brooklyn, NY): Louisville
What makes me consider Louisville as a national title contender are the same reasons why I’m predicting that the Cardinals will cut down the nets in Brooklyn. Louisville ranks top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on haslametrics.com. Villanova is the only other team who can say that. The Cardinals are well-coached and play without egos, both traits that translate well in March.
Atlantic Sun Conference (February 27, March 2, March 5, Campus Sites): Lipscomb
Lipscomb is a team that is really coming into its own at the right time. After a rough non-conference slate, the Bisons went 11-3 in A-Sun play, including a win at Florida Gulf Coast. The Bisons feature a dynamic offense and are one of the most unselfish teams in the country, ranking 4th nationally in assists per game. Their biggest challenge might be getting past North Florida, as the third-seeded Ospreys swept Lipscomb in the regular season.
Atlantic 10 Conference (March 8-12, Pittsburgh): Rhode Island
The A-10 Tournament is an example of how urgency can effect the results of a tournament. Last year, it was St. Joe’s who entered squarely on the bubble and wound up taking their NCAA Tournament fate into their own hands by winning the tournament. This year, Rhode Island is in a nearly identical position as the Hawks were in last year. With E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin playing their best basketball of late, it’s going to be tough to beat the Rams in Pittsburgh.
Big East Conference (March 8-11, New York City, NY): Villanova
Last year, Villanova came into the Big East Tournament hoping to cut down the nets and earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While they were upset by Seton Hall in the semifinals, things worked out for them in the long run. This year, however, will be a different story. The Wildcats will earn their revenge for a pair of regular season losses to Butler by knocking off the Bulldogs in the title game and will head into the Big Dance in style.
Big Sky Conference (March 7, 9-11, Reno, NV): North Dakota
Relative newbies to the Division 1 level, UND will punch their first-ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament in Reno next weekend. With high-level guards Quinton Hooker and Geno Crandall in tow, the Fighting Hawks have a pair of players that can make big plays in crunch time, something that will indubitably be necessary at some point during what should be a tightly-contested Big Sky Tournament.
Big South Conference (February 28, March 2, 3, 5, Campus Sites): UNC-Asheville
Considering how the first two meetings went, any neutral college basketball fan should be rooting for UNC-Asheville vs Winthrop 3.0 in the Big South Championship Game. After all, the first two meetings were outstanding games with exciting finishes. I’ll take the Bulldogs in round 3, and in turn earn their second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Big Ten Conference (March 8-12, Washington DC): Minnesota
With Maryland, Wisconsin, and Northwestern all struggling in an already-down Big Ten, only one team really seems to be trending in the right direction as tournament time approaches. That team is Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have quietly won 7 straight to climb up in the standings behind that play of sophomore big man Jordan Murphy. Murphy has averaged 15 points and 12.6 rebounds during the streak, posting numbers only comparable to national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan. If Murphy continues his strong play, the Golden Gophers seem destined for a deep run in March.
Big 12 Conference (March 8-11, Kansas City, Missouri): Oklahoma State
It can’t be understated how good a job Brad Underwood has done in his first season in Stillwater. Underwood has immediately made the Cowboys relevant in the Big 12 after a 12-20 campaign last season. Ever since having my bracket busted by Underwood’s Stephen F. Austin teams multiple times, I’ve learned never to bet against an Underwood-coached team. A Big 12 Tournament title would surprise many, but I think that OSU will stun the country with a couple of upsets and will cut down the nets in Kansas City.
Big West Conference (March 9-11, Anaheim, CA): Cal Poly
Just 3 years ago, Cal Poly made a miracle run to the NCAA Tournament despite entering tourney time with a 6-10 mark in conference play. I could see a similar Cinderella run happening this season. The Mustangs sit 7th in the Big West right now with just a 5-9 conference mark. What draws me to Cal Poly as an upset candidate is the fact that they’ve beaten 3 of the league’s top teams in UC-Irvine, UC Davis, and Long Beach State.
CAA (March 3-6, Charleston, SC): William & Mary
When firing on all cylinders, William & Mary can beat anyone in the CAA. Ask UNCW, who the Tribe demolished 96-78 at the end of January. If they played at that level all the time, they would be one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the country. However, the Tribe is very inconsistent (see 79-61 loss to last-place Drexel). If William & Mary can put it all together this weekend, they could snag the CAA’s auto-bid.
Conference USA (March 8-11, Birmingham, AL): Middle Tennessee
While there is a chance that Middle Tennessee would earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid even if they stumble in Birmingham, I don’t anticipate that the Blue Raiders will leave anything to chance. MTSU has been dominant in C-USA, with their only loss coming at the end of a road trip to a tough UTEP team. Expect to see last season’s NCAA Tournament darlings to bust more brackets this season.
Horizon League (March 3-7, Detroit, MI): Valparaiso
Injured or not, I simply don’t see Alec Peters letting his storied Valpo career end with anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth. Peters has missed the last two games with a leg injury, but he will likely play through whatever pain is there to make sure he ends his Valparaiso career right. While Oakland has beaten the Crusaders twice this season, I believe the third time will be the charm for Valpo, and they will send Peters out right with his second NCAA Tournament berth.
Ivy League (March 11-12, Philadelphia, PA): Princeton
In years past, Princeton would be all but locks for the NCAA Tournament at this point. However, with the introduction with the Ivy League Tournament, the Ivy’s auto-bid is as up-for-grabs as it has ever been. Despite that, I still think Princeton will represent the Ivy in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have won 15 in a row and are showing no signs of cooling off, and will look to ride that streak into the Big Dance.
MAAC (March 2-6, Albany, NY): St. Peter’s
Just as they seem to every season, John Dunne’s St. Peter’s team has flown under the radar, but is quietly a contender in the MAAC. There are plenty of worthy teams for this spot, including Monmouth, winners of 16 in a row, perennial contender Iona, and talented Siena, who is hosting the tournament, but the Peacocks are my pick to earn the MAAC Tournament title. St. Peter’s is a balanced team that plays great defense and has lots of shooters on the wing to surround center Quadir Welton, a first-team all-MAAC performer.
I’ll be at the MAAC Tournament all weekend, covering all the action from downtown Albany.
Mid-American Conference (March 6, 8-11, Cleveland, OH): Kent State
The MAC is wide open once again, but their is no team in the Mid-American that is hotter than Kent State. The Golden Flashes have won 4 straight, including wins over the three top teams in their division in Akron, Ohio, and Buffalo. When the core 3 of Jimmy Hall, Deon Edwin, and Jaylin Walker all play well, the Golden Flashes are as good as any team in the conference.
MEAC (March 6-11, Norfolk, VA): North Carolina Central
What do you get when you combine the best player and the best coach in the conference? A conference title, more often than not. NC Central has that lethal combination in senior guard Patrick Cole, one of the few true triple-double threats in mid-major basketball, and coach LeVelle Moton, who has been mentioned for many head coaching vacancies recently. That pairing will lead NC Central to the MEAC Tournament title come next Saturday.
Missouri Valley Conference (March 2-5, St. Louis, MO): Wichita State
“Arch Madness” is upon us again, and we can as much insanity this season as we’ve seen in recent years. However, the Shockers are simply too hot for me to pick against them in the conference tournament. WSU isn’t just beating its MVC foes, it is demolishing them each game without a letdown. Illinois State will challenge the Shockers, and they also deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament, but in the end, I believe that Wichita State will prevail.
Mountain West Conference (March 8-11, Las Vegas, NV): Nevada
I feel uncomfortable picking against a Colorado State team that overcome obstacle after obstacle to contend for the regular season MWC title, but I’ll roll with the Wolf Pack, a team I have been high on since before the season, to earn the Mountain West’s only NCAA Tournament bid. They have one of the top guards in the country in Marcus Marshall and a pair of bigs in Cam Oliver and Jordan Caroline that is as good as any frontcourt duo in the Mountain West. Eric Musselman’s next step in revitalizing this Nevada program is an NCAA Tournament berth, and I think he will accomplish that feat this season.
Northeast Conference (March 1, 4, 7, Campus Sites): Wagner
Wagner’s 11-7 conference mark is disappointing on its face considering it opened the season with a stunning win over UConn, but the Seahawks have been in every game they’ve played in NEC competition. Those losses include two 1-point defeats, a 2 point loss, and a 4-point loss in OT. Last year, the Seahawks fell just short in the conference championship game. This time around, Wagner will close the deal and reach the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio Valley Conferece (March 1-4, Nashville, TN): Belmont
The Ohio Valley is the first conference to give out its NCAA Tournament auto-bid, with the champion having to wait over a week from when they clinch their berth to find out who they will play. The team playing that waiting game will be a familiar face: Belmont. The Bruins have dominated the OVC this season, and will parlay that dominance into its 5th trip to the Big Dance in 8 years.
Pac-12 Conference (March 8-11, Las Vegas, NV): Oregon
There’s no player in college basketball who I’d rather have in crunch time than Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. He’s made big shot after big shot in his Oregon career, and I could see him making another to earn the Ducks their second consecutive Pac-12 Tournament title. Perhaps a run to the Pac-12 title would be enough to earn the Ducks a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, an idea that looked bleak when they started 2-2 with losses to Baylor and Georgetown.
Patriot League (February 28, March 2, 5, 8, Campus Sites): Bucknell
The last 2 Patriot League Tournaments have been full of upsets. Last year, 9th-seeded Holy Cross won the tournament in improbable fashion, winning 4 road games in 8 days after not winning a road conference game all season. This season, I foresee a less-shocking champion: Bucknell. With the big man duo of Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland leading the way, the Bison are a very talented team that will have the luxury of playing all of their conference tournament games on their home floor.
SEC (March 8-12, Nashville, TN): Florida
The Gators continue to impress me the more I watch them, so I believe that they have what it takes to knock off Kentucky and win the SEC Tournament. I don’t trust Kentucky to string together stops when it matters most, and Florida has been a consistently strong team throughout the season without any bad losses. They may not have first round picks up and down their roster, but I like the Gators’ chances of bringing home a trophy to Gainesville.
Southern Conference (March 3-6, Asheville, NC): East Tennessee State
The preseason favorite in Chattanooga, who once looked like one of the nation’s top mid-majors, has seen its season fall apart, with the latest news including locker room fights, punched lockers, and suspensions. However, a new favorite in East Tennessee State has stepped up, and is built like a team made for March. The Bucs have experience, size, and a dominant scorer on the wing in senior T.J. Cromer. Furman, UNCG, and maybe even Chattanooga will give the Mocs a run for their money, but in the end, I feel that ETSU will come out on top of the SoCon.
Southland Conference (March 7, 10, 11, Katy, TX): New Orleans
Nothing represented the changing of the guard atop the Southland better than the dominant display the Privateers put on in blowing out Stephen F. Austin last week. UNO is playing great basketball at the right time, and appears to be on its way to its first NCAA Tournament berth in over 20 years.
SWAC (March 7, 10, 11, Houston, TX): Alcorn State
Alcorn State has now won 11 games in a row after a 2-3 start in SWAC play. With Derrick Griffin no longer with the Texas Southern program as he pursues a career in football, Texas Southern is vulnerable, and the Braves stand to benefit from that come conference tournament time.
Summit League (March 4-7, Sioux Falls, SD): South Dakota
Another team hoping to reach its first-ever NCAA Tournament, the Coyotes snagged the top seed for the upcoming conference tournament by finishing the season strong while NDSU faltered down the stretch. With the high-scoring combo of Matt Mooney and Tyler Flack forming a potent high-low duo, expect the Coyotes to come out on top of the pack in a deep, talented Summit League title race.
Sun Belt Conference (March 8, 10-12, New Orleans, LA): UT-Arlington
There are always a few players in March that go from relative unknown to national star with a few huge performances. That guy this year may be junior forward Kevin Hervey, and he’s a big reason why I’ve tabbed UT-Arlington as my Sun Belt champions. Hervey is a 6-9 big man with guard skills who is capable of carrying a team on his back. After an early 2-game skid in Sun Belt play put the Mavs behind the 8-ball, UT-Arlington has reasserted itself as the team to beat in the Sun Belt, and potentially a team that could make a run in the Big Dance.
West Coast Conference (March 3, 4, 6, 7, Las Vegas, NV): Gonzaga
Whether or not you agree with the sentiment that Gonzaga needed to lose a game to improve their NCAA Championship hopes, I’m certain that Saturday’s loss to BYU will put the chip back on the shoulder of the Bulldogs. The Zags can be dominant when they play like they have something to prove, something I think they will do in the WCC Tournament. The winner of the BYU-St. Mary’s matchup will likely give Gonzaga all they can handle, but in the end, it will be the Bulldogs that prevail in Las Vegas.
WAC (March 9-11, Las Vegas, NV): New Mexico State
New Mexico State once looked unstoppable in the WAC, running off 20 straight wins at one point this season. However, a disastrous 0-2 road trip in early February left the Aggies in 2nd place in the WAC, while Cal-Bakersfield continues to impress. There have been reports of NMSU “tiring out” as the season has wore on, but I believe that the Aggies will find a second wind and claim the WAC’s auto-bid.