Week 1 Conference Tournament Picks

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s conference tournament SZN!

Conference tournaments officially begin Monday, as the Atlantic Sun gets us underway with quarterfinal action 2 days before the calendars turn to March. There will be conference tournament action in some form or another every day through Selection Sunday, so fasten your seatbelts everyone.

So, I’ve got all my picks prepared for The Jerome, one of the best parts of March in which the college basketball world comes together to pick winners in all 32 conference tournaments. Here are my picks while previewing/highlighting what to watch for in the first batch of the conference tournaments.

America East:

Champion: Vermont

An extremely spread-out conference tournament, the A-East begins on March 3 and doesn’t conclude until March 10 due to it being a campus site tournament. That gives Vermont an extra advantage, as not only will teams have to come up to Patrick Gymnasium to play the Catamounts, but it also protects them from their lack of depth. Vermont is the most talented and best-coached team in the league, and if Anthony Lamb can give them anything after missing A-East play with a foot injury, that’s just icing on the cake. Albany has the talent and matchups to scare the Catamounts the most in my opinion, but the Great Danes have been super inconsistent and will be tough to trust to win 3 in a row (something they haven’t done yet in A-East play this season).

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Despite not having Anthony Lamb (#3) for all of America East play, Vermont is in great shape to win their second consecutive America East Tournament. Photo: Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

Atlantic Sun:

Champion: Florida Gulf Coast

Another campus site tournament, the Atlantic Sun Tournament gets underway Monday and it’s championship will be Sunday, March 4. While getting past red-hot Lipscomb will be no easy task, I’ll bet on the most talented club in the conference in FGCU here. They’ve struggled a bit of late, losing 2 of 3, but this team has been here before and is so experienced in the backcourt. It all comes down to the defensive end of the floor for the Eagles, as they are undefeated this season when conceding fewer than 75 points but gave up 97 and 90 respectively in recent losses to Kennesaw State and Lipscomb. It will certainly be a battle, but it certainly seems like it will come down to Lipscomb and FGCU, and I’ll bet on the Eagles in a tight one.

Big South:

Champion: Liberty

There are always some upset-filled tournaments, and I project the Big South to be one of them. There simply hasn’t been one dominant team in the conference this season, as UNC-Asheville dropped a game yesterday at Gardner-Webb after it appeared that the Bulldogs were the team to beat. It could go to any of the top 5 in this conference, but I’ll roll with Liberty, a team that has shown flashes of brilliance and flashes of mediocrity this season. One thing I’m always looking for is a team with excellent guards, and the Flames have a deep backcourt that is one of the strengths of this team. They play excellent defense, and are a very good 3-point shooting team as well, which makes them a prime candidate to pull some upsets in a single-elimination setting. I certainly can’t wait for their conference tournament opener on Thursday against Campbell, a team that made quite a run of its own last season in the Big South Tournament behind Chris Clemons’ heroics:

Big Ten:

Champion: Michigan State

I’ve always thought that power conference tournaments were harder to project than mid-major ones due to the potential lack of urgency for some teams. 3 teams pop off the page for this one, but I’m rolling with Michigan State, simply because when they are clicking, they might be the best team in the country. Their frontcourt is a matchup nightmare, and Cassius Winston continues to play extremely solid basketball of late. The concern for me with Sparty is getting that consistent effort and performance, as they are coming off some pretty lackluster showings of late against Northwestern and Wisconsin. Plus, to me they have the most to play for of the other top 3 teams (Ohio State and Purdue) as they could play themselves onto the 1-seed line if they win the tournament.

CAA:

Champions: Hofstra

Whenever you have a guard who can absolutely light it up, you are a threat to make serious noise in March. The Pride certainly have that in Justin Wright-Foreman, who is one of the most underrated scorers in all of college basketball. Wright-Foreman’s club has been playing terrific basketball of late, as they’ve won 4 in a row and 5 out of 6. The tournament location in Charleston, SC certainly doesn’t help the Pride, especially with College of Charleston getting the #1 seed, but I believe that the Pride will make their first NCAA Tournament since 2001. That said, to me this is one of the more wide-open tournaments we have in the first slate, with CofC, Northeastern, and even never-made-the-tournament-club member William & Mary have very real chance to cut down the nets.

Horizon League:

Champion: UIC

The cloud hanging over the Flames with Dikembe Dixson announcing he’ll be transferring after this season gives me cause for pause, but I’ll still roll with this red-hot UIC club to claim what should be an exciting Horizon League Tournament. Tarkus Ferguson is the glue that holds this team together, and his return after missing time with a foot injury has made a world of difference with this team. Combine that with an elite rim protector in Tai Odiase and no shortage of scoring options on the wing in Dixson, Godwin Boahen, and Dominique Matthews, and I think the Flames will be as dangerous as any at Motor City Madness. The dark horse here is Oakland, a supremely-talented club led by Kendrick Nunn that has seen so much go wrong this season in terms of injuries and suspensions but absolutely have the pieces to make a run and get to the Big Dance.

MAAC:

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MAAC Tournament Trophy. Photo: Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

Champion: Rider

The MAAC possesses one of the more wacky streaks in all of college basketball, having not seen its top seed win the conference tournament since 2010 when Siena completed its 3-peat. And while Iona will look for a 3-peat of their own at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany, I’m taking the Broncs to smash the streak and start one of their own. I detailed how bright a future this Rider team has in my most recent article, and I truly think they could be starting their path towards a 3-peat this year. They are super athletic, get great point guard play, and have lots of scoring options. To me, they are the class of the MAAC and will dance into March despite Kevin Baggett’s history of early MAAC Tournament exits.

Missouri Valley:

Champions: Loyola-Chicago

Loyola-Chicago is a team I’ve had the pleasure to cover 3 times this season, and to me they are one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the country. In fact, I voted for them in the most recent Rockin’ 25 poll. They are athletic, space you out on defense, and have the best player in The Valley in Clayton Custer along with the league’s best freshman Cameron Krutwig. With Custer in the lineup, the Ramblers have been virtually unstoppable in MVC play, and with the rest of the league not exactly being models of consistency, Loyola is a clear pick for me. That said, they’ll likely have to win Arch Madness to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, as their resume is quite thin beyond a great win at Florida along with a bad loss to Milwaukee when Custer was out.

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Loyola is looking to add another banner to their collection, this time their first Missouri Valley crown. Photo: Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

NEC:

Champions: Wagner

The NEC is always one of the toughest leagues to predict, but it’s hard not to love the job Bashir Mason has done with this team. Blake Francis has blossomed into one of the NEC’s best with a breakout sophomore campaign, and the Seahawks are a very deep club that plays tremendous defense. Still, watch out for defending champs Mount St. Mary’s, who sport the league’s best coach in Jamion Christian and the always-incredible Junior Robinson running the show.

Ohio Valley:

Champions: Murray State

The pick here between Murray State and Belmont took a good bit of deliberation on my part, but in the end I decided to roll with the Racers, a club that I’ve been high on since the preseason. The backcourt tandem of Jonathan Stark and Ja Morant hasn’t gotten enough love as one of the best in the nation, and Terrell Miller is the perfect fit next to them as a skilled floor-spacing big. Belmont will certainly be hungry after consecutive early exits in the OVC Tournament, but Rick Byrd will have to work his magic as I have major concerns about how they match up in man-to-man with the dynamic Racer backcourt. Of course, Ray Harper’s Jacksonville State club lurks after winning last year’s tournament, a veteran team with a very strong core. This tournament should be very fun in its first trip to Evansville after a long run in Nashville.

Patriot League:

Champions: Bucknell

While this season has been mildly disappointing for the Bison, they are still in a tier of their own in the Patriot League ahead of a strong mid-pack. I simply can’t see a team that can handle the frontcourt pairing of Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland, and while the backcourts at Lehigh and Navy in particular have the talent to give the Bison major problems in a single elimination setting, I have trouble seeing this experienced Bucknell team falling, especially since they will be on their home floor as a result of the Patriot League having a campus site tournament.

SoCon:

Champions: Mercer

One of my bigger upset picks of the opening slate, I’m rolling with the red-hot Mercer Bears in what should be an awesome SoCon Tournament. Mercer entered the year with high expectations and underachieved early, but the Bears have turned a corner of late. Winners of 8 in a row, Bob Hoffman’s club has a talented frontcourt with the versatility to cause problems for the top dogs in the league, and the rest of the league has lacked the consistency for me to trust them come tournament time. Once-clear favorites East Tennessee State has stumbled of late, and while Wofford has the league’s best player in Fletcher Magee, the Terriers have been up-and-down as well. Not to be forgotten is Wes Miller’s UNC-Greensboro club, but I’m super high on this Mercer team. Plus, I needed an excuse to share this glorious video with you all:

Summit League:

Champions: South Dakota

The battle for the Mount Rushmore State will also be the battle for the Summit League title, as the South Dakota State Mike Dauminators (trademark pending) and the South Dakota Coyotes look to be the major contenders in the Summit. And while Daum and the Jackrabbits may get all the national publicity, we can’t diminish the job Craig Smith has done at South Dakota. The combination of efficient offense led by Matt Mooney and stout defense makes this team one of the more complete mid-major clubs in the country.

West Coast:

Champions: Gonzaga

While the WCC Tournament likely means more for Saint Mary’s with their more delicate bubble situation, Gonzaga is the team to beat in this conference tournament. The Zags are playing much better basketball than the Gaels of late, and their gameplan of denying Jock Landale post touches worked to perfection in the rivalry’s 2nd meeting. Rui Hachimura continues to play outstanding basketball, and Josh Perkins is the experienced guard everyone wants in March despite his relatively up-and-down career.

 

Ahead of Schedule: Mid-Majors Surprisingly Competing This Year

By Kevin Sweeney

As hard as it may be to believe, Senior Day’s are starting to come around, with many teams honoring the backbones of their teams as they gear up for one last run at March Madness glory. However, some teams already in position to compete this season should return their current core next season. Many of these teams entered the season with little to no fanfare, but now have a chance to burst onto the scene in March a year or 2 before most thought they might. Here are a few clubs to watch not only this March, but for years to come.

Rider: MAAC

The Broncs entered the 2017-18 season as a bit of an afterthought in the MAAC, as with 4 starters graduating from last year’s club, the preseason selection of 7th by the MAAC coaches seemed reasonable. But man, has Kevin Baggett’s club been tough this season. Winners of 10 in a row and in sole possession of first in the MAAC, the Broncs start 3 freshmen (all of whom redshirted for various reasons a season ago) and 2 sophomores. The engine that makes this club go is sophomore PG Stevie Jordan, an excellent table-setter who stuffs the stat sheet with averages of 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Baggett surrounds him with an extremely athletic group of wing/forwards who can do a lot of different things, like Dimencio Vaughn and Frederick Scott, as well as an elite shooter in Jordan Allen. The scariest part? Rider will add 2 talented transfers to their ranks next season in addition to this core, with wing Ahmad Gilbert (Minnesota) and guard Jihar Williams (FIU) joining the fray. To me, they are the clear top dog in the MAAC right now and have a chacne to put together a special run if they hold onto all this talent.

Ball State: MAC

The Cardinals made headlines early this season with a stunning upset win over Notre Dame, and BSU should be here to stay as one of the top mid-majors in the country. 4 starters will return from this season’s club, including a pair of uber-talented juniors in point guard Taylor Persons and versatile big man Trey Moses. They’ll also bring back Tahjai Teague, an athletic forward that fits perfectly next to Moses. Combine that with the potential of the current freshman class (Ishmael El-Amin and Zach Gunn combined for 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists in a recent win over division leaders Toledo) and the potential for James Whitford’s club is endless going forward.

Northeastern: CAA

Beneficiaries of the one of the biggest breakout transfers in college basketball this season, Bill Coen and the Huskies are 12-4 in the CAA and very much in the picture for an NCAA Tournament berth. Vasa Pusica went from being a rotation guard on a bad San Diego team in the WCC to one of the most indispensable players in the CAA, averaging more than 17 points and 5 assists per game while shooting greater than 50% from the field and 40% from downtown. Combine him with solid core of sophomores in Shawn Occeus, Donnell Gresham, and Bolden Brace, as well as talented freshman big Tomas Murphy, and optimism about the future of this program. And let’s not forget about Jordan Roland, a combo guard who is sitting out this season after transferring from George Washington, where he averaged 7 points per game a season ago.

Hartford: America East

John Gallagher entered this season thought by many to be on the hot seat. Coming off 2 consecutive 20-loss campaigns, the Hawks were picked near the bottom of the A-East by nearly every preseason prognosticator. Now, the Hawks look like one of the top contenders, if not the favorite, for the A-East title next year, with a chance to really make noise in conference tournament play this season. The junior trio of PG JR Lynch, SG Jason Dunne, and PF John Carroll combines to average over 40 points per game, and fits extremely well together. In a recent win over Vermont, it was Dunne who lit it up, scoring 28 points in a monumental win for the Hawks and the Catamounts’ first conference loss in over 2 years. The loss of rim protector Hassan Atia will definitely hurt next season, but the pieces are in place for Gallagher and company to make some noise next season.

New Mexico: Mountain West

From the beginning, I loved the Paul Weir hire at New Mexico. I just didn’t realize how quickly his impact would be felt in Albuquerque, both on the court and on the recruiting trail. It’s easy to look ahead to 2018-19, when the Lobos will add transfers Vance Jackson (UConn), JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), Carlton Bragg (Kansas/Arizona State), and Isaiah Maurice (Kansas State) along with 4-star PG Drue Drinnon, but UNM has been sneaky-good this season. Anthony Mathis has taken huge steps forward under Weir, while freshman wing Makuach Maluach has impressed this season and has limitless upside as he develops his skills and gets stronger. The Lobos have already proven their ability to compete with the Mountain West’s elite, taking both Nevada and Boise State to the wire in matchups earlier this season, so I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Lobos steal a bid to the Big Dance if they get hot at the right time.

CBB Central Podcast: Episode 1

Kevin Sweeney and Brad Cavallaro will be co-hosting the newest must-listen podcast in college basketball: the CBB Central Podcast. In episode 1, we share our vision for the podcast and talk bubble teams, Northwestern, overrated/underrated clubs, and break down Duke/UNC and UCLA/Arizona tomorrow.

Bubble Watch: Mid-Major Edition

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s early February, and that means it’s officially Bubble Watch season, a time in which my Twitter mentions are loaded with questions of whether a team has any chance of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. While the list of mid-majors with legitimate at-large chances isn’t all that long, there are several teams with some intriguing resumes that will be very interesting to monitor over the coming weeks.

Atlantic 10:

LOCKS: Rhode Island

The Rams have dominated a down A10, sitting at 19-3 overall and 11-0 in conference play. They have some quality wins, no bad losses, and sit #6 in the RPI. Save an epic collapse down the stretch, Rhode Island will be dancing in March.

Bubble: Saint Bonaventure

The Bonnies don’t have the resume of an NCAA Tournament team at this point, though high-level wins over Syracuse and Maryland keep them in the conversation for now. However, 4 losses outside the top 100 of the RPI, including 2 outside the top 150, are resume-crushers. If they can win out (including a home game to Rhode Island) and lose to URI in the conference championship game, SBU might just sneak into the dance. However, their best chance remains to win the conference tournament.

Conference USA:

Bubble: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee

Perhaps the most intriguing bubble teams come from the same conference, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee each have interesting resumes should they falter in the CUSA Tournament in March. Western Kentucky will have one of the best wins of any bubble team, with an early-season neutral site victory over likely #1 seed Purdue. However, as of now they have 2 losses to sub-200 RPI teams that could burst their bubble. A win at MTSU is imperative, and Marshall sneaking into the top 100 and UTSA getting into the top 200 would be helpful as well.

Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee has the opposite problem of WKU. They virtually have no bad losses, as if Marshall sneaks into the top 100 the Blue Raiders won’t have a loss outside the top 100. However, a lack of top-tier wins is evident, as Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are among the SEC’s worst and Western Kentucky is presently their only top 50 wins. A 10-1 road mark stands out to me, as does their #22 RPI and top-70 SOS, but the Blue Raiders are far from NCAA Tournament locks.

Bottom line is that neither can afford another bad loss if they have any hopes of an at-large bid. To me, MTSU is the league’s best chance at an at-large, but as we saw with their seeding last year despite a historic season, the margin of error is not large. As of now, I would put in MTSU as an at-large, while WKU would be on the outside looking in.

Missouri Valley:

Bubble: Loyola-Chicago

The Ramblers are a team that clearly pass the eye test for me, but their resume leaves a fair amount to be desired. A road win at Florida is a great starting point, but there isn’t a lot of meat on the bone otherwise. Another major hurdle is a head-to-head loss to another team I’ll mention later in Boise State, a game in which the Ramblers were trounced. That said, the Ramblers have lost just 1 game all season that starting guards Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson have played in, and a quick simulation on rpiforecast.com shows that the Ramblers could have an RPI in the 25-30 range if they were to win out and lose to a good opponent in the conference championship game. Still, I wouldn’t give Loyola much of a chance of an at-large bid.

 

Mountain West:

Bubble: Nevada, Boise State

I very much considered putting Nevada as a lock, but I decided there is just enough doubt with one more bad loss to keep them from lock territory. Should they not have a major slip-up, they should be fine, as the metrics like the Wolf Pack and a win over Rhode Island will look great come tournament time. But the resume isn’t deep, and a bad loss could haunt Nevada with their lack of quality wins.

As for Boise State, things are very much up in the air. On one hand, they have no bad losses. But wins over Oregon and Grand Canyon don’t look nearly as good as we thought they might, and there’s a real possibility the Broncos won’t have a top 50 win come March. A win over Nevada would absolutely move the needle, but they will continue to sit right near the cut line until Selection Sunday.

WAC:

Bubble: New Mexico State

A Diamond Head Classic win over Miami continues to make the Aggies’ resume look nice, and NMSU has steamrolled the WAC throughout conference play. However, if they do slip up in #WACVegas, they will be in an interesting position. How will the committee value the eye test and the continued dominance that the Aggies have displayed so far in conference play? Personally, I think they’d be the perfect team to send to the First Four if they falter in the conference tournament, but I’m not confident that the committee would reward a resume that otherwise lacks quality wins.

WCC:

Locks: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s

I’m fairly confident in putting both of these clubs into the NCAA Tournament as of now, though a bad loss or 2 could inject some doubt. Gonzaga has 4 top-50 wins, and Saint Mary’s has no losses if you forget that Thanksgiving weekend happened, where they fell to Georgia and Washington State at Wooden Legacy. Both teams are more than deserving to reach the NCAA Tournament, and should get in without too much trouble should they avoid a crushing loss to a lower-tier WCC team.

Loyola Continues MVC Ascension With Blowout Win over Missouri Stat

By Kevin Sweeney

The MVC has a clear top dog. Loyola dominated the preseason favorite Missouri State from the opening tip in a 97-75 victory Saturday afternoon at Gentile Arena. The Ramblers move to 19-5 on the season and 9-3 in MVC, with a 1 game lead in conference play. Here are 3 big things from this one:

Loyola is an elite offensive club:

The Ramblers shot a blistering 61% from the field in the game, putting 6 different players in double figures and had 24 assists on 39 made field goals. Porter Moser talked in his press conference about how he has emphasized “pace and space” in his recruiting and offensive style, and that has continued to come to fruition. Clayton Custer is the perfect man to cue up such an offense, as he posted his 3rd consecutive 20+ point game while adding 6 assists. “We really got out in transition and that got us rolling,” Marques Townes said postgame.

Home Court at Gentile Arena Continues to Improve:

“Why not us?” asked Porter Moser postgame in reference to bringing out huge crowds to Gentile Arena. “We want a major ticket problem”. The crowd was loud, with nearly 3,600 fans packing the arena for a “White-Out”. And those crowds seem to be helping the Ramblers as they come down the stretch of MVC play, as the Ramblers now lead the country in field goal percentage at home. With just 3 home games remaining for the Ramblers, Moser implored the fans and the City of Chicago to continue to come out and support the team as they try to win a MVC title.

Missouri State’s Struggles Continue:

It’s been a nightmare campaign for the preseason MVC favorites, and that continued this afternoon. The Bears have now lost 5 in a row and sit 5-7 in MVC play, a massive disappointment with this being the senior year for NBA prospect Alize Johnson (there were 13 NBA scouts in attendance for today’s game). Time is running out for MSU to turn things around, and if they don’t, Paul Lusk’s job could be in serious jeopardy. On a more positive note, Mustafa Lawrence had a breakout game for the Bears, posting 19 points and 3 steals on 5-9 from 3 despite coming into the game playing just 5 minutes a game. If he can build on that performance, it would be a major boost for Missouri State’s chances at Arch Madness next month.