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.
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.