By Kevin Sweeney
It’s the best month of the year.
Every year, I give you my 32 conference tournament champion picks right here, so you can laugh at me when I get things wrong while hopefully still beating you in my Jerome ballot. I decided to give you all my picks on opening Monday this year, even though some of these brackets aren’t finalized yet.
This one looks pretty wide open, with the usual suspects right there at the top. Ryan Odom has UMBC playing good basketball down the stretch after losing two stars from last season’s dream team, while Stony Brook is having an excellent season with a young roster. Even Albany has started to turn things around with a freshman-heavy team that has tons of long-term potential.
Still, it’s hard to bet against the Catamounts and John Becker in March. Anthony Lamb is the best player in the conference, and Vermont has a sturdy defense that will keep them in any game. This is the best team in the A-East, and getting the top seed means they’ll hold home court advantage throughout the tournament.
I’m tempted to pick Memphis here, as they get the conference tournament on their home floor and the Tigers have been a much different team in the friendly confines of FedEx Forum.
That said, I’m rolling with Houston, whose team has established itself as one of the nation’s elite. Dejon Jarreau’s continued emergence gives the Cougars yet another dynamic offensive player to go along with their lockdown defense, making Kelvin Sampson’s group a clear threat to make a run to Minneapolis in early April.
Champion: Florida State
This one’s a bit bold, but there are always a few high-major teams that get hot at the right time. Florida State seems to be a good candidate to be one of those clubs this March, as the Seminoles have been hot of late and have plenty of veterans who won’t be scared of the moment. Mfiondu Kabengele has been one of the most productive players in the country on a per-minute basis, and the depth that this group has should play well in a single-elimination tournament.
The Bisons have inserted themselves into the at-large mix thanks to impressive efficiency metrics and a road win at TCU. They could remove any speculation about their NCAA Tournament aspirations by finding a way to win three games in a row over the next week. Last season’s run through the A-Sun Tournament certainly should inspire confidence, and this senior-laden unit has the experience to make it back-to-back conference titles.
Champion: St. Bonaventure
Just 15 teams rate higher in Haslametrics’ momentum rankings than the Bonnies, who are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. Freshman Osun Osunniyi has completely revolutionized this group’s interior defense– as a result, Bona is playing the best defense they’ve ever played under Mark Schmidt.
Throw in a pair of senior stars in Courtney Stockard & LaDarien Griffin along with a dynamic young point guard in Kyle Lofton, and you’ve got a nucleus that could push anyone in this league.
With Xavier scorching hot as we head into March, I seriously considered picking the Musketeers as a bid-stealer here. Instead, I went with Marquette in what should be a wide-open Big East Tournament. I’m excited to see how this team responds to a single-elimination tournament-style environment, as shooting is volatile but the Golden Eagles have been much better this year on the defensive end thanks to the emergence of Theo John.
Oh, and by the way, Marquette has this dude named Markus Howard. I’ve heard he’s pretty good at basketball.
Champion: Northern Colorado
This pick is half “Northern Colorado is really good” and half “please let Jordan Davis put up a 40-ball on a 2 seed”. Jeff Linder has done an unbelievable job turning this program around in a short amount of time, and it would be a fitting end to Davis’s career to get to the Big Dance.
I refuse to bet against Chris Clemons. He has been heroic time after time for this Campbell team over his storied tenure, and his dynamic scoring gives the Camels the ability to take over any game. I’m also a big Andrew Eudy fan, one of the more unique bigs in the country with his ability to pass the ball.
We’ve seen this story before right? A John Beilein team running through the Big Ten Tournament to have all the momentum going into March Madness?
The Wolverines have cooled off a bit after their outstanding start to the season, but are still a legit national title contender. With no team really separating itself from the pack in the Big Ten, I’ll roll with the coach I trust perhaps more than anyone in the country.
Champion: UC Irvine
Nothing the Anteaters do on the floor wows you, but Russell Turner has this team playing outstanding defense and executing on both ends to perfection. There’s a reason this team has lost just once since 2019 begun. They lack the elite scorer to take over games, but this group just mauls teams on the glass and protects the rim as well as any team in America.
Champion: Texas Tech
I don’t trust anyone in this league, but I think I can be sold on betting on defense in March. This TTU team can lock anyone down and has a lottery pick in Jarrett Culver. Given Kansas’s struggles away from Allen Fieldhouse, Iowa State’s inconsistency, and Kansas State’s anemic offense, I wound up almost taking the Red Raiders by default.
There are always a few mid-major teams that peak too early. I worry that Hofstra is one of those teams this year, as their defense has regressed down the stretch after being a pleasant surprise for much of the season. That’s why I’m rolling with a veteran Northeastern team that has turned it around after a slow start (partially impacted by an early-season injury to Vasa Pusica). Pusica has really shined of late, averaging 21.6 points per game on 54% shooting over the last 7 games of February. He’s the type of dynamic playmaker with or without the ball that can take over a game in March.
Champion: Old Dominion
Your guess is as good as mine here. This league is as wide-open as any in the country. ODU has quietly asserted itself as top dog though, riding a typically-strong defense under Jeff Jones and an excellent senior point guard in Ahmad Caver. Western Kentucky continues to lurk with more talent than anyone in this league, but I believe in this Monarch club to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since their CAA days.
Champion: Northern Kentucky
Drew McDonald can cap his storied career with a second NCAA Tournament appearance in the last three seasons. McDonald, now over 2,000 points on his career, is the biggest reason the Norse have been so successful in their D1 infancy. Throw in a pair of talented guards in Jalen Tate and Tyler Sharpe, and this team has the makings of a sneaky 13 or 14 seed that could give a high-major some fits.
This has been a different Crimson team since Bryce Aiken returned in late January. Arguably the most dynamic scorer in the conference, Aiken has averaged over 20 points per game and provided Tommy Amaker with a guy who can create his own shot against anyone. Aiken dominated last weekend against Yale, with 28 points on just 11 shots en route to a huge win over the Bulldogs. Yale will be tough on their home court, but I’ll roll with Harvard.
This has been by far the worst season in the KenPom era for the MAAC as a whole, but those league-wide struggles have created some incredible parity. There are legitimately 7 teams capable of winning this one, as Iona is rolling, Rider has underachieved but is extremely talented, Siena is on its home court, and Canisius has played with everyone. I’ll take Quinnipiac, who has the best player in the conference in Cam Young, a steady point guard in Rich Kelly, and a good young coach in Baker Dunleavy.
I’ll be rooting against the Bulls during Champ Week, ideally with a bid-stealer swooping in to bring us a #2BidMAC. I just don’t trust one team enough to pick them over the Bulls, who have the best coach, the best player, and lots of senior leadership. UB is battle-tested and has handled getting teams’ best shot all season long. They should be able to get it done in Cleveland for the second consecutive year.
Champion: Norfolk State
NSU has established itself as the class of the MEAC this season, riding a deep scoring attack that features 5-6 guys who can really hurt you. The stat-sheet-stuffing Steven Whitley is one of my favorite mid-major gems, and the Spartans surround him with one of the most efficient outside shooting teams in the country.
Another one where your guess is as good as mine. Loyola has been maddeningly inconsistent offensively, the major root of their disappointing regular season. Still, they might be the best the Valley has to offer in a down year for the league that has seen no one fully establish themselves as the team to beat. Do the Ramblers have a little more March magic left in them? We’ll find out at Arch Madness, which should be as fun as any conference tournament.
Champion: San Diego State
This pick could give us a 3-bid Mountain West, as Nevada is a lock and Utah State continues to hover around the bubble. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are lurking, and until a blowout defeat in Logan at the hands of the Aggies, were playing as well as anyone in the conference. Jalen McDaniels is an NBA guy down the line, and Devin Watson is the type of tough, shot-making guard that you need in March. Can Brian Dutcher repeat what he did last March in Vegas?
This is one of my “this is a random pick that I really hope works out”, mostly because I have very little feel for this league. The Seahawks have struggled offensively this season, but have senior leadership in Romone Saunders and Elijah Davis and are solid defensively. Perhaps it would be fitting if Bashir Mason’s group wins this thing as a road underdog after dropping some heartbreakers on their home floor over the years in the NEC Tourney.
Champion: Murray State
We only got to see Murray State take on Belmont once in the regular season, and that matchup should be taken with somewhat of an asterisk given Ja Morant’s early ankle injury that caused the Racers to be not be their typical high-flying selves. Round 2 should be unbelievably fun, as Rick Byrd has one of his best teams ever at Belmont thanks to an NBA prospect of their own in Dylan Windler and a loaded freshman class. I’m rolling with the Racers in Evansville, but this one will be MUST SEE TV.
The Huskies have scared me with recent underwhelming performances against Cal and Stanford, but I still believe they are the best team in the conference. The 2-3 zone plays well in short turnarounds (as we’ve seen time after time with Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament) and this recent downturn could be enough to wake up Washington after getting a little too comfortable in early Pac-12 play.
One of the more underrated coaching jobs this year nationally has been what Matt Langel has done at Colgate. It has already been the winningest season in program history, and this talented group is far from finished. Northwestern transfer Rapolas Ivanauskas has been a revelation in the frontcourt, and Jordan Burns is a terrific point guard who can create shots for himself and others. Usual suspects Bucknell and Lehigh will have something to say about this one, but I’m buying all the Colgate stock I can.
The pick here is the Volunteers, who have all the experience necessary to win in a single-elimination situation. Having the tournament in Nashville with plenty of orange in the crowd shouldn’t hurt, either.
Champions: Texas Southern
This will be a popular pick given TSU’s historical dominance of the league of late, but with Trayvon Reed back after missing much of conference play, the Tigers have to be seen as the favorite. Between Reed, Jeremy Combs, and Jalyn Patterson, TSU has 3 guys who can take over a game. That’s enough for me to give them the edge of a Prairie View team that has dominated this season.
I’m somewhat selfishly rooting against the Terriers here given my hopes for a 2- or even 3-bid SoCon, but I really believe Wofford will get it done. They have quite frankly dominated one of the best leagues in America and had no trouble dispatching the other contenders throughout the regular season. With the jump they’ve made defensively to go along with their hyper-efficient offense, this team will be one of the nation’s toughest outs in March.
Champions: New Orleans
In a Murphy’s Law-type season for perennial power Stephen F. Austin, the Southland is wide open for the taking. It’s been fun seeing Sam Houston State and Abilene Christian have dream seasons, but I like Mark Slessinger’s Privateers here. They do an excellent job forcing turnovers and defend the 3-point line well, and both traits should serve them well in Katy, TX next week.
Champions: South Dakota State
Before I get into why SDSU is the clear choice here, I just wanted to give a quick shoutout to Nebraska-Omaha, one of the better overachieving stories of the year given where most slotted them in the Summit preseason. That said, it’s just super hard to pick against the Dauminators, especially given the emergence of Skyler Flatten as a legit 3rd option offensively behind Mike Daum and David Jenkins. Throw in a stat-sheet-stuffing point guard in Tevin King, and it’s no surprise that this team has won 24 games and is in great position to Dance for the 4th straight season.
The Warhawks have had brutal close-game luck this season, with three one-point losses and just one double-digit defeat in conference play. They have an absolute killer in Daishon Smith who can take over games and do an excellent job of surrounding him with shooters to give him space to attack off the bounce. If they can land on the right side of some close results, they have as good a chance as any to cut down the nets.
Champions: Utah Valley
Perhaps the opposite of ULM above, New Mexico State has had incredible luck. A 50-footer at the horn to beat Grand Canyon, a deep triple from Trevelin Queen to knock off CSUB, a JoJo Zamora 3 with a second to go to beat Washington State, and a few other wins that came down to the final possession. So as much as I love this NMSU team, I have a feeling their luck may run out in Las Vegas. UVU has been excellent this year as Mark Pope continues to do an excellent job. The Toolsons are terrific, and the Wolverines can really shoot the ball (better than 40% from 3 in WAC play).
Another league where I’d love to slot in a bid-stealer, but I just can’t stomach picking against the Zags. They’ve been beyond dominant in conference play, with no team really able to even push them this season. The closest to a slip-up came either at USF when the Dons were right there for 38 minutes before falling apart or a terrible performance by Gonzaga at Loyola Marymount that allowed LMU to hang around for awhile.
No one is beating Gonzaga in the WCC. That’s the bottom line.