On the weekend, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville State, Wichita State, and Winthrop punched their tickets to the NCAA Tournament. Over the course of the week, a host of other small-conference schools will earn berths in the big dance, and I already advised bettors who to take last week. Today, I handicap Championship Week for the power conferences and mid-majors.
The top of the bracket features national title contenders North Carolina, Duke, and Louisville. The bottom half seems weaker with Notre Dame, Florida State, and Virginia. The tournament is being held in Brooklyn, a big advantage for bubble team Syracuse. UVA doesn’t get a bye to the quarters, like the top-four seeds (UNC, FSU, ND, and Louisville), but the team has won three straight, including a victory over North Carolina, and will be heavy chalk against either Georgia Tech or Pitt in its first game. All in all, the Cavs’ road to the title is manageable, particularly since they routed Notre Dame – their likely quarterfinal opponent – in South Bend. Featuring the best defense in the nation, they’re a great value play.
The tournament is in Hartford, CT, but UConn has had a down year. SMU and Cincinnati are the top two seeds, and they’ve been the class of the AAC all season. SMU is 17-1 in league action (and has won 13 straight). UC is 16-2. The two defensive powers split their head-to-head matchups this season. Neither has any real advantage, location-wise, making this a true a toss up. I’m going with the more balanced Bearcats.
The A10 tourney is in Pittsburgh this year, with double-byes for the top four seeds: Dayton, VCU, Richmond, and Rhode Island. Dayton won nine straight before a loss on Saturday against George Washington. They split two games with VCU. Richmond went 0-3 against the top two seeds. URI lost twice to Dayton and a third feels likely in the semis. The Flyers, who have become March mainstays, are the play.
Villanova, the defending NCAA champs, finished 15-3 in league action, well ahead of second-place Butler (12-6) and the four teams tied for third at 10-8 (Creighton, Seton Hall, Providence, and Marquette). That third-place quartet is solid, but the top two teams are the best in the conference by a sizeable amount right now. (Creighton would be up there if not for the tragic Maurice Watson saga.) While Butler beat Villanova twice during the regular season, beating a team as good as ‘Nova three times in the same year is a huge ask. Jay Wright’s squad will be geared up to turn the tables if they meet Butler again the title game. If they meet anyone else, they’ll simply outclass them.
The neutral-site tournament in Reno is wide open. No team in the conference lost fewer than four league games, and the top five seeds all receive byes to the quarterfinals. Montana started 0-4 and 1-6. However, the Grizzlies closed the year with back-to-back road wins, and finished 6-2 down the stretch. Ride the hot hand.
The Big Ten tourney is going to be a crapshoot. None of these teams are that good this year. Danger looms at the top of the bracket where top seed Purdue could face Michigan and Michigan State in early tests. Wisconsin and Maryland seem to have better roads on the bottom portion of the bracket. The Badgers beat Maryland in their only meeting, but the tournament is being played in Washington, DC. Advantage Terps. Maryland also has the best point guard in the conference in Melo Trimble, something that often proves massive in postseason play.
The Big West tournament will be played in Anaheim, which is good for a lot of teams, including top-seeded UC Irvine. More good news for the Anteaters: the tournament reseeds so that the top remaining team always gets the lowest remaining team. UC Irvine beat UC Davis 79-49 in the final regular season game to win the regular season championship. They look the part.
The Big 12 is underrated and getting overlooked this year thanks to the top-end talent in the Pac-12 and the depth of the ACC. Kansas, which just won its 13th straight regular season title, is the favorite, as it should be. But the Jayhawks are going to get pushed in the semis, where they’ll face either Iowa State or Oklahoma State, two teams with Sweet 16 potential. (Iowa State already beat Kansas at home earlier in the year.) I’ve seen Scott Drew and Baylor flame out one too many times before; give me second-seeded West Virginia. They have the best draw and Bob Huggins usually has his team ready.
UTEP was the only team to beat MTSU during the regular season, and they may matchup in the semifinals. Essentially Alabama-Birmingham is playing this tournament at home, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center. However, UAB finished just 9-9 in the regular season. Middle Tennessee State beat Michigan State in the big dance last year, has won seven in a row, and will be tough to derail.
The first ever four-team Ivy League tournament takes place at Penn. In a rather unfair turn of events, Princeton, 14-0 in league play, plays Penn to open, while Harvard meets Yale. But the Tigers should be able to overcome the bad draw; the only team that was able to play Princeton close this year was Harvard. It is a pretty good bet those two will be in the final. Harvard lost twice to end the regular season, and Princeton feels more stable.
Akron looked like they were going to run away with the league title a few weeks ago. They did finish first, but also lost three of five down the stretch, going went 14-4 overall in conference play. Four teams finished tied for second at 11-7. I’m still rolling with the Zips. They could fall to any of those second-place teams if they continue to play like they have been down the stretch. But they have also been the most consistent team over the year as a whole, and they’re frequently tough to handle in the MAC.
Norfolk hosts the MEAC Tournament, which sometimes gets wild. This year, North Carolina Central won the regular-season crown by one game over Norfolk State, and finished two ahead of Morgan State and Hampton. Adding in non-conference play, Central has 22 overall victories (22-8); nobody else was better than 15-15. That said, NCCU lost its final two regular-season games. Hampton has danced two straight years, and more or less plays the tournament at home. They’re better value.
This has not been one of the great years in the Mountain West, which will probably be a one-bid league. Nevada edged Colorado State to win the regular season title. However, if seeds hold, CSU would face Boise State in the semis, and Boise beat them twice during the regular season. Nevada has won six straight, but will face a challenge from Fresno State, whom they split with, in the semis.
Las Vegas welcomes three legitimate national championship contenders (UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona) plus several other teams hoping to dance. Oregon has the best draw among the top three as UCLA and Arizona are on the same side of the bracket. The Ducks should not have a ton of difficulty reaching the title game. Even if they do get pushed, Dillon Brooks might be the most clutch player in the country.
Kentucky has the biggest fan base and the most talent. If they win the tournament, they should be a no. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Cats have won eight straight, and are a heavy favorite in the bracket for a reason.
This tournament in Katy, Texas, is about as wide open they get. The top two seeds, New Orleans and Texas A&M Corpus Christi, have double byes. New Orleans was 13-5 in the regular season, while three teams finished 12-6. Houston Baptist has won nine straight including a convincing win over Corpus Christi. Let’s roll with the hot team again.
UT-Arlington owns some nice wins, but if they don’t win the Sun Belt Tournament, they’ll be on the wrong side of the bubble. They had won eight straight before a two-point loss in their regular season finale against Louisiana-Lafayette. The Mavs do just about everything pretty well, and while they lost to likely semifinal opponent Texas State once, they got revenge in the second meeting and are just a better team.
Texas Southern won the regular season title by three games, and has just one setback since late January. They played a monster preseason schedule, and have rolled while facing opposition their size. Mike Davis is a very good coach at this level. (He wasn’t bad at significantly better gigs in Indiana and UAB, either.)
What should be a three-team race between regular-season champ Cal State Bakersfield (12-2), New Mexico (13-3) and Grand Canyon (13-3) is down to two because Grand Canyon is not eligible for the big dance. The WAC tournament is in Las Vegas, and CSUB is the only squad that gets a bye. Bakersfield and New Mexico State split two games, but NMSU has danced three of the last five years and always seem to get it done this time of year.
Photo Credit: Thomson200 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
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