As the calendar turns from February to March, college basketball takes center stage. Many of the smaller conferences begin their league tournaments this week and, really, they are a lot more fun than the big boys. A lot of teams in the power conferences already know they’ll be dancing; the conference tournaments are mostly just posturing for position. In conferences like the Big South and Horizon League, it’s win or season over. That gives these late-February games a decidedly March feel.
Unless you’re a true college basketball junkie, you probably haven’t paid much attention to the Patriot League and its ilk over the last four months. Never fear, here’s a rundown of who I’m taking to win all the lesser tournaments.
Like Bucknell, the Catamounts will host all of their tournament games. They have won 18 straight overall, went undefeated in conference play, and have won the majority of their games by double-digits. Coach John Becker has won 20 games or more in each of his six seasons with UVM, and could be in line for a new job once this season concludes. There’s no reason to go against the clear class of the conference.
Florida Gulf Coast and Lipscomb ran away from the field in the eight-team A-Sun. As the top seed, FGCU gets to host each of their games. They split two games with Lipscomb this year, but they also hung tough with Baylor and Michigan State early on. The Eagles are the pick, having won nine of their last 10.
Winthrop and UNC Asheville are the top dogs in this league and have played five memorable games against each other the past two years. Asheville topped Winthrop on a neutral court in last year’s title game, but this season the tournament is at Winthrop (in Rock Hill, South Carolina). Asheville beat Winthrop in double-overtime a couple of weeks ago. Winthrop beat the Bulldogs by three points in January. It’s a coin flip between the teams, but the Eagles should want it a little more after losing the title game in three straight seasons.
UNCW and College of Charleston are the top two seeds and both have won four straight. Wilmington went 15-3 in league play, with Charleston one game back. They played two tight games this year, splitting the pair. The tournament is in Charleston, but I’m going to go with the best coach. Former Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts is a young star who won’t be at Wilmington long, particularly if they win the Colonial this season and dance for a second straight year.
Oakland and Valpo both went 14-4 during the regular season, while Northern Kentucky and Green Bay finished 12-6. Though Oakland has won nine straight and beat Valpo twice, Valparaiso scored non-conference victories over Alabama, BYU, and Rhode Island. Plus, it’s hard to beat a good team three times. (I know I just argued in favor of Fort Wayne, in part, because they beat their first-round opponent, Omaha, twice already; but the qualifier “good opponent” is what separates the Oakland/Valpo matchup.) Valparaiso also has a better track record, having been to the dance in two of the last three years. Oakland has not won the league tournament since 2011.
The obvious choice in the MAAC is 18-2 Monmouth, winners of 16 straight and the top seed in the neutral-site tournament. However, Monmouth is likely to play a pseudo road game in the semifinals against Siena, and Iona coach Tim Cluess is a big-time winner: he’s danced with the Gaels in three of the last five seasons. They are always a tough out, and have a real ability to put points on the board.
The Shockers lost once during the MVC regular season, at co-regular season champ Illinois State. When the teams met for a second time, the Shockers walloped the Redbirds 86-45. Wichita coach Gregg Marshall is one of the best head men in the country. Because of a mediocre non-conference slate, Wichita need to win the MVC tournament to guarantee an NCAA bid. With that motivation, the Shockers will be on a mission.
The Northeast is another wide open conference. It’s tournament is a bit unique: the higher seed hosts each game and each round is re-seeded. LIU Brooklyn, the no. 2 seed, is the play for a couple reasons: first, the team has won six straight, including recent wins over top-seeded Mount Saint Mary’s and no. 3 seed Wagner. Second, if you include non-conference play, the 20-win Blackbirds are the only team in the league with more than 16 victories.
Arguably the four best teams in the OVC come from the East Division, which makes the seeding look wacky. Tennessee State might be the second-best squad in the league, but with three teams at 8-8 in conference action, the Tigers are the eighth seed. This is one of those brackets where the top two seeds get double-byes (to the semis) while the no. 3 and 4 seeds go straight to the quarters. Top-seeded Belmont lost just once in conference play to Tennessee Tech, and they’re virtually playing at home. They have also danced four times in the last six years; beating a Rick Byrd-coached team this time of year is a major challenge.
The Patriot League is another conference that sees the higher seed host each tournament game, which is good news for no. 1 Bucknell. The Bison lost three games during the Patriot League season, two to Lehigh and one to Loyola-Maryland. Both of those teams are on the other side of the bracket.
The eight-team Summit League has been one of the more competitive conferences in the country this season. Every team has at least four losses and four wins. Five squads finished between 9-7 and 7-9. Fort Wayne beat Indiana at the start of the season (before Indiana resembled an episode of Mash) and played pretty well against Notre Dame. They are among the highest scoring teams in the country, yet went just 8-8 in conference action. In a wide open bracket, I’m taking a chance on the best offensive squad. Sure they are the sixth seed, but they already beat their first-round opponent, Omaha, twice and wouldn’t have to matchup with top-seeded South Dakota until the final.
Up until Saturday, the Zags were playing for an undefeated season. After losing to BYU, now they need to win the WCC Tournament in order to earn a number one seed in March Madness. While Saint Mary’s and BYU are quality teams, Gonzaga is Final Four good, and a regular season loss may help them in the long run.
Photo credit: SD Dirk (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/].
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