With opening round action tipping off in the Big South, Ohio Valley and Horizon League tournaments Tuesday evening, the madness is officially upon us.
Thirteen days of nothing but dream-fulfilling, career-ending, win-or-turn-in-your-jersey action. All the elements that draw casual fans so completely into the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament are inherent in each and every one of the 30 conference tournaments that will take place over the course of the next two weeks.
Quite simply, it's high drama that you can't find anywhere else in sport.
We've taken our shots at ESPN since the start of the season, but the fact remains that each and every one of us are enormously indebted to the worldwide leader for what it does during college basketball's postseason. Between Thursday and Selection Sunday, ESPN will air 152 conference tournament games on its family of networks. If it was possible for me to get sick of the sport, I would.
Mid and low-major D-I basketball is an acquired taste, and it's one that's especially difficult to attain when the team you love and follow plays in a conference like the Big East. So while I'm fully aware that the majority of you likely aren't interested in any of what you're about to read, allow me to say this: I don't care. This is my favorite time of the year, I'm currently smiling as I type, and this post is going to happen whether you like it or not.
For the rest of you, it's time to get briefed for Championship Week...sans, of course, the six major and four mini-major (A-10, WAC, MWC, C-USA) conferences.
YOUR COMPLETE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT DATES AND LOCATIONS
It's the most logical, if not exciting, jumping off point, and we all know this blog has always been rooted in practicality.
Let's go ahead and include the big boys in this one just because we can.
|Albany, N.Y.||March 6-8, 14|
|Atlantic Sun||Nashville, Tenn.||March 4-7|
|Atlantic City, N.J.||March 11-14|
|New York||March 10-14|
|Ogden, Utah||March 7, 10-11|
|Big South||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 3, 5, 7|
|Oklahoma City||March 11-14|
|Anaheim, Calif.||March 11-14|
|Richmond, Va.||March 6-9|
|Memphis, Tenn.||March 11-14|
|Horizon||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 4, 6-7, 10|
|Ivy League||No Tournament|
|Albany, N.Y.||March 6-9|
|Winston-Salem, N.C.||March 9-14|
|St. Louis||March 5-8|
|Las Vegas||March 11-14|
|Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 5, 8, 11|
|Ohio Valley||Nashville, Tenn.||March 3, 6-7|
|Los Angeles||March 11-14|
|Patriot||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 4, 8, 13|
|Tampa, Fla.||March 12-15|
|Chattanooga, Tenn.||March 6-9|
|Katy, Texas||March 12-15|
|Sioux Falls, S.D.||March 7-10|
|Sun Belt||Hot Springs, Ark.||March 4, 7-10|
|Birmingham, Ala.||March 11-14|
|Reno, Nev.||March 10-14|
|Las Vegas||March 6-9|
I'm feeling sixy.
SIX SQUADS FOR THE BUBBLE BOYS TO PULL FOR
If you're a major conference fan still with us, I'll humor you.
The crop of mid-major squads poised to head to the dance regardless of league tourney performance is as thin I can ever recall, which is great news for middling squads in BCS conferences. With rare exception, a regular season champion getting knocked off is not going to result in a stolen spot this year.
Rapidly aging fans of teams that haven't done enough yet to warrant "lock" status should adopt these squads as their own for the next couple of weeks.
1. Gonzaga (West Coast)
A perennial occupant of any such list, the 'Zags are merely playing for seed at this point.
2. Butler (Horizon)
The Bulldogs don't appear to have a squad as capable of advancing past the first weekend of the tournament as they have in recent years, but a 25-4 record still has them safely in.
3. St. Mary's (West Coast)
Though they've dropped four games in a weak West Coast Conference, the Gaels were 18-1 when Patty Mills injured his right hand against Gonzaga, a fact the selection committee will surely to take into consideration. Mills is apparently ready for the postseason, meaning a semifinal win may well be enough to send St. Mary's dancing.
4. Davidson (Southern)
Sure, they're low on quality wins, and sure, they lost three games in February, but the selection committee is still comprised of humans (Rosie from The Jetsons got the boot after her now infamous Rutgers-backing in '07) and those humans are well aware of who Stephen Curry is and what he did a year ago.
5. Creighton (Missouri Valley)
The Missouri Valley isn't the league it's been the last few years, but the Bluejays are still a sparkling 25-6 and own non-con victories over Dayton, New Mexico and George Mason.
6. Siena (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Like Davidson a year ago, Siena played (and lost to) the best in the country early in the season, a fact that should work in the Saints' favor should MAAC Madness get the best of them. Also, at least a few of those same selection committee humans probably remember what they did to Vanderbilt in the first round last year.
This sixy feeling just won't go away.
SIX MORE BIG TIME FAVORITES
These runaway regular season champs are all expected to go dancing, but will be relegated to the NIT with an upset.
1. American (Patriot)
Few defending conference champs are able to boast five starting seniors, but that's the case with the American Eagles. AU hung right with second-seeded Tennessee in the first round a year ago, and will serve as a scary draw for some three or four seed should they capture their second Patriot League tourney title in as many seasons.
2. North Dakota State (Summit)
Best known for going on the road and stunning Wisconsin in January of 2006, the high-scoring Bison captured their first Summit League crown by two games, and now look to crash the NCAA Tournament in their first season of being eligible for postseason play.
3. Weber State (Big Sky)
The Wildcats (20-8, 14-1) have won 11 straight and currently own a four-game advantage over second place Portland State.
4. Robert Morris (Northeast)
Despite dropping back-to-back tilts in late February, the Colonials captured the regular season NEC crown by three games and are now looking to make amends for getting bounced in the semifinals of last year's league tournament.
5. Morgan State (Mid-Eastern Athletic)
Todd Bozeman's team was stunned by Coppin State in last year's MEAC title game, but the Bears wrapped up another regular season title last week and get a shot at redemption next week.
6. Alabam State (Southwestern Athletic)
ASU hasn't lost since Jan. 26 when last-place Alcorn State handed the Hornets their lone league loss.
20 PLAYERS NOT NAMED STEPHEN CURRY WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM
1. Seth Curry (Liberty/Big South)
Stephen's younger brother was recently named the Big South's Freshman of the Year after averaging 20.6 ppg and shattering nearly all of the conference's rookie records. If there's another Curry out there somewhere, and you're major conference coach thinking about not giving him a scholarship because of his size, my advice to you is to reconsider.
2. Patrick Mills (Saint Mary's/West Coast)
The Australian guard was having a tremendous sophomore season before a broken hand forced him to miss the last five weeks. Mills has been cleared for the WCC Tournament, which is outstanding news for perhaps the nation's most hotly debated bubble team.
3. Lester Hudson (Tennessee-Martin/Ohio Valley)
Hudson figured his first season in Division I-A would be his last, but a poor showing at last summer's pre-NBA Draft camps has him back at UT-Martin and the Skyhawks on the verge of their first trip to the NCAA Tournament. He's the nation's second-leading scorer at 26.6 ppg, and is still the only player in D-1 history to record a quadruple-double. The OVC semis will be on ESPNU Friday night.
4. Eric Maynor (Virginia Commonwealth/Colonial Athletic)
Still known most for being the guy who hit the shot that beat Duke, Maynor has evolved into a surefire NBA draft pick and VCU's all-time leading scorer. The soon-to-be two-time CAA Player of the Year currently boasts a career-best 22.4 ppg scoring average as well as some sort of championship belt.
5. Ben Woodside (North Dakota State/Summit)
The most exciting player on one of the country's most intriguing teams made a name for himself on Dec. 12 when he drilled 30-of-35 free-throws and dropped 60 in a one-point loss to Stephen F. Austin. Woodside enters the postseason averaging 23 ppg and coming off of a week in which he scored 32 and 29 points in a pair of victories.
6. Josh Akognon (Cal-State Fullerton/Big West)
Akognon, who averages 23.5 ppg, may have the biggest green light in the country. It hasn't always translated into success for the Titans, who find themselves at 7-8 and right in the middle of the wide-open Big West.
7. Johnathon Jones (Oakland/Summit)
The nation's leader in assists (7.8 apg), Jones is the biggest reason is the biggest reason the Golden Grizzlies roll into the postseason winners of seven straight.
8. Matt Howard (Butler/Horizon)
Leading the Bulldogs to yet another conference title by averaging 14.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, the 6-8 forward became the Horizon League's first sophomore Player of the Year since 1992.
9. Tywain McKee (Coppin State/Mid-Eastern Athletic)
A tremendous story of success, McKee leads his team and ranks second in the MEAC in scoring at 18.3 ppg.
10. Michael Bramos (Miami of Ohio/Mid-American)
The MAC championship generally runs through Miami, so it's not a good sign for the rest of the league that the Redhawks' leading scorer just went off for 34 in a win over Kent State. A guy who can get it done on both ends of the floor, Bramos has a golden opportunity to carry MU back to the dance in his senior season.
11. Marqus Blakely (Vermont/America East)
The probable America East Player of the Year can do this:
12. Garrison Carr (American/Patriot)
Backcourt mate Derrick Mercer just brought home league POY honors, but it's Carr's offensive ability that gives this team a legit shot at pulling off a big-time upset in two and-a-half weeks.
13. Bilal Benn (Niagara/Metro Atlantic)
The most complete stat-stuffer in the MAAC, Benn ranks among the league-leaders in scoring, rebounding and steals. He scored 21 points, snatched 12 rebounds and made three steals in a recent 15-point win over regular season champion Siena.
14. Orlando Mendez-Valdez (Western Kentucky/Sun Belt)
With Courtney Greene and Tyrone Brazelton now being paid to play the game, most figured this would be a perfect year for someone besides Western Kentucky to win the Sun Belt. It didn't happen, as Mendez-Valdez increased his scoring average by nearly ten points and guided the 'Toppers to yet another top seed in the Belt.
15. John Bryant (Santa Clara/West Coast)
Though guys like Patty Mills, Josh Heytvelt and Jeremy Pargo are about as close to household names as there are in mid-major basketball, it's the relatively unknown Bryant who was recently named the WCC's Player of the Year. After shedding 30 pounds in the offseason, Bryant currently leads the nation in rebounding (13.9 rpg) and is the WCC's third-leading scorer (18.0 ppg). He recorded a double-double in all but one conference game, and his streak of 14 double-doubles is the longest by a Division I player since Tim Duncan had 17 in a row for Wake Forest in 1996.
16. Stephen McDowell (Chattanooga/Southern)
McDowell’s 18.8 point-per-game average ranks second in the SoCon, while his 4.0 three-pointers made per game leads the league and ranks third nationally. The Mocs are the North Division champions, meaning a spot on the side of the bracket opposite Davidson.
17. Artsiom Parakhouski (Radford/Big South)
The 6-foot-11 Big South Player of the Year averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds in helping the Highlanders win the regular-season title. A little known fact is that his name is awesome.
18. Jeremy Chappell (Robert Morris/Northeast)
The senior leads the league at 2.6 steals per game, is third in scoring (16.6 ppg), made three pointers (73, 2.4 per game) and free-throw percentage (.854), eighth in rebounding (6.3 rpg) and ninth in three-point percentage (.403). He was recently named the NEC's Player of the Year for a second straight season, and is a former NEC Rookie of the Year.
19. Anthony Vereen (Texas-Arlington/Southland)
A 6-foot-7, 230-pound beast, Vereen is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams in the Southland. He leads the Mavericks in scoring (17.3 ppg), and has hit double figures in all but four contests.
20. Ryan Wittman (Cornell/Ivy)
There's no tournament, but defending champion Cornell currently holds a game and-a-half lead over Princeton in the race for the Ivy League crown. The two will meet in the regular season finale on Saturday. The Big Red are again led by sharp-shooting Ryan Wittman (18.5 ppg), the son of ex-NBA player and coach Randy Wittman.
FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU WANT TO HAPPEN
1. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary's (West Coast)
The first meeting between these two was shaping up to be a classic before Mills went down, an injury which sealed the Gaels' fate in the rematch two weeks later. But the Australian sensation is reportedly back to full strength and the two teams are both just one win away from each other, as the WCC awards its top two seeds automatic byes to the tournament semifinals.
2. Virginia Commonwealth vs. George Mason (Colonial Athletic)
The Rams were stunned by Bill & Mary in the semis a year ago, depriving the (interested) public of the game it thirsted for. But the CAA powerhouses are back at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, once again, and just a pair of wins away from meeting for the second time this season. Mason dropped the regular season meeting on the road, 76-71.
3. Siena vs. Niagara (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Last year's MAAC regular season and tournament champions - as well as first round NCAA Tournament victors - have the viewing public debating their merits as a possible at-large team, but it was the runners-up from Niagara who smoked the Saints 100-85 on Feb. 27. Siena prevailed by an even wider margin (82-67) when the pair met a month earlier, making a possible rubber match that much more interesting.
4. Northern Iowa vs. Creighton (Missouri Valley)
Creighton is the Valley squad getting the most national love, but it's the Panthers of Northern Iowa who won the tiebreaker and are carrying the top seed into Arch Madness. Each beat the other on the road in the regular season.
5. Binghamton vs. Vermont (America East)
A month after losing to Binghamton in overtime, Vermont blew a 23-point halftime lead and fell by two to the Bearcats in Burlington. The loss ultimately cost the Catamounts the America East's top seed.
FIVE CRAZY COMPETITIVE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
Parity reigns supreme and should make for some tremendous games in each of these leagues.
With just a week left in the regular season, Buffalo and Bowling Green stand tied atop the East Division at 10-4 with Miami of Ohio and Akron both just a game back, while last-place Ohio owns the same record (7-7) as West Division leader Ball State.
2. Missouri Valley
The play inside the Scottrade Center might not be at as high a level as it has been in recent years, but it will undoubtedly be every bit as competitive.Northern Iowa and Creighton are the two unquestioned top dogs, but every other team in the league besides Missouri State finished within four games of one another.
3. Ohio Valley
Preseason pick UT-Martin lived up to the hype and captured the regular season title, but perennial powerhouses Murray State and Austin Peay charged late to finish just a game back. Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky also finished the 18-game slate with records above .500.Also worth noting: if No. 7 Eastern Illinois mysteriously drops out, then this becomes a tournament comprised completely of teams from the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. So, yeah.
4. Colonial Athletic Association
VCU and George Mason have made names for themselves on the national stage recently, but six teams in the CAA finished the regular season with double-digit conference wins, and both teams at the top of the standings were handed multiple losses by squads that finished in the bottom half.
5. Sun Belt
Western Kentucky and Arkansas-Little Rock both finished the regular season with 15-3 records and won their respective divisions without the aid of a tiebreaker, but it might be 14-4 Troy who heads into the postseason playing the best basketball. North Texas and chronic contender South Alabama are right there as well.
FIVE CRAPPIER CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
There's been a growing trend in recent years of leagues starting their regular season champions, or top two seeds, in the semifinals of the postseason tournament. It makes sense in that it adequately rewards regular season performance and gives the league its best shot to be well-represented in the NCAA Tournament, but it's like, not as fun.
Here are five conference tournaments that hope the prince cheats on Cinderella in ten years.
1. Big Sky
Not only does the Big Sky automatically place its top two seeds in the semifinals, but it only includes six teams in the whole tournament. A conference tournament that has as many total games as a first round baseball playoff series is un-American. I said it.
2. Horizon League
The Horizon has been utilizing this practice for a few seasons, but last year they stepped it up a notch. Now the top two seeds get an automatic bye into the semis, while the other eight teams have to win four games in four days. Green Bay earned the second seed over Cleveland State by a mere game and now sits in the semifinals, while the poor Vikings have to win a pair of games just to get there.
3. West Coast
Gonzaga and St. Mary's will both begin league play in the semifinals, making this the easiest championship game to predict in the history of college basketball.
4. Big West
The Big West gives its top two seeds a bye into the semis, but it's also one of the few leagues that employs the NHL style of having the highest remaining seed play the lowest remaining seed in each round. Smart, yes. Kind of annoying for fans of chaos, absolutely.
5. Ivy League
Say what you will about the other four, but at least they have tournaments. Also, studying: not cool.
FIVE TEAMS EVEN THOSE WHO STOPPED READING AN HOUR AGO SHOULD WATCH
1. VMI (Big South)
Lots and lots and lots of points.
2. North Dakota State (Summit)
Lots of white men, lots of running, lots of scoring: it's the American recipe for success.
3. Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley)
4. Liberty (Big South)
A high scoring guard with the last name Curry certainly warrants a glance.
5. Niagara (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Lots of pressing, lots of steals, lots of fast-breaking.
TEN POTENTIAL NON-TOP SEEDS WHO COULD GO DANCING
1. Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)
The fourth-seeded Bisons are winners of seven straight, and knocked off league champ Jacksonville by ten a week ago. They open the A-Sun tourney against No. 5 Campbell, the team at the top of the streak.
2. Old Dominion (Colonial Athletic Association)
The Monarchs finished the regular season winning nine of their last ten, including a victory over top-seed VCU on Feb. 14. They knocked off third-seeded Northeastern in the regular season finale in order to snag the league's fourth and final first-round bye.
3. Niagara (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
OK, so the league runner-up isn't really a sleeper, but the Purple Eagles roll into MAAC Madness winners of 10 of their last 11, and just a week removed from a 15-point slaying of champion Siena.
4. North Carolina A&T (Mid-Eastern Athletic)
The Aggies will likely finish no better than third in the MEAC, but they've won eight of nine, their only loss being a one-point defeat versus Hampton on Monday.
5. Murray State (Ohio Valley)
The Racers generally find themselves sitting as the team to beat in the OVC Tournament, and despite their No. 3 seed the same might be true this season. Murray has won seven straight conference tilts, including a 15-point win over regular season champ UT-Martin on Feb. 23.
6. The Citadel (Southern)
Despite playing in the same conference as Davidson, this might be the The Citadel's best opportunity to crash the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Bulldogs have won 12 of 13 since late January and wouldn't have to see Steph Curry until the title game.
7. Texas-Arlington (Southland)
The Southland is wide open and the Mavericks are charging hard late, taking six of seven.
8. Jackson State (Southwestern Athletic)
The Tigers are two games back of Alabama State with just two to play, but they've won 9-of-10 and 13-of-15 since Jan. 5.
9. Oakland (Summit)
Rawle Marshall University will carry the three seed into the Summit Tournament, but they've won seven straight, all but one by double-digits.
10. Troy (Sun Belt)
There's no hotter team in the Belt than the Trojans, who have won 12-of-13 and knocked off division champs Western Kentucky and Arkansas-Little Rock.
And that's it. If you didn't read every word, you're tacky and I hate you.