The best three-week stretch on the sports calendar gets underway tonight, as action tips off in the Big South, Horizon League, and Ohio Valley conference tournaments.
Twelve days of conference tournaments capped by Selection Sunday, and then the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament; it's why things like the internet, sick days, and elaborate fake death ploys exist.
The first Thursday and Friday of the big dance are still the most special days on the college basketball calendar, partly because there's always the potential for something amazing to happen, and partly because the first games tip during the work day, which makes watching them all the more enticing. It also leads to people inventing ways to watch or listen, which inevitably results in some hilarious - mostly fabricated or embellished - stories ("I took a long lunch and watched the Bryce Drew shot at this random bar with Ted Danson...he was so wasted!").
While I still consider the third Thursday and Friday of March to be sacred, I've found myself becoming more and more enamored with the the preceding two weeks each year. The things that make the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament so great - the drama, the little guy getting a shot, etc, - are inherent in each every conference tournament.
Every night for the next two weeks, dozens of kids will stare the end of their basketball careers directly in the face. For most of these kids, basketball represents something they love as opposed to a means to garner personal attention or financial security, and people will always fight harder to sustain love than they will to earn money or fame.
I find the whole thing extremely attractive, and will likely be living in a constant state of sexual arousal for the next 288 hours (except during the games Lou Canellis calls...dude's voice is like boner repellent).
So since we still have five days until the big game with Georgetown and I'm feeling more in the mood than Glenn Miller, I'm giving myself permission to indulge...myself, and talk (write) extensively about teams and players that only 3% of you care about (Adrian Branch and one of the North Dakota state student managers both read this blog).
We're going to stick with the numbered list style, both because it's the easiest to read and because it takes actual talent to effectively write most other ways. The fields for the big boy tournaments won't be set until this weekend, so I'm going to steer clear of both the big six and the average-sized four, and cover only the 19 (get with the times Ivy League) "mid-major" conference tourneys.
So here it is, your unnecessarily long and super selfish Championship Week(s) primer:
Ten Teams For The Bubble Boys To Root For
This is without a doubt the least impressive crop of bubble teams I can ever remember, which only means that plenty of teams still have the opportunity to play themselves into the NCAA Tournament over the next 12 days. But, the teams that do win the games they have to win over the next week and-a-half will have to hope that the mid-major teams who already have at-large bids locked up handle business in their respective conference tourneys.
Here are the ten teams that fans of Kentucky, Syracuse, Maryland and the like will be forced to adopt as their own in the coming days:
1. Drake (Missouri Valley)
The Bulldogs are simply playing to improve their seed at this point.
2. Butler (Horizon)
Butler only has to win a pair of games to claim the Horizon League title, something they failed to do a year ago.
3. Gonzaga (West Coast)
The Bulldogs have become a perennial favorite for bubble teams.
4. Saint Mary's (West Coast)
Both the Gaels and the 'Zags have automatic byes into the WCC semifinals, which should make fans of middling BCS conference teams feel at ease, but the tourney is being played on the home floor of three seed San Diego which knocked off St. Mary's in late January.
5. South Alabama (Sun Belt)
The tournament being played in Mobile certainly plays to USA's favor, but the Jaguars are dancing regardless of how they perform.
6. Davidson (Southern Conference)
The Wildcats didn't beat any of the top-level teams they played in November and December, but going 20-0 in your conference and having an RPI of 41 will likely make the committee reward them if they happen to stumble in the SoCon tourney.
7. Kent State (Mid-American)
Members of the NCAA selection committee tried to downplay ESPN's BracketBusters series three weeks ago by claiming that no team had ever played its way into the field of 65 by winning a game in the event. That may have changed on Feb. 24 when the Golden Flashes went to St. Mary's and won by eight. If they beat Miami tonight and win at Akron on Saturday, then KSU is dancing.
8. Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial)
With a 23-6 record, an RPI of 44, and a solid reputation after last year's upset of Duke, the Rams are looking pretty good at the moment.
9. Illinois State (Missouri Valley)
The Redbirds are looking pretty safe so long as no one besides them or Drake wins the MVC Tournament, because you'd have to think the committee would be wary of taking three teams from a down Missouri Valley. Still, if your team is on the bubble you probably want to root for ISU just to be safe.
10. Stephen F. Austin (Southland)
The computers aren't exactly in love with the lumberjacks, but that 23-4 record might stand out a little more in a year where so many major conference teams look so horribly average.
20 Players Who Will Be Heard From
I've decided to exclude Eric Maynor, Stephen Curry, A.J. Graves and Courtney Lee from this list, because I'm assuming you've already heard enough about them. And if you're not sure who those four people are, well, I'm pretty sure you didn't make it past the first section and therefore aren't reading this. For those of you who are reading this, just know that I like you way more than those other people who aren't. I'm having a party soon and they're totally not gonna be invited, but you will, and you can bring two friends.
1. Lester Hudson (Tennessee-Martin: Ohio Valley)
The OVC semifinals are being carried by ESPNU on Friday, and if UT-Martin gets past Samford tonight then I'm going to command you to tune in, only so you can watch this guy play. I've now seen him three times, and am 100% convinced that he would put up impressive numbers for any team in the country. He's an all-world talent with a crazy backstory , whose first season in Division I will be his last season in Division I. Catch the show while you can.
2. Jason Thompson (Rider: Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Speaking of guys about to get paid to play a game, this 6-11 senior is figured by most to be taken in the first round of June's NBA Draft. He's averaging over 20 points and 11 rebounds for the second-seeded Broncs.
3. Demetric Bennett (South Alabama: Sun Belt)
The best player on the mid-major team that might be best suited for a big-time March run.
4. Kenny George (North Carolina-Asheville: Big South)
Can we get the gratuitous Kenny George picture please?
5. Diamon Simpson (Saint Mary's: West Coast)
It's freshman Paddy Mills whose name has become the most synonymous with SMC this season, but Simpson has been the one doing most of the heavy lifting since the end of January. The junior forward recorded five double-doubles in the month of February, and averaged 21.8 ppg over the last four games of the regular season.
6. Jason Richards (Davidson: Southern Conference)
Richards leads the nation in assists at 8.0 apg, but he can also put the ball in the bucket, averaging 13.0 ppg in his senior season.
7. Will Thomas (George Mason: Colonial)
One of the few vestiges of the '06 Final Four team, Thomas leads Mason in both points (16.0) and rebounds (10.4).
8. George Hill (IUPUI: Summit)
Hill, the Jaguars' leader in scoring (21.2), rebounding (6.6) and assists (4.4), missed the regular season finale against Western Illinois because of a "minor injury," but is reportedly good to go for this week's Summit League Tournament.
9. Alex Harris (UCSB: Big West)
The athletic Harris needs just 75 points to become the all-time leading scorer at UCSB, which is a game out of first place with a pair of regular season contests still to be played.
10. Osiris Eldridge (Illinois State: Missouri Valley)
Eldridge is likely the best pure scorer in the MVC, and he's entering the postseason on a particularly hot streak after dropping 27 on Southern Illinois Saturday. He also sports one of the best hairdos in the country.
11. Greg Sprink (Navy: Patriot)
The left-handed Sprink is averaging 21.2 points for Navy, which enters this week's Patriot League Tournament as the second seed.
12. Durrell Vinson (Wagner: Northeast)
Vinson's remarkable leaping ability has enabled him to become one of the nation's leading rebounders despite standing just 6-foot-7. He's pulling down 11.3 boards a night, and tossing in 13.7 points for good measure.
13. Thomas Sanders (Gardner-Webb: Atlantic Sun)
Sanders leads the A-Sun in rebounding at 11.2 rpg, and is third in scoring at 17.9 ppg. He'll lead the highly inconsistent Runnin' Bulldogs into this week's conference tournament, where they are seeded sixth out of eight teams.
14. Mickell Gladness (Alabama A&M: Southwestern Athletic)
Gladness averages a respectable 10.2 points and 8.8 rebounds a night, but it's his defense that makes him worth watching out for. As a junior in 2006, he led the nation in blocks with 188, and shattered David Robinson's single-game record by rejecting 16 shots against Texas Southern. This year, the lanky Gladness has swatted five or more shots 12 times, including a 10-block performance against Oakwood early in the season.
15. Bo McCalebb (New Orleans: Sun Belt)
The Sun Belt's all-time leading scorer will get one final shot at postseason glory this week. If UNO can slip past Denver on Wednesday, then a chance to knock off top seed South Alabama will arrive on Sunday.
16. Charron Fisher (Niagara: Metro Atlantic Athletic)
The nation's leading scorer at 27.8 ppg, Fisher will look to lead the third-seeded Purple Eagles into the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years, starting Saturday night against Marist.
17. Boubacar Coly (Morgan State: Mid-Eastern Athletic)
The man with one of the best names in college basketball is among the nation's leaders in both rebounds (11.1 rpg) and blocks (2.7 bpg).
18. Michael Bramos (Miami (OH): Mid-American)
Bramos is one of the most dangerous outside shooters in the country, and Charlie Coles' RPI-darlings need him to get hot if they want to make a run in next week's MAC Tourney.
19. Jay Greene (UMBC: America East)
Leading scorer Ray Barbosa turned some heads with a 32-point performance at Ohio State in December, but it's the point guard Greene who makes the America East regular season champs go. His 200 assists have him tied for third in the country, and his ability to properly run Randy Monroe's offense will be one of the main reasons if the Retrievers advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
20. Arizona "AZ" Reid (High Point: Big South)
While Reid may have the least creative nickname in the history of nicknames (478 years), he's been one of the most productive players in Division I this season. Averaging 24.2 points and 11.1 rebounds, the 6-5 senior has recorded a whopping 19 double-doubles in just 29 games. Also, his hair rules.
Five Awesomely Exciting Conference Tournaments
Parity sucks for conference commissioners hoping to land multiple teams in the dance, but it's awesome for those of us looking for exciting quarterfinal games to give us something to watch other than Virginia Tech/Florida State. Here are five leagues that were highly competitive during the regular season, and figure to produce tournaments that are captivating from beginning to end.
1. Patriot League (March 5, 9, 14)
Holy Cross and Lehigh played their final game of the regular season on Feb. 29. Before the game began, the Leopards had the potential to finish as low as 7th and as high as 3rd, while the Crusaders could have wound up finishing as high as 4th or as low as 8th. Four other teams were in similar predicaments a day later.
American, which has never been to the NCAA Tournament, snatched the regular season title and home court advantage throughout the tournament when Navy fell to Colgate on March 1. The Eagles' reward for gaining the top seed, however, is a first-round date with the same Holy Cross team that has won four of the last seven league tournament titles and that beat them at home on Jan. 26. Second-seeded Navy gets perennial power Bucknell, while the middling quartet of Lehigh/Army and Colgate/Lafayette will duke it out in the other quarterfinal games.
2. Metro Atlantic Athletic (March 7-10)
Four teams had a shot to win the league title in the last week, with Siena ultimately earning the top seed by way of owning the tiebreaker over Rider. Those two along with Niagara and Loyola might very likely be assigned identical morning line odds if this were a horse race. Marist and Fairfield each finished only two games back of the leaders, and even seventh-seeded Iona proved it could play with anybody in the league over the course of the regular season.
3. Mid-American (March 12-15)
There's still a week left in the MAC regular season, so we don't have the advantage of being able to analyze a bracket yet, but once again this is shaping up to be one of the most competitive conference tournaments in the country. Briefly ranked Kent State (23-6, 11-3) is likely to be the favorite, with West Division leader Western Michigan (18-10, 11-3) and East Division runner-up Akron (20-8, 10-4) serving as the main contenders. Computer darlings Ohio and defending champion Miami of Ohio will also be extremely tough outs.
4. Big South (March 4, 6, 8)
UNC-Asheville and Winthrop both finished the regular season at 10-4 and are the clear teams to beat starting with tonight's quarterfinals, but High Point, Liberty and VMI are all squads just as capable of reeling off three straight.
5. Ohio Valley (March 4, 7-8)
There's a pretty clear-cut favorite here in Austin Peay, which won the league by three games, but this tournament is rare in that all eight teams participating finished the regular season with at least a .500 conference record. Murray State, Morehead State and Tennessee Martin finished six, four and two games above .500, respectively, while seeds 5-8 all ended the season with league records of 10-10. The first-round 1/8 matchup of Austin Peay and Eastern Kentucky is a rematch of last year's title game, one that EKU was able to pull out in the final minute.
Five Less Exciting 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 (March 8, 11-12)
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 (March 4, 7-8, 11)
The Horizon has been utilizing this practice for a few seasons, but this 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. Cleveland State earned the second seed over Wright State by way of a tiebreaker and now sits in the semifinals, while the poor Raiders have to win a pair of games just to get there.
3. West Coast (March 7-10)
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 (March 12-15)
The Big West gives its top two seeds a bye into the semis, but it's also one of two leagues (the NEC being the other) that employs the NHL style of having the highest remaining seed play the lowest remaining seed in each round.
5. Ivy League
Say what you will about the other four, but at least they have tournaments. Also, studying: not cool.
Five Championship Games You Want To Happen
Even those of you who cheered against Boise State in the '07 Fiesta Bowl will be drawn into watching the following games if they take place.
1. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary's (West Coast)
Two of the best mid-major teams in the land should meet on March 10 and break their regular season split.
2. Virginia Commonwealth vs. George Mason (Colonial)
The darlings of 2007 vs. the darlings of 2006.
3. South Alabama vs. Western Kentucky (Sun Belt)
Both teams enter the postseason with impressive resumes, but its Western - which was swept by USA in the regular season - that likely needs to win in order to punch its NCAA ticket. If it happens for the Hilltoppers it will have to be on South Alabama's home floor.
4. Oral Roberts vs. IUPUI (Summit League)
The pair split a regular season series in which each game was decided by one possession. If they meet for a third time, the stakes will be exponentially higher.
5. Robert Morris vs. Wagner (Northeast)
At 25-6 and 22-7, the Colonials and Seahawks are clearly the class of the conference. Robert Morris blasted Mike Deane's club 74-52 in their only regular season meeting.
Ten Non-Con Champs To Be Reckoned With
Regular season champions won 19-of-30 tournament championships last season, but as always, there were a handful of higher seeds that got hot and played their way into the dance. So, let's look at ten non-top seeds who are playing well at the right time and might make some noise in the coming days. Seriously, let's do it. Right now. OK, if you keep making a scene, so help me God I will lock your Nintendo in the closet.
1. Hartford (America East)
The second-seeded Hawks have won six of eight, and knocked off league champ UMBC 58-57 in the regular season finale.
2. Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)
The Bisons bounced back from a rough start in league to play to win seven of nine, including a 13-point win over league runner-up Jacksonville. They earned the fifth-seed in the conference tournament, and will face No. 4 East Tennessee State in Wednesday's quarterfinal.
3. Mount St. Mary's (Northeast)
Winners of five out of their last six, the fourth-seeded Mountaineers' only stumble down the stretch was a three-point squeaker at league-champ Robert Morris. They'll meet RMC again in the semifinals if both teams win their first games on Wednesday.
4. Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley)
The fighting Lester Hudsons will host an OVC tourney game after winning six of their last seven games to finish the regular season in fourth place.
5. Northern Arizona (Big Sky)
The Lumberjacks are riding a five-game winning streak into the postseason, which will start for them in the Big Sky semifinals.
6. McNeese State (Southland)
The Cowboys are still just 7-7 in the Southland, but they've won five out of their last six, and became just the second team in the league to knock off Lamar when they won 74-71 on Saturday.
7. Old Dominion (Colonial)
The perennial league powerhouse secured a four-seed and a first-round bye in the CAA Tournament by winning six of its last seven, a run highlighted by a one-point win over top seed VCU.
8. North Texas (Sun Belt)
Last year's surprise champion is playing well again, as the Mean Green ended the regular season winners of five out of their last six. Finishing sixth in the league did not give them an easy draw, however, as Western Kentucky is waiting in the quarterfinals.
9. Fairfield (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
The Stags come into this week's MAAC Tournament having won seven of their last eight, even if that one loss was a 28-point thrashing at the hands of Rider.
10. Florida A&M (Mid-Eastern Athletic)
FAMU is playing as well as anyone in the MEAC this side of Morgan State, as the Rattlers have won four straight and five of six with just one regular season game remaining. They have a chance to be seeded as high as fourth, and as low as seventh.
15 Teams Looking To Dance For The First Time
All right, you've been a trooper, and this is the last stop. Here are 15 squads that have a decent shot at advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
- American (#1, Patriot)
- Morgan State (#1, MEAC)
- Portland State (#1, Big Sky)
- UMBC (#1, America East)
- Stephen F. Austin (#2, Southland)
- Hartford (#2, America East)
- Sacred Heart (#2, Northeast)
- Norfolk State (#2, MEAC)
- High Point (#3, Big South)
- Stetson (#3, Atlantic Sun)
- Tennessee-Martin (#4, Ohio Valley)
- Army (#5, Patriot League)
- Quinnipiac (#5, Northeast)
- William & Mary (#5, Colonial)
- Lipscomb (#5, Atlantic Sun)