Opening round action has already tipped in the Big South, Horizon League, Ohio Valley, Patriot League and Atlantic Sun, which means 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.
|Greensboro, N.C.||March 11-14|
|Hartford, Conn.||March 6-7, 13|
|Atlantic Sun||Macon, Ga.||March 3-6|
|Atlantic City, N.J.||March 9, 12-14|
|New York||March 9-13|
|TBD (regular-season champion)||March 6, 9-10|
|Big South||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 2, 4, 6|
|Kansas City, Mo.||March 10-13|
|Anaheim, Calif.||March 10-13|
|Richmond, Va.||March 5-8|
|Tulsa, Okla.||March 10-13|
|Horizon||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 2, 5-6, 9|
|Albany, N.Y.||March 5-8|
|Cleveland||March 7, 11-13|
|Winston-Salem, N.C.||March 8-13|
|Missouri Valley||St. Louis||March 4-7|
|Las Vegas||March 10-13|
|Northeast||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 4, 7, 10|
|Ohio Valley||Nashville, Tenn.||March 2, 5-6|
|Los Angeles||March 10-13|
|Patriot||Campus sites (higher seeds)||March 3, 7, 12|
|Nashville, Tenn.||March 11-14|
|Charlotte, N.C.||March 5-8|
|Katy, Texas||March 10-13|
|Sioux Falls, S.D.||March 6-9|
|Hot Springs, Ark.||March 6-9|
|Shreveport/Bossier City, La.||March 10-13|
|Reno, Nev.||March 11-13|
|Las Vegas||March 5-8|
FIVE SQUADS FOR THE BUBBLE BOYS TO PULL FOR
If you're a major conference fan still with us (me), we'll (I'll) humor you.
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)
3. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
A team from the MVC was noticeably absent on this list a year ago. No more, as the Panthers have controlled the Valley from start to finish and have put themselves in position to snag a single-digit seed in the big show.
4. St. Mary's (West Coast)
No team has been helped more by the struggles of bubble teams from power conferences in recent weeks than the Gaels. They've lost three conference games in a down season for the WCC, but their RPI is strong enough (44) that winning a game in the league tourney and falling to Gonzaga in the finals might be enough to get them an at-large bid.
5. Siena (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
The Saints' 0-4 record against RPI top 50 teams means they'll likely have to win the MAAC tourney to get in, but the Notre Dames and San Diego States of the world should probably go ahead and don their gold and green this week just to be safe.
FIVE 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. Murray State (Ohio Valley)
The Racers weren't the preseason favorite in the OVC (defending champ Morehead was), but they, ahem, raced out to a 15-0 start in conference play and finished the regular season at 17-1 and 28-4 overall.
2. Morgan State (MEAC)
Todd Bozeman's Bears are the three-time defending regular season MEAC champs and the defending league tourney champs. Their 14-1 conference record is best by four games.
3. Oakland (Summit)
The Rawle Marshall-led Golden Grizzlies went to the NCAA Tournament in 2005, but Oakland captured its first Summit League regular season title this season by virtue of its 17-1 league record.
4. Sam Houston State (Southland)
The Bearkats (it's right) have won 14 of their last 15 and have dominated opponents on their way to a 14-1 league record. SHS has won its last three games by a combined 71 points.
5. Jackson State (SWAC)
They've won 11 straight and sit at 15-1 in the conference but will still almost certainly be sent to Dayton for the play-in game if they can make it through the SWAC tourney unscathed.
15 PLAYERS WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM
1. Gordon Hayward (Butler/Horizon League)
By averaging over 15 points and rebounds a game, Hayward became the fourth Bulldog in five years to bring home Horizon League POY honors. He sat out the regular season finale with a back injury, but should be good to go when Butler takes the floor in the Horizon semifinals on Saturday.
2. Omar Samhan (Saint Mary's/West Coast)
The senior center broke the Saint Mary's single-season scoring record when he dropped 33 on Loyola Marymount Saturday. He went off for 31 and 12 against Gonzaga in the first of two losses to the 'Zags earlier this year.
3. Artsiom Parakhouski (Radford/Big South)
The 6-foot-11 repeat Big South Player of the Year averaged 21.6 points and 13.2 rebounds and led the nation with 24 double-doubles.
4. Ryan Wittman (Cornell/Ivy)
You won't get to see him until the big dance since the Ivy League doesn't have a little dance, but the son of ex-NBA head coach Randy Wittman is one of the best shooters in college basketball.
5. Reggie Holmes (Morgan State/MEAC)
Holmes, a senior, didn't become a full-time starter until this season, but has scored enough (22.0 ppg) to be just 42 points shy of 2,000 for his career. He's gone over 30 points five times this season, including a 34-point outburst in a November win at Arkansas.
6. Kenneth Faried (Morehead State/Ohio Valley)
Faried led the nation in rebounding again this season despite standing just 6-7. The reason for that being possible is simple: he plays harder than anyone else on the floor. His 22 double-doubles were second only nationally to Parakhouski.
7. Adnon Hodzic (Lipscomb/Atlantic Sun)
The A-Sun Player of the year averaged over 22 points per game for the top-seeded Bisons. His family fled war-torn bosnia when he was just a toddler.
8. Ronald Moore (Siena/Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Moore leads the nation in assists per game (7.7), has an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 3-to-1 and has the Saints poised for another NCAA Tournament run. He almost single-handedly led Siena to a first round victory over Ohio State a year ago, and then handled Louisville's pressure as well as any point guard had all season as the Saints nearly upset the top overall seed in the tournament.
9. Marquez Haynes (UT-Arlington/Southland)
Haynes, a Boston College transfer, is the nation's third-leading scorer and one of the few true NBA prospects on this list.
10. Noah Dahlman (Wofford/Southern)
Despite leading the league in scoring, Appalachian State's Donald Sims lost out to Dahlman in a hotly contested race for SoCon Player of the year. The junior forward led the division champion Terriers and ranked fourth in the league in scoring at 17.4 points per game. He has scored in double figures 44 straight times.
11. Tyren Johnson (Louisiana-Lafayette/Sun Belt)
Johnson led the Sun Belt in scoring, was second in rebounding, steals and minutes played, was fourth in blocked shots and in the top 15 in field goal percentage (.503), assists and assists-to-turnover ratio. No other player in the league led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots.
12. Chris Harris (Navy/Patriot)
The All-Patriot League selection led the league in scoring (21.1), three-pointers made (84) and steals (2.0).
13. Justin Rutty (Quinnipiac/Northeast)
Rutty, Quinnipiac's first NEC Player of the Year, is the prototypical dominant mid-major post player: strong, too short to play low in a BCS conference and extremely aggressive. He notched a league best 14 double-doubles in his junior season.
14. Larry Sanders (VCU/Colonial Athletic)
The departure of Eric Maynor has allowed Sanders to establish himself as his team's and the league's top post presence, averaging 14.8 ppg and 8.9 rpg. He's expected to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft if he chooses to skip his senior year of college.
15. Osiris Eldridge (Illinois State/Missouri Valley)
He was the Arch Madness MVP a year ago despite playing for the runner-up, and has admittedly spent the past 12 months preparing for this week and a shot at redemption.
FIVE MORE BECAUSE I CAN
Marqus Blakely (Vermont/America East)
Donald Sims (Appalachian State/Southern)
Matt Bouldin (Gonzaga/West Coast)
Johnathon Jones (Oakland/Summit)
Michael Deloach (Norfolk State/MEAC)
FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU WANT TO HAPPEN
1. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary's (West Coast)
These two simply don't care for one another. The 'Zags swept the regular season series with relative ease, but the stakes will be higher with the Gaels - perhaps - playing for their NCAA Tournament lives.
2. Murray State vs. Morehead State (Ohio Valley)
The defending champs and preseason favorites squaring off against the team that surprisingly dominated the league from start to finish. The last meeting between these two ended with Morehead handing Murray its first OVC loss and snapping the nation's longest winning streak in the process.
3. Akron vs. Kent State (Mid-American)
Two words: identical records (22-8, 12-3).
4. Robert Morris vs. Quinnipiac (Northeast)
Robert Morris spanked the Bobcats by 27 in the NEC semifinals a season ago, but Quinnipiac exacted a bit of revenge in 2010 by knocking off the Colonials on Feb. 20 to earn the head-to-head tiebreaker and bring home the first regular season title in program history.
5. Stony Brook vs. Vermont (America East)
The Catamounts are back among the league's elite and head into the postseason winners of eight of their last nine. Their only loss over that span was an 82-78 decision at Stony Brook which proved to be the difference in a regular season title race that was ultimately decided by one game.
FIVE CRAZY COMPETITIVE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
Parity reigns supreme and should make for some tremendous games in each of these leagues.
1. Atlantic Sun
Four teams tied for the regular season title, with Lipscomb ultimately earning the top seed by virtue of their 4-2 record against the other three teams. Perennial powerhouse Belmont wasn't one of the teams who finished 14-6, but the Bears enter the postseason as the hottest team in the league, having won eight of nine.
While Stephen Curry's decision to leave for the NBA a year early will likely have a negative affect on the SoCon title game's TV rating, the tournament itself should be more fun to follow. Or at least the games will be more competitive. Come back, Steph. Wofford (15-3), Charleston (14-4) and Appy State (13-5) are the most likely contenders to end the Davidson Invitational era.
3. Colonial Athletic Association
There was talk in late January of this league possibly producing multiple at-large bids, but inexcusable stumbles from the league's top dogs quickly brought it back down to win or go home status. Still, any one of the top five teams from this conference (Northeastern, Old Dominion, William & Mary, VCU, George Mason) are more than capable of springing a first round upset in the dance.
4. Patriot League
With the exception of American and Navy tying for fourth-place at 7-7, each spot in the final league standings is separated by a single game. Year in, year out, the Patriot produces the most competitive quarterfinal contests during the opening week of the postseason.
5. Sun Belt
Middle Tennessee, Troy and North Texas all finished with league-best records of 13-5. Still, Western Kentucky may (again) be the favorite here, riding a seven-game league winning streak into the Belt tourney.
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 two years ago 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. Wright State earned the second seed over Green Bay by a mere game and now sits in the semifinals, while the poor Phoenix have to win a pair of games just to get there. Of course a year ago Cleveland State did make it to the NCAAs by winning four games from the No. 3 spot.
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? Sure. Annoying as hell for fans of postseason college basketball? You bet.
What have we learned so far? Conference tournaments west of the Mississippi are infinitely lamer than conference tournaments east of the Mississippi. The Big East has four games for three straight days. THREE STRAIGHT DAYS OF FOUR GAMES.
Grow up, left coast.
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)
The highest scoring team in college basketball. That is all.
2. Sam Houston State (Southland)
Lots of pressing, lots of points, fairly high quality of basketball.
3. North Dakota State (Summit)
They stole America's hearts a year ago and I seriously doubt they've gotten any less scrappy or any less white.
4. Morehead State (Ohio Valley)
Kenneth Faried should be taped and shown to any and all youth basketball players.
5. Portland State (Big Sky)
Capable of beating or losing to anyone in their conference because of their style of play. If you must watch the Big Sky Tournament, then be happy that the Vikings snuck in.
TEN POTENTIAL NON-TOP SEEDS WHO COULD GO DANCING
1. Mount St. Mary's (Northeast)
Losers of nine straight earlier in the year, the Mountaineers are now riding a ten-game winning streak into the postseason. They've already defeated both Quinnipiac and Robert Morris, who tied for the regular season title.
2. Eastern Illinois (Ohio Valley)
The Panthers have won eight straight, including a victory over league runner-up Morehead State on Feb. 11.
3. Western Kentucky (Sun Belt)
Sharing the wealth has never been Western's thing. Just when you think it's definitely going to be someone else's year the 'Tops run off seven straight and thump the league's regular season champ (Troy) by 18.
4. Belmont (Atlantic Sun)
See above. The Bears have dominated this tournament for the past decade and, despite finishing fifth in the final A-Sun standings, have won eight of their last nine.
5. Hofstra (Colonial)
A tough task lies in front of the seventh-seeded Pride, but they're playing as well as any team in the CAA. They closed the regular season by winning six straight and nine of their last ten, a run that included a Bracket Buster win over Rider and an 11-point triumph at Northeastern.
6. Milwaukee (Horizon)
Winners of six straight, the fourth-seed may have a better shot at knocking off Butler than anyone else.
7. Northern Colorado (Big Sky)
Not just for stab-happy kickers anymore. The Bears have won seven of eight, falling only to regular season champ Weber State on Feb. 13, a game which was their second on the road in as many days.
8. Vermont (America East)
Not exactly a sleeper pick. The Catamounts have won eight of nine and figure to get another shot at top-seed Stony Brook this weekend.
9. Norfolk State (MEAC)
I'll go ahead and say it: if anyone's going to upset Morgan State, it'll be the Spartans. They've won five of six and fell to the Bears by a single point on the road last week.
10. Portland (West Coast)
The odds of anyone outside of Gonzaga and Saint Mary's snagging WCC glory are slim, but the Pilots have won six of seven and knocked off the Gaels in ovetime on Feb. 13.
FIVE MORE BECAUSE I STILL CAN
Illinois State (Missouri Valley)
Radford (Big South)
Oral Roberts (Summit)
Appalachian State (Southern)
And that's it. If you didn't read every word, you're tacky and I hate you.