The picture of what exactly America is has never been murkier. The conversations necessary to clear that picture up have never been more difficult to facilitate. Maybe this is why I find myself now, perhaps more than ever before, despite everything, so drawn to college basketball’s postseason.
March Madness is America. Or at least America through my eyes.
It is deeply flawed.
There are inherent disadvantages that a majority of the participants will need a significant dose of both skill and luck to overcome if they want to become nationally known and respected. For some, one night of bad luck will completely undo four months’ worth of hard work and overwhelming success. For these programs, the fact one failure led to their demise while others were allowed to fail four times as often and still achieve their ultimate goals will be an impossible pill to swallow. It’s not fair, and it’s never going to be fair.
It is also more conducive to magic and excitement than anything in its realm.
Obtaining college basketball’s top prize is extremely unlikely for the vast majority of the 358 teams competing in Division I. At least it’s not impossible. At least the bottom-tier NET school that won its conference tournament gets the chance to prove itself on the sport’s biggest stage, and not inside a quarter-full stadium against a team that doesn’t really want to be there, in a game that, for all intents and purposes, has zero significance. At least when Loyola-Chicago upset Miami at the buzzer in the first round of the tournament in 2018, that wasn’t where the story ended.
This is the way it should be. Sure, some teams benefit from a head start, and others are dealing with unfair advantages they may not have earned, but at least nobody is disqualified before the race even gets started (well, almost nobody, but we’ll get to that). Everyone has a shot at making a March memory.
I have an aunt who is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and as diehard a member of Big Blue Nation as you’re ever going to find. With the Wildcats relegated to the NIT in 2013, she began reading up on a team from her home city of Fort Myers that had begun to stir up some buzz. In the succeeding weeks, as Florida Gulf Coast won the Atlantic Sun tournament and then became the first 15-seed to ever advance out of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend, “Dunk City” was all my aunt wanted to talk about.
Therein lies the other thing March Madness has that no other major American sport can claim. Whether it’s the school you graduated from, the school you grew up rooting for, or just the school that’s nearby, everyone has a team.
Every state in this country besides Alaska is home to at least one Division-I basketball program. That means just about every American has a team in their general area they can support or claim as their own during March Madness. We are a species that is wired to connect, and maybe as a direct result, there’s something comforting about the feeling that we’re all in this together. On different teams, sure, but all a part of the same grander experience.
Turn on your television (or internet stream) at virtually any hour over the course of the next couple of weeks, and you’ll be privy to sports theater at its very best. Sure, all these teams have an ultimate goal of winning their respective conference championships and advancing to the NCAA tournament, but there’s something even larger at stake.
In each of these games, at least some of the players on the court are playing to keep their athletic careers alive. It’s survive and advance on multiple levels, and when the buzzer sounds, you can see the joy and the relief on the faces of kids who know they get to wake up the next morning and still be able to call themselves college basketball players.
For the next 11 days we will be consistently bombarded by dream-fulfilling, career-ending, win-or-turn-in-your-jersey conference tournament 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 32 conference tournaments that will take place over the course of the next two weeks. Quite simply, it’s high drama you can’t find anywhere else.
It is exhilarating, it is cruel, it is rewarding, and it is unrivaled. Let the madness wash over you.
Championship Week is the best, but only if you’re properly educated. Thankfully, this guide is here to help ensure that anyone who wants to experience the highest dosage of madness possible has the ability to do so.
Now if your only interest in March college basketball lies with the blue-bloods and the power conferences, that’s fine, but this isn’t for you. Our time together is coming soon.
For the rest of you, it’s time for a thorough run through of everything you need to know to get the most of the “madness before the madness.” This is a time primarily for the leagues that don’t get the national spotlight, so focus in this guide excludes the nine “major” (the “Power 5” leagues plus the Big East, AAC, Atlantic 10, and Mountain West) conferences.
Complete Conference Tournament Dates and Locations
It’s the most logical, if not exciting, jumping off point. We’ll go ahead and include all conferences here because it’s March and in March rules are fluid.
As you might expect, there are a handful of format, location and scheduling changes this season. There may also be some changes to come! For instance, the Southland announced just Monday morning that its tournament would include 10 teams instead of the previously scheduled eight. As has been the case with pretty much everything for the best 12 months, nothing is really set in stone.
That said, here’s the current full schedule for Championship Week(s) 2022:
Here’s a nice way to keep track of all the madness via Heat Check CBB:
NCAA Tournament Ineligible Teams
After a record high number of teams in this section a year ago — thanks in large part to opt outs and the Ivy League not holding a season — we’re back to a more relatively standard number of 11.
This group includes eight programs that are still transitioning to Division-I. Some of those, like Bellarmine and North Alabama from the Atlantic Sun, are eligible to participate in their conference tournament, but ineligible to play in the Big Dance. Others, like Merrimack from the NEC and UC San Diego out of the Big West, don’t even get to experience the thrill of playing in a league tournament this March.
We also have two teams — Stony Brook and James Madison — that have been banned from their conference tournaments by their league because they’re moving to a different conference next season. UIC out of the Horizon League was originally in that group as well, but the league altered its initial ruling to allow the Flames to play.
Here’s the full list of teams that were excluded from the madness before it even got started:
Stony Brook, America East (postseason ban imposed by conference)
Bellarmine, Atlantic Sun (transitioning to D-I)
North Alabama, Atlantic Sun (transitioning to D-I)
Oklahoma State, Big 12 (postseason ban imposed by NCAA)
UC San Diego, Big West (transitioning to D-I)
James Madison, CAA (postseason ban imposed by conference)
Merrimack, Northeast (transitioning to D-I)
St. Thomas, Summit League (transitioning to D-I)
Cal Baptist, WAC (transitioning to D-I)
Tarleton State, WAC (transitioning to D-I)
Dixie State, WAC (transitioning to D-I)
10 Teams For The Bubble Boys To Pull For
Per usual, there will be a handful of tournaments this postseason where a heavy favorite goes down and a team no one expected to crash the Big Dance does so by claiming its conference’s automatic bid. In a few of these cases (a larger number this year than in most years past), the beaten favorite will have a resume strong enough to still warrant inclusion in the field of 68. In those instances, the Cinderella league champion will wind up “stealing” a bid from a non-automatic qualifier that would have been in the field otherwise.
So if you’re a fan of Indiana, Memphis, Oregon, Florida or any other team that might be sweating it out on Selection Sunday, here are the teams you need to be rooting hard for over the next week and a half.
1. Gonzaga (West Coast)
Don’t think this requires further explanation.
2. Murray State (Ohio Valley)
The Racers are 28-2 overall, ran the table in the OVC, and are No. 22 in the current AP top 25 poll. Fans of Matt McMahon’s squads are talking about what kind of single digit seed they’re going to get, not whether or not they’re going to be in the field.
3. Saint Mary’s (West Coast)
The Gaels are another team from a mid-major conference that figures to earn a single digit seed on Selection Sunday. They don’t have a terrible loss on their 24-6 resume, and their ability to make a March run was on full display in their regular season ending 67-57 triumph over Gonzaga.
4. San Francisco (West Coast)
The Dons would be well-served to win at least one game in the WCC tournament, but if the Big Dance started today, most bracketologists believe USF would be safely in the field of 68. It would be the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998, and just its second since 1982.
5. BYU (West Coast)
The Cougars seem to have more at stake than the other three WCC teams on this list, as seemingly every mock bracket on the internet has them as one of the last teams out or one of the last teams in. If a West Coast Conference team other than the four on this list wind up cutting down the nets in Vegas, just got ahead and start shedding some tears.
6. Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley)
Remember these guys? Porter Moser may have jetted for Oklahoma, but the Ramblers have hardly missed a step. They aren’t a stone cold lock to earn an at-large bid if they stumble this week during Arch Madness, but their resume would match up favorably against some of the big boys that currently find themselves squarely on the bubble.
7. North Texas (Conference USA)
The Mean Green are 20-4 and own a top 40 NET ranking. They could lose in the C-USA semis or title game and still feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday.
8. UAB (Conference USA)
UAB’s NCAA tournament outlook is less rosy if they fall short of winning their league title, but they’re still close enough to the bubble to be the team you should root for if UNT makes an unexpected early exit.
9. Iona (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Rick Pitino’s team rolled to the MAAC regular season title and is the overwhelming favorite to earn the league’s auto-bid for a second straight year under his watch. If they fall short of that expectation, there’s a chance that a resume which includes a Quad 1 victory over Alabama could receive favorable treatment from the Selection Committee.
10. South Dakota State (Summit League)
The 27-4 Jackrabbits don’t have a Quad 1 win to their name, but they also haven’t been beaten since Dec. 15. This also might be the most fun team to watch in the country. They’re shooting the best team percentage from three of any D-I squad since 2012, and five of the Jackrabbits’ top six scorers are currently shooting 40 percent or better from beyond the arc.
Root for them to take care of business in the Summit League just to be safe.
5 Other Solid Favorites
These teams aren’t going anywhere but the NIT (maybe) if they get upset over the next 11 days. Still, they’ve established themselves as the top dog in their respective leagues and are on track to scare the hell out of a single-digit seed on the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.
1. Vermont (America East)
The Catamounts rolled to a 17-1 conference record with their lone setback coming by a single point on the road against reigning league champion Hartford. No other team in the America East dropped fewer than seven conference contests.
2. Longwood (Big South)
The Lancers aren’t just the favorite college basketball team of every 13-year-old boy anymore, they’re one of the best stories in the entire country. Longwood transitioned to D-I in 2004 and has compiled an ugly 130-312 record over the previous 14 seasons. After respectable seasons the last two years (14-18 in 2019-20 and 12-17 last year), Griff Aldrich’s squad exploded for 23 wins and a 15-1 performance in Big South Conference play. The next step would be the biggest.
3. Toledo (Mid-American)
The Rockets are 24-6 and have already locked up the MAC’s regular season title, marking the first time in 41 years that the program has won conference championships in consecutive years. With the memory of last year’s upset loss to Ohio in the MAC tournament semifinals still fresh in everyone’s mind, Tod Kowalczyk’s team will now look to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1980.
4. Norfolk State (Mid-Eastern Athletic)
With one regular season game still to play, the 11-2 Spartans have already wrapped up an outright MEAC regular season title. They’ll be a heavy favorite next week to win their second straight conference tournament championship.
5. Colgate (Patriot League)
The Raiders won the Patriot League’s regular season title with a 16-2 record, four games clear of second place Navy. Their attention has now turned to making their third straight (if you exclude 2020) NCAA tournament.
10 Teams That Could Dance For The First Time
One of the best parts of every March is seeing coaches, players, and programs that have never heard their name called on Selection Sunday celebrate the moment that all changes.
Of the 358 teams that are current members of Division-I, 45 have never gone dancing. Four of those teams — Army, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary, and The Citadel — have been Division-I programs since “Division-I” became a thing in 1910. Seven others are still in the “transitioning” phase and are ineligible for the Big Dance.
Here are the 10 members of the “never been dancing” club that have the best shot at altering that status this month.
1. New Hampshire (America East)
A D-I member since 1938-39, the Wildcats are one of the longest serving members of the never been dancing club. They’ll be either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed for the America East tournament and will be three wins away from punching their first ticket ever. Someone else knocking off Vermont would certainly aid in the effort.
2. Longwood (Big South)
Perhaps the most notable name on this year’s list. The Lancers have been consistently miserable since making the move to D-I in 2004, but after a 15-1 run through the Big South, they suddenly find themselves as the No. 1 seed for this year’s tournament.
3. USC Upstate (Big South)
As the Big South’s No. 4 seed, USC Upstate, like Longwood, has a bye into the conference tournament quarterfinals. They wouldn’t seem to have quite as strong a shot at punching their first ticket as the Lancers do, but the Big South tournament does have a history of getting a bit weird.
4. UC Riverside (Big West)
The Big West is wide the hell open this season, and the Highlanders (currently 8-5 in league play) are one of a number of teams in the conference that could get hot at the right time.
5. Purdue Fort Wayne (Horizon League)
The Mastodons (Mastodons!) have won nine straight heading into this week’s Horizon League tournament, where they’ll be the No. 2 seed. D-I members since 2002, they captured a share of a regular season conference title for just the second in their second year since moving to the Horizon from the Summit League.
6. Bryant (Northeast)
The outright regular season champions of the NEC after going 16-2, the Bulldogs now sit just three wins away from their first trip to the NCAA tournament. They made the league’s tournament title game for the first time last season, but fell by five to Mount St. Mary’s.
7. Kansas City (Summit League)
Five of the eight teams in this year’s Summit League tournament have never heard their names called on Selection Sunday. Naturally, the three teams that have been to the dance are the top three seeds. The best of the rest are the ‘Roos, who went 12-6 in league play to earn the No. 4 seed for this week’s tourney. If they can get by South Dakota in the quarterfinals, they’ll get to take their shot at taking down unbeaten South Dakota State in the semis.
8. South Dakota (Summit League)
9. Grambling (SWAC)
The SWAC might be the most wide open conference in the country, and the 9-7 Tigers have already proven they can beat any team in the league by winning at league-leading Alcorn State by seven on Jan. 31. Grambling has been playing D-I ball since 1977 and has yet to play a game in March Madness.
10. Utah Valley (WAC)
The WAC is certainly bigger and probably better than it’s been in a long, long time, which isn’t the best news for a Utah Valley team that is one win away from 20 for the season. The Wolverines (10-6 in league play) can play with anyone in the conference, but if you’re ranking the teams most likely to cut down the nets in Vegas, they’re still squarely behind the likes of New Mexico State, Seattle, Stephen F. Austin and Grand Canyon.
20 Players Who Will Be Heard From
1. Max Abmas, JR, Oral Roberts (Summit League)
One of the darlings of last March is back for another run with an Oral Roberts team that will have to slay the South Dakota State giant in order to potentially set up another NCAA tournament run. College basketball’s scoring leader last season, Abmas enters the 2022 postseason at No. 5 in the category, averaging 22.7 ppg.
2. Malachi Smith, SO, Chattanooga (Southern)
The best player on the SoCon’s best team, Smith led the conference in scoring at 20.3 points per game while shooting 51.0 percent from the field.
3. Chet Holmgren, FR, Gonzaga (West Coast)
We’ll go with Holmgren here over Drew Timme just because hoops fans know more about what the latter brings to the table. We’ve seen less of Holmgren, the rail thin 7-foot basketball unicorn who is the only D-I player over the last decade to have multiple games with at least 20 points, 15 boards, 5 blocks and 2 three-pointers in the same season.
4. KJ Williams, JR, Murray State (Ohio Valley)
The OVC Player of the Year led the league in points per game (18.2), total points and field goals made during the regular season. He produced 10 double-doubles and enters the postseason ranked fourth nationally in field goals made (223), 29th in total rebounds (255), 41st in field goal percentage (.544) and 63rd in points per game (18.2).
5. Kenneth Lofton Jr., FR, Louisiana Tech (Conference USA)
America’s favorite mid-major big boy, Lofton Jr. is currently averaging a double-double at 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He’s led the Bulldogs (20-8, 11-5) in both scoring and rebounding in 12 of their 28 games so far this season.
6. Peter Kiss, SR, Bryant (Northeast)
The Rutgers transfer with the incredible name currently leads the nation in scoring at 25.1 ppg. Kiss scored 30 or more points in six consecutive games between Jan. 30 and Feb. 24. His next act will be trying to get Bryant into the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Kiss was not named the NEC’s Player of the Year (Wagner’s Alex Morales claimed it for a second straight season), and former teammate Ron Harper Jr. was not pleased.
Plane just landed and i found out Peter Kiss didn’t win NEC POY???— Ron Harper Jr. (@__RHJR) March 1, 2022
7. Tavian Dunn-Martin, SR, Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)
The 5’8 senior guard who had previous stops at Akron and Duquesne has saved easily the most electric season of his college career for last. He finished second in the A-Sun in scoring at 20.8 ppg, while also leading the league in assists at 6.2 per game, which ranks fifth nationally. He also became one of 80 players in the NCAA since 1992-93 to compile over 600 points and 180 assists in a single season. Currently, Dunn-Martin’s 602 points are the third-most for a single-season in FGCU history.
8. Isiaih Mosley, JR, Missouri State (Missouri Valley)
A.J. Green from Northern Iowa may have won his second MVC Player of the Year award this season, but we’re going with Mosley as the individual performer to watch in St. Louis this week.
Mosley, a First Team All-Valley performer for the second straight season, is averaging 20.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while converting 50.6 percent of his field goals, 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers and 90.9 percent of his free-throws. He leads The Valley in free-throw shooting and ranks second in scoring and fifth in rebounding. His scoring average currently ranks 23rd nationally, while his free-throw percentage is seventh.
9. Mark Sears, SO, Ohio (Mid-American)
Ohio, which won the MAC tournament and knocked off Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament a year ago, figured to take at least a small step backwards after losing star Jason Preston to the NBA. The fact that they have actually performed better in conference play than they did a season ago is a testament to a lot of things, not the least of which being the play of Sears.
The electric sophomore guard leads the Bobcats in scoring (19.4 ppg), assists (5.1 apg) and steals (1.8 spg). Sears is shooting a red-hot 41.7 percent from beyond the arc, and 90.8 percent from the free-throw line. He has scored in double figures in all but one of Ohio’s 30 games thus far this season.
10. Teddy Allen, JR, New Mexico State (WAC)
The addition of “Teddy Buckets” might be the biggest reason Aggies fans are expecting to see NMSU back in the NCAA tournament this season after an atypical absence in 2021. The well-traveled Allen (Las Cruces marks his 5th college stop) is averaging 19.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game at the moment, and has hit double figures in scoring in every game but one. He’s breached the 30-point mark four times this season, including a 41-point effort in a win at Abilene Christian on Jan. 15.
11. Darius McGhee, SR, Liberty (Atlantic Sun)
McGhee repeated as Atlantic Sun Player of the Year by becoming the only person in the last 30 seasons of college basketball to score 760 points, grab 140 rebounds, record 110 assists, and make 135 three-pointers in a single season. McGhee leads the nation in total points (765), total field goals made (258) and three-pointers made (135), and ranks No. 2 in the country in points per game (24.7), trailing only Bryant’s Peter Kiss.
Darius McGhee doing Darius McGhee stuff. pic.twitter.com/SzL0OOjZcE— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) February 3, 2022
12. Tosan Evbuomwan, JR, Princeton (Ivy League)
Start learning how to pronounce his last name now, because the native of Newcastle, England is the best player on the Ivy League’s best team. After playing a minimal role in 2019-20 and staying on the sidelines while the Ivy League opted out of the 2020-21 season, Evbuomwan has exploded on the scene to average 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per contest this year for the Tigers.
13. Ryan Davis, SR, Vermont (America East)
The reigning America East Player of the Year seems destined to repeat the feat in 2022 after averaging 17.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game for a Catamounts team that dominated the rest of the league during the regular season.
14. Koby McEwen, SR, Weber State (Big Sky)
The transfer from Marquette has been spectacular in his first and last season as a Wildcat, averaging 18.3 ppg and scoring 20 points or more in 11 of Weber State’s 19 conference games.
15. Norchad Omier, SO, Arkansas State (Sun Belt)
The first native of Nicaragua to ever play Division-I men’s basketball, Omier became just the third player in Sun Belt Conference history to earn both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season when he picked up both honors earlier this week. He is the third player in league history to win Freshman of the Year and follow the next season with Player of the Year honors.
Averaging 17.2 points while shooting 64.7 percent from the floor for the season, Omier is also the first player in Sun Belt Conference history to average 19 or more points (19.1) and 13 or more rebounds (13.3) during league play.
16. Antoine Davis, SR, Detroit Mercy (Horizon League)
If it feels like you’ve seen Davis on this list for nearly half a decade, well, there’s a reason. The man who shattered Steph Curry’s freshman record for made three-pointers back in 2018-19 has 2,693 career points to his name, easily the most of any active Division-I player, He dropped 38 in Detroit Mercy’s Horizon League tournament opening victory over Green Bay on Tuesday. He and the Titans get third-seeded Northern Kentucky in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
17. Ty Gordon, SR, Nicholls (Southland)
The nation’s 10th leading scorer at 21.1 ppg, Gordon is the biggest reason why Nicholls is tied with New Orleans atop the Southland Conference standings with two regular season games to go for both squads.
18. Joe Bryant Jr., SR, Norfolk State (MEAC)
Bryant Jr. is something of an oddity on this list as a senior who has spent all four of his collegiate seasons with the same program. He’s improved steadily each season since being a seldom-used freshman in 2018-19, and finds himself as the leader in scoring (16.4 ppg), assists (3.5 apg), and steals (1.4 spg) for a Norfolk State team that has already locked up an outright MEAC regular season title.
19. Jamarion Sharp, JR, Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
The tallest player in the country at 7’5, Sharp ranks second in the nation in blocked shots (4.5 per game), and second in the nation in field goal percentage (71.6 percent).
Jamarion Sharp— Random College Athletes (@RandomAthletess) January 11, 2022
Western Kentucky, Center 2021-2022 pic.twitter.com/1hNk5eV5cH
20. Sukhmail Mathon, SR, Boston U. (Patriot League)
The Patriot League’s Player of the Year, the 6’10 Mathon led the conference and is 12th in the country in rebounding (10.3 rpg), while placing sixth in the league in scoring (15.1 ppg) and field-goal percentage (.529). He also ranks 10th in Patriot League history with 837 career rebounds. Mathon’s Terriers will be the No. 3 seed in the Patriot League tournament.
5 Title Games You Absolutely Want To Happen
1. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s (West Coast)
One of the best rivalries in college basketball had dipped a bit in recent years thanks primarily to Gonzaga’s dominance in the series. Heading into last weekend’s meeting in Moraga, the Bulldogs had won seven straight over Saint Mary’s, and all seven of those wins had come by double figures. Everything changed with a 67-57 victory for the Gaels that was even more dominant than the final score would lead you to believe.
One of the wildest Championship Week stats out there is that Gonzaga has played in every WCC tournament championship game since all the way back in 1997. The only three WCC tournaments the Bulldogs have not won since 2008 have all come via championship game losses to Saint Mary’s, the most recent of which coming in 2019.
Both these teams are safely in the NCAA tournament, but there will still be plenty on the line if they meet for a third time in Vegas. For Gonzaga, a victory could mean not just locking up a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance, but the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed. Saint Mary’s could potentially move up an entire seed line with a neutral court victory over the Zags. More than any of that, though, these are two teams that really despise one another and that really want to claim the season series from the other.
2. Murray State vs. Belmont (Ohio Valley)
Murray State vs. Belmont has been one of the best mid-major rivalries in all of college basketball ever since the Bruins joined the Ohio Valley Conference before the start of the 2012-13 season.
Over the last decade, the two programs have won or shared a whopping 21 conference regular season and tournament championships (the league used divisions from 2013-17). The Racers and Bruins have met in the OVC tournament title game five times, and three of those five games have been decided by one or two points.
With both schools bolting for the Missouri Valley after this season, it would only feel right for them to leave the OVC with one last classic.
3. Northern Iowa vs. Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley)
Arch Madness always delivers, but this year’s semifinals and championship game have the potential to be off-the-charts good.
UNI, Loyola, Missouri State and Drake are four teams that are all fully capable of winning at least one game in the NCAA tournament if they’re able to make it there. The first two teams on that list met twice during the regular season, with Loyola rolling to an 83-58 win at home and Northern Iowa returning the favor with a thrilling 102-96 triumph in Cedar Falls to end the regular season.
Any combination of these teams meeting for the title in St. Louis will be appointment viewing, but round three between the Ramblers and Panthers is the ideal finish.
4. South Dakota State vs. North Dakota State (Summit League)
Folks from the north central part of the United States will tell you that this is the best mid-major rivalry in the country at the moment.
Even if that isn’t the case, the brand of basketball these two play and the competitiveness of their games should make you root for the Jackrabbits and Bison to square off with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line. While SDSU rolled to a perfect 18-0 conference record in the regular season, NDSU pushed them to the brink in both of their meetings. South Dakota State won both of those games by four points, their smallest margins of victory in league play.
Two very exciting brands of basketball and two teams that really don’t like one another in the title game of a conference where play has been awfully testy this season. You can’t ask for much more.
5. Iona vs. Monmouth (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
Monmouth probably isn’t the second best team in the MAAC, but I don’t care.
This rivalry has always had a history of getting weird.
Pretty nice slap to the at the end of the Monmouth-Iona game. pic.twitter.com/FmiOnKNtxB— Mike (@mike5_5_5) January 16, 2016
Monmouth coach King Rice with some parting thoughts for the Iona crowd. pic.twitter.com/X1U6Gmtcjo— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) January 16, 2016
Now you toss in two of the biggest personalities in the sport in Rick Pitino and King Rice, and a meeting with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line could be tremendous March theater.
Iona swept the regular season series with Monmouth, but both contests were competitive. Getting a third meeting in Atlantic City would be a dream, but the Hawks are going to have to play their way out of the No. 4 seed (where they currently sit with two regular season games to go) in order to make that meeting happen in the title game. Even if it’s a semifinal showdown, you would want to tune into this one.
Five Crazy Competitive Conference Tournaments
1. Big Sky
With just two regular season games to play for all teams, there are four squads that still have a realistic chance to win at least a share of the Big Sky’s regular season title. Montana State sits in first place alone, but Weber State, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah are all sitting there directly behind the Bobcats. Montana State’s chief rival, Montana, is also lurking with an 11-7 record that includes a recent triumph over the Bobcats.
2. Big South
This is cheating a little bit, but how can we not acknowledge what happened in the Big South on Wednesday?
Three of the league’s four first round games went to overtime, one went to double overtime, and the only game that was decided in regulation was a 79-78 thriller that saw Charleston Southern — which went 1-15 in league play during the regular season — stun UNC Asheville.
The nightcap between Campbell and Presbyterian featured a true buzzer-beater at the end of the first overtime, and a game-winner at the end of the second from a center not known for his outside shooting prowess.
This was always going to be a fun tournament, but the first day of action has set the bar tremendously high for the next three.
Nine of the 12 teams in this league currently have at least seven conference wins, and no team in the league has fewer than four conference losses. Texas Southern is the reigning champion and has claimed five of the SWAC’s last seven auto-bids, but this really does feel like just about anyone’s tournament to win.
One other thing to watch here: The SWAC has not had a true shared regular season championship since all the way back in 1996. Both Prairie View and Jackson State went unbeaten in league play last season, but Prairie View won two more games and the only regular season meeting between the two was canceled because of Covid.
Alcorn State currently sits alone atop the conference standings, but Texas Southern is just a half game back and Southern is a single game behind. The good news for the Braves is that they end the regular season with games against the two worst teams in the conference — Mississippi Valley State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Win both and the SWAC’s streak of unshared regular season title lasts into another year.
4. Big West
With the end of the regular season looming, seven of the 11 teams in this conference currently sit with between 3-5 losses in league play. Any of those seven appear fully capable of claiming the Big West’s auto-bid. Expect competitive chaos in Henderson next week.
There’s nothing like a thrilling Big West tournament game in the early morning hours of Selection Sunday or Selection Sunday Eve to satisfy the fix of true hoops junkies.
That’s the stuff.
This has felt like the New Mexico State Invitational more times than not, as the Aggies have won eight of the last 11 WAC tournament, often in thoroughly dominating fashion. That tide seems to have turned though.
Grand Canyon rolled over NMSU in last year’s tournament final, and now we have a freshly expanded WAC where eight of the league’s 13 teams currently own winning records, six have won double-digit conference games, and no one in the league has lost fewer than four times.
New Mexico State might once again be the favorites to cut down the nets in Vegas, but Stephen F. Austin, Seattle, Sam Houston, Grand Canyon and Utah Valley are all right there.
Five Conference Tournaments I’m Mad At
1. America East
First of all, Vermont should dominate this thing. They went 17-1 in league play and finished six games clear of second-place UMBC. A non-competitive title game on the Saturday morning before Selection Sunday seems sacrilegious, but it also feels like where this is headed.
Second, in the middle of the season the league banned Stony Brook from postseason play because the Seawolves are leaving for the Colonial Athletic Association after this season. SBU was in second-place in the conference standings when the announcement was made, and would have been the 3-seed in this tournament had they been eligible.
I get that leagues have bylaws in place in these types of situations, but man ... come on. The players have no say in whether or not the schools they represent stay in the same conference or choose to leave for seemingly greener pastures, and yet the players are the only ones who get royally screwed in situations like these. This would be true in any conference, but especially at this level, where none of the teams have any hope of earning an at-large bid, and the entire season is basically building towards the conference tournament.
To take that away from any team, let alone one with a realistic chance of winning said conference tournament, in the middle of a year just feels criminal.
2. Colonial Athletic Association
Repeat the same spiel above, but direct it at the Colonial and its decision to ban James Madison from postseason play because the Dukes are leaving for the Sun Belt. JMU finished its season 6-12 in the conference.
We’ll also use this space to give props to the Horizon League for reversing its initial decision to ban UIC from postseason play, while still expressing its disappointment with the way the school handled its exit.
The Flames knocked off Milwaukee in the first round of the event and will face second-seeded Purdue Fort Wayne in one of Thursday’s quarterfinals.
3. Ivy League
You know what? I’m starting to think that we’ve been overestimating the value of an Ivy League education for decades now. I’m basing this entirely off the fact that the conference holds a four-team tournament at a pre-determined on-campus location.
None of this works.
If you’re capping the field at four, you may as well go back to the old 14-game tournament days. And if you’re going to have play the games on a campus site, at least have the advantage for the host school be an earned one. Also, at least make sure the host school is actually going to be a participant in the tournament.
You people baffle me. You spend all your money on these fancy conference tournaments, you surround yourself with ‘em, and they’re the wrong fuckin’ conference tournaments.
That’s two Good Will Hunting references in one extremely niche college basketball feature. So, yeah, we’re doing pretty well here.
All that said, it’s nice to have you back in the Championship Week fold, Ivy. Your tournament setup is dumb, but Princeton-Yale would be a very fun game.
4. West Coast
The West Coast Conference has two teams ranked in the current AP top 25 poll, and four with a legitimate shot at earning at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. If you’re one of the powers that be leading the conference, surely you’re going to set up your tournament in a manner that ensures that the maximum number of games are played so that you can get maximum exposure for your league’s relatively unheard of power at the top, right?
Get this out of my face.
If you have that many consecutive days with no more than two games being played, you’re probably doing something wrong. More games, more daytime basketball, more opportunities for glory; That’s what march is all about.
For five years, the West Coast Conference went away from this step ladder bracket and made Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s play more than two games to win a conference tournament championship. It was cool. In 2019, they went back.
Here’s the thing: Gonzaga won every single one of those tournaments and played either Saint Mary’s or BYU in the title game each time. So it’s not like compressing the tournament hurt the league when it came to the likelihood of it sending its top dog(s) onto the NCAA tournament.
You’re depriving us of the over-saturation we crave, and you’re doing it for no reason.
5. Big Sky
Yeah I’m calling the Big Sky out for being boring just one section after praising it for being exciting. Things change quickly. This is March. Try and keep up.
Here’s the reason: On paper it looks like it’s going to be “crazy competitive,” but this is the only conference tournament in America where the No. 1 or No. 2 seed has cut down the nets in each of the last five seasons. It doesn’t stop there. The No. 1 seed has actually won the Big Sky tournament in nine of the last 11 years, and the two times the top seed didn’t win, it was the No. 2 seed that took home the title. Great news for Montana State. Not so great for the rest of us.
Consider this a warning shot, Big Sky. We’re gonna need to see some fireworks in the very near future.
10 Dangerous Non-Top Seeds That Could Claim A Bid
1. Liberty (Atlantic Sun)
Yes, Jacksonville State is the tournament’s top seed, but it still feels like the A-Sun is going to go through Liberty. And why wouldn’t it? The Flames have captured the league’s last two auto-bids, beat Mississippi State in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament, are the No. 2 seed for this year’s A-Sun dance, and have one of the country’s best players in Darius McGhee.
2. UC Irvine (Big West)
As previously mentioned, there is a strong possibility that the Big West gets wacky. If it does, keep an eye on UC Irvine. The Anteaters started league play slow thanks in no small part to an extended COVID layoff. They’ve now won eight of their last nine and most recently took down league-leading Long Beach State.
3. Montana (Big Sky)
The Grizzlies currently sit in fifth-place in the Big Sky standings, but that doesn’t tell the full story here. Travis DeCuire’s team has been woeful on the road, but a sparkling 14-1 at home. With this tournament being played in Boise and not campus sites, it feels like Montana has more than a puncher’s chance to win it for the third time in four years. Adding to that sentiment is the fact that they’re coming off of an 80-74 triumph over rival and conference leader Montana State.
4. Oral Roberts (Summit League)
South Dakota State is a phenomenal team, but the Jackrabbits don’t have Max Abmas.
5. Hofstra (Colonial Athletic Association)
Hofstra’s lone CAA tournament title came in 2020 when they were robbed of the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament because ... have you guys seen this? have you heard about this? ... some not so cool stuff happened.
The Pride are the 3-seed for this year’s iteration, but they might be the league’s hottest team. They enter the postseason having won eight of their last nine, a stretch which includes a 73-71 win over second-seeded UNC-Wilmington.
6. Winthrop (Big South)
The Big South almost always goes through Winthrop, which has claimed the league’s auto-bid in each of the last two seasons. They finished a game behind 15-1 Longwood in the final regular season standings, but are still the betting favorite to make it back to the Big Dance.
7. Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
North Texas and UAB are both phenomenal and worthy of at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, but neither has the level of overall talent, size and athleticism that Western Kentucky does. It also goes without saying that neither has a 7’5 shot-blocking machine in the middle of their defense.
Western had a bizarre run in the middle of January where it lost five games in a row, but it seems to have righted the ship since then. The Hilltoppers have won eight of their last nine, with a road loss to a very good Middle Tennessee team being their only hiccup over that stretch.
8. Ohio (Mid-American)
There is no conference with more of a divide between the haves and the have-nots than the MAC.
The top five teams in the conference are all fully capable of doing damage in the NCAA tournament if they get there, while the rest of the league is all under .500 in conference play.
All of the four teams directly below Toledo in the league standings are significant threats, but we’ll highlight Ohio here.
The Bobcats return multiple key players from the squad that won this tournament a year ago and went on to knock off reigning national champion Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They haven’t been playing their best basketball recently, but the presence of Ben Vander Plas and Mark Sears, among others, still makes them incredibly dangerous.
9. Cornell (Ivy League)
The Big Red have a losing record in conference play at the moment, but if they beat Columbia on Saturday and earn the final spot in the league’s four-team tournament, there’s reason to believe they can make some noise.
Cornell is a bad matchup for Princeton, and scored 88 points while giving the Tigers one of their two conference losses back on Feb. 4. They also played the league-leaders down to the wire in a 72-70 road loss on Jan. 8.
Again, they have to make it there first, but if Cornell sneaks in as the Ivy League’s No. 4 seed, don’t be surprised to see them pull off a semifinal “stunner” against the team most expect to represent the Ivies in the Big Dance.
10. Howard (MEAC)
Norfolk State has already locked up the league’s regular season title, but the Bison are looming large immediately behind them. Howard has won eight of its last nine and swept its regular season series with perennial league power North Carolina Central.
Norfolk State and Howard will meet Thursday night in a regular season finale that won’t really mean a whole lot to either team. Still, if the Bison are able to pull off the upset and even the season series, there will be even more reason to believe they can win a rubber match next week in Norfolk.
There it is.
If you didn’t read every word and just scrolled down here to say how this thing was wrapped up, well, now you don’t get fill out any NCAA tournament brackets. Those are the rules. I don’t make them.
Happy March, everybody.