It's here! March Madness begins with the conference tournaments. The first tournamnet games began Tuesday, and the final conference championship games are next Sunday... Selection Sunday! It's been a year full of highlights, but the best action (as always) is yet to come. Here are my previews for each conference tournament taking place this weekend.
Ohio Valley 3/1-3/4 Nashville, TN
Belmont cruised through conference play, in Gonaga-like fashion. They have the conference player of the year in Evan Bradds, who has twice led the NCAA in FG%. That, combined with the Bears beating 11 of 16 conference opponents by double digits, the top seed only plays two games, and the tournament is in their backyard, they should win easily.
Big South 2/28-3/5 @highest seed
Coming into the tournament it appeared to be a three-team race to the title. UNC Asheville and Winthrop shared the regular season title, but after tie-breakers Winthrop earned the right to host the quarter and semifinals. Asheville's best season ever ended with Macio Teague being named conference Freshman of the Year, Ahmad Thomas Defensive Player of the Year, and Nick McDevitt earning every bit of the Coach of the Year award. Keon Johnson of Winthrop won Big South Player of the Year, with Thomas a close 2nd. Round three would be the most entertaining, but both teams hope to avoid it. Gardner-Webb could spoil the party for the Eagles. They are on a four-game winning streak heading into the tournament, and have played Winthrop tough twice this season. ***After UNC Asheville was upset by Chris Clemons' 51-point performance in the quarterfinal, it's a two team race.***
Atlantic Sun 2/27-3/5 @highest seed
Florida Gulf Coast has some very “good” losses on their schedule: a 2-point loss to Michigan State and a nine-point loss to Baylor. Those games, no doubt, helped them prepare for conference play because they were tested very few times. They split with 2 nd-seeded Lipscomb, who has one of the most efficient offenses in the country. However, Lipscomb has been swept by North Florida and will face them in the semifinals. FGCU has UNF's number.
Prediction: Florida Gulf Coast
Missouri Valley 3/2-3/5 St. Louis, MO
The MVC hasn't grabbed many headlines this season, but once again two of its teams are standing out. The constant: Wichita State. The Next Thing(?): Illinois State. Both teams have 17-1 conference records, thanks to a split in the season series. The #21 Shockers are yet another well-coached Gregg Marshall masterpiece that is going to cause trouble in the NCAA tournament. Illinois has trouble scoring, but limits teams to just 60 per game.
Prediction: Wichita State
MAAC 3/2-3/6 Albany, NY
It was 18 games ago that Monmouth last tasted defeat. Three of their five losses came at the hands of likely tournament teams UNC, South Carolina, and Syracuse. 3-pt artist James Robinson has been deadly for opponents, shooting 40% from behind the arc. He has 10 games with four or more three-point makes. His high was 8 @ Siena. St. Peter's might make a run. All of their conference losses since the beginning of 2017 have been by 3 points or fewer. They are tough defensively, allowing the 9th fewest ppg in the NCAA (61.6).
Colonial 3/3-3/6 N. Charleston, SC
UNCW is the odds-on favorite to take the title after flirting with the top-25 for most of the season. The Seahawks offense scores 85 points per game (13th in NCAA) and the defense forces turnovers at a high rate (10.5 per game, 11th in the country). College of Charleston plays in their backyard, at the North Charleston Coliseum, and their top-25 defense could spark a run. However, UNCW is an amazing 11-3 in road games.
Prediction: UNC Wilmington
Southern 3/3-3/6 Asheville, NC
UNCG went on a seven-game winning streak to secure the #1 seed for the tournament, but Furman and ETSU also tied for 1st. This could be one of the most competitive tournaments of week 1. Greensboro is led by guards Francis Alonso and Diante Baldwin. (This is the part where I remind you how important guard play is in March). Furman is a veteran team loaded with juniors and seniors. ETSU is well-rounded at both ends of the floor. The key will be the play of senior guard TJ Cromer. When he doesn't shoot well, they struggle to win.
Horizon 3/3-3/7 Detroit, MI
Normally Valpo is my go-to for the league, but they announced this week that senior forward Alec Peters is done for the year with a broken leg. He averaged 23 pts, 10 reb. They will not win without him, I bet. That opens the door wider for an Oakland team that already had the upper hand. The Golden Grizzlies rely on good ball movement, ranking high in assists. One of the nation's top rebounding teams, Wisconsin-Green Bay, crashes the board to create more offense. They us their 41 boards per game to average 80 ppg.
Northeast 3/1-3/7 @highest seed
It should be Mt. St. Mary's tournament to win, with LIU-Brooklyn being upset in the 1st round. Robert Morris has played MSM tough twice, so the possibility for a stumble is high. Wagner poses an equally tough matchup for the #1 seed.
Prediction: Mt. St. Mary's
Summitt 3/4-3/7 Sioux Falls, SD
Top-seeded South Dakota comes into the tournament on a six game winning streak in conference play. The Coyotes have never won the conference tournament, or been to the NCAA tournament. Led by Air Force Academy transfer Matt Mooney, South Dakota looks to make school history in a tourney that could be wide open.
Prediction: South Dakota
West Coast 3/3-3/7 Las Vegas, NV
Gonzaga has rolled through the conference, as usual, losing only its final game of the regular season to BYU. Despite having another ranked team in the conference (#20 St. Mary's), the Zags should have no trouble winning out. The #4 Bulldogs have beaten all four teams on their side of the bracket by an AVERAGE of 29 points.
Patriot 2/28-3/8 @ highest seed
Lehigh comes in as the 3rd seed, but may have the key to winning the tournament. They swept #1-seed Bucknell in the regular season, problem is they have to get past Boston U first, who swept them. Tim Kempton is 20/10 guy at center. The Mountain Hawks are 13-2 when he has 20+ points and 10+ rebounds, and he's done it four straight games. Boston's not real flashy and they seem to have a rotating cast of "players of the game." Bucknell is led by upperclassmen at every key position, including center where Nana Foulland averages 15 ppg, 8 reb. He's put up 13 blocks in three games.