Small Conference Tournament Previews
Conference tournament season is here, and this should be the time of year when you sit down and watch some of these smaller conference games in order to figure out who will be your upset picks when the Big Dance starts. The smaller conference tournaments are perhaps the most unique because the strong majority of these teams know that this is their only chance to get into the NCAA Tournament and have no chance at receiving an at-large bid. The madness really begins here, as we saw last year with Holy Cross, the worst team in the Patriot League during the regular season, run the table in the conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament with a record well below .500. Next week we will preview the major conference tournaments, but for now, here are my picks for some of the smaller conferences:
The Skinny: Vermont, should they win this, will be a very popular pick to pull a first round upset in the NCAA Tournament, and with good reason. The Catamounts have gone undefeated in conference play without much of a challenge. They were also competitive in games against power conference teams Butler and South Carolina earlier this season. UMBC has been the team to give Vermont the most trouble this year, only losing by single digits each time. I don’t see much craziness here. Vermont has been too dominant
Favorite: Florida Gulf Coast
The Skinny: All signs here point toward a FGCU/Lipscomb clash in the finals. These teams split the season series in two very competitive games. Many might remember Florida Gulf Coast and their improbable run to the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed just a few years back. While I don’t think this team is as talented as that famous “Dunk City” team, I think they have enough talent to get the job done here.
PICK: Florida Gulf Coast
Favorite: North Dakota
The Skinny: The Big Sky has been one of the weaker conferences in America this year. North Dakota has all the momentum riding into the tournament, currently on a six game winning streak. Montana has to be the sleeper here, beating both North Dakota and 2 seed Eastern Washington during the regular season. In order to win these tournaments, you have to have a big time player, and Eastern Washington has just that in big man Jacob Wiley, averaging nearly 21 PPG. Give me the Eagles
PICK: Eastern Washington
The Skinny: Winthrop or UNC-Asheville are both teams capable of pulling a big upset come March Madness. Both played competitive games during the season, most recently with Asheville pulling off the victory in a triple overtime thriller. Winthrop has been very competitive against power conference teams this season, giving Florida State a battle and even beating Illinois on the road. Keon Johnson will be a name you will want to watch. The thrilling guard is averaging 22 PPG and is known for his big time shots. Give me the Eagles over Asheville in another thriller in Part 3 of their battle.
Favorite: UC Irvine
Sleeper: Long Beach State
The Skinny: UC Irvine and UC Davis have been fighting for the top spot in the conference all season, with the battle culminating on Saturday to decide the regular season crown. I think Irvine is the better of the two teams, but I do not expect anyone form this conference to make any real noise in the Big Dance. My sleeper here is Long Beach State based off of how insanely hard their non-conference slate was, with road games against North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Kansas, and Wichita State. That is absurd, but could pay off down the stretch. Irvine beats LBSU in a close one in the finals.
PICK: UC Irvine
The Skinny: Wilmington won this last year and gave Duke a battle for the majority of the game, and I can see them doing that again this year. Charleston will also be a team that can make noise in March if they can make it through the Colonial Tournament. I fully expect these two teams to meet in the final, with Wilmington coming out on top.
Sleeper: Green Bay
The Skinny: Oakland and Valparaiso have been slugging it out for the top spot in the Horizon all year, but with Oakland winning both matchups during the season, they are the favorite going into the tournament. I am really intrigued to see Part 3 of this matchup and cannot see much happening to stop it. Valpo has had major success in the nonconference slate, beating BYU, Rhode Island, and Alabama. Alec Peters is a real treat to watch for Valparaiso, averaging 23 PPG and is a potential 1st round pick in the NBA Draft. It is hard to beat a team of a similar caliber three times in a row, and with Oakland beating Valpo the first two times, I like the Crusaders to avenge these losses, and even pull an upset in the NCAA Tournament along the way.
The Skinny: Ivy League tournament! Finally!! For the first time, the regular season champion will not earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament and the teams will play for the right in Philadelphia. The Ivy League is known for making noise in the NCAA Tournament, often pulling upsets, with Yale and Harvard having great success in recent seasons. Princeton has dominated the Ivy this year, going undefeated in conference play. Princeton should handle business here, but don’t be shocked if Yale or Harvard give them a run for their money.
The Skinny: Last year’s biggest snub according to many, Monmouth does not have an at-large case this year and must win the MAAC Tournament if they want to put on their dancing shoes. While they haven’t had as good as a nonconference slate as last year, the Hawks will still be a major threat to pull an upset in the NCAA Tournament should they advance to that point. However, there are a handful of capable teams of winning this tournament, such as St. Peter’s, Iona, and Siena. I like Monmouth to get the job done this year, but I can see a ton of madness and surprising results happening in Albany this weekend.
Sleeper: Central Michigan
The Skinny: One of the most unpredictable conference tournaments has a clear favorite this year, one would think, in Akron. However the Zips just lost to the last place team in Miami(OH), just to warn you how unpredictable this conference is. My sleeper in this conference is the second worst team in the conference in Central Michigan. Why you ask? Marcus Keene. The nation’s leading scorer by a wide margin has the ability to single handedly win his team the conference tournament, and is appointment television. I think the unpredictability continues this season, with Ohio, who has beaten Akron as well as ACC bubble team Georgia Tech, emerges victorious.
Favorite: Wichita State
Sleeper: Missouri State
The Skinny: Hard to pick a sleeper here. This has Wichita vs Illinois State written all over it. Both teams are 17-1 in conference play with their losses to each other. Both teams have a legit chance at an at-large berth should they not win the tournament. I can’t see another matchup happening in the finals, but I like Wichita to cut the nets. They are the more talented team and have been here before, not to mention they took Louisville and Michigan State to the wire in nonconference play
PICK: Wichita State
Sleeper: Morehead State
The Skinny: Traditional Ohio Valley power Belmont is the clear favorite here, losing only one game in conference play and will be a trendy upset pick if they advance to the NCAA Tournament. UT-Martin finished second and has enough talent to take down Belmont, but this one is the Bruins’ to lose.
Sleeper: Holy Cross
The Skinny: This tournament provided the most craziness last season, with Holy Cross coming in last place, yet running the table while on the road(the higher seed in every game hosts the game) every game to win the whole thing. This year Holy Cross is not the worst team in the Patriot, but still has to be a sleeper because of their experience from last year. Bucknell is the favorite this year, but has not been able to capitalize on their regular season success in the conference tournament the past few years. I think that trend continues this year for the Bison, as Lehigh has beaten them twice this year already and are a terrible matchup for Bucknell.
Favorite: East Tennessee State
This tournament is wide open, as three teams tied for the regular season conference title. UNC-Greensboro is one of those teams and have beaten ETSU twice this year already. The other team tied, Furman, has also beaten ETSU as well as Greensboro this year. This will be a fun one to keep track of, but I like Greensboro to emerge from the fire as the champion. The enter the tournament on a seven game winning streak, so momentum is on their side.
Favorite: New Orleans
Sleeper: Sam Houston State
The Skinny: The era of Stephen F. Austin dominating this conference is over. The New Orleans Privateers have lost their four conference games by a combined 14 points and have to be the favorites entering the tournament. Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M Corpus Christi will provide challenges in the tournament and are very capable of winning the whole thing. I like New Orleans to win, but the winner of this conference is likely going to be a 16 seed and to the play-in game.
PICK: New Orleans
Favorite: South Dakota
Sleeper: South Dakota State
The Skinny: The Summit league is always a fun tournament to watch with the championship game usually being a thriller. South Dakota is the favorite heading into the tournament, but this is one of the most wide open tournaments of them all, with North Dakota State having a real chance to win, Fort Wayne having the talent to compete, as well as South Dakota State, who is the 4 seed, but has nations second leading scorer in Mike Daum. SDSU and South Dakota are likely to meet in the semifinals of this tournament, and I like South Dakota State to pull the upset and win it all.
PICK: South Dakota State
Sleeper: Texas State
The Skinny: Arlington will be another popular pick to pull an upset should they make it through the Sun Belt tournament, and even have an outside chance at an at-large berth at the NCAA Tournament. They have wins over Texas and St. Mary’s in the non-conference slate, so they have proven their ability to compete with more talented teams. This is their tournament to lose.
Favorite: CSU Bakersfield
Sleeper: New Mexico State
The Skinny: With Grand Canyon ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to the transition period to the Division 1 level, the WAC title game will almost assuredly come down to CSU Bakersfield and New Mexico State. Bakersfield was competitive on the road in nonconference play against ranked teams Arizona and SMU. This conference used to be a lock for New Mexico State year in and year out, but the past two seasons, Bakersfield has bucked that trend. The teams split the season series so Round 3 should take place here. I like New Mexico State here. The Aggies were on a 20 game win streak before losing three of their last five. I expect them to rebound and reclaim the WAC crown.
PICK: New Mexico State
MEAC-North Carolina Central
SWAC: Texas Southern