The madness of March begins in earnest this week as the smaller conference tournaments get underway. For more than three months, the majority of mid-major teams have played for nothing but seeding in their conference tournaments. Why? Survive the conference tournament and your name will be called on March 16.
Here are five things to look for in the coming days during the mad scramble for automatic bids.
1. Will the big fella go dancing?
The big fella is the biggest fella in the land -- UNC Asheville's Kenny George, a 7-foot-7, 360-pound monster who dunks without leaving his feet. The Bulldogs tied for first in the Big South with Winthrop and earned the No. 1 seed, which is big since the tournament is held at the homecourt of the highest-seeded team. George is a pleasure to watch and would be a hit if he reached the big stage of the NCAA tournament. Best George story of the year: after sitting out the entire game against VMI with sore knees, he was inserted with 13 seconds left in overtime and UNC Asheville trailing by one. George towered over his defender, got the ball and laid it in, then was removed six seconds later after a VMI turnover.
2. Could the once-blacklisted Todd Bozeman return to the NCAA tournament
In 1993, the 29-year old wunderkind coach led Cal to an upset of two-time national champion Duke in the NCAA tournament. Three years later, the star crashed: After paying Jelani Gardner's family $30,000 to come to Cal, Bozeman was given an eight-year show-cause ban by the NCAA Infractions Committee. Bozeman was out of the game for 10 years, but finally landed a job at Morgan State two years ago. The Bears were coming off a four-win season, but in his short time in Baltimore, Bozeman has won a regular season MEAC championship and his team is the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. "I want to make [Morgan State president Earl Richardson] proud that they gave me the opportunity," Bozeman said. "I'm so thankful I can't put it into words."
3. The drama in the Valley
After putting put together a spectacular season under first-year coach Keno Davis and his band of former walk-ons, we know Drake is going to the Dance. After that? Iffy, which is quite surprising for a league that has earned at least one at-large berth for 10 straight years. Illinois State and Southern Illinois have decent chances to get at-large invitations, and both should reach the semis of the MVC tournament, where they will meet for the third time. Illinois State has won the previous two matchups including last Saturday, and a three-game sweep should push the Redbirds right into the Big Dance. Arch Madness is traditionally one of the best smaller conference tournaments, and this year should be no exception.
4. The final Charron Fisher-Jason Thompson showdown (hopefully)
Barring any upsets, the semifinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament should feature the two best players in the league. Niagara's Charron Fisher and Rider's Jason Thompson have knocked heads for four years, and both have saved their best seasons for last. Fisher leads the nation in scoring (27.8 ppg) while Thompson is second in rebounding (11.8 rpg) and is one of three players nationally averaging at least 20 points and 11 rebounds. The two have met eight times in the previous four years, with Fisher's Niagara squad winning six. Thompson has had the slight statistical edge (21.6, 9.3) over Fisher (20, 7.5), but Fisher had 36 and 30 in the two games this season.
5. Double dipping in the Sun Belt
The Sun Belt has not sent two teams to the NCAA tournament since 1994, but that drought could end this season. South Alabama and Western Kentucky have owned the conference all year and both have a decent shot at-large bids if they reach the conference tourney final. Tournament host South Alabama (25-5) enters with an RPI of 30 while Western Kentucky (24-6) checks in at No. 51. The ideal scenario for the conference would be if Courtney Lee and the Hilltoppers knocked off South Alabama in the tournament final, and the Jaguars get the requisite bubble help from some of the power conferences to earn an at-large spot.