- The first wave of NCAA tournament automatic bids will be decided soon, but which teams will earn them? Here's your guide to the first 12 conference tournaments.
Conference tournament season is upon us. For college basketball fans with ESPN+ and plenty of time on their hands, these two weeks are a fittingly wild precursor to the NCAA tournament, with automatic bids to the Big Dance on the line and wall-to-wall drama leading up to Selection Sunday, which falls on March 17 this year. We have the first week of conference tournaments previewed so you know exactly what to watch:
ASUN (Atlantic Sun)
Championship info: Sunday, March 10, 3 p.m. ET on ESPN. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Lipscomb made the tournament last year and has the best résumé and numbers of any Atlantic Sun team, with a non-conference win over TCU and a close loss to Louisville to its name. Garrison Mathews is arguably the best player in the conference, and the Bisons are ranked No. 48 in the country on kenpom.
Contenders: Liberty and Lipscomb have been the best teams in the A-Sun by far, both holding 14–2 conference records. However, the two teams split the season series by winning at each other’s floor. Liberty’s complete opposite style to Lipscomb (Liberty is 348th in kenpom.com's adjusted tempo rankings, compared to 14th for Lipscomb) makes this an intriguing matchup strategically. These two teams are the odds-on favorites to make the title game.
Sleepers: Florida Gulf Coast is always lurking, and the Eagles have gone 8–4 since starting the year 5–13 and have a 67–61 win over Lipscomb to their name. However, with all games played at the higher seed’s campus, FGCU will likely need to win two road games. North Florida, the No. 3 seed, is far behind Lipscomb and Liberty, but Ospreys are riding a six-game winning streak that included a win over Liberty on Feb. 23. They are the hot team heading into the tournament, but will also likely need to win two road games.
Championship info: Saturday, March 9, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Belmont—not Murray State and Ja Morant, the Racers’ do-everything guard and future NBA lottery pick. Rick Byrd’s Bruins won comfortably in Murray on Jan. 24 (Morant scored 20 points through an ankle injury he suffered in the opening minutes) and haven’t lost in nearly two months. From senior Dylan Windler to freshman Nick Muszynski, Belmont is a top-to-bottom model of offensive efficiency, averaging 88.3 points per game.
Contenders: Obviously, the biggest name and best player in the conference is Morant, who could take matters into his own hands in Evansville. Murray State and Belmont are on relatively even footing, but it would be unwise to write off Jacksonville State and Austin Peay, both solid teams. Jacksonville State is 3–0 against the conference’s top two this season.
The sleeper: Morehead State. It’s a pretty steep drop from the OVC’s top four to the rest of the conference. The spotlight here falls on the Eagles, who won four straight back in January and will look to bog opponents down with their slower tempo.
Championship info: Sunday, March 10, 1 p.m. ET on ESPN. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Radford has wins over Notre Dame and Texas to its name and sits 65 spots higher in kenpom.com’s rankings than Campbell, the second-most efficient Big South team. The Highlanders made things complicated by losing three of their last five down the stretch, including a loss to Campbell that gave away home court advantage, but they are still the best team in the conference by a significant margin.
Contenders: The most entertaining Big South tournament outcome would involve Campbell’s Chris Clemons, the nation’s diminutive leading scorer, keeping up his 30 points per game average and leading the Camels to the NCAA tournament. If you haven’t watched America’s favorite 5'9" superstar, now’s the perfect time to start. Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and and Charleston Southern are all solid teams that will be significant tests for Radford and Campbell, but all eyes will be on Clemons this week.
The sleeper: Presbyterian. The Blue Hose are still searching for their first NCAA tournament bid, and there’s a lot to like with this year’s team. They are 98th in the country in offensive efficiency and shoot 37.3% from three-point range, them on 46.5% of their possessions. The main issue will be their defense, which ranks ... 298th.
Missouri Valley Conference
Championship info: Sunday, March 10, 2 p.m. ET on CBS. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: You haven’t forgotten Sister Jean, right? Loyola-Chicago seemed to battle a Final Four hangover at the start of this season, playing uninspiring basketball during a 5–5 start. Although leading returnees Cameron Krutwig, Marques Townes and Clayton Custer helped turn things around, the Ramblers have been wildly inconsistent. For every commanding 22-point win over conference co-leader Drake, there was a performance like the 70–35 loss to Missouri State in which the Ramblers grabbed nine rebounds in the entire game. But Loyola is the No. 1 seed and should be picked against at your own risk.
Contenders: Drake and Southern Illinois, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, are on level footing with Loyola. Darian DeVries, Drake’s fourth coach in four years, has done a remarkable job getting the the Bulldogs to 23–8 and a share of the regular season title, but their Achilles’ heel has been Loyola, who won the two regular season meetings by a combined 33 points. Maybe a neutral court will change their fortunes. Southern Illinois, led by senior center Kavion Pippen (Scottie’s nephew), won four of their last five and have played good ball this year, but the Salukis face a tough road to the title game.
The sleeper: You should never underestimate Arch Madness, even if none of these teams are going to break 75 points without the help of overtime. The conference has become known for methodical basketball and tight defense, a trend which only gets more plodding in the postseason. Ben Jacobsen’s Northern Iowa program has endured a few down years but remains a top-tier mid-major program. Perhaps the Panthers can find some magic in St. Louis.
Championship info: Monday, March 11, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: It wasn’t always a smooth ride for MAAC heavyweight Iona, but Tim Cluess’s Gaels rallied down the stretch to take the regular season crown. Given the team’s experience and the No. 1 seed, Iona is the favorite, but whether that will mean anything in the notoriously unpredictable MAAC is to be determined.
Contenders: Pretty much everyone else. There’s a four-way tie for second between Quinnipiac, Rider, Siena and Canisius. Quinnipiac is searching for its first NCAA tournament bid and is led by senior Cameron Young, who scored 55 points a few weeks ago. Monmouth started the season 0–12 but clawed its way to a winning record in conference play. Manhattan and Niagara are also supposed to be bad, but they have multiple wins over teams listed in the top half of the league. There may be no rhyme or reason to what goes down in Albany.
The sleeper: Marist is the fourth highest-ranked team by kenpom rating in the conference, and the Red Foxes can get hot, as evidenced by the an encouraging four-game winning streak over Canisius, Niagara, Quinnipiac and Monmouth they ripped off before ending the season on a four-game losing streak.
Championship info: Tuesday, March 12, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN2. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Northern Kentucky is the No. 2 seed in the tournament due to tiebreakers, but the Norse are the league’s best team from a statistical and a talent perspective. Senior Drew McDonald is having his best season yet, shooting 42.3% from three and nearly averaging a double double with 19.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. The Norse are also 26th in the country in effective field goal percentage and would be a dangerous first-round opponent in their second NCAA tournament after losing to Kentucky by single digits in 2017.
Contenders: Wright State won the Horizon last season and has been solid all year, surviving a bumpy non-conference season to end the year with a share of the regular season title. However, the Raiders have a tough draw: IUPUI is the No. 8 seed but has the fourth-best kenpom rating in the conference, and either Illinois-Chicago or Green Bay will be waiting in the next round. Wright State lost twice to UIC and once to Green Bay in the regular season.
The sleeper: Greg Kampe’s Oakland team has historically flopped in the conference tournament, going out as the top seed twice since it joined the conference in 2014. The Grizzlies have won their last four after starting the year a disappointing 11–16, and they have the firepower to make a run.
Championship info: Tuesday, March 12, 7 p.m. ET on CBSSN. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Hofstra has never been in better position to end an NCAA ournament drought thst stretches back to 2001. The Pride have dominated the conference, going 15–3 in the regular season and generally crushing their opposition thanks to the nation’s second-leading scorer Justin Wright-Foreman, who is averaging 26.8 points per game.
Contenders: Always-pesky Northeastern has been nearly as good as Hofstra, going 14–4 in the CAA. The Huskies have lost one game since Jan. 26 and defeated Hofstra in that hot stretch. Charleston is 23–8 overall and has also played solid basketball this year after almost knocking off Auburn in 2018’s first round.
The sleeper: William & Mary have never made the tournament, but the Tribe are riding a five-game win streak. Could this be the year?
Championship info: Tuesday, March 12, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: *rolls dice*....St. Francis (PA)! The Red Flash opened NEC play 3–4 but have gone 9–2 since. They split the regular season title with Farleigh Dickinson and they boast the conference’s most efficient offense, per kenpom.
Contenders: Everyone else. The NEC is must-see TV for anyone who hates greatness and loves chaos. The co-regular season champions each lost six conference games. Eighth-place Bryant was five games back at 7–11. Kenpom likes Sacred Heart as the best team, while St. Francis (NY) would be the best story: They’re one of four schools that have had a Division I basketball team since the first NCAA tournament in 1939 yet have never made the Big Dance.
Sleeper: LIU Brooklyn’s Raiquan Clark leads the NEC in points per game (19.4) and field goal percentage (50.7), and he has an extremely efficient offensive sidekick in UMass transfer Tyrn Flowers, who takes more than half his shots from deep and makes them 38.3% of the time.
Championship info: Tuesday, March 12, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: South Dakota State has won this tournament each of the last three years, the last two specifically because the Jackrabbits have the best player in the conference: Mike Daum. He’s the 10th player in NCAA history to score 3,000 points in a career, and now he has a deadly partner-in-crime in David Jenkins, a do-everything guard who shoots better than 45% from deep.
Contenders: Nebraska Omaha and Purdue–Fort Wayne. When searching for teams that could possibly knock off Daum, the best place to look is the two Summit League squads that have wins over the Jackrabbits this season and finished second and third in the regular season.
The sleeper: South Dakota is not very good, but it could make a run on the back of Stanley Umude. Umude is one of the conference’s most efficient high-volume scorers, but he spends a lot of time in foul trouble. He won’t be the best player on the floor against Daum or Fort Wayne’s John Konchar, but he just has to outplay them in a game or two for the Coyotes to make noise.
Championship info: Tuesday, March 12, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Gonzaga, of course. The Bulldogs are national title contenders and boast possibly the four best players in the conference. The other teams in the WCC are ... not national title contenders.
Contenders: San Francisco, BYU and St. Mary’s would all rank as legitimate threats in any other mid-major conference. Because they play with Gonzaga, it’s really a race for that runner-up spot. In six games against Mark Few’s team this year, these three teams have lost by an average of more than 28 points.
The sleeper: Portland. Just kidding—the Pilots went winless in WCC play. San Diego, led by Isaiah Pineiro, played Gonzaga close for a half and beat Colorado in non-conference play. If Pineiro can somehow outplay Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins (or if someone else does it before him), the Toreros could become the story of the week.
Championship info: Monday, March 11, 7 p.m. on ESPN. (Full bracket and schedule can be found here).
The favorite: Fletcher Magee leads Wofford’s group of three-point bombers (third in the country in three-point shooting percentage), which has run through conference play undefeated and will almost surely still snap up an at-large bid if things go wrong in Asheville. Magee is chasing down the all-time record for made threes in a career (he’s currently at 490, just 24 short).
Contenders: The top four teams in the SoCon are 47-1 against their other six conference opponents, and while East Tennessee State, Furman and UNC Greensboro three sit a tier below the undefeated Terriers, they’re all quite capable of pulling the upset.
The sleeper: Samford delivered the lone loss to that top four (in a two-point victory over Furman) and came closer than any of its SoCon brethren to knocking off Wofford (in a 107–106 overtime heart-stopper that had SoCon enthusiasts thinking back to the teams’ legendary four-OT clash in 2017). They also shoot better than 37% from deep.
Championship info: Wednesday, March 13, 7:30 p.m ET on CBS Sports Network. Full bracket and schedule can be found here.
The favorite: Led by Northwestern transfer Rapolas Ivanauskas (averaging 18 and seven in conference play), Colgate runs a highly-efficient offense despite rarely getting to the foul line. The Raiders split the season series against conference co-champs Bucknell but claimed the top seed on a tie-breaker—an important designation because it means the conference title runs through Hamilton.
Contenders: Bucknell and Lehigh, two perennial powers are back in it again. This year’s Bison deploy the conference’s best defense, while Lehigh’s Lance Tejada and Kyle Leufroy pilot an offense that shoots a Division I-best 43.4% from deep.
The sleeper: Holy Cross. Bill Carmody’s team isn’t very good, per se, but their disgustingly slow pace can keep the Crusaders in games. In 2016, they opened this tournament as the No. 9-seed and won four straight games to steal the automatic bid while never scoring more than 72 points in regulation.