Small-conference tournament primer: Several leagues could produce dangerous teams for NCAAs
The first steps to filling out the NCAA tournament field are being taken this week. Harvard can clinch the Ivy League regular season title -- and with it, the conference's automatic bid -- with a win either Friday or Saturday. Meanwhile, six conference tournaments are already underway, three more begin today and the first bids will be sealed this weekend. We'll have previews of the eight power-conference tournaments (American, A-10, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East and SEC) before they begin next week. Until then, here is a primer on each of the other 23 conference tournaments, presented in chronological order.
Status: It began on Monday, and after two rounds of play, it will be Army against Boston University in one semifinal and Holy Cross vs. American in the other, both to be played on Saturday. The final is Wednesday, March 12.
Favorite: Boston was the league champion and dropped a 37-point beatdown on Lafayette for the largest quarterfinal margin of victory in tournament history.
Outlook: Army knocked off defending champion Bucknell in the quarterfinals and brings some March momentum into that semifinal matchup. But it's difficult to see any of these teams as much more than first-round fodder in the NCAA tournament, as none of them have a standout win this season.
Status: The tournament began on Tuesday and concludes Sunday at the home of the highest seed remaining. Florida Gulf Coast and East Tennessee State meet in one semifinal on Thursday, and USC Upstate faces Mercer in the other.
Favorite: Florida Gulf Coast is the top seed as it eyes a return to the NCAAs after last year's Sweet 16 run.
Outlook: It won't be easy times in Dunk City, because Mercer tied FGCU for the regular-season title with matching 14-4 records. The teams split their two head-to-head showdowns, each winning at home, and Mercer's offense is noteworthy in its own right, shooting 48.1 percent as a team. Either team could be a threat in the field of 68.
Status: Milwaukee, Oakland and Valparaiso all advanced out of the first round, which began on Tuesday. Wright State has a bye into the Friday quarterfinals, and Green Bay and Cleveland State have passes all the way into the semifinals. The final is on Tuesday, March 11.
Favorite: Green Bay, the regular season champion, would get to play both tournament games on its home floor.
Outlook: It's possible every potential No. 5 seed in the country is rooting against the Phoenix, because the combination of point guard Keifer Sykes (20.4 ppg) and center Alec Brown (15.8, 44.1 percent from 3-point range) will make them dangerous to almost any NCAA tournament team. It's difficult to envision them slipping up at home.
Status: Two teams advanced out of first-round games Wednesday, with the top four seeds receiving byes or double-byes. The final is on Saturday.
Favorite: Belmont posted the best league record at 14-2 and will play at home in Nashville, Tenn.
The outlook: This tournament figures to be more open than it would seem with the best team in the league not having to leave its city limits. Yet Murray State, which finished 13-3 in the league and Eastern Kentucky, which went 11-5, actually ranked ahead of the Bruins in the kenpom.com overall standings. Belmont, led by J.J. Mann (18.4 points per game), has four players averaging double-figure scoring. So does Murray State, paced by Cameron Payne (15.9). That balance could help either club threaten a higher seed in the field of 68.
Status: Four teams survived the first round of tournament play on Wednesday, but all the top seeds begin play Friday after byes. The final is on Sunday, March 9.
Favorite: High Point and Coastal Carolina earned No. 1 seeds for winning their respective divisions, though High Point had one more league win (12 to 11).
Outlook: It pays to have a nice, new arena in a tourist location, as Coastal Carolina and The HTC Center will host the event the Chanticleers are trying to win. But High Point won the lone meeting between the programs and previous NCAA tournament participants like Winthrop and Radford lurk.
Statust: Robert Morris plays Saint Francis in one semifinal on Saturday while Wagner goes against Mount St. Mary's in the other. The winners square off in the final on March 11.
Favorite: Robert Morris won the regular season at 14-2, two games clear of second-place Wagner.
Outlook: For eight straight seasons, the top three seeds all advanced into the NEC semis. Then Saint Francis notched its first tournament win since 1995 – 1995! – by upsetting No. 3-seed Bryant on the road on Wednesday. So Robert Morris, led by senior Karvel Anderson (19.0 points per game), are on notice Saturday for some March magic. Wagner has more balance, though, with four players averaging double-digit scoring. Are the Seahawks actually the better bet for an NCAA upset?
Status: The tournament runs March 6-9.
Favorite: Wichita State. You may have heard they haven't lost a game yet.
Outlook: If Arch Madness is not the most hotly contested bracket, it may be the most intensely watched -- at least in the semifinals and finals. The second-ranked Shockers have a very legitimate chance of entering the NCAA tournament at 34-0, but Missouri State and Indiana State have at least tested them this season. Any team other than Wichita State winning would not only be a surprise, it would steal a bid from a bubble team. The Shockers, though, remain the league's best bet to make an impact in the NCAAs.
Status: The tournament runs March 7-10.
Favorite: Iona was the league champion at 17-3, but this may be among the most intensely contested small-conference tournaments this season.
Outlook: Manhattan won 15 league games and Quinnipiac and Canisius each won 14 in a top-heavy league. Iona and Manhattan were the only top 100 teams in the kenpom.com rankings, but Canisius has Billy Baron, the nation's second-leading scorer. Whichever team emerges will have a chance at an upset.
Status: Tournament runs March 7-11.
Favorite: Gonzaga, as ever, is the No. 1 seed.
Outlook: It's no sure thing that the Zags will survive and win the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, as they have done in 11 of the past 15 years. BYU and dynamic scorer Tyler Haws represent a distinct threat and already beat the Bulldogs once this season. San Francisco tied with BYU for second place with 13 league wins. Either could upend Gonzaga in the final. All three might be capable of Sweet 16 pushes or first-round flameouts.
Status: Tournament runs March 7-10.
Favorite: Delaware overcame various personnel issues to post a 14-2 conference record and earn the top seed.
Outlook: Towson finished just one game behind Delaware in the standings and handed the Blue Hens one of their two league losses. Drexel was responsible for the other, and the Dragons are just six spots behind Delaware in the kenpom.com overall rankings. Five Blue Hens average in double-figures, including leading scorer Devon Saddler (20.2 points per game), making them a threat the NCAAs -- if they can get there.
Status: Tournament runs March 7-10.
Favorite: Davidson charged through the league to a 15-1 record, winning the regular season title by three games.
Outlook: There might not be much to stop the Wildcats, who haven't lost since Jan. 16 and beat second-place Chattanooga by 43 in their one meeting this season. Davidson is off to the Atlantic-10 next season. so perhaps some angst over that imminent departure will boost an opponent along the way and prevent the Wildcats from taking the league tournament trophy with them. But Davidson remains the league's best hope to make some noise in the NCAAs.
Status: Tournament runs March 8-11.
Outlook: There seems a good chance for volatility. Nebraska-Omaha would have been the No. 6 seed but is ineligible for the tournament because of its status as a reclassifying Division I program. The No. 2 seed, IPFW, faces IUPUI on Saturday – a day before everyone else starts. The top seeded Bison have a bye until Monday, after everyone else has played a game. And, again, the event is in the No. 3 seed's backyard. Chaos could ensue. As for NCAA tournament chaos? Well, North Dakota State beat Notre Dame in December . . . and that about covers any and all glimmers of a possible first-round upset in the field of 68.
Status: Tournament runs March 8-9 with the final on March 15.
Favorite: Vermont, which went 15-1 to win the regular season title.
Outlook: The Catamounts are the class of the league, ranked No. 60 overall by kenpom.com, which means they're ahead of would-be NCAA tournament teams like Dayton and West Virginia. But that one conference loss was to Stony Brook, the No. 2 seed. A rematch would be likely the only chance for drama. Vermont, though, is the league member with the best opportunity to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.
Status: Tournament runs March 10-15.
Favorite: Toledo had the highest-profile success for the early part of the year thanks to its 12-0 start, but Western Michigan has tied the Rockets with a 13-4 league record.
Outlook: It figures to be a brawl in Cleveland. Toledo didn't lose until Dec. 30 but it has gotten nicked four times on the road in MAC play. Buffalo is the lone top 100 team according to kenpm.com, and Eastern Michigan is just two spots behind the Rockets. Toledo, which ranks 17th in the nation in scoring at 80.7 points per game, might be best equipped for NCAA success, but its most notable non-conference moment was actually a loss, by 10 points at Kansas on Dec. 30.
Status: Tournament runs March 10-15.
Favorite: North Carolina Central has control of the league at 14-1 with one game remaining.
Outlook: Norfolk State is three games out in the standings but can make a statement in the regular season finale on Thursday night against the league leaders before getting to play the conference tournament in its hometown. Hampton is likely to finish second in the league but sits more than 100 spots behind North Carolina Central, the only top 100 team in the kenpom.com overall standings. Whoever emerges is almost certainly headed for a first-round exit from the NCAAs.
Status: Tournament runs March 11-15.
Favorite: Good luck figuring that out. Four teams -- Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Tulsa -- currently sit atop the league standings at 12-3.
Outlook: Aside from Louisiana Tech, each of the co-leaders is in the top 100 on kenpom.com, a group that also includes 11-4 UTEP. Such balance means that playing a conference tournament on your home floor is a huge advantage, so congratulations on your impeccable timing, Tim Floyd and UTEP.
Status: Tournament runs March 11-15.
Favorite: Well, that depends, so read on.
Outlook: Four SWAC teams -- Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Mississippi Valley State and Grambling -- are ineligible to participate in the NCAA tournament. Yet each has been allowed to compete in the SWAC tournament. And if any of them wins said tournament, the league's automatic bid will go to the eligible team that advances farthest or to the highest-seeded team if the last remaining eligible teams are eliminated in the same round. Got that? Didn't think so. It's a disaster. The winner won't matter much anyway, since whoever it is will be merely a sacrificial lamb in the NCAAs.
Status: Tournament runs March 12-15
Favorite: It's the New Mexico and San Diego State show, as it has been all year.
Outlook: This could be one of the least consequential postseason tournaments. If both the Lobos and Aztecs make their way to the championship game -- they meet one more time to end the regular season on Saturday -- a two-bid league will stay that way. Even if they don't, it still might be a two-bid league, unless one team can beat both of them en route to the title. Both New Mexico and San Diego State are capable of Sweet 16 runs or more. Cameron Bairstow (20.3 points, 7.2 rebounds per game) is putting together an All-America-level season for the Lobos. The Aztecs, meanwhile, play terrific defense – No. 9 nationally in kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings – and have a good chance at a top-4 seed in the NCAAs.
Status: Tournament runs March 12-15
Favorite: Stephen F. Austin, which is 27-2 and 16-0 in the league entering the final two regular season games, both at home.
Outlook: The Lumberjacks, who haven't lost since November, get a bye into the semifinals. Can anyone challenge them? Well, Sam Houston State lost to SFA by seven at home on Feb. 15, and Northwestern State fell by just two on Feb. 22. Either is capable of pushing deep into the Southland bracket, along with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which has won 12 league games. As for the NCAA brackets? Beware the Lumberjacks, who could be this year's Florida Gulf Coast, an under-the-radar unit capable of an NCAA tournament surprise or two.
Status: Tournament runs March 13-15
Favorite: Weber State has a two-game lead for the regular season title with two games to play.
Outlook: With the very notable exception of Southern Utah – which has yet to win a conference game in 18 tries and has just one victory to its credit all season – every other school in this 11-team league has a chance to win this thing. Five games separate Weber State from 10th place Idaho State. Montana is the only other team in the top 200 on kenpom.com, but it'll be difficult to upset Weber State on its home floor.
Status: Tournament runs March 13-15.
Favorite: UC-Irvine has a one-game lead for the regular season title over UC-Santa Barbara entering the final weekend of play.
Outlook: UC-Santa Barbara's Alan Williams is one of the nation's least-known dominant forces, averaging 21.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. He has a chance to play his way onto the NCAA tournament stage. But don't sleep on Long Beach State. Dan Monson's crew at one point lost nine non-conference games in a row but managed to post a 9-5 league record entering the weekend. Williams could make UCSB a threat in the big dance. Monson's March experience -- he has taken three schools to the NCAAs, including the 49ers">49ers two years ago -- could do the same for LBSU.
Status: March 13-15.
Favorite: Utah Valley has a one-game lead over New Mexico State in the league standings with one game remaining.
Outlook: As if fighting for the league's only tourney bid weren't dramatic enough, the league's two best teams recently engaged in an actual brawl. Punches were thrown by players and fans during a court storm on Feb. 27, after Utah Valley downed New Mexico State at home. Grand Canyon, coached by former NBA star Dan Majerle, could prevent those two antagonists from squaring off again. Still, all signs point to another high-tension showdown between the Wolverines and Aggies, though don't expect either team to deliver a knockout punch in the NCAA tournament.
Status: Tournament runs March 13-16.
Favorite: Georgia State, which is 16-1 and has a four-game lead in the standings with one game left. Outlook: Everyone will be chasing the Panthers, who are paced by Ron Hunter (18.8 points per game) and N.C. State/Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow (17.1). In fact, it would be a seismic upset if Georgia State didn't snare the automatic bid. Second-place Western Kentucky hosted the Panthers on Jan. 9 and lost by 23. The rematch is at Georgia State on Saturday but shouldn't change much. And no one will want to see Hunter, Harrow and Co. in the NCAA brackets. It's a fairly fearless crew familiar with high-level play.