Picks For Every Conference Tournament

By Kevin Sweeney

Here we go.

For the next 14 days, teams will fight for their lives in single-elimination format, hoping to make their NCAA Tournament dreams a reality. So, I figured I try picking the champion of every conference tournament, knowing full well that the magic of March will likely transcend logic and leave my picks in a state of disarray.

The Picks

America East Conference (March 1, 6, 11, Campus Sites): Vermont

The only team that can beat Vermont in the America East Tournament is Vermont. UVM cruised to a 16-0 A-East regular season, winning by an average of over 14 points per game. The Catamounts are the deepest and most talented team in the conference, and get to play all of its games at Patrick Gymnasium, where they have the best home-court advantage in the league.

American Athletic Conference (March 9-12, Hartford, CT): SMU

Storylines will be aplenty from the American Conference come the second weekend in March. Cincinnati and SMU will be the favorites, but are already NCAA Tournament locks. Houston, Memphis, UCF, and UConn come in as formidable foes who likely need to win the tournament to advance to the Big Dance. However, since defense wins championships, I’ll roll with the Mustangs. SMU has lost just 1 game since December 1, and I believe that they will carry that mark with them into the NCAA Tournament.

Atlantic Coast Conference (March 7-11, Brooklyn, NY): Louisville

What makes me consider Louisville as a national title contender are the same reasons why I’m predicting that the Cardinals will cut down the nets in Brooklyn. Louisville ranks top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on haslametrics.com. Villanova is the only other team who can say that. The Cardinals are well-coached and play without egos, both traits that translate well in March.

Atlantic Sun Conference (February 27, March 2, March 5, Campus Sites): Lipscomb

Lipscomb is a team that is really coming into its own at the right time. After a rough non-conference slate, the Bisons went 11-3 in A-Sun play, including a win at Florida Gulf Coast. The Bisons feature a dynamic offense and are one of the most unselfish teams in the country, ranking 4th nationally in assists per game. Their biggest challenge might be getting past North Florida, as the third-seeded Ospreys swept Lipscomb in the regular season.

Atlantic 10 Conference (March 8-12, Pittsburgh): Rhode Island

The A-10 Tournament is an example of how urgency can effect the results of a tournament. Last year, it was St. Joe’s who entered squarely on the bubble and wound up taking their NCAA Tournament fate into their own hands by winning the tournament. This year, Rhode Island is in a nearly identical position as the Hawks were in last year. With E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin playing their best basketball of late, it’s going to be tough to beat the Rams in Pittsburgh.

Big East Conference (March 8-11, New York City, NY): Villanova

Last year, Villanova came into the Big East Tournament hoping to cut down the nets and earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While they were upset by Seton Hall in the semifinals, things worked out for them in the long run. This year, however, will be a different story. The Wildcats will earn their revenge for a pair of regular season losses to Butler by knocking off the Bulldogs in the title game and will head into the Big Dance in style.

Big Sky Conference (March 7, 9-11, Reno, NV): North Dakota

Relative newbies to the Division 1 level, UND will punch their first-ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament in Reno next weekend. With high-level guards Quinton Hooker and Geno Crandall in tow, the Fighting Hawks have a pair of players that can make big plays in crunch time, something that will indubitably be necessary at some point during what should be a tightly-contested Big Sky Tournament.

Big South Conference (February 28, March 2, 3, 5, Campus Sites): UNC-Asheville

Considering how the first two meetings went, any neutral college basketball fan should be rooting for UNC-Asheville vs Winthrop 3.0 in the Big South Championship Game. After all, the first two meetings were outstanding games with exciting finishes. I’ll take the Bulldogs in round 3, and in turn earn their second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.

Big Ten Conference (March 8-12, Washington DC): Minnesota

With Maryland, Wisconsin, and Northwestern all struggling in an already-down Big Ten, only one team really seems to be trending in the right direction as tournament time approaches. That team is Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have quietly won 7 straight to climb up in the standings behind that play of sophomore big man Jordan Murphy. Murphy has averaged 15 points and 12.6 rebounds during the streak, posting numbers only comparable to national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan. If Murphy continues his strong play, the Golden Gophers seem destined for a deep run in March.

Big 12 Conference (March 8-11, Kansas City, Missouri): Oklahoma State

It can’t be understated how good a job Brad Underwood has done in his first season in Stillwater. Underwood has immediately made the Cowboys relevant in the Big 12 after a 12-20 campaign last season. Ever since having my bracket busted by Underwood’s Stephen F. Austin teams multiple times, I’ve learned never to bet against an Underwood-coached team. A Big 12 Tournament title would surprise many, but I think that OSU will stun the country with a couple of upsets and will cut down the nets in Kansas City.

Big West Conference (March 9-11, Anaheim, CA): Cal Poly

Just 3 years ago, Cal Poly made a miracle run to the NCAA Tournament despite entering tourney time with a 6-10 mark in conference play. I could see a similar Cinderella run happening this season. The Mustangs sit 7th in the Big West right now with just a 5-9 conference mark. What draws me to Cal Poly as an upset candidate is the fact that they’ve beaten 3 of the league’s top teams in UC-Irvine, UC Davis, and Long Beach State.

CAA (March 3-6, Charleston, SC): William & Mary

When firing on all cylinders, William & Mary can beat anyone in the CAA. Ask UNCW, who the Tribe demolished 96-78 at the end of January. If they played at that level all the time, they would be one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the country. However, the Tribe is very inconsistent (see 79-61 loss to last-place Drexel). If William & Mary can put it all together this weekend, they could snag the CAA’s auto-bid.

Conference USA (March 8-11, Birmingham, AL): Middle Tennessee

While there is a chance that Middle Tennessee would earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid even if they stumble in Birmingham, I don’t anticipate that the Blue Raiders will leave anything to chance. MTSU has been dominant in C-USA, with their only loss coming at the end of a road trip to a tough UTEP team. Expect to see last season’s NCAA Tournament darlings to bust more brackets this season.

Horizon League (March 3-7, Detroit, MI): Valparaiso

Injured or not, I simply don’t see Alec Peters letting his storied Valpo career end with anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth. Peters has missed the last two games with a leg injury, but he will likely play through whatever pain is there to make sure he ends his Valparaiso career right. While Oakland has beaten the Crusaders twice this season, I believe the third time will be the charm for Valpo, and they will send Peters out right with his second NCAA Tournament berth.

Ivy League (March 11-12, Philadelphia, PA): Princeton

In years past, Princeton would be all but locks for the NCAA Tournament at this point. However, with the introduction with the Ivy League Tournament, the Ivy’s auto-bid is as up-for-grabs as it has ever been. Despite that, I still think Princeton will represent the Ivy in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have won 15 in a row and are showing no signs of cooling off, and will look to ride that streak into the Big Dance.

MAAC (March 2-6, Albany, NY): St. Peter’s

Just as they seem to every season, John Dunne’s St. Peter’s team has flown under the radar, but is quietly a contender in the MAAC. There are plenty of worthy teams for this spot, including Monmouth, winners of 16 in a row, perennial contender Iona, and talented Siena, who is hosting the tournament, but the Peacocks are my pick to earn the MAAC Tournament title. St. Peter’s is a balanced team that plays great defense and has lots of shooters on the wing to surround center Quadir Welton, a first-team all-MAAC performer.

I’ll be at the MAAC Tournament all weekend, covering all the action from downtown Albany.

Mid-American Conference (March 6, 8-11, Cleveland, OH): Kent State

The MAC is wide open once again, but their is no team in the Mid-American that is hotter than Kent State. The Golden Flashes have won 4 straight, including wins over the three top teams in their division in Akron, Ohio, and Buffalo. When the core 3 of Jimmy Hall, Deon Edwin, and Jaylin Walker all play well, the Golden Flashes are as good as any team in the conference.

MEAC (March 6-11, Norfolk, VA): North Carolina Central

What do you get when you combine the best player and the best coach in the conference? A conference title, more often than not. NC Central has that lethal combination in senior guard Patrick Cole, one of the few true triple-double threats in mid-major basketball, and coach LeVelle Moton, who has been mentioned for many head coaching vacancies recently. That pairing will lead NC Central to the MEAC Tournament title come next Saturday.

Missouri Valley Conference (March 2-5, St. Louis, MO): Wichita State

“Arch Madness” is upon us again, and we can as much insanity this season as we’ve seen in recent years. However, the Shockers are simply too hot for me to pick against them in the conference tournament. WSU isn’t just beating its MVC foes, it is demolishing them each game without a letdown. Illinois State will challenge the Shockers, and they also deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament, but in the end, I believe that Wichita State will prevail.

Mountain West Conference (March 8-11, Las Vegas, NV): Nevada

I feel uncomfortable picking against a Colorado State team that overcome obstacle after obstacle to contend for the regular season MWC title, but I’ll roll with the Wolf Pack, a team I have been high on since before the season, to earn the Mountain West’s only NCAA Tournament bid. They have one of the top guards in the country in Marcus Marshall and a pair of bigs in Cam Oliver and Jordan Caroline that is as good as any frontcourt duo in the Mountain West. Eric Musselman’s next step in revitalizing this Nevada program is an NCAA Tournament berth, and I think he will accomplish that feat this season.

Northeast Conference (March 1, 4, 7, Campus Sites): Wagner

Wagner’s 11-7 conference mark is disappointing on its face considering it opened the season with a stunning win over UConn, but the Seahawks have been in every game they’ve played in NEC competition. Those losses include two 1-point defeats, a 2 point loss, and a 4-point loss in OT. Last year, the Seahawks fell just short in the conference championship game. This time around, Wagner will close the deal and reach the NCAA Tournament.

Ohio Valley Conferece (March 1-4, Nashville, TN): Belmont

The Ohio Valley is the first conference to give out its NCAA Tournament auto-bid, with the champion having to wait over a week from when they clinch their berth to find out who they will play. The team playing that waiting game will be a familiar face: Belmont. The Bruins have dominated the OVC this season, and will parlay that dominance into its 5th trip to the Big Dance in 8 years.

Pac-12 Conference (March 8-11, Las Vegas, NV): Oregon

There’s no player in college basketball who I’d rather have in crunch time than Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. He’s made big shot after big shot in his Oregon career, and I could see him making another to earn the Ducks their second consecutive Pac-12 Tournament title. Perhaps a run to the Pac-12 title would be enough to earn the Ducks a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, an idea that looked bleak when they started 2-2 with losses to Baylor and Georgetown.

Patriot League (February 28, March 2, 5, 8, Campus Sites): Bucknell

The last 2 Patriot League Tournaments have been full of upsets. Last year, 9th-seeded Holy Cross won the tournament in improbable fashion, winning 4 road games in 8 days after not winning a road conference game all season. This season, I foresee a less-shocking champion: Bucknell. With the big man duo of Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland leading the way, the Bison are a very talented team that will have the luxury of playing all of their conference tournament games on their home floor.

SEC (March 8-12, Nashville, TN): Florida

The Gators continue to impress me the more I watch them, so I believe that they have what it takes to knock off Kentucky and win the SEC Tournament. I don’t trust Kentucky to string together stops when it matters most, and Florida has been a consistently strong team throughout the season without any bad losses. They may not have first round picks up and down their roster, but I like the Gators’ chances of bringing home a trophy to Gainesville.

Southern Conference (March 3-6, Asheville, NC): East Tennessee State

The preseason favorite in Chattanooga, who once looked like one of the nation’s top mid-majors, has seen its season fall apart, with the latest news including locker room fights, punched lockers, and suspensions. However, a new favorite in East Tennessee State has stepped up, and is built like a team made for March. The Bucs have experience, size, and a dominant scorer on the wing in senior T.J. Cromer. Furman, UNCG, and maybe even Chattanooga will give the Mocs a run for their money, but in the end, I feel that ETSU will come out on top of the SoCon.

Southland Conference (March 7, 10, 11, Katy, TX): New Orleans

Nothing represented the changing of the guard atop the Southland better than the dominant display the Privateers put on in blowing out Stephen F. Austin last week. UNO is playing great basketball at the right time, and appears to be on its way to its first NCAA Tournament berth in over 20 years.

SWAC (March 7, 10, 11, Houston, TX): Alcorn State

Alcorn State has now won 11 games in a row after a 2-3 start in SWAC play. With Derrick Griffin no longer with the Texas Southern program as he pursues a career in football, Texas Southern is vulnerable, and the Braves stand to benefit from that come conference tournament time.

Summit League (March 4-7, Sioux Falls, SD): South Dakota

Another team hoping to reach its first-ever NCAA Tournament, the Coyotes snagged the top seed for the upcoming conference tournament by finishing the season strong while NDSU faltered down the stretch. With the high-scoring combo of Matt Mooney and Tyler Flack forming a potent high-low duo, expect the Coyotes to come out on top of the pack in a deep, talented Summit League title race.

Sun Belt Conference (March 8, 10-12, New Orleans, LA): UT-Arlington

There are always a few players in March that go from relative unknown to national star with a few huge performances. That guy this year may be junior forward Kevin Hervey, and he’s a big reason why I’ve tabbed UT-Arlington as my Sun Belt champions. Hervey is a 6-9 big man with guard skills who is capable of carrying a team on his back. After an early 2-game skid in Sun Belt play put the Mavs behind the 8-ball, UT-Arlington has reasserted itself as the team to beat in the Sun Belt, and potentially a team that could make a run in the Big Dance.

West Coast Conference (March 3, 4, 6, 7, Las Vegas, NV): Gonzaga

Whether or not you agree with the sentiment that Gonzaga needed to lose a game to improve their NCAA Championship hopes, I’m certain that Saturday’s loss to BYU will put the chip back on the shoulder of the Bulldogs. The Zags can be dominant when they play like they have something to prove, something I think they will do in the WCC Tournament. The winner of the BYU-St. Mary’s matchup will likely give Gonzaga all they can handle, but in the end, it will be the Bulldogs that prevail in Las Vegas.

WAC (March 9-11, Las Vegas, NV): New Mexico State

New Mexico State once looked unstoppable in the WAC, running off 20 straight wins at one point this season. However, a disastrous 0-2 road trip in early February left the Aggies in 2nd place in the WAC, while Cal-Bakersfield continues to impress. There have been reports of NMSU “tiring out” as the season has wore on, but I believe that the Aggies will find a second wind and claim the WAC’s auto-bid.

Columbia Keeps Ivy Hopes Alive With 70-67 Win Over Penn

By Kevin Sweeney

2 weeks ago today, Columbia had a 72.7% chance of reach the first-ever Ivy League Tournament, per Yale Sports Analytics on Twitter. According to those same metrics, Penn sat at just a 6.7% chance of qualifying. 

However, a massive turnaround over these past 2 weekends left the Lions on the outside looking in, with just an 18.4% chance reaching the Palestra. That left Columbia facing a must-win game against the red-hot Quakers, who were in the driver’s seat for the fourth and final bid to the conference tournament. 

But the Lions protected their home court and kept their conference tournament homes alive with a hard-fought 70-67 victory Saturday night. Freshman guard Mike Smith led all scorers with 20 points for Columbia. 

With the stakes as high as they were, we expected a March-like atmosphere. We got just that from the outset, with the teams never separated by more than 8 points and were within one possession for most of the night. 

Both teams came out of the gates firing, with the squads knotted at 13 after the first 5:05 of action. After that, the teams traded runs for the rest of the first half, with a 10-2 spurt by the Lions matched by a 12-1 half-closing run by the Quakers capped by a buzzer-beating 3 by freshman big man AJ Brodeur. 

For 9 minutes and 20 seconds straight in the second half, Columbia and Penn remained within one possession of each other. It began to feel like whichever team made the next run would win the game, and that’s exactly what happened. 

The Lions pulled ahead with a 10-3 run to take a 67-60 lead with 5:30 to go. It was the play of Smith and junior Nate Hickman that keyed the run, with each scoring 5 points and setting up the other two buckets with assists. The Levien Gymnasium crowd was going crazy, and the Quakers were on the ropes. 

But Penn responded with the game’s next 5 points to get right back into it with just under 3 minutes to play in the game. From there, neither team could get much going offensively, but Columbia made enough plays to come away with the win. 

With the shot clock running down, Smith drained a triple with just over a minute to play to extend the Lions’ lead back to 5. Penn responded with a pair of free throws and a stop to get the ball back with a chance to tie. However, Jackson Donahue couldn’t get his 3 to fall, and a heave at the buzzer by Donahue was blocked to seal the Columbia victory.

Beyond Smith’s 20 points, Columbia got 17 points from senior big man Lukas Petrasek and 

13 from Hickman. 

Penn was led by Brodeur’s 16 points and 8 rebounds, as well as Donahue’s 16 points. 

The two squads are now tied for the 4th seed with 2 games to play. The pressure seems to be more on Penn, who likely need to beat Harvard next weekend to earn the 4th seed. 

Brace Drains 10 Threes In Northeastern’s Wild 2OT Victory Over Elon

By Kevin Sweeney

For a moment, I thought I was watching a replay. 

The ball was underneath the Elon basket, with just a few seconds to go. 

Elon inbounded the ball to sophomore forward Tyler Seibring, who threw up a turnaround jumper. 

The second one didn’t fall. 

The Phoenix went with the same play in double overtime for the win as they did at the end of regulation, but Seibring couldn’t recreate the magic of his game-tying shot at the end of the second half, and Elon fell to Northeastern 105-104 in a wild 2OT affair. 

Freshman guard Bolden Brace had a career-high 40 points on 10-20 from three for the Huskies, while senior guard T.J. Williams posted a triple-double with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. 

The game was exciting from the outset, as Elon jumped out to an early 14-3 lead but Northeastern responded with a barrage of threes to get right back in the game. The Huskies’ first 6 field goals and 10 of their 15 made shots in the first half were of the 3-point variety, with Brace leading the charge with 6 triples and 28 first half points. However, Elon maintained a lead for the entirety of the first half, carrying a 45-43 lead into halftime. 

While the Phoenix held a slight lead throughout the first half, it was Northeastern who edged out in front for much of the second. Brace and Williams made play after play to try and will the Huskies to victory, but a late Seibring-led charge helped the Phoenix force OT. After a Seibring 3 gave Elon a 76-74 lead with just under 5 minutes to play, the Huskies went on a 7-0 run that included a triple from Brace that gave NU a 81-76 lead with just 1:47 to play. Seibring drained a big answer three to cut the deficit to 2, then Brace turned it over to give the Phoenix a chance to tie the game or even win. With just 4 seconds to go, forward Brian Dawkins went to the line with a chance to tie the game. He missed both free throws, but the ball went out of bounds off of Northeastern to give Elon another life. That’s when they ran the play for Seibring, who drained the turnaround jumper as time expired. 

Williams played like a man on a mission in the overtime sesssions, driving to the basket with authority time and time again. But once again, Elon got a late bucket to stay alive, this time on a three from Dainan Swoope with 13 seconds to go to tie the game. But Dawkins’ shot for the win as time expired didn’t go, and the game continued. 

Brace dealt with cramps down the stretch and seemed to run out of gas late, but Williams kept pushing the Huskies to the finish line. After Luke Eddy gave the Phoenix the lead with a pair of free throws with less than 20 seconds to go, Williams drove fearlessly to the basket and drew a foul. He stepped to the line confidently, and drained both. The second time, Seibring couldn’t recreate the magic, and the Huskies escaped North Carolina with a big-time road win. 

Seibring led the Phoenix with 30 points and 12 rebounds in the losing effort. Dmitri Thompson added 23 points and 10 boards for Elon. 

Elon now sits tied for 4th in the CAA and Northeastern is alone in 6th place. However, both teams showed flashes tonight of a team that could contend come next weekend for a CAA Tournament title. 

Imagine If: Transfers That Changed The Complexion of College Basketball This Season

By Kevin Sweeney

Questioning whether a sub-.500 power conference team deserves an NCAA Tournament bid.

Wondering if Gonzaga is a mid-major.

Envisioning what some teams would look like if not for a key transfer or two.

These are all talking points that inevitably come up for every college basketball fan throughout the season. With the season coming into its final weeks, its a great time to look back and wonder “what if?”

So, Imagine if….

John Gillon Stayed at Colorado State

It’s been a tumultuous 12 months for Colorado State, facing everything from Gillon transferring to Syracuse, star guard Gian Clavell being arrested and suspended, 3 players being ruled academically ineligible mid-season, and Larry Eustachy facing player abuse allegations. Despite all this, the Rams are sitting atop the Mountain West late in February, with a real chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. The one issue has been depth, as the Rams are down to just 7 scholarship players due to the mid-season ineligibilities. Any Division 1-level player would benefit CSU greatly, but a player of Gillon’s caliber would have made a HUGE impact. The presence of Gillon would give the Rams a true point guard who can really shoot it from downtown, and would form a backcourt trio with Clavell and sophomore Prentiss Nixon that would be as good as any in mid-major basketball. Without Gillon, Syracuse would likely have at least one more loss on their resume, as he single-handedly led the Orange to a victory over NC State by scoring 43 points and draining a late three to send the game to overtime. That extra loss might be enough to knock the Orange off the bubble for good.

Reggie Lynch Stayed at Illinois State

Lynch departed Normal after a successful 2-year stint with the Redbirds, and is now making quite the impact at Minnesota. The redshirt junior is averaging 8.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game and ranks second nationally in block percentage at 13.9%. Even without Lynch, Illinois State is one of the top mid-majors in the country. With a rim protector and interior force like Lynch still in tow, the Redbirds might have a slight edge on Wichita State for tops in the Missouri Valley. Meanwhile, the Golden Gophers, who are on the bubble themselves, might sit on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday.

Andrew Rowsey, Dylan Smith, & Dwayne Sutton Stayed at UNC-Asheville

With the amount of key transfers from the UNC-Asheville program in the last 2 years, you would anticipate that the Bulldogs would be in the midst of a rebuild. It’s a credit to head coach Nick McDevitt that UNCA is still sitting atop the Big South with a 22-7 record. However, you can’t help but wonder just how good this team would be if Rowsey (Marquette), Smith (Arizona), and Sutton (Louisville) were all still around. Rowsey, who averaged 20 points per game in his two seasons in Asheville, is posting 11.1 points per game in just 19.3 minutes per game at bubble team Marquette. Meanwhile, Smith and Sutton are sitting out at high-major schools after outstanding freshman seasons at UNC-Asheville. An undefeated Big South run wouldn’t be out of the question, nor would an at-large bid, if that trio was still around to be paired with current stars Ahmad Thomas, MaCio Teague, and Kevin Vannatta.

Marcus Keene Stayed at Youngstown State

By now, we are all pretty familiar with Marcus Keene, the 5-9 Central Michigan guard who has went from a virtually unknown commodity to a candidate for every major award in college basketball in the span of 4 months. While I don’t anticipate the addition of Keene to Youngstown State would make the Penguins a Horizon League favorite, it would pair two of the top 7 scorers in college basketball. Cameron Morse, a junior guard averaging 23 points per game. The pairing would certainly be fun to watch, but I’m not sure their would be enough of the ball to go around.

Indiana Kept Everyone

  • Luke Fischer (Marquette)
  • Max Hoetzel (San Diego State)
  • Jeremy Hollowell (Georgia State)
  • Emmitt Holt (Providence)
  • Hanner Mosquera-Perea (ETSU)
  • Stanford Robinson (Rhode Island)

These are among the players that once donned Indiana uniforms and are now playing for other teams. With the Hoosiers’ depth depleted by injuries this season, having just a couple of these guys back in fold would certainly boost their NCAA Tournament hopes. Holt and Fischer are double-digit scorers in power conferences, while the others are all key cogs on strong mid-major sides that could make runs in March. With the lack of big men behind Thomas Bryant, Fischer or Mosquera-Perea would certainly be playing big minutes.

Andrew White Stayed at Nebraska

The saga of Andrew White’s departure from Nebraska was one of the big stories of the college basketball offseason. After beginning his career at Kansas, White transferred to Nebraska, where he scored over 16 points per game in his junior season. Before his senior year, White announced that he was transferring from the Cornhuskers. However, the timing of White’s departure left Nebraska head coach Tim Miles in a very difficult situation, and White took until the week fall classes began to announce his new destination. White has been a solid addition for Syracuse, helping fill the void left by the departures of Malachi Richardson, Trevor Cooney, and Michael Gbinije, but he could have made the Cornhuskers into an NCAA Tournament contender. Combining White, Tai Webster, and Glynn Watson Jr. would have formed the Big Ten’s top backcourt.

If you have any other “imagine if” scenarios, comment below or tweet them to @CBB_Central.

Conference Tournament Qualification Update

By Kevin Sweeney

Around this time of year, mid-major teams rally around the phrase “3 days in March”, which demonstrates that no matter how well or poorly your season is going, the legacy of your season will be defined by how you play in your conference tournament. Take last year’s Patriot League Tournament, for example. 9th seeded Holy Cross, who entered the conference tournament at just 10-19, went on a miracle run that included 4 road wins in 9 days to claim the conference title and reach the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, heavy favorites Bucknell, Lehigh, and Boston University all faltered, falling short of their lofty goals for the season.

However, not all teams even get the opportunity for a “3 days in March” run for the ages. In some leagues, not every team qualifies for the conference tournament. Therefore, these next two weeks are vital for teams on the fringes to make one more push to keep their hopes of a March miracle alive. Here’s a breakdown of the races around the country of teams just trying to make the conference tournament.

Big West

The situation down the stretch in the Big West will be fascinating to watch. There are two scenarios that could happen, and they are tied to whether or not Hawaii is ruled to be eligible for the postseason. The top 8 teams in the 9-team conference advance to the conference tournament, and if Hawaii loses its appeal & is ruled ineligible, it will be the one team left out. If the ‘Bows ARE eligible, then there will be a 3-way fight between UC Riverside, Cal Poly, and UC Santa Barbara to keep their season alive. UC Riverside appears safe, as all they have to do is not lose out and have UCSB win out to extend their season. UC Santa Barbara is currently last in the league, and probably needs to win 2 of its final 3 games to reach the conference tournament. If not, Cal Poly will advance regardless of the results of the Hawaii situation.

Ivy League

New adopters of the entire conference tournament model, the Ivy League Tournament doesn’t include all of its teams. In fact, only 4 of the league’s 8 teams will participate in the tournament, which will be played at the Palestra, a bucket-list spot for most college hoops fans. The top 3 seeds seem mostly locked up, with Princeton at the top, Harvard in second, and Yale in third, but the real intrigue comes for the fourth and final spot. Early in the season, it looked like Columbia was in control for the final bid, but now have just a 32.7% chance to reach the tournament, per Yale Sport Analytics on Twitter. Meanwhile, Penn has seemingly come back from the dead to move into position to claim the 4th seed.

Columbia and Penn face off this Saturday, a must-win for the Lions if they want to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

NEC

The 8 that will play for the NEC’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth are already locked in. Central Connecticut State and St. Francis (Brooklyn) have been eliminated from contention for a top-8 seed. However, with seeds 4-8 separated by just 2 games, there is still plenty to be intrigued by down the stretch.

Ohio Valley

The top 8 teams, regardless of division, in the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference convene in Nashville for the conference tournament the first weekend in March. 3 of the 4 teams who won’t qualify for the conference tournament have already had their fate sealed, as SIU-Edwardsville, Eastern Kentucky, and Eastern Illinois are already eliminated from top-8 contention. Meanwhile, their are 6 teams with 8 wins in conference play, while Austin Peay sits at 6 wins with 2 games to play. For Austin Peay, who won the conference tournament as an 8-seed last year, to have a chance to repeat, they must win out and have at least one of the 8-win teams lose out, then win the tiebreaker with that team. Only UT-Martin, Murray State, or SEMO can be the team to lose out for APSU to have a shot. The most likely scenario remains that Austin Peay is the final team left out, but there is still a glimmer of hope for the Governors.

Southland

In the Southland Conference, the top 8 eligible teams advance to the conference tournament. However, Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian are ineligible this season as they complete the 4-year transition to full Division 1 status. Only 5 teams have locked up tournament berths, while Lamar, Southeastern Louisiana, Central Arkansas, Nicholls State, Northwestern State, and McNeese State are still duking it out for the final 3 spots. Lamar, SELA, and Central Arkansas control their own destinies, with each team needing just one win and one Nicholls State loss the rest of the way to clinch a spot in the conference tournament. Nicholls must win 3 of 4 and probably needs to win out in order to qualify, while Northwestern State and McNeese State each would need to win out to have any chance.

Summit League

Things are already wrapped up in the Summit League, as Oral Roberts will be the lone team left out of the 8-team Summit League Tournament held in Sioux Falls. Even if Oral Roberts wins its final game and Western Illinois loses its final 2, they would still be eliminated as ORU lost both head-to-head meetings with the Leathernecks.

Neal’s Deep Three Lifts UT-Arlington Over Georgia State

By Kevin Sweeney

UT-Arlington point guard Erick Neal is best known for his passing. After all, he ranks 4th nationally in assists per game. 

Mavericks fans will be happy he chose to take matters into his own hands tonight. 

Neal kept the ball in the closing seconds and drained a contested 3-point shot with 0.9 seconds to lift UT-Arlington to a big 68-67 road win over Georgia State on Saturday afternoon. The win keeps the Mavericks atop the Sun Belt Conference standings, half a game ahead of Arkansas State. 

Georgia State came into the game on a 2 game skid, but looked much more like the Panther team that started 9-2 in conference play today. The Panthers led by as many as 15 in the second half, but in the end they couldn’t hold on for a win that could have put them in position for a Sun Belt regular season title. 

A 13-2 run late in the first half gave Georgia State a lead that they would not relinquish until Neal’s three in the closing seconds. 

That lead would balloon to double figures in the middle stages of the second half, but UT-Arlington got hot from downtown late and got enough stops to come away with a victory. The Mavs hit 7 triples in the final 10:20 after just 3 in the first 29:40 of action. In that same 10:20, the Panthers turned the ball over 9 times to aid the UT-Arlington comeback. 

Despite the late struggles, the Panthers still led by 7 with 2:10 to go but were outscored 10-2 in the final 2 minutes to see the win slip through their grasp. 

The comeback was capped by a three by Jalen Jones, tying the game at 65 with just 46 seconds to play. But fearless freshman D’Marcus Simonds responded for the Panthers with a tough jumper to give GSU back the lead with 22 seconds to go. 

Then came the decisive final possession. The play was almost certainly not how Scott Cross had drawn up, as very little seemed to be happening as the clock ticked under 5 seconds. But Neal stepped into a contested 35-footer and drained it, sending the Mavericks’ bench into a frenzy and the GSU Sports Arena crowd into despair. 

Georgia State’s desperation heave from beyond half court wasn’t close. 

Kevin Hervey led 4 Mavericks in double figures with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Drew Charles added 16 for UTA. 

Jeremy Hollowell led all scorers with 19 points for the Panthers, who drop their third straight. Simonds also added 11 points. 

5 Conference Tournaments I’m Most Excited For

By Kevin Sweeney

While the third weekend of March is, for most college basketball fans, the best weekend of the year, the previous two weeks serve as an outstanding intro. Those two weeks are stuffed with conference tournament games from noon until midnight, with mid-majors fighting to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive and high-majors doing everything they can to give the best final showing to the selection committee that they can. While almost all conference tournaments are incredibly exciting to watch, there are a few in particular that I’ll be watching closest:

ACC Tournament (March 7-11, Brooklyn, NY)

I typically don’t enjoy power conference tournaments as much as mid-major ones, as they don’t tend to have the “win-or-go-home” style that makes mid-major tournaments so appealing. However, this year’s ACC Tournament will incredibly exciting, at least for the first few days. With nearly every ACC squad in contention for an at-large bid, the opening rounds will feature plenty of teams with their seasons on the line. Some of the first and second round matchups may turn out to be play-in games to the NCAA Tournament, with the losers going to the NIT and the winners hearing their names called on Selection Sunday. Last year in the American Conference Tournament, we saw Tulane rally around embattled head coach Ed Conroy to pull a pair of upsets. We could see the same type of run from NC State, a very talented team that has severely underachieved. With Mark Gottfried’s expected dismissal at the end of the season, it’s possible that the Wolfpack could turn things around and stun some people in Brooklyn.

Atlantic 10 Tournament (March 8-12, Pittsburgh, PA)

Despite being a mid-major tournament, everyone will be watching to see who can take home the A-10’s automatic bid. That’s because the A-10 seems like the most likely conference for a “bid thief” to emerge, which could spell doom for many bubble teams fighting for their lives. Most consider Dayton and VCU safely in the NCAA Tournament field at this point, while Rhode Island is the only other team receiving much consideration for an at-large bid. However, there are a bevy of teams who could make a run in the conference tournament and burst a few teams’s bubbles. Richmond has played outstanding basketball for much of A-10 play, but a horrendous non-conference has removed them from consideration for an at-large berth. St. Bonaventure is another dangerous team, with two of the league’s top scorers in Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. That duo can keep a team in any game, and could lead the Bonnies to a cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament. George Mason and La Salle, two teams who have been inconsistent but impressive at times, could also make a serious run come March.

MAAC Tournament (March 2-6, Albany, NY)

I’ll be covering all the action in Albany come the first weekend in March, and I couldn’t be more excited. The favorite is still defending regular season champion and NCAA at-large snub Monmouth, who will undoubtably come into Albany on a mission to avenge last season’s championship game stumble. However, there is a whole host of other contenders standing in the way of the Hawks. While Iona was blown out by Monmouth earlier this season, the Gaels are still one of the most talented and well-coached teams in the league, and are certainly capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the second season in a row. St. Peter’s came into the season without much buzz, but John Dunne’s team sits at 10-6 in conference play and has played extremely well against the Hawks this season, beating them at home and falling in overtime on the road. There’s also Siena, who has had a very up-and-down season but looks to be peaking at the right time. Picked 2nd in the preseason, expectations dropped after a 4-11 start to the season, but the Saints have started to get hot at the right time. The only team in the country with four 1,000-point scorers, the Saints are certainly talented. They also get the luxury of playing the conference tournament on their home floor, which should be an advantage for the Saints. Perhaps the wild card team is Canisius, a team that has overachieved in year one of the Reggie Witherspoon era. The Golden Griffins have an explosive offense that can get hot at any time, making them a scary matchup in a win-or-go-home situation.

MAC Tournament (March 6 at Campus Sites, March 9-11 in Cleveland, OH)

The nation’s leading scorer. The quest for a 3-peat. Revenge.

These are some of the many storylines for what should be some incredibly entertaining MACtion this March. Naismith Trophy nominee Marcus Keene will look to carry Central Michigan back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2003, while red-hot Buffalo will look for its third consecutive trip. This year’s favorite, Akron, has just 4 losses all season, but will likely have to beat a Buffalo team that has knocked the Zips out of the MAC Tournament in each of the last 2 seasons. Not to be forgotten in this title race is Ohio, who is still right in the thick of things despite losing defending MAC POY Antonio Campbell for the season due to a foot injury. A key battle to watch down the stretch is the fight for a Top-4 seed, as earning one ensures one less game to win in order to cut down the nets. With 5 teams sitting just 1 game behind for the 4th seed right now, it should be fascinating to see who can earn the final bye.

Sun Belt Tournament (March 8-12, New Orleans, LA)

If you asked me which conference tournament would be the most wide-open, I would go with the Sun Belt. Simply put, no team has been able to take any sort of control at the top of the conference. The preseason pick, UT-Arlington, stumbled to a pair of early losses in conference play, but has won 7 of 8 since to regain a slight lead at the top of the standings. Right behind the Mavericks is the trio of Arkansas State, Georgia State, and Georgia Southern, all of whom have been at first place at one point this season. Then, there’s a pair of sleepers in Texas State, who sits just a game out of first place after being picked last in the preseason, and Coastal Carolina, the conference newbies who continue to impress save a 3-game skid mid-season. I still would consider UT-Arlington the favorites, but a close second for me would be Georgia State. The Panthers are on a two game losing streak thanks to close road losses to Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, but recently won 8 in a row and have been a much better team since freshman sensation D’Marcus Simonds returned from injury. In the past 9 games, Simonds is averaging over 18 points per game and has asserted himself as a dominant wing scorer to compliment senior big man Jeremy Hollowell.