NCAA Basketball Conference Tournaments Off To Thrilling Start

Mar 3, 2012; Asheville, NC, USA; Students rush the court after the North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs defeated the Virginia Military Keydets in the finals of the 2012 Big South Tournament at Kimmel Arena. UNC Asheville won 80 to 64. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE

Major conference tournament play doesn't get started until Tuesday, but college basketball's postseason is already off to an eventful start.

We're a full week into college basketball's postseason and with just six days remaining until Selection Sunday, four NCAA Tournament spots have already been reserved. If you were too preoccupied by the end of the regular season in the big six conferences, here's a quick recap of what you missed.

Who's in?

The following teams have already locked up automatic bids to the big dance by virtue of winning their conference tournament:

UNC-Asheville (Big South)
Belmont (Atlantic Sun)
Creighton (Missouri Valley)
Murray State (Ohio Valley)

Arch Madness Delivers Once Again

The postseason's game of the year thus far came from the perpetually reliable Missouri Valley championship, where Creighton saved the NCAA Tournament life of a team to be determined by knocking off fourth-seeded Illinois State in overtime. It wasn't the dream match-up between the ranked pair of CU and regular season champion Wichita State that CBS had to have been hoping for, but the national audience that tuned it still certainly got a show.

Doug McDermott, the Bluejays star who will likely wind up a first team All-American, introduced himself to the remaining section of the college basketball world that hadn't caught him in action by scoring from every area on the floor and finishing with 33 points. That total was the highest ever in a MVC title game.

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Freshman point guard Nic Moore had 20 points for Illinois State, including seven in overtime. He drove the length of the court for a heavily contested layup with 6.5 seconds to go in regulation that forced overtime. Creighton's Antoine Young tried to duplicate the feat on the other end but missed a bank shot with two seconds left. Bluejays big man Gregory Echenique then missed a tip-in at the buzzer.

Young, Creighton's lone senior starter, made up for the miss in overtime, where he scored eight of his 14 points. The Bluejays never trailed in the extra period.

"We are a team. No single individual brought us to this day," said McDermott. "I will remember this season forever."

Bubble Boys Breathe Two Sighs Of Relief

Creighton saved someone's spot in the field of 68 by dispatching Illinois State a day after No. 12 Murray State accomplished the same feat by holding off the only team to beat it during the regular season.

Jewuan Long drove the baseline for a layup with 4.4 seconds left, then Robert Covington's potential game-winner at the buzzer was off the mark, as Murray State rallied from seven points down in the final 5:28 to beat Tennessee State, 54-52.

The win likely secured a seed somewhere between 4-7 for Murray St., which suffered its only loss of the season at home on Feb. 9 to the Tigers.

Heavy Favorites Stunned Before Title Game

Sunday provided an extremely bitter pill to swallow for a pair of regular season conference champions who were heavy favorites to punch their tickets to the NCAA Tournament.

In the MAAC, Iona, the nation's highest-scoring team and one of the most talented mid-major teams in the country, was stunned by fourth-seeded Fairfield in the semifinals.

Predictably, head coach Tim Cluess spent the bulk of his postgame press conference arguing why his team still belongs in the field of 68. It was a persuasive speech that probably won't endear him to anyone in the Big East.

"I believe we deserve it," Cluess said. "I believe the schedule we put together, eight straight weeks on the road against some very good opponents that are finishing near the top of their conferences in conferences above ours. And I don't think if you get knocked off in your playoff game that everything you did all season long should be thrown out the window. To me if that's not going to get you an at-large bid, then what's the sense of ever having a schedule like that? If it's not realistic (this year) then it's never happening. I think we should definitely be in the discussion. I think if you're going to pick eight or nine teams out of the Big East, I think that's nonsense because those teams aren't as good as we are. The top teams, yeah, not the seventh-, eighth-, ninth-place teams there or any other league. Not this year."

Fairfield will play second-seeded Loyola (Md.) for the conference title on Monday night.

Meanwhile in the Sun Belt, ninth-seeded Arkansas State stunned regular-season champion Middle Tennessee in the quarterfinals, likely sending the Blue Raiders and their sparkling 25-6 (14-2) record to the NIT.

Kermit Davis, your stage:

"We knew we had a good team, and I think we did exactly what the (NCAA tournament) selection committee wanted us to do, and that's put together a really challenging non-conference schedule," Davis said. "We have 25 wins, and I hope the selection committee looks at our whole body of work."

The Blue Raiders have a slightly better chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday than Iona does, but both teams appear to be on the outside looking in.

Thrilling America East

Unless you're Tom Brennan, the America East isn't near the top of conferences that come to your mind when you think about exciting basketball. Still, the AE tournament has delivered at every stage with one game left to play.

To start, you had 1-28 Binghamton winning its opening-round game in overtime and then leading regular-season champion Stony Brook by six with 12 minutes to play in the quarterfinals. The Seawolves survived that scare and then beat Albany a day later on a tip-in at the buzzer to advance to the title game against second-seeded Vermont, which needed double overtime to dispatch Hartford.


That is a stellar reaction.

Rubber Match On The Left Coast

One of college basketball's best rivalries couldn't get it right during the regular season, but they'll try to to do better with a conference championship on the line Monday night.

Gonzaga and Saint Mary's blew one another out when it was their turn to host the rivalry game during the regular season, but hopes are appropriately high for the rubber match. Each is already safely in the NCAA Tournament, but the disdain between these two teams won't allow for a drop in intensity.

"Both teams and fans hate each other," said Gonzaga center Robert Sacre. "I think we have this mutual hate when it comes to a basketball court. I don't think there's anything like it in the country. We don't want them to get the championship. We're Gonzaga. That's how we think. I'm not trying to be cocky."

This will be the 12th meeting in four years between the arch-rivals, who have met in every WCC championship game since 2008. Gonzaga has won the every league tournament title but one since 2004. The outlier is 2010, when Saint Mary's blasted the Zags, 81-62, on its way to an eventual appearance in the Sweet 16.

Four More Tickets Will Be Punched On Monday

The big boys get things started on Tuesday with first round action in the Big East Tournament, but the spotlight will remain squarely on the mid-major world Monday night with four league titles to be decided.

Here's the slate:

CAA Championship Game: VCU vs. Drexel (7 p.m. ET/ESPN)

MAAC Championship Game: Fairfield vs. Loyola (Md.) (7 p.m. E/ESPN2)

WCC Championship Game: Saint Mary's vs. Gonzaga (9 p.m. ET/ESPN)

SoCon Championship Game: Davidson vs. Western Carolina (9 p.m. ET/ESPN2)

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