The greatest postseason in American sports begins Tuesday night with the first round of games in both the Atlantic Sun and Horizon League tournaments. It will continue on Wednesday when four more conferences join the fray, and will roll on until a single group of coaches and players cut down the nets inside Lucas Oil Stadium on April 6.
In no other postseason in this country is there at least one team from every state represented. In no other postseason do all of those teams get the right to end their campaign by playing until they lose. In no other postseason is the sport's top prize theoretically obtainable for every team involved. In these regards, college basketball is the most American sport there is.
Sure, the regular season is slightly less exciting than it would be if only four or eight teams made the tournament, and sure there are plenty of squads that probably haven't earned the right to play for anything of any real consequence, but I think just about everyone agrees that the good far outweighs the bad here. Making sure every team that deserves a chance to prove itself -- even if that process results in some unworthy squads getting that same shot -- receives that moment is so much better than any alternative that doesn't allow for the same opportunity.
Obtaining the sport's top prize is extremely unlikely for the vast majority of the 347 teams competing in Division I, but at least it's not impossible. At least the bottom-tier RPI school that won its conference tournament gets the chance to prove itself on the sport's biggest stage, and not inside a quarter-full stadium against a team that doesn't really want to be there, in a game that, for all intents and purposes, has absolutely zero significance. At least when Dayton beat Ohio State in the round of 64 last season, that wasn't where the Flyers' story ended.
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Bracketology: A preview of things to come?
The first bracket of March might not look all that different from the real thing. Why? There are a few surprise entrants that might reflect the tumult that the conference tournament portion of the season is guaranteed to deliver.
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Turn on your television (or Internet stream) at virtually any hour over the course of the next couple of weeks, and you're going to see sports theater at its very best. Sure, all these teams have an ultimate goal of winning their respective conference championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament, but there's something even larger at stake. In each of these games, at least some of the players on the court are playing to keep their athletic careers alive. It's survive and advance on multiple levels, and when the buzzer sounds, you can see the joy and the relief on the faces of kids who know they get to wake up the next morning and still be able to call themselves college basketball players.
For the next 12 days we're treated with constant dream-fulfilling, career-ending, win-or-turn-in-your-jersey conference tournament action. All the elements that draw casual fans so completely into the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament are inherent in each and every one of the 31 conference tournaments that will take place over the course of the next two weeks. Quite simply, it's high drama that you can't find anywhere else in sports.
Mid- and low-major college basketball is an acquired taste, and I know that there are many folks out there who couldn't care less about the little guy. That's cool, we'll talk you in a couple of weeks.
For the rest of you, it's time to get briefed for Championship Week. It's a time primarily for the leagues who don't typically get the national spotlight, so focus here excludes the nine "major" (the "Power 5" leagues plus the AAC, A-10, Big East, and Mountain West) conferences.
COMPLETE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT DATES AND LOCATIONS
It's the most logical, if not exciting, jumping off point. Let's go ahead and include the big boys in this one just because we can.
|American Athletic||Hartford, Conn.||March 12-15|
|ACC||Greensboro, N.C.||March 10-14|
|America East||Campus sites||March 4, 8 & 14|
|Atlantic 10||Brooklyn||March 11-15|
|Atlantic Sun||Campus sites||March 3-8|
|Big East||New York||March 11-14|
|Big Sky||Campus sites||March 12-14|
|Big South||Conway, SC||March 3-8|
|Big Ten||Chicago||March 11-15|
|Big 12||Kansas City||March 11-14|
|Big West||Anaheim||March 12-14|
|Conference USA||Birmingham, Ala.||March 11-14|
|Horizon League||Campus sites||March 3-10|
|Ivy League||No tournament|
|MAAC||Albany, N.Y.||March 5-9|
|MAC||Cleveland, Ohio||March 11-14|
|MEAC||Norfolk, Va.||March 9-14|
|Missouri Valley||St. Louis||March 5-8|
|Mountain West||Las Vegas||March 11-14|
|Northeast||Campus sites||March 5, 8, 11|
|Ohio Valley||Nashville||March 4-7|
|Pac-12||Las Vegas||March 11-14|
|Patriot||Campus sites||March 3, 5, 8, 11|
|Southland||Katy, Texas||March 11-14|
|Southern||Asheville, N.C||March 6-9|
|Summit||Sioux Falls, S.D.||March 7-10|
|Sun Belt||New Orleans||March 12-15|
|WAC||Las Vegas||March 11-14|
|West Coast||Las Vegas||March 5-10|
Seventeen Division I teams are ineligible for any type of postseason play in 2015, which means you won't be seeing the following squads at any point during the madness of the next two weeks.
UMass-Lowell - America East (Reclassifying to Division I)
Syracuse - ACC (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Northern Kentucky - Atlantic Sun (Reclassifying to Division I)
Southern Mississippi - Conference USA (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Milwaukee - Horizon (APR Penalties)
Florida A&M - MEAC (APR Penalties)
San Jose State - Mountain West (APR Penalties)
Central Arkansas - Southland (APR Penalties)
Houston Baptist - Southland (APR Penalties)
Lamar - Southland (APR Penalties)
Abilene Christian - Southland (Reclassifying to Division I)
Incarnate Word - Southland (Reclassifying to Division I)
Alabama State - SWAC (APR Penalties)
Southern - SWAC (APR Penalties)
Omaha - Summit (Reclassifying to Division I)
Appalachian State - Sun Belt (APR Penalties)
Grand Canyon - WAC (Reclassifying to Division I)
SQUADS FOR THE BUBBLE BOYS TO PULL FOR
As always, there will be a handful of tournaments over the next couple of weeks where the favorite (or favorites) going down will give a conference a bid it wouldn't have had otherwise. That being the case, rapidly aging fans of major conference teams that haven't done enough yet to warrant "lock" status should adopt these squads as their own between now and Selection Sunday.
Gonzaga (West Coast)
The Meryl Streep of this group because they're here every damn year. The Zags almost certainly ruined their chances of earning a No. 1 seed by losing to BYU last weekend, but yeah, they're still going to be in the tournament. Mark Few and company will start the WCC tournament in the quarterfinals, and fans of teams like Pitt and UCLA would just as soon see them win three games in Vegas.
Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
That team that went to the Final Four two years ago and was undefeated heading into the tournament last season is pretty good once again. They're also going to be one of the 68 teams (and one of the better-seeded ones) in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in St. Louis this week.
Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
The Valley's other top-15 team may have lost the league's regular-season crown when they fell to the Shockers last Saturday, but their Arch Madness journey is still about improving their NCAA Tournament seed, not making sure they have a spot in the field.
BYU (West Coast)
Perhaps the most hotly debated bubble team in the country right now following their upset win over Gonzaga, the Cougars need just two wins to leave no doubt about their postseason plans. Fellow bubble teams would prefer they lose in the quarters and Gonzaga win the league, but they'd also rather BYU claim the league's auto-bid then risk the possibility of three teams emerging from the WCC.
Old Dominion (Conference USA)
The Monarchs aren't likely to finish first, or even second, in the final Conference USA standings, but that doesn't mean they don't have the league's best overall résumé (they do). Early-season wins over the likes of Richmond, Georgia State, LSU and VCU have made Old Dominion a staple on First Four Out/In lists across the country despite the fact that Jeff Jones' team has five C-USA losses. It would seem more than likely that they'll need an automatic bid to go dancing, but bubble squads should have their Monarch hoodies on next week just to be safe.
Repeat the last sentence from the previous blurb here, as the Lumberjacks are, at best, a long shot to hear their name called on Selection Sunday if they don't win the Southland tourney. Still, SFA would have 28 wins if they fell in the Southland title game, and the fact that they won a game in the big dance a year ago certainly wouldn't hurt their case for a surprise inclusion.
Murray State (Ohio Valley)
The Racers ran the table in the OVC and own a sparkling overall record of 26-4, but they have zero notable non-conference wins to speak of, and lost badly to the only semi-formidable squads on their schedule. Still, Murray has a decent enough RPI to at least warrant a look if something crazy happens this week during the OVC tourney, and again, you can't be too cautious in these situations if you're on the bubble. Never forget Iona in 2012.
SB Nation presents: Murray State among teams that can destroy your March brackets
FIVE OTHER HEAVY FAVORITES
These guys aren't going anywhere but the NIT if they get upset, but they're still heavy favorites to do some net-cutting before scaring the hell out of some poor single-digit seed when the brackets are revealed in 12 days.
1. Wofford (Southern)
The Terriers have been a team that has screamed 12/5 upset for months now, and assuming they take care of business in the SoCon tourney, it seems very likely that they'll fall into that potential scenario. Wofford lost badly to Duke, West Virginia and Stanford during the non-conference portion of the season, but they also notched quality wins over NC State, Sam Houston State and Iona. Three wins in Asheville this week will send Mike Young's team to the big dance for the fourth time in six years. They've flirted with an upset in each of their previous three trips, and now it's on the team's two senior and three junior starters to get the program over the hump.
2. Iona (MAAC)
The Gaels have won 24 games, they rank seventh in the country in points per game, they dropped 85 in a four-point win over Wake Forest in November, and they have two players currently averaging better than 19.0 points per game. This isn't a new thing for Iona, which is the only team in Division I to average 80 or more points per game in each of the last four seasons. Head coach Tim Cluess believes in taking the reigns off his guys and letting them play free for 40 minutes, and the thought of taking on a more defensive mindset makes him sick ... literally.
"I will never, ever play the game the other way," Cluess said recently. "We're not going to play like everyone else, just because every other coach is doing it. I'd throw up."
College basketball needs this team in the field, even if it's only for one game:
3. North Carolina Central (MEAC)
Over the last three seasons, North Carolina Central has won 45 MEAC regular-season games, and lost only two. This would be a remarkable run of success for any program, let alone one which wasn't even in Division I when head coach LeVelle Moton was hired seven years ago.
The 40-year-old Moton played basketball at NCCU in the 1990s, and then shortly after began a coaching career that started with a middle school gig. He then coached in high school and as an assistant at NC Central before being handed the full-time reigns in 2009, when the Eagles were still a Division II program. They joined the MEAC in 2011-12, and have gone an astounding 55-8 in conference play, winning their first conference title of any sort in over 50 years last season.
N.C. Central is one win away from running the table in the MEAC, and they'll be an overwhelming favorite to earn the league's automatic bid for a second straight season. They'll hope for a better result than 2014, when the honor resulted in an 18-point loss to No. 3 seed Iowa State.
4. New Mexico State (WAC)
The Aggies officially clinched the league's outright regular-season title last week, but it felt like the championship had been in the bag since January. New Mexico State's lone setback in conference play is a six-point loss at Seattle on Jan. 17, and they lead second place UMKC by a full four games heading into the final week of the regular season. They'll start in the semifinals of the seven-team WAC tournament, where it will take something stunning for a team other than Marvin Menzies' to leave with the title.
5. Albany (America East)
The Great Danes were supposed to be something of a one-hit wonder after making a surprise run to the America East tournament title in 2014 and then winning an opening-round game in Dayton before giving No. 1 overall seed Florida all they wanted in the round of 64. Three starters were lost from that squad, but somehow Albany has been even better in 2015, rolling to a 15-1 mark in conference play and emerging as a clear favorite to make it back to the big dance. That journey starts Wednesday night with a quarterfinal tilt against Maine.
10 Squads That Could Dance For the First Time
One of the best parts of March is seeing coaches, players and programs that have been in the game for a long time, but have never taken the sport's biggest stage change all that in a single moment. Here are 10 members of the "never been dancing" club with a real shot at changing all that this month.
Sacramento State (Big Sky)
OK, I know I said back in January that Eastern Washington was going to be your new favorite team in March, but there aren't many better stories out there right now than Sacramento State. The Hornets made the move to Division I 24 years ago, and since then, they have never had a single season in which they've finished with a winning record. Not one.
That's now a stat of the past, as this year's Sac State squad is 19-8 and one win away from locking up at least a share of the Big Sky regular-season title. The only issue with that? The Big Sky regular-season champion gets to host the conference tournament, and the Hornets' gym -- affectionately referred to as "The Nest" -- seats just 1,200 and is far too small to facilitate both the crowds and the television coverage that the event brings.
The program has been so bad for so long that most never envisioned this becoming an issue, but Big Sky Deputy Commissioner Ron Loghry did make a point back in January to state: "When Sacramento State was invited to join the Big Sky Conference in 1996, its Letter of Agreement dictated that it would not be permitted to host the men's tournament in the Hornet Gym."
If the Hornets are able to secure the league's regular season title, the tournament will now be played at the school's wellness and recreation center, which is called "The Well." Portable bleachers around a portable court will be utilized to increase the seating to the necessarily benchmark of 3,000.
I think I speak for all of us when I say that I don't want the Big Sky Tournament to happen if it's not going to happen at The Well.
Never Made It Club
Never Made It Club
UC Davis (Big West)
Previously known for little more than being the home of the early-2000s MTV classic reality show "Sorority Life," UC Davis is 22-5 and in the midst of what is easily the best season in program history. Davis hadn't won more than 14 games in a season since moving to Division I, and now Corey Hawkins and company are on the verge of guiding the Aggies into the field of 68 for the first time. Somewhere, I'm sure, Jordan and Candace are beaming with pride.
UC Irvine (Big West)
The Anteaters (Anteaters!) had their hearts broken by Pacific in the 2013 Big West title game, and then were stunned in the semis as the top seed a year ago by eventual surprise champion Cal Poly. They'll have yet another chance at sweet, sweet redemption at this year's tournament in Anaheim, where they're guaranteed to be no worse than the No. 3 seed.
High Point (Big South)
Tubby Smith's alma mater owns one of the best players in the country in John Brown, and despite being the No. 2 seed, is probably the favorite to claim the Big South's auto-bid. Their journey starts in the quarterfinals on Friday, where they could face another member of the "never been to the tournament" club, Gardner-Webb.
Stony Brook (America East)
The preseason favorites in the America East were a bit of a disappointment through the first month of conference play, but they ended the regular season with six straight wins to finish tied for second place. The Seawolves, who will be the No. 3 seed in the AE tourney, also have the benefit of being able to claim the league's Player of the Year in junior guard Jameel Warney.
If Stony Brook can't win three games and make the field of 68 for the first time, then perhaps fourth-seeded New Hampshire (18-11, 11-5) can. That's a bonus team for this category. It's like ripping into your stocking after the last present has been unwrapped on Christmas morning ... except it happened after the first present. I don't know, the analogy was thin to begin with.
William & Mary (Colonial Athletic Association)
No team on last year's list got a more brutal NCAA Tournament rejection letter than Bill and Mary, which led by six with 1:20 to go in the CAA championship game before collapsing and allowing Delaware to score the game's final seven points. The Tribe remains one of the five original Division I teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament (Northwestern, The Citadel, Army and St. Francis (NY) are the others). They'll be the No. 1 seed in a CAA Tournament where the top-four teams all finished the regular season with matching 12-6 records.
Bobby Hurley has already proven that he can coach a little bit, and the icing on the cake that has been his first two seasons at Buffalo would be carrying the Bulls to the big dance for the first time (they went to the NIT back in 2005 and won a game). Buffalo, which is perhaps still best known for leading Kentucky at halftime of a game played in mid-November, has won four straight and currently sits just a game back of Bowling Green in the MAC's East Division standings. They'll get a shot to take down the Falcons themselves when they come to Alumni Arena on Friday night.
These could be the two weeks that the heroes at UB Bull Run have been waiting their whole lives for.
St. Francis (NY) (Northeast)
As mentioned earlier, the Terriers are one of the five original DI members that have never made the NCAA Tournament, which means they laugh at the complaints of those who have gone a couple of decades without a conference title. That could all change this week, as the boys from Brooklyn won the NEC regular-season title by a full three games (just the third Northeast regular-season title in program history), and are now just three victories away from ending 77 years of pain. It's also worth noting that St. Francis is the oldest college basketball program in New York City, with their origins dating all the way back to 1896.
Despite all the optimism surrounding the program at the moment, the Terriers ended the regular season with a loss at the hands of one of the league's two other teams that have never gone dancing, Bryant. The Bulldogs will be the No. 3 seed in the NEC tourney.
North Florida (Atlantic Sun)
The Ospreys are another regular-season champ that is looking to crash the dance for the first time. They've only been postseason eligible in Division I since 2010, and have made it to the A-Sun title game only once, when they were embarrassed by Belmont in the 2011 championship game, 87-46.
USC Upstate, which has only been eligible for the tournament since 2012, will be the No. 3 seed this week.
Every WAC team besides New Mexico State and Seattle
Heavy favorite New Mexico State is looking to make its third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, while Seattle was a mainstay in the big dance before abruptly moving out of Division I in 1980. The other five WAC teams eligible for postseason play this season -- UMKC, Chicago State, Cal State Bakersfield, Utah Valley, and UT Pan American -- will all be looking to make their debut in the show.
15 PLAYERS WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM
1. Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa/Missouri Valley)
You probably know about Wichita State's power trio of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, but the league's top performer in 2014-15 was not a Shocker. Seth Tuttle is the only player averaging double figures in scoring (15.6 ppg) for No. 11 Northern Iowa, and he also leads the team in rebounding (6.6 rpg), assists (3.3 apg), blocks (18), and field goal percentage (63.0). He is the second-most efficient offensive player in college basketball according to Ken Pomeroy, trailing only national Player of the Year front-runner Frank Kaminsky.
2. Keifer Sykes (Green Bay/Horizon League)
One of 17 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award (top point guard), Sykes is the first player since Detroit's Rashad Phillips in 2001 to repeat as Horizon League Player of the Year. It was an easy choice for voters, as Sykes will enter the postseason averaging 18.5 points, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game, all of which are in the top five of the league. Not bad for a kid who was "lost in the shuffle" during his high school years.
3. John Brown (High Point/Big South)
Brown has been named first team All-Big South in each of his three collegiate seasons, and the question now is whether or not he's going to be around to shoot for a fourth honor. It's a legitimate question when you can do this:
4. Kyle Collinsworth (BYU/West Coast)
I'm not sure how it's possible for a player who has recorded five triple-doubles this season (something which had never been done before, by the way) to receive as little national love as Collinsworth has. Perhaps it's because he plays in the same conference as Gonzaga or because he's teammates with one of the top scorers in the country in Tyler Haws, but ... five triple-doubles. FIVE. That's more in one season than some programs have in their history.
5. Alan Williams (UCSB/Big West)
Williams' senior season hasn't gone quite as swimmingly as he would have liked, as he missed seven games in the heart of conference play because of a left shoulder injury and is averaging fewer points (16.6 ppg) than he did the past two seasons. But the guy is still pretty much a guaranteed double-double every night. His return has the Gauchos as a bit of a darkhorse candidate to win the Big West, a run which would get Williams to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
6. Tyler Harvey (Eastern Washington/Big Sky)
The nation's leading scorer (22.8 ppg) also comes with one of the nation's best stories.
Harvey came to Eastern Washington as a walk-on, and might not have had the opportunity to play college ball anywhere, at any level, had it not been for a chance encounter between his father, a college basketball official, and his current head coach:
In 1991, Hayford was launching his own career as a coach at Azusa Pacific as Frank Harvey was trying to break into officiating. They met that summer.
In the meantime, young Tyler grew up watching his dad, and wondering whether he'd ever grow past his dad's 5'8 frame. As a high school freshman at Bishop Mongomery High in Torrance, Calif., he was behind the curve at 5'4.
Then came the growth spurt, more painful than most. En route to growing 10 inches in three years, he had to sit out part of one season "because my bones weren't catching up," Tyler Harvey said.
A late bloomer in every sense of the word, Harvey was overlooked by almost everyone.
But in 2010, Hayford -- then the coach at Whitworth -- was on the same plane flight as Frank Harvey, who had officiated a Gonzaga home game the night before.
Old ties were rekindled, giving Hayford a chance to bring Tyler, then a senior, to Whitworth for a visit.
"We thought he might fall through the cracks," Hayford said of Harvey, who was rail-thin at 6'2, 150 pounds.
"I liked Whitworth, but my dream was to play Division I basketball," said Tyler Harvey, for whom the planets aligned again when Hayford took over the program at Eastern.
Harvey then redshirted his first year at EWU and played sparingly at the beginning of his freshman campaign. In the 13th game of his sophomore season, he became the school's all-time leader in made three-pointers. Now he's on pace to a shatter a myriad of school records, including several set by the program's most notable alumnus, current Indiana Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey.
7. Ty Greene (USC Upstate/Atlantic Sun)
Greene finished the regular season ranked first in the Atlantic Sun and 14th in the nation in scoring at 20.1 points per game, including 23.4 points per game in conference play. Earlier this week he became the second Spartan ever to be named A-Sun Player of the Year.
8. Ryan Harrow (Georgia State/Sun Belt)
You can't go wrong with either Harrow or backcourt mate R.J. Hunter in this spot, but we'll take the former Kentucky and NC State point guard, who is once again flourishing for the Panthers. Harrow leads Georgia State in scoring (20.3 ppg) and assists (4.2 apg), and is posting career bests in both field goal percentage (50.5) and three-point field goal percentage (37.9).
9. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga/West Coast)
Another Kentucky transfer, Wiltjer is in the midst of one of the most fascinating college careers of all time. He's been a top-12 prospect and a McDonald's All-American in a recruiting class that saw him ranked ahead of guys like Michael Carter-Williams and Cody Zeller. He's been a college teammate of Anthony Davis, and a contributor on one of the most dominant national champions in recent memory. He's been a star and a double-digit scorer on the only disappointing Kentucky team of the John Calipari era, and now the leading scorer (16.5 ppg) of a twice-beaten Gonzaga team looking to shake a reputation for underachieving in the NCAA Tournament.
10. Tim Kempton (Lehigh/Patriot League)
The sophomore forward was named Patriot League Player of the Year earlier this week, an honor which comes a year after he was named the conference's Rookie of the Year. The 6'11 center led the conference in rebounding (8.6 rpg) and ranked sixth in scoring (15.1 ppg). He'll attempt to the lead the third-seeded Mountain Hawks to the Patriot League title starting this week.
11. Zeek Woodley (Northwestern State/Southland)
Even if he wasn't the nation's second-leading scorer (22.7 ppg), the fact that Woodley's full first name is actually Zikiteran would demand inclusion on this list.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
12. Cameron Payne (Murray State/Ohio Valley)
The Racers have won 22 straight games and will enter the postseason ranked in both major polls. A large chunk of the credit for both of those tidbits should be sent in the direction of Payne. The sophomore guard leads Murray in points (20.2 ppg), assists (5.7 apg) and steals (2.0 spg). His 119.7 offensive rating ranks third in Division I, and he's also eighth nationally with a 38.5 percent assist rate. Basically, Payne is a left-handed Isaiah Canaan.
13. Saah Nimley (Charleston Southern/Big South)
Nimley, the nation's fourth-leading scorer at 21.5 points per game, was named Big South Player of the Year earlier this week. He has scored 30 or more points in seven of Charleston Southern's last 14 games, and his 623 points are the third highest single season total in program history.
14. Wesley Saunders (Harvard/Ivy League)
Saunders hasn't had as explosive a senior season as some where predicting, but he leads Harvard in scoring (16.5 ppg) for the third straight season, and also ranks first in steals (1.9 spg), as well as second in rebounding (6.2 rpg) and assists (4.1 apg). He's the probable choice to earn his second straight Ivy League Player of the Year honor, but at the moment he's likely more focused on beating Yale and Brown this weekend to get the Crimson back to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight year.
15. Jameel Warney (Stony Brook/America East)
Warney because the sixth player in America East history to earn the league's Player of the Year award in back-to-back seasons when he was given the honor earlier this week. He enters the postseason averaging 16.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.4 blocked shots, and his 20 double-doubles are the most in Division I.
TEN MORE TO WATCH
Tyler Haws, BYU (West Coast)
R.J. Hunter, Georgia State (Sun Belt)
Corey Hawkins, UC Davis (Big West)
Kendall Gray, Delaware State (MEAC)
Damion Lee, Drexel (Colonial Athletic Association)
A.J. English, Iona (MAAC)
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga (West Coast)
Kahlil Felder, Oakland (Horizon League)
Lawrence Alexander, North Dakota State (Summit League)
Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech (Conference USA)
FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU WANT TO HAPPEN
1. Wichita State vs. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
The two top-15 teams lost three total games during the Missouri Valley's regular season, and two of those came in the pair of head-to-head meetings that they split. Each team won handily on its home court, which means the college hoops world deserves a rubber match on a neutral floor this Saturday.
2. Gonzaga vs. BYU (West Coast)
This is the spot that has typically been reserved for Gonzaga/Saint Mary's in years past, but there's little question that the Cougars are the second-best team in the WCC this season. Last Saturday's upset in Spokane has more than a few folks interested to see if BYU can pull off the feat again and leave no doubt about their postseason fate.
3. Charleston Southern vs. High Point (Big South)
High Point had an opportunity to win the league's regular-season title outright, but fell at Charleston Southern in a triple-overtime thriller that left the two teams deadlocked atop the league's standings at 13-5. The Buccaneers (that's Charleston Southern) won the tiebreaker for the top seed, but they're still viewed by most as the second choice to claim the league's auto-bid.
4. Valparaiso vs. Green Bay (Horizon League)
Cleveland State is awfully good too, but I don't think there's any question that these are the two teams the rest of the country wants to see slug it out for the Horizon title. Each team has the capability of winning at least one game in the big dance, and their two regular-season meetings (which were split) were decided by a total of five points.
5. Stephen F. Austin vs. Sam Houston State (Southland)
A wild thing happened while the rest of the country was focused on Stephen F. Austin's quest to make it back to the tournament and win a game for the second straight season: Sam Houston State was dominating the Southland in an almost identical fashion. The two teams are a combined 29-3 in the league, and will meet for the second time in Saturday's regular-season finale. SFA, which is 15-1 and leads SHSU by a game, won the first game between the two, 79-68.
FIVE CRAZY COMPETITIVE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
Heavy favorites are the norm more often than not during Championship Week, but these five tournaments look like they could be won by any number of teams.
Once again, the league's "never a night off" reputation proves to be a deserved one, as there are five teams in the conference with double-digit league wins, and just two with fewer than six. There is no clea-cut favorite in the MAC, whose top five teams -- Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Toledo, Buffalo and Kent State -- all have at least five conference losses.
2. Sun Belt
This was supposed to be a year where "super mid-major" Georgia State dominated the Sun Belt and put itself in a position to earn an at-large bid in case it stumbled in the league tournament for a second straight year. Instead, the Panthers head into the final week of the regular season tied atop the conference standings with Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Monroe, who are all 13-5. Fourth- and fifth-place UL-Lafayette and UT-Arlington also own double-digit wins in league play. The Sun Belt has historically been one of Championship Week's most unpredictable tournaments, and it seems there's a strong chance that trend will continue in 2015.
3. Colonial Athletic Association
You want parity? How about a four-way tie atop the standings at the end of the regular season. Northeastern, William & Mary, UNC-Wilmington, and James Madison all finished league play at 12-6, which resulted in some overtime for the CAA employees who had to sort out all the tiebreaker scenarios.
4. Conference USA
This is my first year including C-USA in this primer, but it's impossible to deny that there's no longer anything "major" about the league which was once home to the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette. That doesn't mean it can't be exciting. Five teams in the conference are 11-5 or better, including league-leader and preseason favorite Louisiana Tech (23-7, 14-3), as well as an Old Dominion (22-6, 11-5) team that has a somewhat legitimate shot at an at-large bid.
5. Big South
We just talked about how everyone wants to see regular season co-champs High Point and Charleston Southern battle it out for a third time, but that's not going to be easy in a conference where three teams -- Coastal Carolina, Radford, and Winthrop -- all finished just a game behind the Panthers and Buccaneers.
THREE LESS-EXCITING CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
New Mexico State is far and away the best team in this increasingly bizarre conference, and this isn't one of the better Aggie teams in recent memory. Grand Canyon is still in the process of reclassifying to Division I, which means just seven teams will play for the WAC title in Paradise, Nevada, making for the most inappropriate tournament host city name in the history of college basketball.
2. Ohio Valley
The trend of mid-major leagues attempting to protect their best teams by giving them automatic byes into the tournament semifinals continues to grow, which makes me sad. Not that it isn't a savvy and fair move by the conferences, it just means fewer games, which makes selfish people like myself upset.
My bigger problem with the Ohio Valley is that it's a 12-team conference that sends only eight of its teams to the league tournament. I'm cool with protecting your top seeds (especially in a year like this one where Murray State clearly deserves to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament) and making it nearly impossible for the ones that finish at the bottom of the standings to pull off a miracle, but at least give them that chance. The whole "everybody gets to play until they lose" mantra is sort of the best thing about college basketball.
3. Ivy League
Say what you will about the other two, but at least they have tournaments.
Also, "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth ..." You got that from Vickers. "Work in Essex County," page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend -- you pawn it off as your own -- your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?"
Having said all that, Harvard and Yale are currently tied at the top of the league with matching 10-2 records, and they play one another Friday night. That's going to be fun.
10 DANGEROUS NON-TOP SEEDS THAT COULD STEAL A BID
1. Stony Brook (America East)
The preseason favorites struggled during the first half of league play, but they enter the postseason playing easily their best basketball of 2014-15. The Seawolves have won six straight, and are also the only team in the conference to have knocked off regular-season champion Albany.
2. Montana (Big Sky)
All year long, the focus in the Big Sky has been on the great stories of league-leaders Sacramento State (tiny gym!) and Eastern Washington (lots of points!). Meanwhile, perennial league power Montana has continued to chug along, and has now lost just once in its last seven games, a double-overtime road defeat at Idaho.
3. UCSB (Big West)
The Gauchos are likely going to be the No. 3 seed in the Big West tournament, but there's a reason they're going to be a trendy pick by those who follow the league. UCSB was missing star big man Alan Williams for seven games during the heart of conference play, but he returned to the court on Feb. 19 and has now led the team to back-to-back wins over league leaders UC Davis and UC Irvine. In total, Santa Barbara has won six of its last seven heading into the regular season's last week.
4. Rider (MAAC)
Iona is the MAAC's overwhelming favorite after its 17-3 run to the regular-season title, but the Gaels lost their regular-season finale, which some would argue leaves Rider as the conference's hottest team. The Broncs have lost just once in their last eight games, and have held all but one of their last six opponents to 61 points or fewer.
5. Illinois State (Missouri Valley)
If any team ruins the dream rubber match between Wichita State and Northern Iowa, it's likely going to be the Redbirds. ISU finished conference play just 11-7, but they'll be riding a four-game win streak into Arch Madness.
6. Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley)
You might remember the Colonels as the team that destroyed Miami 72-44 on the Hurricanes' home floor back in December. They hit a rough stretch in January where they lost four out of five, but ended the regular season by winning eight of their last nine. EKU is also the OVC team that came the closest to knocking off Murray State, dropping an overtime decision on the road back on Jan. 29.
7. Chattanooga (Southern)
The Mocs have won six straight and beat regular-season champ Wofford by 10 on the Terriers' home floor on Feb. 12.
8. Northwestern State (Southland)
The Demons aren't just an also-ran behind Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State in the Southland. They've won five straight, nine out of their last 10, and again, their leading scorer is a dude named Zikiteran.
9. Prairie View A&M (SWAC)
The SWAC is always pretty unpredictable, so there's no harm in taking a shot with the Panthers, a team that has won seven straight and beat league leading Texas Southern on its home floor at the beginning of the month.
10. South Dakota (Summit)
The Coyotes are the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament that annually sports college basketball's best mascots, but they've won five of their last six, a stretch which includes a 16-point trouncing of No. 1 seed South Dakota State.
And there you have it.
If you didn't read every word, but scrolled down and are reading this now, you have to find the nearest Quizno's and try that lobster sub thing that they used to advertise and might not even make anymore. You're probably going to die, but those are the rules. That's how Championship Week works. High stakes.