The greatest postseason in American sports began Tuesday night with the first round of games in both the Atlantic Sun and Patriot League tournaments. It will continue on Wednesday when three more conferences join the fray, and will roll on until a single group of coaches and players cut down the nets inside NRG Stadium in Houston on April 4.
In no other postseason in this country is there at least one team from every state but one (grow up, Alaska) 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 351 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 George Mason won its first round game over Michigan State a decade ago, that wasn't where their story ended.
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 in about a week.
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.
|CONFERENCE||SITE||DATES (TV)||2015 CHAMPION|
|AAC||Orlando, Fla.||March 10-13 (ESPN)||SMU|
|ACC||Washington D.C.||March 8-12 (ESPN)||Notre Dame|
|America East||Campus sites||March 2, 7 & 12 (ESPN2)||Albany|
|Atlantic 10||Brooklyn||March 9-13 (CBS)||VCU|
|Atlantic Sun||Campus sites||March 1, 3 & 6 (ESPN2)||North Florida|
|Big East||New York||March 9-12 (FOX)||Villanova|
|Big Sky||Reno, Nev.||March 8, 10-12 (TBA)||E. Washington|
|Big South||Buies Creek, N.C.||March 3-6 (ESPN)||Coastal Carolina|
|Big Ten||Indianapolis||March 9-13 (CBS)||Wisconsin|
|Big 12||Kansas City||March 9-12 (ESPN)||Iowa State|
|Big West||Anaheim||March 10-12 (ESPN2)||UC Irvine|
|Colonial||Baltimore||March 4-7 (NBCSN)||Northeastern|
|Conference USA||Birmingham, Ala.||March 8-12 (FS1)||UAB|
|Horizon League||Detroit||March 5-8 (ESPN/ESPN2)||Valparaiso|
|Ivy League||No tournament||Harvard|
|MAAC||Albany, N.Y.||March 3-7 (ESPN)||Manhattan|
|MAC||Cleveland, Ohio||March 7, 10-12 (ESPN2)||Buffalo|
|MEAC||Norfolk, Va.||March 7-12 (TBA)||Hampton|
|Missouri Valley||St. Louis||March 3-6 (CBS)||Northern Iowa|
|Mountain West||Las Vegas||March 9-12 (CBS)||Wyoming|
|Northeast||Campus sites||March 2, 5, 8 (ESPN/ESPN2)||Robert Morris|
|Ohio Valley||Nashville||March 2-5 (ESPN2)||Belmont|
|Pac-12||Las Vegas||March 9-12 (FS1)||Arizona|
|Patriot||Campus sites||March 1, 3, 6, 9 (CBS Sports Network)||Lafayette|
|SEC||Nashville||March 9-13 (ESPN)||Kentucky|
|Southern||Asheville, N.C||March 4-7 (ESPN2)||Wofford|
|Southland||Katy, Texas||March 8-12 (ESPN2)||S.F. Austin|
|Summit||Sioux Falls, S.D.||March 5-8 (ESPN2)||State|
|Sun Belt||New Orleans||March 10-13 (ESPN2)||Georgia State|
|SWAC||Houston||March 8-12 (ESPNU)||Texas Southern|
|WAC||Las Vegas||March 10-12 (ESPNU)||New Mexico State|
|West Coast||Las Vegas||March 4-5 & 7-8 (ESPN)||Gonzaga|
Fourteen Division I teams are ineligible to participate in the NCAA Tournament this season. The majority of those are ineligible for any type of postseason play, but a few (like APR-penalized Stetson, for example) have been permitted to take part in their respective conference tournaments.
Here's the full list of teams that cannot dance:
UMass-Lowell - America East (Reclassifying to Division I)
SMU - American Athletic (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Louisville - ACC (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Stetson - Atlantic Sun (APR Penalties)
Cal State Northridge - Big West (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Southern Mississippi - Conference USA (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Northern Kentucky - Horizon (Reclassifying to Division I)
Missouri - SEC (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
Abilene Christian - Southland (Reclassifying to Division I)
Central Arkansas - Southland (APR Penalties)
Incarnate Word - Southland (Reclassifying to Division I)
Alcorn State - SWAC (APR Penalties)
Grand Canyon - WAC (Reclassifying to Division I)
Pacific - West Coast Conference (Self-Imposed Postseason Ban)
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, but admittedly, this is different. If the tournament magically began today, there's a good chance that for the first time since 1998, the Zags would be on the outside looking in. Still, with the bubble being as weak as it is (it's said every March, but this year it's actually true), it's certainly plausible that Mark Few's team could nab a bid of they fell to Saint Mary's, or perhaps even BYU, in the WCC title game.
Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
This will quickly become the most discussed team of the days leading up to Selection Sunday if it fails to hoist the MVC tournament trophy in St. Louis on Saturday. The Shockers had a less than spectacular non-conference run, dropping five games and falling out of both national polls. The bulk of those losses came without the services of All-American guard Fred VanVleet, who has been spectacular since returning to the court. Wichita State rolled to yet another Missouri Valley regular season title, but wasn't quite perfect, dropping games to Northern Iowa and Illinois State along the way.
Anyone who's followed college basketball over the last four seasons knows Wichita State has the pieces to make a run into the second weekend of the tournament and beyond. The problem is that they don't have a resume that reflects that. Take care of business at Arch Madness and that becomes a moot point.
Saint Mary's (West Coast)
The Gaels own a sparkling 25-4 record heading into this week's WCC Tournament, but if history is any indication, the only way they'll feel confident on Selection Sunday is if they own an auto bid. Saint Mary's was turned away by the committee in 2011 despite winning 25 games, and in 2009 when they had 26 wins. While they'll still be in the mix if they don't take care of business in Vegas, the only way Randy Bennett's team can guarantee itself a spot in the dance is to do something it has never done before: beat arch-rival Gonzaga three times in the same season.
Monmouth (Metro Atlantic Athletic)
You've probably heard this before, but these guys are more than just their cheeky bench. It's been a dream season for Monmouth, which enters the postseason with wins over Notre Dame, USC, Georgetown, UCLA and Rutgers ... which still technically is a member of the Big Ten. The Hawks have a top-60 RPI, and could easily steal a spot from someone if they taste defeat at the MAAC Tournament in Albany.
The Crusaders got over the hump in the Horizon League Tournament last year, and nearly stunned Maryland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Making noise in the big dance has been the goal since day one for Bryce Drew's team, but they have work to do in order to even get that chance. Most mock brackets have Valpo slotted as an 11 or 12 seed, and their resume would certainly warrant a lengthy look from the committee if they were in need of an at-large bid to make the field of 68.
Arkansas-Little Rock (Sun Belt)
Little Rock has a 26-3 record, an RPI of 38 and they play in a Sun Belt Conference that has a history of seeing crazy things go down in its league tournament. That's a disastrous recipe for teams that will enter their major conference tournaments knowing that they have some major work to do.
UAB (Conference USA)
The Blazers have ridden the momentum from last year's surprise postseason run (a league tournament title followed by a shocking win over Iowa State in the first round of the big dance) to a 24-5 record (14-2, C-USA) in 2015-16. They'd likely be on the wrong side of the bubble if things fell apart in Birmingham, but you can never be too cautious.
Hawaii (Big West)
This is easily the longest shot in the group, but Hawaii is still 23-4 with okay wins over Northern Iowa and Auburn, and they almost beat Oklahoma on Christmas Eve. If they were to lose a close game in the Big West championship game to a solid UC Irvine or average Long Beach State team, maybe the committee would get a little bit crazy and send a message to the underachieving major conference teams. It would take them breaking some major precedents when it comes to RPI (or any other metric) rankings, because the computers do not love the Rainbow Warriors.
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. Stephen F. Austin (Southland)
Death, taxes, Stephen F. Austin dominating the Southland Conference regular season. The Lumberjacks might not have a team capable of winning a game or two in the NCAA Tournament like they have the past two seasons, but they're still 16-0 in league play and have the potential to be carrying a massive winning streak (and a massive amount of confidence) with them into March Madness.
2. Texas Southern (SWAC)
With two games still to go, Mike Davis' team is 15-1 in conference play and has already wrapped up its third regular season SWAC title in the past four years. TSU plays an extremely entertaining brand of basketball and has one of the most intriguing and exciting players in the country. More on him in a bit.
3. New Mexico State (WAC)
The Aggies are once again the clear class of the WAC, with their lone conference loss coming at the hands of a Grand Canyon team that won't be participating in the conference tournament. It will be a mild shock if NMSU doesn't make its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for Marvin Menzies, it'll also be a mild shock if his team doesn't extend its losing streak in the big dance to nine.
4. Hampton (MEAC)
The Pirates knocked off Manhattan in last year's opening round of the NCAA Tournament before becoming Kentucky's 35th victim during the Wildcats' quest for perfection. At 13-2 in the league and 18-9 overall, they'll be a heavy favorite to make it back into the field of 68 and take another run at 1-versus-16 history.
5. Wagner (Northeast)
It's been a wild year already in the NEC, where Wagner wound up winning the regular season title by a full two games despite owning five conference losses. The Seahawks will be favored this week to punch their first ticket to the big show since 2003, when they made their only NCAA Tournament appearance to date.
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.
1. High Point (Big South)
Tubby Smith's alma mater owns one of the best players in the country in John Brown, and the Panthers are the top seed in the Big South Tournament a year after having their hearts broken in the quarterfinals by Gardner-Webb. Here's the issue though: Brown ended his Senior Night on crutches and there's been no official word as far as whether he'll be able to play in the postseason.
2. Stony Brook (America East)
The Seawolves have fallen to Albany in each of the last two America East championship games, and saw their dreams of dancing for the first time ripped away in just about the most cruel fashion imaginable a year ago.
That one shot only tells half the story of heartbreak. Stony Brook has entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the America East three times over the last six years and has reached the championship game four times over that same span. Somehow, they have yet to feel the joy of seeing their name pop up on Selection Sunday.
Stony Brook won the regular season title once more this year with a 14-4 mark, but Albany will be right there again this week as the No. 2 seed after finishing 13-3.
3. William & Mary (Colonial Athletic Association)
As painful as the last two years have been for Albany, the two most recent NCAA Tournament rejection letters that Bill and Mary have gotten might have the Great Danes beat. In the 2014 CAA title game, the Tribe led by six with 1:20 to go game before collapsing and allowing Delaware to score the game's final seven points. They were a heavily favored top seed that was once again one win away from the big dance a year ago, but fell flat in a 72-61 loss to Northeastern.
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. 5 seed in what should be a wide-open CAA Tournament this week.
4. Bethune-Cookman (MEAC)
The Wildcats have lost just once in their last nine games, and will be seeded no worse than fourth in a MEAC Tournament that has been known to get a little wild.
5. St. Francis (NY) (Northeast)
Another one of the original five teams that have never experienced March Madness, the Terriers might have their best shot in years to crash the field of 68. They finished in a three-way tie in the final NEC standings and will carry a four-game winning streak with them into the postseason. The most recent of those wins came against Mount St. Mary's, the team that will also serve as their quarterfinal opponent. Seventy-eight years of pain could be coming to an end for the oldest college basketball program in New York City, whose origins date back to 1896.
6. Sacred Heart (Northeast)
If St. Francis can't get it done in the Northeast then maybe Sacred Heart can. The Pioneers won just one game out of conference (their season opener against Quinnipiac), but will still be the No. 3 seed in a wide-open NEC tourney.
7. Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley)
Lester Hudson couldn't get UT-Martin into the dance, but maybe these streaky Skyhawks can get the job done. They'll start the postseason with a double bye into the OVC semifinals, and will be facing a field that doesn't include a dominant Murray State or Belmont team like it has in years past.
8. Army (Patriot League)
The third member of the original five Division I teams that have never been to the tournament to make the list this year. Army had a five-game winning streak snapped in its regular season finale against Lehigh, but its all-senior starting five is poised to finally make a run in the Patriot League Tournament this week. That run will start Wednesday in the quarterfinals against fifth-seeded Colgate.
9. IPFW or Omaha (Summit)
Yeah, I'm throwing two teams from the same conference on this list and counting them as one, whatever. This is March, we can do what we want.
The Summit League is the home of the best nicknamed teams in college basketball, along with a wealth of squads which have never played in the big dance. Two of those teams are the IPFW Mastadons and Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. The teams will be the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, respectively, in the conference tournament this week.
10. Every WAC team besides New Mexico State and Seattle
Heavy favorite New Mexico State is looking to make its fourth 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 Rio Grande Valley -- will all be looking to make their debut in the show.
15 PLAYERS WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM
1. Kay Felder (Oakland/Horizon League)
If you haven't heard of Felder by now, then the time to start appreciating is upon you. The 5'9 floor general leads the nation in assists at 9.4 apg, and is fourth in scoring at 24.4 ppg. He was named Horizon League Player of the Week a record seven times this season, and was recently honored as the conference's Player of the Year.
Even if you don't care about the tournament (sacrilege), anyone who likes basketball should be tuning into the Horizon League games this week just to see what Felder will do.
2. Derrick Griffin (Texas Southern/SWAC)
I teased it earlier, but don't be surprised if Griffin winds up being a player you hear a great deal about over the next couple of weeks.
Griffin was rated as the No. 3 wide receiver in the country coming out of high school, and signed to play football at Miami in 2013. However, he was an academic non-qualifier and never got to suit up for the Hurricanes. Griffin eventually enrolled at Texas Southern and finally got himself eligible to participate in football for the 2015 season. In the process, he made the somewhat unexpected announcement that he also planned to suit up for the basketball team. Mike Davis is certainly glad that he did.
Griffin, who is averaging 13.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game for the league-champion Tigers, has notched a double-double in 12 consecutive games. In Texas Southern's last eight tilts, Griffin has missed a total of 12 shots.
Numbers are cool, but visuals are cooler.
This Vine is garbage, but seriously -- Derrick Griffin is an inhuman SWAC freakshow monster: https://t.co/AEtZX83m4L— Rush the Other 26 (@other26hoops) March 1, 2016
Technically, he's just a freshman.
3. John Brown (High Point/Big South)
You've probably seen one of Brown's dunk montages by this point, but what gets forgotten sometimes in the highlight reels is just how terrific a defender Brown is. In fact, earlier this week he became the first player in Big South history to be named the league's Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. He's also just the second Big South player to earn first team all-conference honors in four straight years.
If Brown is, as some have speculated, out for the rest of the season because of the injury he suffered on senior day, it would be a bad blow for both Brown and college basketball. This is a player who spurned the greener pastures of both professional basketball and high-major college basketball in favor of playing one last season at High Point and trying to lift the Panthers into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. For that dream to be ripped away at the 12th hour would be an awfully bitter pill to swallow.
4. A.J. English (Iona/MAAC)
It feels like he's been putting up ridiculous numbers at Iona for the better part of the last decade, but A.J. English's final postseason run will begin this week in Albany. He'll enter the postseason as the only player in Division I averaging at least 20 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. English ended the regular season on one of his most ridiculous tears to date, dropping 31 points or more in three of Iona's final six games.
5. James Daniel (Howard/MEAC)
You might not get a chance to see him because his Howard squad will enter the final week of the regular season with just a 6-10 mark in conference play, but Daniel gets a nod here because he's going to finish this season having averaged more points per game than any Division I player since Jimmer Fredette.
This wasn't supposed to happen for Daniel, who enters the week pouring in 27.2 points per contest. A season ago, he averaged a solid, but not spectacular 16.1 ppg while playing more of a traditional point guard role for the Bison. He knew he'd be asked to do more scoring in a junior season, but a rash of injuries to his teammates left Daniel -- who also goes by "J-Byrd" -- shouldering more of the offensive load than he could have ever imagined.
If Howard does get hot next week in the MEAC Tournament, their televised games will be appointment television because of the diminutive (5'11, 165 pounds) Daniel.
6. Juan'ya Green (Hofstra/Colonial Athletic Association)
Hofstra was never the plan for Green or teammate Ameen Tanksley, a pair of Philadelphia natives who grew up minutes from one another and talked about playing college basketball together before they were even in high school. Green wound up starring at Archbishop Carroll, while Tanksley was a two-time All-State selection at Philly powerhouse Imhotep Charter. When the time came to pick a college, each agreed to keep their childhood pact and committed to play for Joe Mihalich at Niagara.
The good times continued in college, where the pair became arguably the two best players on a Purple Eagle team that rolled to a MAAC regular season title in 2012-13. Although Niagara was upset in the semifinals of the conference tournament, the season was so successful that it landed Mihalich a new gig at Hofstra, and left Green and Tanksley with a decision to make.
The pair ultimately headed to Hofstra, a program reeling from an embarrassing 2012-13 in which the team nearly had more player arrests (6) than wins (7). Four of those arrests had come from a burglary scheme in which a quartet of Pride players admitted to stealing more than $10,000 worth of laptop computers, iPads and other items from fellow students. The result was scathing criticism from all over the country, and even some brief talk that the team should have forfeited the rest of its season.
Since then, Green and Tanksley have reinvigorated the program and now have the Pride as the No. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament. Along the way, Green became the first player to notch a triple-double inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and last month became just the fourth player in Division I basketball history to score 1,000 points for two different programs.
7. Evan Bradds (Belmont/Ohio Valley)
This was supposed to be the year of Craig Bradshaw in the Ohio Valley, but instead it's Bradds who has been the league's most outstanding performer. Bradds has led the country in field goal percentage (70.7 percent) in each of the past two seasons, and his 14 double-doubles are the 22nd most in Division I.
8. Dallas Moore (North Florida/Atlantic Sun)
Moore became the first Osprey (OSPREY!) to win a league Player of the Year award after leading the A-Sun in both points (19.7 ppg) and assists (6.1 apg) in his junior season. The next item on his checklist will be to get North Florida back to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.
9. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga/West Coast)
Wiltjer is coming to the end of one of the most fascinating college basketball 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 then the leading scorer (16.5 ppg) of a Gonzaga team that came one win away from making the Final Four for the first time. Now the preseason All-American has one last enormous task to complete: make sure the Zags' streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances isn't snapped under his watch.
10. The Monmouth Bench (MAAC)
I know we said earlier that the Hawks are more than just the bench antics that garnered them national headlines and SportsCenter airtime at the beginning of the season, but still, you know they're going to get talked about this week. You also know they've got something special in the bag for MAAC Madness.
11. Shawn Long (Louisiana Lafayette/Sun Belt)
One of the most dominant payers the Sun Belt has ever seen currently leads the conference in points, rebounds and blocks per game. He's also entering the final week of the regular season playing his best basketball of the year. The senior forward torched Troy for 29 points and 20 rebounds last week and then followed that up with a 25-point, 13-rebound effort against South Alabama.
12. Justin Sears (Yale/Ivy League)
Sears has done just about everything possible at Yale besides end the Bulldogs' 54-year NCAA Tournament drought. That's the next item on the docket for the senior forward, who is almost certain to pick up his second straight Ivy League Player of the Year award. With less than a week to go in the "14-game tournament," Sears' squad owns a half-game lead over Princeton but is even with the Tigers in the loss column.
13. Cane Broome (Sacred Heart/Northeast)
If Sacred Heart locks up an automatic bid for the first time in program history, it will likely be thanks to the play of Broome, who came out of nowhere as a sophomore to be one of the flashiest and most exciting players in mid-major basketball this season. The NEC Player of the Year averaged more points per game in conference play than all but two NEC players over the last 18 years. He also broke a 27-year-old conference record for most points by a sophomore in a single season.
14. Pascal Siakam (New Mexico State/WAC)
You might want to enjoy the sophomore while you can, but there's a decent chance that these next couple of weeks will be his last as a college basketball player.
Assuming the Aggies win the WAC Tournament for a fifth straight year, Siakam could be a matchup nightmare if NMSU gets paired up against the right No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
15. Jameel Warney (Stony Brook/America East)
The senior forward solidified his status as one of the best players in America East history by winning his third straight league Player of the Year award earlier this week, as well as his second straight defense Player of the Year nod. Next on his checklist is the biggest goal he set for his final season of college ball: finally getting the Seawolves over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament.
15 MORE TO WATCH
Stephen Croone (Furman/SoCon)
Fred VanVleet (Wichita State/Missouri Valley)
Austin McBroom (Eastern Washington/Big Sky)
Zeek Woodley (Northwestern State/Southland)
James Kelly (Marshall/Conference USA)
Tanner Plomb (Army/Patriot League)
Keon Johnson (Winthrop/Big South)
Henry Caruso (Princeton/Ivy League)
Antonio Campbell (Ohio/MAC)
Mamadou Ndiaye (UC Irvine/Big West)
D.J. Balentine (Evansville/Missouri Valley)
Reginald Johnson Jr. (Hampton/MEAC)
Michael Carey (Wagner/Northeast)
Chris Hass (Bucknell/Patriot League)
Joel Bolomboy (Weber State/Big Sky)
FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU WANT TO HAPPEN
1. Monmouth vs. Iona (MAAC)
Make sure your evening is cleared for the night of Monday, March 7 just in case this game between the top two seeds in the MAAC goes down.
There are probably a few dozen reasons why you want this showdown to take place, but for the sake of brevity (ironic, I know), we'll list the five biggest:
1. This is one of the best under-the-radar rivalries in all of college basketball, and when the two teams met in the MAAC semifinals a year ago, it got pretty testy.
2. These are the two best teams in the conference, they play an extremely exciting brand of basketball and there's a real chance (if Iona wins the league's auto-bid) that both could end their seasons in the NCAA Tournament.
3. They played one of the most talked about games of the 2015-16 season on Jan. 15. Monmouth snapped Iona's 26-game home winning streak with a thoroughly entertaining 110-102 win, but the real action started after the game when a scuffle broke out in the handshake line. It ended with the slap heard 'round the MAAC.
Monmouth coach King Rice then walked off the court blowing kisses to the home crowd.
Monmouth coach King Rice with some parting thoughts for the Iona crowd. pic.twitter.com/X1U6Gmtcjo— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) January 16, 2016
4. A lot of the hostility that took place that night was blamed on the pregame comments from Iona coach Tim Cluess after he was asked about the oft-discussed antics of the Monmouth bench.
"Are they on the team?" Cluess asked rhetorically. "I didn't know if they were on the team or wearing uniforms as cheerleaders. I've never seen them on the court doing anything, so to me, they're not basketball players."
5. Iona returned the favor on Feb. 19, destroying Monmouth on the Hawks' home court, 83-67.
You want this game to happen. You need this game to happen.
2. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary's (West Coast)
Speaking of games you want to happen, how about a third installment of one of college basketball's best rivalries? The Zags dominated things the last couple of years while Saint Mary's experienced a surprising dip in the level of its play, so maybe we need a bit of a refresher course.
Gonzaga's Robert Sacre in 2012:
"Both teams and fans hate each other. 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. It's one of those things where we don't want them to get the championship. We're Gonzaga. That's how we think."
On former Saint Mary's star Omar Samhan's relationship with the Gonzaga fan base:
Last year, Samhan replied to one especially inciteful message with a laundry list of all that is wrong with Gonzaga and Spokane. When the Gaels came to town, the Kennel Club responded with chants of "Spo-kane-hates-you."
The rivalry is back in full swing after Saint Mary's swept the regular season series with Gonzaga for the first time since 1995, putting the Bulldogs' streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances on life support. If the two meets meet for a third time in the WCC title game, the Gaels will look to do something they've never done: beat Gonzaga three times in the same season.
3. Valparaiso vs. Oakland (Horizon League)
I said it before the season and I'm saying it again now: Valpo is going to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. That being said, I really wish they didn't play in the same conference as Oakland because the Golden Grizzlies are a team that would be really fun to have in the big dance as well.
Kay Felder and the excitement that he brings to every game has already been discussed, but then there's also Max Hooper, the Oakland sixth man who has attempted 269 shots this season, all of which have come from behind the three-point line.
Entertainment value aside, these are the two best squads the Horizon has to offer, and they played a terrific game in Valparaiso just a couple of weeks ago. The Crusaders won that one 86-84 thanks to 16 points and 14 rebounds from star Alec Peters, who has a golden opportunity to become something of a household name this month.
4. Montana vs. Weber State (Big Sky)
Like Monmouth-Iona, this is an underrated rivalry in the mid-major ranks. Also like Monmouth-Iona, these two teams got into it in the handshake line after a regular season meeting.
This happened last weekend after Weber State held off Montana (without the services of likely Big Sky Player of the Year Joel Bolomboy) to seize sole possession of first place in the league.
Things got a little heated between Weber State and Montana after tonight's game pic.twitter.com/gro5Og9hLw— Jeremiah Jensen (@JJSportsBeat) February 28, 2016
These have been the two best and most consistent programs in the conference for the past decade, and it's more than likely that the Big Sky's auto-bid will come down to a rubber match between the pair once again.
5. Yale vs. Princeton (Ivy League)
The Ivy League is reportedly drifting closer and closer to joining the rest of Division I and holding a postseason tournament to crown its champion, but for now, the closest thing it has is a one-game playoff between two teams that finished tied in the standings and split their season series. It happened last year when Harvard beat Yale, and it could happen again this season with Yale and Princeton both entering the final week of the regular season with their one conference loss coming at the hands of the other team.
Princeton has three games to traverse in order to finish its Ivy League slate at 13-1, while Yale has just two. As much as some (myself included) like to make fun of the conference for its refusal to hold an actual tournament, the high stakes of the winner-take-all tiebreaker game is a pretty cool thing when it happens. It would be especially cool if it ends in the Bulldogs finally getting into the big dance for the first time in 54 years.
BONUS SEMIFINAL GAME YOU WANT TO SEE: Wichita State vs. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
Arch Madness is the king of mid-major conference tournaments, and it could feature the best semifinal game that Championship Week has to offer this year. Wichita State is a legitimate Final Four contender that will be the most under-seeded team in the big dance ... if they get in. Northern Iowa, meanwhile, will be just the No. 4 seed in the MVC tournament, but they've played like a top-25 team on the biggest stages all season, knocking off North Carolina, Iowa State and the Shockers themselves.
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. There are five teams in the conference with double-digit league wins, and just one with fewer than six. There is no clear-cut favorite in the MAC, whose top five teams -- Akron, Ohio, Ball State, Central Michigan and Kent State -- all have at least five conference losses.
2. Atlantic Sun
This is cheating a little bit since the quarterfinals have already gone down and we now know -- thanks to upsets by No. 6 seed Lipscomb and No. 7 seed Stetson -- that there will be a team with at least 20 losses playing in the conference championship game. Still, this would have been on the list anyway thanks to a wild regular season that ended with five teams owning conference records of either 8-6 or 7-7.
There are more than a few people who are already pointing to regular season champion North Florida as a potential 15 or (gasp) 16 seed capable of shocking the sports world in a few weeks. The Ospreys (OSPREYS!) played an extremely tough non-conference schedule and have the lethal outside shooting necessary to pull the dream upset. They have to win two more games on their home court first.
3. Patriot League
There are 10 teams in the conference, and seven of them finished the regular season with a league record of .500 or better. An eighth team, Loyola (MD), finished 8-10. Bucknell is the regular season champion and the favorite to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, but this is really anybody's title to win.
4. Big South
John Brown's injury (even if he's able to play) makes High Point an extremely vulnerable No. 1 seed, but this tournament already had the potential to be wacky before its star player got hurt. No team finished the regular season slate with fewer than five losses, and the top six seeds in the Big South Tournament all won double-digit league games. Toss in the fact that every team in the conference won at least five games in league play, and things get even less predictable.
This was mentioned earlier, but even though Wagner won the league's regular season title by a full two games, they did so with an unspectacular league mark of 13-5. The six teams directly below them in the standings all finished with conference records of 9-9 or better, and even the top seed's quarterfinal opponent (No. 8 seed Robert Morris) was a respectable 8-10.
THREE LESS-EXCITING CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
Despite being an average New Mexico State team compared to other Aggie teams in recent memory, they are still far and away the best team in this increasingly bizarre conference. Marvin Menzies' team was not good in the non-conference portion of the season, but here they sit at 12-1 in league play, with their lone loss coming at the hands of a Grand Canyon team that won't participate in the conference season. It would be a shock if NMSU didn't roll into the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight season.
Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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, 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 (even though it didn't work a year ago when Murray State clearly deserved 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 the best thing about college basketball.
This would also be a year where the Ohio Valley would fit perfectly into the "crazy competitive" section. Five teams finished with double-digit wins in league play, and down years for both Murray and Belmont have opened the door for the rest of the conference to make some magic happen.
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, as mentioned earlier, a Yale versus Princeton winner-take-all playoff would be cool.
10 DANGEROUS NON-TOP SEEDS THAT COULD STEAL A BID
1. Albany (America East)
The three-time defending conference tournament champions are on a tear heading into the postseason. They've won eight of their last nine games, including a decisive 72-60 win over regular season champ Stony Brook on Feb. 17, which snapped the Seawolves' 18-game winning streak. As it used to be with Vermont a few years ago, it feels like any run to the America East championship has to go through the Great Danes.
2. Long Beach State (Big West)
Hawaii and UC Irvine get all the attention in the Big West, but The Beach has quietly won seven of its last eight, including the ever-rare road upset of the Rainbow Warriors. It also helps that the conference tournament will be close to home.
3. Fairfield (MAAC)
If anyone spoils the dream MAAC championship game between Iona and Monmouth, it's likely to be Fairfield. The Stags have won six of their last seven and dropped 98 on Iona in a home victory over the Gaels.
4. Bethune-Cookman (MEAC)
This might be the best opportunity yet for the Wildcats to make their debut appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They've won eight of their last nine heading into Thursday night's regular season finale at South Carolina State.
5. Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley)
After a regular season in which they showed they were capable of beating anyone (North Carolina, Iowa State, Wichita State), but also losing to just about anyone, it seems like the Panthers have finally found a bit of consistency. They've won eight of their last nine, but their erratic play at the beginning of the Missouri Valley season has relegated them to a No. 4 seed at Arch Madness.
Again, you'll want to be tuned in if Northern Iowa and Wichita State both win their quarterfinal matchups.
6. Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley)
After starting league play 2-5, the Skyhawks have won eight of their last nine games. The caveat is that their lone loss was a 79-55 beatdown at Murray State in the regular season finale for both teams. Still, thanks to the way the OVC Tournament is set up, UT-Martin will begin its postseason in the league semifinals, which means they're just two wins away form punching their first-ever ticket to the dance.
7. Western Carolina (Southern)
The Catamounts have won four straight and seven of their last eight, a span which includes a win over regular season champion Chattanooga. They could meet the Mocs again in the semifinals if they're able to get by fourth-seeded Wofford on Saturday.
8. Lehigh (Patriot)
They're not the top seed in the Patriot League Tournament, but they're probably the favorites after ending the regular season with nine straight wins. Included in that run was an 80-65 road win over regular season champion Bucknell. The ghost of C.J. McCollum may dance again this March.
9. Louisiana Monroe (Sun Belt)
Arkansas-Little Rock will be the heavy favorite to claim the Sun Belt's auto-bid, but don't overlook the Warhawks, who have won seven straight, including an 86-82 win over UALR on Feb. 11.
10. CSU Bakersfield (WAC)
With Grand Canyon ineligible for the postseason, Bakersfield seems like the only team in the WAC with a shot at knocking New Mexico State off the conference's throne. The Roadrunners' only loss in their last eight games came on the road to NMSU by eight.
And there you have it.
If you didn't read every word, but scrolled down and are reading this now, once again you have to find the nearest Quizno's and try that lobster sub thing that they used to advertise and don't even make anymore. You're probably going to die, but those are the rules. That's how Championship Week works. High stakes.