The most exhilarating, cruel, rewarding, and democratic postseason in all of American sports kicked off Monday night with quarterfinal action in the Atlantic Sun Tournament. It continued on Tuesday when the Patriot League and Big South joined the fray, and will roll on until a one final team standing cuts down the nets inside University of Phoenix Stadium on April 3.
All but one of America’s 50 states will feature teams that will take part in March Madness. They may not make it to the NCAA tournament, or they may lose in their first game once they arrive there, but at least they have the opportunity to end their season by playing until they lose. Some teams have obvious advantages, some teams have obvious disadvantages, but everyone gets a chance to show who they are and what they’re about. It’s very much the original idea of America taken and thrown into gymnasiums across the country for five consecutive weeks.
The NCAA tournament gobbles up all the headlines, but the next week and a half is loaded with all the same elements that make us all gravitate towards the Big Dance year after year. From now until Selection Sunday we get flooded with constant dream-fulfilling, career-ending, win or it’s time to hand in your jersey competition. It's a type of drama that you can’t find anywhere else in American sports.
Mid- and low-major college basketball isn’t for everyone. If your only interest lies with the teams that have a “real” shot to win a national title, then our time together is coming.
For the rest of you, it's time for a thorough education on Championship Week. This is a time primarily for the leagues who don't get the national spotlight, so focus in this primer is going to exclude 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. We’ll go ahead and include all conferences here because we make our own rules in March.
Seven Division I teams are ineligible to participate in the NCAA tournament this season, a number that’s cut in half from last season’s list of 14. Just two teams are banned from the postseason because of subpar APR scores, the lowest total since the advent of the APR system. Four more programs are ineligible for postseason play as they continue to make the transition to Division I.
This number could grow by one as the Big West’s Hawaii is still waiting on official word from the NCAA on its appeal to a ban that was originally supposed to be in effect for this season. If the response doesn’t come before the start of the tournament, Hawaii will be forced into a position where it will have to either self-impose a postseason banned, or risk being banned from the 2018 postseason if the NCAA upholds its original decision.
Here's the full list of teams that cannot dance:
Abilene Christian - Southland (Transitioning to Division-I)
Alcorn State - SWAC (APR penalties)
Grand Canyon - WAC (Transitioning to Division-I)
Incarnate Word - Southland (Transitioning to Division-I)
Northern Colorado - Big Sky (Self-imposed postseason ban)
UMass Lowell - America East (Transitioning to Division-I)
Savannah State - MEAC (APR penalties)
EIGHT SQUADS FOR THE BUBBLE TEAMS TO PULL FOR
Per usual, there will be a number of tournaments this postseason where a heavy favorite goes down and a team no one expected to crash the Big Dance does so via an automatic bid. In a few of these cases, the favorite could be in such a strong position that it still makes it into the NCAA tournament, and the Cinderella conference tournament champion winds up “stealing” a bid from a non-automatic qualifier that would have been in the field otherwise.
To sum up: if you’re a fan of Syracuse, USC, Providence, or any other team that might be sweating it out on Selection Sunday, here are the teams you need to be rooting hard for over the next 12 days.
1. Gonzaga (West Coast)
The Meryl Streep of this group because they're here every damn year. The only question about the Zags’ NCAA tournament status this year is whether they’re going to be a No. 1 or 2 seed.
2. Saint Mary's (West Coast)
The Gaels’ record is just one game better than it was at this time a year ago, but their overall resume is much, much stronger. Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are both stone-cold locks to make the NCAA tournament field regardless of what they do at the WCC tourney. If some other team hoists the trophy in Vegas, though, then someone’s bubble will have just burst.
3. Wichita State (Missouri Valley)
An upset loss in the Missouri Valley tournament left the Shockers as one of the most hotly debated at-large teams in the days leading up to the 2016 installment of Selection Sunday. Despite losing the vaunted backcourt duo of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet to graduation, Wichita State is actually in a better place this year. Even though their RPI (40) isn’t nearly as high as their Ken Pomeroy ranking (10), Gregg Marshall’s team still appears to have done enough work already to be safely in the field.
4. Illinois State (Missouri Valley)
Despite Wichita State’s sparkling record of 27-4 overall and 17-1 in the Missouri Valley, the Shockers weren’t stellar enough to win an outright league title or even be the No. 1 seed at Arch Madness this week. That distinction belongs to Illinois State, which also was beaten just once in the Valley, and split its season series with Wichita. The Redbirds also have a better RPI (33) than the Shockers, and would seem to be a strong candidate for an at-large bid if they aren’t able to claim the MVC’s automatic ticket.
5. Middle Tennessee State (Conference USA)
A year ago, the Blue Raiders pulled off arguably the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. Such a feat is impossible a year later, because MTSU winning at least a game in the Big Dance wouldn’t shock anybody who’s been paying attention. They own a 25-4 overall record, a 15-1 league mark, a 15-point win at Ole Miss, and a 23-point stomping of bubble team Vanderbilt. Chris Dobbertean’s latest bracket has Middle Tennessee fairly comfortably in the field as an 11-seed.
6. UT Arlington (Sun Belt)
The Mavericks have two conference losses and still have two league games left to play on the road, but they also have a significant non-conference road win over Saint Mary’s (by 14) and another nice win over Texas on the road. The RPI also currently holds them in higher regard than perceived at-large locks like Miami and Iowa State.
7. Monmouth (MAAC)
Monmouth doesn’t appear to be as much of an at-large threat as they were a year ago, when a lot of people pegged them as the biggest snub of Selection Sunday. Still, the Hawks are 26-5, they have nice wins over Memphis and Princeton, and they have a solid RPI of 42. Maybe they lose in the MAAC title game and somebody on the committee starts to feel bad about what happened last year. Who knows? You can never be too safe when you’re on the bubble.
8. UNC-Wilmington (Colonial Athletic Association)
Kevin Keatts has a fantastic team loaded with terrific stories. The Seahawks pushed Duke to the brink in Round 1 a year ago, and would appear to be even better positioned to spring an upset this year. There are a couple of OK non-conference wins on UNCW’s resume, but nothing that the Committee could point to as definitive evidence that the Hawks absolutely belong in the field. Still, better safe than sorry.
FIVE OTHER HEAVY FAVORITES
These guys aren't going anywhere but the NIT if they get upset in their conference tournament. Still, they’ve established themselves as the top dog in their respective league and are on track to scare the hell out of a single-digit seed on the tournament’s opening weekend.
1. Vermont (America East)
Death, taxes, and the Catamounts being at or near the top of the America East standings as the calendar flips to March. Vermont has already set a program record for wins in a single season with 26 (eat it, Taylor Coppenrath) and owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 18 games. John Becker’s team ran the table in the AE’s regular season, and hasn’t been beaten since a Dec. 21 loss at Butler.
2. Belmont (Ohio Valley)
Another perennial Championship Week figure, Belmont rolls into the OVC tourney with a 15-1 league mark and just one loss since Dec. 14. This is one of the few programs at the low/mid-major level that seems to expect to win in March. There is no team the Bruins will face from this point on that will make them balk.
3. Princeton (Ivy League)
Mitch Henderson probably isn’t thrilled that this is the season the Ivy League finally chose to implement a postseason tournament. The Tigers are a perfect 12-0 in conference play, and in any previous year, they’d be one victory away from punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament. Instead, there will be two additional games to win before Princeton can really celebrate.
4. Bucknell (Patriot League)
The Bison (23-8, 15-3) matched Boston University’s 2013-14 squad as the only Patriot League teams to win 15 league games in a season. They also became just the third team, and the first since ‘06, to win the conference’s regular season title by at least three games. Bucknell won NCAA tournament games in back-to-back years in 2005 and 2006, but have been back to the Big Dance just twice since, and were one and done on both occasions.
5. Akron (Mid-American)
The MAC is an absolute mess. The biggest reason for that is that the team which is a full three games ahead of the rest of the conference has inexplicably dropped three of its last four games. Akron saw its 30-game home winning streak snapped by Kent State two weeks ago, and then took an even more difficult to explain home defeat at the hands of lowly Miami on Tuesday. The Zips are still 13-4 while no other team in the league is better than 10-7, but they aren’t exactly riding momentum into the postseason.
10 SQUADS THAT COULD DANCE FOR THE FIRST TIME
One of the best parts of every March is seeing coaches, players, and programs that have never heard their name called on Selection Sunday celebrate the moment that all changes. Here are 10 members of the "never been dancing" club with a real shot at changing that status this month (Northwestern’s not included, but all these guys really want the Wildcats to get it together and make this happen).
1. Lipscomb/Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun)
We’re cheating a little bit here because both these teams have already advanced to the A-Sun semifinals. The Owls (that’s Kennsaw) did so with an 80-78 road upset of South Carolina Upstate, another team that has never been to the tournament. The second-seeded Bisons hammered NJIT by 31 and have won nine of their last 10 games.
Next up for Kennesaw State is a date with top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (Dunk City!), while Lipscomb takes on North Florida in a 2/3 matchup.
2. William & Mary (Colonial Athletic Association)
One of five original D-I programs that have never made the NCAA tournament — Northwestern, Army, The Citadel, and St. Francis Brooklyn are the others — William & Mary has come tantalizingly close to removing themselves from that group in recent years.
The Tribe made it to the 2014 CAA title game and led by six with 1:20 to go before collapsing and allowing Delaware to score the game's final seven points. They made it back to the title game in 2015 as a heavily favored No. 1 seed, but laid an egg in a 72-61 loss to Northeastern. Last season, Bill and Mary saw its fate sealed for another year with a 70-67 semifinal loss to Hofstra.
William & Mary has underachieved a bit this season, and after finishing league play with a 10-8 mark, will head into the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed. Still, the Tribe has as much offensive firepower as any of the 10 teams in the field, and could easily pull off three wins in three days. They’ll open up play against the only other team in the conference that has never made the Field of 68, Elon.
3. New Hampshire (America East)
It might seem like everyone’s playing for second in the America East after Vermont rolled to a 16-0 regular season title, but fourth-seeded New Hampshire has won five straight and could give the Catamounts their toughest test if the two square off in the semifinals.
4. North Dakota (Big Sky)
With one week of play left in the Big Sky’s regular season, the Fighting Hawks currently sit alone in first place with a one-game lead over Eastern Washington. After making a name for themselves as the fourth-winningest program in the history of Division II, North Dakota made the jump to Division I in 2008 and joined the Big Sky when they became eligible for postseason play in 2012-13. After this season, North Dakota will be moving on to the Summit League.
5. Gardner-Webb (Big South)
Four teams in the Big South have never heard their names called on Selection Sunday. The one with the best chance to change that this year is Gardner-Webb, a program still best-known for stunning Kentucky and helping to raise the first red flag that indicated Billy Gillispie might not be long for Lexington. The Bulldogs went 11-7 in league play and will enter the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed.
6. UC Davis (Big West)
Best-known (by me) as the location for the early 2000s MTV reality series “Sorority Life,” UC Davis has not only never made the NCAA tournament, they’ve never made it to the championship game of the Big West tournament. Both of those facts could be altered soon, as the Aggies head into the final week of regular season play in a first-place tie with UC Irvine. There could also be another competitor eliminated from their path, as defending champion Hawaii might remove itself (or be removed by the NCAA) from postseason play at some point this week.
7. Northern Kentucky (Horizon League)
This is the first year that the Norse have been eligible to compete in postseason play since making the transition to Division I, and they have a decent chance to set their NCAA tournament appearance rate at 100 percent. NKU ended the regular season by impressively beating Valpo and keeping the Crusaders from claiming an outright Horizon League title. They’ll begin their first conference tournament run in the quarterfinals as the No. 4 seed.
8. Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley)
The Skyhawks have been competitive in the OVC for years, but still haven’t managed to get over the hump and into the big show. Their closest call came a year ago when they advanced to the tournament title game, but were the final victim of Austin Peay’s miracle run. The Governors had snuck into the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the eight-team tournament, and pulled off upsets on four consecutive days, the last of which being an 83-73 triumph over UT-Martin. The Skyhawks enter this year in the same situation as the West Division champions and the overall No. 2 seed.
Fourth-seeded Jacksonville State is another member of the “never danced” club. That’s another sneaky bonus team for this section.
9. South Dakota (Summit League)
Five of the nine teams in the Summit League have never played in the NCAA tournament, and a few of them besides South Dakota — namely Fort Wayne, Denver, and Omaha — have realistic shots at crashing for the first time. Still, it’s the Coyotes who stand out here. They ended the regular season with six straight wins to claim the Summit’s outright regular season title and top seed for its postseason tournament.
10. Every WAC team besides New Mexico State, CSU Bakersfield, and Seattle
Unfortunately, the only team in the WAC that appears capable of competing with New Mexico State and defending champ Bakersfield is 10-3 Grand Canyon, which isn’t eligible for postseason play until next season.
15 PLAYERS WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM
1. Marcus Keene (Central Michigan/Mid-American)
The nation’s leading scorer at 29.4 ppg, Keene appears to be on the verge of coming up painfully short of being the first Division I player in two decades to average 30 or more points for an entire season. Perhaps more troublesome is the fact that his once-promising Chippewas team has suddenly lost six straight games.
Still, Keene alone will be worth finding a stream of the early MAC tourney games. You wouldn’t want to miss something like this.
Marcus Keene from Central Michigan pic.twitter.com/Jq81IXsUsB— StreetHistory (@streethistory) December 7, 2016
2. Kevin Hervey (UT Arlington/Sun Belt)
You don’t often find NBA talent in the Sun Belt, but that’s precisely what UT Arlington has in 6’9 forward Kevin Hervey. The junior has a fantastic inside-outside game, and heads into the postseason on an absolute tear. He hasn’t scored fewer than 13 points in a game since Dec. 5 (he scored 12), and shot better than 60 percent from the field in the month of February. He’s posted double-doubles in six of the Mavericks last nine games.
3. Evan Bradds (Belmont/Ohio Valley)
Bradds became the 14th player to repeat as OVC Player of the Year, and the first from Belmont to do so, when he earned the distinction earlier this week. Bradds enters the OVC tournament as the league’s second-leading scorer at 20.8 points per game. He also ranks second in the conference in field-goal percentage (64.1) and fourth in rebounding (8.6 rebounds per game). His 67.4 percent career field-goal percentage currently ranks as the best in the history of the Ohio Valley, and third-best in the history of Division I.
4. JaCorey Williams (Middle Tennessee/Conference USA)
It’s been a redemption season for Williams, a once highly touted recruit who underachieved for three seasons at Arkansas before being kicked off the team following an arrest on forgery charges in 2015. After sitting out the 2015-16 season, he finds himself averaging 17.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game on an MTSU squad that appears much stronger than the one which stunned Michigan State in the first round a year ago.
A Birmingham native who was repeatedly heckled by the home crowd at UAB when he was in street clothes a year ago, Williams got the ultimate revenge last weekend. His shot at the buzzer dealt the Blazers a 66-64 defeat and clinched an outright C-USA championship for Middle Tennessee.
5. Dallas Moore (North Florida/Atlantic Sun)
Moore began his senior season already owning the title of North Florida’s all-time leading scorer. He has added to the size of his throne in 2016-17 by averaging 24.2 points per game, good for third-best in the country.
After picking up his second straight Atlantic Sun Player of the Year award over the weekend, Moore showed in North Florida’s league tournament opener that he wasn’t ready for his college career to end just yet. He hit 14 of 23 shots and scored a game-high 37 points to lead the Ospreys to a hard-fought 77-74 win over Jacksonville. He’ll look to extend his college career — which already includes one NCAA tournament appearance — on Thursday when North Florida battles Lipscomb in the A-Sun semis.
6. Devontae Cacok (UNC-Wilmington/Colonial Athletic Association)
Cacok may be just the third-leading scorer on UNCW’s roster, but he may be the biggest reason the Seahawks have a strong chance to win at least one game in the big dance in a couple weeks. He was an out-of-shape freshman playing fewer than 10 minutes per game last season, before head coach Kevin Keatts let him know that the look wasn’t going to fly as a sophomore. Keatts implored the 6’7 forward to get himself in shape, and promised that if he did, he would have the potential to be great.
“Great” is an apt description of Cacok’s play in 2016-17 to date. He’s nearly averaging a double-double at 12.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, and he leads the nation in field-goal percentage at an amazing 78.7 percent. That puts him easily in front of Florida Gulf Coast’s Demetris Morant, who has connected on 74.5 percent of his shots this year (and attempted 15 fewer field goals).
7. Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga/West Coast)
You already know how good the All-American candidate is (or at least you should), so here’s a highlight video from his career-high 36-point performance against San Francisco.
8. Justin Robinson (Monmouth/MAAC)
The bench stuff was cute and all last year, but that no longer being a sideshow has allowed basketball fans to form a greater appreciation of Robinson, who will likely win his second straight MAAC Player of the Year award later this week. The 5’8 senior heads into the postseason averaging career-bests in scoring (19.7 ppg), assists (4.8 apg), and three-point percentage (40.2 percent). The only thing for him left to do is make his NCAA tournament debut.
9. Mike Daum (South Dakota State/Summit League)
South Dakota State’s up-tempo style has produced some extremely high-volume scorers in recent years. The next in line to wear that crown appears to be Daum, who doesn’t exactly fit the mold of what you expect to see from a Summit League star.
A 6’9 outside assasin who the SDSU secretly staff thought might not be good enough to play at the D-I level when they saw him in practice during his redshirt season of 2014-15, Daum now ranks second in the nation in scoring (24.9 ppg) as a sophomore. He’s scored 30 or more points six times since the beginning of January. That includes a 51-point effort on Feb. 18 against Fort Wayne, the highest single-game effort from any player in Division I this season.
10. Alec Peters (Valparaiso/Horizon League)
When Bryce Drew bolted for Vanderbilt, the common thought was that Peters would either enter the NBA draft or become the most highly sought-after graduate transfer on the market. Instead, Peters chose to came back for one more season with the Crusaders for the simple reason that he loves his teammates and he loves the program.
As he heads into his final postseason, Peters is averaging career-bests in both points (23.0 ppg) and rebounds (10.1 rpg). Next up is a chance to exorcise the Horizon League tournament demons from a year ago and try to lead the Crusaders to their first NCAA tournament win since their memorable Sweet 16 run in 1998. To make that happen, he’ll need to be fully recovered from the stress reaction in his leg that forced him to sit out the final two games of the regular season.
11. Keon Johnson (Winthrop/Big South)
Both the preseason and postseason Player of the Year in the Big South, Johnson is the biggest reason why Winthrop appears to be on the verge of getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. The 5’7 senior guard is averaging 21.8 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Johnson became Winthrop’s all-time leading scorer on Feb. 8 when he passed Charlie Brunson’s 1,850 point total. If Johnson scores at least 29 points before his final collegiate season ends, he’ll become just the 10th player in Big South history to breach the 2,000-point mark for his career.
12. Demontrae Jefferson (Texas Southern/SWAC)
This is a personal addition, because I am completely fascinated with the Trae Jefferson story. Let’s break it down.
- In 2013 and 2014, the diminutive Jefferson (he’s listed at 5’7, but you realize that’s generous when you see him in person) began popping up all over the internet for his ridiculously savage highlight videos.
- There’s talk that Jefferson had been having trouble making the grades necessary to play for the Division I schools recruiting him, but in July of 2015, he commits to Texas Southern.
- The 2015-16 season goes down. Trae Jefferson does not play for Texas Southern.
- The first eight games of the 2016-17 season go down. Trae Jefferson does not play for Texas Southern.
- Jefferson shows up on Dec. 10 and plays for Texas Southern in their game at Louisville. In his first college game, Jefferson TAKES 30 DAMN SHOTS and TURNS THE BALL OVER 11 DAMN TIMES. In his next game he tones it down just a bit, going 4-of-20 from the field in a loss to Cincinnati.
- Jefferson has since transitioned into more of a traditional point guard role for the Tigers. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.0 ppg, but he’s taken single-digit shots in each of his team’s last six games.
- He’s still oozing with swag.
Who knows what the hell Jefferson is going to do in March, but it’ll be worth following.
13. Tyler Hall (Montana State/Big Sky)
A 19-year-old sophomore who put up some gaudy numbers a year ago for the Bobcats, Tyler Hall currently ranks fourth in the country in scoring (23.3 ppg) and third in made three-pointers. Hall has knocked down 107 triples this season, which is just three fewer than UT Rio Grande Valley’s Antonio Green, and four fewer than Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene. Green has taken 35 more threes this season than Hall has, and Keene has attempted 52 more.
14. Paris Lee (Illinois State/Missouri Valley)
Lee is the biggest reason why the Redbirds were able to go from a modest 18-14 (12-6) campaign a year ago to the 25-5 (17-1) dream season they’re enjoying now. He ranks second on the team in scoring at 13.0 ppg, but led the Valley in assists (5.1 apg), steals (2.0 spg), and three-pointers made (2.3). He was named both the Missouri Valley’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week.
15. Rashawn Thomas (Texas A&M Corpus Christi/Southland)
The 6’8 senior forward has been a double-figure scorer in all four of his seasons with the Islanders, but he’s taken things to a different level in 2016-17. Thomas is averaging 21.3 ppg to go along with 8.8 rebounds per game, 2.5 assists per game, and 2.0 blocks per game. He’s failed to hit double figures just once this season, and has scored 19 points or more in 10 consecutive games.
15 MORE TO WATCH
Jock Landale (Saint Mary’s/West Coast)
Devin Cannady (Princeton/Ivy League)
Jeremy Senglin (Weber State/Big Sky)
Brandon Goodwin (Florida Gulf Coast/Atlantic Sun)
Ehab Amin (Texas A&M Corpus Christi/Southland)
Eric Mika (BYU/West Coast)
Isaiah Johnson (Akron/Mid-American)
Ian Baker (New Mexico State/WAC)
Lucas Woodhouse (Stony Brook/America East)
Chima Moneke (UC Davis/Big West)
Jalen Hayes (Oakland/Horizon League)
Erik McCree (Louisiana Tech/Conference USA)
Kendrick Ray (Kennesaw State/Atlantic Sun)
Patrick Cole (North Carolina Central/MEAC)
Markis McDuffie (Wichita State/Missouri Valley)
FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU ABSOLUTELY WANT TO HAPPEN
1. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s (West Coast)
It wasn’t quite the nation’s most compelling conference rivalry like some predicted before the start of the season, but we’re still talking one of the best teams in the country playing for a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Dance against an archrival who’s ranked in the top 20. That’s good stuff.
You’ve already ruined one cool March storyline, BYU, let’s not make it two.
2. Winthrop vs. UNC Asheville (Big South)
The two teams tied for the regular season conference championship and split pair of classic head-to-head matchups on the way there. Winthrop toppled UNCA 76-73 at home on Jan. 19, and the Bulldogs returned the favor in Asheville on Feb. 9 with a thrilling 104-101 double overtime triumph. Game 3 would be an excellent March dessert.
3. CSU Bakersfield vs. New Mexico State (WAC)
As mentioned previously, Grand Canyon appears to be the only other team in the WAC on the same level as these guys, and the Lopes aren’t eligible for postseason play until next year. Plus, Bakersfield and NMSU gave us this when they played for the title 12 months ago:
4. Wichita State vs. Illinois State (Missouri Valley)
The Rose Bowl is “The Grandaddy of Them All,” but Arch Madness is “The Grandaddy of the First Week of College Basketball’s Postseason.” It’s wordier, but just as cool. Plus, the game’s on CBS and you get that first taste of the tournament jingle. It’s great.
Year after year, the Valley title game seems to deliver. Having the two teams that finished the regular season at 17-1 battling it out for the league’s auto-bid would be a surefire way for that trend to continue.
5. Oakland vs. Valparaiso (Horizon League)
We were robbed of this showdown a year ago when both teams were upset in the semifinals in fairly stunning fashion. Worse still, those losses meant that neither highly entertaining team got to showcase its stuff in the NCAA tournament. After splitting the Horizon’s regular season title with matching 14-4 records, both teams are looking to rectify their immediate pasts with a tournament trip in 2017.
Kay Felder never got to dance, and that will forever exist as a crime against basketball, but at least we can still get the Grizzlies/Crusaders clash that we felt like we were owed a year ago.
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.
We begin in the SoCon, a league that seems destined to produce a champion that will terrify the fan base of a power conference team here in a few weeks. It’s also a league that finished its regular season with a three-way tie at the top. East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro, and Furman all won more than 20 games and finished 14-4 in league play. All would represent the conference well in the NCAA tournament, but only one will make that happen.
Anyone who tells you they have any idea what’s going to happen in Cleveland when these teams get together is lying. Or they’re dumb. Or they’re mean. Or they’re some hybrid of all three.
Five of the MAC’s 12 teams are currently 10-7, and nine of the league’s 12 teams have between seven and 10 wins. The apparent frontrunner, 13-4 Akron, has suddenly dropped three of its last four games, including a home loss to the clear-cut worst team in the conference, Miami (11-19, 4-13), Tuesday night.
Six MAC teams played at home Tuesday night and four of them were favored to win. All six home teams lost.
No one has any idea what’s going to happen when these teams get together in Cleveland.
3. Big West
The Big West is always good for crazy competitive games and not being able to have any idea which team is the No. 1 seed. Expect that trend to continue, even if Hawaii winds up having to spend the tournament on the sidelines. With a week left to go in the regular season, six of the league’s nine teams have conference records of .500 or better. UC Davis and UC Irvine are currently leading the pack with matching 10-4 marks.
4. Big Sky
Five of the league’s 11 teams already have double-digit conference wins with two games left to go, and seven of the teams are .500 or better. The opening round might be a bit tough to stomach, but the quarters through the championship game ought to be extremely competitive.
The most interesting storyline here is that relative newcomer North Dakota has a very good chance at being the No. 1 seed for the tournament, but the program has already announced that its moving its basketball teams to the Summit League beginning next season. If a few calls go against the Fighting Hawks, my guess is that there will be some conspiracy theories flying around the Reno Events Center.
5. Colonial Athletic Association
UNC-Wilmigton won the regular season title outright and is the clear favorite heading into the tournament to defend its title. Even with that being the case, the top five teams in the league all finished with double-digit conference wins and overall records above .500. UNCW also wasn’t exactly dominant down the stretch, winning each of its last four games by single digits after suffering a road loss to Elon on Feb. 11.
THREE LESS-EXCITING CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
1. Ivy League
Look, I’ve been ragging you in this spot for years because you didn’t even have a tournament, but maybe this wasn’t the year to take a stand. Especially when you’re going with the sort of strange four-team look. If you’re gonna do it, do it. You don’t get to claim that you “tried alligator” if you just ate the fried part on the outside.
Princeton is 12-0 and clearly the class of the conference. Harvard is 10-2 and a solid team as well, and a rubber match between the two could be nice if the Crimson are able to pull an upset of their rivals in the last week of the regular season.
Outside of that, though? There’s nothing here that warrants three additional games. Yale is the only other team in the league that’s above water at 7-5, and the fourth tournament spot is going to go to either 5-7 Penn or 5-7 Columbia.
There will be years where the conference is super-competitive and this thing works really well. This is not going to be one of them.
Look, I know we just hyped up the potential title game rematch a while back, but that’s really all there is here. Only seven teams are participating in the tournament, and only one besides CSU Bakersfield and New Mexico State has a winning record in league play ... and it’s 7-6 UMKC.
The top three teams in the conference — a group which includes postseason ineligible Grand Canyon -- all have 20 or more wins. No other team in the league is currently above .500.
This will more than likely be a bad tournament until the very end.
3. Southland/Ohio Valley
Everybody’s coming around on the whole “starting your top two teams in the semifinals is lame” train besides you guys. The WCC, which has every reason in the world to try and protect Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, bailed on it. The Horizon did, too, after it noticed that its best teams kept getting picked off by teams that had a won a game or two and had a little bit of momentum coming into the semis.
Did you like seeing Austin Peay win four games in four days as the No. 8 seed, Ohio Valley? Did you think that was cool? And at least invite all your teams. You guys are both big enough to have divisions (OVC, you DO have divisions!) and you’re only sending eight teams to the postseason?
You’re both responsible for turning the youth of America from dreamers to cynics before they hit junior high.
10 DANGEROUS NON-TOP SEEDS THAT COULD STEAL A BID
1. New Hampshire (America East)
Shooting for their first trip to the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats enter the postseason winners of five straight. They also ended the regular season with a 94-90 win over the same UMBC team that they’ll face in their first game of the America East tournament.
2. Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)
Another team looking to claim an auto-bid for the first time, Lipscomb has won nine of its last 10, including a 65-60 road triumph over regular season champion Florida Gulf Coast. Their only loss over that span was an 11-point home defeat at the hands of the same North Florida team they’ll be facing in the A-Sun semifinals on Thursday.
3. Saint Peter’s (MAAC)
The Peacocks finished four games clear back of MAAC regular season champ Monmouth, but there’s still reason for them to feel good about their chances as they head to Albany. For starters, they’ve won six straight, including back-to-back games on the road to close the regular season. Also, five of Saint Peter’s six conference losses came by three points or fewer. The only defeat they suffered in league play that wasn’t a one possession game was their conference opener against Iona all the way back on Dec. 2.
4. Northern Kentucky (Horizon League)
Yet another team looking to get hot at the right time and make its NCAA tournament debut, the Norse have seven of their last eight. Included in that run is a regular season-closing win over league co-champ Valparaiso, but the caveat must be added that Crusaders star Alec Peters did not play in that game. Still, NKU is a dangerous four-seed heading into its first Horizon League tournament.
5. Western Michigan (Mid-American)
While the rest of the MAC seems incapable of deciding how good or bad they are, Western Michigan is hanging out with a seven-game winning streak and hoping nobody notices. The run has allowed them to go from a 3-7 cellar dweller to a team that’s currently tied with Ball State atop the West Division standings.
6. Lehigh (Patriot League)
Bucknell won the league by a full three games with a 15-3 mark, but two of those three losses came at the hands of Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks have won six of seven, and they’ll open postseason play up against another team they swept the regular season series from, Colgate. Adonal Foyle will be watching.
7. BYU (West Coast)
They beat the No. 1 team in the country who was 29-0, and they beat them on their home court, on senior night, and in their last regular season game. I feel like that at least warrants a mention in this section.
8. Houston Baptist (Southland)
The Huskies were banned from postseason play two years ago because of poor APR scored, but they appear hellbent on making up for lost time in 2017. The high-scoring squad has won seven straight with two conference games still left to play.
9. LIU Brooklyn (Northeast)
The Blackbirds responded to a three-game losing streak in the middle of conference play by winning their final six games of the regular season. Included in that streak was a 62-58 road win over NEC regular season champ Mount St. Mary’s.
10. UTEP (Conference USA)
It has been quite the in-season turnaround for Tim Floyd’s team, which at one point was 2-13 overall and riding a 12-game losing streak. Now the Miners have won 11 of their last 13 and are miraculously sitting at 11-5 and tied for third in the C-USA standings. They also own the distinction of being the only team in the conference to topple Middle Tennessee State, a feat they accomplished with a 57-54 upset on Feb. 4.
And that’s it.
If you didn’t read every word and simply scrolled down to this point to see how we wrapped this thing up, well now you don’t get to fill out a bracket this year. That’s the deal. I told you Championship Week comes hand-in-hand with high stakes.