Even if you’re among the group that mocked them for claiming the 2017 national title, it’s hard to deny that the way Central Florida’s football season ended felt wrong.
Beating Auburn shouldn’t have been the end of the Knights’ story. Being ranked sixth but also existing as the only undefeated team in the country should never be a pair of things that go hand-in-hand for an entire offseason. It feels unsatisfying. It feels flawed. It feels downright un-American.
Contrast that with what we’re about to see from college football’s basketball counterpart.
In no other postseason in this country is there at least one team from 49 states (grow up, Alaska) represented. In no other postseason do all of those squads 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. Whether the goal is redemption, salvation, or solidifying the solid work of the previous four months, everybody gets a chance.
That’s the way it should be. Sure, some teams benefit from a head start, and others are dealing with unfair advantages they may not have earned (home court, superior facilities, etc.), but nobody is disqualified before the race even gets started. Everyone has a shot at making a March memory.
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 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 the Alamodome in San Antonio on April 2.
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. Although I’d argue if you’re someone who’s been even the slightest bit disillusioned by the, uh, stuff that has been going on these last few months, maybe now is the perfect time to dive headfirst into the world of the little guy. But if your only interest lies with the teams that have a “real” shot to win a national title, that’s fine too. 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 that 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. The Big Ten doesn’t get special treatment just because it’s playing its tournament a week earlier than usual.
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.
Just three Division I teams are ineligible to participate in the postseason in 2018. That number is down from seven a year ago, and way down from a whopping 14 in 2016.
All three ineligible programs will be sitting out their respective conference tournaments because of subpar APR scores. A fourth team, Savannah State, was granted a waiver to participate in the postseason since the program is transitioning to Division II beginning next year. The four programs that were transitioning to Division I last season — Abilene Christian, Grand Canyon, Incarnate Word, and UMass Lowell — are all eligible to participate in the postseason for the first time this year.
Of the three teams sitting out, the hardest hit has to be Grambling. The Tigers currently sit atop the SWAC standings, and until recently owned the longest winning streak in the country.
Here is the full list of teams that cannot dance this year:
Alabama A&M (SWAC)
Southeast Missouri State (Ohio Valley)
SEVEN SQUADS FOR THE BUBBLE TEAMS TO PULL FOR
Per usual, there will likely be a handful of tournaments this postseason where a heavy favorite goes down and a team no one expected to crash the Big Dance does so by claiming their conference’s automatic bid. In a few of these cases, the favorite that was upset could have such a strong resume that it still makes it into the NCAA Tournament, and the Cinderella league 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 Louisville, USC, Nebraska, Syracuse, 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 reigning national runners-up are the Meryl Streep of this group because they’re here every damn year. As usual, the only current question about the Zags’ NCAA Tournament status this year is how well they’re going to be seeded.
2. Saint Mary’s (West Coast)
A slip-up early in the West Coast Conference tournament could leave Saint Mary’s vulnerable come Selection Sunday. So long as the Gaels at least make it to the WCC title game, though, they should be in pretty good shape to make their second straight Big Dance.
3. Middle Tennessee (Conference USA)
Nationally ranked and owning a current RPI of 23, it’s not hard to see Kermit Davis’ team making the field of 68 even if they slip in the C-USA tournament.
4. Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
The Hilltoppers’ resume isn’t quite as solid as MTSU’s, but if the Blue Raiders get upset, fans of bubble teams should pull for Western Kentucky to claim the league’s auto-bid just to be safe.
5. New Mexico State (WAC)
Back-to-back losses to Utah Valley and Seattle likely killed the dream of a two-bid WAC. Still, the Aggies have a sparkling 24-5 record, a non-conference win over Miami, and a respectable RPI of 51. That at least gets them in the conversation.
6. Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley)
The Ramblers won the Valley’s regular-season title by a full four games and have only been beaten twice in 2018. They have a true road win at Florida and an RPI of 32. If the Ramblers win a couple of games at Arch Madness but get upset in the championship, they could definitely be in the mix to snag one of the last at-large bids into the field of 68.
7. Louisiana (Sun Belt)
Louisiana has a beautiful 24-5 record, but they’re still probably the longest at-large shot of this bunch. The Ragin’ Cajuns do have a top 50 RPI and a non-conference win over Iowa, but neither of those items speak as loudly as head coach Bob Marlin would like. They’ll likely need to win the Sun Belt — a league they currently lead by four games — tournament to make it into the Big Dance. If that happens, they’ll likely be a trendy 12/5 or 13/4 upset pick.
SEVEN OTHER SOLID FAVORITES
These guys aren’t going anywhere but the NIT if they get upset over the next 12 days. 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 NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.
1. Vermont (America East)
A year after running the table in the America East and setting a program record for wins, Vermont is right back where you expect see them in late February/early March. The Catamounts lost just one league game and are a pristine 25-6 heading into the postseason. During the non-conference portion of the season, Vermont turned heads by nearly notching impressive wins over both Kentucky (73-69) and Saint Bonaventure (81-79).
2. Murray State (Ohio Valley)
Another perennial Championship Week figure, the Racers roll into the postseason with a 16-2 conference record and a 24-5 overall mark. In order to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2012, Murray will have to avoid the postseason upset bug that has plagued the OVC’s top teams in recent years.
3. Bucknell (Patriot League)
The Bison (22-9, 16-2) are the first team in Patriot League history to win more than 15 league games. They also won the conference’s regular season title by at least three games (they won it by four) for the second straight season. That feat had previously not been accomplished since 2006. Bucknell won NCAA Tournament games in back-to-back years in 2005 and 2006, but have been one and done in their last three appearances, including an 86-80 loss to West Virginia last year.
4. Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)
Dunk City isn’t back because it didn’t go anywhere. The Eagles won the Atlantic Sun by posting a 12-2 conference record, and they’re now just two wins away from their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
5. Northern Kentucky (Horizon League)
A year ago, the Norse stunned everyone by claiming the Horizon League’s auto-bid in their first season as a fully initiated member of Division I. This year, it’ll be more of a surprise if NKU doesn’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. The Norse rolled to a 15-3 record to claim the league’s regular season title, with two of those losses coming in one possession games.
6. South Dakota State (Summit League)
Mike Daum (more on him later) and company won the Summit League by multiple games and now sit three wins away from a third straight trip to the dance.
7. Montana (Big Sky)
The Grizzlies haven’t been beaten at home in conference play, and their only double-digit losses this season have come at the hands of Stanford and Penn State. They’re looking for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and their first win in the event since upsetting Nevada in 2006.
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 legitimate chance at changing that status this month.
1. Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)
Lipscomb has a real shot here. The Bisons are the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Sun tournament, they’ve won six straight games, and they won at regular season champion Florida Gulf Coast just 10 days ago. That’s important because if the two teams wind up meeting again with the A-Sun’s auto-bid on the line, that game will also be played on FGCU’s home floor.
2. William & Mary (Colonial Athletic Association)
One of four original D-I programs that have never made the NCAA Tournament — Army, The Citadel, and St. Francis Brooklyn are the others ... congrats to Northwestern on canceling its membership last year — 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. The past two seasons, William & Mary has suffered a competitive loss in the tournament semifinals.
If the Tribe is able to finally get over the hump in 2018, they’ll do so as a No. 4 seed entering the tournament with some solid confidence after ending the regular season with an overtime win over co-regular season champ Charleston.
Maybe this is finally the year for some Bill & Mary March magic.
3. St. Francis (NY) (Northeast)
The Terriers are the only other member of the original four that seems to have at least a puncher’s chance of breaking through in 2018. They’ll be the No. 5 seed in the NEC tournament, but the league has been wide open all season long.
4. South Dakota (Summit League)
Three of the top four seeds in the Summit League tournament are teams that have never heard their names called on Selection Sunday. Unfortunately for those three teams, the top dog in the conference is still regular season champion and two-time defending tournament champion South Dakota State. Still, rival South Dakota seems like it has a real shot at knocking off the Jackrabbits. The Coyotes (the Summit remains the No. 1 mascot league in the country) beat SDSU by 19 in the first meeting between the two, and then nearly upset them on the road in the regular season finale for both squads.
South Dakota will carry the Summit’s No. 2 seed into the postseason. Fellow never-danced brethren Denver and Fort Wayne will be the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, respectively.
5. Gardner-Webb (Big South)
Four teams in the Big South have never made the NCAA Tournament. Appropriately, they comprise four of the bottom five seeds in this year’s Big South tournament.
The one with the best chance to change their dubious distinction 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 9-9 in league play and have a better draw than High Point (AKA Tubby Smith University), which also went 9-9 and has also never been to the dance.
6. Savannah State (MEAC)
If you’re looking to adopt a single team this Championship Week, adopt the Tigers.
As mentioned earlier, Savannah State was originally supposed to be postseason ineligible because of sub-standard APR scores. With the school having already announced that it would be moving to Division II next year because of financial issues, the NCAA granted its athletic programs a waiver to participate in the postseason during their final Division I season.
What a story it would be if Savannah State — which currently sits in a five-way tie atop the MEAC standings — made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in its final Division I season.
7. Bethune-Cookman (MEAC)
The team that could spoil Savannah State’s Cinderella story is another that has never danced, Bethune-Cookman. The Wildcats are a part of that five-way tie for first and have been beaten just once in their last six games.
8. Hartford (America East)
The only America East team to beat Vermont in the regular season, Hartford is also the only one of the America East’s three teams that have never been to the tournament that has a realistic shot at breaking the hex. The Hawks have already set a school record for wins with just 18.
It’ll likely take a second win over Vermont to do it, but for the first time in the history of Hartford basketball, a trip to the NCAA Tournament seems like more than just a pipe dream.
9. Grand Canyon/Utah Valley (WAC)
As has been the case in most recent years, the WAC is chock full of teams that have never been to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, five of the league’s eight teams have ever danced. Out of the group of three that have, Cal State Bakersfield had never been before hitting a buzzer-beater in the WAC tourney title game two years ago, and Seattle hasn’t been since 1969 (the Chieftains spent a significant chunk of the time since without a D-I program).
League power New Mexico State will again be the prohibitive favorite in this tournament, but Utah Valley and preseason favorite Grand Canyon (which is postseason eligible for the first time) both have the potential to steal the bid away from the Aggies.
10. Quinnipiac (MAAC)
Let’s get weird. Outside of its first season in the league, Quinnipiac hasn’t had a whole lot of success since making the move to the MAAC in 2013-14. The Bobcats are seeded a respectable seventh this year after posting a 7-11 league mark. They have lost seven of their last eight games, but three of those came in double overtime, so whatever. They’re due.
15 PLAYERS WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM
1. Mike Daum (South Dakota State/Summit League)
College basketball’s very own urban legend, Daum has been an unsolvable riddle for the rest of the Summit League for a second straight season. The All-American candidate is averaging 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, and has scored 30 or more points 11 times.
2. Clayton Custer (Loyola-Chicago/Missouri Valley)
Though Missouri State’s Alize Johnson was expected to run away with the honor, it’s actually Custer who brought home the Missouri Valley’s Larry Bird Player of the Year Award for 2017-18. Driving home the point that Custer has been the league’s most valuable player is the fact that each of Loyola-Chicago’s three conference losses came during the five-game stretch from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3 when he was injured. When the junior guard plays, the Ramblers are 23-2.
3. Brandon Goodwin (Florida Gulf Coast/Atlantic Sun)
Goodwin was a unanimous choice for Atlantic Sun Newcomer of the Year last season. Twelve months later, he was the unanimous pick as the league’s Player of the Year. The 6’2 guard leads FGCU in points (18.4), rebounds (5.7), and assists (4.8), and was only player in the A-Sun to rank in the league’s top 12 in scoring (second), assists (third), steals (ninth), and rebounding (12th).
4. Kendrick Nunn (Oakland/Horizon League)
The nation’s second-leading scorer at 26.4 points per game, Nunn is tied with Daum for the most games this season with 30 more points (11). He enters the postseason on an especially hot streak after dropping 37 and 39 in the final two games of the regular season. The 2018 Horizon League tournament should be personal for Nunn, who has seen his team stunned in its first game in each of the past two seasons. Oakland’s roster has also been whittled down by injuries, which means that Nunn will be shouldering even more of the load than usual if his team catches fire.
5. Jock Landale (Saint Mary’s/West Coast Conference)
One of the most efficient big men college basketball has seen in recent years, Landale has saved his best for his senior season. Heading to the WCC tournament, the conference Player of the Year is averaging career-bests in points (21.5 ppg), rebounds (10.2 rpg), assists (2.1 apg), and field goal percentage (64.2 percent).
6. Junior Robinson (Mount St. Mary’s/Northeast)
Robinson is the type of player March was made for. He’s a flashy, certified bucket-getter currently averaging 22.2 points and 4.9 assists per game. He also stands just 5’5.
One of the most exciting players in college hoops is featured in this KC's Mid-Major Minute. @MountAthletics phenom Junior Robinson! A must see star who could shine in March! @MSMU #MountMayhem @NECsports @NECHoopsRon pic.twitter.com/nzoZP3jVYS— Kevin Connors (@kevconnorsespn) February 20, 2018
Robinson is one of just three players in the country who has scored 20 or more points in 22 games this season. He’s looking to take Mount St. Mary’s (18-13, 12-6) back to the tournament for a second straight year.
7. Jonathan Stark (Murray State/Ohio Valley)
No player in the history of Murray State basketball has scored more points in two seasons than Stark, who was an easy choice for OVC Player of the Year. The 6’0 guard who began his college career at Tulane is averaging 21.7 points per game and has scored in double figures in all but one of his team’s 29 games.
8. Erick Neal (UT-Arlington/Sun Belt)
Usually any talk about UT-Arlington is centered around NBA prospect Kevin Hervey. But Neal is the guy who makes the Mavericks go, and he has been for the better part of the last four years. Earlier this season, he became the first player in Sun Belt history to eclipse 1,300 points, 700 assists, 400 rebounds, and 200 steals for his career.
9. Jerrick Harding (Weber State/Big Sky)
After playing fewer than 18 minutes per game in 2016-17, Harding’s breakout sophomore season has some in Big Sky country comparing him to former Weber State star Damian Lillard. It’s an extreme comparison, but Harding is averaging a stellar 21.4 points per game, shooting 43.4 percent from beyond the arc, and his acrobatic finishes around the rim do make it easy to see why some would make the comparison to the current NBA superstar. Now Harding is trying to do what Lillard never could: Get to the NCAA Tournament.
10. Devontae Cacok (UNC-Wilmington/Colonial Athletic Association)
Though Wilmington has struggled at times in its first season since Kevin Keatts bolted for NC State, the campaign has been a record-setting one for Cacok. He eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his career, and also set a school record with 21 rebounds in a game against Elon. After leading the nation in field goal percentage last season at just under 80 percent, Cacok now leads the country in rebounding at 13.5 per game.
11. CJ Massinburg (Buffalo/Mid-American)
Four players are averaging 14.9 points per game or more for Buffalo, but Massinburg is the MAC leader’s unquestioned engine. He leads the Bulls in points (17.0), rebounds (7.6), and minutes (34.2 ) per game.
12. Chris Clemons (Campbell/Big South)
Clemons, who is currently fourth in the country in scoring at 24.6 ppg, put on a show for the ages at last year’s Big South tournament. In four games, Clemons averaged 37.6 points and dropped a tourney record 51 in an upset win over No. 2 seed UNC-Asheville.
Here’s hoping for an encore in 2018.
13. Fletcher Magee (Wofford/Southern)
No one in America has made more three-pointers this season than Magee, who has buried 134 of them. He scored 27 points in the Terriers’ monumental upset at North Carolina back in December.
14. Nick King (Middle Tennessee/Conference USA)
After unproductive stops at Memphis and Alabama, King has finally found a perfect fit as a grad transfer at MTSU. A top-50 recruit coming out of high school, King leads the Blue Raiders in scoring (21.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.3 rpg). He was named the Conference USA Player of the Year earlier this week.
15. Zach Lofton (New Mexico State/WAC)
New Mexico State is the fourth college stop for Lofton, who was the SWAC Player of the Year a season ago at Texas Southern. He’s saved his best for last, averaging a career-high 19.4 ppg for an Aggies squad that is the runaway favorite to win the WAC tournament and go on to the Big Dance.
16 MORE TO WATCH
Alize Johnson (Missouri State/Missouri Valley)
Jordan Howard (Central Arkansas/Southland)
Justin Wright-Foreman (Hofstra/Colonial Athletic Association)
Leland King II (UC Santa Barbara/Big West)
Johnathan Williams (Gonzaga/West Coast Conference)
Drew McDonald (Northern Kentucky/Horizon League)
Femi Olujobi (North Carolina A&T/MEAC)
Seth Towns (Harvard/Ivy League)
Devin Sibley (Furman/Southern)
Garrison Matthews (Lipscomb/Atlantic Sun)
Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s/West Coast Conference)
Victor Sanders (Idaho/Big Sky)
Matt Mooney (South Dakota/Summit League)
Tre-Shaun Fletcher (Toledo/MAC)
Tookie Brown (Georgia Southern/Sun Belt)
Joe Chealey (Charleston/Colonial Athletic Association)
FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU ABSOLUTELY WANT TO HAPPEN
1. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s (West Coast Conference)
The arch-rivals split their two regular season meetings and would have shared the WCC regular-season title had Saint Mary’s not been upset by San Francisco late in the year. The Bulldogs and Gaels have duked it out in seven of the last nine WCC title games, with Gonzaga winning all but two of those. All told, Gonzaga has won the WCC tournament in 15 of the last 19 years.
2. Murray State vs. Belmont (Ohio Valley)
Belmont is in the unfamiliar spot of not carrying the No. 1 seed into the OVC tournament, but maybe that’s a good thing for Rick Byrd and company. The Bruins, who had been the OVC’s top seed in every tournament but one since joining the conference in 2012-13, have been stunned in the semifinals each of the past two years after dominating the league during the regular season.
The top spot this year belongs to Murray State (24-5, 16-2), which won the league by a game but lost its only meeting with Belmont. The two teams played classic championship games in 2013 and 2015, with the Bruins winning both by a combined three points. Those two titles represent the only trips Belmont has made to the Big Dance since it joined the OVC.
3. Hampton vs. Anyone (MEAC)
This is Hampton’s last season as a member of the MEAC. After 2017-18, the Pirates are off the greener pastures (in their eyes) of the Big South. The final season of the marriage has not gone swimmingly.
Earlier this month, Hampton put out a press release blasting the MEAC for levying “vindictive sanctions” and “unreasonable demands” against the university in its final season before bolting. A few days later, the Pirates’ final regular-season home game as a member of the conference had to be called in the second half after an ugly fight broke out between the home team and Morgan State.
(1/2) Hampton's win over Morgan State had an eventful and premature conclusion. Bears coach Todd Bozeman took his team off the floor with 13:33 remaining and HU leading 57-38. The game never resumed. According to the box score, Bozeman and MSU forward David Syfax were ejected.— Dave Johnson (@DaveJohnsonDP) February 25, 2018
Morgan State forfeits the rest of the game..Hampton wins after very ugly fight.....waiting for video to be posted somewhere..anyone???— Chad Sherwood (@csherwood_1973) February 25, 2018
What we know now regarding the Hampton-Morgan State MBB game Saturday night with more clarification expected to come.https://t.co/Va3CqWZjeh— Dave Johnson (@DaveJohnsonDP) February 25, 2018
Ultimately, Morgan State head coach Todd Bozeman was fined and a Bears player was suspended for three games.
The opponent doesn’t matter. If Hampton winds up with a chance to take the MEAC’s automatic bid in its last game as a member of the conference, things are liable to get awkward. You’ll want to be watching.
4. Harvard vs. Penn (Ivy League)
This is the second season of the Ivy League’s new four-team tournament. With two teams clearly existing as the class of the conference, it might be better for everyone involved if they just played a title game. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Penn sits atop the league standings with an 11-1 record. Harvard is a game behind at 10-2. No other team in the Ivy has fewer than five losses.
The league’s new postseason experiment was nearly a disaster in its first year. Princeton ran the table during the regular season, but needed a furious rally and eventually overtime to outlast 6-8 Penn in the first tournament game in Ivy League history. A year later, it’s the Quakers who are the hunted team looking to avoid having three months or hard work undone in a single afternoon.
5. Middle Tennessee vs. Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
This has long been one of the most underrated rivalries in college football — affectionately dubbed as “100 Miles of Hate” — but it’s also developing into Conference USA’s defining rivalry on the hardwood. Both the Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers are plenty good enough to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Seeing them meet for a third time with a definite trip to the Big Dance on the line would be a treat.
FIVE CRAZY COMPETITIVE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
Heavy favorites are typically the norm on Championship Week, but as has been the case with most things, this season is different. Wide-open tournaments where just about anyone is capable of claiming an auto-bid are abundant in 2018, which should make for an extremely entertaining 12 days ahead.
Here are the five leagues that may prove to have the wackiest of wacky postseasons.
1. Big South
No team in the conference finished the regular season with fewer than five league losses, and eight of the 10 teams finished with conference records of .500 or better. Included in that logjam are four teams that each wound up 9-9. Naturally, on the first day of play, cellar dweller Longwood (heh) upset seventh-seeded High Point, one of those 9-9 teams. That should serve as a warning sign to the rest of the league for the three days ahead.
Second-seeded Radford, which has won its last four games, is the only team in the league that enters the postseason riding a winning streak longer than two games.
2. Colonial Athletic Association
It’s a good thing the CAA isn’t one of those conferences that opts not to send all its teams to the postseason, because no team in the league finished the regular season with fewer than six conference wins. Charleston and Northeastern shared the regular season crown with matching 14-4 records, but both lost at least one game to a team that finished in the bottom four of the league. Hofstra and William & Mary have also proven themselves capable of beating the best teams in the league one day and losing to one of the worst the next.
Expect the unexpected at the North Charleston Coliseum.
With one regular season game to go for all league members, five teams — North Carolina A&T, Bethune-Cookman, Hampton, Savannah State, and Norfolk State — currently sit tied atop the MEAC standings with identical 11-4 records. You might not see a tournament this March at any level with more competitive semifinal games.
The current league-leader (Grambling) is ineligible to participate in the postseason. The four teams immediately behind the Tigers all have six league losses. You may as well throw a dart if you’re trying to pick a winner here.
Yes, Wagner won the regular season title by a full two games. They also lost four times in conference play, and those four losses came to teams with a combined 31 league losses themselves. Seven of the eight teams that advanced to the NEC tournament finished .500 or above in league play, and the team seeded last went 7-11.
THREE LESS-EXCITING CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
1. Ohio Valley
Look, OVC, we’ve talked about this for the last few years. All these other conferences have moved away from the “start your best teams in the semifinals to give them the best chance at playing in the NCAA Tournament” setup, and you guys should too. Belmont was clearly the best team in the league each of the last two years, and they wound up with zero conference tournament wins to show for it. Not conference tournament championship wins, conference tournament game wins.
Also, having no more than two games on any day/night of your tournament is incredibly lame. Feed the people the excess they desire during this time of the year.
2. Ivy League
I’ll say it: The four-team tournament is dumb.
You’ve already de-valued your regular season, so either invite all eight teams to the tournament or go back to “the 14-game tournament.” The new concept almost completely blew up in your face last year, and it will blow up in your face this year if anyone but Penn or Harvard cuts down the nets.
There are like a billion teams with fantastically weird names in your conference (actually 13), and you’re only going to let EIGHT play in the tournament? As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’re going to advance the top two seeds to the semis and the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds to the quarters? For shame, Southland.
This should be one of the funnest, weirdest tournaments of Championship Week. The people need to see Abilene-Christian and Incarnate Word battling it out on a jumpy stream in the middle of a workday. Instead, we’re getting two evening games on ESPN3 for three straight nights before an ESPN2 title game that’s likely to get lost in the shuffle of all the other madness going down. Once again ... for shame, Southland.
10 DANGEROUS NON-TOP SEEDS THAT COULD CLAIM A BID
1. Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)
As mentioned earlier, this looks like it might be the best shot Lipscomb has ever had to crash its first NCAA Tournament. The Bisons have won six straight and 10 of their last 11. Included in that stretch is a 90-87 road triumph over regular season champion Florida Gulf Coast on Feb. 17.
2. Idaho (Big Sky)
The Vandals have it rolling right now. They’ve won seven of their last eight, including a 79-77 win over league-leading Montana. They also have a senior star in Victor Sanders who is more than capable of putting the team on his back in the postseason.
3. Iona (MAAC)
Even in something of a down year, it’s hard to believe the the MAAC champion won’t have to go through Iona. The Gaels have won the last two MAAC tournament titles and have played in the championship game in each of the last five years. They’ll be the No. 4 seed this weekend in Albany.
4. Ball State (Mid-American)
The Cardinals made a national splash early in the year when they won at Notre Dame, but they’ve been up and down since the start of conference play. Buffalo and Toledo may appear to be the class of the conference, but Ball State already swept the season series with the latter, winning a pair of games against the Rockets by a combined 40 points. If a team outside the top two winds up winning the MAC, look for it to be this one.
5. Lehigh (Patriot League)
Though they’re the No. 4 seed at this week’s tournament, there’s no Patriot League team hotter right now than Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks haven’t lost since Jan. 27, and are riding an eight-game winning streak that includes an upset of the Bucknell squad that dominated the rest of the conference. The two teams could meet again in the semifinals on March 4.
6. Mercer (Southern)
Could the Duke-slayers be back at it? Mercer will be the No. 4 seed at the SoCon tournament, but the Bears have the longest winning streak in the league at eight games. During that stretch, Mercer defeated North Carolina-slayer Wofford twice, the same team they’ll face in the quarterfinals on March 3.
Tar Heel and Blue Devil fans will assuredly be tuned in. Maybe. Probably not. It will still be cool though.
7. Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley)
Jacksonville State head coach Ray Harper has an established track record of saving a so-so regular season by pulling off an improbable conference tournament run. It’s exactly what he did in his first season with the Gamecocks, stunning top-seeded Belmont and second-seeded UT-Martin to claim the 2017 OVC title. Just as they were for that run, Jacksonville State will be the No. 4 seed this week in Nashville.
8. UT-Arlington (Sun Belt)
The Mavericks have been a massive disappointment this season in the Sun Belt, but they’re still the most dangerous threat to runaway regular-season title winner Louisiana. That’s because UT-Arlington has an NBA talent in Kevin Hervey (21.1 ppg/8.8 rpg), and arguably the league’s most complete player in Erick Neal (16.0 ppg/6.9 apg). This group can erase the disappointment and inconsistency of the last couple months with three (or four) consecutive wins in New Orleans. That’s the beauty of March.
9. San Francisco (West Coast Conference)
How about some love for Kyle Smith and the Dons? San Francisco was the only WCC team to hand Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s a conference loss besides, well, Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s. They’ll try to earn another shot at one or both of the league powers as the No. 4 seed in Las Vegas this week.
10. Hawai’i (Big West)
It didn’t make the “crazy competitive” tournaments list, but the Big West certainly fits the mold. Three teams are currently tied atop the league standings, and no team in the conference has lost fewer than four games. Hawai’i is just 7-7 right now, but they’ve already beaten three of the four teams they’re currently looking up at. The Warriors’ physical, defensive-minded style is in direct contrast with most of the rest of the Big West, which will make them a nightmare draw for at least one team.
There you have 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. Championship Week comes hand-in-hand with high stakes. You knew that coming into this.