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The 5 most exciting and least exciting conference tournaments in college hoops

Who the heck is going to win the MAC? We have no idea.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Buffalo Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

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Heavy favorites are typically the norm on Championship Week, but this isn’t an across the board deal. There are a number of leagues this season where the regular-season champ appears vulnerable, and a few where parity reigns so supreme that it’s not hard to see a scenario where a team that finished near the bottom of the league standings could reel off three or four wins in a row.

Here are the five leagues that may prove to have the wackiest of wacky postseasons.

1. Mid-American

I have no idea what the hell is going on in the MAC.

Only five of the 12 teams in the conference have league records above .500. No team has fewer than four losses. Akron looked like world-beaters for a month and then lost to Bowling Green by 18. Bowling Green — which has pieced together back-to-back 20 win seasons for the first time since the 1940s — followed that performance up with an 18-point loss to East Division cellar dweller Miami. Two-time reigning champion Buffalo won in bunches and lost in bunches.

A team seeded fifth or worse has won this thing four times in the last 12 years. That’s the same number of times the top seed has cut down the nets over the same span.

This tournament has the potential to go off the rails in a hurry.

2. Conference USA

The jury is still out on C-USA’s new “pod scheduling” system, which is designed to have the league’s best teams play more games later in the season against one another with the hope of giving the conference the best chance possible to send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. When it’s apparent by early January that your league is going to be a 1-bid league, well, then it just creates a few interesting matchups for the regular season title race and a whole bunch of really bad games.

With one game still to play in the regular season for most of its teams, C-USA has an established tier one of North Texas (14-3), Western Kentucky (12-5) and Louisiana Tech (11-5). Behind that trio there is a sandwich of seven teams that have records between 9-7 and 7-9.

It feels right that this conference tournament will once again feature multiple games being played at the same time right next to one another, and that a handful of those games will only be viewable on Facebook.

Best sport in the world.

3. Big Sky

The Big Sky used to be one of those conferences that only allowed a little over half of its teams to qualify for the conference tournament. Thank goodness it saw the error of its ways, because the league is incredibly competitive this season.

Eastern Washington and Montana are currently tied atop the league standings with matching 14-4 records, but there are three teams immediately behind them — Northern Colorado, Portland State and Northern Arizona — that also have double-digit league wins. The ninth-place team in the conference right now is perennial power Weber State, which has the league’s most dynamic scorer in Jerrick Harding. Hell, the last place team in the conference, 3-15 Idaho, won at league-leading Eastern Washington less than a month ago.

You’ve got a week to figure out what the hell Pluto TV is because that’s where the first two rounds of this tournament are going to be, and they’re going to be sensational.

4. Southern

This one doesn’t make the list because of the parity or depth of the conference. It makes the list because the SoCon has three teams that are all good enough to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament, if they can make it there.

Regular season champ East Tennessee State seems like a safe bet to be in the field of 68 regardless, but they certainly don’t want to leave anything to chance. Furman (25-6, 15-3) and UNC Greensboro (23-8, 13-5) are terrific basketball teams loaded with mid-major star power as well.

Carve some time out for the SoCon semifinals and title game. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

5. Missouri Valley

Arch Madness is always the bell cow of the postseason’s opening week, and 2020 should be no different.

Northern Iowa is an NCAA tournament lock that could be a single-digit seed in the Big Dance, but the Panthers aren’t going to waltz through this thing. Loyola Chicago (remember those guys?) finished just a game behind UNI in the final league standings and beat the Panthers by nine on Feb. 15.

Bradley and Indiana State both finished with 11 conference wins, and Southern Illinois notched 10. In all, seven of the 10 teams in this conference are heading to St. Louis with league records of .500 or better.

We also can’t wrap this up without giving a special shoutout to Evansville, which became the first team in college basketball history to beat the No. 1 ranked team in the AP poll (at Kentucky on Nov. 12) and go winless in conference play in the same season. The Purple Aces, who fired head coach Walter McCarty in the middle of the season due to reports of alleged sexual misconduct, went 0-18 in the Valley and haven’t won a game of any sort since an overtime win over Murray State on Dec. 21.

Bring this thing home, Aces.

Five less exciting conference tournaments

1. Northeast

Let me preface this entire spiel with the following: None of this is the fault of the Northeast Conference. There was nothing you could do about this. This is not on you.

With that out of the way, it is an absolute goddamn travesty that Merrimack doesn’t get to play in this tournament. The Warriors should be one of the best and most fun stories of March, but instead, we’re not going to hear anything else about them until the CBI or the CIT starts ... which means we’re not going to hear anything else about them for the rest of the year because I’m still not entirely convinced those tournaments are real.

For those unfamiliar, Merrimack went 20-11 this season, became the first team ever to win 20 games in its first season as a member of Division-I, and then won the Northeast Conference regular season title outright with a 14-4 record, making them also the first program in NCAA history to win an outright conference regular season title in its first season of Division I reclassification.

Classic underdog college basketball story for the American public to grab onto in March, right? Nope.

Because the NCAA bans transitioning schools from postseason play for four years (unless the conference in question has a limited number of teams, but even then, the transitioning school is ineligible to play in the NCAA tournament or the NIT), the Warriors will not be participating in this week’s NEC tournament. They also won’t be playing in the event in any of the next THREE years. The reason for the rule, of course, is that ... I don’t know ... stories like these might be too fun and awesome? The NCAA power structure is loaded down with Robert Morris grads? Who knows.

Anyway, none of this has slowed the roll of Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo, who has been hurling himself around like a lunatic for a week straight.

Nope, definitely don’t want more of that over the next couple of weeks. No fun to be found there.

And one more thing before we move on: Every year I fill out my NEC bracket, and every year I forget that after the quarterfinals, the league has the lowest remaining seed play at the highest remaining seed instead of having the tournament play out in traditional fashion.

Is this the most fair way to have a tournament like this where the host is always a campus site? No question. Does it leave me feeling like an idiot with multiple scratched out names after the quarterfinals? Every year.

I’ve got a lot of problems with everything happening in the NEC right now. Lotta problems.

2. Sun Belt

Not only has the Sun Belt made the move to the cowardly more equitable step ladder bracket where the top two seeds get a bye all the way to the semifinals, but they’re only allowing 10 of the 12 teams to participate in the tournament. This is a FIVE-DAY tournament. You couldn’t figure out a way to throw poor Troy and Louisiana-Monroe a bone?

If you’re curious about what a five-day tournament where the top two seeds don’t play until day four looks like, here you go:

If you have that many consecutive days with no more than two games being played, you’re probably doing something wrong. More games, more daytime basketball, more opportunities for glory; That’s what march is all about.

What are we doing here, Sun Belt?

3. Ivy League

You know what? I’m starting to think that we’ve been overestimating the value of an Ivy League education for decades now. I’m basing this entirely off the fact that the conference holds a four-team tournament at a pre-determined on-campus location.

None of this works.

If you’re capping the field at four, you may as well go back to the old 14-game tournament days. And if you’re going to have play the games on a campus site, at least have the advantage for the host school be an earned one. Also, at least make sure the host school is actually going to be a participant in the tournament.

You people baffle me. You spend all your money on these fancy conference tournaments, you surround yourself with ‘em, and they’re the wrong fuckin’ conference tournaments.

That’s two Good Will Hunting references in one extremely niche college basketball feature. So, yeah, we’re doing pretty well here.

4. West Coast

For five years, the West Coast Conference went away from the step ladder bracket and made Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s play more than two games to win a conference tournament championship. It was cool. Last year, they went back.

Here’s the thing: Gonzaga won every single one of those tournaments and played either Saint Mary’s or BYU in the title game each time. So it’s not like compressing the tournament hurt the league when it came to the likelihood of it sending its top dog(s) onto the NCAA tournament.

You’re depriving us of the over-saturation we crave, and you’re doing it for no reason.

5. Big Sky

Yeah I’m calling the Big Sky out for being boring just one section after praising it for being exciting. Things change quickly. This is March. Try and keep up.

Here’s the reason: On paper it looks like it’s going to be “crazy competitive,” but this is the only conference tournament in America where the No. 1 seed has cut down the nets in each of the last four seasons. It doesn’t stop there. The No. 1 seed has actually won the Big Sky tournament in eight of the last nine years, and the one year the top seed didn’t win, it was the No. 2 seed that took home the title. Great news for Eastern Washington/Montana. Not so great for the rest of us.

Consider this a warning shot, Big Sky. We’re gonna need to see some fireworks in the very near future.