1. Iona (MAAC)
Look, I’m not going to stop doing this until the Gaels prove me wrong at least once. They could be 0-18 right now with 18 losses by 25 points or more and they’d still be right here in this same damn spot because I can’t believe that anyone other than Iona can actually win this tournament until I see it happen with my own eyes.
Iona has won the MAAC tournament title in each of the last four years and has played in the tournament championship game SEVEN straight times.
Despite head coach Tim Cluess’ extended medical leave of absence, the Gaels have rebounded from a 2-7 start in league play to even their conference record up at 9-9. They’re as hot as anyone in the conference, and all jokes aside, they seem like about as safe a bet as anyone else to cut down the nets in Atlantic City.
2. Bradley (Missouri Valley)
Loyola-Chicago seems like the biggest threat to take down Northern Iowa at Arch Madness, but don’t gloss over Bradley. The Braves are 5-2 since star forward Elijah Childs returned to the floor after missing a month following surgery to repair a re-injury to his right hand. One of those losses was a 67-66 thriller against Loyola in the regular season finale for both teams.
Bradley will be the 4 seed this week in St. Louis.
3. Western Kentucky (Conference USA)
The Hilltoppers just lost to North Texas in a game that locked up the C-USA regular season title for the Mean Green, but WKU still seems like an awfully large threat heading into the postseason. Even without injured star big man Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky is probably the most talented team in this conference. Taveion Hollingsworth has transitioned into a reliable No. 1 scoring option, a fact best evidenced by his 43-point performance last week in an overtime win over Louisiana Tech.
4. Towson (Colonial Athletic Association)
Hofstra is the CAA regular season champion as well as the nation’s leader in road wins (11). William & Mary has the best player in the league and the best storyline as it tries to finally make it to the NCAA tournament. Then there’s Towson, which has won six of its last seven games, including a 76-65 win at Hofstra just last week. The Tigers are also one of only two teams to beat William & Mary at home this season.
5. Abilene Christian (Southland)
Stephen F. Austin is the Southland team everyone’s talking about, and deservedly so. The Lumberjacks won at Duke in November and are the owners of a sparkling 26-3 overall record and a 17-1 mark in league play. But watch out for Abilene Christian, the reigning Southland tournament champion that has suddenly won seven games in a row.
SFA losing in its conference tournament would start a firestorm of debate over its at-large bid credentials, and the Wildcats seem like the team best-equipped to make that happen.
6. Southern (SWAC)
After losing nine consecutive games between Dec. 1 and Jan. 11, the Jaguars have suddenly put together a similar run of the positive variety. Southern has won five in a row and 11 of its last 13, going from a 3-13 record in mid-January to just one game under .500 at the moment. They’ll play the only two teams above them in the SWAC standings — Prairie View A&M (14-2) and Texas Southern (12-4) — during the final week of the regular season.
7. Texas State (Sun Belt)
Little Rock, which was picked to finish 11th in the 12-team Sun Belt but wound up winning the league’s regular season title outright, could be one of the best stories of this postseason. Texas State is out to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Bobcats have won five games in a row, eight of their last nine, and knocked off Little Rock by eight on Feb. 13. In his seventh season at the helm, former Stephen F. Austin head coach Danny Kaspar is looking to take Texas State to its first NCAA tournament since 1997.
8. Pacific (West Coast)
How about some non-Gonzaga/BYU/Saint Mary’s WCC love? If a three-bid league turns into a four-bid league early next week in Vegas, Pacific would seem to be the most likely culprit. Damon Stoudamire has led his team to eight wins in its last nine games, with its only loss over that span coming at Saint Mary’s (71-63) on Feb. 15. Brooklyn native Jahlil Tripp is a serious problem for the 23-9 Tigers.
9. UMBC (America East)
What would this list be without the Retrievers? They’re just 7-8 in the America East at the moment, but they’ve won four of their last six and stunned Vermont on the road two weeks ago. They’ll also enter the postseason with the confidence having played in each of the last two America East title games.
10. Austin Peay (Ohio Valley)
If anyone is going to prevent us from getting Murray State-Belmont part III, it seems likely to be the Governors. They’ve won 20 games, they have the league’s most exciting player in Terry Taylor, and they split their season series with both the Racers and the Bruins.