Welcome to my favorite time of the year. This week, conference tournaments kick off, officially signaling the beginning of March Madness.
Many mid-major tournaments take center stage this week, which I find to be the more intriguing conference tournaments. Many of these teams need to win to get into the big dance, and the tension and desperation are visible on each team.
I am going to preview each and every one of these conference tournaments over the next few weeks, with this article previewing the America East, Atlantic Sun, Big Sky, Big South, CAA, Horizon, MAAC, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Northeast, Patriot, Southern, Summit, Sun Belt, and WCC conferences.
Just to avoid confusion, here's how I'm going to break it down:
Favorite: To avoid all controversy, this is simply the number one seed in the tournament.
Contenders: Two to three other teams who I think have a shot to win it all
Dark Horse: A team who I don't think will win the tournament, but definitely has a chance to upset some higher seeds and do some real damage.
My Pick: Simply enough, my pick of who will win the tournament. If you have any questions/comments for my reasoning, leave em in the comments below.
So without further adieu, let's get this started!
When: 3/1 - 3/10
Where: Chase Family Arena (Hartford, CT); championship game at highest seed
Favorite: Stony Brook. The Seawolves are a very hot team right now, winning 11 of their last 12 games, and 17 of their last 19. They are led by senior Bryan Dougher, who is averaging 13.4 points per game and is one of Stony Brook's biggest three point threats. Time and time again, Dougher has shown that if he's hot from deep, the Seawolves are going to be tough to beat. Just to add to their talent, the Seawolves have the best defense in the conference.
Contenders: Vermont. It looked like the Catamounts would be the top seed entering the tournament after their dismantling of Stony Brook to take possession of first place and with lowly Binghamton and UMBC left on the schedule. But the inconceivable happened, with winless Binghamton upsetting Vermont, dropping them into 2nd place. This team is still dangerous, and still has an extremely good shot at winning the whole thing.
Boston. The defending tournament champions hit their groove once conference play started, and have have already earned a victory over Stony Brook earlier this season. The Terriers played Vermont to a one point game just a month ago, and have won five of their last six conference games.
Dark Horse: New Hampshire. The Wildcats are peaking at just the right time, winning six of their last eight. They have already scored a win over Vermont, and if they can get past Albany, they may be a tough challenge for Stony Brook in the semifinals.
My Pick: Stony Brook. I have the Seawolves meeting up with Vermont in the finals, and although the two teams split the season series, I think the game taking place in Stony Brook will be enough of an edge for the Seawolves to get the bid into the NCAA Tournament.
When: 2/29 - 3/3
Where: Mercer University (Macon, GA)
Favorite: Belmont. The Bruins turned a lot of heads early in the year with gutsy effort at Duke and Memphis, and rode that momentum into conference play, where they are 16-2 and the number one seed in the Atlantic Sun. Belmont has an explosive offense, which is second in the nation in points per game. They're led by junior Kerron Johnson, who averages 14 points per game, and are riding an 11-game win streak into the tournament.
Contenders: Mercer. The Bears stumbled to the finish, losing three of their last four contests after a nine game win streak. Despite this, they still finished second in the league at 13-5, and have scored two wins over USC Upstate, while playing Belmont extremely close two times. Add in that the tournament is being held in their building, and Mercer will be a very tough out.
USC Upstate: The Spartans took advantage of a light second half schedule to rise to third in the league. They scored a major upset over Belmont over a month ago, and if Torrey Craig, the conference's leading rebounder (7.9 RPG) and second leading scorer (17.1 PPG) gets hot, the Spartans can be extremely tough to beat.
Dark Horse: East Tennessee State. The Buccaneers are riding a three game win streak into the tournament, and have impressed at times this season, with wins over USC Upstate and Mercer earlier in the season. They will most likely see Belmont in the semifinals, but they have the ability to give the Bruins a stiff challenge.
My Pick: Belmont. Yes, the tournament taking place in Macon gives Mercer a huge advantage, but the Bruins proved not too long ago that they can beat Mercer on the road, and I think that their offensive firepower will be too much for any team in the conference to overcome.
*Note* I am picking Weber State over Montana in their game on 2/28 to determine #1 seed.
When: 3/3 - 3/7
Where: Quarterfinals at higher seed; semifinals and championship at regular season champs
Favorite: Weber State. The Wildcats have been on an incredible run, winning 17 of their last 18 games, and steamrolling many opponents during that time. Junior Damian Lillard is a bona fide star, and his 24.7 points per game have helped make Weber State the team to beat in the Big West. With a win Tuesday night, they will secure home court advantage, where they have not lost all season.
Contenders: Montana. In all honesty, Montana is just as big a threat as Weber State to win the whole thing. They still have a shot at the regular season title, as the Bears are currently on an 11-game win streak, and have also won 17 of 18. Montana counters Damian Lillard with two scorers, Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar, who average 15.9 and 13.3 points per game respectively.
Portland State. The Vikings have won five of their last six, and have been one of the few teams to stay close with both Weber State and Montana on the scoreboard. Portland State can scores a ton of points, 76.5 points per game, which is good for 25th in the country and keeps them in plenty of games.
Dark Horse: Eastern Washington. The Eagles get to play a struggling Idaho State in the first round, before coming up against (most likely) Weber State. They hung tough with Weber State in their own building earlier this month, and have the potential to put a scare into the Wildcats again.
My Pick: Weber State. A lot of this is going to hinge on what happens Tuesday night, but with the Wildcats being so tough at home, and with them already having a victory over Montana, I have to go with Damian Lillard leading his team into the NCAA Tournament. Even if Montana wins Tuesday night, I'm still sticking with Weber State.
When: 2/27 - 3/3
Where: First round at high seed; quarterfinals/semifinals at UNC-Asheville; championship at high seed
Favorite: UNC-Asheville. The Bulldogs ran away with the regular season title, going 16-2 in the conference, and have won eight of their last nine conference games. This team is another offensive juggernaut, ranking 6th in the nation in scoring, 8th in assists per game, and 19th in field goal percentage. Much of this is due to leading scorer Matt Dickey and his 16.9 points per game. The Bulldogs also get home court advantage throughout the tournament.
Contenders: Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have struggled towards the end of the year, as they enter the tournament having lost five of seven, but despite this, they did manage to upset UNC-Asheville only a few weeks ago. Coastal Carolina is a strong rebounding team, averaging 38.3 rebounds per game, and are led by junior Anthony Raffa, who averages 16.9 points per game.
Charleston Southern. The Buccaneers have had a very up and down season, but when they are good, they're really good. They have a win against UNC-Asheville on their resume, and Coastal Carolina needed overtime to get past them in early January. This is a high scoring team who can be a tough out if they get going.
Dark Horse: Campbell. I don't know why, but I really like this team. They are limping into the tournament, but are matched up with Winthrop, a team who they beat twice this season, and most likely Coastal Carolina, another team they beat twice this season. Don't let the Fighting Camels fool you, they can be dangerous.
My Pick: UNC-Asheville. It's hard to go against the home team, and though I'm not ruling out Coastal Carolina, let's just say I'm not totally convinced that they will get to the championship game. If they do, we will be in for a classic match-up of a great offense against a great defense.
When: 3/2 - 3/5
Where: Richmond Coliseum (Richmond, VA)
Favorite: Drexel. The Dragons are one of the hottest teams in the country with their 17-game winning streak and first ever outright CAA regular season championship. Drexel is 3-0 against the CAA's top four teams, and the emergence of Frantz Massenat has given them a legitimate threat from beyond the arc.
Contenders: VCU. Last year's Final Four surprise has won 14 of their last 15. Lone senior Brad Burgess is averaging 13.5 points per game, and proved last Saturday that he can still take over a game. Factor in that the "neutral site" is within walking distance of VCU's campus, and the Rams are always a tough out in this tournament.
George Mason. The Patriots have struggled their past few games, but are still as dangerous as any team in the CAA. They own a buzzer beater victory over VCU and two wins over ODU, and are led by potential CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson, who leads the team in points (17.8 PPG) and rebounds (8.5 RPG).
Old Dominion. The Monarchs are one of the top rebounding teams in the country, and use that advantage to spark their scoring nearly every game. Kent Bazemore has proven he can single-handedly affect the outcome of a game, though ODU has struggled against the teams at the top, posting an 0-5 record against the top three teams.
Dark Horse: Delaware. The Blue Hens are peaking at just the right time, having won eight in a row. They own a victory over George Mason and took Old Dominion to overtime earlier this season. With their draw potentially being Towson-ODU-Drexel, I can see Delaware going very deep in this tournament and scoring a few upsets.
My Pick: George Mason. I don't know how much I believe in Drexel, as many of their biggest wins have come at the comfort of their own building. The big hurdle for Mason will be VCU, but I feel that Mason's senior leadership will be enough to power them to a CAA championship.
When: 2/28 - 3/6
Where: First round at higher seeds; quarterfinals/semifinals at Valparaiso; championship at high seed
Favorite: Valparaiso. The Crusaders won an extremely tough, extremely competitive Horizon League this year, powered by juniors Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk. Valpo has also proven that they can do it against the best the conference has to offer, going 5-1 against the top five in the league. With their number one seed, Valpo has home court advantage throughout the tournament.
Contenders: Cleveland State. The Vikings were on a roll until D'Aundray Brown injured his groin, leading to an ugly five game losing streak. Brown is back, however, and Cleveland State still has a bye until the semifinals, which may give them just enough time to get healthy and get back to form.
Detroit. The Titans have won six of seven and have had some impressive performances this season. They have beaten Butler twice this season, and have even taken Valpo to the wire in both of their meetings. Ray McCallum Jr. is the star of this team, averaging 15.1 points per game.
Butler. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Bulldogs, who have struggled at times this season, but are still the class of the Horizon League. Butler is starting to get going though, winning five of six entering the tournament, and still have guys like Ronald Nored, who's experience is priceless during tournament time.
Dark Horse: Green Bay. Another team who is getting hot at the right time. Green Bay has won five in a row, and owns a victory over Cleveland State. If they find a way to get past Detroit, they can be a major factor in this tournament.
My Pick: Valparaiso. As much as I wanted to pick a team like Detroit or Butler, I just can't get past how good Valpo has been this season. Winning the regular season title this year is a big accomplishment, and getting a double bye, along with home court advantage may be too much to overcome.
When: 3/2 - 3/5
Where: MassMutual Center (Springfield, MA)
Favorite: Iona. The Gaels have the highest scoring offense in the nation, and they used this offense to march through the MAAC and win the regular season title. Iona has one of the toughest threesomes in college basketball, with Scott Machado, Michael Glover, and LaMont Jones leading in Gaels in every offensive category. The Gaels also have some momentum, riding a five game win streak into Springfield.
Contenders: Loyola (MD). The Greyhounds hit a bit of a hitch at the end of conference play, which saw them lose three of their last four conference games, but the Greyhounds still managed the number two seed and still have potential to win the whole thing. They have the best defense in the conference and actually beat Iona earlier this season, proving that they can slow down Iona's offense.
Manhattan. The Jaspers were another team who struggled in conference down the stretch. They lost four of their last six MAAC games following an eight game winning streak. They have beaten Iona and have taken Loyola to the limit on two separate occasions. George Beamon leads the team with 18.4 points per game, and the Jaspers have potential to go deep in this tournament.
Dark Horse: Niagara. Though the Purple Eagles went 8-10 in conference play, they have a decent road to travel in the tournament. They play Cansius, the worst team in the league, and then Loyola, who they have already beaten this season. Don't be surprised if Niagara turns some heads in Massachusetts.
My Pick: Iona. I think that the Gaels are good enough to not only win the MAAC, but do some damage in the big tournament too. That offense is going to be tough to stop, even for a strong defensive team like Loyola.
When: 3/1 - 3/4
Where: Scottrade Center (St. Louis, MO)
Favorite: Wichita State. The Shockers are now ranked and have caught fire, winning 16 of their last 17, with their only loss coming after triple overtime. They dismantled Creighton on the road, and have just been blowing out teams this month. Garrett Stutz is a terrifying force, standing at seven feet with the ability to hit three pointers and averages 14.1 points per game.
Contenders: Creighton. The Bluejays have hit a bit of a slide losing three straight games in early February, and even though they have won their last four, none of them have been overly convincing. Regardless, we need to remember that the Bluejays were the hands down team to beat before February, and with Doug McDermott around, the Bluejays have the ability to beat any team they come across.
Northern Iowa. The Panthers lead a group of five 9-9 teams in the Valley, and I put them here because I think they match up well with the top two teams. They hung tough with Wichita State early in the year, and beat Creighton at the beginning of the month, so I can see this team potentially doing some damage.
Dark Horse: Missouri State. The Bears ended the season on a major slide, but I think they are a team to watch because of star player Kyle Weems and their ability to play Creighton hard, who they would most likely see in the semifinals. They beat the Bluejays once and lost by one the second time.
My Pick: Creighton. I think that we will see the two teams who are head and shoulders above the rest, Creighton and Wichita State, do battle to win Arch Madness, and the star power of Doug McDermott will lead the Bluejays to victory.
When: 3/1 - 3/7
Where: At higher seeds
Favorite: Long Island. Last year's defending champions kept their momentum going into this year, going 16-2 in conference play and clinching their second straight regular season title. Jamal Olasewere was second in the conference in scoring, and paced this high power offense with 19.3 points per game in conference play. LIU will also have home court throughout the tournament, as well as the advantage of being guaranteed to play the lowest seed remaining throughout, thanks to the reseeding format of the tournament.
Contenders: Wagner. The Seahawks shocked everyone in late December with their upset over #13 Pittsburgh, and used that momentum to a 15-3 conference record. Wagner will need to be on edge though, as their first round opponent is Central Connecticut State, who just snapped Wagner's nine game winning streak to end the season and cost them a share of the conference regular season title.
Robert Morris. The Colonials are a perennial threat in the NEC Tournament, and this year is no different. RMU just had their six game win streak snapped as well, but have beaten Long Island this season, and still have one of the conference's best players in Velton Jones, who averages 16.5 points per game.
Dark Horse: Quinnipiac. The Bobcats have managed to stay close with just about every team they've played, losing to LIU by only four and to Wagner by only one. The Bobcats have also scored two victories over Robert Morris, and if they catch a break here and there, Quinnipiac can do some major damage in the tournament.
My Pick: Long Island. The Blackbirds are given every advantage possible in this tournament, and with them already having beaten Wagner twice, I see no way that Long Island isn't dancing again.
When: 2/29 - 3/3
Where: Municipal Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
Favorite: Murray State. If you have not heard about the Racers, then you have officially been living under a rock or don't watch college basketball. Murray State was the last remaining undefeated team, and went 28-1 on the season, giving them a ranking of #9 in the country. Isaiah Canaan has firmly thrown himself into the national spotlight, averaging 19.4 points and leading this surprising squad. Just to quell the doubters of this teams legitimacy, they smashed Saint Mary's in their Bracketbuster matchup.
Contenders: Tennessee State. The Tigers are the only team in the country to beat Murray State this season, and they did it on Murray State's home floor. Tennessee State just had their nine game win streak stopped by the Racers, but they still did enough to earn a double bye in the tournament, already placing them one win away from the title game.
Morehead State. Last year's tournament winners put together a nice 10-6 season, and have earned a bye in Nashville. The Eagles are led by senior Terrance Hill, who has the skill and the experience to hep lead Morehead State on a deep run in the tournament. Morehead State has also won four of their last five, giving them a little momentum into the tourney.
Dark Horse: Jacksonville State. If the Gamecocks get past Austin Peay, they may be able to surprise some teams. They have already beaten Morehead State, who they would play in the quarterfinals, and have actually beaten Tennessee State, who they would see in the semis.
My Pick: Murray State. I can't see how the Racers don't win this one. Yes, they will likely see Tennessee State, the one team who beat them, in Nashville no less, but as Murray State proved in their last game, they can beat the Tigers, and I expect them to do it again.
When: 2/29 - 3/3
Where: At higher seed
Favorite: Bucknell. The Bison tore through the Patriot League this year, winning their first 10 conference games before dropping two in a row in mid February. Bucknell seems to have moved on from their slide, and look to parlay their home court advantage into a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Mike Muscala is a name to watch for the Bison, as he leads them in both points (16.7 PPG) and rebounds (9.1 RPG).
Contenders: Lehigh. This team is scary. The Mountain Hawks have won nine of their last 10, including beating Bucknell on the Bison's home court. CJ McCollum is a machine, averaging 21.7 points per game, and has the ability to win games single-handedly. The Mountain Hawks had to dig deep to get past Army on the last day of the season, and this hard fought win may be able to spring this team to big things in the tournament.
American. The Eagles haven't had any huge win streaks this season, but have been a consistently strong team all season. They have beaten Lehigh already this year, and have even played well against Bucknell both times they played them. Senior Charles Hinkle is the biggest part of this team, and the Eagles will go as far as he takes them.
Dark Horse: Holy Cross. This team has been a pain to just about every team they have come across, and is currently on a huge win streak entering the tournament. The Crusaders have won six in a row, and have victories over American, Lehigh, and Bucknell at different points this season. They are one team no one wants to see in their path to a championship.
My Pick: Lehigh. This team is hot, they have home court until the finals, and they have proven already that they can win at Bucknell. Call it a hunch, but I see the Mountain Hawks dancing when it's all said and done.
When: 3/2 - 3/5
Where: U.S. Cellular Center (Asheville, NC)
Favorite: Davidson. The Wildcats regained national attention back in December with their upset over Kansas, and have used that momentum to dominate the Southern Conference. Davidson has been strong against the top half of the league, going 4-0 against the second and third place teams it their division, as well as steamrolling UNC Greensboro, the leaders of the North division. Playing in their home state of North Carolina can only help the Wildcats in their quest to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Contenders: UNC Greensboro. The Spartans won the North division of the SoCon, but have struggled at the end of the season. The Spartans lost their last three games, all by double digits. But a week off will help offset that negative momentum, and with the conference's leading scorer, Trevis Simpson, teams will still need to heed UNC Greensboro.
Wofford. Last year's tournament champions are starting to gain some steam, winning four of their last five. The Terriers have performed especially well against the North division, crushing both UNC Greensboro and Elon, their first and second place teams. Seniors Kevin Glitner and Brad Loesing are forces to watch out for, averaging 15.3 and 14.6 points per game, respectively.
Dark Horse: Georgia Southern. The Eagles stumbled a bit late, but had been riding a six-game win streak before their problems late. Georgia Southern has beaten Wofford and UNC Greensboro this season, and have a nice draw in the tournament to make some noise.
My Pick: Davidson. The Wildcats are easily the best team in the SoCon, and I think they will prove that by running through this tournament.
When: 3/3 - 3/6
Where: Sioux Falls Arena (Sioux Falls, SD)
Favorite: Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles smashed #9 Xavier to start a streak that would see them winning 19 of their last 20 games. Dominique Morrison is the clear senior leader of this team, averaging 20.3 points per game. There's not much else to say on this team really, other than that they're very talented and primed to do damage in the tournament.
Contenders: South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits have won eight of their last nine, and were the only team to find a way to beat Oral Roberts during conference play. They have a high scoring offense, led by Nate Wolters, with 21.2 points per game. Playing in their home state will likely give South Dakota State a huge home court advantage as well.
Oakland. The Grizzlies won their last five conference games to secure the third seed in the tournament. Oakland is also the home to the leading scorer in the country, Reggie Hamilton, who has led the Grizzlies to big wins over Valparaiso and South Dakota State.
Dark Horse: Western Illinois. If the Leathernecks can get past North Dakota State, they will most likely go up against Oral Roberts. However, the Leathernecks proved earlier this year that they can hang with the Golden Eagles in a double overtime thriller, so this game may be one to keep a close eye on.
My Pick: I'm actually going with South Dakota State on this one. They are a hot team and drilled Oral Roberts at home, and with the home-like atmosphere of the tournament, I can see them pulling the upset.
When: 3/3 - 3/6
Where: Summit Arena (Hot Springs, AR)
Favorite: Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders have been another big story this season, going 25-5 overall and winning the Sun Belt conference outright. Middle Tennessee won four of their last five, and turned a lot of heads with their 12-game winning streak in the middle of the season. Much of their success is due to senior LaRon Dendy, who leads the team in both points (14.2 PPG) and rebounds (7.0 RPG).
Contenders: Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans won the West division, winning seven of their last nine to clinch their spot. With the West division being the much more competitive of the two, this is quite the accomplishment. The Trojans are also led by a senior, D'Andre Williams, who will make them a tough out with his 13 points per game.
Denver. I really like this team. The Pioneers ended the regular season on a four game win streak, and drilled Middle Tennessee State at the beginning of the month. Chris Udofia is the do-it-all forward for Denver, leading his team in both points and assists, as well as being second on the team in rebounding. This is a strong team with a lot of momentum heading into the tournament.
Dark Horse: Western Kentucky. Although they have a 7-9 record in conference, the Hilltoppers have some major victories to their credit. They beat both division leaders, Middle Tennessee State and Arkansas-Little Rock, and could really turn the bracket upside down if they have some magic left in them.
My Pick: Middle Tennessee State. I really wanted to go with Denver, but it's hard to deny the Blue Raiders. They have enough talent to not only win the tournament, but do some damage on the biggest stage of them all next month.
When: 2/29 - 3/5
Where: The Orleans Arena (Las Vegas, NV)
Favorite: Saint Mary's. The Gaels finally broke through this season, winning the WCC outright and taking claim of being the class of the conference. Saint Mary's stumbled a bit at the end though, following their 12-game win streak with losing three of the next four. Matthew Dellavedova is the star of this Saint Mary's team, leading the Gaels is points per game (15.4) and assists per game (6.5).
Contenders: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are starting to get their legs under them, winning seven of their last nine, including blasting Saint Mary's earlier this month. Kevin Pangos can single-handedly win this tournament if his three point shot is on, but I'm looking at senior Robert Sacre to be a big difference maker for Gonzaga.
BYU. The Jimmer-less Cougars have done well for themselves, earning third place in the highly competitive WCC. The Cougars have beaten Gonzaga and have won six of their last seven entering Las Vegas. If Noah Hartstock gets hot, BYU may be leaving Sin City as champions.
Dark Horse: San Francisco. The Dons managed to beat a very hot Gonzaga team just a week ago, and have a nice road to go in the WCC tournament. They will likely be matched with Loyola Marymount, a team who has survived the Dons twice, but it is extremely difficult to beat a team as good as San Francisco three times in one season.
My Pick: Gonzaga. It really is a pick-em whenever Saint Mary's and Gonzaga meet up, but after watching these two teams play not that long ago, I think that the Bulldogs are the hotter team and will reclaim their dominance of the WCC.