College Basketball Championship Week: Small Schools Have Plenty to Play for
Now that it is March, Championship Week is now upon us.
It begins Saturday, and over the next nine days 31 conference champions will be crowned and 34 others will enter the NCAA tournament as at-large entries.
While the major conference tournaments don’t start till next week, there will be plenty of excitement Saturday and beyond as small schools fight to get their ticket punched to the big dance as a 13-16 seed.
It is one of the few chances where small conferences get the spotlight, as every small school has the dream of being this year's George Mason or Davidson.
Here is what to expect in the mid and low major tournaments over the next week out of those conferences whose regular season is over with.
America East Conference
Vermont has been at the top of the conference for much of the decade, and this year hasn’t been any different.
However, the top rivals have changed as Binghamton comes in as the No. 1 seed and Boston U the No. 3.
The conference championship game is on March 14, nearly a week later than the semifinal round.
In the final, after two close losses, expect Vermont to get revenge on Binghamton, as the third time will be the charm on the road.
Belmont has been the top dog the past few years, and everyone remembers its near miss last year against Duke in the tournament.
This year the No. 3 seed will have to get by No. 2 East Tennessee State and No. 1 Jacksonville.
The Bruins will have the advantage of playing in their home town of Nashville, on top of their tournament experience.
It is hard to pick against Belmont with its recent success, and I think that will continue for one more year.
Portland State went to its first NCAA tournament last year, and things were going well again this year after beating Gonzaga.
However, it got swept during the regular season by Weber State and now has to travel to Ogden for the semifinals and finals.
Weber State has lost just once in conference and has been dominant at home.
It is tough to beat a good team three times, but the home court of 10,000 fans will help the Wildcats Wednesday night in the championship game.
Champ: Weber State
Winthrop has owned this conference throughout the 2000s, but this year’s team isn’t the same.
For much of the season it looked like Virginia Military would be the team to beat, but Radford surged late to get the No. 1 seed and will play at home as long as it is in the tournament.
No. 3 Liberty could also be a threat to VMI in the semifinals, but look for a Radford-VMI showdown.
VMI has come close before this decade with its up-and-down style, and this year should be the year the Runnin' Rods break through, even on the road.
This conference has been strong of late, thanks to George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth’s upset of Duke in 2007.
The ringleader of that team for No. 1 VCU is still there in Eric Maynor.
As the top seed last year, the Rams were upset before the final, allowing George Mason to win the title.
The race this year has been crazy, and as many as seven teams have a chance at pulling off a run.
With all of the upsets that have occurred during the regular season, it is hard not to see one coming.
However, the top two teams should advance to the final, where VCU will get the best of Mason in a classic Monday night.
This has been Butler’s league for much of the decade, and the road will go through Hinkle Fieldhouse again this year.
However, Butler looks much more vulnerable as it has lost a home game to No. 8 Loyola and just got by No. 3 Cleveland State Saturday.
Expect to see a rematch between the Bulldogs and Vikings Tuesday, with Butler winning for the third time this year in another close game.
The MAAC is set up for a great championship game Monday between No. 1 Siena and No. 2 Niagara.
Niagara beat Siena Friday at home, but the conference tournament will be played on Siena’s court.
The only team who could stop this game from happening is No. 3 Rider, who would play Niagara in the semifinals and beat Siena earlier in the year.
The top two seeds should advance though, and it should be one of the best games of championship week.
In the end the Saints will go marching on, looking to repeat last year’s NCAA performance of a first round upset.
What used to be a three or four-bid league earlier in the decade has turned into a likely one-bid year this season.
The only hope for an at-large comes from No. 2 Creighton, who is red hot.
However, I think it will fall in the semifinals to No. 3 Illinois State in a rematch from Saturday.
On the other end, No. 1 Northern Iowa has struggled of late, and No. 4 Bradley could pull off the upset.
ISU takes advantage to win the tournament Sunday, while Creighton awaits a week for Selection Sunday.
In a top-heavy conference, it should come down to the top three seeds (Robert Morris, Mount St. Mary’s, and Sacred Heart).
The home court throughout should help Robert Morris move through and punch its ticket for the big dance Wednesday.
Champ: Robert Morris
No. 2 Austin Peay and No. 3 Murray State have taken many of these titles, but they will both be looking up at No. 1 Tennessee-Martin.
UTM has been red hot of late and has one of the top scorers in the country in Lester Hudson.
Expect that to be enough to squeak through to a tournament title Saturday.
No. 1 American looks to repeat as conference champs, while No. 2 Holy Cross appears to be the only team in it way.
The home court should help rally American to its second tournament berth in school history.
This tournament sets up to be an interesting one as No. 1 Davidson no longer is a mortal lock.
Expect it to get challenges from The Citadel and College of Charleston, both of whom beat the Wildcats this year.
In the end, Stephen Curry will lead Davidson back to the tournament, but don’t expect the same success.
It has been all Oral Roberts the past few years, but there was a changing of the guard this year.
North Dakota State comes in as heavy favorites in its first year of postseason eligibility.
Look for it to win the conference Tuesday and punch its first big dance ticket.
Champ: North Dakota State
Top-seeded Western Kentucky holds the banner for the conference after a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago.
Things won’t be as easy this year, as it doesn’t have three starters from that team.
Still, it beat Louisville early in the year and is the clear favorite to win the tournament on Tuesday.
For the first time the conference tournament will be played in Las Vegas instead at a host school.
That should give Gonzaga an even bigger advantage after going through the conference season unbeaten.
St. Mary’s could play a spoiler, but will need star guard Patty Mills back to do so.
Expect another title Monday for the Zags.
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