What to Watch for in 1st Week of 2014 Conference Tournaments

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMarch 3, 2014

What to Watch for in 1st Week of 2014 Conference Tournaments

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    Stephen Haas/Associated Press

    As the first full week of March begins, the madness in college basketball is just kicking off. 

    While some of the top programs in the nation still have a week left in the regular season, most mid-major conferences will hand out their automatic bids over the coming days. 

    Twelve conference tournaments will kick off in the next week, with Wichita State's quest for continued perfection in the Missouri Valley being one of the top storylines. 

    Along with the Missouri Valley, we took a look here at each of the conference tournaments that start this week to get you 100 percent ready for March Madness.

Patriot League

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When: March 3-12

    Where: Site of highest-seeded remaining team(s)

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Boston University (22-9, 15-3)

    If all goes right for the Terriers, they will not have to leave the home comforts of Case Gym in order to earn their first automatic berth out of the Patriot League.

    Boston University last advanced to the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 2011, when it was a member of the America East.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Bucknell (16-13, 11-7)

    The Bison, who have won their last six contests, will host Army in the quarterfinal round on March 5, with a game against Boston U. awaiting the winner.

    The Terriers' last loss came at the hands of Bucknell on February 23 in Boston. The other game of the season series went in Boston U.'s favor by three points.

    Bucknell also brings a ton of experience into the postseason, having been the conference's lone NCAA tournament representative last year.

    Player to Watch: Maurice Watson, Boston University

    The sophomore guard helped propel the Terriers to their first Patriot League regular-season title by scoring 13.4 points per game and shooting 50.2 percent from the field.

Atlantic Sun

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    When: March 4-9

    Where: Site of highest-seeded remaining team(s)

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Florida Gulf Coast (20-11, 14-4)

    Remember these guys?

    FGCU finished the regular season tied with Mercer for the best record in the Atlantic Sun, but it earned the top seed on a tiebreaker.

    The Eagles' cast is mostly the same from last season, with familiar names like Chase Fieler and Eric McKnight still around.

    Their head coach from last season, Andy Enfield, is not around anymore after ditching FGCU for USC, where he is 1-15 in the Pac-12.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Mercer (23-8, 14-4)

    Calling Mercer an upset threat does not do its season justice, but it will be considered an upset if the Bears go into Alico Arena and beat FGCU in the final.

    The Bears do come into the tournament with wins in just two of their last four games, a streak that began with a 14-point loss in Fort Myers to FGCU.

    Mercer will be driven by the loss at home in last season's tournament final to the team that eventually became the best Cinderella story in a long time.

    Player to Watch: Langston Hall, Mercer

    Hall has been one of the best all-around mid-major players this season with 14.9 points and 5.5 assists per game.

    The senior guard is also averaging three rebounds per game and is shooting 40.1 percent from three-point range. 

Horizon League

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    When: March 4-11

    Where: Site of the highest-seeded remaining team(s)

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Green Bay (24-5, 14-2)

    If you're looking for a mid-major to make a surprise run in March, Green Bay could be just that.

    The Phoenix are 24-5 and have won seven of their last eight games to earn the top spot in the Horizon League tournament.

    Green Bay will have to play just two games to make it to the Big Dance, and it should take care of business at the Resch Center.

    If, for some reason, Green Bay can't get the job done, we could be talking about it as a team on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Wright State (18-13, 10-6)

    Entering the tournament as the third seed, Wright State must win three games in order to qualify for March Madness and make Green Bay a potential at-large entrant.

    The Raiders have recovered from a three-game skid in late January to win five of their last six games. The only loss in that stretch came against No. 2 seed Cleveland State, which they should see in the semifinals.

    If you're worried about Wright State winning on the road in a do-or-die situation, take into account that it won on the road at Cleveland State and challenged Green Bay on its travels.

    Player to Watch: Keifer Sykes, Green Bay

    Sykes is averaging 20.4 points per game, 4.5 more than his average last season, and is shooting 80.9 percent from the foul line.

Ohio Valley

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    When: March 5-8

    Where: Nashville Municipal Auditorium; Nashville, Tenn. 

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Belmont (23-8, 14-2)

    In two seasons in the Ohio Valley Conference, Belmont has won two regular-season titles, and it is the favorite to earn its second automatic berth to the NCAA tournament as well. 

    Head coach Rick Byrd has led his Bruins to the NCAA tournament in six of the last eight years. Expect that trend to continue this season. 

    Biggest Upset Threat: Eastern Kentucky (21-9, 11-5)

    With four straight wins to end the season, Eastern Kentucky earned the No. 3 seed in the OVC tournament, which lines it up for a potential semifinal clash with No. 2 Murray State. 

    The Colonels are 1-2 against the top two teams in the conference, so an upset would be tough to pull off. Then again, this is March, where the unexpected occurs. 

    That lone win against the top two came against Belmont back on January 16 at home, which is something that could give the Colonels a confidence boost if they reach the final.

    Player to Watch: Jarvis Williams, Murray State

    We may be overlooking the Racers a bit here, but if they do run the table in Nashville, they will have Jarvis Williams to thank. 

    Williams is averaging a double-double per game (14.5 points, 10.4 rebounds) while shooting an excellent 63.3 percent from the field.

Big South

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    When: March 5, 7-9

    Where: HTC Center; Conway, S.C.

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Coastal Carolina (18-12, 11-5)

    Coastal Carolina may have the second-best regular-season record in the Big South, but the South Division champs will stay home at the HTC Center for the Big South tournament. 

    With the home crowd behind them for all three potential games on the road to the Big Dance, the Chanticleers have to be considered the favorite here. 

    Coastal Carolina has an easier path to the final than High Point, the top team from the North Division, does.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Winthrop (17-12, 10-6)

    Given the parity in the conference, three or four teams could legitimately pull off upsets at the HTC Center.

    Seven of the 12 teams headed to Conway won 10 or more games in league play, one of which is Winthrop.

    For the Eagles, who are seeded fourth in the South Division, to earn a near-guaranteed trip to Dayton for the First Four, they will have to win four games in five days and upset High Point in the quarterfinals. 

    Winthrop is a team that has given the higher seeds in the tournament trouble all season, and if it reaches the final against Coastal Carolina, it will look for its third win of the season over the Chanticleers. 

    Player to Watch: John Brown, High Point

    Brown has scored in double digits in every game since the Panthers' loss to Arkansas on December 28, and is averaging 19.6 points per game. 

    If the Panthers are to break through the difficult part of their bracket, Brown must continue his strong play to keep his team's six-game winning streak alive.


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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    When: March 5-11

    Where: Site of highest-seeded remaining team(s)

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Robert Morris (19-12, 14-2)

    The Colonials received a massive amount of attention last March when they defeated Kentucky in the first round of the NIT.

    Now, Robert Morris has a chance to give the folks in Moon Township, Pa., something else to celebrate: a NCAA tournament berth.

    Whoever wins this conference is almost guaranteed to earn a No. 16 seed and a possible trip to Dayton, but that doesn't matter to the small schools in this conference. A berth is something worth celebrating, no matter the circumstances.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Bryant University (18-13, 10-6)

    Any time a team contains two players who average over 18 points per game, it will be hard to stop in March.

    That is the case with the Bryant Bulldogs, who feature Alex Francis (19.0 ppg) and Dyami Starks (18.9 ppg).

    The Bulldogs could have easily been the top team in the tournament, but they lost four of their final six contests to slip down to the No. 3 seed.

    Player to Watch: Karvel Anderson, Robert Morris

    Karvel Anderson has done Francis and Starks one better this season by averaging 19.6 points per game in his senior campaign.

    Anderson has also put up some striking point totals, having scored 20 or more points in 15 games, including  his last four regular-season games. 


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    When: March 6-10

    Where: MassMutual Center; Springfield, Mass. 

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Iona (20-9, 17-3)

    Based on how the regular season went for Iona, it is in perfect shape to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. 

    The Gaels struggled in nonconference play because of a tough schedule that featured Kansas, Dayton and Nevada, but they have responded well in league play by losing just three times. 

    Only one of those defeats have come since January 19, and that was an overtime heartbreaker to Manhattan in the penultimate game of the season. 

    Biggest Upset Threat: Manhattan (22-7, 15-5)

    Everything is pointing in the direction of a rematch from last season's conference final between Manhattan and Iona. 

    The Jaspers are the No. 2 seed heading into the MAAC tournament, and they have lost just once since the start of February. 

    With the regular-season overtime win over Iona already in its back pocket, expect Manhattan to play with an extra edge in the conference final if form holds. 

    Player to Watch: George Beamon, Manhattan

    Beamon is the star of the Jaspers team with 19.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. 

    While Iona boasts a roster with five players who average over 10 points per game, the Jaspers have just two players in that category: seniors Beamon and Michael Alvarado. 

    For the Jaspers to get over the hump and advance to the Big Dance, Beamon must step up and provide senior leadership, particularly toward the end of games.

Missouri Valley

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    Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    When: March 6-9

    Where: Scottrade Center; St. Louis, Mo.

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Wichita State (31-0, 18-0)

    After completing its undefeated regular season on Saturday, Wichita State is fully focused on making sure there is no "Arch Madness" this year in St. Louis. 

    The Shockers didn't face much competition this season in a league that was weakened by the departure of Creighton to the Big East.

    Regardless of who was on its schedule, Wichita State still took care of business, and should be expected to continue its dominance in the conference tournament.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Indiana State (21-9, 12-6)

    The team with the best chance of throwing the bubble into total chaos is Indiana State. 

    The Sycamores are the only other respectably good team in the conference, but they lost their final three games to end at 12-6 in conference and 21-9 overall.

    If Indiana State, or any other team, can upset Wichita State, it will hand the Missouri Valley two bids to the Big Dance.

    Player to Watch: Ron Baker, Wichita State

    Every player on the Wichita State roster deserves this superlative, but Ron Baker's contributions to the Shockers' perfect season deserve to be recognized here.

    Baker upped his points per game average by 5.4 points from his freshman season, and he continues to improve with every game.

West Coast

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    When: March 6-11

    Where: Orleans Arena; Las Vegas, Nev. 

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Gonzaga (25-6, 15-3)

    Just like almost every year in the last decade and a half, Gonzaga is the favorite to win the West Coast Conference tournament. 

    Mark Few does not have his best squad this season, but he has plenty of guys who can perform at the highest level. 

    The Bulldogs will once again have a target on their backs, and if they fall, they could still earn an at-large berth. 

    Biggest Upset Threat: San Francisco (20-10, 13-5)

    The Dons are lined up on the opposite end of the bracket as Gonzaga, which means all they have to do is beat No. 2 seed BYU for the first time this season to get a shot at a trip to the NCAA tournament. 

    San Francisco has won six of its last seven games, but it will not be taken seriously as an upset pick until it improves its 0-4 record against Gonzaga and BYU.

    Player to Watch: Tyler Haws, BYU

    Haws has been the best player in the WCC this season, and if he wants to showcase his talent under brighter lights in March, he must lead the Cougars to at least the tournament final.

    He certainly capable of leading BYU to the promised land because of his offensive consistency. He has not scored under double digits once this season and is averaging 23.4 points per game.

Southern Conference

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When: March 7-10

    Where: U.S. Cellular Center; Asheville, N.C.

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Davidson (19-11, 15-1)

    After winning its third consecutive regular-season title in the Southern Conference, Davidson will look to earn its third straight trip to the field of 68. 

    The Wildcats were seconds away from an upset win in last year's NCAA tournament, but they fell to Marquette in one of the best games of the tournament. 

    To make the Big Dance once again, Davidson must win the conference tournament in this one-bid league. 

    Biggest Upset Threat: Elon (18-13, 11-5)

    The only team to take down Davidson in SoCon play this season was Elon, who could play the Wildcats in the semifinals. 

    The Phoenix were on an eight-game winning streak through January and most of February before falling to Wofford and Davidson to close out the season. 

    If it beats Davidson in the semis, which is a big if, Elon could use that momentum to become one of the surprise teams to earn an automatic berth. 

    Player to Watch: De'Mon Brooks, Davidson

    Brooks basically does everything for Davidson. 

    He is the team's leading scorer (18.4 PPG) and rebounder (7.0 RPG), and he shoots the ball pretty well, too. Brooks has drained 59.0 percent of his field-goal attempts and boasts a 42.9 percent mark from beyond the arc.

Colonial Athletic Association

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    When: March 7-10

    Where: Baltimore Arena; Baltimore, Md.

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Delaware (22-9, 14-2)

    The Fightin' Blue Hens search for their first NCAA tournament bid since 1999 will not be an easy one, but they do get to avoid the two other top contenders for the tournament title until the final. 

    Monte Ross' team lost its only two conference games in the last three weeks, which is something that may fend off some fans eager to pick them. 

    For Delaware to advance to the Big Dance, it must take down Drexel, a team that beat it on February 23, and either Towson or William & Mary, which will most likely play in a must-see semifinal.

    Biggest Upset Threat: Towson (22-9, 13-3)

    There is no better story to come out of college basketball in the last two years than Towson.

    Head coach Pat Skerry and Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon have worked the basketball version of a miracle for a team that was once the laughingstock of the nation. 

    After being ineligible for the postseason in 2013, the Tigers will be hungry to prove that they are going to be a team to watch out of the CAA for years to come. 

    Player to Watch: Devon Saddler, Delaware

    Benimon may be the player everyone is familiar with, but Saddler has had himself one heck of a career for the Blue Hens. 

    Saddler has averaged over 18 points per game in his last three seasons, and his game has risen even more this season as he broke the 20-point threshold with 20.2 points per game.

America East

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    When: March 8-9, 15

    Where: SEFCU Arena; Albany, N.Y. and site of highest-remaining seed

    Favorite to Win Tournament: Vermont (21-9, 15-1)

    Vermont is primed to head back to the NCAA tournament following a year's absence after earning the No. 1 seed in the America East tournament. 

    In one of the most unique formats in the nation, the Catamounts will play their first two games in Albany on a neutral court, but if they win both of those games, they will host the final. 

    With one more home game in its sights, Vermont shouldn't slip up against New Hampshire in the quarterfinals and versus either Albany or UMBC in the semifinals. 

    Biggest Upset Threat: Hartford (16-15, 10-6)

    Hartford closed its regular season by winning six of its final seven games, with the lone loss coming at the hands of Vermont. 

    The Hawks will need to get past No. 2-seeded Stony Brook, whom they lost to twice, in order to reach the final, but it is a task that a hot team could pull off.

    Player to Watch: Jameel Warney, Stony Brook

    Warney's 14.9 points per game helped the Seawolves earn a 13-3 record in conference play and a chance to host the tournament final if Vermont slips up.

    If Warney plays strong in the first two rounds, Stony Brook could earn a tournament berth even if it has to travel to Vermont on the day before Selection Sunday. 

    Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.