The NCAA Tournament landscape hinges on what happens in the lesser conference tournaments, which tip off tonight in the Horizon, Big South and Ohio Valley.
There might be more upsets this week than in the first weekend of the Big Dance, which is bad news for the major conference at-large teams.
While the nation waits 12 more days for its bracket, there are some compelling storylines in the conference tourneys this year.
Many of smaller conferences do not have a true top dog this season and more mid-majors and lower-end conferences could receive at-large bids than ever before.
Here’s how the first 16 conference tournaments might go down.
American East (RPI: 24)
Vermont: The Catamounts have the best RPI in the conference and have beaten the second-best team, Stony Brook, twice this season.
Atlantic Sun (25)
Belmont: The league’s top three teams are within 20 points of each other in the RPI, but Belmont owns wins over the other two and has won 10 of its last 12 games.
Big Sky (18)
Northern Colorado: Weber State is the favorite here, but Northern Colorado has won 15 of its last 19 while Weber State has questionable losses to Portland State and Montana. Northern Colorado beat Weber State at home but fell to the Wildcats by six on the road.
Big South (27)
Coastal Carolina: The Chanticleers have the best RPI and record (15-3) in the Big South — yes they play a Big East-like 18-game conference schedule — and have beaten every team in the conference at least once.
Colonial Athletic (12)
Northeastern: The surprisingly strong Colonial Athletic Conference boasts four teams in the RPI’s top 100. But the biggest surprise is Northeastern. The Huskies started the season 2-7 before winning 17 of its next 21 games. Old Dominion is the league’s flagship this season but Northeastern beat ODU by 10 at home in the only meeting of the season. If Northeastern wins the conference tournament, Old Dominion is good enough to receive an at-large bid.
Butler: Butler is in the top 25 and it boasts wins over Xavier and Ohio State. The Bulldogs are 18-0 in conference and should sweep through the conference tournament.
Metro Atlantic (15)
Siena: Three of this league’s teams are in the RPI’s top 100 but Siena has lost only once against league opponents (17-1).
Kent State: The Golden Flashes have won 12 of 13 and own the best conference record (12-3). It has a top-50 RPI and beat three other potential tournament teams in Wofford, Morehead State and UAB.
Missouri Valley (9)
Illinois State: This league has five teams in the RPI’s top 100. Northern Iowa, which blazed through the first half of the season with 15 straight wins and a top-25 ranking, has stumbled in February at Bradley and at Evansville — the last-place team in the Missouri Valley. Illinois State was blown out by Northern Iowa at the start of the conference season but lost by only six on the road Feb. 27. The gap has closed somewhat and Illinois State has won six of its last seven. If the Redbirds pull an upset in the conference tournament, the MVC should see two teams headed for the Big Dance.
Mount St. Mary’s: While ranked near the bottom of all conferences in Division I, Mount St. Mary’s has been dancing before. Quinnipiac and Robert Morris have better records but Mount St. Mary’s is riding a 10-game winning streak.
Ohio Valley (20)
Murray State: A down year by Ohio Valley standards has Murray State in a familiar spot atop the league rankings. The OVC should only see one team in the NCAA Tournament — its automatic bid.
Lehigh: There is only one team from this league not ranked below 200 in the RPI and it’s Lehigh.
Wofford: The Terriers have the league’s best record and have won 16 of 17 headed into the postseason.
Oakland: This league is a tossup between the Golden Grizzlies and IUPUI. The two teams split the regular season meetings and a rubber band matchup could easily go either way. Oakland has only one loss in 2010 and IUPUI has lost four times since the calendar turned.
Sun Belt (22)
Western Kentucky: Western Kentucky has dominated the Sun Belt in recent years and has made more than one Sweet 16 run in the Big Dance. This year the Hilltoppers are looking up at Troy in the conference standings. Troy beat WKU by 8 in the first meeting, but it dominated Troy in the second, winning by 18.
West Coast (14)
St. Mary’s: Gonzaga is the king of the West Coast Conference and St. Mary’s has lost both tries against the Bulldogs. Gonzaga meanwhile lost at San Francisco and at Loyola Marymount. Nostalgia aside (SF’s national titles of the 1950s and Hank Gathers), those are bad losses. Look for St. Mary’s to finally get over the Gonzaga hump and get back to the NCAA Tournament.
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