With the start of the new month, March Madness officially gets underway. As usual, the Big South and Horizon League tournaments will be the first conference tournaments of the year, both starting on March 1.
With that, here is a preview of the Big South tournament. The first round is played on March 1, the semifinals on March 3 and the championship game on March 5.
Quarterfinals, March 1 (Hosted by higher seed)
Game 1: No. 2 Liberty vs. No. 7 High Point
Liberty may be a very high seed in the Big South tournament, but the Flames used early season success to get to that point. Just a few weeks ago, the Flames stood at 13-2 with the only two losses coming to first place Coastal Carolina.
Now, they have lost four straight games, three of them being to Big South opponents.
Despite Liberty's recent struggles, the Flames still will not have too much trouble making the semifinals, mainly because of rebounding and three-point shooting.
The Flames are one of the top rebounding squads in the nation, while High Point only averages 34.2 RPG.
Also, the Panthers' best games have come when they shoot well from beyond the arc. High Point seems to be a streaky team in terms of shooting, and I doubt they will be able to get on a roll against Liberty's perimeter defense, which allows opponents to only shoot 31 percent from three-point range.
My pick: Liberty by 14
Game 2: No. 3 UNC-Asheville vs. No. 6 Charleston Southern
Despite a differential in seeding, this should be a good, tight game. These two teams match up well, and the season series was split with both games being close.
One deciding factor in this game will be turnovers. Both teams force a lot of of turnovers, but both also turn the ball over more than they would like. In the second meeting between the two teams, there were 41 turnovers total.
Another deciding factor will be rebounding. In each of the regular season meetings, the team that won the battle on the glass won the game.
My pick: UNC-Asheville by four
Game 3: No. 1 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 8 Gardner-Webb
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Coastal Carolina held the nation's longest winning streak, but the team has unraveled with suspensions and injuries to fall back to a team that can be beaten in the Big South. And by the way, one of the Chanticleers' two losses came at home to Gardner-Webb.
The main reason the Chanticleers lost that game was because they shot poorly from the field and from three-point range. Coastal Carolina, which averages nearly five three-pointers a game, only made one in that game.
Plus, the Chanticleers shot less than 40 percent from the field.
That is not at all what Coastal Carolina basketball is about.
The Chanticleers are No. 5 in the nation in field goal percentage at 48.9 percent. They need to come at least close to hitting that mark in order to send Gardner-Webb home without an upset.
Looking for an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1993 on their home floor, the Chanticleers will not miss enough shots for Gardner-Webb to have a legitimate chance.
My pick: Coastal Carolina by 10
Game 4: No. 4 VMI vs. No. 5 Winthrop
Winthrop might not have the offense to keep up with VMI, but VMI has enough of a lack of defense. Although the Keydets lead the nation in scoring, Winthrop has been able to keep up with them in both meetings this season. In the first meeting, Winthrop won in overtime. When the Keydets visited Winthrop, they won by four.
So, it should be a good matchup between two teams that were at the top of the Big South just a few years ago.
In a playoff atmosphere, Winthrop's defense will prove itself to be more powerful than VMI's offense. Although the game will still most likely be higher scoring than Winthrop would have liked, the Eagles will advance to the semifinals.
My pick: Winthrop by five
Semifinals, March 3 on ESPNU (Hosted by Coastal Carolina)
Game 5: No. 2 Liberty vs. No. 3 UNC-Asheville
UNC-Asheville will be set up for another close game in the semifinals. The Flames swept the Bulldogs in the regular season, but only by a total of six points. The Bulldogs will be at a disadvantage since Liberty is the superior team, but they cannot be counted out yet on the neutral site.
Although the general stats and numbers favor UNC-Asheville, Liberty was really able to control the Bulldogs from using their strengths during the regular season.
UNC-Asheville's two biggest strengths are field goal percentage and its ability to force turnovers. In each regular season meeting, Liberty fell victim to one but limited the other.
In the first meeting, despite Liberty's 21 turnovers, the Bulldogs only shot 18-for-51 from the field. In the second meeting, UNC-Asheville shot 53.8 percent but Liberty only turned the ball over 12 times.
UNC-Asheville is simply not good enough to beat Liberty, but the Bulldogs are good enough to play close.
My pick: Liberty by seven
Game 6: No. 1 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 5 Winthrop
Winthrop took Coastal Carolina down to the wire twice—and that was when Coastal Carolina was winning games. If Winthrop could take a full-power Coastal Carolina team down to the wire, the Eagles should at least stand a chance against a depleted version of the same team.
First, Winthrop is a defensive-minded team that has the potential to shut down Coastal Carolina. In both meetings this season, Winthrop held the Chanticleers below their scoring average.
The one real shaky spot for Winthrop is turnovers. The Chanticleers' opponents average 15 turnovers per game. Winthrop is not terrible at taking care of the ball, but the Eagles sometimes have the tendency to turn the ball over.
If Winthrop can take care of the ball, it will have the first big upset of March.
My pick: Winthrop by two
Championship, March 5 on ESPN2 (Hosted by higher seed)
Game 7: No. 2 Liberty vs. No. 5 Winthrop
Winthrop almost won at Liberty early in the season and then completely controlled the game in the second meeting just a few days ago when the Eagles won 61-56 at home.
The key in this game will be how many times Winthrop can turn Liberty over. I am making my mark for Winthrop to be 15 Liberty turnovers.
Liberty has struggled with taking care of the ball all season long. Against defensive-minded teams, the Flames have really struggled.
So get ready for parties in Rock Hill as Winthrop goes to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and the sixth time in the last seven years.
My pick: Winthrop by two
And now, here is a preview for the opening round of the Horizon League tournament.
First Round, March 1 (Hosted by higher seed)
Game 1: No. 3 Cleveland State vs. No. 10 Illinois-Chicago
UIC will be no match for Cleveland State. Although the Vikings had a few slip-ups late in the regular season, they have in no way fallen far enough that they would lose a first round game to UIC.
My pick: Cleveland State by 18
Game 2: No. 6 Wright State vs. No. 7 Green Bay
A few weeks ago, Wright State was a legitimate contender for a Horizon League title. However, the Raiders lost four straight Horizon League games and are no longer in such a favorable position in the conference.
In addition, the Raiders are playing Green Bay, who have been playing much better basketball the past week. The Phoenix took down Valparaiso, then defeated Youngstown State on the road and then nearly beat Cleveland State on the road. Also, the Phoenix almost beat Wright State in both regular season meetings, so Green Bay knows it can contend with the higher seeded team.
Despite that, here is why Wright State will win. The Raiders have the best defense in the Horizon League, only allowing 61.7 PPG. Green Bay plays its best basketball when the score gets into the seventies and eighties.
My pick: Wright State by five
Game 3: No. 4 Valparaiso vs. No. 9 Youngstown State
Although Valparaiso is not such a strong three-point shooting team as a whole, there are a few Crusaders who know how to shoot well. Youngstown State has the third worst three-point defense in the Horizon League, so Brandon Wood and Ryan Broekhoff should make sure they are ready to shoot on Tuesday.
My pick: Valparaiso by nine
Game 4: No. 5 Detroit vs. No. 8 Loyola (IL)
Detroit looked great at Wright State in the final game of the regular season. However, Loyola looked strong down the stretch, winning three of its last four Horizon League games. The one loss came in a close game at Butler.
Detroit won each of the regular season games by double digits. Although I expect this game to be a little closer than the regular season meetings, Detroit will still hold on.
Loyola relies heavily on three-point shooting, and Detroit is one of the better squads in the Horizon League when it comes to defending the perimeter.
My pick: Detroit by seven
Follow Jesse Kramer on Twitter @Jesse_Kramer for more college basketball news.