Early Predictions for the Champions of Every 2020 CBB Conference Tournament
We're only days away from March, which means March Madness is nearly upon us. Between now and then, a number of teams still have to book their ticket to the men's NCAA tournament.
Most of the conversation surrounding Selection Sunday has to do with seeding and bubble teams, but nearly half of the field is made up of teams that win their conference tournaments.
For mid-major leagues with only one bid on the line, one hot streak can give any team a shot at immortality.
With several of these tournaments beginning in earnest next Tuesday, let's take an early stab at predicting all 32 victors.
America East: Vermont (22-7, 12-2)
The Catamounts have won 12 of their last 13, boast a road win over St. John's and came within six points of defeating Virginia in Charlottesville.
Atlantic Sun: Liberty (26-3, 12-2)
There's a tight regular season title race between Liberty and second-place North Florida here, as the teams tied their season series, but the Flames' road win against high-major Vanderbilt gives them a narrow edge.
Big Sky: Northern Colorado (19-8, 12-4)
Behind the efficient play of lead guard Jonah Radebaugh (16.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 6.4 APG), the Bears have won seven of their last eight games.
Big South: Winthrop (19-10, 13-3)
Both the Eagles and Radford have beaten high-level opponents on the road, and they split their season series. But Winthrop's defeat of bubble team St. Mary's makes it a slight favorite.
Big West: UC Irvine (19-10, 11-2)
A top-10 rebounding team nationwide, the Anteaters have won 11 of their last 13, defeated Boise State on the road, and hung tough with TCU in Fort Worth.
Colonial: Hofstra (22-7, 13-3)
The Pride are a top-40 offensive team in the NCAA, have won nine games in a row, and beat UCLA in Westwood this year.
Conference USA: North Texas (18-10, 12-3)
Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech are hot on the trail of the Mean Green, but UNT ranks fifth in the country in true shooting percentage and has lost only three games since Christmas.
Horizon League: Wright State (24-6, 14-3)
Despite leading Northern Kentucky by only one game, the Raiders beat the Norse by 32 points in January, boast a top-20 offense in the country, and are primed for their second tourney appearance in three seasons.
Ivy League: Yale (20-6, 8-2)
Despite a mere one-game difference separating Yale from Princeton and Harvard, the Bulldogs' nearly spotless nonconference slate and near-upset of North Carolina makes them a far more formidable threat.
MAAC: Siena (15-10, 11-5)
Despite abysmal home-road splits, the Saints boast an energetic inside-out duo with Jalen Pickett (15.5 PPG, 5.6 APG, 4.5 RPG, 46.2 FG%) and Notre Dame transfer Elijah Burns (14.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 62.8 FG%), and have won eight of their last nine games.
MAC: Akron (21-6, 11-3)
The Zips have won 16 games by double-digits this year, and they nearly upset then-second ranked Louisville on the road in November.
MEAC: Norfolk State (13-15, 9-4)
After a rough nonconference stint, the Spartans have rebounded the past few months, winning 10 of their last 16 games and seven by at least 10 points.
Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa (23-5, 12-4)
Despite a recent two-game losing streak, the Panthers own the seventh-best offensive rating in the country, have wins over South Carolina and Colorado, and boast a supreme bucket-getter in AJ Green (19.8 PPG, 40.7 3PT%, 92.0 FT%).
Mountain West: San Diego State (26-1, 15-1)
This one is pretty straightforward. The Aztecs just lost their first game of the year Saturday, have beaten BYU, Creighton, Iowa and Utah, and boast 20 wins by double digits. Barring a strange turn of events, they'll be a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Northeast: St. Francis (PA) (19-8, 12-4)
Despite trailing conference leader Merrimack by a half-game, the Red Flash are on a seven-game winning streak and boast a dynamite backcourt with Keith Braxton (16.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 3.7 APG) and Isaiah Blackmon (19.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 46.1 FG%, 43.8 3PT%).
Ohio Valley: Belmont (22-7, 13-3)
The Bruins have gotten hot at the right time. They're riding a current eight-game winning streak and have wins over Austin Peay and Murray State, the two teams currently tied with them for first place in the OVC.
Patriot: Colgate (22-7, 13-3)
The Raiders edged out a road win over Cincinnati in December, boast a legitimate shooter at every position on the floor, and have handled most Patriot League teams with ease this year.
Southern: East Tennessee State (25-4, 14-2)
One of this year's big tournament sleepers, the Buccaneers boast the ninth-best offensive rating in the country, eight players scoring at least five points per game, and an 11-point road win over LSU.
Southland: Stephen F. Austin (24-3, 15-1)
Stephen F. Austin is consistently one of the most dominant low-major teams in the country. With an upset of Duke and a current 11-game winning streak under its belt this year, 2019-20 is no different.
SWAC: Prairie View A&M (16-11, 12-2)
The Panthers have won 13 of their last 15 games, with the two losses coming by only a combined seven points. Having dynamic senior guard Gerald Andrus (14.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 54.3 FG%) at the helm doesn't hurt, either.
Summit: South Dakota State (22-8, 13-2)
After a hiatus from March Madness last season, the Jackrabbits are ready to play spoiler once more. They boast a top-20 offense and a standout big man in Douglas Wilson (18.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 62.9 FG%).
Sun Belt: Texas State (19-10, 12-6)
Thanks to a standout season from Nijal Pearson (19.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 22.2 PER) and winning 11 of their last 13 games, the Bobcats are in prime position to take charge of the Sun Belt next week.
WAC: New Mexico State (22-6, 13-0)
The Aggies have a few bad early-season blemishes on their resume, but they are undefeated in the WAC and haven't lost since Christmas. Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in March, beware.
WCC: Gonzaga (27-2, 13-1)
Death, taxes and Gonzaga winning the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs aren't as talented as last year's all-time great team, but head coach Mark Few has Filip Petrusev, Killian Tillie and Co. within striking range of a No. 1 seed.
Predicted Winner: Houston (21-7, 11-4)
It's been a competitive year in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati (18-9, 11-4) is tied for first place, Tulsa (18-9, 10-4) is a half-game behind, Wichita State (20-7, 8-6) just had a three-game winning streak, and teams like SMU (18-8, 8-6) and Memphis (19-8, 8-6) have had moments of greatness as well.
But right now, Houston is leading the pack.
In his sixth season with the Cougars, head coach Kelvin Sampson continues to impress. Houston is a ferocious defensive team, ranking second in the nation in total rebound percentage and 11th overall in block percentage.
Add that paint-oriented dominance to an intriguing quartet of guards, including former McDonald's All-American and Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes, and this Houston team has as high of a ceiling as any under Sampson's tutelage.
The Cougars have lost two of their last three games, so they're far from bulletproof, especially given their competitors. It's tempting to favor the pedigree of Wichita State or even the star power of a team like Memphis.
But Houston's game-to-game consistency and veteran experience has it primed for a third consecutive NCAA tournament berth, and that should also be enough to help the Cougars win their first conference tournament in a decade.
Predicted Winner: Dayton (25-2, 14-0)
The Atlantic 10 is on pace for three NCAA tournament bids this year, per ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
However, the Dayton Flyers have spent the 2019-20 season treating it like a low-major league.
After going 21-12 and finishing third in the A-10 last year, the Flyers have taken a major leap forward. They've lost only two games this year, both of which were to high-major teams (Kansas and Colorado) and both of which went to overtime.
Despite facing a fairly good collection of in-conference opponents, Dayton is undefeated in the A-10, with four wins of more than 15 points. Forward Obi Toppin (19.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 62.7 FG%) is a likely All-American and potential lottery pick, while guard Jalen Crutcher (15.0 PPG, 4.9 APG, 45.8 FG%, 42.4 3PT%) is a surefire All-A-10 team candidate.
The question is not whether Dayton will win its conference tournament, but how deep into March the team can advance. Given how unpredictable this regular season has been nationwide, don't be surprised if the Flyers make it to April.
Predicted Winner: Duke (23-4, 13-3)
The Duke Blue Devils have gone through some ups and downs this season, but they're approaching the ACC tournament with real momentum.
Aside from last week's concerning 22-point loss to NC State (17-10, 8-8), the Blue Devils are playing their best basketball of the year. Duke has won eight of its last nine games, including a five-point win over eighth-ranked Florida State (24-4, 14-3), and is one of only three teams with a top-10 offense and top-10 defense, per KenPom.com. Kansas and San Diego State are the other two teams which fit that bill.
Florida State, Louisville (23-6, 14-4) and Virginia (19-7, 11-5) are likely the biggest challengers to Duke's supremacy. FSU boasts several long winning streaks and some impressive victories, Louisville is an elite shooting team, and Virginia's pedigree and defensive ceiling give it a chance in every game.
Duke boasts all three of those players and arguably the best resume in the ACC, which makes it the favorite.
Predicted Winner: Creighton (22-6, 11-4)
In Myles Powell, Seton Hall (20-7, 12-3) has the best player in the Big East. In Jay Wright, Villanova (21-6, 10-4) has the best coach in the Big East.
But Creighton has the best team in the Big East.
Greg McDermott's club boasts one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. Ranked sixth by KenPom, the Bluejays have scored 80 or more points in 15 games this year, and have recorded a 55.2 effective field goal percentage, tied for 14th in the nation.
And in case you're dubious of high-flying offenses translating to a postseason setting, Creighton has defeated Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Arizona State, three nonconference teams with legitimate March Madness cases, as well as Big East wins over Marquette (twice), Providence, Seton Hall and Villanova.
In a conference including Powell and Markus Howard as well as Villanova, a relatively anonymous team like Creighton may not stand out. But McDermott has brought the best out of this group throughout this season, and at this point, the Bluejays are a threat to explode against anybody.
Predicted Winner: Maryland (22-5, 12-4)
Michigan State entered the season as the No. 1-ranked team in the country and was among the front-runners to win the national title. The Spartans now sit in a tie for second place in the Big Ten with an 18-9 record.
Maryland has usurped them atop the conference hierarchy.
The Terps were ranked seventh in the preseason AP Top 25, and this season has confirmed all of their on-paper potential. Mark Turgeon's club ranks 10th nationwide in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency metric and boasts quality nonconference victories over Rhode Island, Marquette and Notre Dame.
Maryland faces good competition from nearly half the conference. Even Ohio State (17-9, 7-8), which is tied for ninth in the league, remains a ranked team. However, the Terrapins have already beaten every team in the Big Ten besides Penn State (20-7, 10-6) and Wisconsin (17-10, 10-6).
In a conference with nine of KenPom's top 25 defenses, the Terps' relentless D mixed with offensive sparks from Anthony Cowan (16.4 PPG, 4.6 APG) and Jalen Smith (15.1 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.3 BPG) makes them the current favorite.
Predicted Winner: Kansas (25-3, 14-1)
This is a two-horse race, and we got a sneak preview of it this past weekend, with then-third-ranked Kansas triumphing over top-ranked Baylor (24-2, 13-1).
The Bears have had an extraordinary season. They've lost only two games by a combined six points, boast one of the most fearsome defenses in all of college basketball and have four wins over currently ranked teams, including a road victory over the Jayhawks. This is as close to a toss-up as possible.
But as we hear every March, postseason success is inextricable with a team's recent performance. Baylor just ripped off a 23-game winning streak end and is likely to finish out its season with a few more wins, but Bill Self, Udoka Azubuike (13.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 74.0 FG%) and the Jayhawks seemed to unlock something this weekend after losing by 12 against the Bears in January.
It would be reasonable to pick Baylor to win the Big 12 tournament. After years of starting strong and faltering in conference play, Scott Drew has delivered his best-ever coaching job. But for the time being, we're going with this conference's old faithful.
Predicted Winner: Arizona (19-7, 9-5)
After missing the NCAA tournament last season, the Arizona Wildcats have returned to form this year.
Behind a trio of freshmen—big man Zeke Nnaji (16.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 58.5 FG%), point guard Nico Mannion (13.7 PPG, 5.4 APG, 17.5 PER) and athletic wing Josh Green (11.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.6 SPG)—head coach Sean Miller has Arizona back in the March Madness picture.
The Wildcats are one of only eight teams nationwide (and the only Pac-12 team) to have a top-25 offense and top-25 defense, per KenPom. They have won 11 games by at least 15 points, including a 21-point victory over then-20th-ranked Colorado.
At only 9-5 in conference play, Arizona is in fifth place in the Pac-12, behind four teams with 10 or more conference wins. The Wildcats also have several bad losses on their resume, including a 17-point loss at Oregon State. However, they have two lottery-level talents with Mannion and Green, and Miller is the most experienced postseason coach in the conference.
It's reasonable to pick a team like Colorado (21-7, 10-5) or Oregon (21-7, 10-5) given their respective levels of consistency and more difficult schedules, but we'll take the higher-ceiling team from Tucson.
Predicted Winner: Kentucky (22-5, 12-2)
By now, this is a pattern for John Calipari's best teams. They struggle early on, he talks about how disappointed he is, and by the end of the regular season, they're close to firing on all cylinders.
Make no mistake, this 2019-20 team does not compare to Calipari's best clubs. But they're following this pattern as well.
Out of UK's five losses, four of them were by six or fewer points, and three of those were to fellow high-major schools. The only defeat worth worrying about came at the hands of Auburn (23-4, 10-4), which is probably Kentucky's greatest challenger in the tournament.
The Wildcats are ranked eighth right now, while the Tigers are 15th. Auburn has a higher total winning percentage. Point forward Isaac Okoro is a potential lottery pick. There are numerous reasons to favor Auburn. However, the Tigers have lost two of their last three to Missouri and Georgia, two of the worst teams in the SEC, while the Wildcats have won 10 of their last 11.
Auburn may have a better overall resume, but so much of a team's success depends on getting hot at the right time, and Kentucky is in a groove right now.