Early Predictions for the Champions of Every 2021 CBB Conference Tournament
March is around the corner, which means one thing: March Madness is imminent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the 2021 college basketball season, but the NCAA still plans to stage the men's and women's tournaments, and conference tournaments are expected to take place, at least for now.
Much of the NCAA tournament field is made up of the automatic qualifiers who win their conference tournaments. For power conferences, performances on these stages can help determine seeding and at-large bids.
Some of these competitions will begin early next month, and they'll go right up until Selection Sunday on March 14. Some teams badly need them. Programs in nearly every conference have played varying amounts due to postponements and coronavirus-related shutdowns, so these tournaments could provide a path to the dance that would not otherwise be available.
Win and they're in. It's as simple as that.
Here are some early predictions for the men's conference tournaments with a little help from TeamRankings.com.
Mid-Majors, Part 1
America East: UMBC (14-5, 10-4 conference)
Though the Vermont Catamounts are the favorites, it's clear these two teams are neck-and-neck after they split their last two games against each other. They're both 10-4 in America East play, but the tougher nonconference schedule played by UMBC will help come tournament time.
Atlantic Sun: Liberty (18-5, 9-2 conference)
Bellarmine is on a hot streak, having won its last 10 games, but Liberty has a 55.3 percent chance to win the conference tournament, which will be held at a single site in Jacksonville, Florida, for the first time in eight years.
Big Sky: Eastern Washington (12-6, 11-2 conference)
Mid-major teams often fill their nonconference slates with tough, high-major opponents so they won't be intimidated by lesser opponents in conference play. Eastern Washington took that route, and it has paid off so far as the Eagles are the Big Sky favorites and currently riding a nine-game winning streak.
Big South: Winthrop (20-1, 17-1 conference)
A balanced attack and some serious board-crashing (40 rebounds per game, 20th in Division I) have helped the Eagles cruise to the top of the Big South standings.
Big West: UC Santa Barbara (16-3, 12-2 conference)
If you've ever been to Santa Barbara, you know it's tough to focus on anything other than the beach and the beautiful surroundings. But the Gauchos have managed to win 12 straight, so clearly they're doing something right. Behind the inside-outside combination of JaQuori McLaughlin and Amadou Sow, UCSB is on a hot streak at the right time of year.
Colonial: James Madison (13-5, 8-1 conference)
With an 8-2 record in the CAA, Northeastern poses a threat to upset James Madison, but a seven-game win streak has the Dukes trending in the right direction.
C-USA: Marshall (12-5, 6-4 conference)
It's a tight race in a large conference, but TeamRankings gives the Thundering Herd a 25.2 percent chance of winning the conference tournament. Marshall has the highest NET score of any Conference USA team at No. 69, it's the highest-scoring team in the league averaging 82.5 points per game and the Herd boasts one of the two highest-scoring players in the league as well in Taevion Kinsey. Kinsey and Jhivvan Jackson of UT-San Antonio average 20-4 points per game to lead the standings.
Horizon: Wright State (18-5, 16-4 conference)
The Horizon League has already wrapped play for the season, and the Raiders claimed a share of their third straight conference title. They'll be a No. 2 seed in the tournament, but TeamRankings has them running away with the tournament.
Ivy League: None
The Ivy League canceled winter sports for the 2020-21 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. They will not be sending a team to the NCAA tournament, opening up one more spot in the field.
MAAC: Siena (9-3, 9-3 conference)
The Saints played a conference-only schedule this season and have dominated play in the MAAC. Iona poses the biggest threat, but the Gaels are shutting down for the rest of the regular season with coronavirus issues within the program. Head coach Rick Pitino said the Gaels intend to play in the MAAC tournament, but Siena will be the favorite.
MAC: Toledo (18-6, 13-3 conference)
The Rockets make a lot of threes (38.2 percent) and defend them well (29.8 percent allowed). They have balanced scoring and a starting lineup full of experienced juniors and seniors.
MEAC: Norfolk State (12-7, 7-4 conference)
With a 5-1 record, North Carolina A&T has played well against conference opponents this season. But Norfolk State is projected to be the winner of the MEAC with the best field goal defense in the league.
Mid-Majors, Part 2
Missouri Valley: Loyola-Chicago (19-4, 4-2 conference)
The darling of the 2018 Final Four, Sister Jean, will likely have to sit this season out with all of the distancing measures implemented. But she should be able to watch the Ramblers from the comfort of Chicago as they look to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since that Cinderella season.
Mountain West: San Diego State (17-4, 11-3 conference)
The No. 22 Aztecs routed Fresno State for their eighth straight win over the weekend. The program has experienced remarkable success and continuity under former head coach Steve Fisher and his successor, Brian Dutcher, but lost in the finals of the Mountain West tournament the last two years. SDSU should be eager to avenge those losses and return to the NCAA tournament.
Northeast: Bryant (12-5, 8-4 conference)
Hall Elisias has a nickname made for March Madness: "The Block Father." He's 15th in the country with 2.5 blocks per game (42 total) and had a strong weekend with a 20-point performance to help the Bulldogs sweep Merrimack.
Ohio Valley: Belmont (24-1, 18-0 conference)
What do Belmont, Baylor and Gonzaga have in common? They share the honors of being the hottest teams in college basketball. The Bruins have won a remarkable 21 straight games and are headed toward an Ohio Valley Conference championship.
Patriot: Colgate (11-1, 11-1 conference)
Colgate is No. 13 in the NCAA NET rankings, which is better than Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and several other historically elite college basketball programs. They're unranked, which is likely due to their conference-only schedule. Playing Loyola-Maryland isn't the same as playing Maryland, but they'll finally get a chance to prove how good they are on a national stage if they win the Patriot League tournament.
Southern League: Furman (15-7, 9-4 conference)
UNC-Greensboro is at the top of the standings, but the odds favor Furman, giving the Paladins a 38.7 chance to win the conference tournament. Furman's strength is their veteran leadership, with senior forward Clay Mounce averaging 13.2 points per game and point guard Alex Hunter averaging 8.9 with the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the SoCon (2.8).
Southland: Abilene Christian (18-3, 10-1 conference)
Abilene Christian has only been in Division I since 2017-18 and a member of the Southland Conference since 2018-19. But the Wildcats have been dominant since entering the league, winning the Southland Tournament in 2019, tying for second place in the conference in 2020 with a 15-5 record, and now Abilene Christian is looking to make its second NCAA tournament appearance in three years. A 77 NET score is by far the highest in the conference. The next-best ranking Sam Houston State at No. 146.
SWAC: Prairie View A&M (8-4, 7-0 conference)
The SWAC currently features two teams undefeated in conference play in Prairie View A&M and Jackson State. These two teams are also the top two defensive teams in the league. It's a tough call, considering their two contests against one another were postponed, but Prairie View A&M has the higher NET score and the better odds (38.6 percent), likely due to a tougher nonconference schedule.
Summit: South Dakota State (12-9, 10-3 conference)
The Jackrabbits have a 40.7 percent chance of winning the Summit League tournament. That makes them the heavy favorites over North Dakota State, which is neck-and-neck with South Dakota State in the standings. The Jackrabbits are a complete team, leading the conference in three-point field goal percentage, ranking second in field goal percentage and third in field goal defense, three-point defense, rebounding and rebounding defense.
Sun Belt: South Alabama (16-8, 10-5 conference)
The standings in the Sun Belt are tight at the top, but an eight-game winning streak has South Alabama primed for a tournament win.
WAC: Grand Canyon (13-4, 7-1 conference)
Grand Canyon suffered its first conference loss to California Baptist over the weekend, but the Antelopes have a NET ranking of 128 that is 76 spots higher than the next-best team in the conference (Texas-Rio Grande Valley).
WCC: Gonzaga (22-0, 13-0 conference)
No surprise here. The No. 1 team in the country has run the table in the West Coast Conference for years, and this year is no different. The Zags should easily win the WCC tournament en route to locking up a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
American Athletic Conference: Houston (18-3, 12-3 Conference)
The AAC is a tough conference. Houston could be primed for a win or another upset after it suffered one to Wichita State last week.
The Shockers replaced their head coach, Gregg Marshall, after an internal investigation into allegations of verbal abuse. Not much was expected of them, but they once again managed to rise to the top of the conference leaderboard. Interim head coach Isaac Brown could become the permanent head coach, especially if he guides Wichita State to a conference tournament title.
But Houston is one of the top teams in the country, so that will be a tall task for the Shockers.
The Cougars' strengths start with their defense. They boast the best field-goal defense in the NCAA (36.4 percent), the third-best three-point defense (26.5 percent) and the fourth-best rebounding average (42.1 per game). Justin Gorham is incredible on the boards, pulling down 9.6 per game.
But the Cougars can score, too, thanks in large part to junior guard Quentin Grimes (16.9 points per game) and sophomore guard Marcus Sasser (14.5 points per game), who can both make timely buckets and shoot from long range.
This is a team with more than just AAC championship aspirations; it's a team with NCAA championship aspirations.
Atlantic 10: St. Bonventure (11-3, 9-3 Conference)
St. Bonaventure brings an extremely balanced attack. All five starters average double-digit points. Osun Osunniyi nearly averages a double-double with 10.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. The big man also has 34 blocks in 14 appearances.
The Bonnies don't shoot a ton of threes, but they showed they can over the weekend when they used 11 triples, nine of which came in the second half, to down Davidson. They can beat their A-10 opponents in a variety of ways.
The one criticism of the Bonnies is that they aren't particularly deep. Outside of the starting five, the production and usage drop off. A couple of ill-timed injuries could undo St. Bonaventure. But as long as the Bonnies are healthy, they will be the favorites in Brooklyn.
ACC: Florida State (13-3, 9-2 Conference)
The ACC is a battle between No. 11 Florida State, No. 15 Virginia and No. 16 Virginia Tech. North Carolina and Duke are hot on the heels of the top three, trying desperately to save their seasons.
The projections favor Florida State after Virginia was upset by Duke over the weekend in what was the second straight loss for the Cavaliers. But the margin is slim. The Seminoles have a 26.8 percent chance of winning the tournament, and Virginia is at 24.2 percent.
Florida State has the edge because of a decisive 81-60 victory against Virginia on Feb. 15. They were hot right out of the gate, going up 30-11 in the first 13 minutes. The Seminoles shot 50.0 percent from the field and 54.2 percent from three-point range.
It's a close race, and there is always the possibility of a surprise given the way Duke and North Carolina are playing. But Florida State looks like the team to beat in the ACC.
Big East: Villanova (14-3, 9-2 Conference)
Villanova is the best team in the Big East, but it will have to fend off some eager bubble teams at Madison Square Garden next month to capture the tournament title. If the Wildcats can defend the way they did against UConn over the weekend, then they should be able to handle the rest of the competition.
The Huskies were held to just 36.4 percent from the field, and their best player, James Bouknight, struggled in the second half, going 1-of-6 after scoring 18 points in the first half.
The Wildcats have four games left, and one is against No. 13 Creighton, which thoroughly exposed their lack of defense in an 86-70 loss on Feb. 13. The Bluejays are one of the best defensive teams in college basketball, so it's going to come down to these two teams in a competitive conference.
Big Ten: Iowa (17-6, 11-5)
No. 3 Michigan turned in an impressive performance in a road win over No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday, and fifth-ranked Illinois continued its bid to win college basketball's deepest conference with a 94-63 thrashing of Minnesota one day earlier.
Yet Iowa is still the projected winner of the Big Ten tournament, though it's by a razor-thin margin. TeamRankings' Big Ten bracket gives the Hawkeyes a 24.9 percent chance of winning the tournament, and Illinois has a 24.8 percent chance. It's tight at the top, but that's nothing new in the Big Ten.
Center Luka Garza became the all-time leading scorer in Iowa history with 23 points against Penn State on Sunday, bolstering his case for National Player of the Year honors. The Hawkeyes will need every point and block they can get from the 6'11" senior as they end the regular season with four tough games.
Iowa will travel to Michigan and Ohio State for back-to-back road contests before returning home to host Nebraska and No. 23 Wisconsin. If the Hawkeyes win those four, they'll be primed to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
Big 12: Baylor (17-0, 9-0 Conference)
The Baylor Bears are finally ready to return to action this week after the program took a three-week hiatus because of COVID-19. Considering they face the Iowa State Cyclones, who are winless in Big 12 play, their first game back won't be much of a challenge.
The actual challenge is scheduling some of the postponed games. The Bears have three games this week and could then have up to six more to play within just 11 days. That unbeaten record may not be able to withstand such a condensed schedule.
But Baylor is still far and away the best team in the Big 12. Kansas isn't in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but it appears as though the Jayhawks' reign in the conference is over, at least momentarily.
Whether or not the Bears remain undefeated, the Big 12 tournament is still theirs to lose.
Pac-12: USC (18-4, 12-3 Conference)
Los Angeles might be a basketball town, but USC isn't typically on the radar. Nonetheless, the Trojans should be right now because head coach Andy Enfield has them poised to win the Pac-12. Even better, they'll have to fend off UCLA in order to do it, keeping that crosstown rivalry with the Bruins alive and giving the March 6 game at Pauley Pavilion some intensity.
Freshman Evan Mobley, a 7'0" forward, has been the Trojans' biggest weapon this season. His 3.1 blocks per game are fourth in the country, and he's contributing 17.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per contest. The Trojans' biggest strength is their late-game defense, and he plays a big role in crunch-time situations.
Oregon has a chance to overtake everyone else in the tournament, and UCLA's recent wins cannot be discounted, either. But this is what the Trojans envisioned when they hired Enfield in 2013.
SEC: Alabama (18-5, 13-1 Conference)
It's strange to look at the SEC standings and see Kentucky so far down. The Wildcats are having a dismal season and could be left out of the NCAA tournament.
Tuscaloosa could soon be title town with the basketball team matching some of the success of the football squad. The Crimson Tide were unranked to start the season and were picked to finish fifth in the SEC in the preseason media poll. Instead, they're ranked No. 6 and will likely snap a 15-year drought by finishing in the top 25 of the postseason rankings.
Under head coach Nate Oats, the Crimson Tide have become a team of sharpshooters. Alabama is the third-highest-scoring team in the SEC (70.5 points per game) and the best three-point-shooting team (36.0 percent). It broke an SEC record with 23 made three-pointers against LSU and recently scored 115 points in a win over Georgia.
Alabama isn't just a football school anymore.