Final Predictions for the Champion of Every 2021 Men's CBB Conference Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 5, 2021

Final Predictions for the Champion of Every 2021 Men's CBB Conference Tournament

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    Illinois' Andre Curbelo and Michigan's Eli Brooks
    Illinois' Andre Curbelo and Michigan's Eli BrooksPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    College basketball's Championship Week is here, which means automatic bids for the 2021 men's NCAA tournament will be awarded left and right in the coming days. The Ohio Valley championship is on Saturday. Three more conclude Sunday. There will be 31 in all by Selection Sunday.

    Who will earn those bids?

    A word of viewing caution before we dive in: When you're scrolling through the many scores this weekend, make sure you have some sort of reference guide handy so you know which games are conference-tournament tilts and which are still regular-season clashes. The six major conference tournaments won't get underway until next week, but 13 of the other 25 conference tournaments have either already begun or will start by Saturday.

    With that advice out of the way, we've made picks for all 31 tournaments.

    Each of the six big ones will receive their own section, while the other 25 are grouped into one of four buckets: obvious picks, coin flips, toss-ups and dart throws. Those should be self-explanatory, but just in case they're not, the obvious picks are the leagues with a heavy favorite, the coin flips have two co-favorites, the toss-ups are a tough call with at least three legitimate candidates to win, and the dart throws are anybody's guess.

    Don't expect me to go 31-for-31, but I'll do my best. March Madness begins long before the NCAA tournament, folks.

The Obvious Picks

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    Gonzaga's Corey Kispert
    Gonzaga's Corey KispertYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    American: Houston Cougars

    There are several teams in the conference that could challenge Houston. Heck, the Cougars already lost a game this season to East Carolina, which might be the worst team in the AAC. But they're playing for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament while no other team in the conference is anything close to a lock to make the Big Dance. Houston might not win it, but it is undeniably the obvious pick.

            

    Atlantic Sun: Liberty Flames

    Liberty is the clear favorite, but there's a bizarre wrinkle in effect here: The second-best team left in the conference (North Alabama) is not eligible for the NCAA tournament but is still participating in the A-Sun tournament. If the Lions win, Liberty will be awarded the automatic bid. So, if those teams meet in the championship game, one has to wonder if the Flames will play for pride or just sit their stars and prepare for the Big Dance.

            

    Big South: Winthrop Eagles

    Winthrop went 20-1 during the regular season and will host Sunday's championship game against Campbell. While it wouldn't be a monumental upset if the Eagles lost, it would be a significant surprise.

            

    Big West: UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

    Maybe this should be a coin flip between UCSB and UC Irvine, since the latter swept the former in late December. However, the Gauchos won 13 consecutive games after that sweep. And if it comes down to one guy carrying his team to a championship, fifth-year point guard JaQuori McLaughlin is the top candidate in this league to do that.

            

    Horizon League: Cleveland State Vikings

    Prior to the Horizon League's completely insane quarterfinals Tuesday—one triple-overtime game, two other overtime games, and the fourth game ended on a tip-in at the end of regulation—this was a coin flip between Wright State and Cleveland State. But following Wright State's quarterfinals loss to Milwaukee, it should be Cleveland State's tournament to lose.

            

    West Coast: Gonzaga Bulldogs

    BYU is a good team capable of winning at least one game in the NCAA tournament, but Gonzaga is just on a different level. Not only have the Zags not lost a game, but they haven't even played in one decided by single digits in more than three months. A Gonzaga loss would be the most surprising result in all of championship week.

The Coin Flips

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    Loyola-Chicago's Cameron Krutwig and Drake's Darnell Brodie
    Loyola-Chicago's Cameron Krutwig and Drake's Darnell BrodieCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    America East: UMBC (or Vermont)

    Neither Vermont nor UMBC has played since Feb. 19 when they split a series in Maryland. They each finished 10-4 in league play, so they certainly aren't unbeatable. But the America East conference tournament format makes them clear co-favorites. They're both idle until the semifinals, where they will each host a lower-seeded team. If they both win, UMBC would host the championship game, so the Retrievers are the slight favorites.

           

    Mid-American: Toledo (or Kent State)

    Both regular-season games between the Rockets and the Golden Flashes came down to the wire, each resulting in a two-point victory for Toledo. Toledo almost won at Xavier. Kent State almost won at Virginia. Either one would represent the MAC nicely in the Big Dance.

           

    Missouri Valley: Loyola-Chicago (or Drake)

    Despite losing Roman Penn for the year to a broken foot and despite probably not having Tank Hemphill available for the MVC tournament because of a broken foot, we can't rule out Drake as a legitimate challenger to Loyola-Chicago. When the Bulldogs beat the Ramblers on Valentine's Day, Hemphill was already out and both Penn and second-leading scorer Joseph Yesufu played poorly. If they meet in the championship game, it should be a doozy.

           

    Ohio Valley: Belmont (or Morehead State)

    Belmont was an obvious pick until the final week of February, when it snapped a 21-game winning streak with back-to-back losses. Meanwhile, Morehead State has won 16 of its last 17 and managed a season split with the Bruins. Belmont is still the favorite, but not by anywhere near the margin it was two weeks ago.

            

    Patriot League: Colgate (or Navy)

    Colgate's entire schedule has consisted of four games each against Army, Boston and Holy Cross, but the Raiders sure were efficient in 11 of those 12 games. The metrics suggest they should face Navy in the Patriot League championship and be a sizable favorite in that game. However, it's hard to know what to make of a team that has only faced three unique opponents.

            

    Southwestern Athletic: Prairie View A&M (or Jackson State)

    Because of mutual COVID-19 pauses, Prairie View A&M and Jackson State have yet to face each other, and they entered Thursday with a combined 20-0 record in SWAC games. Jackson State hasn't even played Texas Southern, either. Kind of hard to take the Tigers seriously when they have yet to face either of the top two teams in the league (per KenPom) but also kind of hard to disregard a team that's undefeated in league play.

            

    Western Athletic: Grand Canyon (or New Mexico State)

    In its first year under Bryce Drew, Grand Canyon is the team to beat. This would be an obvious pick were it not for New Mexico State winning seven of the last eight WAC tournaments. Even though it has been a brutal, hiatus-filled year for the Aggies (only played three games before Jan. 25), you can't ever count them out.

The Several-Team Toss-Ups

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    San Diego State's Matt Mitchell
    San Diego State's Matt MitchellGregory Bull/Associated Press

    Atlantic 10: St. Bonaventure

    The A-10 has been Bubble Central for much of the season, and VCU, St. Bonaventure and Saint Louis still holding out hope of sneaking in with at-large bids, if necessary. St. Bonaventure has created a tiny bit of separation from the pack, though, and looks like the team to beat in advance of what might be the most important conference tournament as far as NCAA tournament selections are concerned.

           

    Big Sky: Southern Utah

    There's a clear trio atop the Big Sky, but it's tough to say how things will play out within that group. Eastern Washington and Weber State did not face each other this season, and they each split their season series with Southern Utah. Those are the only two games SUU has lost since the first day of the season, in a close road game against a decent Loyola Marymount squad. I like the Thunderbirds' chances of dancing for the first time since 2001.

           

    Conference USA: Western Kentucky

    C-USA hasn't been this loaded up top since Memphis left in 2013. Louisiana Tech, Marshall, North Texas and Western Kentucky are all ranked in the KenPom Top 100. With the exception of Western Kentucky sweeping Marshall, every series between any of those four teams has been a split. This conference tournament could go in any direction, but the smart money is that it goes Western because of Charles Bassey. The Hilltoppers need to win this tournament to finally get their star into the NCAA tourney.

            

    Mountain West: San Diego State

    Similar to the A-10, the MWC tournament should be a great four-horse race of teams still hoping to play their way into an at-large bid. Boise State and Colorado State would maybe be in if the NCAA tournament started today; Utah State would probably be out. San Diego State seems like a lock to dance no matter what, but the Aztecs could remove all doubt by continuing an 11-game winning streak that dates back to late January.

           

    Northeast: Wagner

    The NEC decided to only allow its top four teams into this year's tournament, and there is little to no separation within that quartet. Bryant has the best overall record, but Wagner just had a 10-game winning streak come to an end a week ago. Let's go with the Seahawks to make the tournament for the first time since 2003.

           

    Southland: Abilene Christian

    Stephen F. Austin is serving a postseason ban this year, so this is less of a toss-up than it could have been. But it's a tight three-horse race between Abilene Christian, Nicholls State and Sam Houston State. It looks like Nicholls State is going to get the No. 1 seed, thus avoiding the other two until the championship game. However, NSU got swept by SHSU and didn't face ACU. Give me Abilene Christian forcing copious amounts of turnovers en route to another NCAA tournament appearance.

           

    Summit: South Dakota State

    For nine consecutive years, it has been either North Dakota State or South Dakota State representing the Summit League. They are both in the hunt for this year's automatic bid, along with South Dakota and Oral Roberts. Good luck using the regular-season games as a guide, because they all went 3-3 or 2-3 in the head-to-head series. The Jackrabbits have the best KenPom rating, though, and that's good enough for us.

The Dart Throws

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    UNC Greensboro's Wes Miller
    UNC Greensboro's Wes MillerCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Colonial Athletic Association: Delaware

    Seven of the 10 teams in the CAA are in the 150-220 range on KenPom, one of which is dead-last-in-the-league UNC-Wilmington. This is perhaps the biggest complete toss-up of them all. But let's go with Delaware because of Villanova transfer Dylan Painter. The big man never made much of an impact with the Wildcats, but he's averaging 13.4 points and 11.6 rebounds for the Blue Hens.

            

    Metro Atlantic Athletic: Iona

    Much like the CAA, there's minimal separation from first through eighth place in the MAAC. Siena probably deserves to be a slight favorite. However, Iona isn't far behind, and it's just so hard to pick against the Gaels in a tournament they won each year from 2016 to 2019. Plus, it would be great #content if Rick Pitino could lead a fifth program to the NCAA tournament.

            

    Mid-Eastern Athletic: North Carolina A&T

    Probably safe to rule out Delaware State and South Carolina State with their combined overall record of 3-32, but any of the top six teams in the MEAC could win this thing. North Carolina A&T entered league play with a 3-9 record and some serious blowout losses to Illinois, VCU and Stanford, but the Aggies have been the most consistently successful squad since then.

           

    Southern: UNC Greensboro

    In 10 of the last 11 years, the SoCon tournament champion was either the No. 1 seed or a team that had the same conference record as the No. 1 seed. It has been the rare, surprisingly predictable conference tournament. That bodes well for 13-5 No. 1 seed UNC Greensboro. As far as KenPom is concerned, though, each of the top seven teams in this league are rated in the 90-155 range with No. 3 seed Furman as the best of the bunch. Should be a wild ride in Asheville, North Carolina.

              

    Sun Belt: Georgia State

    The East and West divisions of the Sun Belt had no crossover games this year, and even the intradivisional pairings produced weird results—like Texas State winning the West by three games but losing three times to Louisiana. Let's go with Georgia State, which ended the year on a six-game winning streak and started the year with a four-overtime victory at Georgia Tech.

Atlantic Coast

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    Clemson's Clyde Trapp
    Clemson's Clyde TrappMATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times/Associated Press

    The Pick: Complete and Utter Chaos

    What a bizarre year this has been for the ACC.

    Since expanding to 15 teams in 2013-14, this league has had at least three teams on the top three seed lines for each NCAA tournament. Heck, two years ago, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina were the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 overall seeds.

    But this year?

    It's pretty much Florida State or bust.

    If Virginia were to win the ACC tournament, then, sure, it could slide up to a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. The Cavaliers certainly have the metrics on their side. But they just lost three consecutive games to Florida State, Duke and NC State, the latter of which was at home and arguably even more embarrassing than the neutral-court loss to San Francisco in November.

    That Virginia team is a mess right now. And while Florida State is pretty clearly the best team in the conference, it's not like the 'Noles are some kind of juggernaut. Two days before their dominant 21-point win over Virginia, they needed overtime to survive at home against lowly Wake Forest. And they just lost to the Tar Heels over the weekend on a night when UNC committed 21 turnovers and shot 5-of-23 from three-point range. 

    Thus, our official pick in the ACC tournament is chaos reigning supreme.

    We don't know the bracket yet since there are still games to be played this weekend, but the championship game is going to be something off the wall like No. 6 Clemson over No. 8 Duke. And to go one step further with the chaos theme, at least one of the ACC's bubble teamsbe it North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Virginia Tech or Syracuseis going to suffer a terrible loss to Boston College, Miami or Wake Forest.

Big 12

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    Kansas' David McCormack
    Kansas' David McCormackEric Gay/Associated Press

    The Pick: Kansas Jayhawks

    There are seven excellent teams in the Big 12, any of which could easily win this tournament and could feasibly win the NCAA tournament.

    There's a strong argument to be made that Baylor should be the pick then, since it was the best team for most of the season and, by being the No. 1 seed, is the only member of the top seven that doesn't need to face another top-seven team until the semifinals (provided the No. 7 seed can survive its first-round game against Iowa State).

    However, Baylor is still working its way back to 100 percent after its three-week COVID-19 pause, and Baylor's end of season schedule—at Kansas, at West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Texas Tech in a span of eight days—is an absolute gauntlet. That doesn't mean the Bears couldn't win three neutral-site games in three days, but it's a lot to ask.

    Kansas, on the other hand, is hitting its stride at the perfect time, winning six of its final seven Big 12 games. And instead of leading up to the Big 12 tournament with a gauntlet, the Jayhawks were able to play all 18 of their Big 12 games before the end of February and scheduled a Thursday night game against UTEP just to avoid getting rusty during time off. (That game ended up being way more of a test than expected, but the Jayhawks ultimately survived.)

    Kansas' defense has improved by leaps and bounds since one month ago, to the point that this is now the most efficient defense in the conference. And now that big men David McCormack and Jalen Wilson are finally, consistently playing well at the same time, this Jayhawks offense is more potent than the full-season metrics suggest.

    They're going to win this tournament, they're going to get a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, they're going to get matched up with the weakest No. 1 seed, and a whole lot of people are going to talk themselves into the Jayhawks winning the national championship. Just you wait.

Big East

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    Connecticut's James Bouknight
    Connecticut's James BouknightDavid Butler II/Associated Press

    The Pick: Connecticut Huskies

    Connecticut has one of the most unstoppable scoring guards in the country. How much he'll get from his supporting cast on any given night is a huge unknown, but the Huskies are good enough on defense to make it work. They enter the Big East tournament in a little bit of bubble trouble, but as long as they don't immediately lose to one of the bottom-feeders in the conference, they should be fine.

    The last time that happened, the Huskies rode Kemba Walker to 11 consecutive wins for a national championship.

    That doesn't mean James Bouknight will do the same thing for this program this year, but I do like Connecticut's chances of winning the Big East tournament.

    The Huskies struggled for the eight games he was out with an elbow injury, but they have been (understandably) much better with their star in the lineup. They've only lost one game at full strength (68-60 at Villanova), and they almost beat Creighton in December without Tyler Polley while playing their first game in 17 days.

    Connecticut has the best defense in the conference, and while the offense isn't quite at the same level of a Villanova or a Creighton, it's solid. Even without trying to account for injuries and pauses, one could easily argue that the Huskies are the most well-rounded team in the Big East.

    If the top seeds hold serve and they have to go through Creighton and Villanova on back-to-back days to win this thing, that's going to be tough. But if Isaiah Whitehead could carry Seton Hall to the 2016 Big East championship by knocking off NCAA tournament No. 2 seeds Xavier and Villanova in the semifinals and championship, respectively, this Connecticut team can do it, too.

Big Ten

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    Michigan's Franz Wagner
    Michigan's Franz WagnerPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Pick: Michigan Wolverines

    The Big Ten is loaded, even more so than the Big 12.

    Both the No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9 second-round games are going to have NCAA tournament implications, and there are at least four teams that could lock up a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance by winning this event. Correctly predicting every game of this tournament will be even tougher than correctly picking every game in one of the four regions of the NCAA tournament bracket.

    But the smart money is on Michigan, which has run rampant through the league for most of the season. That might be hard to swallow fresh off that 23-point home loss to Illinois (sans Ayo Dosunmu), but the Wolverines are still the best team in the Big Ten.

    For the most part, Michigan has won with its defense. The Wolverines have held a conference foe below 60 points seven times, the most remarkable of which was the recent 79-57 victory over Iowa—which entered that game leading the nation in offensive efficiency.

    Trying to score in the paint against this team is onerous. Freshman big man Hunter Dickinson gets (and deserves) most of the praise for that, but Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Brandon Johns Jr. and Austin Davis all play a key role in making sure there are no easy buckets and limited second-chance opportunities.

    But the Wolverines are also highly efficient on offense and can win a track meet when needed. In the game before that win over Iowa, Michigan won at Ohio State by a final score of 92-87.

    That well-rounded, no-clear-weakness state of being has made the Wolverines so tough to beat all season, and it makes them the clear favorite to win the Big Ten tournament.

    (Note: There's a big difference between a "clear favorite" and an "overwhelming favorite." The former means it's the team to pick if you must pick one. The latter means it would be a surprise if that team lost. We're intentionally going with the former, as there are plenty of teams capable of winning the Big Ten tournament.)

Pac-12

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    Oregon's Chris Duarte
    Oregon's Chris DuarteJeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Pick: Oregon Ducks

    It has not been a banner year for the Pac-12. Colorado is currently No. 24 in the AP Top 25, and it is the only ranked team from the conferencethis despite three bad losses to Utah, California and Washington and no path to the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

    For the longest time, the best team in the conference was USC. The Trojans would have been the obvious pick as recently as eight days ago. However, recent double-digit losses to Utah and Colorado have brought the Trojans back to the pack and opened the door for Oregon to emerge as the favorite.

    Like Colorado, the Ducks suffered a few ugly losses. One was to Oregon State. The other was to Washington State. Both were at home. In both of those games, though, Oregon was fresh off a COVID-19 pause and playing at about 50 percent health.

    In Monday's win over Arizona, the starting five was Chris Duarte, Will Richardson, Eugene Omoruyi, LJ Figueroa and Eric Williams Jr. That's a strong full-strength Oregon squad. Only two of those guys (Williams and Omoruyi) played in the Oregon State loss. And in the Washington State game, Williams was out, Richardson was making his season debut, and Duarte was clearly not himself, playing just 20 mostly ineffective minutes.

    Translation: If you watched this team suffer either of those bad losses and wrote it off, it's time to reconsider. Because those losses were clearly not representative of what Oregon can do.

    That said, any of the top four teams in this conference (USC, UCLA, Oregon and Colorado) could win this one, and it wouldn't be a surprise. But if anyone is going to win the Pac-12 tournament and subsequently turn into the popular "sneaky pick" to reach the Final Four, it's Oregon.

SEC

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    Arkansas' Moses Moody
    Arkansas' Moses MoodyMichael Woods/Associated Press

    The Pick: Arkansas Razorbacks

    With all due respect to the likes of Florida, LSU, Tennessee and Missouri, the SEC tournament is a coin flip between Alabama and Arkansas. And because Arkansas has won 10 consecutive conference gamesincluding a 15-point win over Alabama—that coin is slightly favoring the Razorbacks.

    Arkansas went through a bit of a rough patch in the first half of January while starting power forward Justin Smith was out following ankle surgery. The Hogs went 1-3 in the games he missed and lost his first game back, in which he had an uncharacteristic five points and one rebound in just 18 minutes played.

    Since his return to full health (as well as before his injury), Arkansas has been just about unbeatable. It started the season 9-0 and has gone 10-1 since mid-January. The lone loss came against a great Oklahoma State team in a road game, which was all tied up in the final 30 seconds despite a woeful performance from senior point guard Jalen Tate (three points, two assists, four turnovers).

    And we have yet to even mention the star of the show: soon-to-be-lottery-pick Moses Moody. The freshman phenom has somewhat quietly put up numbers strikingly similar to what Andrew Wiggins did for Kansas seven years ago. The NBA draft community has certainly noticed Moody's play, but he only gets a small fraction of the national college basketball coverage that is devoted to fellow freshmen Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs and Hunter Dickinson.

    As a result, people haven't been paying enough attention to this team and seem to be surprised that Arkansas has been soaring in the rankings and projected seed lists in recent weeks. The SEC tournament will provide one last chance for folks to jump on the bandwagon of a team that seems destined to at least reach the Sweet 16 for what would be the first time since 1996.

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