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NCAA Basketball: The first week of conference championships, a brief preview

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Week 1 of conference championships and it is going to be great.

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I know that the excitement and anticipation for the NCAA Tournament is great. That first full weekend of games is my favorite 4-day stretch of the year. Most believe that it begins with filling out your fresh brackets on the Monday after Selection Sunday. But most are wrong. March Madness and the excitement of elimination games begins now. Your NCAA Tournament bracket research, begins NOW.

This “now” I am referring to is the 2-week stretch of conference tournaments. This is when true degenerates, like myself (& ZipsofAkron), can flip on the TV at any given time to watch random low-major teams fighting for their seasons with the hopes of getting sent to be slaughtered on day 1 of the NCAA Tourney.

Do I think that you, the loyal TDG reader, really cares about who are the favorites to win the Patriot League? No, this is really an exercise for myself. And by this point the only ones remaining who are reading are Zips, my mom and probably Blake who is looking for my typos.

But we are into March, the Madness has begun and here is your conference tournament primer for week 1.

Tournaments that have already begun...

NEC

Top Seed: Bryant
Projected NCAA Seed: 16

The Bryant Bulldogs earned the conference’s top seed this year and assuming they can reach the championship game, they’ve earned the right to host and win the automatic bid on their home floor. Peter Kiss leads the Bulldogs, scoring over 25 points per game and is racking up those points while shooting only 28.3% from three. Charles Pride is the team’s 2nd leading scorer and leading rebounder with 17.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Pride is also a 6’4” guard who is putting up several double-doubles this season.

The team to watch out for is Wagner, the Seahawks hold the 2-seed and might be the better team. These two teams split in the regular season, each winning on their home floor. But the problem for the Seahawks is that they lost their 2nd leading scorer, Elijah Ford, to a knee injury at the beginning of February. This may be problematic if they want to win the league championship after starting the conference season 11-0.

Neither of these teams shoots the three particularly well, making them unlikely to be NCAA Tournament Cinderellas.

Predicted Winner: I was all set to pick Wagner but the loss of Ford really seems to be the catalyst for why they lost 3 of their last 5 games and would likely have to win at Bryant to get it done. Bryant will earn the NEC’s bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Atlantic Sun

Top Seed: Liberty
Projected NCAA Seed: 15

The first round, play-in games are completed and the 2nd round begins on Thursday. There are 3 teams that seem to be a step ahead of the rest. Liberty, Jacksonville State and Jacksonville.

The Flames have been the cream of the ASun throughout the season but have gone 3-3 to finish the regular season, showing some vulnerability. Darius McGhee shoots 40% from three and is averaging over 24 points per game. The likely ASun player of the year dropped 47 points in their most recent game...this was not his high for the season!

On the other side of the bracket Jacksonville State (the 1-seed from the West division) is on a course to face Jacksonville (the 2-seed from the East). This potential game should be a good one on Saturday.

The State Gamecocks make their living making threes. They are 3rd in the country, shooting 39.3% from three. Their top two players in terms of 3-point attempts (174 attempts each) are shooting 42% and 46.6%. Those numbers are pretty incredible.

On the other side, the Dolphins have balances scoring and win games with their defense. One player averages double-digits and then they have six players averaging between 8 - 9.7 points per game. In their home finale, they held North Florida to 1/21 shooting from three. (that wasn’t a typo, Blake).

Perennial D2 power, Bellarmine is in the mix for winning this tournament, but they Knights are not eligible for the NCAA Tournament in just their 2nd year of playing at the D1 level. Also look out for Florida Gulf Coast. They have won 8 of their last 9 with wins over Liberty and Jacksonville.

Predicted Winner: Hard to go against Liberty making what would be their 4th straight NCAA Tournament. There is some scoring potential coming out of the ASun for a 2-seed to have to face in a few weeks. Liberty has been there, done that. I expect they’ll hold serve in this tourney and have the poise to give their NCAA Tourney opponent a good scare.

Patriot

Top Seed: Colgate
Projected NCAA Seed: 15

One of my favorite low-major conferences and there is some opportunity for upsets here.

Colgate won the league and they won it comfortably. After losing at BU at the end of January, they have rattled off 12 straight wins to earn the top seed. The Raiders also are a great three-point shooting team, ranking 6th nationally at 39.1%. Five players average double-figures and their top 4 scorers all shoot over 35% from three (all with over 110 attempts). And a 6’10” center to give them an interior presence.

After the Raiders there are two other dangerous teams.

Navy is the 2-seed and they get it done with defense. They rebound on both ends of the floor, they force turnovers and five of their last six games they held their opponent to 50 points or fewer. Former Penn State coach, Ed DeChellis is now leading the midshipmen and his balanced roster has a chance to get then to their first NCAA Tournament since 1998.

Lastly, the Boston University Terriers. They used an 8-1 stretch throughout February to get themselves into position to contend for the title before falling short. What I really like about BU is that they have two players who are 5th year seniors, both of whom have spent their careers at BU. Javante McCoy and Sukhmail Mathon carry this Terriers team averaging 17.1 and 15.1 points per game respectively. McCoy being the dynamic point and Mathon, the 6’10” inside presence. Can this experienced, inside-out combo make a run to the NCAA Tournament?

Predicted Winner: I am going with “yes.” All five starters for the Terriers are seniors plus they have a player named Walter Whyte. The Terriers, as the 3-seed, run through the Patriot and potentially are playing in Dayton.

Horizon

Top Seed: Cleveland State
Projected NCAA Seed: 16

The Horizon was lead by the Cleveland State most of the season before a couple of late losses ended up with 4 teams that finished within a 12 game of first place. So which team will come out on top?

The Vikings of Cleveland State, coached by Dennis Gates, a man I was enamored with during the Gopher coaching search last year. A former long-time assistant to Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, Gates took the Vikings to the NCAA Tournament in his 2nd season as a head coach and is poised to do it again. D’moi Hodge leads the Vikings and this is a team that forces turnovers, crashes the boards and gets to the free throw line.

Purdue Fort Wayne has not lost a game since January, including winning their last 4 regular season games all on the road. This same Mastadons team that lost to the Gophers by 29 finished tied for first and with a win over Illinois Chicago, will get a chance to win it all on a neutral floor.

Since January 15th, Northern Kentucky has beat everybody in the Horizon except Detroit Mercy (weird). They’ve gone 12-2 and undefeated against the other 4 teams being written about here. Who do they have to play in their Thursday quarterfinal game? Yup, Detroit Mercy. Get through that one and the Norse have a shot.

A couple of key points on Wright State. One, they very well could win this thing as the 4-seed. Secondly, their two best players are juniors so this could really be a team to watch out for next year (if they don’t transfer). Tanner Holden and Grant Basile average 19.9 and 18.3 ppg respectively and both are averaging over 7 rebounds per game. Then don’t forget about Trey Calvin who’s averaging nearly 14 points per game while shooting nearly 37% from three. This is the #1 offense in the Horizon but their defense lags behind the other 4 teams mentioned here.

And don’t forget about Oakland. The Grizzlies started out the conference season 9-1, they then lost 2 of their next 8 before beating Cleveland State (for the season sweep) and IUPUI to close out the season. Jamal Cain and Jalen Moore are two of the best players in the Horizon. Their Thursday quarterfinal game against Wright State might be one of the best games of the night.

Predicted Winner: Ha, good luck predicting this one. Purdue Fort Wayne and Northern Kentucky are hot. Wright State and Oakland have some dynamic scoring options. And Cleveland State is the top seed and defending champ. I’ll go with Wright State. They have finished in 1st place the last 3 seasons and were upset in the conference tournament all three years. This is their year to return the favor.

Conferences beginning today or the rest of this week...

Big South

Top Seed: Longwood
Projected NCAA Seed: 16

Basically a 2-team race here between the Longwood Lancers and the Winthrop Eagles.

The Lancers are a top 20 3-point shooting team who ran through the Big South just dropping 1 road game weirdly to 6-10 North Carolina A&T. Justin Hill and Isaiah Watkins were both named 1st team All-Big South and in just their 4th season as a D1 team, the Lancers are on the verge of their first ever NCAA Tournament bid.

But Winthop is used to winning this league and was even a 12-seed just last year. This team gets to the paint, makes some threes and really gets to the free throw line. Their last loss was a road game at Longwood back in January and they’ll be eager to get that one back on Sunday. Their best player, DJ Burns Jr, was just named the Big South player of the year

The other wild card might be Gardner-Webb, the 3-seed who plays the best defense in this conference.

Predicted Winner: Longwood holds and advances.

Ohio Valley

Top Seed: Murray State
Projected NCAA Seed: 8

Murray State has raced to the league title in the OVC (see what I did there?). And they have a real shot to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. With the exception of last year it has been either Murray State or Belmont who has represented the Ohio Valley for quite a long time.

It is an interesting league where arguably the three best players in the conference are all centers.

The Racers are 16-0 in league play and recently beat the 2-seeded Belmont Bruins 76-43 at home. KJ Williams is their leading scorer at 18.2 points and rebounder at 8.5 per game. He’s followed up by a couple of guards who both shoot over35% from three and over 13 points per game. This is a complete team who plays great on both ends of the floor. A serious contender to make it to the Sweet 16, especially if they can get off that 8/9 seed.

Predicted Winner: Murray State. Belmont “only” lost by 22 when they hosted the Racers. A loss by Murray St would be shocking.

Sun Belt

Top Seed: Texas State
Projected NCAA Seed: 14

Texas State is the top seed after 12-3 in conference play. They were regular season champs a year ago before getting upset in the tournament and Appalachian State advanced to the NCAA Tourney. This year the Bobcats are what I like to label as a “dangerous” tourney team. A mid-major who forces a high amount of turnovers and shoots threes at a high percentage is one that is capable of beating really good teams.

Nationally, Texas State is 26th in turnover % and 12th in 3-point %. If they manage to get out of their tournament, they could be a very dangerous 13-15 seed.

The other team to really look out for? Probably Georgia State. The Panthers have won 9 of their last 10 and plays very good defense.

But here is interesting. South Alabama is the 5-seed out of the Sun Belt and they are the highest ranked team according to KenPom. You don’t see that very often. The third highest KP ranked team? Coastal Carolina, the league’s 7-seed!

Predicted Winner: This one is wide open. If Texas State is shooting well, it’s theirs. If they struggle, it could be the other three teams mentioned or even App State.

West CoastTop Seed: Gonzaga

Projected NCAA Seed: 1

Gonzaga wins this.

Watch San Francisco and Saint Mary’s as research for your bracket. I’ve been a big fan of Todd Golden and the Dons for a couple years now.

Predicted Winner: Pepperdine. Just kidding, it’s Gonzaga.

Missouri Valley

Top Seed: Northern Iowa
Projected NCAA Seed: 13

Ben Jacobsen has the Panthers back baby (sorry Blake). Northern Iowa won the regular season title, finishing a game ahead of Loyola. UNI is actually a slightly better version of what the Gophers were trying to be this year. An offense that doesn’t turn it over, a pretty good shooting team from three. Where they are better, they rebound defensively. The Panthers have won 9 of their last 10 and are the team to beat this weekend. AJ Green is the MVC’s player of the year.

Loyola, Missouri State and Drake all finished tied for 2nd place just a game behind Northern Iowa. And all could win this. Overall, this tournament may be the best of the mid-majors

The Ramblers are the highest rated team and even as the 4-seed might be the favorite to win the conference tournament. They are the best defensive team and highly efficient offensively. They are likely to get into the tournament regardless of what happens in the MVC.

Missouri State is interesting because they have Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim, both on the All-MVC first team. So this is easily the top offense in the MVC and they defend inside the three point line very well.

And finally Drake. The Bulldogs are the 3-seed and they managed to sweep Loyola. A very good offensive rebounding team that doesn’t turn the ball over.

Predicted Winner: If I were betting, I’d put money on Loyola. If I’m making a bold prediction, I’m taking Missouri State going on a tournament run.

Tournaments beginning this weekend and finishing next week...

Summit

Top Seed: South Dakota St
Projected NCAA Seed: 12

This has been all Jackrabbits this year and they are the heavy favorite.

South Dakota State has been undefeated through the Summit league season and is one of the top mid-major teams in the country. Would they have enough to get in without winning the conference tournament? Probably not, the strength of schedule and quality wins probably aren’t good enough. But this team is dangerous.

Baylor Scheierman and Douglas Wilson both average 16 points per game with Noah Freidel giving them 15, so this is a three-headed scoring monster for Eric Henderson’s Jackrabbits. This is the #1 3-point shooting team in the country and with some inside presence, they are also the #1 eFG% shooting team in the country. I strongly encourage you to watch this team play this week.

Who has a chance to unseat the Jackrabbits? Maybe North Dakota State, the 2-seed and a solid defensive team. Or possibly Oral Roberts, the 3-seed a good offensive team. NDSU played SDSU to within 4 in both games. Oral Roberts took them to OT in Tulsa. So...it’s possible.

Predicted Winner: South Dakota State and they will be a VERY popular 12/5 upset pick.

America East

Top Seed: Vermont
Projected NCAA Seed: 13

The Catamounts are always one of my favorite upset teams and all signs point to Vermont returning to the NCAA Tournament.

What makes this team unique is that they are the #1 defensive rebounding team in the country, to go along with being a good offensive team. Going 17-1 in the America East, they are the clear #1 seed and favored to win the tourney.

This, should also be a popular upset pick following Selection Sunday.

Predicted Winner: Vermont

Colonial Athletic

Top Seed: Towson
Projected NCAA Seed: 14

Towson and UNC Wilmington tied for the conference lead along with Hofstra’s interesting resume makes this an interesting conference tourney.

Towson split with Wilmington and then lost 2 others. Including one confounding loss to last place Northeastern. They are lead by Nicolas Timerlake and Cameron Holden. As a team they offensive rebound incredibly well and they are the top offensive AND defensive team in the CAA.

Wilmington started hot and held on to a 15-3 record, tied with Towson. Jaylen Sims leads this team in points, rebounds and assists! The Seahawks are coached Takayo Siddle, who in his 2nd season as a head coach completely turned around this program that really struggled the several years prior.

Hofstra finished third but has a pretty potent offense and the Pride have won 8 of their last 9. They are the 2nd highest ranked KenPom team in the league and potentially the team who could upset Towson.

Predicted Winner: Towson. This is Pat Skerry’s 11th season leading the Tigers and they have yet to make the NCAA Tournament. This is going to be his year.