The one bid leagues have kicked off tournament play in earnest. Some got started earlier this week, some last night, but we are just about to get into the major swing of things.
I happen to love small conference tournaments. These teams have only one chance to get to the NCAA tournament. The league champions are going to be sent to the NIT if they don’t advance. There is no tomorrow if they don’t win today.
Here are some primers for the small league action to get your interest piqued. We’ll go in chronological order starting with the tournaments that play Friday through some of the tournaments that have already progressed to the final, such as the Atlantic Sun.
OHIO VALLEY – BRACKET
When: Semis: March 6 / Championship: March 7
Where: Municipal Auditorium / Nashville, Tennessee
TV: Semis: ESPNU / Final : ESPN2
Team Rankings Favorite: Murray State
Best Offensive Efficiency: 116.7 – Murray State
Best Defensive Efficiency: 96.2 – Murray State
Top Scorer: 21.9 – Cameron Payne, Murray State
Top Rebounder: 8.8 – Jarvis Williams, Murray State
Top Passer: 5.7 – Cameron Payne, Murray State / Reece Chamberlain, Belmont
Prediction: Murray State
With a 26-4 record, the Racers are a team to keep an eye on this week. They don’t really have much of an at large case for the NCAA tournament, but they are certainly not a team anyone wants to see across from them in the NCAAs. The Racers stormed through the Ohio Valley at a perfect 16-0. They haven’t taken a loss since November 29. Murray State, along with two seed Eastern Kentucky, received a bye all the way to the semifinals. Murray State could use it because it was pushed by the 5 seed Moorehead State in previous meetings this season. This is the team to watch.
Dark Horse: Belmont
It’s hard to pick anyone seeded higher than 4 because those teams would have to win four games in four days. I’m swinging with Belmont, the three seed. The tournament is in Nashville, home of Belmont. The Bruins have experience winning this tournament. They also beat the two seed, Eastern Kentucky, a few weeks ago in Nashville.
BIG SOUTH – BRACKET
When: March 6 – March 8
Where: The HTC Center – Conway, South Carolina
TV: ESPN3 / Championship: ESPN2
Team Rankings Favorite: Coastal Carolina
Best Offensive Efficiency: 115.3 – Charleston Southern
Best Defensive Efficiency: 99.1 – Winthrop
Top Scorer: 25.6 – Saah Nimely, Charleston Southern
Top Rebounder: 10.7 – Jerome Hill, Gardner-Webb
Top Passer: 8.1 – Tyler Strange, Gardner-Webb
Prediction: Coastal Carolina
Yeah, I don’t want to just pick who Team Rankings spat out as the winner, but Coastal Carolina is hosting the tournament. While they don’t lead the league in either efficiency, the Chanticleers are second in both. Two of their five league losses were against Gardner Webb, the seventh seed. Gardner Webb was swept by High Point, a team Coastal Carolina swept. Playing the final at home would be a huge advantage for Cliff Ellis’ squad.
Dark Horse: Winthrop
The Eagles sit as the 5 seed. They do have a bit of a tricky first-round matchup against Radford, a team they could not beat during the regular season. The advantage for Winthrop comes after that. The Eagles dominated the 1 seed, Charleston Southern, in their only meeting. Winthrop also took care of Coastal Carolina in their only meeting. Even a matchup with High Point wouldn’t be bad. While Winthrop was swept, the margin of those games was four points.
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE – BRACKET
When: March 6 – March 9
Where: US Cellular Center / Asheville, North Carolina
TV: ESPN3 / Championship: ESPN2
Team Rankings Favorite: Wofford
Best Offensive Efficiency: 112.6 – Mercer
Best Defensive Efficiency: 95.4 – Wofford
Top Scorer: 22.3 – Jalen Riley, East Tennessee State
Top Rebounder: 8.7 – Kris Acox, Furman
Top Passer: 4.6 – QJ Peterson, VMI
The only teams that beat Wofford during the regular season are on the other side of the bracket. Every team on the Terriers’ side of the bracket suffered a blowout loss at the hands of the league champion. The thing about conference tournaments is that the team that should win sometimes doesn’t end up winning. This is the team that should be celebrating on Monday.
Dark Horse: VMI
This is more of a hunch than anything substantial. VMI was swept by Mercer, its first opponent, but the Keydets recently took Chattanooga to double overtime. There is some ability to win here. I think if an upset winner was to emerge, it would be in this side of the SoCon bracket.
HORIZON LEAGUE – BRACKET
When: March 6-7, Championship: March 10
Where: Quarters & Semis at Valparaiso, Final: at highest seed
TV: Second round: ESPN3 / Semis: ESPNU / Final: ESPN
Team Rankings Favorite: Valparaiso
Best Offensive Efficiency: 110.9 – Oakland
Best Defensive Efficiency: 95.5 – Valparaiso
Top Scorer: 19.7 – Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
Top Rebounder: 9.4 – Anton Grady, Cleveland State
Top Passer: 7.8 – Kahlil Felder, Oakland
Prediction: Green Bay
There is no real strong feeling behind this one. Green Bay has Keifer Sykes, who is great. The Phoenix were bounced in their first tournament game last season, something that has to be on the mind of this team. Green Bay swept possible opponent Illinois-Chicago. While the Phoenix did lose to Oakland, a bye until the semifinals is a huge boost. Winning at Valpo would be very tough — only one team has done it this season, but being on the opposite side of the bracket would mean maybe they don’t play Valpo if the Crusaders get knocked off earlier in the tournament.
Dark Horse: Oakland
Swinging for Oakland is the play here, because the Golden Grizzlies have the best offense in the league. If someone is going to take down Valpo on the road, it’s going to have to be someone with a very solid offense. Oakland was able to outscore Valpo by 14 in overtime in their only meeting this season. As mentioned, Oakland has defeated Green Bay as well. While they were just crushed at Green Bay, the good news is they don’t go to Green Bay for a potential rubber match.
COLONIAL – BRACKET
When: March 6-9
Where: Royal Farms Arena / Baltimore, Maryland
TV: Quarters – Comcast Sportsnet / Semis & Finals – NBC Sports Network
Team Rankings Favorite: Hofstra
Best Offensive Efficiency: 116.8 – William & Mary
Best Defensive Efficiency: 98.1 – UNC Wilmington
Top Scorer: 22.6 – Damion Lee, Drexel
Top Rebounder: 9.3 – Terry Tarpey, William & Mary
Top Passer: 6.3 – Juan’ya Green, Hofstra
Prediction: William & Mary
I’m not going against the sentimental favorite. The Tribe have never been to the NCAA tournament. While they are not protected as some other league champions, they do get a couple of teams they pounded in three of the four games, in Towson and Elon. Elon did defeat W&M back in January. The Tribe swept the 4 and 5 seeds, as well as the 2 seed, UNC Wilmington.
Dark Horse: Delaware
I’m going extremely dark horse because it’s time to take a wild stab in the dark. The Blue Hens are the 6 seed, but they have defeated the top three seeds in the league this season. While they would undoubtedly end up in a game against Kentucky (i.e., they’d be a 16 seed if they made the NCAAs) because of their record, there is a chance for magic. Why the hell not?
NORTHEAST – BRACKET
When: Semis – March 7 / Final – March 10
Where: Highest Seeds
TV: Semis – MSG, FCS, NEC Front Row / Final – ESPN or ESPN2
Team Rankings Favorite: St Francis (NY)
Best Offensive Efficiency: 108.6 – Robert Morris
Best Defensive Efficiency: 96.3 – St Francis (NY)
Top Scorer: 18.7 – Dyami Starks, Bryant
Top Rebounder: 10.9 – Jalen Cannon, St Francis (NY)
Top Passer: 5.7 – Brent Jones, St Francis (NY)
Prediction: St Francis (NY)
Hosting the semifinal and the final is the main reason why I’m picking the Terriers to advance to the NCAA tournament. They swept St. Francis of Pennslyvania, their semifinal opponent, during the regular season. The home win was by 12. It’s hard to pick against a team that ran away with the league when it also hosts the important games.
Dark Horse: Bryant
I have to reach for a dark horse with only four teams left. Bryant and Robert Morris split their regular season meetings, and each won on the road. Bryant overcame Sacred Heart in double overtime to advance. That had to be a monkey off its back since Sacred Heart swept the Bulldogs. There should be confidence they can beat Robert Morris and St. Francis (NY) on the road, or even hosting St. Francis of Pennsylvania. The defense leaves something to be desired, but the offense can travel.
SUMMIT – BRACKET
When: March 7-10
Where: Denny Sanford Premier Center / Sioux Falls, South Dakota
TV: ESPN3 Championship: ESPN2
Team Rankings Favorite: South Dakota State
Best Offensive Efficiency: 113.5 – South Dakota State
Best Defensive Efficiency: 93.5 – South Dakota State
Top Scorer: 20.8 – Lawrence Alexander, North Dakota State
Top Rebounder: 7.7 – Cody Larson, South Dakota State
Top Passer: 3.9 – Jabari Sandifer, Western Illinois
Prediction: South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits are an overwhelming favorite because they host the league tournament. After starting conference play 0-2, the Jackrabbits won eight in a row during their 12-2 finish. None of their league losses were at home. None of their losses this entire season were at home, either.
There is a bit of cause for concern here, however. The team’s most recent loses were to Fort Wayne and South Dakota, each by double digits. One of those teams will be the second-round opponent. South Dakota blew out SD State by 16 points last weekend. Of course, Fort Wayne and South Dakota were each blown out by the Jackrabbits when the Jackrabbits were at home.
Dark Horse: Fort Wayne
Known by the acronym IPFW, Fort Wayne has scratched out a solid season after an awful 1-5 start in Summit action. The Mastodons won seven of nine to close the regular season. Included were double-digit wins over South Dakota and South Dakota State, the probable first two opponents. Getting Oral Roberts or North Dakota State in the finals wouldn’t be so bad because the Mastodons split with both. Plus, they are the Mastodons.
ATLANTIC SUN – BRACKET
Championship: March 8
Where: North Florida University
The Game: North Florida vs USC Upstate
Team Rankings Favorite: North Florida
Best Offensive Efficiency: 120 – North Florida
Best Defensive Efficiency: 98.5 – Florida Gulf Coast
Top Scorer: 23 – Ty Greene, USC Upstate
Top Rebounder: 6.6 – Beau Beech, North Florida
Top Passer: 4.7 – Fred Miller, USC Upstate
Prediction: North Florida
The Ospreys bombed the rest of the league with a 12-2 regular season record. They opened up tournament play with a big win over Stetson. North Florida drubbed semifinal opponent Lipscomb by 14 points. The one hiccup for the Ospreys in league play is that they were swept by USC Upstate. Upstate only finished 8-6 in the league.
PATRIOT LEAGUE – BRACKET
When: Semis: March 8 – Championship: March 11
Where: Semifinals / finals at highest-seeded school
TV: Semis / Finals: CBS Sports Network
Team Rankings Favorite: Bucknell
Best Offensive Efficiency: 112.8 – Colgate
Best Defensive Efficiency: 104.2 – Bucknell
Top Scorer: 18.1 – Dan Trist, Lafayette
Top Rebounder: 7.5 – Dan Trist, Lafayette
Top Passer: 5.4 Nick Lindner, Lafayette
The Big Red are the number 2 seed in the Pat League. What is a bit scary about the Raiders is that they just lost to Navy at home on Valentine’s Day, so drawing the Midshipmen in round one wasn’t the ideal spot… but Colgate pulled through. The great thing is that Colgate has handled the other highly-ranked teams. They swept both Lehigh, the already-eliminated three seed, and top-seeded Bucknell. This tournament comes down to home court advantage. Colgate has the major edge hosting the semifinals.
Dark Horse: Lafayette
Lafayette had a tough quarterfinal draw against Boston, who did beat the Leopards in Easton earlier this season. However, that was on paper; in real life, Lafayette blew out Boston by 25 points to reach the semis. The advantage for the Leopards is that they have a win over Bucknell. The Bison did go to overtime in their quarterfinal against Holy Cross. A huge feather in the cap is that Lafayette won at Colgate this season, the number two seed. The Leopards could be in great position to pull off a stunner.
Cameron Payne featured image by INSC Magazine