Small Conference Tournament Explosion: A Primer For The Coming Weekend Of Madness

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.


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.



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.



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

Prediction: Wofford

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.



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.



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?



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.



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.



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.



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

Prediction: Colgate

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

About Scott

I write Bearcats Blog and also on the Student Section.