Monday, March 3, 2014

2014 Conference Tournament Preview Part 1

While the major conferences are wrapping up their regular seasons this week, some of the smaller conferences tip off their Conference Tournaments and the quest to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament begins. Of the conferences starting tournaments this week, only the Missouri Valley (with Wichita St) and the West Coast Conference (with Gonzaga) have the opportunity to be multi-bid leagues if the favorites do not win the tournament.

America East

March 8-9, 15
Albany, NY

Top Seeds: Vermont, Stony Brook

Sleeper: Albany

Tournament Format: 8 teams in a normal bracket.

Recent History: The top seed has not won the America East Tournament since 2009. Vermont has won 2 of the last 4 tournaments. The America East Conference Champion has not received a seed higher than 15th in the NCAA Tournament since 2007.

Preview: Stony Brook has never made the NCAA Tournament, but has been knocking at the door since 2009. The Sea Wolves were the top seed in 3 of the last 4 tournaments and have reached the finals twice. This year, Vermont has been the team to beat, suffering only 1 loss in conference play (to Stony Brook). The Catamounts are led by senior forward Brian Voelkel who is second in the conference in rebounding and leads the conference in assists. Two years ago, Voelkel was named the Most Outstanding Player of the America East Tournament and looks to lead the Catamounts to their third consecutive championship game. Vermont has played stifling defense in conference play, holding opponents to under 52 points per game while scoring almost 73. Albany is the defending champions and is hosting the tournament, so don't count out the Great Danes with the home crowd behind them.

Atlantic Sun

March 4-9
Higher Seed Hosts Game

Top Seeds: Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer

Sleeper: Lipscomb

Tournament Format: Top 8 teams in the conference play in an 8-team bracket with no byes.

Recent History: The Atlantic Sun has seen a lot of turnover in membership and last year marked only the third time since 1985 that one of the current programs in the conference won the conference tournament. Florida Gulf Coast (aka "Dunk City") captured the nation in their run to the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed in the Big Dance.

Preview: Dunk City is back. Only 2 of their top 9 players graduated last year and the Eagles are ready to make another run at the NCAA Tournament. Mercer will likely be their biggest challenge. The Bears have been neck-in-neck with them all season and are looking for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1985. Mercer has both the best offense and best defense in the conference, scoring nearly 80 points per game and are 41st in the nation in 3-point shooting. The Bears did lose twice to North Florida, which could present a dangerous second round matchup for them. Lipscomb is the #5 seed but has won 4 straight games heading into the tournament, including a win over top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast.

Big South

March 5, 7-9
Conway, SC

Top Seeds: High Point, Coastal Carolina

Sleeper: Radford (though really, everyone)

Tournament Format: Top 2 in each division get byes, teams are matched up across divisions based on order of finish

Recent History: The Big South Champion has been a 16-seed every year since 2008. Liberty won the tournament from the #10 seed last year, making them the lowest seeded team in any conference tournament to emerge victorious in the last 5 years.

Preview: The Big South was a wild conference this year. Every time you turned around, there was a new team atop the conference standings. 7 of the 12 teams enter the conference tournament with 10 or more conference wins, while the other 5 all have 6 or less. High Point is the hottest team in the conference, winning their last 6 games to shoot to the top of the conference standings. VMI plays at one of the fastest tempos in the nation and is the highest scoring team in the nation at 88.5 points per game. Radford is the only team in the entire conference with a winning record away from home. South Division Champion Coastal Carolina has the best defense in the league. Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and UNC-Asheville also finished 10-6 which should make for a wild tournament where any team could emerge victorious. Even though the winner will almost certainly head to a Play-In Game in the NCAA Tournament, this could be one of the best small conference tournaments with so many teams bunched at the top of the league.


March 7-10

Top Seeds: Delaware, Towson

Sleeper: Drexel

Tournament Format: 9 teams, the 8th and 9th place teams play a play-in game, followed by a normal bracket

Recent History: One of the top 3 seeds has won the last 6 conference tournaments.

Preview: If current trends continue in the CAA, someone's streak will come to an end. Delaware has not made the big Dance since 1999, Towson since 1991 and third place William & Mary has never reached the NCAA Tournament. Delaware has the best offense in the league, averaging over 79 points per game, which is good enough for 26th nationally. Towson, who just two years ago posted one of the worst seasons in Division 1 history at 1-31, has the best defense in the league and split the season series with the Fightin' Blue Hens. Towson will open the tournament against defending champion James Madison and is led by the nation's leading rebounder Jerrelle Benimon. After a strong showing in the Preseason NIT where they finished 3rd and almost knocked off Arizona in the semi-finals, hopes were high for Drexel, but they have cooled off in conference play.


March 4-11
Higher Seed Hosts Game

Top Seeds: Green Bay, Cleveland State

Sleeper: Wright State

Tournament Format: 9 teams with the top 2 receiving double-byes to the semi-finals and the #3 seed receiving a bye to the quarter finals.

Recent History: 4 of the last 6 Horizon League tournaments have been won by a team that earned a double-bye in the tournament. No one outside the top 3 seeds have made the championship game since 2002.

Preview: Green Bay has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996 but ran through the Horizon League in impressive fashion, going 14-2 in league play. The Phoenix are led by junior guard Keifer Sykes who is 17th in the nation in scoring, averaging 20.4 points per game. Green Bay has an impressive early-season win over Virginia and could be a dangerous 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Youngstown State's Kendrick Perry is the leading scorer in the conference while Wright State boasts the best defense in the league. If Green Bay falls in the Horizon Championship Game, there is an outside chance they could earn an At-Large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but that seems unlikely.


No Tournament

The Ivy League does not have a conference tournament and awards its automatic bid to the Regular Season conference champion. Currently, Harvard has a 2-game advantage on the field. The only way the Crimson will not get the automatic bid is if they lose both of their games this weekend (to Yale and Brown) and Yale wins their remaining games (against Harvard and Dartmouth). If that happens, Yale will get the automatic bid, thanks to a head-to-head sweep over Harvard. Friday nights aren't usually big nights for college basketball, but Harvard can become the first team to clinch a spot in the field with a win over Yale on Friday night.


March 6-10
Springfield, MA

Top Seeds: Iona, Manhattan

Sleeper: Canisius

Tournament Format: All 11 teams qualify. Seeds 6-11 play play-in games.

Recent History: The top seed has not won the MAAC Tournament since 2010

Preview: The MAAC has been one of the most exciting small conferences to follow all season. If you like offense, you're going to love this tournament. The top 4 teams in the league all average over 77 points per game and are all in the top 40 in the nation in scoring. Iona, Manhattan, Quinnipiac and Canisius have traded blows at the top of the conference this season and it's a wide open race for who will win the league's automatic bid. Quinnipiac has never been to the NCAA Tournament before while Canisius has not reached the Dance since 1996. Canisius is led by Billy Baron, the third leading scorer in the nation, averaging 24.4 points per game. Manhattan has the league's best defense, led by forward Rhamel Brown who is second in the nation with 3.8 blocks per game. Quinnipiac also features a tough duo inside where forwards Ike Azotam and Ousmane Drame both average a double-double per game with over 14 points and 10 rebounds per game). Iona's strength is from the outside where they are in the top 10 in the nation at nearly 40% from 3-point range.

Missouri Valley

March 6-9
St Louis, MO

Top Seeds: Wichita St, Indiana St

Sleeper: Missouri St

Tournament Format: All 10 teams qualify, 2 play-in games then a normal bracket

Recent History: Arch Madness has been won by one of the top 3 seeds in each of the last 6 years and the #1 seed has won the automatic bid in 4 of the last 6.

Preview: This one is all about Wichita State. Can the Shockers continue their amazing run of 31 straight victories through the MVC Tournament and become the first team since UNLV in the early 90s to enter the Big Dance undefeated? The Shockers breezed through the MVC this year, beating everyone by double-digits at home and winning all but 3 of their conference road games by double figures. Their closest call was a 3-point overtime win over Missouri State in January, but they rebounded to throttle the Bears by 23 at home in the season finale. Wichita State will get an At-Large bid if they fail to win the MVC Tournament, but a win in Arch Madness will essentially ensure them a #1 seed in the Big Dance. Indiana State was team that many thought could ride Wichita State's coattails to an At Large bid (much like St Mary's did with Gonzaga last year) but the Sycamores simply dropped too many games in conference play.


March 5-11
Higher Seed Hosts Game

Top Seeds: Robert Morris, Wagner

Sleeper: Mt St Mary's

Tournament Format: Top 8 teams qualify, normal bracket

Recent History: Robert Morris and Long Island have won the last 5 titles. The top seed has won 3 of the last 5 tournaments.

Preview: The biggest news in the NEC this year is that 3-time defending champion Long Island finished 9th in the conference and did not qualify for the Conference Tournament. This should be a sigh of relief for top seed Robert Morris who was topped by the Blackbirds in the Championship Game in 2011 and 2012. The Colonials won the conference regular season by 2 games despite having 4 players suspended indefinitely in January. Second place Wagner is looking for their first NCAA Tournament bid in 11 years and looks like the best threat to disrupt the monopoly that Robert Morris, Long Island and Mt St Mary's have had over the conference. The Seahawks are the hottest team in the conference, winning their last 8 games to close out the season, including an 11-point victory in the season finale over Robert Morris.

Ohio Valley

March 5-8
Nashville, TN

Top Seeds: Belmont, Murray St

Sleeper: SE Missouri St

Tournament Format: Top 8 teams qualify. Top 2 seeds get double byes to the semi-finals, seeds 3 & 4 get byes to the quarter-finals

Recent History: Since moving to the double-bye format, a team getting the double bye has won each tournament. Since 2002, only twice has someone other than Belmont, Murray St, Morehead St and Eastern Kentucky (the top 4 seeds this year) won the conference tournament.

Preview: Reigning Champion Belmont has dominated the league since moving over from the Atlantic Sun last year. They dominated the conference to the tune of a 14-2 record this season and are in prime position to capture their second straight conference title. Perennial power Murray State has been neck-in-neck with the Bruins all season while traditional powers Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky are also strong. All 4 teams finished with 10+ wins in conference play and average more than 77 points per game, putting them all in the top 40 in the nation in scoring. On top of the big four, Southeast Missouri State is actually 6th in the nation in scoring, averaging 83.3 points per game, but has one of the worst defenses in the nation and is seeded 6th in the tournament. Belmont has reached the NCAA Tournament 6 times since 2006 and has always been a popular upset pick, but have yet to win a game in the Big Dance. The Bruins once again have a loaded offense, averaging 80.2 points per game (19th in nation) and shooting 39.7% from beyond the arc (13th in nation).


March 3, 5, 8, 12
Higher Seed Hosts Game

Top Seeds: Boston, American

Sleeper: Bucknell

Tournament Format: All 10 teams qualify, 2 play-in games

Recent History: The top seed has won the Patriot League Tournament in 5 of the last 6 years. Bucknell has reached the conference championship game in 6 of the last 9 years.

Preview: American dominated the month of January, running out to a 10-0 start in conference play. However, the Eagles cooled off and went just 3-5 over the last 4 weeks of the season and was surpassed by Boston U for the regular season crown. The Terriers went on an impressive 7-1 run over the last 4 weeks with their only loss coming to Bucknell. The Bison are the hottest team in the conference, having won their last 6 games, including road wins over Boston and American.


March 7-10
Asheville, NC

Top Seeds: Davidson, Chattanooga

Sleeper: Elon

Tournament Format: All 11 teams qualify, 3 play-in games then normal bracket

Recent History: The last 9 tournaments have been won by Davidson, Wofford or Chattanooga. The top seed has won the tournament in 4 of the last 6 years.

Preview: This year seems like more of the same for the Southern Conference with Davidson, Chattanooga and Wofford occupying the top 3 seeds. After a rough start to a brutal non-conference schedule, Davidson rebounded to go 15-1 in conference play, winning their last 12 games. Their only loss was in overtime to Elon. Davidson averages 78 points per game, good for 35th in the nation. Elon is a good team that was expected to challenge for the league crown and will need to get through Davidson to secure their first NCAA Tournament bid in school history.

West Coast

March 6, 8, 10-11
Las Vegas, NV

Top Seeds: Gonzaga, BYU

Sleeper: Portland

Tournament Format: All 10 teams qualify, 2 play-in games.

Recent History: Since 1999, Gonzaga and St Mary's have combined for 13 of the 15 tournament titles. The WCC has received 6 At-Large bids to the NCAA Tournament in the last 6 years.

Preview: Another year, another regular season with Gonzaga at the top of the league standings. The biggest story here is BYU's fight with the bubble. The Cougars are squarely in the middle of the bubble conversation and likely need a run to the conference championship to assure their spot.  BYU is the 3rd highest scoring team in the nation at 85 points per game. BYU has 4 losses to teams with 100+ RPIs and can't afford to be upset in the WCC Tournament and will likely have to get past an upset-minded Portland squad and a talented San Francisco team just to get to Gonzaga in the finals. The Zags have not been foolproof this year either, and lost back-to-back games in mid-February that brought their tournament status into question should they not win the WCC Tournament. Despite finishing 7th, Portland has wins over Gonzaga and BYU and could play spoiler to someone's At-Large hopes. St Mary's has not been as good this year but can never be counted out while San Francisco has 4 players averaging in double figures.

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