Champ Week: Setting up Week 1
EDITOR'S NOTE: This primer only includes conference tournaments that start this week. Check back next week for a rundown of the rest of the leagues.
The lower-profile conferences might be headed for their lowest number of at-large berths.
But that doesn't mean the champs will not have a shot at upsets in the NCAA. Plenty of teams are competing for automatic berths in lower- and mid-major conference tournaments this week, and many could win a game in the first round of the NCAAs: teams like Butler, Creighton, Siena, Niagara, Davidson, Saint Mary's and, of course, Gonzaga. But they have to get there first.
Here's a primer of what to expect during the first part of Championship Week.
America EastWhy should you care? Vermont and Binghamton legitimately have players who could have played at a higher level (and in some cases have). If the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds get to the final in Binghamton, it could put a potential first-round opponent on upset alert. Binghamton swept Vermont in the season series.
What would be the best scenario? It would be that Vermont hosts the final on Saturday, March 14. The Catamounts can pack Patrick Gym and have provided plenty of drama in recent seasons, even without Tom Brennan as coach. Mike Lonergan is wound tight and deserves to get Vermont to the NCAA tournament and climb out from under Brennan's shadow.
Atlantic SunWhy should you care? The Atlantic Sun has provided some drama in the regular season and the NCAA of late. Remember Gardner-Webb taking out Kentucky early last season and Mercer beating O.J. Mayo and USC by 15 on the road? What about Belmont giving Duke fits in the NCAA tournament? Mercer beat Auburn and Alabama earlier this season as well. So this league has proven it can make some noise.
What would be the best scenario? To see Cliff Warren coach Jacksonville to the NCAA tournament. The Dolphins were 1-26 in 2005-06. Warren, a former Georgia Tech assistant, has turned the Dolphins into an Atlantic Sun champion. Getting to the NCAAs would be a sweet reward.
Big SkyWhy should you care? Montana and Montana State play in a quarterfinal matchup Saturday. This is one of the best-kept-secret rivalries in college basketball. Meanwhile, Portland State, the No. 2 seed, knocked off Gonzaga in December, while Weber State is coached by Randy Rahe, a former Stew Morrill assistant at Utah State, who followed what Morrill did: win. Weber State won the Big Sky regular-season title.
What would be the best scenario? If you want the entertainment-value pick here, it's the Vikings. Portland State point guard Jeremiah Dominguez is only 5-foot-6 but is extremely difficult to find and stop. Dominguez leads the team in scoring and shoots and shoots 43 percent from the 3-point line. He scored 25 in the Vikings' win at Gonzaga.
Big SouthWhy should you care? The Big South could produce some of the best scorers in the first round. VMI's twins, Chavis Holmes and Travis Holmes, had 21 and 30 points, respectively, in the opening-round win over Coastal Carolina on Tuesday night. VMI can post points at a record pace. Just ask Kentucky. VMI beat the Wildcats at Rupp 111-103 in their season opener. Liberty's Seth Curry -- yes, Stephen's younger brother -- scored 30 points in the Flames' opening-round win over Gardner-Webb.
What would be the best scenario? You can't go wrong with either VMI or Liberty. The VMI story of the Holmes twins would get plenty of play. The up-tempo, frenetic offense would be a good watch, too. Curry can carry Liberty, maybe not to a first-round win, but he certainly can keep fans interested until the other Curry plays.
CAAWhy should you care? This could be one of the most competitive conference tournaments. James Madison was one win shy of giving the league seven teams with double-figure wins in conference play. VCU, George Mason, Northeastern, Old Dominion and Drexel are all capable of winning the title. Whichever team wins this will be a tough out in the NCAA first round. Northeastern beat Providence. VCU beat New Mexico. Granted, those aren't elite wins, but they are still good enough to show these teams are fully capable of being competitive.
What would be the best scenario? Showcasing VCU's Eric Maynor and head coach Anthony Grant might be the league's best option. Having George Mason (2006 Final Four) and Jim Larranaga back in the Dance would conjure up a good vibe. No one would carry the press conference better than Drexel's Bruiser Flint, with his infectious smile, while a Northeastern title would cement the Huskies as a full-fledged CAA member that needs to be supported locally more and respected just as much nationally.
HorizonWhy should you care? If Butler doesn't win the tournament, a bid likely will be taken from your favorite high-major team. Cleveland State beat Syracuse at the buzzer in the Carrier Dome and lost to Butler at the buzzer. Cleveland State is fully capable of going on a run in this event. Green Bay beat Butler at home and could easily upset the Bulldogs in Indianapolis in the final. The Phoenix have been rising for weeks, even though they got clipped by Wright State in the season finale.
What would be the best scenario? If you want drama, then Butler needs to be beaten. If you don't, then the Bulldogs can cruise to the title and prevent the Horizon from getting multiple bids. They played their best basketball since their win at Xavier when they ran away from Davidson in a BracketBusters game. A Butler victory would certainly help it get a decent seed.
MAACWhy should you care? A potential final between No. 1 Siena and No. 2 Niagara would be a very competitive game. The two teams are worthy of the postseason, but neither one now likely can get in as an at-large team. Albany always supports this event, and a third meeting between Niagara and Siena this season would certainly pack the place. Niagara and Siena have the talent to win a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.
What would be the best scenario? Siena's 15-point loss to Niagara last week probably canceled the Saints' at-large chances. So they've got to win the event. So, too, does Niagara. Siena has been talked about as an NCAA team all season. If the Saints can't get there, it would be deemed a major disappointment. So let's see the Saints earn the bid and live up to the preseason billing.
MVCWhy should you care? The Valley has traditionally been one of the most competitive conference tournaments. Up to seven teams could win the event. Creighton is the one team that could get a bid without winning the conference tournament, even though the Bluejays are the No. 2 seed. Wichita State, which could play Creighton if it gets by Missouri State, is a threat to upset the field. Drake, Southern Illinois and Evansville are also threats. Northern Iowa got the No. 1 seed but is hardly a lock. The biggest threat to win this may be Illinois State. The Redbirds are the most athletic team in the event and were one of the last undefeated teams in college basketball this season.
What would be the best scenario? The Bluejays need to be in the final and lose to Northern Iowa or Bradley, and then the Valley might get two bids. But Creighton likely would have to get by Wichita State and then possibly Illinois State. The Redbirds deserve to get a shot to equal the bad karma from last season, when there was a sense they were getting snubbed by not making the field.
NortheastWhy should you care? Robert Morris has been the most consistent team all season. The Colonials were highly competitive in a number of their play-up games this season. They didn't win them against Pitt or Xavier, but this is essentially the same core of players that beat Boston College last season. The Northeast Conference has been competitive of late, even though it hasn't been able to break through with an NCAA win. Robert Morris probably can't do it this season, but if the Colonials can win the event, they'll have their best chance.
What would be the best scenario? It's for Robert Morris to win. Mount St. Mary's, Long Island and Sacred Heart all have the personnel to win the event, but the best-case scenario for a possible NCAA victory rests with Robert Morris.
OVCWhy should you care? Tennessee-Martin's Lester Hudson declared for the NBA draft but decided to return. What did he do upon his return? He averaged 27.1 points a game and led UT Martin to the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title, the first in school history. Hudson didn't think just about himself upon his return. He was focused on getting his team to the title. That's why you should care about this tournament.
What would be the best scenario? Get Hudson into the dance. If Martin can win the tournament, which is the only way they can get a bid, then Hudson will be on display for at least the first round. Why not have one of the best scorers in the country, who could be an NBA draft pick, in the field?
PatriotWhy should you care? The Patriot League usually provides one of the best final atmospheres. If the game is at top seed American or 2-seed Holy Cross, the arena will be rocking. The league has been very competitive at the top this season. But neither team has the makeup for an NCAA upset, like Bucknell has in the past.
What would be the best scenario? Get American or Holy Cross in the field. The Patriot might not be able to avoid a 16-seed, but this is their only shot. Having an upset here would lock in a No. 16 and give the league no shot to be competitive in the first round of the NCAAs.
SouthernWhy should you care? If Davidson doesn't get the auto bid, the committee will have a tough choice to make. The Wildcats should be judged on whether they deserve to make the field, not just because they have one of the top players in the country in Stephen Curry. Curry is healthy after an ankle injury and ready to lead the Wildcats to the Southern title. But the College of Charleston and The Citadel, two programs that beat Davidson earlier this season, might score an upset. Both are fully capable. That makes this tournament even more intriguing.
What would be the best scenario? Davidson has to win this event. The Wildcats might not be able to get in on their own merit. But the tournament needs Curry in for one more season. So winning the event would certainly ease any decisions for the committee, just like a year ago. Davidson might not have made the field last season had it not won the Southern Conference tournament. This is a decision the committee would rather not have to make on Selection Sunday.
SummitWhy should you care? North Dakota State is a good story. Former coach Tim Miles redshirted this senior class for the sole purpose of ensuring these players were ready for the first season the school went Division I. It worked. Under former Wisconsin assistant Saul Phillips, who replaced Miles after he went to Colorado State, the Bison won the Summit League with a 16-2 record. The Bison have one of the best scoring guards in the country in 5-foot-11 senior Ben Woodside, who went for 60 points in a three-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin earlier in the season.
What would be the best scenario? Get the Bison in the field. North Dakota State is the program that the other provisional Division I schools are watching. If the Bison can do it in the first season they're eligible for the tournament, it will be a huge plus for all like-minded programs trying to get a bid in future seasons.
Sun BeltWhy should you care? Western Kentucky knocked off Louisville in Nashville earlier in the season. This is a solid club -- not as talented as the one that got to the Sweet 16 a year ago, but certainly a team that could be a pest in the first round. Under first-year coach Ken McDonald, Western Kentucky won the conference with a 15-3 record. There is clearly something in the water in Bowling Green, Ky. It doesn't matter who the head coach is, whether it's Dennis Felton or Darrin Horn or McDonald. This program wins.
What would be the best scenario? If Western Kentucky were to win the conference tournament, the Sun Belt gets its best team in the field with a real chance at being competitive in the first round. That's what this league wants. The Sun Belt had two bids a year ago and got one in the Sweet 16.
WCCWhy should you care? The obvious reason is to see if Saint Mary guard Patty Mills can be even close to what he was before he got hurt. If he can, then the Gaels have a real shot to beat Portland in the semifinal and knock off Gonzaga in the final. The Gaels are easily the most intriguing bubble team among all these conferences, as they make the selection committee figure out which Saint Mary's team, if any, they should put in the field.
What would be the best scenario? It's not even close for the WCC. If Saint Mary's beats Gonzaga, the league definitely gets two teams into the dance. If they don't, then it might not occur. It's really that simple.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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