Champ Week: Setting up Week 1
Editor's note: This primer includes only conference tournaments that start this week. Check back next week for a rundown of the rest of the leagues.
You want an expanded 96-team field for the NCAA tournament?
Well, guess what? The opportunity to play into the NCAA tourney begins this week with conference tournaments around the country. This is the beginning of the NCAA tournament.
Here's what's at stake, bubble boys. Start rooting for Butler to win the Horizon League, Gonzaga to win the West Coast and Northern Iowa to win the Missouri Valley. And just in case, hope that Siena takes home the MAAC title and Old Dominion sweeps through the CAA tournament.
But that's hardly what happens on an annual basis. Upsets occur quite often. Remember, teams that already have won their regular-season title don't normally find the three days of slogging through the same opponents yet again as something they want or, at times, need to do. They are tired of facing the same foes and would like nothing better than to get to the real tournament and play against higher-profile competition. The pressure is on everyone else.
I have advocated for years that conferences that don't make money in their league tournaments or, at the very least, stare at a double-digit seed on a regular basis should seriously consider taking the Ivy League approach and ensure that the conference champ is the representative in the NCAA tournament. It doesn't help the league if a team had a real shot at being a 14-seed or even a 15-seed but ends up in the opening-round game because a three-win squad got hot for three days. The regular season should mean something.
But that's not the system today. Cornell needs one more win to ice the Ivy outright and be its representative in the NCAA tournament. Everyone else, however, has to go through a tournament setup. So let the games begin, starting Tuesday with the Big South, Horizon and Ohio Valley.
America EastTop seed: Stony Brook (21-8, 13-3)
Storyline: Well, Binghamton made it interesting by withdrawing from the field on Monday in an attempt to make a statement for its transgressions from the past year. The move means the America East tournament is an eight-team field -- not nine -- at Hartford's Chase Family Arena. The teams will play early-round games Saturday and Sunday in Hartford, and the championship game will be held on March 13 at the highest remaining seed. Because there's no play-in game this season, the teams will jump right into the quarterfinals.
Stony Brook, under coach Steve Pikiell, would be the ideal conference champ. The Seawolves have never played in the NCAA tourney. But there are two sleepers in the bunch: Vermont (led by Marqus Blakely) certainly has enough talent to win the event, and Maine beat Boston College on the road earlier this season, proving it can hang with a power-six club.
Atlantic SunTop seed: Lipscomb (17-12, 14-6)
Storyline: Jacksonville has had quite a turnaround under coach Cliff Warren. Just four seasons ago, his team won only one game. Now, the Dolphins are a regular atop the league, and they went to the NIT last season. JU enters the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed behind No. 1 Lipscomb, and four teams (Campbell and Belmont are the others) tied for first in the A-Sun.
If the Dolphins reach the NCAA tournament this season, it would cap a sensational five-year run for Warren. But Lipscomb might be the favorite in Macon, Ga. If you remember, the Bisons probably should have beaten Arizona in Tucson earlier this season, but a questionable buzzer-beater by Nic Wise gave the win to the Wildcats.
Big SkyTop seed: Weber State (19-9, 13-3)
Storyline: Weber State finished first in the conference standings, but Northern Colorado deserved headlines early in the season. The Bears started 15-3 and received some College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon coverage on ESPN in a win over Hawaii. Next, they took out Mountain West teams Air Force, Colorado State and TCU. They also beat San Jose State and lost to Oklahoma by one point on the road. But the Bears couldn't win at Weber State, where some of the tournament is being held, and they got clipped by Portland State and lost to Montana and Montana State.
Why am I selling Northern Colorado so much? Well, if the Bears win the Big Sky tournament, they would be yet another first-timer in the NCAA tournament. Northern Colorado has been in the Big Sky conference for only four seasons. The semifinals and championship game will be at Weber State; the quarterfinals, for which Northern Colorado and Weber State have earned a bye, will be at No. 3 seed Montana State and No. 4 seed Montana and begin Saturday.
Big SouthTop seed: Coastal Carolina (26-5, 15-3)
Storyline: Coastal Carolina, winner of its first Big South regular-season title in 19 years, has been the most consistent team throughout the season. The Chanticleers won 26 games under Cliff Ellis, who is experiencing a renaissance in his coaching career after runs at Auburn and Clemson. This is a perfect example of a conference needing to send its best representative to the Dance to have a chance. Radford, the No. 2 seed, beat the Chanticleers by 10 points in early January and could derail Coastal easily. The first round will be at campus sites, the semifinals at Coastal and the final at the site of the highest remaining seed.
CAATop seed: Old Dominion (23-8, 15-3)
Storyline: If you're looking for a conference tournament to watch this week, circle this one because it could be the most competitive. The CAA has had one of its most balanced races this season, and seven teams earned at least 10 conference wins. If Old Dominion, Northeastern or William & Mary earns an NCAA tournament bid, it should be taken seriously as a possible upset team. There are some tantalizing possibilities for quarterfinal matchups if George Mason meets VCU, Northeastern takes on Hofstra and William & Mary plays Drexel. Hofstra could be a sleeper after winning six in a row and nine of its past 10. The Pride are led by Charles Jenkins, who is averaging 27.3 points per game during Hofstra's winning streak. Don't be shocked if VCU, Hofstra or Drexel finds itself in the semifinals and possibly the final. The ODU-Northeastern final certainly would be the headline matchup, but the CAA could do no wrong with a number of other combinations.
HorizonTop seed: Butler (26-4, 18-0)
Storyline: Butler is protected until the semifinals. The Horizon League has used good judgment to ensure the Bulldogs have a clear shot to be in the final and avoid a major upset. But the conference wouldn't mind someone breaking through like Cleveland State did last season, which enabled the Horizon to earn two NCAA tournament bids. The dark horse here is Detroit, which has played well against Butler. The problem, of course, is that the final will be at Hinkle Fieldhouse if the Titans are able to get past Valparaiso and then either Green Bay or Youngstown State and then Wright State, which received the other bye to the semifinal.
No one should be shocked if Butler slips up in this tournament, even at home. The Bulldogs have had the target on them for two months, and they're facing similarly desperate teams.
MAACTop seed: Siena (24-6, 17-1)
Storyline: Siena had a better shot to be an at-large team last season, but the Saints won the MAAC tournament at home in Albany and took the suspense out of Selection Sunday. Then, they won a first-round NCAA tournament game for the second season in a row, taking out Ohio State after beating Vanderbilt in 2008.
There have been moments this season when it appeared that Rider, Saint Peter's, Niagara or Iona would go on a run to knock off Siena. It didn't happen. Fairfield also had its shots but couldn't beat the Saints.
The Stags have a monster in the middle in Anthony Johnson, who just became the 10th Division I player this season to post a 20-20-plus game. (He had 24 points and 23 boards in the regular-season finale.) But the games are still in Albany, and Siena has more of a home-court edge than any other team in this league. That's why it's hard to see another squad knocking off Fran McCaffery's Saints.
MVCTop seed: Northern Iowa (25-4, 15-3)
Storyline: The more I look at Northern Iowa's profile, the more I see the Panthers as an NCAA tourney team regardless of what occurs this week in St. Louis. I know not all of the same criteria apply to mid-majors (such as beating NCAA tournament-bound teams). But this squad has won on the road and for the most part has been one of the more consistent teams this season. But historically, the favorite for "Arch Madness" hasn't fared all that well. Wichita State still has the talent as the No. 2 seed to take down the Panthers -- the Shockers already did it once in Wichita.
I also wouldn't sleep on the winner of Creighton-Bradley, which likely would face UNI in a semifinal. And remember when Missouri State was one of the last remaining unbeaten teams? Well, the Bears slipped to No. 7 in the standings. If they beat Evansville, why can't they be a sleeper against Wichita and make a run to the semifinals, too? The final will be on CBS on Sunday, and if UNI isn't in the game, someone will be sweating out the following Sunday.
NortheastTop seed: Quinnipiac (21-8, 15-3)
Storyline: For most of the season, it seemed Robert Morris would host the NEC tournament. But RMU was clipped at Mount Saint Mary's, while Quinnipiac took advantage by winning at FDU (and a week ago at Robert Morris) to earn the No. 1 seed. That's a big deal here because the Bobcats can host the final, where they are undefeated, if they win two games, beginning with No. 8 Monmouth on Thursday. Robert Morris may not even make the final if it has to play the red-hot Mount again.
One NEC coach told me that he believed Quinnipiac could win an NCAA tournament first-round game. It's possible if the Justin Rutty-led Bobcats get a tourney bid and avoid a 16-seed. One thing is for sure: If they get in, they'll become the first NCAA tournament team from a school that begins with a Q.
OVCTop seed: Murray State (27-4, 17-1)
Storyline:Murray State is clearly the best team here. The Racers were one win from going undefeated before Morehead State ruined their perfect season and ended a 17-game win streak on Thursday. If the Racers can win the league tournament, don't be shocked to see the Racers get a decent seed for an OVC champ, because their RPI of 69 certainly will catch the NCAA tournament selection committee's eyes during the seeding process. But the Racers have to avoid the upset bug. Teams such as Morehead State and Eastern Illinois are more than capable of pulling off a surprise.
PatriotTop seed: Lehigh (19-10, 10-4)
Storyline: This was supposed to be a banner season for Holy Cross. Sean Kearney took over for Ralph Willard, who left to become Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville this past summer. But the Crusaders were never able to get untracked and finished as the seventh seed.
The Patriot tournament games will be on multiple campus sites before the final on March 12 at the home of the highest remaining seed. Lehigh is the favorite, but this league didn't have tremendous separation during the regular season. You shouldn't be stunned to see a wide-open semifinals even with the campus-site setup. And this conference doesn't appear able to produce a first-round upset team in the NCAA tournament.
SouthernTop seed: Wofford (23-8, 15-3)
Storyline: The College of Charleston knocked off North Carolina at home. Western Carolina won at Louisville. Wofford won at Georgia, nearly beat Pitt and took out South Carolina. The message here is that these teams can play with the big boys. That doesn't guarantee an upset in the Big Dance, but one of these three teams could pull off an upset on a neutral court in the NCAA tournament.
Nobody from the Southern Conference has a player like former Davidson guard Stephen Curry. But at least some of these teams have had the experience of beating a high-level opponent and will go into this tournament with confidence. If the semifinals in Charlotte are Western Carolina-Wofford and Charleston-Appalachian State, the league should have a highly competitive final two days. I'm not sure I could pick a favorite out of that foursome.
SummitTop seed: Oakland (23-8, 17-1)
Storyline: Last year, the Summit Conference produced one of the stories of Selection Sunday: North Dakota State. The Bison were a first-time-eligible, first-time entrant into the NCAA tournament. The Bison then hung with Kansas for quite some time before falling in Minneapolis.
Oakland doesn't have a unique story like the Bison, but the Grizzlies can play. They won the Summit by two games with a 17-1 mark and check in with a 61 RPI. The Grizzlies won 10 road games this season and picked up two wins against the top 100. If Oakland can beat this field in Sioux Falls, S.D., it will have a shot to be a trendy upset pick.
Sun BeltTop seed: Troy (18-11, 13-5)
Storyline: Western Kentucky had been the story for the past two seasons. But the Hilltoppers dipped to third place in the East Division in 2009-10. The favorites in Hot Springs, Ark., are Troy, North Texas and Middle Tennessee, which all finished at 13-5 atop the league. But I'm going to go for a few fliers here. Even though Florida Atlantic has lost three in a row, the Owls, led by Mike Jarvis, have a game-changing point guard in Raymond Taylor. Don't discount Denver, either. Joe Scott's Pioneers are doing their usual solid defensive work by keeping teams below 65 points. The Pioneers' problem is they have their own offensive issues. But Denver won three of its last four games and could be a dark horse in the event. What I don't see is the champion winning a game in the NCAA tournament's first round.
WCCTop seed: Gonzaga (24-5, 12-2)
Storyline: Gonzaga got clipped twice this season, once at San Francisco and once at Loyola Marymount. But the Zags are in the field no matter what happens at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The numbers (45 RPI, a 24-win season) and wins at Utah State and over San Diego State should push Saint Mary's into the field as well. But the Gaels lack a quality win after New Year's and probably can't afford to get upset in the semifinals by Portland, assuming the Pilots get past Santa Clara or San Diego.
The most interesting game could come in the conference quarterfinals between Loyola Marymount and San Francisco. The winner of that game is likely to give the Zags fits and possibly cause some angst among other bubble teams. The WCC isn't pushing for a Gonzaga loss, but the league office would like nothing better than to see Saint Mary's win the title to ensure two WCC bids in the NCAA tournament. A Portland-Gonzaga final would mean the Gaels lost in the semis and put their bid in peril.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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