Champ Week: Setting up Week 1
I am reporting to you from the college basketball capital of America, Kansas City, Mo. Many will raise their eyebrows at that moniker, but it is trademarked. We are here to celebrate the opening of postseason play in college basketball at all levels. Sportscaster Roger Twibell, Lucius Allen, an NCAA championship-winning point guard at UCLA for John Wooden in the late '60s, and yours truly are the keynote speakers at the event. As we welcome the beginning of postseason play, it is time for me to make my picks for the coming days:
America East (March 3-12)Top seed: Vermont (22-7, 13-3)
Storyline: Vermont enters the tournament as the top seed, but the best team right now is Boston University. The Catamounts typically lean heavily on Evan Fjeld, but he struggled with only two points in 11 minutes in Sunday's 66-64 overtime loss to BU. Although this team hit its stride last month, it ended the regular season with consecutive losses.
BU can counter with John Holland if his ankle is healthy. Even without Holland, the Terriers have weapons such as Darryl Partin, who dropped 23 points in BU's win over the Catamounts in Burlington on Sunday. The Terriers can get to the free throw line -- a strength they took full advantage of in their win Sunday (outscoring the Catamounts 23-7 from the stripe).
My pick: BU
Atlantic Sun (March 2-5)Top seed: Belmont (19-1, 27-4)
Storyline: Belmont is the obvious choice, and after it whipped No. 2 seed East Tennessee State on the road by 10 points earlier this season, I'm not straying. The Bruins have the conference's best coach in Rick Byrd and the best all-around team, as nine guys average between five and 12 points per game. Four of their top five scorers shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Someone might get lucky and catch the Bruins on a bad night, but no team in any conference is more deserving of an automatic bid than Belmont.
My pick: Belmont
Big South (March 1-5)Top seed: Coastal Carolina (27-4, 16-2)
Storyline: What a soap opera. Coastal Carolina has gone from Cinderella to Cruella de Vil overnight. An NCAA investigation now hangs over a team that dominated the Big South, as Desmond Holloway's eligibility is now in question, and it appears he will not play. Kierre Greenwood is out as well with a knee injury. Plus, there was drama earlier in the season when Mike Holmes was booted off the team for a violation of team policy. So who in the heck is going to win this thing? No. 2 seed Liberty lost to High Point in the quarterfinals, so it won't be the Flames. I'm not completely sold on UNC-Asheville or VMI, who are the next likely candidates. I'm going to stick my neck out here and pick a Keydets team that has flirted with the Big South championship before and loves to play on the road because life on the road is better than life in the barracks.
My pick: VMI
CAA (March 4-7)Top seed: George Mason (25-5, 16-2)
Storyline: George Mason is the obvious choice with guys like Cam Long and Ryan Pearson. In fact, George Mason, a winner of 15 straight games, is probably the best mid-major in the country right now. ODU will be another tough out, as I absolutely love Frank Hassell, Ben Finney and Kent Bazemore. This team can really guard. And then there is possibly the best player ever to play at Hofstra in Charles Jenkins, who leads a team fueled by desperation, as the Pride need to earn the conference's automatic bid to get into the NCAA tournament, in my view. Speaking of desperate, there's also VCU, which has lost four of its past five games, but I have to think that Shaka Smart can rally his troops. Drexel can really guard, and James Madison has great talent. This is the best top-half-talented tournament of all the mid-majors.
My pick: George Mason
Horizon (March 1-8)Top seed: Milwaukee (18-12, 13-5)
Storyline: Milwaukee has secured home-court advantage with a late-season run that seemingly came out of nowhere. The Panthers opened the Horizon League season 4-5 and went on to win their last nine conference games to earn the top seed. Anthony Hill at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, has proved himself to be a very tough matchup. Head coach Rob Jeter has taken full advantage, as Hill has averaged 21.6 points in his past five games. Cleveland State has Norris Cole, and we all know about him. Three letters about the level of his talent: N-B-A. But if CSU wins the championship, it will be because Aaron Pogue steps up in the paint. Then there are the Butler Bulldogs, who will not go quietly into the night. Matt Howard is just too tough, and Shelvin Mack is too experienced.
My pick: Butler
MAAC (March 4-7)Top seed: Fairfield (23-6, 15-3)
Storyline: Fairfield looks like the team to beat but I have a feeling about Iona. I saw the Gaels dismantle Liberty on the road and they backed up that impressive performance by beating Fairfield on Sunday. While I love the quick and dynamic play of Derek Needham and respect what the Stags have accomplished, Scott Machado can really dish and Mike Glover is a double-double machine. The thing that sells me on Iona is that the Gaels are peaking defensively right now.
My pick: Iona
MVC (March 3-6)Top seed: Missouri State (23-7, 15-3)
Storyline: I can see any one of Missouri State, Wichita State, Creighton, Indiana State, Evansville or Northern Iowa winning this thing. Missouri State has earned the top seed with physical defense and rebounding led by Will Creekmore and Kyle Weems. You have to like the Bears' chances but their lack of depth bothers me when having to play three games over three days. Creighton has the two best big guys on one team with Gregory Echenique and Doug McDermott but besides Antoine Young I'm just not sure the Bluejays can generate enough from their guards. Indiana State has Jake Odum as a fine freshman point guard to go along with a nice mix of skill and athleticism but the Sycamores can be streaky good and streaky bad. Evansville could get hot with Colt Ryan who is hard to guard and tough to defend in head coach Marty Simmons' well-designed offense. Then there is Wichita State. The Shockers can really guard and are the most athletic team in The Valley. They also have the best depth. Here is the key: if J.T. Durley can control the paint, then I like the Shockers' chances the most out this well-balanced field of contenders.
My pick: Wichita State
Northeast (March 3-9)Top seed: Long Island (24-5, 16-2)
Storyline: Long Island is head and shoulders better than every other team and showed it by winning its past 10 games. LIU's last loss was to St. Francis (Pa.) on Jan. 22. Guess whom the Blackbirds play next? St. Francis. This time, the game will be at LIU. Good luck to the Red Flash with that one. Quinnipiac, Robert Morris and Central Connecticut all have an outside shot, but it will take a lot of outside shots to beat the Blackbirds at home, where they have won nine straight. (RMU was the last NEC team to beat LIU at home back in December.) There is balance on this LIU team, as seven guys average between seven and 13 points per game, led by Julian Boyd (13.7 ppg).
My pick: Long Island
Ohio Valley (March 2-5)Top seed: Murray State (23-7, 14-4)
Storyline: Morehead State is led by the nation's leading rebounder, Kenneth Faried, and might be a good choice to win the OVC. Austin Peay was hot early in league play, when it won at Murray State and got off to a 6-0 league start. Tennessee Tech has firepower with 6-6 Kevin Murphy (15.8 ppg) and Zac Swansey, who distributes and leads Mike Sutton's team. But the team that always seems to peak around now -- and this season is no different -- is Murray State. The Racers have four guards they can put on the floor at once and also can go big. Murray State is the No. 1 seed for a reason -- it has the best guards in B.J. Jenkins, Isacc Miles and Isaiah Canaan as well as a solid interior defense led by Edward Daniel.
My pick: Murray State
Patriot (March 2-11)Top seed: Bucknell (22-8, 13-1)
Storyline: Bucknell has won seven straight and 16 of its past 17 games. And then there is this little piece of history: The top seed has played in each of the past 20 Patriot League championship games and has won the past five. Sophomore Mike Muscala is the best player in the Patriot League and Bryan Cohen can lock down anyone in the league, so it is pretty obvious who my choice to earn the Patriot League's automatic berth is. Possible spoilers are American and my preseason pick Holy Cross, which was swept by both Bucknell and American but by a combined 13 points. The Crusaders are 8-20 but have a legitimate chance to prove me right after all.
My pick: Bucknell
Southern (March 4-7)Top seed: West Carolina (17-14, 12-6) and College of Charleston (22-9, 14-4)
Storyline: I'm inclined to pick the College of Charleston, but it has lost two in a row. It is hard to bet against one of the best mid-major players in the country in Andrew Goudelock, but he's been without his partner Jeremy Simmons, who has sat the past eight games with a blood clot in his arm. Simmons will undergo a procedure on Wednesday, and I wish him a speedy recovery. There are other suspects to consider such as Wofford. I've always admired Noah Dahlman's ability to be tough and physical and score it in the paint (20.0 ppg on 62 percent shooting). Dahlman has scored in double figures every game this season, and the Terriers have won five straight.
Western Carolina also has been hot, winning eight of its past nine. Mike Williams runs the show for Larry Hunter's crew, leading the team in points per game (15.2) and assists (3.9). Chattanooga has struggled as of late, losing five of its past seven, but could be dangerous along with Furman, as both finished 12-6 in the league.
My pick: Wofford
Summit (March 5-8)Top seed: Oakland (22-9, 17-1)
Storyline: If you have been reading my comments all season, I don't think we need to spend a whole lot of time on this one. The best team in the Summit is Oakland with a 17-1 conference record. I don't care where the games are being played -- Sioux Falls, S.D., is as good a place as any for the Grizzlies. My advice to all Summit League foes is to hang your food in the highest trees, because these Grizzlies are hungry for another championship. Keith Benson and Reggie Hamilton will do what they always do: win.
My pick: Oakland
Sun Belt (March 5-8)Top seed: Florida Atlantic (21-9, 13-3), Arkansas State (17-14, 11-5)
Storyline: I'm not going to call a winner in this one, as I will be providing analysis for the championship game. I just don't believe in predicting games I call. Louisiana-Lafayette has to be the come-from-behind favorite after winning 11 straight games to end the regular season. This is a team with balance and chemistry that is peaking at the right time. J.J. Thomas has been the go-to guy averaging over 17 points in the past four victories.
Florida Atlantic has been the most consistent team in the Sun Belt. Greg Gantt has been up-and-down lately, but you have to see Raymond Taylor, who, at 5-6, 145 pounds, averages double figures in scoring but more surprisingly averages 3.7 rebounds per game to go with four assists per game. Add Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, Denver and Western Kentucky as possible contenders.
My pick: Watch with me on ESPN2 on Tuesday.
WCC (March 4-7)Top seed: Saint Mary's (23-7, 11-3)
Storyline: I picked against Gonzaga to open the season. Then I basically wrote the Zags off midseason, and they proved me wrong coming down the stretch. I admit that I am a front-runner, and I am officially jumping on the Gonzaga bandwagon. But this will be a nail-biting tournament, as Saint Mary's can quickly get its groove back, and Portland's ability to knock down 3s can change any game. Then there is San Francisco, which beat Gonzaga at home in January. Santa Clara is dangerous as well, as it also beat Gonzaga in conference play.
My pick: Gonzaga
Mark Adams is a contributor to ESPN.com. He is a game analyst on the ESPN family of networks and was a college basketball coach for 17 years, including a head-coaching stint at Central Connecticut State and assistant jobs at Idaho State and Washington State. For more of his insight, check out www.enthusiadams.com
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