Conference Tournament Preview, Part One

    
March 1st, 2011
The college basketball fan's favorite month of the year is finally upon us, as 346 teams are narrowed down to 68 before the process of determining a national champion begins. The first week is primarily a time for leagues that traditionally get just one bid to the NCAA Tournament to sort themselves out, with some of the most indelible images of "Championship Week" coming during this time. Below are the schedules for the tournaments that begin this weekend (the Big Sky still has games to play and the Sun Belt has yet to release their bracket) with some notes and predictions.

America East (at Chase Arena, West Hartford, CT)
March 3, 5-6 (at Hartford), 13 (at highest remaining seed)

March 3
(8) UMBC vs. (9) Binghamton (8:15 pm)

March 5
(4) Albany vs. (5) Stony Brook (12:05 pm)
(1) Vermont vs. UMBC/Binghamton winner (approx. 2:15 pm)
(2) Boston University vs. (7) New Hampshire (6:05 pm)
(3) Maine vs. (6) Hartford (approx. 8:15 pm)

March 6
Winner 4/5 vs. Winner 1/8/9 (5:04 pm)
Winner 2/7 vs. Winner 3/6 (approx. 7:34 pm)

March 13
Semifinal winners (12:02 pm)

Vermont goes into the conference tournament as the clear-cut regular season champion, but if there's anyone who can pick off the Catamounts it would be two-seed Boston University. Patrick Chambers has an experienced team led by senior John Holland and junior Darryl Partin, and the Terriers swept the season series with Vermont. Vermont's Evan Fjeld and Brian Voelkel have paired up to become the best forward combo in the conference, and Maine has a Player of the Year candidate of its own in forward Troy Barnies. Stony Brook's dealt with injuries for much of the season but point guard Bryan Dougher has played well all season long for the Seawolves.

Pick: Vermont

Atlantic Sun (at University Center, Macon, GA)
March 2-5

March 2
(1) Belmont vs. (8) Kennesaw State (2:30 pm)
(2) East Tennessee State vs. (7) Campbell (9:00 pm)

March 3
(3) Jacksonville vs. (6) North Florida (2:30 pm)
(4) Lipscomb vs. (5) Mercer (9:00 pm)

March 4
Winner 1/8 vs. Winner 4/5 (6:30 pm)
Winner 2/7 vs. Winner 3/6 (9:00 pm)

March 5
Semifinal winners (6:00 pm)

Belmont's been the class of the league all season long, winning 19 of 20 league contests. The balance that Rick Byrd's team possesses isn't seen in most teams, and four players were named to all-conference teams this week. Guard Ian Clark and interior players Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders are just three of the tough matchups for opponents, and Belmont's uptempo style can result in games getting out of control for the opposition. East Tennessee State has the Player of the Year in Mike Smith, and the Bucs were the second-best team in the conference for most of the year. Also keep an eye on Jacksonville and Lipscomb, led by senior forward Adnan Hodzic. And for an off the radar pick Mercer's young roster has grown up as the season's worn on, and the Bears host the tournament on their floor.

Pick: Belmont

Big Sky
March 5, 8-9 (first round at higher seeds; semifinals and final at Northern Colorado)

March 5
(5) Montana State at (4) Northern Arizona (8:37 pm)
(6) Eastern Washington at (3) Weber State (9:37 pm)

March 8 

(2) Montana vs. Highest remaining seed (7:30 pm)
(1) Northern Colorado vs. Lowest remaining seed (10:00 pm)

March 9

Semifinal winners (9:00 pm)

Northern Colorado won the regular season title by a game over Montana, and the Bears did not lost at home in conference play. B.J. Hill's club has won eight of their last nine games, and in Devon Beitzel they've got one of the best players in the conference. Montana handed them the lone defeat in that stretch, and with the interior tandem of Brian Qvale and Derek Selvig the Grizzlies can be a tough matchup for any team (they whipped UCLA earlier this season). Weber State rebounded well from the loss of Damian Lillard, a guard many thought would be the conference Player of the Year before the season began. The Wildcats had to become a more balanced team, and with five players averaging at least seven points per game they've done just that. In addition to the players already mentioned keep an eye on Northern Arizona senior guard Cameron Jones, who does just about everything for the Lumberjacks. Northern Colorado is tough to beat at home but the two wins they need to dance won't come easy.

Pick: Montana

Big South
March 1 (higher seeds), March 3 (at Coastal Carolina), March 5 (highest remaining seed)

March 1
(8) Gardner-Webb at (1) Coastal Carolina (7:00 pm)
(5) Winthrop at (4) VMI (7:00 pm)
(7) High Point at (2) Liberty (7:00 pm)
(6) Charleston Southern at (3) UNC Asheville (7:00 pm)

March 3
Winner 7/2 vs. Winner 6/3 (6:00 pm)
Winner 8/1 vs. Winner 5/4 (approx. 8:00 pm)

March 5
Semifinal winners (4:00 pm)

The Big South could have the early conference tournament to peg, with regular season champion Coastal Carolina losing three of their best players at one point or another this season and Liberty losing four straight to end the regular season. But head coach Dale Layer does have the league Player of the Year in guard Jesse Sanders along with shooting guard Evan Gordon. UNC Asheville could be heard from as well with J.P. Primm leading the way. Primm averaged nearly 20 points per game in last year's conference tournament so he knows how to step up when the time comes.

Pick: Liberty

Colonial (at Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA)

March 4-7

March 4
(8) UNC Wilmington vs. (9) Georgia State (12:00 pm)
(5) Drexel vs. (12) Towson (2:30 pm)
(7) Delaware vs. (10) Northeastern (6:00 pm)
(6 James Madison vs. (11) William & Mary (8:30 pm)

March 5
(1) George Mason vs. Winner 8/9 (12:00 pm)
(4) VCU vs. Winner 5/12 (2:30 pm)
(2) Old Dominion vs. Winner 7/10 (6:00 pm)
(3) Hofstra vs. Winner 6/11 (8:30 pm)

March 6
Winner 1/8/9 vs. Winner 4/5/12 (12:00 pm)
Winner 2/7/10 vs. Winner 3/6/11 (2:30 pm)

March 7
Semifinal winners (7:00 pm)

The CAA is in a pretty good spot right now, with George Mason and Old Dominion both possessing profiles that look to be worthy of an at-large bid should they need it. If the Colonial is to get three bids more than likely the title would need to be won by a VCU or Hofstra, and both have the players to do it. Hofstra's Charles Jenkins is one of the most prolific scorers in conference history, and VCU's got a talented rotation led by guard Joey Rodriguez and forward Jamie Skeen. But back to the top two teams for a second, as Jim Larranaga's Patriots have been on fire over the last six weeks. Ryan Pearson and Luke Hancock are just two of the experienced contributors for George Mason, who removed any doubt as to who the best team in the CAA was during the regular season. As for Blaine Taylor's Monarchs Kent Bazemore and Frank Hassell are two of the important contributors, and ODU may be the best defensive team in the conference. Drexel and James Madison should also be watched, with Chris Fouch (Drexel) and Denzel Bowles (JMU) two of the better performers in the league this season.

Pick: George Mason

Horizon
March 1 (higher seeds), March 4-5 (at Milwaukee), March 8 (highest remaining seed)

March 1
(10) UIC at (3) Cleveland State (7:00 pm)
(7) Green Bay at (6) Wright State (7:00 pm)
(9) Youngstown State at (4) Valparaiso (8:00 pm)
(8) Loyola (IL) at (5) Detroit (7:00 pm)

March 4
Winner 10/3 vs. Winner 7/6 (6:00 pm)
Winner 9/4 vs. Winner 8/5 (approx. 8:30 pm)

March 5
(2) Butler vs. (10/3 vs. 7/6) winner (6:00 pm)
(1) Milwaukee vs. (9/4 vs. 8/5) winner (approx. 8:30 pm)

March 8
Semifinal winners (9:00 pm)

The Horizon could be another wild league tournament, with seeds at the top of the conference not being decided until the final day of the regular season. Two story lines to keep an eye on: the fact that it's the seldom-discussed Milwaukee who owns the top seed and Butler, a team many left for dead a month ago, rallied to grab the two seed. Valparaiso, who led the conference for a solid portion of the season, dropped all the way down to the four-seed and Cleveland State has the explosive Norris Cole to rely on offensively. Wright State's Vaughn Duggins was also a First Team All-Horizon selection, and he has the ability to lead the Raiders to a few wins as well.

Pick: Butler

Metro Atlantic (at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, Bridgeport, CT)
March 4-7

March 4
(8) Niagara vs. (9) Marist (7:30 pm)
(7) Siena vs. (10) Manhattan (approx. 9:30 pm)

March 5
(4) Saint Peter's vs. (5) Loyola (MD) (2:30 pm)
(1) Fairfield vs. Winner 8/9 (approx. 4:30 pm)
(2) Iona vs. Winner 7/10 (7:30 pm)
(3) Rider vs. (6) Canisius (approx. 9:30 pm)

March 6
Winner 4/5 vs. Winner 1/8/9 (2:00 pm)
Winner 3/6 vs. Winner 2/7/10 (approx. 4:00 pm)

March 7
Semifinal winners (7:00 pm)

Fairfield won the regular season title by two games, losing to two-seed Iona on Sunday. The differences between the two teams are quite noticeable, with the Stags being the MAAC's best defensive team and the Gaels being one of the most explosive offensively. Guards Derek Needham (Fairfield) and Scott Machado (Iona) have led the way for their respective teams, but tournament success for both will rely upon how well these two teams manage their weaknesses. Rider's got some explosive offensive players led by senior guard Justin Robinson, and the Broncs have also performed better defensively this year than in years past. Saint Peter's, Loyola and Canisius all have the talent needed to pull off an upset (or two) in the tournament, and Siena has the superlative Ryan Rossiter at power forward. The Saints' injuries and youth make it tough to see them winning a fourth straight tournament crown however.

Pick: Iona

Missouri Valley (at Scottrade Center, St. Louis)
March 3-6

March 3
(8) Southern Illinois vs. (9) Illinois State (7:00 pm)
(7) Drake vs. (10) Bradley (9:35 pm)

March 4
(1) Missouri State vs. Winner 8/9 (1:05 pm)
(4) Northern Iowa vs. (5) Creighton (3:35 pm)
(2) Wichita State vs. Winner 7/10 (7:05 pm)
(3) Indiana State vs. (6) Evansville (9:35 pm)

March 5
Winner 1/8/9 vs. Winner 4/5 (2:35 pm)
Winner 2/7/10 vs. Winner 3/6 (5:05 pm)

March 6
Semifinal winners (2:05 pm)

Cuonzo Martin's Missouri State Bears won their first-ever regular season Missouri Valley title with the win over Wichita State on Saturday, and given how well all teams tend to travel to Arch Madness the crowd support should be about even. The Bears are a seasoned group led by Adam Leonard and Kyle Weems, and the Bears can count on their guys to bring it defensively most nights. Wichita State was the preseason favorite and with J.T. Durley and Toure Murry, Gregg Marshall's got two of the better players in the conference. They struggled at home down the stretch however, so maybe playing on a neutral floor will help out the Shockers. Northern Iowa/Creighton could be the most intriguing matchup with the Panthers looking to return to the NCAA Tournament, and the Blue Jays have talent but haven't performed at their highest level for a significant portion of league play.

Pick: Wichita State

Northeast (all games at higher seeds)
March 3, 6, 9

March 3
(8) Saint Francis (PA) at (1) Long Island (7:00 pm)
(7) Mount St. Mary's at (2) Quinnipiac (7:00 pm)
(6) Wagner at (3) Robert Morris (7:00 pm)
(5) St. Francis (NY) at (4) CCSU (7:00 pm)

March 6
Lowest remaining seed at highest remaining seed (12:00 pm or 2:00 pm)
2nd highest remaining seed at 3rd highest remaining seed (12:00 pm or 2:00 pm)

March 9
Semifinal winners at highest remaining seed

All games are played on the home court of the higher seed, meaning that LIU won't have to leave Brooklyn in order to win the conference title. JIm Ferry's team has been the best the NEC's had to offer for much of the season, having won 13 of their last 14 games behind First Team All-NEC forward Julian Boyd. But the Blackbirds aren't the only team to go into postseason play hot as Quinnipiac's won eight of their last nine. Senior forward Justin Rutty's return from injury has sparked the Bobcats, and guard James Johnson's game has flourished of late. Robert Morris is the two-time defending champion but with guard Karon Abraham lost for the year due to an Achilles' tendon injury a three-peat will be tough to accomplish. CCSU has the league's Player of the Year in forward Ken Horton, and their experienced guard tandem of Robby Ptacek and Shemik Thompson have the ability to make some noise as well. The overall quality of the conference has improved in recent years, meaning that the road teams wouldn't shock the world if they were to win on Thursday night.

Pick: Long Island

Ohio Valley (at Nashville Municipal Auditorium, Nashville, TN)
March 2-5

March 2
(5) Tennessee State vs. (8) Tennessee-Martin (7:00 pm)
(6) Eastern Kentucky vs. (7) Southeast Missouri (approx. 9:00 pm)

March 3
(4) Tennessee Tech vs. Winner 5/8 (7:00 pm)
(3) Austin Peay vs. Winner 6/7 (approx. 9:00 pm)

March 4
(1) Murray State vs. Winner 4/5/8 (8:00 pm)
(2) Morehead State vs. Winner 3/6/7 (approx. 10:00 pm)

March 5
Semifinal winners (8:00 pm)

It would be easy to assume that we're headed towards a rematch between Morehead State and Murray State, with the Racers winning last week to clinch the regular season title. Billy Kennedy's team may not have the sheer numbers that last year's group boasted but in Isaiah Canaan and B.J. Jenkins Murray State has two capable leaders who know what it takes to win championships. Morehead State has the greatest rebounder of the modern era in senior Kenneth Faried but as a team they essentially break even on the boards. Austin Peay began league play 5-0 before coming back to the pack but they finished just one game behind Murray State and beat both contenders earlier this season. Tennessee Tech could be the "dark horse" in this tournament, having won their last five games, and if they need a late hoop Zach Swansey's made five game-winners this season.

Pick: Murray State

Patriot (all games at higher seeds)
March 2, 6, 11

March 2
(8) Army at (1) Bucknell (7:00 pm)
(5) Navy at (4) Lehigh (7:00 pm)
(7) Colgate at (2) American (7:00 pm)
(6) Lafayette at (3) Holy Cross (7:00 pm)

March 6
Winner 8/1 vs. Winner 5/4 (5:00 pm or 7:30 pm)
Winner 7/2 vs. Winner 6/3 (5:00 pm or 7:30 pm)

March 11
Semifinal winners at highest remaining seed (4:45 pm)

The Patriot League is one of the conferences that rewards regular season achievement with home court advantage in the conference tournament, which sets Bucknell and American apart from the remainder of the field. Bucknell's lone conference loss came at Army, who they open up with on Wednesday. Mike Muscala is their leading scorer and rebounder while Darryl Shazier does as good a job of any point guard in the league when it comes to running the show. American has an outstanding forward in Vlad Moldeveanu ad Steven Lumpkins hasn't been too shabby either, leading the team in rebounding. There was a four-game separation between second and third in the standings, but if Holy Cross learned from their many close losses earlier in the season maybe Milan Brown's club can go on a run.

Pick: Bucknell

Southern (at McKenzie Arena, Chattanooga, TN)
March 4-7

March 4
(4S) Davidson vs. (5N) UNC Greensboro (2:00 pm)
(3N) Appalachian State vs. (6S) Georgia Southern (approx. 4:30 pm)
(3S) Furman vs. (6N) Samford (7:00 pm)
(4N) Elon vs. (5S) The Citadel (approx. 9:30 pm)

March 5
(1N) Western Carolina vs. Davidson/UNC Greensboro winner (2:00 pm)
(2S) Wofford vs. Appalachian State/Georgia Southern winner (approx. 4:30 pm)
(2N) Chattanooga vs. Furman/Samford winner (7:00 pm)
(1) College of Charleston vs. Elon/The Citadel winner (approx. 9:30 pm)

March 6
Winner 1N/4S/5N vs. Winner 2S/3N/6S (6:00 pm)
Winner 2N/3S/6N vs. Winner 1S/4N/5S (approx. 8:30 pm)

March 7
Semifinal winners (9:00 pm)

The power's in the south but Chattanooga hosts the tournament, giving them a puncher's chance to win the tournament. That floor did little to deter defending champion Wofford, who blew the Mocs out of the guy last week. Wofford has forward Noah Dahlman and Charleston has the explosive Andrew Goudelock, two players who would surprise none if they were to get hot over three days. Western Carolina won the North Division and beat Charleston over the weekend which should serve as quite the confidence boost for the Catamounts, who have won eight of their last nine games. The tournament may be a bit more wide-open than it looks to be at first glance, but any matchup in the final other than Charleston/Wofford would be a surprise.

Pick: Charleston

Summit (at Sioux Falls Arena, Sioux Falls, SD)
March 5-8

March 5
(1) Oakland vs. (8) Southern Utah (6:00 pm)
(2) Oral Roberts vs. (7) North Dakota State (8:30 pm)

March 6
(4) IPFW vs. (5) South Dakota State (6:00 pm)
(3) IUPUI vs. (6) UMKC (8:30 pm)

March 7
Winner 1/8 vs. Winner 4/5 (6:00 pm)
Winner 2/7 vs. Winner 3/6 (8:30 pm)

March 8
Semifinal winners (8:00 pm)

The only team to beat Oakland in league play was IUPUI, maybe displaying a small chink in the armor of Greg Kampe's team. But the Golden Grizzlies have the most talented rotation in the league, led by senior center Keith Benson. Oral Roberts and IUPUI can counter with excellent scorers of their own in Dominique Morrison and Alex Young respectively. But despite the tournament being played out in Sioux Falls it's tough to see Oakland not winning it. Give ORU and IUPUI the best chances at taking the crown if it isn't the Golden Grizzlies.

Pick: Oakland

Sun Belt (at Summit Arena, Hot Springs, AR)
March 5-8

March 5
(E3) Western Kentucky vs. (W6) ULM (6:45 pm, Convention Center)
(E5) Troy vs. (W4) North Texas (6:30 pm, Summit Arena)
(E6) FIU vs. (W3) Denver (8:45 pm, Summit Arena)
(E4) South Alabama vs. (W5) UALR (9:00 pm, Convention Center)

March 6
(W2) Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Winner E3/W6 (6:30 pm, Summit Arena)
(E1) Florida Atlantic vs. Winner E5/W4 (6:45 pm, Convention Center)
(E2) Middle Tennessee vs. Winner E6/W3 (9:00, Convention Center)
(W1) Arkansas State vs. Winner E4/W5 (8:45 pm, Summit Arena)

March 7
Winner W2/E3/W6 vs. Winner E1/E5/W4 (6:00 pm, Summit Arena)
Winner E2/E6/W3 vs. Winner W1/E4/W5 (8:30 pm, Summit Arena)

March 8
Semifinal winners (6:00 pm)

The Sun Belt Tournament has the potential to be a wild event, with some of the more disappointing teams in the league also being among the most talented. That essentially sums up Western Kentucky, who has struggled with setting aside personal differences for the good of the team at times this season. Sergio Kerusch and Steffphon Pettigrew are two of the better players that Ken McDonald can put out on the floor from a talent standpoint, and if all of the Hilltoppers are on board a run at redemption is possible. Florida Atlantic won the East Division with Greg Gantt and Raymond Taylor leading the way for Mike Jarvis' club, and their 13-3 overall record was the best in the conference by two games. Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette shared the West Division crown, with the Ragin' Cajuns winning the most recent game between the two 64-61 on February 17th. Five Red Wolves average at least eight points per game but it's Louisiana-Lafayette who enters the tournament as the league's hottest team with an 11-game win streak. Other teams to keep an eye on include Middle Tennessee, Denver and North Texas.

Pick: Louisiana-Lafayette 

West Coast (at Orleans Arena, Las Vegas)
March 4-7

March 4
(5) Portland vs. (8) Loyola Marymount (9:00 pm)
(6) Pepperdine vs. (7) San Diego (11:30 pm)

March 5
Winner 5/8 vs. (4) Santa Clara (9:00 pm)
Winner 6/7 vs. (3) San Francisco (11:30 pm)

March 6
Winner 4/5/8 vs. (1) Saint Mary's (8:00 pm)
Winner 3/6/7 vs. (2) Gonzaga (10:30 pm)

March 7
Semifinal winners (9:00 pm)

Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are the prohibitive favorites to win the WCC Tournament, having split the regular season meetings in addition to the league crown. Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova have been arguably the best guard tandem in the WCC this season for Randy Bennett. As for Gonzaga, they like Butler were a team many gave up on just over a month ago but have bounced back to finish the regular season in strong fashion. In Steven Gray, Elias Harris and Robert Sacre the Bulldogs have two of the most talented players in the conference, and Sam Dower has emerged as the season's worn on. As for who could upset either of these two keep an eye on San Francisco, who went into the final weekend with a shot at winning a share of the league title and have some solid players at Rex Walters' disposal.

Pick: Gonzaga