By: College Basketball Staff
It’s been a wild college basketball season and it’s about to really heat up as Conference tournaments start this week! We’ll be previewing many of the conferences tourneys this year and including our favorite picks and dark horse teams to win the tournaments! (Page will be updated as odds come out.)
AAC | ACC | America East | Atlantic 10 | Atlantic Sun | Big 12 | Big East | Big South | Big Sky | Big Ten| Big West | Colonial | C-USA | Horizon | Metro Atlantic | Mid-Eastern | Missouri Valley | Mountain West | Northeast | Ohio Valley | Pac-12 | Patriot | SEC | Southern | Southland | Summit | Sun Belt | SWAC | WAC | WCC
American Athletic Conference Tournament
When: March 11 – 13
Where: Dickies Arena, Fort Worth, TX
Fun Fact: The regular season champion and #1 seed Wichita State Shockers spent most of the season with an Interim Head Coach in Isaac Brown. The Shockers were picked 7th in the conference’s preseason poll, and that was when former Head Coach Gregg Marshall was still presiding over the program. Brown, who allegedly still hasn’t moved his belongings into the Head Coach’s office due in part to superstition, was recently relieved of the interim tag when he agreed to a five-year, $6 million deal to become the full-time head coach of the Shocker’s program. Brown was recently named the AAC Coach of the Year.
The Favorite: #2 Houston Cougars (21-3, 14-3); -140
Despite losing three times in a weaker than usual AAC slate, the Cougars are still ranked #7 in both the AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Houston as the #8 team overall in the NCAA Tournament and the last #2 seed in the field. It’s unlikely Houston can move up to a #1 seed given the teams above them right now, but they can seal their fate as a #2 seed if they win this AAC Tournament. A loss this week, though, and the Cougs are likely headed for a #3 seed.
Houston will open up the tournament in the quarterfinals on Friday against the winner of Thursday’s game between #7 Tulsa and #10 Tulane. Houston actually suffered their first defeat of the season against Tulsa on the road. While the Cougs later crushed the Golden Hurricane at home to make up for the loss, I’d imagine Houston would prefer to face the Tulane team that they beat by 20+ points twice this season. After that, Houston likely gets Memphis, which has been labeled a potential “bid-stealer” by a number of pundits headed into this tournament. More on the Tigers in a bit…
Houston’s the obvious safe choice, but the odds reflect that. You’re paying for the premium they bring to the table, and taking -140 for a team to have to win three games in a three-day stretch is a big risk. Houston’s path to the title is also fraught with tough matchups for this team. They could potentially face Tulsa (a team they have lost to), followed by Memphis (a team that the Cougars needed to hit a last-second, half-court shot against on their home floor to win this past Sunday), followed by Wichita State (another team they have lost to). That’s hardly an easy road.
I’m also not in love with Houston’s reliance on the three-pointer, especially since this is a team that’s only slightly above average on shots behind the arc; Houston shoots 42.2% of its field goals from three-point territory, which is the 54th highest percentage in the country, but they’re shooting 35.0% on those attempts as a team, which ranks 111th in the nation. Yes, they’re 2nd in the nation in offensive rebound rate (39.5% of misses end up in the Cougars’ hands) and they have an excellent defense. But a cold shooting night could spell doom for this team, and the chances of such a night are increased when you play three games in three days and your legs start to turn to rubber.
The Dark Horse: #3 Memphis Tigers (15-7, 11-4); +550
Head Coach Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers have become a trendy pick in the AAC Tournament this year, and for good reason. The Tigers won six of seven down the stretch in the regular season (9-2 after January 17), and their only loss during that span was the three-point defeat at Houston this past Sunday when the Cougars needed to make a prayer from half-court with one second left to win the game in regulation. As an aforementioned potential “bid-stealer,” the Tigers could be a team that plays its way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the AAC Tournament and the automatic bid that comes with it, effectively knocking a team seeking an at-large bid out of the Dance.
Memphis won their only game against Wichita State and suffered the close defeat to Houston on the road, so this is a team that is clearly capable of winning any game in this conference. They’re extremely reliant on their defense to win games; Memphis ranks 2nd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, while they rank 155th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. They limit opposing offenses to 26.8% on three-point attempts, which is 2nd best in the nation. Defense is always critical to winning come tournament time, especially with the compressed schedule. The Tigers won’t win many games that are aesthetically pleasing, but they have what it takes to stay in games and have a shot to win down the stretch.
Two things to watch: 1) As is almost historically the case for whatever reason, Memphis is a horrible free-throw shooting team. They shoot 61.8% from the line as a team, which ranks them 340th in the nation in that stat. Closing games out can be an adventure and is typically a struggle for this team, which is not what you want to see. 2) This is a team that doesn’t have a single senior on the roster. Junior forward DeAndre Williams (10.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.1 STL) is the team’s de facto leader and second-leading scorer, and he’s arguably the most important player on the team on both sides of the ball. His ability to facilitate on offense while playing lockdown defense makes him invaluable, and he’ll need to guide his predominately underclassmen teammates through a difficult path to the AAC title this week in order for the Tigers to continue their season in the NCAA Tournament.
-Mac O’Brien (@kmacobrien)
When: March 9 – 13
Where: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
Fun Fact: No team has ever won 5 games in 5 days to win the ACC Tournament. When the conference expanded to 15 teams for the 2013-14 season, the ACC Tournament expanded from four days to five days, with seeds 10-15 playing in the first of five rounds. This season, Duke finds itself needing to make history as the #10 seed (its lowest seed in school history) by winning all five games to guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a wide open event this year, though, as the tournament doesn’t have a team ranked in the AP Top 10 for the first time since 1996. Don’t be surprised if things get crazy in a hurry in Greensboro.
The Favorite: #2 Florida State Seminoles (15-5, 11-4); +225
In a bit of a surprise, FSU has the best odds according to most bookmakers (a minority have UVA slightly edging the Seminoles out). Florida State had the #1 seed all but locked up after the night of February 24th, as they had just won to improve to 10-2 in-conference while UVA had just lost to drop to 11-4. With the #1 seed coming down to conference winning percentage, all FSU had to do was win two of their last three (even in UVA won their last two) @ UNC, vs Boston College, and @ Notre Dame. After splitting the UNC and BC games, the Seminoles choked the 1-seed away this past weekend when they gave up 83 points to Notre Dame on the road in a 10-point loss to the Irish. Now, the question is how quickly Head Coach Leonard Hamilton’s team can rebound and get up off the mat.
The ‘Noles may have to face the aforementioned Blue Devils. If Duke can knock off BC in the opening round and follow that with an upset of a Louisville team that the Blue Devils were 0-2 against, but recently lost to at home in overtime, they’d be FSU’s opening opponent on Thursday evening. FSU didn’t face Duke in the regular season because of the Seminoles’ COVID issues, and it’d be an interesting matchup if we get to see it. If not, FSU would take on Louisville (it’s unlikely BC pulls off two monumental upsets given the state of that program), whom the ‘Noles handled easily in a 13-point road victory back in mid-January. FSU also gets the added benefit of catching the Virginia Tech Hokies as the #3 seed in the bottom of the bracket, but it’s conceivable the Seminoles would have to knock off both teams from Tobacco Road if UNC can slip past Notre Dame/Wake Forest and then the Hokies.
Overall, FSU is arguably the deepest team in the conference with Coach Hamilton routinely playing 10 guys, all of whom could see 10 minutes on a given night. FSU didn’t place anyone on the All-ACC First Team (awards were announced on March 8), but senior guard M.J. Walker (13.1 PPG, 44.1% 3PT FG%) did crack the All-ACC Second Team. Freshman sensation and point-forward Scottie Barnes (10.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.3 APG) was named ACC Freshman of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year, and he was also named to the All-ACC Third Team. This isn’t a team that is built for individual accolades. It’s built for team success. The oddsmakers see that depth as a critical reason why FSU is most likely to win three straight starting on Thursday evening.
The Dark Horse: #4 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (15-8, 11-6); +1000
Don’t even start with the “homer” nonsense. Georgia Tech is criminally underrated by oddsmakers coming into this ACC Tournament. Let’s start with the fact that two teams with better odds (North Carolina at +450 and Louisville at +700) have to win four games, while the Yellow Jackets only need to win three to be crowned the victors thanks to the double-bye they’ve secured as the #4 seed. Plus, both Louisville and UNC would have to go through Florida State at some point before the finals (quarterfinals for Louisville, semifinals for UNC). Let’s not forget who the favorite to win this thing is.
Georgia Tech’s path opens with the winner of Clemson vs Pitt/Miami. Tech has beaten all three of those teams, and they split with Clemson after the Tigers’ hit a prayer from 4-feet beyond the arc with just over 1 second left on the clock to win at home by 2. In Atlanta, GT beat Clemson handily by a final of 83-65. Assuming the Jackets win their opener in the quarterfinals, they’ll likely face UVA, a team that Tech lost to twice during the regular season. But, there’s an old college basketball adage that it’s hard to beat a good team three times in a season. UVA was lucky to escape the Yellow Jackets at home in a 64-62 win, as Tech coughed up a late lead down the stretch. The ‘Hoos denied revenge for Tech in Atlanta a few weeks later when they won by 8, but Georgia Tech only managed 49 points and struggled immensely on offense that game. The Yellow Jackets have the 24th most efficient offense according to KenPom, but they shot just 19% (4-21) from deep in that second loss to UVA at home. It was clear they were feeling the pressure of needing another signature win at home in that game to help their NCAA Tournament odds. Now that the Jackets are almost assuredly in the Dance, I think they’ll come out playing loose and free in this ACC Tournament. Yes, Head Coach Josh Pastner is 0-3 in the ACC Tournament, but I think he has a solid chance of getting that record back to .500 this week. Especially with the ACC Player of the Year and an All-ACC First Teamer in senior forward Moses Wright (18.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG) and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and All-ACC Second Teamer in senior guard Jose Alvarado (15.5 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.6 RPG, 2.9 STL) on his roster.
One note I’ll leave you with: The Yellow Jackets have one win against each of the teams in the 2-7 seeds in this year’s ACC Tournament. If they can finally get over the hump and sneak past UVA in the second round, they’ll almost assuredly play someone they’ve already beaten in their third game this week to win the ACC Tournament on Saturday night. If you’re looking for a Dark Horse, take a team that only has to play three times to cash in that +1000 ticket.
-Mac O’Brien (@kmacobrien)
America East Tournament
When: February 27th – March 13th
Where: Top Seed Campus Sites
Fun Fact: The #1 seed has dominated in recent years. The last time this conference did not see a #1 seed in the Championship game was back in 2014 when the #4 seed Albany knocked off #1 Vermont in the Semifinals. Albany went on to defeat Stony Brook that year in the Championship game. Albany and Vermont are regulars at winning the Championship game, accounting for 12 out of the last 17 championships in the America East Tournament.
The Favorite: #1 UMBC Retrievers (14-5, 10-4)
UMBC and Vermont are exponentially better than the rest of the America East Conference this season. Does that mean we should disregard the First Round and Quarterfinals? No way; however, I do not see any other schools getting to the Championship game not named UMBC and Vermont. The two schools split their two-game series last week, with Vermont taking the first and UMBC taking the second. As I mentioned in my preview, UMBC is a talented team, but I still think the Catamounts have a stronger balance on both sides of the ball over UMBC. In their win over Vermont, UMBC held the Catamounts to 34.6% from the field, a notch below their season average of 39.2%. Vermont shot an abysmal 18.2% from beyond the arc in the loss. In the game that Vermont won, the Catamounts shot 54.7% from the field.
In case you missed the preview, I will give you a quick recap of who makes up the UMBC roster and what they have done so far this season. Brandon Horvath, R.J. Eytle-Rock and Darnell Rogers are three key names to know on the Retrievers roster. Horvath is averaging 13.3 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game this season. Eytle-Rock is averaging 14.1 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game this season. Rogers is averaging 9.6 points per game and 1.8 assists per game this season. UMBC is not going to overwhelm you with their offensive prowess (69.2 points per game; 206th in Division-I), but they will cause you to play at a slow tempo and work for every possession. The Retrievers are holding their opponent to 64.2 points per game (36th in Division-I), and opposing teams are only shooting 39.2% from the field against the Retrievers (7th in Division-I). UMBC has won four out of its last five games, and they will be ready to match up with the lowest remaining seed left from the Quarterfinals.
The Dark Horse: #2 Vermont Catamounts (10-4, 10-4)
After winning the first of two games against UMBC, it almost felt destined that the Catamounts would take the next game from UMBC. That would have been the fifth consecutive regular season championship for the Catamounts, but they are now looking up at UMBC as the regular season champs. Both teams were 10-4 in conference play, but UMBC won four out of five non-conference games this season, thus giving the Retrievers the higher overall win percentage. What would have happened had there been a full schedule in 2020-21? Who knows, but we are just thankful for basketball. I am sure Vermont too has their eyes set on a tournament championship after not getting the regular season championship. The last time Vermont made the NCAA Tournament not as a #1 seed in the America East Tournament came back in 2012. The seed for the Catamounts that year in the America East Tournament? #2 seed.
In the above-mentioned preview, Vermont has been one of the most consistent programs in the America East Conference. This season will obviously stand as an outlier, but the Catamounts have accumulated 17 seasons of 20+ wins in the last 20 years. Replacing Anthony Lamb’s production was a definite hurdle going into the season for Coach Becker, but he has found three dependable scorers in Ryan Davis, Stef Smith and Ben Shungu. Davis is averaging 18.8 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game this season. Smith is averaging 13.8 points per game and 3.2 rebounds per game this season. Shungu is averaging 10.6 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game and 3.4 assists per game. Shooting the ball effectively (46.4% from the field; 52nd in Division-I) and playing stingy defense against the opposition (opposing teams shooting 39.5% from the field; 12th in Division-I) are what makes Vermont such a difficult team to game plan against.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament Championship
When: March 14
Where: University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, OH
Fun Fact: Hand up. I messed up. This is the only conference tournament that didn’t get a full preview. The A10 moving its tournament up a full week turned out to be a wise move (just ask Duke, Virginia, and Kansas—particularly the latter two who have seen their NCAA Tournament hopes get very complicated in the wake of their positive COVID tests). It also caught me off guard and tripped me up on timing, so we’re only doing a preview for the A10 championship game.
For a fun fact actually about these teams, did you know St. Bonaventure has a higher winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament than VCU? The Bonnies are 7-9 (.438 winning %) in their NCAA Tournament history, having appeared in seven NCAA Tournaments (they twice lost in consolation games of some fashion back when those used to be a thing). The Bonnies even reached the Final Four in 1970. For all of VCU’s success over the past decade, including their First Four to Final Four run in 2011, the Rams have a combined record of 13-17 (.433 winning %) record in 17 NCAA Tournament appearances.
The Favorite: #1 St. Bonaventure Bonnies (15-4, 11-4); -125 moneyline, -1.5 spread
St. Bonaventure has received Top-25 votes in both polls recently, and they are safely in the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid, if they need it, according to most bracketologists. But a win on Sunday puts a stamp on it while putting their fellow conference-mate VCU squarely onto the bubble. So don’t be surprised if A10 fans back the Rams in this matchup, as a win by VCU all but guarantees at least two teams for the conference.
The Bonnies are a great defensive team that limits opponents shooting percentages from all areas of the court. Opposing offenses have managed to shoot just 30.5% from downtown (28th best % against) and 45.2% from inside the arc (25th best % against). KenPom ranks St. Bonaventure as a top-20 defense according to adjusted defensive efficiency. On offense, this is a team that can best be described as average in terms of shooting. Their 50.7% effective FG% ranks them 133rd in the nation. The two things they do well are pound the offensive boards (33.6% offensive rebound rate is 32nd in the country) and share the ball (57.3% of made baskets come off of assists, which ranks 51st in the country). This is an offense that relies heavily on movement and using passes to get buckets at the rim, rather than ISO ball.
All five starters for the Bonnies average in double figures, and Head Coach Mark Schmidt uses a four-guard lineup with 6’10” junior forward Osun Osunniyi (10.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.8 BLK) manning the interior. While the Bonnies don’t shoot much from three (only 27.6% of their points come from beyond the arc, which ranks 256th in the NCAA), two starters are shooting above 41% from downtown—junior guards Jaren Holmes (13.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 42.0% 3PT FG%) and Dominick Welch (11.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 41.4% 3PT FG%). They primarily look to shoot from three only when they’re open, but they’re deadly accurate when they get those opportunities.
Having beaten Duquesne and Saint Louis—both by more than 15 points—to reach these finals, St. Bonaventure has an opportunity on Sunday to show they’re the class of the A10 heading into the NCAA Tournament.
The Underdog: #2 VCU Rams (19-6, 10-4); +105 moneyline, +1.5 spread
In some ways, VCU is quite similar to St. Bonaventure, but in other ways the Rams represent a direct counter to the Bonnie’s style of play. First, for the similarities. VCU also makes its money on defense, but the Rams do so by applying intense pressure on the ball at all times, whether on the perimeter or near the hoop, in an effort to force turnovers and block shots. VCU ranks 8th in the nation in turnover percentage on defense, as 24.0% of opposing offenses’ possessions end in a turnover. The majority of these are steals by VCU (as opposed to dead-ball turnovers like travels, offensive fouls, etc.), as the Rams rate 2nd in the country in steals rate. VCU also uses its pressure and athleticism (this isn’t a very tall team with nobody in the rotation coming in above 6’9″) to alter shots and harass opponents at the rim. The Rams are 4th in the country in blocked shot rate on defense, as they block 15.1% of opponents’ shots. KenPom actually ranks VCU’s defense 10 spots higher than St. Bonaventure’s in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, as the Rams are ranked 9th in the country in that stat. Similar to the Bonnies, VCU holds opponents below 46% in terms of effective FG% against.
On offense, VCU is very different from the Bonnies. VCU has only two players averaging double figures on the season: sophomore guard Nah’Shon Hyland (19.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.0 STL) and junior forward Vince Williams Jr. (10.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Nobody else on the roster cracks 8.0 PPG, but five players average between 5 and 8 PPG. This offense very clearly runs through Hyland, who averages nearly a full turnover more per game than he does assists per game. Hyland is a volume shooter in every sense of the word, as he’s attempted 329 shots (including 180 three-pointers) this season in 23 games played (14.3 FGA per game). You can’t fault him, though, as he’s 54.4% on attempts inside the arc and 37.2% on attempts beyond the arc. He’s also shooting 85.6% from the line and does a good job of getting to the stripe multiple times each game. Only once has he failed to register an attempt from the free-throw line this season.
These two teams split their regular season meetings, with each holding serve at home. At the time of this writing, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has VCU as one of his last four teams getting a bye and avoiding the play-in games in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But the Rams can remove all doubt about their status with a win on Sunday. The A10 has produced a number of competitive teams that have made runs in the Tournament in recent years, and this is a league that deserves more than two bids most seasons. If VCU wins and Saint Louis catches a break from the Selection Committee, the A10 will get three teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament, all of whom can cause some chaos over the next few weeks.
-Mac O’Brien (@kmacobrien)
Atlantic Sun Tournament
When: March 4th – 7th
Where: UNF Arena and Swisher Gymnasium, Jacksonville, FL
Fun Fact: In a conference of nine teams, only eight will be represented in the Atlantic Sun (A-Sun) Tournament. Jacksonville recently cancelled their remaining season, due to complications with COVID-19. Of those eight teams, six are eligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament this season. #2 seed, Bellarmine, and #5 seed, North Alabama, are both ineligible for this year’s NCAA Tournament, due to a transition period from Division-II to Division-I. Should Bellarmine/North Alabama win this year’s A-Sun Tournament; the tournament berth will go to the regular season champions, Liberty, regardless of their performance in the conference tournament.
The Favorite: #1 Liberty Flames (20-5, 11-2)
Ritchie McKay has built himself a powerhouse basketball team in Lynchburg, VA. The Flames have now captured their fifth straight season of 20+ wins, along with their third straight A-Sun Regular Season title. Oh yeah, it is worth noting that the Flames have only been in the conference for three years after departing the Big South Conference. Coach McKay was not shy about his Flames playing tough competition in the non-conference slate this year. With five games against “Power-Five” schools, the Flames went 2-3. Heck, even if they went 1-4, it would still be an impressive feat for a small school in the Atlantic Sun Conference. After defeating Mississippi State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and once more in this year’s non-conference action, the Bulldogs might want to reconsider the next time they reschedule a game with Liberty.
Two starters from the 2019 NCAA Tournament bracket-busting team still remain with the program: Darius McGhee and Elijah Cuffee. McGhee has been deadly this season from beyond the arc, connecting on 84 three-point attempts this season (4th in Division-I). The junior guard is averaging 15.5 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game this season. Elijah Cuffee is averaging 10.0 points per game and 3.4 rebounds per game in his senior season. The Fames are one of the most efficient shooting teams in college basketball this season. On two-point shot attempts, the Flames are shooting 56.8% (12th in Division-I). On three-point shot attempts, the Flames are shooting 38.9% (13th in Division-I). Last, but certainly not least, the Flames are shooting 76.8% from the free-throw line this season (29th in Division-I). Should Liberty win the A-Sun Tournament, I think they will make a dangerous #11 or #12 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Dark Horse: #3 Lipscomb Bisons (15-11, 9-6)
After the drubbing Bellarmine took from Liberty Saturday, I am going to flex Lipscomb into this spot instead of underdog-minded Bellarmine Knights. Life after Casey Alexander has not been great for the Bisons. Following their 29-8 season in 2018-19, Coach Alexander left the program to head across town in Nashville to coach Belmont. Coach Acuff went 16-16 last season and the Bisons are 15-11 this season, which shows there has been slight improvement. After starting the season out 1-5, Lipscomb went on a nice run, winning eight out of their next 10 games, including wins over Bellarmine (twice) and Liberty. The Bisons hit a bit of a wall in January into early February, going 3-4, but Lipscomb closed out the season winning three out of their last four games.
Ahsan Asadullah, the 2018-19 A-Sun Freshman of the Year, is making a strong case for being the best player in the conference this season. The junior center is averaging 14.2 points per game, 7.9 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game for the Bisons. Romeao Ferguson and KJ Johnson have been a dependable scoring backcourt tandem this season as well. Ferguson is averaging 13.6 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game. Johnson is averaging 13.3 points per game and 3.2 rebounds per game. Lipscomb shoots the ball well from the field (45.4%; 87th in Division-I) and they value each offensive possession by not turning the ball over (11.5 turnovers per game; 52nd in Division-I). The Bisons might have what it takes to get back to the Atlantic Sun Tournament Championship Game this year, as they did last year as a #3 seed.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Big 12 Tournament
When: March 10 – 13
Where: T-Mobile Center, Kansas City, Missouri
Fun Fact: The Big 12 is the only remaining autonomous conference to still employ a full round robin schedule in every single one of its official sports.
The Favorite: #1 Baylor Bears (21-1, 13-1); -145
This one is sort of obvious, right? The books tend to think so considering the number they put on the Bears to win the conference tournament, but some faith will have certainly wavered considering the loss at Kansas. But let me reassure you: A loss late in the season at Phog Allen Fieldhouse means very little about the quality of a team. Even without a packed house it’s ridiculously tough to win on that court and Baylor’s loss proves that.
You shouldn’t lose confidence in the Bears for that, though. There are a couple other issues to bring to the table that make sense to worry about, but I’m not here to talk about those. I’m here to talk about what Baylor does right, and that’s everything. Though the defense has dropped off a bit down the stretch, something that happens to every team, Baylor is still dominating with their individual skill.
There’s five guards and stretch forwards that would probably start on 98% of the teams in the country and two centers that would win defensive player of the year in most conferences. Their coaching is impeccable and their offense would be the best in the country were it not for that “threat level: extinction” squad assembled in Spokane. The number on Baylor isn’t very attractive, but it’s like that for a reason.
The Dark Horse: #3 Texas Longhorns (17-7, 11-6); +900
What’s that? The third ranked team in a Power 5 conference shouldn’t be considered a dark horse? Guess what! Shut up.
The Big 12 was arguably the deepest team in the country this season with 70% of its teams making the NCAA rankings and Oklahoma, a team that was recently in the top 10, finishing 7th in the conference. Texas has hung around in every game they’ve played this season except for one, and that’s when Baylor came to town. Despite seven losses, that’s something to be proud of for the Longhorns. I’ve already stated the rigors of this conference, so you know it’s an accomplishment for the team to keep games tight week in and week out.
To complicate matters further, Texas has a negative luck factor according to KenPom, meaning that if a couple bounces went their way instead of the other way, Texas might be pretty close to undefeated this season. Regardless of luck, they have their own players to influence the game. If you’re a fan of that “strong backcourts win tournaments” theory, Texas should be the team for you. Courtney Ramey, Matt Coleman, and Andrew Jones are all ridiculously talented guards who are all capable of making the big shot. Down in the low post there’s either Jericho Sims, maybe the most athletic player in the country, or Kai Jones, a freak of nature defender who can hit his free throws. Oh yeah, and then there’s 5-star recruit Greg Brown who could end up as a lottery pick.
It’s going to be really tough to beat Baylor but Texas has as good of a chance at sticking around as anyone. They might not have settled in conference the way everyone wanted, but all of that is behind them now. This is a chance for Shaka Smart and hisone-in-a-lifetime squad to show just how good they can be.
Big East Tournament
When: March 10-14
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Fun Fact: The Big East has sent at least 4 teams to the NCAA Tournament for almost 30 years. Currently Villanova and Creighton are the only teams that can say that they are on the right side of the bubble. There is the potential that this season is the first season in 28 years that the Big East will have so little representation.
Favorite: #3 Connecticut Huskies (14-6, 11-6)
What a rough way to end the season for Collin Gillespie and the Villanova bunch that had so much promise to enter the tournaments and wreak havoc. They lost their star piece and the guy in line to cover the spot is in a boot. With Jay Wright’s squad down in the dirt, the conference tournament is pretty wide open and the only team that’s strung together some wins before shipping off is UConn. Since the return of James Bouknight, the Huskies have only lost one game and it was to a full strength Nova team. That loss was close until the final few minutes when Collin Gillespie put the nail in the coffin. The closer race in this conference’s postseason will be the player of the year honors to be announced on Wednesday. Bouknight is easily the most skilled and important player on any team in the Big East averaging 20.2 PPG 5.6 RPG and 1.3 steals per game. When it comes down to the final few possessions of a game, any coach is going to want the ball in his hands controlling the shots. In his last five games he’s shot 49% from the field while taking nearly a third of the team’s total shots. It’s pretty clear that he’s the best player on Hurley’s team but, while Bouknight was injured, junior point guard RJ Cole was the guy wheeling and dealing. Cole has 21 assists and 69 points in their last 5 games. All together they gel well on the defensive side of the ball picking up the best marks in the Big East by a bigger margin in the eye test than statistics show.
This is an “either or” pick for the Huskies because, even though it’s pretty wide open, the two teams that have a better chance to win the whole thing are on the same side of the bracket. Now that Nova is on the back burner, Creighton or UConn will most likely cut down the nets at MSG. UConn is +150 at some stores and falling pretty universally across all books because they’re the only team to finish the season on a high note. The Huskies are the only team that’s proven that they can control the pace of play in their games and Creighton is a statistical nightmare. Of Creighton’s 7 losses, 5 of them were games they should’ve won and fell flat.
Dark Horse: #4 St John’s Red Storm (16-10, 10-9)
This conference hasn’t been really competitive all season and a part of that is arguably because of all the COVID pauses. On the other side of the bracket to Creighton and UConn is another 50/50 battle between St John’s and Seton Hall. For how close this game is projected to be and considering the most recent result, St John’s is undervalued to win the tournament. Their odds to win are right around +1200 while their mirror (Seton Hall) are +800. This tournament is also unique to St John’s because they’ll be the only team in the field playing on a home court. The Red Storm plays a good amount of their home games in MSG so they’ll have the advantage of playing semi-home matches throughout the tourney. However, they haven’t played on the court all season because of the school’s COVID protocols. In the preseason rankings they were picked to finish in the bottom portion of the field and the NIT was the realistic goal. Now St John’s is on the bubble to go dancing and need to continue trending in the right direction to get out of the “next four out” category. Both the Johnnies and Seton Hall can play their way in so the game is as high stakes as they come.
The Johnnies have had some solid performances/wins over Villanova and UConn since the middle of January and closed out the season with a win over Seton Hall. Julian Champagnie was the MVP of that game and is the rock for the Red team. He pulled them back after halftime and put up 22 points and 6 boards the day before he was picked for the all-Big East first team. It was a much needed confidence-booster with potential BE Freshman of the year, Posh Alexander, out with a sprained thumb. Alexander and Champagnie have been playing together in NY since the AAU days and are the reason for The Johnnies’ first winning conference season in over 5 years. Besides them there’s four players that average at least 9 PPG including Rasheem Dunn who tacks on 4 assists, 3 boards, and 1.4 steals. On the other side of the bracket from UConn and Creighton, The Johnnies have to be the next best thing especially at +1200.
– Quin Pezoldt (@QuintenEveret16)
Big South Tournament
When: February 27th – March 7th
Where: Top Seed Campus Sites
Fun Fact: No love for the #1 seed. After having the #1 seed reach the Championship game for 11 consecutive years since 2004, the #1 seed has hit a recent sputter. The Big South Conference Tournament has not had a #1 seed in the Championship game since 2017. Winthrop won the Big South Tournament last season as a #2 seed.
The Favorite: #1 Winthrop Eagles (20-1, 17-1)
There were only a few teams in the smaller conferences that dominated this season from start to finish; Winthrop was one of those teams. The Eagles were oh-so-close to a perfect season, had it not have been for the heart-breaking two-point loss to the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs. I think that Coach Kelsey can be very proud of his team for the accomplishments they had this season. That said though, the Eagles are by no means a “lock” for an at-large bid, should they fall in the Big South Conference Tournament. In the words of Kobe Bryant, “The job is not finished.”
In order for Winthrop to repeat as Big South Tournament Champions, they must stay true to their brand of basketball. The Eagles are at their best when they are running their opponent off the court, scoring at will to the point where the high-flying Eagles leave the opponent in a state of disorientation. Winthrop is averaging 79.2 points per game this season (23rd in Division-I), and they are shooting the ball from the field this season at a rate of 45.6% (71st in Division-I). The Eagles have a knack for rebounding the ball as well, pulling down a whopping 40.0 rebounds per game this season (14th in Division-I). Chandler Vaudrin has been exceptional this season for the Winthrop Eagles. The senior forward is averaging 12.3 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and 6.7 assists per game. Three out of the five starters, and the sixth man, are scoring close to double figures this season for Winthrop. That is what makes this team so dangerous. DJ Burns, Charles Falden or Adonis Arms are reliable options that can help pick up the scoring for the Winthrop Eagles should their leader Vaudrin have a bad night shooting the basketball. The Eagles are as close to a sure lock as you will come to find this year for winning the Big South Tournament.
The Dark Horse: #3 Campbell Camels (15-9, 11-6)
It is a shame we never got a chance to see Campbell’s all-time leading scorer, Chris Clemons, get a shot at the NCAA Tournament. The Camels were close several times, but they could never get over the hump (no pun intended) of winning the Big South Conference Tournament. Two years removed now from Chris Clemons era, the Camels are in a good position to do some damage in the Big South Tournament once again. After starting the season out 4-0, the Camels hit a wall in mid-December, losing five straight games. The Camels have been on fire in the late January/February, winning seven straight contests. Campbell will play Gardner-Webb in the Quarterfinals, a team that they have split the two game series with this season. Should Campbell move on, they will likely matchup against the #2 seed, Radford, a team that they have yet to beat this season. The Camels played Radford tough in both contests, forcing one of the games to three-overtimes, so I know they have the ability to “hang around” with the Highlanders.
The Camels are led this season by a duo of scoring guards: Cedric Henderson and Jordan Whitfield. Henderson is averaging 16.0 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. Whitfield is averaging 14.5 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game and 2.8 assists per game. The Camels have been extremely efficient shooting the ball this season, as they have a shooting percentage of 48.9% this season (14th in Division-I). Campbell is a small team though, so they will not overwhelm an opponent on the glass, as they only average 27.5 rebounds per game this season (342nd in Division-I). The Camels are also a less than stellar defensive team this year, allowing their opponent to shoot 46.0% from the field (267th in Division-I). I like to back dark horse teams that are hot going into their conference tournaments, and I believe Campbell fits that bill.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Big Sky Tournament
When: March 10th – 13th
Where: Idaho Central Arena, Boise, ID
Fun Fact: Dominant run by the #1 seed. Since 2011, the #1 seed has won the Big Sky Tournament in all but one year. 2015 was the year we saw the #2 seed upend the #1 seed in the Championship game, but other than that, this conference has been historically chalky. This bodes well for Southern Utah and Weber State, the #1 and #2 seed, respectively. As the #6 seed, Montana will have its work cut-out for them, as they look to win the Big Sky Tournament three years in a row.
The Favorite: #1 Southern Utah Thunderbirds (19-3, 12-2)
2020-21 has been a magical ride for the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. Entering the season, the Thunderbirds were projected to finish in seventh place this upcoming season. Coach Simon has the program elevated to a level that not many saw coming. The Thunderbirds have only danced in the NCAA Tournament once in program history, back in 2001. Since 2013, they have had three seasons of single-digit wins. The .864 winning percentage this year is right up there with the 25-6 historic 2001 team that made it to the NCAA Tournament. The excitement and hype is real in Cedar City, UT.
As I mentioned in an earlier preview this year, the Thunderbirds are an appropriate nickname for Southern Utah this season. Southern Utah has been dominant on offense this season, scoring 79.1 points per game (24th in Division-I). The Thunderbirds have been incredibly efficient shooting the ball as well, shooting as a team 45.8% from the field this season (75th in Division-I). Southern Utah is not afraid of driving to the bucket and getting a little contact as well. The Thunderbirds are attempting 23.4 free throws per game (12th in Division-I), while shooting a crisp 75.3% from the charity stripe collectively this season (48th in Division-I).
The Thunderbirds have brought back three out of their five starters from a year ago. The main scoring threat this season has been Tevian Jones. Jones comes aboard the Southern Utah team after spending two seasons playing in the Big Ten with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Jones is averaging 17.1 points per game and 4.1 rebounds per game. John Knight, a one-time Utah State Aggie, is averaging 13.6 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game. Dre Marin also returns for Southern Utah this (12.0 ppg) along with Maizen Fausett ( 13.2 ppg), to make Southern Utah a balanced scoring unit offensively this season. Defensively, the Thunderbirds have struggled defending shots, as opposing teams have shot 45.1% from the field (235th in Division-I). Look for Southern Utah to play at an up-tempo pace, and bolt their way through the Big Sky Tournament.
The Dark Horse: #3 Eastern Washington Eagles (13-7, 12-3)
The Eagles opened their non-conference slate with the first four out of five games coming against tough opponents. A close three-point loss to Washington State. Another close three-point loss to Arizona. A not so great 17-point loss to Oregon. Finally, a five-point loss to St. Mary’s. Once the Eagles entered conference play, they had their eyes set on dubs. After opening conference play with a 2-2 record, the Eagles went on a roll to close out the season winning 10 out of the last 11 games left on their schedule. It is to be assumed the Eagles would have gone to the NCAA Tournament last season with their 23-8 record. Look at this year as an opportunity to make up for that, with two of their key scorers back in action from last year’s team.
Jacob Davison and Kim Aiken, two All-Big Sky team members from last season, have been reliable scoring options as well for Eastern Washington. Davison is averaging 11.0 points per game this season, while Aiken is averaging 12.0 points per game along with 8.4 rebounds per game. Tanner Groves has emerged from a role player last season into a force for the Eagles offense this season. The junior forward is averaging 16.5 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game for the Eagles.
Like Southern Utah, Eastern Washington loves to run their opponent off the floor. The Eagles are averaging 79.3 points per game this season (23rd in Division-I), while shooting the ball 47.0% from the field (36th in Division-I). The Eagles do not get to the free-throw line as often as Southern Utah does (17.8 free-throw attempts per game; 193rd in Division-I), but Eastern Washington has been clutch at the free-throw line (80.5%; 4th in Division-I). Defensively, the Eagles have been better than Southern Utah at putting the clamps down on their opponent. The Eagles are holding teams to 47.5% shooting the ball from the floor this season (95th in Division-I). Eastern Washington has been the runner up in the last two Big Sky Tournaments, so look for the Eagles to change their fortunes in the final game this year.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Big 10 Tournament
When: March 10th- 14th
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN
Fun Fact: Either Michigan or Michigan State has won the last 4 Big 10 tournaments. Michigan has won twice and finished runner up twice in the last 6 years. Michigan State has won 4 times and finished runner up 1 time since 2012.
The Favorite: #1 Michigan Wolverines (19-3, 14-3)
I know it has been talked about in great length by everybody (myself included) but what an incredible season by the Michigan Wolverines. Juwan Howard has done a great job and in a conference that has many worthy coaches to win coach of the year, Juwan Howard should easily take home the Big 10 Coach of the year and has a good chance of winning national coach of the year. This was a team that was projected to be in the middle of the pack, (I picked them to finish 9th… oops), but in fairness I did say this in my preseason preview of the Wolverines. “I think Michigan will be a pretty big wild card this year. The Wolverines have a high floor and a higher ceiling. I think they have potential to be a 2nd weekend team in the NCAA tournament.” Michigan has blown everyone’s expectations out of the water and will be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. Before that, the Wolverines are the favorites to cut down the nets this week in the Big 10 tournament. Michigan on the offensive end is one of the best in the country ranking 6th in the country in offensive efficiency. However good the Wolverines are on the offensive end, they might be better on the defensive end as they rank 4th in the country in defensive efficiency. Big Blue is led by their terrific trio of Hunter Dickinson, Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner. Obviously the Wolverines have a great chance to win it, but a path to the finals that would most likely go through MSU, Ohio State, and Illinois would make me want better and +150 to bet on Big Blue.
The Dark Horse: #2 Illinois Fighting Illini (20-6, 16-4)
I always like to go a little deeper in the bracket to find my dark horse, so first let me throw out a plug for a real dark horse in the form of the #9 seed Michigan State Spartans at 35-1. I think those are decent odds to take a flier on the Spartans but I highly doubt they win more than a game, let alone the entire tournament. That is why I went with Illinois because I think they are the most likely team not named Michigan to win their first Big 10 championship since 2005. Illinois was my pick to win the conference at the start of the season and I will not be changing my pick for Big 10 tournament, I will stick with the Illini. Why am I going to stick with the Illini? First, let’s get the obvious right away: Ayo Dosunmu is back and he is without a doubt the best player in this league not named Luka Garza. He leads the Illini with 20.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 5.2 assists per game. With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that he has 2 triple doubles and is in the conversation for national player of the year. Dosunmu is great but this team is so much more than their superstar, starting with the Robin to Dosunmu’s
Batman (especially considering his mask in the last game) Kofi Cockburn. Kockburn has been incredible as well this season averaging 17.3 PPG and 9.6 RPG. Other than the two superstars, Senior Trent Frazier has been very good for Illinois, as well the Freshmen Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller. Illinois is an incredibly balanced team ranking 7th and 6th in the country in offensive and defensive efficiency respectively. At 7/2 odds to win the tournament and on the relatively easier side of the bracket, Illinois are my best to win the Big 10 tournament. Take Illinois at +350 to win the Big 10 tournament.
– Matthew Vale (@matthewvale15)
Big West Tournament
When: March 9th – 13th
Where: Michelob Ultra Arena, Paradise, NV
Fun Fact: Three is where you oughta be. In the last five conference tournaments, the #3 seed has made it four times to the Big West Tournament championship game. The #3 seed though has not been terribly successful in the final game however. UC Irvine was the last #3 seed to win the Big West Tournament, which was back in the 2015 Big West Tournament. Since then, the #3 seed has gone 0-3 in the final game.
The Favorite: #1 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (19-4, 13-3)
Since taking over in 2017, life has been great for the Gauchos under Coach Pasternack. The Gauchos have enjoyed three 20+-win seasons, and they look to be in a good position to reach that number this year as well. There just seems to be one difficulty in recent years for the Gauchos: the Semifinals of the Big West Tournament. Obviously, we will never know what last year’s tournament had in store, but the previous two seasons prior to the 2020 Big West Tournament has since the Gauchos slip in the Semifinals. The 2018 and 2019 Big West Tournament though saw the Gauchos as a #2 seed, so perhaps their fortunes will change this year in the #1 seed position.
The Gauchos have been simply on fire down the stretch this season. After opening the season 4-3, with two of those wins against non-Division-I opponents, the Gauchos have won 15 of their last 16 games this season. The Gauchos play at a controlled tempo offensively, and make their opponent work for every shot opportunity on the other side of the court. UC-Santa Barbara is shooting the ball 47% from the field this season (37th in Division-I). The Gauchos have a soft touch from the free-throw line, cashing in on 75.8% of their free-throws this season (38th in Division-I). Defensively, the Gauchos are holding teams to 62.9 points per game (20th in Division-I) and opposing teams are shooting an abysmal 42.2% from the field against UC-Santa Barbara (96th in Division-I). Thanks to their tough-nosed defense, the Gauchos are generating 7.4 steals per game this season (68th in Division-I).
The Gauchos have three transfers in their starting lineup, along with a junior who has been with the program since his freshman season. The mainstay junior is Amadou Sow. Sow has been a consistent scorer during his three-year tenure at UC-Santa Barbara. This season, the forward is averaging 13.0 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game. Jaquori McLaughlin has been the most significant transfer this season for Coach Pasternack. The Oregon State transfer is averaging 15.6 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game and 5.4 assists per game this season. Devearl Ramsey, the one-time member of Nevada, has been productive this season for the Gauchos as well, averaging 7.7 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game. Brandon Cyrus played his first two seasons at DePaul before making his way westward to UC-Santa Barbara. Cyrus is averaging 3.0 points per game this season. Miles Norris spent one year at Oregon and then one with a junior college team before finding a home with the Gauchos. He is averaging 9.6 points per game this season.
The Dark Horse: #3 UC Riverside Highlanders (13-7, 8-4)
After giving you that little nugget of wisdom in the Fun Fact section up top, do you really think I would not take the #3 seed as the Dark Horse? Aside from it being just a successful seed spot in recent years, the Highlanders have been a solid club this season. Coach Mike Magpayo took over the coaching duties in early July, as David Patrick left the head coaching position to become an assistant coach under Coach Eric Musselman at Arkansas. Magpayo made history this season by becoming the first Asian heritage head coach in Division-I history. An accomplishment to be proud of, no doubt, but I believe Coach Magpayo would love for nothing more than to take down his alma mater (UC Santa Barbara) in the championship game this season, should both teams meet there later on down the road.
The Highlanders made their presence known early this season that they were going to be a force in the Big West Conference this season. Opening the non-conference slate 3-1, with one of those wins over Washington, the Highlanders had to feel pretty good about themselves. They dropped the first conference game against Hawaii and lost a close non-conference game against USC, but the Highlanders found a nice winning groove. They went on to win five out of their next six games, but found themselves sort of sputtering at 4-3 in their last seven games of the season. Should both UC Riverside and UC Irvine win their Quarterfinal matchups, the two will meet up against each other in the Semifinals. Both teams have won one against each other this season.
The Highlanders are a top-notch defensive unit this season. UC-Riverside has held opponents to 63.5 points per game this season (27th in Division-I), and the opposing teams have only shot 40.1% against the Highlanders this season (23rd in Division-I). Arinze Chidom leads the way offensively this season for UC-Riverside, averaging 13.5 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game. The former Saint Mary’s Gael, Jock Perry, has been a nice addition for UC-Riverside this year. The Aussie is averaging 11.3 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game this season. UC-Riverside has never made it to the NCAA Tournament; perhaps this will be the year they break through?
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament
When: March 6th – 9th
Where: Atlantic Union Bank Center, Harrisonburg, VA
Fun Fact: Dominance by the #1 seed. The #1 seed has made it to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) championship game every year since 2012. Old Dominion (8), UNC Wilmington (6), Richmond (5) and VCU (5) have the most championships in the CAA. Old Dominion, Richmond and VCU are no longer members of the conference.
The Favorite: #1 James Madison Dukes (13-6, 8-2)
Nothing gets me more jazzed up than blending American history with college basketball. If you have no idea what I am talking about, please allow me to enlighten you with my preview earlier in the season on James Madison. The Dukes are a small but mighty team. Picked to finish in ninth place in the CAA Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll, no one had any idea what kind of successful season James Madison was going to achieve this year. The Dukes opened the season up with a 5-4 non-conference record, with three of those five wins coming against non-Division-I opponents. James Madison then went on a roll in conference play. The Dukes lost their second conference game to Northeastern, but they responded to that loss by rattling off seven straight wins. They dropped their last game of the regular season to Drexel, but the Dukes were co-champs with Northeastern, their first regular season championship since 2015. The Dukes have come a long way after going 2-16 in conference play last season. Not a bad first season for Coach Bynington, not bad at all.
Matt Lewis leads the way for the Dukes this season, averaging 19.7 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game and 3.7 assists per game. His running mate, Vado Morse, has been solid for James Madison this season as well. Morse is averaging 14.0 points per game this season for the Dukes. The Dukes are middle of the road in terms of offensive and defensive effectiveness this season. The Dukes are shooting 43.7% from the field (175th in Division-I) and their opponents are shooting 42.5% from the field (121st in Division-I) this season. The turnover margin seems to be the telling sign for a win or loss this season for the Dukes. When the Dukes cough up the basketball 13+ times in a game this season, they are 3-4. When the Dukes have 12 turnovers or less, they are 10-2. The Dukes are in a good position to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
The Dark Horse: #4 Hofstra Pride (12-9, 8-6)
No team has underachieved more this season in the CAA than Hofstra. The Pride, winners of last year’s CAA Tournament, came into this season as pre-season favorites to win the conference once again. The Pride did win the regular season titles in the CAA in 2019 and 2020, so the bar for success has been set high for this program. Hofstra won the CAA Tournament as well last season, but they did not compete in the NCAA Tournament. Since taking over the coaching duties in 2013, Joe Mihalich has churned out five seasons of 19+ wins. At 12-9, the Pride certainly had a down year by their standards. They have an impressive win against Richmond on their resume, but they also have bad losses to Iona and Delaware on the resume. As we know though, a less than stellar season can be resurrected for a mid-major program by winning their conference tournament.
The Pride returned three out of their five starters from their NCAA Tournament bound team last season. Jalen Ray is the main scorer this season, averaging 18.6 points per game and 3.4 assists per game. Fellow senior guard, Tareq Coburn, has been a dependable scorer for Hofstra this season as well. Coburn is averaging 15.8 points per game this season. Isaac Kante has been a beast in the post, averaging 13.0 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game in his senior season. Hofstra is at their best when they get their offense going from within the post. The Pride are shooting 51.8% from inside the three-point arc this season (94th in Division-I). If they get post touches and cannot convert the bucket but get fouled in the process, the Pride have to like their odds to cash in from the free-throw line. As a team, Hofstra is shooting 73.3% from the charity stripe this season (92nd in Division-I). It is an upward battle, but I am not going to count out the Pride for their quest to protect the CAA Tournament trophy by winning back-to-back.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Conference USA Tournament
When: March 9 – 13
Where: Ford Center, Frisco, Texas
Fun Fact: All champions of the Conference USA tournament prior to 2015 have since left the conference.
The Favorite: #1W Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (20-6, 12-4); +250
Eric Konkol’s BUlldogs finished the season in second place in the C-USA regular season, but thanks to the way the conference is divided up and the tournament is played, Louisiana Tech enters as a one seed, destined to play either UTEP or FAU in their first game.
C-USA played most of their season in back to back fashion where a team would travel to one school and play them on back to back night, fulfilling the round robin requirements for conference play. This allowed Louisiana Tech to end their regular season on a high note, shellacking Rice twice in a row before chasing with a “stay warm” game against Lady of the Lake. There might not be too much substance in the wins, but the Bulldogs have momentum nevertheless.
In addition to momentum, the Bulldogs have depth. Five players are averaging over nine points per game and JaColby Pemberton is a couple of buckets from being the sixth. Kenneth Lofton, a 6-7 power forward, will be a player to watch as he’s a double-double threat and very adept scorer in the paint. The defense is very team oriented and has risen up to 35th in the country according to KenPom, an especially high rank for a team out of C-USA. Expect teams to struggle against Louisiana Tech on the 3-point line.
The Dark Horse: #3E Marshall Thundering Herd (15-6, 9-5); +500
Marshall’s 3E diagnosis could be a touch deceiving considering they’re coming into the tournament as the fifth place finishers on the season. What the Thundering Herd have that many smaller schools lack is a profound scorer, and that player is Taevion Kinsey, a lengthy 6’5 guard averaging 20 points per game with six rebounds and three assists on excellent, but sparse, three point shooting. Kinsey thrives in the paint and could cause trouble for a team like LA Tech who relies heavily on a big man to defend the lane.
Marshall’s key to success is their tempo. Everyone in their rotation can run and gun and that shows with their tempo, coming in at 17th quickest in the nation, faster than teams like Iowa, LSU, and Oklahoma State. Since they’re used to the game moving at that speed, they could have an advantage if they’re to progress later into the tournament where other teams might not have as fresh of legs. Thundering Herd might not just be a mascot name this time around.
When: February 25th – March 9th
Where: Campus Sites and Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Indianapolis, IN
Fun Fact: Did you know that the #1 seed has only won once in the last seven years? Horizon League Tournaments have grown accustomed to seeing crazy results unfold. Take 2017 for example, we saw the #4 (Northern Kentucky) seed defeat the #10 (Milwaukee) seed in the Championship game. The #2 seed is a lucky number though lately, as the #2 seed has won the Horizon League Tournament in three straight years.
The Favorite: #2 Wright State Raiders (25-6, 15-3)
No disrespect to Cleveland State and the tremendous season that they have had under Coach Gates, but I am confident in saying Wright State will be the team to beat in this year’s tournament. The Raiders come into the Horizon League Tournament winning 10 out of their last 11 contests. Assuming all the favorites win in the First Round, which is by no means a guarantee in this league, Wright State would most likely play the Green Bay Phoenix, a team that they have defeated with ease twice this season. Regardless of the opponent, Coach Nagy’s objective will remain the same throughout the season: run them off the floor. Wright State is a perfect 15-0 this season when they score 76 points or more in a game. The Raiders are one of the best shooting teams in the country, shooting 48.3% from the field this season (19th in Division-I).
As I mentioned in my preview of Wright State back in December, the Raiders bring back three key starters from a year ago to this year’s team. Loudon Love continues to wreak havoc in the paint and on the boards, averaging 16.7 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game. Grant Basile has stepped up this season to be a force in the post with Love, as the junior forward averaged 14.2 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game. Tanner Holden continues right where he left off last year, averaging 15.8 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. If there were one knock on Wright State, it would be that the lack of disruption caused in the passing lanes. The Raiders only average 5.8 steals per game (245th in Division-I). Looking past that though, the Raiders are extremely efficient on both offense and defense, which will make them a tough out in the Horizon League Tournament.
The Dark Horse: #5 Detroit Mercy Titans (11-9, 10-6)
After opening the 2020-21 season 1-7, the Detroit Mercy Titans had their backs against the wall. Coach Davis never lost trust in his son, Antoine Davis, to lead the way and right the ship for the Titans. Detroit Mercy closed the season winning 10 out of their last 12 games, and they are going into the tournament with quite a bit of momentum behind them. Assuming the Titans get past Robert Morris, they will most likely be setup for a Quarterfinal match with Northern Kentucky. The Titans have not played the Norse this season, but I feel confident in Detroit Mercy’s ability to pull off the upset. Should they knock off Northern Kentucky; the Titans will then matchup with the Cleveland State Vikings. The Titans have split their two game series this season with the #1 seed Vikings, so certainly anything is possible for the third matchup between the two programs.
Antoine Davis leads the team in scoring this season, averaging 23.3 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game and 4.8 assists per game. Davis has scored 20+ points in 12 straight games for Detroit Mercy. Bul Kuol, the Cal Baptist transfer, has emerged as a reliable secondary scoring option for the Titans. Kuol is averaging 15.5 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game this season. Along with Wright State, Detroit Mercy knows how to score at a stellar rate. The Titans are averaging 76.5 points per game this season (50th in Division-I), while shooting 45.7% from the field (66th in Division-I). Detroit Mercy will not overwhelm you with their presence on the glass (33.1 rebounds per game; 261st in Division-I), but if you let them shoot the ball at will from beyond the arc (38.3%; 21st in Division-I) or get to the free-throw line (80.1%; 5th in Division-I), watch out!
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Metro Atlantic Athletic (MAAC) Tournament
When: March 8th – 13th
Where: Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ
Fun Fact: Aside from the 2019 Metro Atlantic Athletic Tournament, the #1 seed had not won the conference tournament for eight consecutive seasons. Upsets are bound to unfold in the MAAC Tournament, as was the case when #1 Iona won the whole tournament back in 2019. The team they faced in the title game? #6 seed Monmouth. The year prior saw the #4 seed, Iona, take down the #6 seed, Fairfield, in the championship game.
The Favorite: #1 Siena Saints (12-4, 12-4)
Siena entered the 2020-21 season as the Preseason Poll favorites to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). The Saints have brought back two out of their three main scorers from last season, along with a few key transfers. Siena finished the season 20-10 last year, in a prime spot to be the representatives of the MAAC for the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, the NCAA Tournament did not happen, and the Saints were left with just the regular season title to show for their 20-win season. The Saints were a mainstay at the NCAA Tournament for a three-year stint under then head coach Fran McCaffery, but Siena has not been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2010. After an 11-year hiatus, we can expect the Saints to be ready to make their way back to the big dance. Perhaps dare I say it, they will be marching all the way to Indianapolis.
Manny Camper and Jalen Pickett, last year’s main scorers, return to the starting lineup once again this season for Coach Maciariello. Camper is averaging 14.6 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game and 3.9 assists per game this season. Pickett missed a few games this season due to COVID-19, but the junior guard has been showing any ill effects lingering from the virus. He is averaging 12.8 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game and 4.8 assists per game this season. The two transfers, Nick Hopkins and Jackson Stormo, have been key additions in the lineup as well. Stormo, a transfer from Pepperdine, is averaging 10.6 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game. Hopkins, a three-year transfer from Belmont, is averaging 7.8 points per game and 3.2 rebounds per game at Siena.
Siena opened the season back in early January strong, winning the first six games of the season. The Saints slipped a bit in late January, going 2-2 in the last two weeks of the month. The Saints would then endure a near month layoff, due to health concerns within their program. They lost their first game back, but Siena then won four out of their next five games to close out the season on top of the MAAC standings. The Saints are a stingy group on defense. Siena has held their opponent to 63.5 points per game this season (27th in Division-I), and teams have only shot 45.8% against Siena this season (37th in Division-I).
The Dark Horse: #9 Iona Gaels (8-5, 6-3)
There have been some funky seeding procedures going on this year in the MAAC, due to the abbreviated season each team had to face. I cannot justify Iona being this low of a seed, but we need to take it for what it is at this point. Regardless of the seed number, Coach Pitino will have his team fired up and ready to dance their way into the NCAA Tournament. It is amazing to think, but it will be Coach Pitino’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly four years, should Iona make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
As mentioned in a preview last month, the Gaels were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic this season. The Gaels went nearly two months during one point this season in between games. After picking up an impressive win as an underdog against Hofstra, the Gaels went into conference play with a degree of momentum. The Gaels ultimately won six out of their nine conference games this season, with a series sweep over the #2 seed, Monmouth. The Gaels only had six wins in conference this year, which is one less than the teams that are ranked 5-8 in the standings. The Quinnipiac Bobcats have a below .500 record in conference play, but they still have seven wins, which is one more than Iona.
Isaiah Ross is the engine that drives the Iona offense this season. Ross is averaging 20.5 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game and 1.7 assists per game for Iona. Asante Gist has been an x-factor for Iona as well. Gist is averaging 12.2 points per game and 4.0 assists per game this season. Nelly Junior Joseph will be a great building piece around Iona for years to come. The freshman big man is averaging 12.1 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game this season. Coach Pitino has a balanced team this season. Offensively, the Gaels are averaging 74.7 points per game this season (79th in Division-I). Defensively, the Gaels are holding opponents to 69.7 points per game this season (140th in Division-I) and opposing teams are shooting 41.4% from the field this season (63rd in Division-I).
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Mid-Eastern (MEAC) Tournament
When: March 7th – 13th
Where: Norfolk Scope, Norfolk, VA
Fun Fact: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things have drastically altered the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) this season. Maryland-Eastern Shore and Bethune-Cookman opted out before the season started. Howard suspended the remainder of their season in early February, following ongoing problems with health conditions. As a result, there will only get seven teams in the tournament field. Oh, and the conference has been split up, with a north and south divisional placement. Hopefully this is a one and done format.
The Favorite: #1 North Carolina A&T Bulldogs (South) (11-10, 7-1)
As is often the case for many MEAC schools, North Carolina A&T had a grueling non-conference schedule this season, which put them in the hole early with a record of 3-9. The Aggies found their groove though in the conference slate of action, winning seven out of eight games. As a result, the Aggies now benefit from a double-bye, which guarantees them a spot in the Semifinals. A few more days to celebrate their first MEAC Regular Season title since 1988? Perhaps. I am sure that Coach Jones would be much more satisfied with a Conference Tournament trophy to go along with the Regular Season trophy though.
As I mentioned in an earlier preview on the Aggies this season, Kameron Langley is the main scorer for North Carolina A&T. The North Carolina native guard is averaging 10.6 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game, 6.6 assists per game and 2.7 steals per game this season. Langley led the nation in assists per game last season (8 apg), and he is right there at the doorstep among the nation’s best for assists per game this season (6.6; 8th in Division-I). His 2.7 steals per game is also among the nation’s best this season (5th in Division-I). Two juniors, Blake Harris and Tyrone Lyons, have been reliable secondary scorers this season for North Carolina A&T. Harris is averaging 8.6 points per game, while Lyons is averaging 8.7 points per game for the Aggies. Despite having one of the nation’s best passers, the Aggies are not a great offensive unit this season. They average only 69.2 points per game this season (208th in Division-I), and the Aggies are one of the worst shooting teams in the country (40.3% from the field; 311th in Division-I). For what the Aggies lack on offense, North Carolina A&T makes up for it with their defensive prowess. The Aggies generate 8.0 steals per game this season (34th in Division-I).
The Dark Horse: #2 Coppin State Eagles (North) (9-12, 8-4)
When it rains, it pours. Coppin State desperately needed that shelter from the storm Bob Dylan was singing about with their start out of the gate for the 2020-21 season. The Eagles were 1-8 in non-conference play this season. To their defense, the Eagles were an 8.5-point underdog in each game, so the fact that they won a game is miraculous. The tide dramatically swung though in favor of the Eagles once conference play ramped up. The Eagles only played three conference opponents all season: Delaware State, Morgan State and Norfolk State. The Eagles swept Delaware State going 4-0. The Eagles went 1-3 against Morgan State. Last, but certainly not least, the Eagles were 3-1 against the top-seeded Norfolk Spartans. As long as the Eagles do not see Morgan State in the MEAC Tournament, they should be in business.
The Eagles are led this season offensively by a trio of seniors: Anthony Tarke, Dejuan Clayton and Koby Thomas. Tarke, the one-time NJIT Highlander and UTEP Miner, made his way back to Maryland for his final season of college basketball. Perhaps recruited by his younger brother and teammate, Nendah Tarke, the Baltimore native has been thriving for Coach Dixon’s Eagles. Tarke is averaging 16.4 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game and 2.7 steals per game this season. His 2.7 steals per game has him along the nation’s best this season (6th in Division-I). Dejuan Clayton, a two-time All-MEAC representative, is averaging 15.3 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game and 5.0 assists per game this season. Thomas is averaging 12.4 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game this season. The Eagles are pretty awful from almost every scoring category this season; however, the Eagles have done their part on defense. Opponents are only shooting 41.9% from the field this season (86th in Division-I), and the Eagles are among the nation’s best in steals per game this season (8.7; 13th in Division-I). The Eagles have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008, but we know they are capable of being a giant-killer when they do go dancing. Yes, I am looking at you, 1997 South Carolina Gamecocks.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Missouri Valley Tournament
When: March 4th – 7th
Where: Enterprise Center, St. Louis, MO
Fun Fact: If upsets are what you look for, tune in for the Missouri Valley Tournament. Arch Madness, as it is charmingly referred to by some fans, has seen a #5 seed play a #6 seed in the Championship Game in 2019. Last year, #4 Bradley defeated #7 Valparaiso in the Championship Game. For Loyola-Chicago and Drake, two teams with at-large bid implications, a slip up in the Quarterfinals can be catastrophic. Bring your best each night out, along with some popcorn, because this will be an entertaining four day journey.
The Favorite: #1 Loyola Chicago Ramblers (21-4, 16-2)
Who could forget the memorable run the Loyola Ramblers had back in 2018. The Ramblers were only the fourth team in NCAA history to reach the Final Four as an #11 seed. Many have said this team is possibly even better than that team. Wow, that is some high praise. The Ramblers, currently ranked #20 in the AP-Poll, received their first AP-Poll Top 25 ranking since 1985. Not even the 2018 Loyola Ramblers were ranked at any point in the regular season.
Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson were two key pieces in the 2018 magical run, and they are the two leading scorers for the 2020-21 team. Krutwig is averaging 15.0 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game this season. Williamson is averaging 7.9 points per game and 3.8 rebounds per game this season. The Ramblers opened the season with a 3-2 record. With a drubbing from Wisconsin and a nail-biter loss from Richmond, not many expected Loyola to go on the run they did this year through the Missouri Valley Conference. Loyola was 16-2 in conference play, with the lone losses coming by a combined seven points. It was not a sequence of flashy offensive schemes that led the Ramblers this season; rather, they relied on playing gritty defense for each possession. The Ramblers were 21-1 this season when they held their opponent to under 66 points per game this season. On the season, the Ramblers only allowed 56.0 points per game this season (1st in Division-I). The Ramblers were not scoring a ton of points on the offense, but they were extremely efficient with their shooting. The Ramblers shot 49.5% from the field this season (9th in Division-I). The Ramblers have done a nice job replicating their style of basketball to the likes of Virginia and Texas Tech, two teams who also were in the Final Four a few years ago.
The Dark Horse: #3 Missouri State Bears (24-3, 15-3)
I would have given this spot to Drake in an instant, but with injuries to ShanQuan Hemphill and now Roman Penn, the Bulldogs are in a dangerous position. I gave some love to this Missouri State Bears team in a preview written in February, so I have no problem backing them again in the Missouri Valley Tournament. Should Missouri State get past their Quarterfinal opponent, Valparaiso, the Bears will have an opportunity to play against the injury-laden Drake Bulldogs. Drake just lost their last regular season game to Bradley, and they do not look like quite the same team without Roman Penn at the helm. Missouri State lost their last game to a three point crazed Evansville team, but as long as Valparaiso does not shoot 50% from downtown like Evansville did, the Bears should be okay.
The Bears do the bulk of their scoring this season in the post, courtesy of Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim. Mosley is averaging 20.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, while Prim is averaging 16.8 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game this season for the Bears. The Bears are having their way on offensive possessions this season, shooting 47.9% from the field this season (27th in Division-I). Defensively, the Bears have been effective forcing their opponent to take contested shots. Opposing teams have shot the ball 42.6% from the field this season against the Bears (123rd in Division-I). As I mentioned in the above preview, crashing the glass defensively has been a strong suit for Missouri State (26.9 defensive rebounds per game; 20th in Division-I), but they need to improve on getting offensive rebounds and creating second chance shot opportunities (6.4 offensive rebounds per game; 304th in Division-I). Should Missouri State make their way to the Championship Game, we can expect them to play their game and not be intimidated by Loyola-Chicago’s national ranking. Should that matchup happen, we all will be in for a treat to watch the two teams meet up.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Mountain West Tournament
When: March 10-14
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV
Fun Fact: For the last 10 years, The Mountain West Conference has had one of the highest 3-point attempt percentages of all the conferences in the country and allows the most on defense, but they have one of the lowest offensive efficiency margins from deep over that time.
Favorite: #1 San Diego State Aztecs (20-4, 14-3)
Brian Dutcher’s defense has prevailed for a second straight season even without Malachi Flynn. SDSU is currently ranked 19th in the AP polls and overall in KenPom which has landed them squarely in the NCAA tournament next week at a consensus 8-seed. The Aztecs are currently on an 11-game winning streak after dropping their third and fourth losses of the season to Utah State. They finished with a 3% higher winning percentage in conference play to narrowly edge out the Aggies for the top seed in the tournament. With a quad 2-4 record of 19-1 and no quad 1 win in sight, they haven’t played the most difficult season but Matt Mitchell has been playing outstanding basketball lately averaging 16.6 PPG 6 RPG and 2.6 steals per game. Mitchell was picked on the all-MW first team with Neemias Queta and David Robby but only received 1 vote for MW POTY out of the 11 total. Fellow Aztec, Jordan Schakel made the second team but those were the only awards to the team this year after a dominating performance last year. Malachi Flynn and Brian Dutcher cleaned house last season yet the team isn’t much different right now minus the Flynn name. Mitchell has taken over Flynn’s percentage of shots and is slightly more efficient; he’s just not the guy to take the ball across the timeline. Other returning players like Nathan Mensah (8.8 PPG 6.3 RPG 1.4 BLK), Trey Pulliam (6.5 PPG 3.1 RPG 3.4 APG) and Jordan Schakel (14.4 PPG 4.2 RPG) have been key contributors/role players to sneak SDSU under the radar for the Big Dance.
San Diego State earned a first round bye in the conference tournament and but, with how competitive the field is, there isn’t an angle to the final that is any easier than the next. SDSU is favored by books everywhere because of their identity last season, coaching staff, and experience throughout the lineup but, having to go through Nevada/Boise St in the semifinals is a tough matchup let alone having to (most likely) face Utah St/Colorado St in the final. No team is going to be handed this tournament win especially with bids on the line. However, the Aztecs are in the strongest form and are rolling right now. They are currently (+100) even money to win the whole thing, which might be an overvaluation.
Dark Horse: #2 Utah State Aggies (18-7, 15-4)
Even money to win the conference thought to be one of the most “wide-open” in the country might be a stretch. The Aztecs are the only team in the conference to lock up a tourney bid for the big dance but there are 3 teams in the realm of uncertainty and not even squarely on the bubble. Utah State is the “first team out” and Colorado State and Boise State are in the “last four in” category according to Joe Lunardi. Assuming SDSU doesn’t cut down the nets in Vegas, there’s an auto-bid and potentially another bid to the NCAA tournament on the line. Without winning the conference tournament no team is really guaranteed a reservation in Indy. In reality, with so much on the line and how tight of a regular season finish it was, any one of the top-5 seeds including USU, CSU, BSU, and UN could win the title. Each team has been trading blows and leaving each other for dead. Right now Utah State needs to perform well in the tournament to keep their hopes alive as their only quality wins are a 2-game sweep over SDSU in the middle of January.
Finishing behind SDSU by the skin of their teeth, Utah State are also in great form and were able to steal away some postseason honors from the Aztecs going into the tournament. The Aggies have the best defense in the conference because of the strength of Neemias Queta in the post. Queta is averaging a double-double in a guard-oriented conference making him one of the most dominant big men in conference play in the country. He is 4th in the country in terms of blocked shots on the season, 20th in terms of defensive rebounding percentage and he draws nearly 6 fouls a game as teams try to stop him. Following Queta on the scoring list is junior PF Justin Bean (11.3 PPG 7.8 RPG 2 APG) has taken a page out of Queta’s book when it comes to crashing the board. In their last five games, Bean has rocked the arenas posting a 16.2-point double-double average. The Aggies are (+260) to win their third consecutive MW Tournament title.
– Quin Pezoldt (@QuintenEveret16)
When: March 6th – 9th
Where: Top Seed Campus Sites
Fun Fact: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Northeast Conference (NEC) will only send the top four teams to this year’s tournament. Traditionally, we have seen eight out of the ten teams make the NEC Tournament. Robert Morris is no longer a member of the NEC after realigning to the Horizon League prior to this season starting. The Colonials had the most championships in NEC Tournament history (9), with LIU and Fairleigh Dickinson trailing in second place tied with six championships each.
The Favorite: #2 Bryant Bulldogs (14-5, 10-4)
I am not going to put the jinx on Bryant, but I feel confident in saying this just might be the year Bryant makes the NCAA Tournament. Bryant has only been a Division-I competitor for 13 seasons, but they have not had much success since transitioning from Division-II. All the waiting just might pay off this year though; this Bryant team is a solid squad. The Bulldogs have, at least by winning percentage, the most successful season unfolding this year. After opening the season 3-1, with the lone loss coming at the Carrier Dome from Syracuse (Bulldogs only lost by a point), there was reason to believe this team was different from past teams. The Bulldogs opened conference play with an impressive 7-1 record. Bryant hit a bit of a wall back in mid-January, winning only one of four games, but they closed the regular season out with a four game win streak.
The Bulldogs are extremely balanced this season, with all five of their starters averaging double-figures. While all the starters have been key contributors, no starter has been more pivotal this season than Peter Kiss. Kiss, a one-time Quinnipiac Bobcat and Rutgers Scarlet Knight, has found a home in Bryant this season. The junior guard is averaging 17.0 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game and 3.2 assists per game this season. You will be hard pressed to find a better team offensively this season than Bryant, certainly in terms of teams in the NEC. The Bulldogs average 81.7 points per game this season (10th in Division-I), and they are shooting the ball 45.5% from the field (75th in Division-I). The bread and butter for Bryant is the three ball shot. The Bulldogs are hoisting 24.9 three point attempts this season (50th in Division-I), while cashing in on 38.3% of those attempts (20th in Division-I). The Bulldogs are not terrific defensively, allowing opponents to score 75.6 points per game (284th in Division-I), but they are content with playing at a track meet kind of tempo ball game. Shot clock? No, they do not need it, thanks anyway though.
The Dark Horse: #1 Wagner Seahawks (13-6, 13-5)
The Wagner Seahawks have certainly exceeded expectations this year. Entering the 2020-21 season, the Seahawks were projected to finish in eighth place. It really was not a stretch, considering Wagner only won eight games all season and finished in last place in 2019-20. Consistent winning basketball is not a part of Wagner’s DNA, if we are being completely honest here. Sure, they will have a year of 19 or more wins, only to follow it up with a season of only a single digit amount of wins. Perhaps though this can be the year that Wagner puts all the mediocrity aside and makes it to the NCAA Tournament. The Seahawks have only been to the NCAA Tournament once, which came back in 2003 for the Seahawks.
Alex Morales and Elijah Ford are two names to synonymize with their recent successes. The two senior guards have been dependable scoring options all season for the Wagner squad. Their stats virtually look the same, with Morales averaging 17.1 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game this season. Ford is averaging 17.8 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game and 1.5 assists per game this season. After dropping the first four out of five games this season, all signs pointed to another disappointing year for Seahawk fans. Then something happened. Wagner went on a roll, winning 10 straight games against their fellow NEC opponents. All in all, Wagner put an exclamation point on the February and March slate of action, winning 12 out of 13 games. No team is hotter in the NEC than Wagner right now. The Seahawks are balanced on both sides of the ball this season. Wagner averages 71.8 points per game (144th in Division-I), and the Seahawks have held their opponent to an average of 68.8 points per game (121st in Division-I). Wagner has done a great job of crashing the glass this season, specifically on the offensive end, pulling down 10.4 offensive rebounds per game (39th in Division-I). The Seahawks have done their part keeping the opposition off the glass, only allowing opposing teams 21.5 defensive rebounds per game (46th in Division-I).
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Ohio Valley Tournament
When: March 3th – 6th
Where: Ford Center, Evansville, IN
Fun Fact: 2021 will mark the first time since 2010 that the #1 and #2 seeds have not had a Quarterfinal bye spot. In most years, the First Round will consist of matchups between the #5 and #8 seed, along with the #6 and #7 seed. The winner of each game then plays the #3 and #4 seed in the Quarterfinals. Finally, the winner of each game in the Quarterfinals squares off with the #1 and #2 seed. Not this year though, all eight teams will be playing in the Quarterfinals, saddle up!
The Favorite: #1 Belmont Bruins (24-3, 18-2)
Not quite the exclamation point to the end of the regular season that the Bruins were hoping for, huh? Anytime your team celebrates a regular season conference title, there is no reason to hang your head, but Belmont cannot feel too overly confident going in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Tournament after losing two games in a row. After opening the season 24-1, and 18-0 in conference play, the Bruins had two important games left on the schedule. The first, a matchup with the #3 seed Eastern Kentucky Colonels, and the second one was against the #2 seed Morehead State Eagles. The Bruins dropped both games, but the Bruins do have convincing wins over both teams earlier in the month of February.
Coach Alexander wants to leave nothing to chance. One would think a team with a winning percentage of 0.889 would be a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament, but we have repeatedly seen “mid-major” teams snubbed out of a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. I am sure this year would be no different, with Blue Bloods like Michigan State and Duke solidly on the bubble. The names and faces may change, but the brand of basketball played in Nashville remains the same. The Bruins are a high-flying offensive team that loves to hoist shots up from beyond the arc. The Bruins are averaging 82.5 points per game (6th in Division-I) and 18.3 assists per game this season (4th in Division-I). The Bruins are shooting the ball 49.5% from the field this season (10th in Division-I). Belmont’s leading scorer this season, Nick Muszynski, was out the last two games of the regular season, but the Bruins hope to have the big man back for the start of the OVC Tournament this week. Muszynski is averaging 15.3 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game and 1.7 assists per game this season. Four out of the five starters for Belmont this season are averaging double-figures. Belmont will be a dangerous #12 or #13 seed, should they repeat as winners of the OVC Tournament.
The Dark Horse: #3 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (21-6, 15-5)
Eastern Kentucky was one of three teams this year in the OVC to have a 20+ win season. The Colonels hit a bit of a skid in early February, losing three out of four games, but they have seemed to find their stride again to close out the season winning seven out of their last eight games. The Colonels had the Xavier Musketeers on the ropes for most of the game way back in late November, only losing by three in overtime, so by no means are the Colonels a fluke 21-win team. The Colonels have a win this season also over the #1 Belmont Bruins and #2 Morehead State Eagles, so they already know what it takes to take down the top teams in the conference. With no seniors in their starting lineup, Eastern Kentucky plans to be atop the Ohio Valley Conference again next year as well.
The two freshmen in the lineup for the Colonels this season, Wendell Green and Curt Lewis, have been tremendous additions for Coach Hamilton. Green is making a strong case for the Freshman of the Year award in the OVC, as he is averaging 15.0 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game and 3.4 rebounds per game. His fellow freshman teammate, Curt Lewis, has been displaying solid numbers all season as well. Lewis is averaging 11.4 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game. Tre King has been a dependable scoring option for Eastern Kentucky this season as well. The junior forward is averaging 15.2 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game this season. The Eagles, like Belmont, love playing an up-tempo style basketball game, as they are averaging 81.6 points per game this season (10th in Division-I). The three-point shot in particular is an area of emphasis for Eastern Kentucky. The Eagles attempt 27 three-point shots per game this season (21st in Division-I), while connecting on 35.7% of their three-point attempts (83rd in Division-I). Along with an up-tempo offense, the Eagles like to cause havoc and speed a team up defensively, as they are averaging 9.8 steals per game this season (2nd in Division-I). The Colonels are a scary three seed in the OVC.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
When: March 10-13
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV
Fun Fact: For the last 3 years, Arizona hasn’t cracked the top-4 seeds of the Pac12 going into the conference tournament. The start of this unfortunate run in 2018 was the first time they had fallen clear of the top-4 since the Pac10 era of the Conference of Champions in 2009. This year, the Wildcats will not be participating in the postseason leaving the conference to adjust the bracket format and bye schedule to accommodate the 11-team tournament. Arizona would have earned a 5-seed if the tournament continued as normal.
The Favorite: #1 Oregon Ducks (19-5, 14-4)
For the fourth time in the last six years, Dana Altman’s Oregon team has locked up the top seed going into champ week and secured a Pac12 regular season title. At (+425), The Ducks cashed the Lynq’s preseason bet to win the regular season title earning a first round bye and a chance to beat up on #8/#9 seed that moves on from the first round. After a shaky season, Chris Duarte and company have fought through a couple injuries and COVID interruptions in a conference that has had the worst luck over the last 5 months like UCLA losing Chris Smith and Jalen Hill, ASU losing their entire team pretty much, and Arizona losing Jemarl Barker Jr. The Ducks lost N’Faly Dante for the season and went through a spell without Will Richardson, Eric Wlliams and their star player, Chris Duarte. Altman has picked an extremely even starting lineup as four of the five starting players are all 6’6” with Richardson posting a shorter 6’5” (another fun fact). Duarte is averaging 19.2 PPG and 4 RPG in his last five games and Will Richardson has dropped an average of 16.3 points and 3.3 assists in his last three games off of 65.1% from 3-point range. Since they are all around the same height, the team runs a very unselfish scoring offense and they are typically quick to help on defense when the ball gets passed into the post to counteract size mismatches. The lack of a big man like Evan Mobley on the squad typically translates to the senior big man, Eugene Omoruyi (16.9 PPG 5.3 RPG 2.1 APG), getting into foul trouble.
Oregon is currently (+265) to win the tournament in Vegas which is still behind USC’s (+185) and Colorado’s (+210). Each choice would prove to be profitable but Altman’s team has earned the easier route to the title in which they would most likely meet UCLA in the semifinals and USC/Colorado in the final. The Ducks are on a 5-game winning streak heading into champ week and are in the best form relative to the rest of the conference. Couple that with the best coach in the conference and five different solid scoring options, Oregon has the best chance to win the tournament.
Dark Horse: #3 Colorado Buffaloes (20-7, 14-6)
At the beginning of the season I wouldn’t have originally thought that the Buffs would be in a position to cut down the nets in Las Vegas because they were missing another outstanding scoring option on the team outside of McKinley Wright IV but I’m here to eat my words. Tad Boyle has managed a roster that allows nine players to average at least 10 minutes per game keeping the legs fresh and the opponent’s heads spinning on defense. This team in Boulder screams discipline from the eye-test and their efficiency numbers prove it. They are top-25 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies and are ranked 16th in the country overall according to KenPom (10th overall; Haslametrics). As we knew, though, McKinley Wright IV would be the pilot for this Colorado team to put a cap on an amazing career with numbers similar to Payton Pritchard. In Wright’s last four games, he’s averaged 21.5 PPG 4 RPG and 6.75 APG just in time for March and to finish the regular season only a game out of the top seed. Boyle’s team finished in sole possession of the 3-seed which is the highest finish for the school since joining the conference nearly a decade ago.
They have a tougher route to the championship than Oregon but arguably the same as USC, whom they will most likely face-off against in the semifinals. In their last meeting, Colorado pulled the rug out from under USC’s front court play outscoring the Trojans by 18 points and showcasing their ability to shoot over the defense. The Buffs went 54.5% from 3-point range in that game, the main contributor being Jeriah Horne (6-9 3-point shots 3-3 2-point shots). Colorado has a solid chance to make a run with the momentum of a 4-game winning streak and a first round bye to win the Pac12 tournament (+210) since the year they joined the conference and won in 2012.
– Quin Pezoldt (@QuintenEveret16)
Patriot League Tournament
When: March 3rd – 14th
Where: Top Seeded Campus Sites
Fun Fact: #1 seed looking to get back on top. Prior to last season, the #1 seed had won the Patriot League Tournament for three straight seasons. The #1 seed has made it to the Championship game in four straight Patriot League Tournaments. Last year’s winner, Boston University, took home their first ever Patriot League Tournament Championship, since joining the conference in 2013.
The Favorite: #2 Colgate Raiders (11-1, 11-1)
Colgate, like many of the other teams in the Patriot League this season, has only played conference games this season. It makes it more difficult to get an assessment on the Raiders, but Colgate seems to be a solid ball club in the Patriot League this year. The Raiders only played three opponents all season, Army, Boston University and Holy Cross. The lone blemish in their resume came in early January, a two-point loss to the Army Black Knights.
The stats are probably skewed given the lack of games/opponents Colgate has faced this season, but they have been extremely efficient offensively this season. As it stands, the Raiders are averaging 85.7 points per game this season (2nd in Division-I). Colgate is dropping 17.5 assists per game (8th in Division-I), and the Raiders are shooting the ball 49.8% from the field (6th in Division-I). The Raiders have crashed the boards with authority, pulling down 39.6 rebounds per game this season as well (18th in Division-I). Colgate has been good defensively as well this season, allowing opponents to only shoot 40.1% from the field (23rd in Division-I). Again, had Colgate played 20+ games this year, these numbers would look drastically different, possibly.
Jordan Burns leads the way offensive for the Raiders this season. The senior guard is averaging 17.1 points per game, 5.5 assists per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. The Raiders have three other starters scoring in double figures this season: Nelly Cummings (13.0 ppg), Jack Ferguson (12.1 ppg) and Tucker Richardson (11.0 ppg). Colgate gave the Tennessee Volunteers a good battle back in the 2019 NCAA Tournament as a #15 seed. Should Colgate get to the NCAA Tournament again this season, I can see them getting a #15 seed once again this year.
The Dark Horse: #1 Navy Midshipmen (15-2, 12-1)
It is somewhat odd to call the #1 seed a dark horse, but Navy is the only other team really in the Patriot League that will probably be capable of giving Colgate a good battle. Coach DeChellis has resurrected the Navy program, after many years of agonizing basketball put forth by the Midshipmen. When DeChellis took over the program in 2010-11, Navy only won three games all season. The program has made leaps forward to get to a point where they are in line for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998. The Midshipmen were torched by Maryland, but with wins over George Washington, Mount St. Mary’s and Georgetown in the non-conference slate this season, the Midshipmen have to be pleased with those results.
Like Colgate, The Midshipmen have only played a handful of Patriot League opponents this season, five to be exact. The lone hiccup in conference play this season came at the hands of the Black Knights from West Point. Amy has surprisingly knocked off both the #1 and #2 seed at some point this season. Cam Davis leads the troops this season, averaging 17.1 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game and 2.7 assists per game. John Carter and Greg Summers have been reliable secondary scorers this season as well. Carter is averaging 11.3 points per game, while Summers is averaging 9.6 points per game this season. As with Colgate, the numbers might be slightly skewed, but Navy has been balanced on both sides of the ball this season. As a team, Navy is averaging 71.7 points per game this season, while holding their opponent to only 66.5 points per game (66th in Division-I). Opposing teams will pay for careless passes, as Navy is averaging 8.1 steals per game this season (29th in Division-I). If there is a team that can knock off Colgate, Navy certainly has to be the team to fit that bill.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
When: March 10 – 14
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tennessee
Fun Fact: Kentucky (31 tournament titles) has won the SEC Tournament over five times as often as the next closest school (Alabama with six) and three more times than every school in the conference combined (31 to 28).
The Favorite: #1 Alabama Crimson Tide (21-6, 16-2); +250
I’ve favored Alabama all season, especially the prospects of what a healthy and locked-in John Petty can do, and that’s paid off quite a bit for anyone else with my line of thinking. The Tide have lost just three times since Christmas and only twice in the SEC, a feat that’s really impressive considering the quality of the conference this season. Even without Kentucky on their game and Florida losing star forward Keyontae Johnson, the SEC is still a powerhouse.
I expected the Tide to have a good season, but not a great one. Seeing them come out on top of the conference is a surprise, but it isn’t shocking. Of course their offense is powerful, scoring well over 100 points on multiple occasions in conference, but what makes this team really click is their production on the other side of the ball. Just as they dominate the three point line when shooting the ball, they’re actually better at defending it. They shoot the 4th most threes in the country and make 35.5% of them, but they allow just 20.7 threes per game and defend well enough that only 29% of them go in, good for 15th in the country.
That’s ridiculous production from the Crimson Tide in such an offensive conference.
The other massive asset that this team has going into the tournament is their depth. Alabama has 13 players who are averaging at least one point per game and 10 averaging at least three. Those numbers don’t seem like a lot but it just shows how many players they can count on to come in and contribute with regularity. No one on the court for Alabama can be ignored and that’s extremely valuable when you need to win three games in three days.
The Dark Horse: #7 Missouri Tigers (15-8, 8-8); +1200
I guess I’ve been on something of a Missouri binge for the past couple of years across football and basketball. I don’t really have a connection to the school apart from the fact that my grandfather went there, but I’ve been on this binge longer than I knew that fact. Actually, he died when I was very young and I have few memories of him at all, so I can certainly count that out as the reasoning for my fondness of the Tigers of Columbia.
Sorry for dragging you into my personal life, but the Tigers are actually a very good basketball team this season and should be examined heavily as a team that can make a splash in not just the SEC Tournament, but also the NCAA Tournament. While the defense hasn’t been ideal for a team in and out of the top 25, the offense is operable and the chemistry is good enough that stringing together wins isn’t as tough as it could be for other teams. Cuonzo Martin’s team hit a rough patch late in the season butas we all know, these tournaments are a great time to hit reset and gear up for the final push of the season.
The main rotation for Missouri is really reliable and has generally produced in every game they’ve seen. If one guy is having a bad game, it’s next man up and so on. The three point shooting hasn’t been ideal to go up against this edition of the SEC but tired legs could favor Missouri in these games if that’s the case. The Tigers defend the three point line very well and don’t foul much so it’s not ignorant to imagine them walking away with the tournament title. Of course it’s a huge ask, but it isn’t impossible.
Southern Conference Tournament
When: March 5th – 8th
Where: Harrah’s Cherokee Center, Asheville, NC
Fun Fact: Since 2015, the #1 seed has won the Southern Conference (SOCON) Tournament five out six tournaments. The one time the #1 seed did not win in that span was 2017, when the #1 UNC Greensboro Spartans were upended by the #3 East Tennessee State Buccaneers. More often than not, the best team in the Southern Conference will be represented in the NCAA Tournament. The most recent NCAA Tournament representative from the SOCON, Wofford, knocked off Seton Hall in the Round of 64.
The Favorite: #1 UNC Greensboro Spartans (18-8, 13-5)
Had this been a normal year with 30+ scheduled games, it is very conceivable to believe the UNC Greensboro Spartans would have another 20+ win season under their belt. Since taking over the coaching duties mid-way through the season in 2011, Wes Miller has built a solid program in Greensboro. The Spartans have had four straight 20+ win seasons, with an NCAA Tournament appearance back in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Spartans started the season out 1-3, before rattling off four straight non-conference wins to make it 5-3 in non-conference play. After dropping two out of their first three conference games, UNC Greensboro closed out the season strong, winning 12 out of their next 15 games on the schedule. The Spartans took home their first Southern Conference Regular Season Championship since 2018. While winning the regular season title is a nice achievement, the Spartans have their eyes affixed on the SOCON Tournament trophy and a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Isaiah Miller has been the key component for Coach Miller’s offense this season. The senior guard is averaging 18.9 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game and 3.9 assists per game this season. The Spartans are a middle of the road offensive team, averaging 73.4 points per game this season. While the Spartans may not be scoring at will this season, they have given themselves good situations to be in offensively. The Spartans average 11.7 offensive rebounds per game (7th in Division-I) and they only turn the ball over 11.4 times per game (49th in Division-I). Valuing the basketball and getting second chance scoring opportunities can never be a bad thing for a team. The defense has been the glue that holds the team together this season. The Spartans are holding their opponent to 67.6 points per game this season (86th in Division-I), and opposing teams are only shooting 41.2% against UNC Greensboro (58th in Division-I). The Spartans are 17-3 this season when they hold their opponent to under 74 points per game this season. Coach Miller is a promising young coach who has his players playing at a high level, so it would be not very surprising to see them represent the Southern Conference in the NCAA Tournament this season.
The Dark Horse: #3 Furman Paladins (16-8, 10-5)
Even as a #3 seed, I still have a belief that Furman is the best team in this conference. The Paladins have not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1980, and there is a strong belief that they are going to be a NCAA Tournament bound team under Bob Richey. Since taking over in 2017, Coach Richey has led the Paladins to three straight seasons of 20+ wins. The Paladins were ranked in the AP poll for the first time in school history back in the 2018-19 season. The thorn in the side for Furman has been the SOCON Tournament. The Paladins have not advanced past the Semifinals round since 2015. Ironically enough, the Paladins were a #10 seed that season, and almost made the NCAA Tournament with 22 losses.
Four out of the five starters this season for the Paladins are averaging double-figures. The two juniors, Mike Bothwell and Noah Gurley, have been the main scoring threats for Furman this season. Bothwell is averaging 15.8 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game and 3.0 assists per game this season. Gurley is averaging 14.8 points per game 5.7 rebounds per game and 2.3 assists per game this season. The other two scorers for Coach Richey are a pair of seniors: Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter. Mounce is averaging 13.7 points per game, while Hunter is averaging 10.9 points per game this season. The Paladins are a force offensively, averaging 77.6 points per game this season (32nd in Division-I). The Paladins know how to work the ball to free up open shooters for the best looks possible near the basket. Furman is shooting a scorching hot 61.2% on their two point shot attempts this season (2nd in Division-I). The Paladins are 14-1 this season when they score 75 or more points in a game. The lone loss was a three-point loss to the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Considering the Tide are in line for a potential #2 or #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is not a bad loss at all for the Paladins. The Paladins have a solid team this season, so perhaps this will be the year they put an end to the three-decade tournament drought.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
When: March 9th – 13th
Where: Merrell Center, Katy, TX
Fun Fact: Unlike most conferences this year, the Southland will be expanding their tournament field instead of shrinking the amount of participants. The conference will now feature 10 teams, instead of the traditional eight-team tournament that the conference has used for several years. The #1 and #2 seed will have triple-byes, allowing them a spot automatically in the Semifinals. The #3 and #4 seed will have a double-bye, guaranteeing them a spot in the Quarterfinals.
The Favorite: #2 Abilene Christian Wildcats (21-4, 13-2)
The Wildcats stumbled out of the gates early on when they made the leap up to the Division-I ranks back in 2013-14. They did not have a winning season, until 2017-18, when they finished the season exactly at .500 (16-16). The following year was a “turning point” type of season for the Wildcats. The Wildcats went 27-7, and they went on to compete in their first NCAA Tournament. The following season, the Wildcats finished 20-11. Who knows what would have been in their fate for the conference tournament. At 21-4 this season, Coach Golding has to feel good about his team’s chances of going back to the NCAA Tournament for a second time in three years.
Abilene Christian started this year out with an 8-2 record in non-conference play. Their two losses, a seven-point loss to Texas Tech, and a 13-point loss to Arkansas, are by no means “bad losses”. The Wildcats only dropped two conference games this season as well, a seven-point loss to a good Sam Houston State squad, and a two-point loss to a bad Central Arkansas team. Okay, so overall, the Wildcats only needed one mulligan this season, not too bad.
The old adage, “defense leads to offense” is especially true for Abilene Christian. The Wildcats are holding their opponent to 62.1 points per game this season (13th in Division-I), and teams have only shot 40.5% from the field against Abilene Christian (27th in Division-I). The Wildcats are generating 9.1 steals per game this season as well (7th in Division-I). The steals the Wildcats get can lead to easy scoring opportunities on the other end of the court, so it is not all too surprising that Abilene Christian is one of the nation’s best passing teams in the country (18.0 apg; 4th in Division-I). Teams that allow the Wildcats to take control of the game tempo can find it difficult to catch up, should they fall behind early in the grind it out games that Abilene Christian likes to play.
Kolton Kohl, Joe Pleasant and Coryon Mason lead the Wildcats in scoring this season. Kohl is averaging 12.2 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game this season. Pleasant is averaging 10.7 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game this season. Mason is averaging 10.8 points per game and 2.0 rebounds per game this season.
The Dark Horse: #3 Sam Houston State Bearkats (19-8, 13-3)
Full disclosure, I had no idea Sam Houston State was going to go on the run they did when I wrote a preview about them back in early January. Following their win over Southeastern Louisiana, which I will take a bit of credit in predicting would happen; the Bearkats won the next 11 of their 14 games. In terms of winning percentage, the Bearkats had their best season this year since 2014-15. The Bearkats have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2010, but they have had eight seasons of 18+ wins following their last tournament appearance. Coach Hooten has the Bearkats at another 18+ win season this year, but I am confident in saying he would like for nothing more than to have his team back to the NCAA Tournament. Winning seasons are nice, but you would like to eventually be rewarded with playing in the big dance because of that successful season.
In conference play, two of the three losses the Bearkats have this year are against Stephen F. Austin. Fortunately, Stephen F. Austin is ineligible for postseason play this season, after incurring a one-year ban following what the NCAA deemed “lack of institutional control” over the last few years. The other lone loss came to Abilene Christian, a team that they had a series split with this year. Zach Nutall leads the Bearkats in scoring the season, averaging 18.9 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game and 1.7 assists per game. Demarkus Lampley has been the secondary scoring option for Sam Houston State, averaging 14.9 points per game this season. The Berkats need work on the defensive side of the ball (allowing 73.0 points per game this season; 237th in Division-I), but they certainly have not struggled finding their stride offensively. Sam Houston State is averaging 74.7 points per game this season (79th in Division-I).
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Summit League Tournament
When: March 6th – 9th
Where: Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, SD
Fun Fact: Upsets are bound to unfold in the Summit League Tournament. The last time the #1, #2, #3 and #4 seeds all advanced to the Semifinals was back in 2014. Last year, we saw the #6 seed, North Dakota, and the #7 seed, Purdue Fort Wayne, both pull upsets in the Semifinals. Consider yourselves warned: South Dakota State, South Dakota, North Dakota State and Oral Roberts.
The Favorite: #1 South Dakota State Jackrabbits (15-6, 9-3)
Although the Jackrabbits have only been a Division-I program for a little over a decade, they certainly have made an impressive splash thus far in the Summit League. The Jackrabbits have won the Summit League regular season title seven times in the last nine years, and the Jackrabbits have made the NCAA Tournament six times in the last eight seasons. With wins over Utah State, Iowa State and Bradley, the Jackrabbits certainly made an impressive showing in the non-conference slate this season. They lost to West Virginia by only eight points in their first game of the season, setting the tone early that they can play with any team in the country.
Four out of the five starters this season for Coach Henderson are averaging double-figures in scoring. The 2019-20 Summit League Player of the Year, Doug Wilson, leads the way for the Jackrabbits offense. Wilson is averaging 16.1 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game. Noah Freidel is averaging 16.0 points per game, Baylor Scheierman is averaging 14.7 points per game and Alex Arians is averaging 10.7 points per game for South Dakota State this season. The Jackrabbits are one of the top offensive teams in the country this season, averaging 79.2 points per game (22nd in Division-I). The Jackrabbits are deadly from three point territory, connecting on 40.8% of their three point shots this season (2nd in Division-I). The Jackrabbits have done a solid job pulling down rebounds this season, averaging 26.3 defensive rebounds per game (31st in Division-I). The Jackrabbits are such a balanced team this season. If you shut down Dwight Wilson, there are still then three other reliable scorers that you need to account for in the lineup. They certainly will be a tough out and will give a good scare to someone in the NCAA Tournament.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
The Dark Horse: #4 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (13-10, 10-5)
Times have been tough down in Tulsa, OK in recent years for the Golden Eagles. The first win this season over a Division-I opponent did not come until January for the Eagles. They were 3-5, but all those wins were over non-Division-I opponents. The Golden Eagles had a challenging non-conference slate though, with games against Missouri, Wichita State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The Golden Eagles covered in four out of the five games, so although they were not winning, they did enough to keep themselves in each of the games. The Golden Eagles opened the conference action at 6-1, but they hit a bit of a wall in late January. In their last eight games of the regular season, Oral Roberts is 4-4. Two of those wins are over South Dakota State and North Dakota State, two top echelon teams in the Summit League.
Max Abmas has been torching defenses this season. The sophomore guard is averaging 24.8 points per game and 3.3 assists per game this season. Kevin Obanor has been a good glue guy for Coach Mills, averaging 18.6 points per game and 10.0 rebounds per game this season. The Golden Eagles are a high-flying bunch this year on offense. Oral Roberts is averaging 79.2 points per game this season (22nd in Division-I). The Golden Eagles will live and die by the three ball as well. They attempt 28.4 three pointers per game (11th in Division-I) and they have been cashing them in as well. On the season, Oral Roberts is a solid 39% from beyond the arc (11th in Division-I). The Golden Eagles are tremendous at the free throw line as well, shooting 81.4% from the charity stripe (2nd in Division-I). Teams that can shoot the three ball and free throws well have what it takes to pull off a major upset in the NCAA Tournament.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Sun Belt Tournament
When: March 5th – 8th
Where: Pensacola Bay Center & Hartsell Center, Pensacola, FL
Fun Fact: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things will look a little different this year in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Instead of the traditional 10 teams making the tournament, all 12 teams will be eligible to compete in this year’s tournament. Teams are seeded according to their ranking in their subdivision, a new feature this year in the Sun Belt as well. For example, the #4 seed in the East Division, Appalachian State, will take on the #5 seed in the West Division, Little Rock. The winner of that matchup will take on the #1 seed in the West Division, Texas State. On the flip side, the #4 seed in the West Division, Arkansas State, will take on the #5 seed in the East Division, Georgia Southern. The winner of that matchup will take on the #1 seed in the East Division, Georgia State.
The Favorite: #1 (East) Texas State Bobcats (18-6, 12-3)
After season after season of mediocrity, the Texas State Bobcats are in prime position to get themselves back in the NCAA Tournament this year. The Bobcats have not been in the NCAA Tournament since 1997, and they have only had seven winning seasons during that 24-year span. Had this been a normal season with more games played, the Bobcats would have likely picked up another 20+ win season, their third in three years. Which is impressive, considering their former coach, Danny Kaspar, was let go over the summer for some racially insensitive remarks he made toward a former player. Terrence Johnson inherited a program in a tough position, but he did not seem to show any issues with his first year as the head coach at Texas State. As great of a feel good story this is for first year head coach Terrence Johnson, there were a few bumps initially. The Bobcats started out the season going 3-3 with a loss to a non-Division-I opponent in the mix. Ouch. The Bobcats did not throw in the towel though; they went on to win eight out of their next nine games following the loss to Our Lady of the Lake. The Bobcats are currently riding a seven game win streak into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
The Bobcats are led this season offensively by a pair of junior guards: Caleb Asberry and Mason Harrell. Asberry is averaging 13.2 points per game and 4.0 rebounds per game. His fellow backcourt mate is averaging 13.7 points per game and 3.1 rebounds per game this season. Texas State likes to play the game at a slow tempo, grinding out each possession against the opponent. The Bobcats are only allowing opponents to score 61.2 points per game this season (7th in Division-I). Teams are usually only held to one shot attempt per possession, as the Bobcats are holding their opponent to 7.0 offensive rebounds per game (49th in Division-I). Offensively, the Bobcats have been patient to wait for the best look offensively this season, as they are shooting 46.7% from the field (47th in Division-I). If Texas State gains control of the game tempo, they will have no problem making a run in the Sun Belt Tournament.
The Dark Horse: #2 (East) Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (16-8, 10-5)
Perhaps there is a slight degree of bias with this pick, since I did say how much I loved Coastal Carolina growing up in a previous preview, but I still believe the Chants are a solid squad. There is so much love for the Chants on my end that I am willing to back them again, even though they lost in the game I previewed. Since their loss to South Alabama (twice), Coastal Carolina has won three in a row. The Chants are rolling into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament with a degree of momentum, and they will be ready for the winner of the UT-Arlington and Troy matchup. Coastal Carolina has defeated Troy four times already this year, crazy! The Chants will then move on to most likely meet top dog Texas State. The Chants have not played Texas State yet, so there is no telling really what will happen in that game.
What we do know is Devante Jones will be getting himself buckets. Jones is averaging 20.2 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game and 3.2 assists per game. The junior guard is also making his presence felt on the defensive side of the ball by averaging 3.0 steals per game this season (3rd in Division-I). Deanthony Tipler and Essam Mostafa have continued being dependable scorers in the starting lineup for Coach Ellis as well. Tipler is averaging 15.1 points per game, while Mostafa is averaging 11.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game in his freshman season. To no surprise with all the high scorers Coastal Carolina has, the Chants are averaging 74.7 points per game this season (78th in Division-I). Along with scoring points, the Chants are relentless on the glass, averaging 42.3 rebounds per game this season (3rd in Division-I). If Coastal Carolina is going to beat you, chances are they are going to do it from shooting the ball from beyond the arc. The Chants are shooting 35.6% from three-point land this season (84th in Division-I).
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
Southwestern Athletic (SWAC) Tournament
When: March 10th – 13th
Where: Bartow Arena, Birmingham, AL
Fun Fact: The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) is the only conference that has two teams with undefeated conference records heading into their conference tournament. Prairie View A&M, the defending champs, have a perfect 13-0 record. Jackson State is right on their heels though, as the Tigers have an 11-0 record. In third place, the Texas Southern Tigers stand at an impressive 10-3 conference record. Between the three teams combined, they are currently on a 30-game winning streak. This does not bode well for the bottom half of the conference.
The Favorite: #1 Prairie View A&M Panthers (14-4, 13-0)
Since taking over as an interim head coach back in 2015-16, Coach Smith has changed the tide for the Panthers basketball program. Since 2000, the Panthers have had six winning seasons. Of those six seasons, three have happened in the last three seasons. To say Byron Smith has overachieved during his tenure would be a significant understatement. The Panthers were in good position last season to win their second consecutive SWAC Tournament trophy, but the conference tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic. At 14-4 this season, the Panthers can claim this season by the percentage as the most winning season in program history. Their .778 winning percentage eclipsed the previous highest winning percentage season back in 2018-19 (.629).
The Panthers opened the season with five tough non-conference opponents. Prairie View A&M was able to squeak out a win against Evansville, and the Panthers lost close games to Arkansas Little Rock and TCU (two teams that were 14+-point favors). During conference play, the Panthers have cruised their way to a perfect 13-0 record. Three key members of the starting lineup have helped carry the load for the Panthers offense this season.
Jawaun Daniels has gone from an afterthought on the Prairie View team only averaging 4.7 minutes in three games last season to the team’s leading scorer. Daniels is averaging 14.6 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game this season. The Western Kentucky transfer, Jeremiah Gambrell, has found a home in Prairie View. The Houston native is averaging 11.4 points per game this season. Last, but certainly not least, Cam Mack has been the straw that stirs the drink for the Panthers offense. The former Nebraska Husker is leading the nation in assists this season (8.4 apg) and he is currently ranked third in the nation in steals per game this season (2.9). Mack can score points for the Panthers offense when called upon, as he is averaging 12.1 points per game. He is the true “do-it-all” point guard for Coach Smith.
The Panthers rely heavily on their defense to transition into easy offensive opportunities. Prairie View A&M leads the nation in steals per game this season (10.1), and they are right up there in blocks per game this season as well (4.3 blocks per game; 44th in Division-I). By causing disruption in the passing lanes and getting quite a few fast break point opportunities each game, it should not be all that surprising to find out that Prairie View A&M shoots extremely well on their two-point shot attempts (53.8%; 44th in Division-I). The Panthers will be a tough out in the SWAC Tournament this year.
The Dark Horse: #3 Texas Southern Tigers (13-8, 10-3)
Since 2010, no team in the SWAC has had greater success than Texas Southern. From 2013-2018, the Tigers were either conference regular seasons champions or conference tournament champions for that season. To go five straight seasons of dominant success like that says what type of standard has been set within their program. The Tigers lost one of their most successful coaches in program history, Mike Davis, following the 2018 season; however, they did not miss a beat by hiring Johnny Jones. Coach Jones, like Coach Davis, spent many years at the “Power Five” ranks, so they both know what it takes to coach under the brightest of spotlights. Big name coaches can bring in big name talent, as the Tigers have seen an increase in the number of transfers pouring into the program.
Three transfers have been especially important to the success of Texas Southern this season. Michael Weathers, a one-time Miami (OH) Redhawk and Oklahoma State Cowboy, has found his third home in Texas Southern. Weathers is averaging 16.2 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game, 3.4 assists per game and 2.4 steals per game in his first season as a Tiger. John Walker, a one-time Texas A&M Aggie, has been a dependable scorer for Texas Southern. The junior forward is averaging 12.2 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game this season. Galen Alexander, a former LSU Tiger and Georgetown Hoya, has also found a third home in Texas Southern. Alexander is averaging 10.4 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game this season. The Tigers have quite an advantage with their size in these former powerhouse program transfers, which is indicative of how effective the Tigers have been in the post this season. Texas Southern is averaging 40.3 rebounds per game this season (8th in Division-I), and the Tigers are notching 4.7 blocks per game this season (22nd in Division-I). Their athleticism and size in the post has caused disruptions for opposing teams getting clean looks at the rim. The Tigers are holding opponents to a shooting percentage of 41.1% this season (28th in Division-I).
The Tigers opened their non-conference slate against some competitive teams this season, which led to their run start out of the gate with a 2-5 record. The Tigers lost only by four points to Washington State, and the Tigers picked up a win over Wyoming (won as a 10.5-point underdog). In conference play, the Tigers have defeated all their opponents, except for losing twice to Prairie View A&M and once to Grambling State. The Grambling State game was a bad loss, but losing by six and two points to the top-seeded Panthers is nothing to be down about if you are Texas Southern. I expect Texas Southern to get one more shot at taking down Prairie View A&M, this time when the stakes are at its highest: an NCAA Tournament bid to be given to the winner.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)
When: March 11 – 13
Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, NV
Fun Fact: Though the WAC is currently comprised of nine schools, this year’s conference tournament will only feature six teams. Tarleton State and Dixie State, which finished 6th and 8th in the conference this year, respectively, are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament as they are in year one of four of their transition period from Division II to Division I (that means both schools will be ineligible for the next three seasons, as well). Chicago State opted out of the season after going 0-9 in non-conference play. That was probably for the best, though, as the Cougars are a combined 2-70 in conference play dating back to the 2015-16 season.
The Favorite: #1 Grand Canyon Antelopes (15-6, 9-3); +115
Grand Canyon has finally captured their first #1 seed in the WAC Tournament as the regular season champ. Since transitioning to Division I in 2014, the Antelopes had finished third or better in six of seven seasons prior to this season, but hadn’t claimed that elusive #1 seed. That changed this year under first year Head Coach Bryce Drew. Drew, a cast off from Vanderbilt after compiling a 40-59 record over three seasons there, has the Antelopes running wild (pardon the pun) in the desert this season. Grand Canyon’s best win came back on December 11 by 10-points over Nevada at home, but it had a pair of respectable losses to Arizona State (71-70), San Francisco (68-65), and Colorado (74-64) during the non-conference slate. In the WAC, the Antelopes split a pair of games with #2 seed Utah Valley at home, while the team swept #3 seed New Mexico State at home. Grand Canyon’s opponent in the semifinals will either be #4 California Baptist or #5 Seattle, both of whom the Antelopes split games with during the regular season.
Grand Canyon’s strength is its defense, and it does a great job of limiting shooting percentages (14th in the nation in effective FG% against) while keeping opponents off the boards (17th in the nation in offensive rebounding % against). This is an experienced team with five regulars, including four starters, being seniors. They feature a dominant frontcourt with the team’s two leading scorers being 7-foot senior center Asbjorn Midtgaard (14.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 71.5% FG%) and 6’10” senior forward Alessandro Lever (14.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 41.1% 3PT FG%).
The Dark Horse: #2 Utah Valley Wolverines (11-10, 9-4); +250
Pretty slim pickens for the Dark Horse category in the WAC. While not much of a bold statement to pick the #2 seed in the tournament, Utah Valley is really the only choice here. #3 seed New Mexico State was swept by Grand Canyon earlier this year and simply lacks the size needed to match up with the Antelopes. The Aggies have only one player listed at 6’10” or taller, and that’s sophomore William McNair (3.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG). Utah Valley, on the other hand, has a pair of starters at 6’10” or taller in sophomore Fardaws Aimaq (14.5 PPG, 15.1 RPG)—who is also the nation’s rebounder on a per game basis (#2 in the category is two full RPG behind at 13.1 RPG)—and senior Evan Cole (11.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG), who is a transfer from Georgia Tech.
Utah Valley will have to get past New Mexico State (assuming the Aggies handle UT Rio Grande Valley in the opening round) to make the finals, and the two teams split during the regular season. But, looking ahead to the championship game likely to be against Grand Canyon, Utah Valley managed to split the two teams’ regular season games, on the road no less. Give me the team as the Dark Horse that’s already done it once when it comes to beating the favorite.
-Mac O’Brien (@kmacobrien)
West Coast (WCC) Tournament
When: March 4th – 9th
Where: Orleans Arena, Paradise, NV
Fun Fact: Since the West Coast Conference (WCC) Tournament has been held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas in 2009, the conference has only seen two winners: Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. BYU can take the claim of fame for being the runner up in three of those 12 seasons, but other than that, it is both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s duking it out in the final round. Perhaps though, this year might be one of those “odd” years we see a Gonzaga and BYU in the final round, stay tuned!
The Favorite: #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (24-0, 15-0)
I am really having a hard time thinking of any logical situation where Gonzaga is not cutting down the nets on Tuesday night in the Orleans Arena. That is by no means a slap in the face to the other eight teams in the field; Gonzaga is just on another level, simply put. The Bulldogs went a perfect 24-0 this season, and they look primed to enter the NCAA Tournament as the #1 overall seed with a pristine 26-0 record. As the team that has a perfect record and held on to the #1 spot all season, the Bulldogs will enter the tournament with an enormous target on their back. The Bulldogs are ready to cut-down the nets in Indianapolis, winners of that elusive first ever NCAA Tournament Championship in program history.
Not much has changed since I last wrote a preview about the Bulldogs last month. The Zags are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 92.9 points per game this season, best in college basketball. Gonzaga is shooting 55.3% from the field this season (1st in Division-I), and the Bulldogs are averaging 18.7 assists per game this season (2nd in Division-I). Gonzaga is averaging 8.6 steals per game this season (17th in Division-I) and they are only turning the ball over 12.3 times per game this season (96th in Division-I). Opposing teams are only shooting the ball 46.5% from the field against Gonzaga this season (65th in Division-I). Once more, if you are unfamiliar with the names and faces of their key players, allow me to clue you in. Corey Kispert leads the Zags in scoring this season (19.5 points per game), Drew Timme is averaging 18.9 points per game, Jalen Suggs is averaging 13.9 points per game and Joel Ayayi is averaging 11.3 points per game. It will be fun to watch Gonzaga make a deep run in the tournament this season.
The Dark Horse: #2 BYU Cougars (19-5, 10-3)
Aside from a 26-point drubbing from USC, the Cougars had themselves a solid non-conference slate this season. The Cougars had key wins over St. John’s, Utah State, Utah and San Diego State. Two out of the three of those teams certainly in NCAA Tournament conversations, BYU certainly has to feel good about their chances at an NCAA Tournament berth. The Cougars lost two games to Gonzaga during conference play, along with a glaring loss to the Pepperdine Waves. Not to say Pepperdine is a slouch, but had BYU only had two losses in conference to the #1 team in the country, perhaps they would get more leeway from the Selection Committee. As it stands though, many of the “mock brackets” have the Cougars anywhere from a #7 to #9 seed. The Cougars should by no means rest on their laurels, as they and Gonzaga have double-round byes in the WCC Tournament, there is still work left to do for the Cougars.
A trio of seniors lead the Cougars in scoring this season: Alex Barcello, Brandon Averette and Matt Haarms. Bracello is a true “stat-sheet-stuffer”, averaging 15.7 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game and 4.6 assists per game this season. The journeyman, Brandon Averette, is averaging 11.4 points per game and 3.7 assists per game this season. BYU is the third school for Averette, after spending two years at Oklahoma State and one season with Utah Valley. Midwesterners might recognize the third scorer for BYU this season, Matt Haarms. After spending his first three seasons with Purdue, the 7’3” center took his talents out west for his final season. Haarms is averaging 11.0 points per game and 4.7 rebound per game this season. The Cougars are balanced on both sides of the ball this season for Coach Pope. Averaging 77.3 points per game (37th in Division-I), the Cougars have no problem getting buckets on the offensive side of the ball. The Cougars also have no problem putting the clamps down on the opposition, holding their opponent to 67.7 points per game this season (88th in Division-I). BYU is shooting 48.1% from the field this season (21st in Division-I), so opponents may find themselves in for a long day should they let BYU take high percentage shots on offense. BYU looks to be in the tournament, for now, but winning at least one game in the WCC Tournament would help ensure their spot in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
– Jack O’Keefe (@jpokeefe1s)