For two weeks, nearly every team in Division I will get a chance to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The road to the Big Dance starts with 30 conference tournaments — the Ivy League gives its auto bid to the regular-season champ. We preview each conference tournament as the action starts to heat up. Check back here for each day’s schedule and a rundown of the previous day’s results.
In a few hours, all conference tournament games will be over, and we’ll be anxiously waiting to see where 68 teams land in the NCAA Tournament.
We had plenty of automatic bids go out yesterday without too many shockers. The ACC Tournament featured plenty of excitement and controversy as questionable officiating enraged the fan bases of NC State and Duke. The two semifinal games were decided by a total of five points.
Today, we have four games to go, including the ACC and Big Ten championships, which will have major implications on the No. 1 seeds in the tournament. Your favorite team might not care if it’s a No 1 or 2 seed, but history doesn’t lie. In the past 15 years, No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four 42 percent of the time, more than double the rate of No. 2 seeds, which get there only 18 percent of the time. It’s a big deal.
Meanwhile on the bubble, St. Bonaventure has a chance to claim an unexpected Atlantic 10 championship against Xavier, which would give the Bonnies an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and the Atlantic 10 a fourth team in the Big Dance. Add one for the A-10, subtract one for everyone else. In this case, that might be Tennessee and the SEC that get bumped onto the wrong side of the bubble.
No. 1 North Carolina 69, No. 5 NC State 67
No. 3 Florida State 62, No. 2 Duke 59
America East Championship
No. 2 Vermont 51, No. 1 Stony Brook 43
Atlantic 10 Semifinals
No. 4 St. Bonaventure 84, No. 8 Massachusetts 80
No. 3 Xavier 71, No. 2 Saint Louis 64
Big 12 Championship
No. 2 Missouri 90, No. 4 Baylor 75
Big East Championship
No. 7 Louisville 50, No. 4 Cincinnati 44
Big Ten Semifinals
No. 1 Michigan State 65, No. 4 Wisconsin 52
No. 3 Ohio State 77, No. 2 Michigan 55
Big West Championship
No. 1 Long Beach State 77, No. 3 UC Santa Barbara 64
Conference USA Championship
No. 1 Memphis 83, No. 6 Marshall 57
No. 3 Ohio 64, No. 1 Akron 63
No. 2 Norfolk State 73, No. 4 Bethune-Cookman 70
Mountain West Championship
No. 2 New Mexico 68, No. 1 San Diego State 59
No. 6 Colorado 53, No.4 Arizona 51
No. 1 Kentucky 74, No. 4 Florida 71
No. 3 Vanderbilt 65, No. 7 Ole Miss 53
No. 3 Lamar 70, No. 4 McNeese State 49
No. 1 Mississippi Valley State 71, No. 2 Texas Southern 69
No. 2 New Mexico State 82, No. 5 Louisiana Tech 57
On tap today:
No. 3 Florida State 85, No. 1 North Carolina 82
Atlantic 10 Championship
No. 4 St. Bonaventure 67, No. 3 Xavier 56
Big Ten Championship
No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Ohio State, 3:30 pm ET
No. 3 Vanderbilt 71, No. 1 Kentucky 64
Big Ten (March 8)
Top seed: Michigan State. Fittingly, the Big Ten ended with a three-way tie atop the standings. Michigan State gets the tiebreaker for the top seed in Indianapolis, but this tournament will be wide open.
Tournament stakes: There’s lots at stake in the Big Ten tourney, from top to bottom. Michigan State and Ohio State are potentially vying for a No. 1 seed. Indiana and Michigan have hopes for a No. 3 seed or better. Wisconsin and Purdue want to boost their NCAA Tournament destination. And Northwestern simply wants to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
The No. 7 Wildcats will be one of the major stories during championship week, as John Shurna has led the team so close to its first-ever bid. Northwestern’s résumé looks good enough right now, but an opening-round loss to No. 10 Minnesota could throw that into doubt. On the other hand, a win there followed by a quarterfinal victory against No. 2 Michigan would pretty much seal the deal for the Wildcats.
There really aren’t any other bubble teams in the Big Ten as No. 9 Illinois and No. 10 Minnesota have played their way out of NCAA Tournament consideration.
Spoiler alert: No. 8 Iowa. The Hawkeyes are one of the scrappiest teams in a conference celebrated for its blue-collar toughness. Iowa’s list of victims this season includes: Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin for a second time. Iowa knows it can win against the big boys, especially when the offense is firing on all cylinders.
Predicted champ: No. 3 Ohio State. The Buckeyes made a statement in East Lansing when they rallied in the second half to beat Michigan State. They want to deliver another statement to the rest of the country in Indianapolis. After beating Duke early in the season, Ohio State seemed to lack intensity in many games. A recurring back problem for Jared Sullinger didn’t help. But he’s been healthier lately, and the young Buckeyes are maturing. Look for Ohio State to come out with strong effort in every game.
Big West (March 8)
Top seed: Long Beach State. The 49ers loaded up on tough nonconference games, playing tight games against the likes of San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina — all on the road. As a result, Long Beach State was well prepared for the Big West and cruised to a 15-1 record.
Tournament stakes: Although Long Beach State is playing great basketball, the 49ers didn’t beat many of the tough opponents during the early season gauntlet. The best wins are against Pittsburgh and Xavier, but those wouldn’t be enough to get Long Beach State an at-large bid if the 49ers don’t win the Big West title. If they do, the 49ers should be heading to the Big Dance as a No. 13 or 14 seed.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Cal Poly. The Mustangs have one of the slowest tempos in Division I, and their style successfully slowed down Long Beach State on the road earlier this season, forcing the 49ers to grind out a 55-50 win. Cal Poly likes to shoot a lot of 3-pointers, and if the shots are falling, the upset could come through.
Predicted champ: Long Beach State. The 49ers have one of the best players in the country in Casper Ware, and this senior-laden roster is on a mission. Long Beach State has prepared this entire season to succeed in the NCAA Tournament, and the 49ers know that the only way they can guarantee a trip to the Big Dance is by taking care of business in the Big West Tournament first.
Top seed: Kentucky. The Wildcats totally dominated the SEC this season, ending up with a perfect 16-0 record. And really, not many teams even threatened to challenge Kentucky, which had only one conference game decided by less than five points.
Tournament stakes: Kentucky definitely has a No. 1 seed, while Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama should be in the tournament, though the Crimson Tide would be smart to avoid an opening-round loss to No. 12 South Carolina. No. 2 Tennessee and No. 6 Mississippi State are firmly on the bubble and need to pick up a win or two to earn an at-large bid.
Since Jarnell Stokes joined the Volunteers at the start of conference play, Tennessee is 10-5 and looking like a much-improved team. Coach Cuonzo Martin has the team heading in the right direction. However, if he wants to get the Vols into the NCAA Tournament in his first season on the job, he’ll need to guide Tennessee into the championship, preferably with a win against No. 3 Vanderbilt.
The Bulldogs also have some work to do, which starts with beating the other Bulldogs, of No. 11 Georgia. Mississippi State might get in even with a quarterfinal loss against Vanderbilt, though that would be cutting things pretty close on the bubble.
Spoiler alert: No. 7 Ole Miss. The Rebels struggled in February, losing five of six games before ending on a three-game winning streak. They plowed through fellow fringe bubble teams like LSU and Arkansas before picking up a quality win against Alabama. Ole Miss would avoid playing Kentucky until the championship game, and if the Rebels can get that far, you never what might happen.
Predicted champ: Kentucky. Unless the Wildcats become disinterested in an SEC title, this is their tournament to lose. No one in the SEC can match the Wildcats’ talent. Florida, probably closest to Kentucky’s talent level, already got smacked around twice by John Calipari’s crew, which is anchored by elite freshmen like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
WAC (March 8)
Top seed: Nevada. The Wolf Pack rolled through the regular season, losing just two games since November en route to a 25-5 record. The WAC Tournament will be in Las Vegas eight hours across the state from Nevada’s home in Reno.
Tournament stakes: Despite that 25-5 record, the Wolf Pack probably won’t get to dance without an automatic bid. They just don’t enough quality wins to justify an invitation. Two wins against New Mexico State and an overtime home victory against Washington are all the Wolf Pack can really brag about.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Utah State. The Aggies played Nevada tough twice, including a one-point loss in Reno. And as usual, the Aggies have an efficient offense Utah State has won or reached the WAC title game each of the past three seasons, and the Aggies will look to keep that streak alive.
Predicted champ: No. 2 New Mexico State. I’m going with the other Aggies to pull off the WAC title run. New Mexico State plays slightly better defense than Nevada, and the Aggies rebound the ball at will on offense. They’re a smart team and will be looking to avenge two regular-season losses if they meet Nevada in the championship.
ACC (March 7)
Top seed: No. 1 North Carolina. The Tar Heels secured a regular-season championship and top seed in the final game of the season when North Carolina smacked down Duke in Durham. The Tar Heels will look to ride into Atlanta with lots of momentum.
Tournament stakes: Like other power conferences, the ACC has teams looking to improve seeding and others just trying to claw into the Big Dance. North Carolina and Duke have plenty at stake. If the Tar Heels or Blue Devils win the championship in Atlanta, they’ll likely earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The other team will get a No. 2 seed.
The ACC has only two bubble teams: No. 5 NC State and No. 6 Miami. The Hurricanes are right on the edge of the tournament and cannot lose to Georgia Tech, which could get some hometown mojo flowing to cause trouble. The Hurricanes likely need to beat No. 3 Florida State in the quarterfinals to feel safe about their odds of receiving an at-large bid.
The Wolfpack are in a tighter spot. Nothing short of a run to the championship game with wins against No. 4 Virginia and North Carolina will be enough to get NC State into the Big Dance.
Spoiler alert: No. 7 Clemson. I’m reaching pretty deep with this pick. But the Tigers have quietly won five of seven games, with the only two losses coming at North Carolina and Florida State. Clemson has lots of talent and avoids turnovers, which is critical when trying to win four games in four days.
Predicted champ: North Carolina. The Tar Heels know what they need to do to earn a No. 1 seed and would love to inflict more pain on Duke after that gut-wrenching loss in Chapel Hill in early February. This has improved after each loss this season, and it’s peeking as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
Mountain West (March 7)
Top seed: San Diego State. The Aztecs split the regular-season title with New Mexico and get the tiebreaker for the top seed in the tournament. That’s a big deal because they wouldn’t have to play UNLV on the Rebels’ home court until the championship game.
Tournament stakes: There’s plenty of seeding at stake in the Mountain West, with New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State jockeying for spots between No. 4 and No. 7 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels could move up to the highest seed thanks to an early season elite win against North Carolina.
Colorado State and Wyoming are the only teams on the bubble, though on completely different sides of the bubble stress continuum. The Rams should be in the NCAA Tournament unless they get blown out by TCU. On the other hand, Wyoming probably won’t be dancing unless the Cowboys beat UNLV and New Mexico and lose to San Diego State in the championship. Otherwise, they need the auto bid to get there.
Spoiler alert: No. 6 Wyoming. The Cowboys just played UNLV last weekend and kept the game close, losing by only 11 when most opponents get blown out in Vegas — lose their shirt, so to speak. Plus the Cowboys know they must win to keep their thin hopes for the Big Dance alive.
Predicted champ: No. 3 UNLV. The Rebels haven’t lost at home all season. In fact, only Nevada and San Diego State came within 10 points in Vegas. Look for UNLV to keep the home momentum rolling all the way to a Mountain West championship.
Southland (March 7)
Top seed: UT-Arlington. The Mavericks won the regular-season championship with an impressive 15-1 record in the Southland, falling short of perfect record in the last game at UT-San Antonio. Mavericks fans hope that not a harbinger of disappointment in the tournament in Katy, Texas.
Tournament stakes: Despite UT-Arlington’s strong season, the Mavericks aren’t getting into the NCAA Tournament without an automatic bid. The Mavericks might not be able to avoid a No. 16 seed unless they get some help from other conferences.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 Lamar. The Cardinals can score, averaging nearly 75 points per game, and kept pace with UT-Arlington for much of the game in a 91-82 loss earlier this season. Lamar might have the firepower to get into the championship game and give the Mavericks trouble if they don’t stumble before then.
Predicted champ: No. 1 UT-Arlington. The Mavericks just look like a significantly better team than most of their Southland rivals, despite the loss in the season finale. If anything, that should be a wake-up call for this team. They must come ready to play every possession of every game or else they’ll miss an opportunity to earn a trip to the Big Dance.
SWAC (March 7)
Top seed: Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils came this close to finishing with a perfect record in SWAC play but lost in the season finale at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Tournament stakes: The SWAC champion will likely be heading to Dayton for a game in the First Four next Tuesday or Wednesday.
Spoiler alert: No. 5 Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Golden Lions looked like an awful team as recently as Jan. 28, when they fell to 2-19 on the season. But then Arkansas-Pine Bluff turned it around, winning eight of the team’s final 10 games, including the last game of the regular season against Mississippi Valley State. No team will enter the tournament with more momentum that the Golden Lions.
Predicted champ: No. 2 Texas Southern. The Tigers have a bone to pick with Mississippi Valley State after losing in overtime at home and by three on the road. If these two meet in the championship, which is certainly no guarantee, Texas Southern will look to avoid a season sweep while reaching their first NCAA Tournament since 2003.
Big 12 (March 6)
Top seed: Kansas. For the eighth consecutive season, the Jayhawks captured the Big 12 regular-season title. They will be looking for their third straight tournament title in Kansas City, Mo.
Tournament stakes: Kansas has a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A run to the championship game should be enough, though a loss in the semifinals or quarterfinals could drop the Jayhawks to a No. 2 seed.
There’s not a whole lot of drama outside teams jockeying for seeding. Baylor and Missouri will be joining Kansas with top-tier seeds, and Iowa State and Kansas State are safely in the tournament. No. 6 Texas is the only team with bubble trouble, and the Longhorns need to beat No. 3 Iowa State and probably No. 2 Missouri to get an at-large bid.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 Iowa State. The Cyclones beat Baylor in the regular-season finale to move ahead of the Bears in the standings, and this team is playing like a legitimate Final Four contender now. They have wins against Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State (twice). There’s nothing stopping Iowa State from showing off the talents of Royce White, Chris Allen and Chris Babb in a somewhat surprising run to the Big 12 title.
Predicted champ: Kansas. It’s tough to pick against the Jayhawks, who have been getting great play from Tyshawn Taylor lately, in addition to the usual domination from national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson. Outside the come-from-behind overtime thriller against Missouri, Kansas has been dominating opponents since early February.
Conference USA (March 6)
Top seed: Memphis. Once again, the Conference USA title is the Tigers’ to lose. Memphis won the conference with a 13-3 record, winning eight of the team’s past nine games. More importantly, the Tigers get to play in front of the home crowd at FedEx Forum.
Tournament stakes: Memphis is likely in the NCAA Tournament even if some other team finds a way to beat them. But the Tigers are the only ones who can say that.
Southern Miss is hanging on to at-large hopes by a thread. For a team whose best wins are against Colorado State, New Mexico State, South Florida and Memphis, the Golden Eagles might have the most inflated RPI in years at No. 17 as of March 5. Southern Miss won every home game and stole a couple of decent road/neutral court wins, but they don’t have anything special to brag about on the résumé. If Southern Miss wants an at-large bid, the Golden Eagles must reach the championship game and lose to Memphis. Any other loss would leave them dangerously close to being part of the first four out.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 UCF. The Golden Knights had been in the conversation for an at-large bid before losing three times in the past few weeks. However, they did beat Memphis at home, so they have the confidence of knowing that they can knock off the top seed. Plus UCF does have a Jordan on the roster, and Marcus could channel his father’s ridiculous clutchness for a few games.
Predicted champ: Memphis. The Tigers are just on another level right now. They’re playing like the best team in the conference, and they get to play at home. Plus Memphis gets Adonis Thomas back from an ankle injury. Granted, he’s been out two months and might not be fully effective, but he’s another weapon for the Tigers to unleash on opponents.
Pac-12 (March 6)
Top seed: Washington. The Huskies backed into the Pac-12′s regular-season title thanks to California losing its final two games on the road at Colorado and Stanford. The Cardinal must love sticking it to their rivals, and the Huskies won’t complain. Washington gets the top seed in Los Angeles, though the Huskies lost their last game in town in the season finale against UCLA.
Tournament stakes: Who knows whether this conference will end up with one, two or three bids in the NCAA Tournament. California seems like a decent bet to receive a bid, though they don’t have any elite wins and won’t pick up any in this tournament. A loss in the quarterfinals or semifinals could be enough to send the Golden Bears to the NIT. The Huskies also lack any high-quality wins. Arizona and Oregon are also in the conversation for at-large bids, though it’s a safe bet that any team that fails to reach the Pac-12 finals won’t get in the NCAA Tournament.
Spoiler alert: No. 6 Colorado. Tad Boyle’s team has been a pleasant surprise in the Pac-12 and looked like a potential conference champ before losing three of the team’s final four games. The Buffaloes have wins against each of the conference’s top teams and could be a threat to win four games in four days in Los Angeles.
Predicted champ: No. 3 Oregon. The Ducks have been improving throughout the season, especially with Devoe Joseph becoming eligible and working his way into the rotation. Oregon’s got a veteran lineup that needs to win the conference’s automatic bid and first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2008.
Big East (March 6)
Top seed: Syracuse. The Orange dominated everyone outside Notre Dame this season, entering the postseason with a 30-1 record. Syracuse will have a strong cheering section as usual in Madison Square Garden.
Tournament stakes: As usual, the results of the Big East Tournament will significantly alter some teams’ NCAA Tournament seeding. For four teams, though, the BET is their last chance to make a case for their inclusion in the tournament at all.
Connecticut is on the right side of the bubble — barely. The return of coach Jim Calhoun from a medical leave could be the jolt that this team needs to find some consistency after losing nine of its last 13 games. However, this team lacks a real leader to rally around. The No. 9 Huskies should get past No. 16 DePaul and maybe No. 8 West Virginia, but it’d be a shock to see them advance past No. 1 Syracuse. As long as UConn avoids the massive upset to DePaul, the Huskies should be dancing next weekend.
No. 6 South Florida is at the other end of the spectrum. The Bulls have had a strong finish, winning nine of their final 13 games. However, that includes mostly wins against the bottom quarter of the conference. The best wins are against Cincinnati and at Louisville. South Florida is on the outside of the Big Dance looking in, and that means South Florida must beat either No. 11 Rutgers or No. 14 Villanova in the second round, then beat No. 3 Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. The Bulls probably need to reach the BET championship to really feel safe about receiving an at-large bid.
No. 8 West Virginia and No. 10 Seton Hall are right in between the Huskies and Bulls. They are potential picks to play in the First Four. They’re barely in the field right now and therefore need to avoid any embarrassing losses. For the Mountaineers, that would mean an ugly loss to UConn in the second round. The Pirates can’t lose to No. 15 Providence if they want a bid, and they likely need a good showing against No. 7 Louisville.
Spoiler alert: No. 5 Georgetown. The Hoyas have one of the best defenses in the Big East and are built to grind out wins, which is a critical trait to have when faced with the challenge of winning four games in four days. Georgetown will be heavily favored in its second-round game against either No. 12 St. John’s or No. 13 Pittsburgh. They also would be expected to beat No. 4 Cincinnati, which could set up a match up with archrival Syracuse. Anything could happen there, and then the Hoyas would be playing for the championship.
Predicted champ: No. 2 Marquette. The Golden Eagles have a nasty habit of starting slowly, but the Golden Eagles have more talent than any team outside Syracuse, and something tells me the Orange will fall flat in New York City. That opens the door for Jae Crowder and company, which can potentially move up to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a Big East title in hand.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (March 6)
Top seed: Savannah State. In just their first season as a fully eligible member of Division I, the Tigers won the MEAC regular-season championship. Now they’ll try to earn the MEAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a run through Winston-Salem.
Tournament stakes: Regardless who wins the MEAC championship, the winner will be playing in the First Four in Dayton unless there are major upsets in other conferences.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 Delaware State. The Hornets haven’t lost a game by more than a point in regulation since Jan. 4. Delaware State is improving with a lineup that relies on only one senior. In addition, the Hornets get a bye into the quarterfinals and likely wouldn’t face a team that has beaten them until the championship game.
Predicted champ: No. 3 Delaware State. Norfolk State might be a safer pick with a veteran lineup that has beaten Drexel this season and took Marquette down to the final possession. But the Hornets seem to peeking now and have played so many tight games that gives this team lots of confidence entering March.
Atlantic 10 (March 5)
Top seed: Temple. Since starting conference play 1-2, the Owls have rattled off 13 wins in their past 14 games. Those two losses occurred within 10 days of Temple’s huge victory against Duke, which might have left the team a little unfocused heading into Atlantic 10 action.
Tournament stakes: The Atlantic 10 Tournament will have plenty of intrigue with at least four bubble teams looking to pick up critical wins — and everyone else trying to make an unlikely run to an automatic bid. Saint Louis probably should be in the tournament at 24-6, but the Billikens don’t have much to crow about. The team’s best wins are against Washington, Villanova and other Atlantic 10 bubble teams.
Meanwhile, Xavier, Saint Joseph’s and Dayton still have work left to do. Two out of three will likely join Temple and Saint Louis in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s unclear which two that will be. Dayton has the most good wins, against Alabama, Minnesota, Ole Miss, Temple on the road, Xavier and Saint Louis. But the Flyers also have curious losses to Rhode Island and Duquesne. Dayton must avoid a first-round loss to George Washington and at least play a competitive quarterfinal game against Xavier.
For the Musketeers, the season started with a lofty ranking and plenty of expectations. The team knocked off Vanderbilt and Purdue. Then came the Cincinnati brawl. The Musketeers went into a tailspin, losing five of six, including a horrible loss to Hawaii. Xavier has played inconsistent ever since, failing to win more than two straight since mid-January. Xavier found a way to the Atlantic 10′s No. 3 seed, but the Musketeers would be in serious jeopardy if they lose to Dayton in the quarterfinals.
Saint Joseph’s has the longest way to go to get into the NCAA Tournament. The best wins are against Drexel, Creighton, Dayton and Temple. But all those happened at home. The Hawks have a difficult draw in that they get No. 12 Charlotte and then No. 4 St. Bonaventure. Wins against those two teams won’t do much to bolster the résumé. That means Saint Joseph’s must get to the championship game with a win over No. 1 Temple to have any real at-large hopes. At that point, the Hawks might as well plan to just win it all in Atlantic City or go home (to the NIT).
Spoiler alert: No. 8 Massachusetts. I had UMass on my bubble radar for a while until the Minutemen lost four out of five. UMass plays breakneck basketball, with the No. 3 fastest pace in the country. If UMass gets past No. 9 Duquesne in the first round, that speed might make Temple uncomfortable, giving UMass a shot at the upset. However, it’ll be hard to maintain that energy for three games in three days.
Predicted champ: No. 6 Dayton. Really, the Atlantic 10 Tournament promises to epitomize March Madness. Anything could happen, and I suspect there will be lots of upsets and tight games. The Flyers have already played four overtime games and won big games against big-name opponents this season. Look for Dayton to make a run to secure an automatic bid and not rely on the at-large invitation.
Mid-American (March 5)
Top seed: Akron. The Zips started the conference season hot, sprinting out to an 11-1 record before stumbling down the stretch. Starting with a BracketBusters loss at Oral Roberts, Akron lost three of its final five but held on to earn the top seed in the MAC Tournament in nearby Cleveland.
Tournament stakes: The MAC is a one-bid league this season, though the winner likely will go into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed or better. Akron, Buffalo and Ohio each have at least 19 wins, and the Bobcats are tops at 24-7.
Spoiler alert: No team outside the top three stands a serious chance of winning the tournament, especially with Akron and Buffalo getting byes into the semifinals. I’m going with a deep sleeper in No. 5 Eastern Michigan. The Eagles play the opposite of most of the MAC’s top teams, with a ploddingly slow attack that relies on turnovers. If Eastern Michigan can successfully reduce the possessions in the game, the Eagles might have a chance.
Predicted champ: Ohio. The Bobcats will have to play one extra game to take the title over Akron, but Ohio is playing excellent ball, especially on defense where they force a ton of turnovers.
Big Sky (March 3)
Top seed: Montana. The Big Sky regular-season championship came down to the final game, in which the Grizzlies avenged their only loss in Big Sky play by beating Weber State in Missoula.
Tournament stakes: Although Weber State and Montana have 23 wins apiece, neither team will reach the NCAA Tournament without the Big Sky’s automatic bid. If either team claims the Big Sky championship, it will probably enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed. If any other team finds a way to win, it would likely receive a No. 16 seed.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 Portland State. The Vikings are the only other team in the tournament with a winning record, and Portland State won six of its final seven. Although they fell short in games against Denver, Wyoming, Oregon, Montana and Weber State, the Vikings kept games close against a few heavy favorites. This lineup featuring mostly juniors and seniors could find a way to make a run.
Predicted champ: Montana. The Grizzlies have lost just twice at home this season, and that was to San Francisco and Nevada by a combined nine points. Since mid-December, the Grizzlies have been shredding opponents, winning by double digits in 14 of 18 victories. A championship game against Weber State would likely be a thriller, but the Grizzlies should be heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.
Summit League (March 3)
Top seed: Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles don’t get any favors as the top seed as the Summit League Tournament will be in Sioux Falls, S.D., less than an hour away from No. 2 South Dakota State.
Tournament stakes: With bubble teams losing left and right, Oral Roberts is a lot closer to earning an at-large bid than many might think. The Golden Eagles have wins against Missouri State, Akron and Xavier, and the worst loss is to Texas San Antonio. The Golden Eagles have a top 50 RPI and could conceivably remain that high if they lose in the championship game to South Dakota State, another very strong team. That would put Oral Roberts at 28-6. I want this team in my tournament, but I don’t get to make that call.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies have back-to-back Summit League titles, and once again, the’ve got a solid team that loves to make opponents uncomfortable by sprinting up and down the court. They jack up a ton of 3-pointers, and when the shots are falling, Oakland can easily beat anyone in the Summit League. The Grizzlies already have have a win against South Dakota State, and Oral Roberts doesn’t exactly play stingy defense.
Predicted champ: South Dakota State. The Summit League might be one of the wildest conference tournaments out there, even if it stays mostly under the national radar. Oakland, South Dakota State and Oral Roberts would all be great representatives of the Summit League and could win a game in the NCAA Tournament even if seeded as a No. 14 or 15 seed. The nearly home court advantage for South Dakota State should be enough to give the Jackrabbits the narrowest advantage. South Dakota State won every game it played at home or on a neutral court this season.
Sun Belt (March 3)
Top seed: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders dominated Sun Belt play except for a loss at Denver and a season-finale trip to Western Kentucky. Middle Tennessee enters the tournament, played in Hot Springs, Ark., as the favorite.
Tournament stakes: Like Oral Roberts, Middle Tennessee would be a tough case if the Blue Raiders stumble in the championship game to a quality opponent like Denver. Middle Tennessee would have 27 wins at that point, including victories against UCLA, Akron, Belmont and Ole Miss. If Middle Tennessee wins the Sun Belt championship, the Blue Raiders could earn a No. 11 or 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they lose, they’ll be sweating out Selection Sunday.
Spoiler alert: Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans lost by only eight points at Middle Tennessee, and the Sun Belt tourney will be about an hour away from the team’s campus in Little Rock. That would give Arkansas-LIttle Rock, winners of seven of its final nine games, a chance to avenge a loss a few weeks ago. The Trojans’ offense is pretty weak, but the team plays respectable defense, even if they are rather foul-prone.
Predicted champ: Middle Tennessee. There’s no way the Blue Raiders are going to leave an NCAA Tournament bid to chance. Look for Middle Tennessee to come out and play each game like it’s an elimination challenge, which it very well might be. Middle Tennessee is clearly one of the best teams in the country — at least among the top 68. But the Blue Raiders don’t want to rely on the selection committee to hand them an at-large bid. And that means the rest of the conference is in trouble.
CAA (March 2)
Top seed: Drexel. The Dragons get a first-round bye for the tournament in Richmond, Va., which will be hostile territory. The other three top seeds — VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion — all hail from campuses that reside within an hour or two of Richmond.
Tournament stakes: The CAA Tournament will be one of the most intriguing tournament this season. Drexel and VCU are the only teams that are realistic at-large candidates, and neither is a lock despite strong records. Drexel has won 23 of its past 24 games behind excellent defense, strong rebounding and a decent offense. VCU has won 22 of its past 25 games, including good wins against South Florida, Akron and Northern Iowa. The Rams finished behind Drexel but probably have a better at-large résumé if necessary.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Old Dominion. The Monarchs are 0-5 against the premier teams in the CAA, but Old Dominion has been close in nearly every game. Old Dominion also plays great defense, a hallmark of the CAA this season, with a pressure defense that forces turnovers while falling back to defend shots well. The Monarchs have a veteran starting lineup filled with players itching to upset their rivals and steal a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Predicted champ: No. 2 VCU. If the Rams get through the quarterfinals, they’ll likely face George Mason, and VCU just looks like the better team at this point in the season, which a 12-point home win in the season finale supports. VCU never got a chance to host Drexel, and the Rams would love an opportunity to prove that they are the real champions of the CAA even if Drexel can claim the regular-season title.
Metro Atlantic (March 2)
Top seed: Iona. The Gaels are the team to beat after cruising to a 15-3 record in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with the best player in the conference, Scott Machado, leading the way.
Tournament stakes: Iona has a chance to get an at-large bid if the Gaels reach the championship game and lose to either Loyola, Md., or Fairfield. Iona has quality wins against Saint Joseph’s, Denver and Nevada, with only one or two bad losses. The Gaels would be 26-7, and I don’t believe there would be 37 better teams than Iona to put in the field.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Fairfield. The Stags are a legitimate threat to derail Iona, though Fairfield limped toward the end of the regular season by losing three of four. Rakim Sanders, a Boston College transfer, will be looking to get this team to meet some lofty preseason expectations when it all counts in the conference tourney.
Predicted champ: Iona. The Gaels have the most talent, and barring injuries or a really bad shooting game, Iona should be able to run past most Metro Atlantic opponents. With an impressive conference tourney run, I could easily see Iona moving up to a No. 9 or 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
SoCon (March 2)
Top seed: Davidson. The Wildcats will have a strong cheering section in Asheville, which is two hours from Davidson’s campus near Charlotte. The Wildcats will be looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
Tournament stakes: Although Davidson is 22-7 and has a win at Kansas, the Wildcats likely must win the automatic bid to reach the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats do win the SoCon title, they’ll likely enter the tournament as a No. 14 seed. All other SoCon teams would be a No. 16 seed — maybe a No. 15 seed depending on the results of other tournaments.
Spoiler alert: Charleston. Since coach Bobby Cremins stepped to the side for an indefinite leave because of general exhaustion, the Cougars have rallied around interim coach Mark Byington with seven wins in nine games. That includes a victory against Davidson and Kent State in the BracketBusters challenge.
Predicted champ: Davidson. The win against Kansas wasn’t a total fluke. The Wildcats have the look and feel of a team that would rank in the upper third of a major conference, except they’re doing it in the SoCon. The crazy part is Davidson doesn’t have a single senior who contributes major minutes this season. As good as this team is now, the Wildcats could be Murray State-good next season.
America East (March 1)
Top seed: Stony Brook. The Seawolves would get to host the championship game, which will be played at the highest remaining seed. All other games will be in Hartford, Conn.
Tournament stakes: The America East will likely send its champion to the First Four, though Stony Brook or Vermont might be able to evade Dayton if there are upsets in other conferences. The winner will certainly be destined for a date with No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Albany. The Great Danes have one of the better offenses in the America East Conference, and they could cause trouble if their shooters get hot for a week. Albany is a pretty deep pick for a sleeper considering that the Danes lost by 13 points on the road and seven at home to Stony Brook, but good offense and a slow pace can keep things tight in a single-elimination tournament.
Predicted champ: Stony Brook. The Seawolves came two points short of an America East title last season, losing at Boston University. This season, the experienced Seawolves should be able to hold off some tough competition from either Vermont or BU en route to an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri Valley (March 1)
Top seed: Wichita State. The Shockers get the top seed for Arch Madness in St. Louis. The brackets set up so that Wichita State won’t face Creighton or Drake — the only two Missouri Valley teams to beat the Shockers — until the championship game, if at all.
Tournament stakes: Wichita State is playing to get a protected seed — No. 1 through No. 4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament — and land a location that’s fairly close to home. Creighton is looking to remain in the No. 5-7 range. Everyone else in the Missouri Valley is looking to sneak into the Big Dance as a third Missouri Valley representative.
Spoiler alert: No. 8 Indiana State. The Sycamores have flaws, particularly on offense. But Indiana State is battle-tested, with a great road win at Vanderbilt and close losses against Creighton, Butler and Wichita State in recent weeks. If the Sycamores get over the hump, they could make an unlikely run that wrecks Wichita State’s MVC championship aspirations.
Predicted champ: Wichita State. The Shockers haven’t lost since late January, and their past six victories have been by double digits. That includes impressive wins against Creighton, Davidson and Missouri State. Wichita State is a legitimate Final Four contender, and that should be on full display in St. Louis.
Northeast (March 1)
Top seed: Long Island. The Blackbirds get to play at home as long as they’re in the tournament. They also get to play the worst remaining seed in each round. That’s as nice an advantage for a No. 1 seed as you’ll find.
Tournament stakes: The Northeast Conference is a one-bid league looking to keep its champion out of the First Four match ups. If Long Island wins, the Blackbirds have a shot at earning a No. 15 seed, while Wagner also could sneak onto the No. 15 line. Anyone else would likely be traveling to Dayton for a Tuesday or Wednesday match up.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 Robert Morris. The Colonials won six straight before losing their regular-season finale at Quinnipiac. In fact, Quinnipiac accounted for two of Robert Morris’ five conference losses, and the two aren’t likely to meet before the championship game. The Colonials do have a victory against Long Island in their only regular-season meeting.
Predicted champ: No. 2 Wagner. Long Island might be the regular-season champ, but Wagner looks like the conference’s best team, despite two losses already this season to the Blackbirds. Wagner has wins against Princeton, Pittsburgh and Penn and possesses a great defense that forces turnovers on more than one in four possessions. Long Island is pretty poor with its ball handling, so the third time could be the charm for Wagner.
Atlantic Sun (Feb. 29)
Top seed: Belmont. The Bruins enter the OVC Tournament riding an 11-game winning streak, including a one-point victory in the season finale at Mercer. That win sets the tone for the tournament, which Mercer is hosting in Macon, Ga.
Tournament stakes: Belmont has had a fantastic season, but the Bruins won’t be dancing in the NCAA Tournament without an automatic bid. The Bruins could move up to a No. 13 or 14 seed, depending on the results from other tournaments. Mercer could escape a No. 16 seed if the Bears handle business on their home court.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 USC-Upstate. This season is the first in which the Spartans are eligible to compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. And USC-Upstate will be looking to make some noise in its first shot. The Spartans beat tournament favorite Belmont by a point earlier this season, so they know they have what it takes to pull off an unlikely run to an OVC title.
Predicted champ: Belmont. The Bruins are eager to get back to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season, and they’re peaking at the right time of year. In six of their past eight games, Belmont’s offense has averaged at least 1.2 points per possession, a very formidable rate that no one else in the Ohio Valley can keep up with.
Ohio Valley (Feb. 29)
Top seed: Murray State. The Racers get a bye into the semifinals. The tournament will be in Nashville, which offers a hometown advantage for the only team that beat Murray State this season: Tennessee State.
Tournament stakes: The Racers are the prohibitive favorites to win this tournament, and they could boost their seeding in the NCAA Tournament by avoiding an upset. Murray State could get up to a No. 6 seed in the tournament with an OVC title. Meanwhile, the conference would become a two-bidder if someone can upset the Racers.
Spoiler alert: No. 2 Tennessee State. It’s hard to call a team seeded No. 2 and playing so close to home a spoiler. But Murray State is that big a favorite. The Tigers already beat Murray State once this season, and they won nine straight before dropping the season finale against the Racers.
Predicted champ: Murray State. The Racers are playing for the pride of an Ohio Valley championship and the joy of receiving a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Patriot League (Feb. 29)
Top seed: Bucknell. The higher seeds host games throughout the tournament, and the Bison have lost just twice at Sojka Pavilion this season.
Tournament stakes: The Patriot League is undoubtedly a one-bid conference, and the champ likely will be a No. 16 seed. Bucknell has a chance to slide up to a No. 15 seed if the Bison win it. Any other champion would likely be playing in a First Four match up in Dayton.
Spoiler alert: No. 3 American. The Eagles play a grind-it-out slow-paced style, which helped American trip up Saint Joseph’s in early December. American slammed Army twice and will go for a third win in the quarterfinals. The Eagles would likely play Lehigh, which they beat in their last meeting. From there, the Eagles would be ready for Bucknell, which they lost to by five and six points in their two regular-season meetings.
Predicted champ: No. 2 Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks enter the Patriot League Tournament as one of the hottest teams, winning nine of their past 10, including a road victory against Bucknell. Lehigh has really stepped up its defense in February, and despite Bucknell’s pedigree as defending champs, Lehigh seems to have the hot hand.
West Coast (Feb. 29)
Top seed: St. Mary’s. The West Coast Conference Tournament will head to Vegas for what should be one of the most competitive tournaments out there.
Tournament stakes: The West Coast Conference is the first conference to feature a potential bubble team that needs to avoid an ugly loss. BYU is probably fairly safe, but if the Cougars lost in the quarterfinals to San Diego or Pepperdine, the Cougars might be sweating a little bit on Selection Sunday. St. Mary’s and Gonzaga are locks for the tournament and are playing for better seeding. Both teams will look to move up to at least a No. 7 seed, avoiding a potential match up against a top seed in the second round as a No. 8 or 9 seed.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Loyola Marymount. The Lions shook off an inconsistent start to the season by winning seven of their final nine games, including a road win at St. Mary’s. Loyola Marymount also looked good in a BracketBusters victory against the Horizon League’s regular-season champ, Valparaiso.
Predicted champ: No. 2 Gonzaga. You rest assured that the Bulldogs aren’t happy that St. Mary’s knocked them off the top of the standings for the first time in 11 years. Gonzaga will look to exact revenge in the conference tournament, in which the Bulldogs get a bye into the semifinals.
Big South (Feb. 28)
Top seed: UNC-Asheville. The Bulldogs get to host the tournament as long as they keep winning. The team’s only two losses at home this season came against North Carolina and Charleston Southern.
Tournament stakes: The Big South will be a one-bid conference, so the conference tournament is for all the marbles. UNC-Asheville has had a great season with an 18-9 record against Division I opponents and 16-2 conference record. The Bulldogs must keep the momentum rolling to reach their second consecutive NCAA Tournament.
Spoiler alert: No. 4 Charleston Southern. The Bucs can keep up with the fast-paced Bulldogs and already claim one of UNC-Asheville’s two home losses. These teams would meet in the semifinals.
Predicted champ: UNC-Asheville. The Bulldogs know how to win. Their lineup features four seniors and four juniors, all of whom are intent on defending their Big South title and returning to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight trip. The Bucs got a season-best performance from Arlon Harper, who went for 28 points in their five-point upset earlier this season. The odds of Harper, who has been struggling with his shot in the last few games, coming up huge again are slim.
Horizon League (Feb. 28)
Top seed: Valparaiso. The Crusaders won 11 of their final 13 Horizon League games and have a 5-1 record against the top four teams in the conference.
Tournament stakes: Although Valparaiso has three good wins against Akron and Cleveland State — twice against the Vikings — the Crusaders almost certainly wouldn’t get an at-large bid if they slip in the semifinals or championship game. The same is true of Cleveland State, which would have received at-large consideration before an injury-induced five-game slide.
Spoiler alert: No. 5 Butler. Outside the season finale at Valparaiso, the Bulldogs have been on fire recently, especially on defense. Only two opponents in eight games this month have scored more than 60 points and only one team scored more than one point per possession. And does anyone ever want to see Butler in a win-or-go-home tournament at this time of year?
Predicted champ: No. 2 Cleveland State. The Vikings get to avoid Butler, if the Bulldogs find a way into the semifinals. If the two meet in the championship, it’d be Butler’s fourth game in a week as opposed to Cleveland State’s second, and it’d be in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Cleveland State’s press was effective against Valparaiso in two losses to the Crusaders. The offense just failed the Vikings. If D’Aundray Brown is healthy after recuperating from a groin injury, Cleveland State should look more like the team that started 20-4 rather than the one that finished 2-5. That’s gambling a lot on a gimpy groin, but this senior will do everything he can to get out there and lift the Vikings to their first NCAA Tournament since 2009.