Conference tourney previews (Part 1 of 2)

HoopsHD is getting prepared for the greatest month of the year with a 2-part preview of every single conference tourney in the nation. Jon Teitel kicks it off today with his predictions for the 14 conference tourneys getting underway this week, and you can check back next week for his picks concerning the 18 other conference tourneys.

America East tourney predicted champ: Vermont (#1 seed)
Dates: March 3-10
Location: Campus sites
Last year’s tourney champ: Vermont (#1 seed)
Fun fact: only 3 teams to play in title game during past 6 years are Albany/Stony Brook/Vermont
Seeding: each of past 3 champs were #1 seed
Stony Brook finished the regular season with a losing record so that leaves us with a choice between Albany/Vermont. The Catamounts swept the Great Danes during the regular season, have the #1 seed wrapped up again, and almost went undefeated in conference play, which makes them the pick. They are 1 of the hottest teams in the nation, having lost only 2 games since early-December by a combined 3 PTS. If that were not enough, there are rumors that leading scorer Anthony Lamb (who has been out since December with a fractured left foot) might return for the postseason. Since the higher-seeded school gets to host each tourney game they play in, Vermont cannot wait to welcome teams to Patrick Gymnasium, where they have lost exactly 2 home games during the past 2 years by a combined 3 PTS. Coach John Becker has made a postseason tourney during each of his 6 years as the head man in Burlington and he is well-positioned to make it 7-for-7.

Atlantic Sun tourney predicted champ: Florida Gulf Coast (#1 seed)
Dates: February 26-March 4
Location: Campus sites
Last year’s tourney champ: Florida Gulf Coast (#1 seed)
Fun fact: Florida Gulf Coast has appeared in the title game 5 times in the 6 years since it 1st became eligible to play in this tourney
Seeding: 6 of past 7 champs were top-2 seed
You can pretty much bank on FGCU making the title game. Lipscomb is the favorite to be their opponent as the #2 seed and the only other team in the conference with more than 14 overall wins. The Eagles lost 4 in a row in late-December, then reeled off 13 wins in a row before dropping 2 of their final 3 games (by a combined 7 PTS at home) to finish the regular season 21-10. 1 of those losses was to the Bisons (who scored 90 PTS) so this is far from a slam dunk, but I suspect that the late-season losses will cause Dunk City to refocus at just the right time. Coach Joe Dooley has a starting lineup consisting entirely of juniors/seniors and a pair of forwards who stand 6’9”/6’10”. They have won 2 straight conference tourneys and there is little reason to think they cannot make it 3 in a row.

Big South tourney predicted champ: Liberty (#5 seed)
Dates: February 27-March 4
Location: Campus sites
Last year’s tourney champ: Winthrop (#1 seed)
Fun fact: only 5 champs in past 20 years are Coastal Carolina/Liberty/Radford/UNC Asheville/Winthrop
Seeding: 3 of past 5 champs were not top-2 seed
Since Coastal Carolina is no longer in this league and UNC Asheville is the #1 seed we will have to pick a winner from the trio of Liberty/Radford/Winthrop. The Eagles were looking solid until dropping their final 2 regular season games. As far as the other 2, the Highlanders swept the season series with the Flames so you would think they are the smart choice, but Liberty might not have to face them since they are on opposite sides of the bracket. Coach Ritchie McKay has a very young team with 3 sophomores in the starting lineup so they might be 1 year away from seriously contending, but they swept the Eagles this year and split with the Bulldogs so why not them?

Big 10 tourney predicted champ: Ohio State (#2 seed)
Dates: February 28-March 4
Location: New York, NY
Last year’s tourney champ: Michigan (#8 seed)
Fun fact: only 5 teams to play in title game during past 6 years are Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State/Purdue/Wisconsin
Seeding: 4 of past 5 champs were not #1 seed
It is hard to pick against the Spartans after they finished the regular season on a 12-game winning streak but history has not been kind to the #1 seed in this tourney. Ohio State still cannot figure out how to beat Penn State (the only team who swept the Buckeyes this season), but as long as they can avoid the Nittany Lions they will have a ton of confidence knowing that they already have wins over each of the other top-5 seeds (Michigan/Michigan State/Nebraska/Purdue). You should never bet against Tom Izzo in March but it is Coach Chris Holtmann who can rely on senior leadership in the form of Jae’Sean Tate/Kam Williams. It also helps to have the best all-around player in the conference in Keita Bates-Diop.

CAA tourney predicted champ: Charleston (#1 seed)
Dates: March 3-6
Location: North Charleston, SC
Last year’s tourney champ: UNC Wilmington (#1 seed)
Fun fact: UNC Wilmington is 2-time defending champ after not making the title game for the previous 9 years
Seeding: each of past 17 champs were top-3 seed
The Seahawks may be the 2-time defending champs but at 10-20 overall they will not be winning anything this March. The sentimental pick (as always) is William & Mary because they are 1 of only 4 original D-1 schools (along with Army/Citadel/St. Francis NY) to have never made the NCAA tourney after Northwestern dropped out of the club last spring. The top-3 seeds are Charleston/Hofstra/Northeastern but the Cougars should be heavy favorites for 2 big reasons: they will have plenty of fan support since this tourney is at the North Charleston Coliseum (only 9 miles away from their home gym: the TD Arena), and they swept both the Huskies/Pride during an amazing 24-day stretch earlier this year. JR PG Jarrell Brantley missed the 1st 10 games of the season due to a knee injury but has bounced back to become 1 of the best players in the conference. Coach Earl Grant lost last year’s title game by single digits and his year-long wait to get back there is almost over.

Horizon tourney predicted champ: Wright State (#2 seed)
Dates: March 2-6
Location: Detroit, MI
Last year’s tourney champ: Northern Kentucky (#4 seed)
Fun fact: 6 different champs in past 7 years
Seeding: 5 of past 7 champs were not #1 seed
I do like to pick a lot of #1 seeds but not in this conference where the only “chalk” you will see is the piece that was left smashed in ruins next to the blackboard in the locker room of the regular season champ. Valparaiso switched to the MVC last summer so you should not choose them to win the Horizon this March. The defending champs are back as the #1 seed and there are few mascots better than the Norse…but since they got swept by Wright State I will choose the Raiders to win it all. I never thought that Coach Scott Nagy would leave the Summit League after leading South Dakota State to 5 straight postseason appearances from 2012-2016, but he has been a great fit in Dayton with back-to-back seasons of 20+ wins. The fact that SR PG Justin Mitchell left the team in January for personal reasons is about as red of a flag as you can get, but the Raiders have somehow gone 10-4 without him. They have also given PG Cole Gentry some valuable experience even though he did not become eligible until mid-December after transferring from Coach Nagy’s old team in Brookings.

MAAC tourney predicted champ: Canisius (#2 seed)
Dates: March 1-5
Location: Albany, NY
Last year’s tourney champ: Iona (#3 seed)
Fun fact: Iona/Manhattan are only 2 champs over past 5 years
Seeding: each of past 7 champs were 2-4 seed
This is yet another situation where I do not love the #1 seed. The Gaels/Jaspers have owned this tourney for a while but they are both experiencing down years so the time is ripe for a new champ. Canisius/Rider have been the cream of the crop for the past 2 months and split their season series with the home team winning by 1 PT both times, so here is hoping for the riveting scenario where 2 teams meet 3 times during the season and have each game decided by a single PT! The Broncs only start 1 junior and 1 senior so it looks like they might be 1 year away from being a serious contender, plus they are 1 of the worst FT shooting teams in the entire nation (60.7 FT%). The Golden Griffins have won 17 of their past 20 games and have 6 different players who average more than 1 3PM/game, so good luck to Coach Reggie Witherspoon as he attempts to make his 1st NCAA tourney after 16 years as a D-1 coach.

MVC tourney predicted champ: Loyola Chicago (#1 seed)
Dates: March 1-4
Location: St. Louis, MO
Last year’s tourney champ: Wichita State (#2 seed)
Fun fact: only 2 champs from past 9 years who are still in this conference are Indiana State/Northern Iowa (Creighton/Wichita State both left after winning a pair of titles)
Seeding: each of past 16 champs were top-4 seed
Wichita State is now part of the AAC so the only “Shocker” will be if the Sycamores/Panthers win this tourney yet again because they are both giving newcomer Valpo company in the conference’s bottom tier. Loyola Chicago stumbled into conference play by losing 2 of their 1st 3 games, but their only other loss since early January was by 2 PTS on the road at Bradley. The Ramblers are 6-0 against the other top-4 seeds (Drake/Illinois State/Southern Illinois) so I expect Coach Porter Moser’s team to make a smooth transition from Arch Madness to March Madness. They have experience (2 seniors/2 juniors in the starting 5) and they make threes (7 different players shooting 35+ 3P%), so perhaps their road win at Florida in December was not as much of a fluke as originally thought.

NEC predicted champ: Wagner (#1 seed)
Dates: February 28-March 6
Location: Campus sites
Last year’s tourney champ: Mount St. Mary’s (#1 seed)
Fun fact: only 4 champs in past 10 years are Fairleigh Dickinson/Long Island/Mount St. Mary’s/Robert Morris
Seeding: each of past 18 champs were top-4 seed
Wagner has made exactly 1 NCAA tourney in school history (2003) but Coach Bashir Mason has his team poised to celebrate the 15th anniversary of that feat in style. The Seahawks have been perfectly average outside of Staten Island (8-8), but when you are the top seed you get to stay at home…and they are 14-0 at the Spiro Sports Center…so abandon hope all ye who enter here. They are 6-2 against the other top-5 seeds in the conference (Mount St. Mary’s/Robert Morris/St. Francis NY/St. Francis PA), and with 1 senior/3 juniors in the starting lineup they should have enough leadership to emerge victorious.

OVC predicted champ: Jacksonville State (#4 seed)
Dates: February 28-March 3
Location: Evansville, IN
Last year’s tourney champ: Jacksonville State (#4 seed)
Fun fact: 6 different champs in past 7 years
Seeding: none of past 4 champs were top-2 seed
Belmont (4 titles)/Murray State (5 titles) have owned the regular season for the past 9 years but have been underwhelming in the postseason (only 4 of the past 8 tourney titles) so I would not be surprised if neither wins the tourney again. Defending champ Jacksonville State was 3-1 this year against the top-2 seeds (Bruins/Racers) so even though they had only 1 winning streak all season of at least 3 games they should have sufficient confidence to repeat this feat in March. The defending tourney champs have more size than almost any other mid-major with 7-footer Norbertas Giga manning the middle and a starting lineup full of juniors/seniors. Coach Ray Harper’s track record in postseason play is simply stunning: 6 consecutive appearances in the D-2 title game with Kentucky Wesleyan from 1998-2003, 3 consecutive appearances in the NAIA title game with Oklahoma City from 2006-2008, and he is now only a few wins away from making his 4th NCAA tourney in the past 7 years.

Patriot predicted champ: Bucknell (#1 seed)
Dates: February 27-March 7
Location: Campus sites
Last year’s tourney champ: Bucknell (#1 seed)
Fun fact: 5 different champs in past 6 years
Seeding: 4 of past 6 champs were not #1 seed
Bucknell is building a nice little dynasty in Lewisburg: they have a decent chance to win 25+ games for the 5th time in the past 8 years. The Bison have only lost 2 games since mid-December: a 5-PT home loss to BU to begin the calendar year (their only home loss of the season) and a 3-PT OT road loss at Lehigh in early-February. Coach Nathan Davis is 4-0 against the other top-3 seeds (Colgate/Navy) and has a trio of seniors (Stephen Brown/Nana Foulland/Zach Thomas) who are each among the best players in the entire conference.

Southern predicted champ: UNC Greensboro (#1 seed)
Dates: March 1-5
Location: Asheville, NC
Last year’s tourney champ: East Tennessee State (#3 seed)
Fun fact: only 3 champs over past 16 years who are still in this conference are Chattanooga/East Tennessee State/Wofford
Seeding: each of past 28 champs were top-3 seed
Defending champ East Tennessee State was looking like a no-brainer pick in early-February after putting together a 20-1 streak with the only mark against them being a 2-PT road loss to a little team called Xavier. However, dropping 3 straight home games to finish the regular season was enough to push me off of their bandwagon so I will take over the driver seat for UNC Greensboro instead. The Spartans have not made the NCAA tourney since 2001 but are 3-1 against the other top-3 seeds (East Tennessee State/Furman) and should have a solid cheering section because the drive from Greensboro to Asheville is under 3 hours. Coach Wes Miller certainly knows what it takes to win a title (he won it all in 2005 as a player for Roy Williams at North Carolina) and JR G Francis Alonso had the most clutch performance of anyone in the country this season during a 1-PT 3-OT road win at Liberty in early-December.

Summit predicted champ: South Dakota (#2 seed)
Dates: March 3-6
Location: Sioux Falls, SD
Last year’s tourney champ: South Dakota State (#4 seed)
Fun fact: only 2 champs over past 6 years are North Dakota State/South Dakota State
Seeding: 11 of past 12 champs were top-2 seed
How do you pick against the defending champ/#1 seed who has lost only 1 game in regulation since early-December and features the best player in the conference (Mike Daum)? Not easily…but for some reason this tourney adores #2 seeds, and the regulation loss mentioned above was by 19 PTS to the Coyotes in late-January. Coach Craig Smith’s 2015 debut season in Vermillion made him the school’s 3rd different coach in a 3-year span, but his continuity has righted the ship as evident by a 2nd straight season of 22+ wins. They might be a year away since they do not start a single senior…but when your coach served as an assistant to Tim Miles at a whopping 4 different schools (Mayville State/North Dakota State/Colorado State/Nebraska), anything is possible!

WCC predicted champ: Gonzaga (#1 seed)
Dates: March 1-6
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Last year’s tourney champ: Gonzaga (#1 seed)
Fun fact: Gonzaga has won 15 titles in past 20 years and finished 2nd each of the other 5 times
Seeding: each of past 9 champs were top-2 seed
Coach Mark Few used to be the best coach to never make the Final 4, but after falling 6 PTS short of beating North Carolina in the title game last April he is making a strong case as the best coach to never win a NCAA title…yet. His dominance of this conference since taking over in Spokane is almost incomprehensible: 18 straight NCAA tourney appearances, 17 regular season titles, 14 conference tourney titles (including 5 straight title game victories by double-digits), and 11-time conference COY. There was a glimmer of hope after St. Mary’s beat them in the Kennel in mid-January…which was subsequently extinguished in a revenge road win over the Gaels in early-February. Therefore, unless Jock Landale turns into Wilt Chamberlain, you can start engraving this trophy in advance.

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