March madness is really upon us. Every conference has now concluded their regular season, and some have even played their tournaments. Liberty, with 20 loses, is dancing thus creating the first Cinderella of the year. Belmont, Florida Gulf Coast, Creighton and Harvard have also punched their ticket to the big dance.
While many teams know that they will receive an invite even if they do not win their league title, outside of the power conferences there are no guarantees.
Being Middle Tennessee State, Murray State, or Stony Brook is uneasy having failed to earn an automatic bid. Next week you will see these names in the bracket. Start getting used to the little guys now as they play their conference tournaments.
Big Sky – Montana not only earned the only bye in the conference tournament, but also gets to host the championship. The Grizzlies went 19-1 during the regular season with their lone setback on the road against second seed Weber State. Since losing to Montana in late January, the Wildcats have won 11 straight including avenging their 76-74 loss in Missoula, with an 87-63 thrashing of the Grizzlies on Valentine’s Day. Besides the top two seeds, only North Dakota has a winning league record. The Pick: Montana.
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Big West – Playing in Anaheim, the Big West Tournament features seven teams from California plus Hawaii. Long Beach State is the top seed but they have lost three of their last four. Pacific coach Bob Thomason has led the Stockton school since 1988, won six regular season titles, and three tournament championships. UOP is the two seed after running off four straight wins to end the year including a 71-51 Senior Day victory over Long Beach. Third seed Cal Poly has won five straight. UC Irvine has just one loss in their final seven games. The Pick: Long Beach State.
Conference USA – Memphis enters the tournament held in Tulsa, OK, as the top seed after a 16-0 regular season. The Tigers are 27-4 and do not have a bad loss all season. Second seed Southern Miss lost to Memphis twice by double digits. Third seed UTEP dropped a 56-54 heart-breaker to the Tigers when they converted just one of three free throws in the final seconds last Tuesday. East Carolina is hot having won five straight games to teams not named Southern Miss. The Pick: UTEP
MAC – The Mid-American Conference may run the most sensible tournament. First, regardless of whether a team is in the East or West division, the teams with the two best records get the top two seeds. Second, those top two seeds are rewarded for a great regular season with a double-bye. Third, the games are played at a neutral site in Cleveland. This means Akron, and Ohio, both from the East division are in the semi-finals. The Zips are without point guard Alex Abreu who was suspended last week after being arrested on drug charges. Akron had won 19 straight but lost two of their final three regular season games. Second seed Ohio went just 2-5 in December before rolling off seven straight wins and 12 out of 13 with only a loss against Akron. Besides two losses to Akron, and one against NCAA bound Belmont, the Bobcats have not faltered in 2013. Kent State has won five straight and seven out of eight with only an overtime loss to Ohio since early February. Ball State has won five straight and seven out of eight too. The Pick: Ohio.
MEAC – How's this for bizarre, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference plays a 16 game season yet the top two teams in the league, Norfolk State and North Carolina Central, did not play during the regular season. Norfolk State lost five straight before running the table during the conference season. NC Central counts a 44-36 loss at fourth seed Savannah State as their only league blemish. Savannah State has lost three out of four. Morgan State has won five straight and eight out of nine. Third seed Hampton began the year 0-6 and 2-9 but won nine of their final 12 games. The Tournament is in Norfolk. The Pick: NC Central.
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Southland – The Southland features the top defensive team in America Stephen F. Austin, and the NCAA's top scoring team Northwestern State. The tournament in Katy, TX, gives a double-bye to both teams, who earned the league’s top two seeds. Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern state split two close games that were both low scoring affairs. The Lumberjacks have won five straight and 10 out of 11. The Demons have won 11 of 13. Third seed Oral Roberts has dropped three of their last four. The Pick: Stephen F. Austin.
SWAC – Regular season champion Texas Southern is serving a two year postseason ban, while Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley State are out of this year’s tournament because of poor APR scores. That leaves Southern as the only team with a bye into the semifinals. The Jaguars only two loses since late January are against teams ineligible for the tournament. After a 9-9 regular season, Jackson State is the two seed. The Tigers have won five of six and are 9-3 since January 14. Not only are they 9-3, but two of the three loses are to teams not playing in the SWAC Tournament. Third seed Alcorn State has lost six of seven. The Pick: Southern.
WAC – Louisiana Tech and Denver are the top two seeds in the tournament taking place in Las Vegas. The Bulldogs earned the number one seed despite losing their final two games including a 78-54 setback in Denver Saturday. The Pioneers have won 10 straight and avenged their only loss since December when they beat New Mexico State March 2. The Aggies are the three seed and after starting conference play 0-2 have won 12 of their last 14. New Mexico State features 355 pound, 7'5” Freshman Sim Bhullar. The Pick: New Mexico State.