The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is hectic, dramatic, and a ton of fun. During the first two days 32 games are played and a Cinderella or eight emerge. Every year some big, strong, tradition rich, blue blood program loses to a school people go scouring the internet to find out what state they are from, what conference they represent, and who the heck they are. If you want to know Cinderella before everybody else does, this week and next, every conference except the Ivy League conducts their championship with the winner receiving a birth in the NCAA tournament. As you begin scouting, we have prepared a guide to the tournaments so that you can begin to identify upset opportunities.
America East – Top seed Stony Brook will need to win twice in Albany, NY, to earn the right to host the championship game. The Seawolves went 3-1 this year against the second and third best teams in the league, Vermont and Boston University. Stony Brook beat both teams handily at home. After starting the season 0-5, BU has won six of their last seven including a win at Vermont. However, the Terriers are not playing in the conference tournament since they are exiting America East for the Patriot League next year. The Pick: Stony Brook.
Atlantic Sun – Mercer won the regular season title and gets to host the entire tournament. The Bears have won eight of their last nine with their lone loss at second seed Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles not only split with Mercer, but their loss to the Bears was in overtime, and they knocked off Miami in November. Third seed Stetson has won four of five but lost to Mercer twice in the regular season. None of the three teams that finished 9-9 are playing particularly well. The Pick: Mercer.
Big South – Northern division champion High Point's best player John Brown is injured and out for the rest of the season. Southern division winner Charleston Southern had a terrific regular season but has won just one conference tournament game in the last six years. Tournament host Coastal Carolina lost badly at Charleston Southern on Saturday. Defending champion UNC-Asheville has lost five of their last six entering the tournament. Gardner Webb has won seven straight, 10 of their last 11, and earned a bye in the first round of the tournament. The Pick: Gardner Webb.
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Colonial – Because of schools exiting the league, and APR scores keeping other teams out of the tournament, only seven teams are eligible with Northeastern receiving the only bye in the tournament being held in Richmond, VA. While the Huskies have lost three of their last five, second seed Delaware has won four straight and seven of eight. However, the Blue Hens lost to potential semi-final opponent James Madison twice during the regular season. George Mason and Drexel both have talent but have played inconsistently and each lost to Northeastern twice. The Pick: Delaware.
Horizon -- Top seed Valparaiso has earned the right to host the quarterfinals and semifinals, and will be home for the championship game if they are still alive after going 13-3 during the regular season. While the Crusaders have won eight of nine, their lone loss was at home to second seed Detroit. Besides recent non-conference losses to NCAA bubble teams Wichita State and Temple on the road, the Titans have won four straight conference tilts, playing a ridiculous schedule that saw six of their final eight games of the year played on the road. The top two seeds receive byes to the semifinals. Third seed Wright State is the only other team that does not have to play a first round game. The Raiders lost three of four to end the regular season and went 1-3 against the top two seeds this year. The Pick: Detroit.
Metro Atlantic – No team finished the regular season with fewer than five loses, and a neutral site tournament in Springfield, MA, means anybody could emerge. Top seed Niagara has won four of five bouncing back from a three game losing streak. Second seed Rider has won five straight and knocked off Niagara in both regular season meetings. Iona has lost six of nine, but three of the defeats were in overtime, and down the stretch having the nation's second leading scorer MoMo Jones is a big advantage. The Pick: Iona.
Missouri Valley – Very possibly a two bid lead, both Creighton and Wichita State are 24-7 and they split two regular season meetings. The gathering in St. Louis is always well attended, and it is possible Creighton, a traditional league power, could be playing in their final tournament if they opt to move to the Big East next season. While at times the Blue Jays struggle on defense, their offense is among the nation’s best, and Doug McDermott is virtually unstoppable when he is on. McDermott's 23 points per game average is third best in the NCAA. He scored 41 Saturday against Wichita St. The Pick: Creighton.
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Northeast – The higher seed hosts each game in this tournament, and they re-seed after the quarterfinals, giving every opportunity to regular season champion Robert Morris. The Colonials went 14-4 in conference play including victories in five straight and eight of nine to end the year. Wagner, LIU-Brooklyn, and Bryant all finished 12-2. Bryant was the only one of the three to beat Robert Morris during the regular season. Wagner has won five of six and lost to Robert Morris in overtime. The Pick: Robert Morris.
Ohio Valley – Not only does Belmont have a bye into the semi-finals, but the tournament is being played in Nashville. The Bruins went 14-2 during the regular season, winning the much more difficult East division. Second seed Murray State also has a bye into the semis, but feasted on a West division that includes four of the five worst teams in the league, and no other squad with a winning conference record. Belmont went 13-0 at home this year and 2-1 on neutral courts. Their average margin of victory is almost 14 points a game. The Pick: Belmont.
Patriot – If perennial top seed Bucknell keeps winning, they will play each game at home. The Bison earned the regular season title with a 12-2 mark including four straight wins, and nine out of 10 to end the year. Second seed Lafayette, and third seed Lehigh each beat Bucknell once, including the Mountain Hawks victory in Lewisburg, PA, in January. Lafayette has won five straight. Fourth seed Army has won five of sick. The Pick: Bucknell.
Summit – While top seed South Dakota State has lost two of their last three and are only 3-3 over the final six games of the regular season, the Jackrabbits are tough customers in their home state. Led by the nation’s fourth leading scorer Nate Wolters, SDSU is 13-0 at home and 2-0 in neutral site games this year. The tournament is in Sioux Falls, SD. Second seed Western Illinois has lost two of four and will play South Dakota, who they beat by two on Saturday, in a virtual road game during the first round of the tournament. Third seed North Dakota went 1-3 against the league’s top two teams this year. The Pick: South Dakota St.
Southern – After going 17-1 during the regular season, Davidson is the top seed in the tournament being played at a neutral site in Asheville, NC. The Wildcats have won 14 straight with their only loss in league play at Georgia Southern in mid-January. Elon is the number two seed, but has lost two of their last three. Besides a 16 point home setback against Davidson on Valentine’s Day, third seeded College of Charleston has won 10 straight conference games. The Pick: Davidson.
Sun Belt – Middle Tennessee State went 19-1 during the regular season while no other team managed a record better than 14-6. The Blue Raiders have won 16 straight. Their lone league loss came on the road, in overtime, against second seed Arkansas State. Third seed South Alabama has won six of their last seven conference games with the only setback a five point loss at Middle Tennessee. If the Raiders don't win the tournament, they will probably miss out on the NCAA Tournament. The Pick: Middle Tennessee State.
West Coast – Gonzaga may have the best team in school history, and the rest of the conference is down. In past years St. Mary's and Gonzaga played wars for league titles. The top seed Zags beat the second seed Gaels by 17 points on the road three weeks ago. Gonzaga hasn't played a competitive game in more than a month. They are simply better than their conference foes. The Pick: Gonzaga