It's March, which means it's time for madness, which kicks off with smaller conference tournaments beginning later tonight with the Atlantic Sun, Horizon, and Patriot. I didn't do it last year, but every other year (so many years) I've written this blog I've done little conference tournament previews because I think conference tournaments are almost as good as the NCAA Tournament. Ok, they're not, but they're a great little warm-up with wall-to-wall action for two weeks including day games, and everyone knows day games are the best things to gamble on. I figured now that I'm participating in The Jerome this year (a thing where a whole bunch of college basketball nerds try to pick the winner of every conference tournament), I might as well bring them back. So here is the return of the Award Winning DWG Conference Tournament previews, starting with the tourneys kicking off tonight. (FYI - collegebasketballtalk.nbcsports.com has nice breakdowns of these as well).
The Atlantic Sun is on a nice little streak of success. Mercer beat Duke last year in the tournament, which ruled, and Florida Gulf Coast, #DunkCity, made that nifty little sweet sixteen two seasons ago. Whoever comes out of this bracket could surprise again as the conference netted wins over Purdue, UMASS, and Georgia Tech this year.
FAVORITE: North Florida. The Ospreys own that win over Purdue, and they stomped through the league to a 12-2 mark. They're also the only team in the conference with a Top 100 efficiency mark on either end of the floor according to kenpom.com (#69 offensive eff.). The only other team to hit double digit wins in the A-Sun, Florida Gulf Coast at 11-3, lost twice to North Florida, both times by double digits.
SLEEPER: USC Upstate. Just 8-6 in the conference, the Spartans weren't all that impressive this year except for the fact that they swept North Florida and were the only A-Sun team to beat the Ospreys. They also have the conference's leading scorer in Ty Greene (20.1ppg) who absolutely went off on North Florida this year (32ppg in the two contests). They're on the other side of the bracket and will have to survive a tough matchup against FGCU to get there, but no way does UNF want to see these guys again.
THE PICK: North Florida. It's so tempting to take Gulf Coast. It would be a great story since they have still have two players, now seniors, from that Sweet 16 team who would love to make a run again. Unfortunately the Eagle offense just hasn't been that good this year, and the A-Sun setup, where the higher seed gets home court, swings this one North Florida's way. Add in the season sweep by the Ospreys and I just can't do it.
This used to be one of the premier mid-majors conferences in the land, but Butler's jump to the Big East along with down trends and once dangerous schools like Valpo, Cleveland State, Oakland, and Wright State have taken off some of the shine. The only real good win the entire conference had in non-conference play was Green Bay's over Miami (could include Valpo over Murray State, too).
FAVORITE: Valparaiso. The Crusaders won the top seed with a 13-3 record, and as such have home court throughout the tournament (as long as they're alive) and a bye directly into the semifinals (so did second seeded Green Bay).
SLEEPER: Oakland. The Grizzlies had a pretty terrible non-conference run going 5-10 including some really bad losses, but they also packed in plenty of tough games which gave them the #12 toughest non-conference schedule in the country. They turned it around in conference play going 11-5, including 10-3 to close out the season. With two of the league's first team all-conference players on board they're dangerous.
THE PICK: Green Bay. The bye into the semis is so valuable that this pick basically comes down to Valpo or Green Bay, and I'm going Phoenix based on their defense (#32 in the country) and 2-point offense (52.4%, 30th in the country). The can't win a shootout since they can't and don't shoot 3s (7th lowest % of points from 3s in the country), but that defense should keep them close enough to play their game no matter who they play.
I think I pimped this book, The Last Amateurs, every time I've written about the Patriot League but it's really good even if it's not really all that relevant anymore (I think they have athletic scholarships now). It's still a good book. Anyway, Bucknell won the conference number 1 seed which seems like a pretty common occurrence without looking it up, but they weren't dominant with 5 conference losses and the Patriot is pretty wide open.
FAVORITE: Bucknell. Like I said, they took down the regular season conference title and that gives them the #1 seed and home court throughout, a place they only lost once in conference play. They lost by just seven against Villanova and eight against Penn State this year, so when things are going well they're a good team. When they're not, however, they're capable of losing to Siena and Mount St. Mary's. Weird team in a weird conference.
SLEEPER: Lehigh. They have kenpom's conference player of the year in Tim Kempton who averaged 15.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this year, and they could be blossoming at the right time. Their last 3 conference games were a blowout of league winner Bucknell and two close losses to the 2nd place and 4th place teams in the league.
THE PICK: Colgate. Eighth in the country in effective field goal percentage, which will happen when you shoot 40% from three and 53% from two, both top 20 marks in the nation. The defense is really shaky, but the Raiders went 7-1 against the four other top-5 teams in Patriot League play so as long as they can avoid laying an egg against Army or Navy, two bad teams that beat them in the regular season, in round 2 I like their chances. Three of their top four scorers are guards, which is always a good thing in March.
Tomorrow the American East, Big South, Northeast, and Ohio Valley get going. Stop back for more!