HomeSportsLet March Madness begin: A rapid-fire guide to the first week of...

Let March Madness begin: A rapid-fire guide to the first week of conference tournament play

Dillon Jones is an NBA prospect who could help Weber State do some damage to NCAA tournament brackets in March. (Tanner Ecker/University of Montana/Getty Images)

Welcome to the week of the men’s college basketball season that’s all about hope.

Almost 350 programs enter their conference tournaments with visions of securing an NCAA tournament bid and getting on a hot streak. Twenty-loss teams can win their way into the field of 68. Coaches who are one loss from unemployment can salvage their jobs. Overlooked schools from podunk leagues can dream of a Final Four

The five-week sprint to crowning college basketball’s newest national champion begins with the 15 mid-major and low-major conference tournaments that tip off this week. Below is a rapid-fire guide to each tournament and a look at which leagues could produce a giant slayer that helps you win your NCAA tournament bracket pool:

AMERICA EAST

Conference rank: 21st of 33

Top seeds: 1. Vermont 2. UMass Lowell 3. Bryant

When and where: March 9, 12, 16 at campus sites

What’s at stake: Vermont could climb as high as a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament with an America East tournament championship.

Projected champ: In the past three seasons, Vermont has lost a total of three America East games. So it’s very difficult to pick against a Catamounts team that leads the conference by three games entering the final day of regular season games on Tuesday. Of the challengers, UMass Lowell is the team to watch. The River Hawks won at Georgia Tech and nearly took down Arizona State in November. They also took Vermont to OT in the teams’ first meeting.

Player who could carry his team in March: Dion Brown, UMBC.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Slim. T.J. Sorentine delivered Vermont’s lone magical March moment “from the parking lot.” In eight other NCAA tournament appearances since 2003, the Catamounts have exited quietly in the round of 64.

ATLANTIC SUN

Conference rank: 26th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Eastern Kentucky 2. Stetson 3. Lipscomb

When and where: March 4, 5, 7, 10 at campus sites (Bracket)

What’s at stake: An Atlantic Sun team could get a crack at toppling a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Atlantic Sun tournament champion is a strong candidate for a No. 16 seed but may have to go through the play-in round in Dayton.

Projected champ: This tournament is as wide-open as it gets. Preseason favorite Eastern Kentucky won the outright league title, but the Colonels enter the A-Sun tournament on a two-game losing streak. High-scoring Lipscomb is the only A-Sun team to reach 20 wins or crack Ken Pomeroy’s top 200, but the third-seeded Bison have played the whole season without Jacob Ognacevic and recently lost leading scorer Derrin Boyd to a torn ACL. As a result, I’ll take second-seeded Stetson to emerge from a group of contenders that also includes fourth-seeded Austin Peay.

Player who could carry his team in March: Jalen Blackmon, Stetson.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Don’t count on it.

BIG SKY

Conference rank: 22nd of 33

Top seeds: 1. Eastern Washington 2. Northern Colorado 3. Montana

When and where: March 9-13 in Boise, Idaho (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The Big Sky tournament champ projects as a potential No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Projected champ: I have the most faith in fourth-seeded Weber State to emerge from a quartet of contenders that also includes Eastern Washington, Montana and Northern Colorado. The preseason Big Sky favorite Wildcats beat Saint Mary’s, Yale and Wyoming in non-league play and have won eight of 10 since a midseason slump. Oh, and Weber State has an advantage no other Big Sky team can match: A potential 2024 NBA Draft pick in Dillon Jones.

Player who could carry his team in March: Dillon Jones, Weber State.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Harold Arceneaux isn’t walking through that door.

BIG SOUTH

Conference rank: 18th of 33

Top seeds: 1. High Point 2. UNC Asheville 3. Gardner-Webb

When and where: March 6, 8-10 at High Point (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The Big South tournament champ projects as a potential No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Projected champ: The title game that everyone wants to see is High Point vs. UNC Asheville. That matchup would pit the Big South’s two best teams and its two best players, Duke Miles and Drew Pember. Both previous High Point-UNC Asheville games were thrillers that came down to the final minute until the home team pulled out a win. Expect another tight game with Pember leading Asheville to a win at High Point and a second straight Big South tournament title.

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Player who could carry his team in March: Drew Pember, UNC Asheville.

Odds of producing a giant killer: High Point has a better chance than UNC Asheville. Most elite high-majors have a big man who can defend the 6-foot-11 Pember without doubling, diminishing the advantage that UNC Asheville has over Big South foes.

COASTAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION

Conference rank: 19th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Charleston 2. Drexel 3. Hofstra

When and where: March 8-12 in Washington, D.C. (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The Big South tournament champ projects to earn as high as a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Projected champ: It’s difficult to pick against Charleston, which followed up last year’s 31-win season with another outright CAA regular-season title. A trio of returning juniors — Ante Brzovic, Ben Burnham and Reyne Smith — have fueled another fast-paced, 3-point-happy offense that has carried the Cougars to nine straight wins to end the regular season. The biggest threat to Charleston might be a fourth-seeded UNC Wilmington team that swept two regular season games against the Cougars and also toppled Kentucky at Rupp Arena in early December. Hofstra and Drexel also are capable of winning this tournament.

Player who could carry his team in March: Tyler Thomas, Hofstra.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Unlikely but not impossible.

HORIZON LEAGUE

Conference rank: 20th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Oakland 2. Youngstown State 3. Green Bay

When and where: March 5, 7, 11, 12 at campus sites and in Indianapolis (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The Horizon tournament champ is unlikely to receive any higher than a No. 14 or 15 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Projected champ: Only twice in the past decade has the Horizon League’s regular season champion won the conference tournament. That trend does not bode well for Oakland, this year’s surprise league winner. Youngstown State, Green Bay, Wright State and Northern Kentucky are the other teams besides Oakland with a bye to Thursday’s quarterfinals. Green Bay staggered to the finish line with four losses in its last five games. Of the others, Youngstown State might be the most trustworthy. The Penguins last lost a game by more than eight points during the opening week of the season.

Player who could carry his team in March: Trey Townsend, Oakland.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Charismatic Oakland coach Greg Kampe having a March moment would be awesome, but don’t empty your savings account betting on the Golden Grizzlies or any other Horizon League program.

TERRE HAUTE, IN - FEBRUARY 03: Indiana State Sycamores Center Robbie Avila (21) reacts during the college basketball game between the Drake Bulldogs and the Indiana State Sycamores on February 3, 2024, at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)TERRE HAUTE, IN - FEBRUARY 03: Indiana State Sycamores Center Robbie Avila (21) reacts during the college basketball game between the Drake Bulldogs and the Indiana State Sycamores on February 3, 2024, at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Robbie Avila is a big reason why Indiana State is getting national attention, maybe the most since the Larry Bird days in the late 1970s. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

MISSOURI VALLEY

Conference rank: 9th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Indiana State 2. Drake 3. Bradley

When and where: March 7-10 in St. Louis (Bracket)

What’s at stake: This is Indiana State’s chance to secure an auto bid and avoid leaving its fate in the hands of the NCAA tournament selection committee. Either the Sycamores (26-5) win three games in three days, or they wait to see if they’ve done enough to secure an at-large bid. The Sycamores are top 30 in the NET, top 40 in Strength of Record and top 50 at KenPom, but they have one glaring hole in their resume. They’re 0-2 against power-conference opponents, having swung and missed in road games at Alabama and Michigan State.

Projected champ: The season-long duel between Indiana State and Drake came down to the final week of the regular season. The Sycamores claimed the outright regular season title by a single game on Sunday when they beat Murray State. Potential spoilers Bradley, Northern Iowa and Belmont all are capable of springing an upset, but the bet here is that the Valley title game is a Indiana State-Drake rubber match. And the bet here is that Indiana State narrowly wins, cementing the Valley as a one-bid league and dooming Drake to the NIT.

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Player who could carry his team in March: Tucker DeVries, Drake.

Odds of producing a giant killer: I’d be more surprised if the Valley didn’t win at least one NCAA tournament game than if it did.

NORTHEAST CONFERENCE

Conference rank: 31st of 33

Top seeds: 1. Central Connecticut State 2. Merrimack 3. Sacred Heart

When and where: March 6, 9, 12 at campus sites (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The winner of the NEC tournament projects as a No. 16 seed and will have a chance to pull off what Fairleigh Dickinson did a year ago. Purdue wants no part of whoever comes out of this tournament.

Projected champ: Only a year ago, Division I newcomer Merrimack won the NEC tournament but was ineligible to receive an NCAA bid. This year, if the Warriors go back-to-back, they’ll also get to participate in March Madness. The biggest obstacles for Merrimack are a CCSU team that shared the NEC regular season title with the Warriors and a Sacred Heart team that edged them in Saturday’s regular-season finale. I’ll go with Merrimack here for sentimental reasons — and because its defense is by far the league’s best.

Player who could carry his team in March: Jordan Derkack, Merrimack.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Is the opponent Purdue?

OHIO VALLEY CONFERENCE

Conference rank: 28th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Arkansas Little Rock 2. Tennessee-Martin 3. Morehead State

When and where: March 6-9 in Evansville, Indiana (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The winner of the OVC tournament projects as no higher than a No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Projected champ: Morehead State was a heavy favorite before a three-game mid-February losing streak dropped the Eagles into a three-way tie for first place. They shared the OVC regular season title with Arkansas Little Rock and Tennessee-Martin but settled for the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Morehead State should still win the OVC tournament. The Eagles have the league’s best offense, best defense and best player. But their road to the NCAA tournament is now a little tougher than it appeared a few weeks ago.

Player who could carry his team in March: Riley Minix, Morehead State.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Probably not happening. Conference realignment has really undercut the strength of the OVC.

PATRIOT LEAGUE

Conference rank: 29th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Colgate 2. Boston University 3. Lafayette

When and where: March 5, 7, 10, 13 at campus sites (Bracket)

What’s at stake: Colgate projects as a No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament if it claims the Patriot League’s automatic bid. Any other Patriot League tournament champion would likely receive a No. 16 seed and would be lucky to avoid a play-in game.

Projected champ: Seldom is there a more overwhelming favorite in a conference tournament than Colgate in the Patriot League. The Red Raiders went 16-2 in league play. Every other Patriot League team lost at least eight conference games.The Red Raiders are a respectable 130th in the NET rankings. No one else in the Patriot League is higher than 274th. Colgate has reached the past four NCAA tournaments, falling in the opening round to Tennessee, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Texas. Expect the Red Raiders to earn another crack at a big boy this March.

Player who could carry his team in March: Braeden Smith, Colgate.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Does Colgate survive the Patriot League tournament? And do the Red Raiders draw an opponent that won’t overwhelm them athletically?

SOUTHERN CONFERENCE

Conference rank: 13th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Samford 2. UNC Greensboro 3. Chattanooga

When and where: March 8-11 in Asheville, N.C. (Bracket)

What’s at stake: Samford projects as a dangerous No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament if it claims the SoCon’s automatic bid. Any other SoCon tournament champion would likely receive no better than a No. 14 seed.

Projected champ: Samford is a clear favorite after winning the SoCon regular season title by three games over its closest competition. The Bulldogs (26-5) have a gaudy record, though they lost to the only two top-100 opponents they faced in non-league play. Who could challenge Samford? Watch out for fourth-seeded Western Carolina, a 22-win team that beat Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and McNeese State in non-league play and then finished strong after a January rough patch. UNC Greensboro, Chattanooga and Furman are also dangerous.

Player who could carry his team in March: Vonterius Woolbright, Western Carolina.

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Odds of producing a giant killer: If I were a vulnerable No. 3 or 4 seed, this is a league I’d want to avoid.

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 11: LSU Tigers head coach Will Wade looks at the action unhappily during the SEC Tournament between the LSU Tigers and the Arkansas Razrbacks on Thursday, March 11, 2022 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)TAMPA, FL - MARCH 11: LSU Tigers head coach Will Wade looks at the action unhappily during the SEC Tournament between the LSU Tigers and the Arkansas Razrbacks on Thursday, March 11, 2022 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Former LSU head coach Will Wade has reemerged at McNeese State and has the Cowboys primed for an NCAA tournament bid. (Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE

Conference rank: 27th of 33

Top seeds: 1. McNeese State 2. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 3. TBD

When and where: March 10-13 in Lake Charles, Louisiana

What’s at stake: McNeese State’s hopes of avoiding an anxiety-ridden Selection Sunday rest on winning the Southland’s auto bid. With a 27-3 record and road wins at VCU, Michigan and UAB, the Cowboys would certainly merit a look as an at-large team. Still, this is a Will Wade-coached team that padded its record with four wins against non-Division I opponents and numerous more against teams from one of college basketball’s worst conferences. McNeese State would rather win the Southland’s auto bid and remove all doubt.

Projected champ: The Southland won’t finalize its bracket until teams play their final regular season games on Wednesday night. Whatever the bracket looks like, it will be McNeese State’s to lose. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is the only other credible threat. It would be a total shock to see anyone else cutting down the nets next Wednesday.

Player who could carry his team in March: Shahada Wells, McNeese State.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Don’t sleep on Willy the Kid! McNeese would command the attention of whatever high seed it was to draw.

SUMMIT LEAGUE

Conference rank: 25th of 33

Top seeds: 1. South Dakota State 2. Kansas City 3. North Dakota

When and where: March 8-12 in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Bracket)

What’s at stake: The winner of the Summit League tournament might need upsets in other leagues to avoid a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s especially true if the winner is anyone besides South Dakota State.

Projected champ: South Dakota State is looking for its eighth Summit League tournament title since 2012 after winning the regular season crown by two games. The Jackrabbits are the clear favorite, though second-seeded Kansas City closed the season with six straight wins

Player who could carry his team in March: Zeke Mayo, South Dakota State.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Not likely.

SUN BELT CONFERENCE

Conference rank: 17th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Appalachian State 2. James Madison 3. Troy

When and where: March 5-11 in Pensacola, Fla. (Bracket)

What’s at stake: James Madison validated a season-opening win at Michigan State by finishing with a sparkling 28-3 record. Appalachian State (26-5) stunned Auburn in early December and then won the outright Sun Belt regular season title, sweeping a pair of games from James Madison along the way. Both of these teams are capable of advancing in the NCAA tournament. And yet at least one will endure an agonizing, likely disappointing wait until Selection Sunday to find out if they’ve done enough to earn an at-large bid.

Projected champ: With all due respect to the rest of the Sun Belt, it would be a crime if the title game doesn’t pit James Madison against Appalachian State. Between the quality of those two teams and the potentially all-or-nothing stakes, it might be the best matchup of conference tournament play. Appalachian State won the first meeting between the two teams by four and the second by six. Those losses might be the motivation that James Madison needs to enact revenge in a decisive third meeting.

Player who could carry his team in March: Terrence Edwards Jr., James Madison.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Ask Tom Izzo and Bruce Pearl. Either James Madison or Appalachian State would be tough outs.

WEST COAST CONFERENCE

Conference rank: 12th of 33

Top seeds: 1. Saint Mary’s 2. Gonzaga 3. San Francisco

When and where: March 7-9, 11-12 in Las Vegas (Bracket)

What’s at stake: Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are playing to improve their NCAA tournament seeding. The Gaels could be at risk of falling into the dreaded 8-9 seed range if they fail to win the WCC tournament. The Zags have a chance to climb out of that range with two more wins in Las Vegas.

Projected champ: Between the quality of Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga and a format that grants the top two seeds a bye until the semifinals, the WCC title game likely will again feature the Gaels and Zags. Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga split their two regular season meetings. Santa Clara is the only other WCC team to beat one of the league’s two juggernauts. Gonzaga was the hungrier team last Saturday night when it took a giant step toward securing an NCAA bid by winning convincingly in Moraga. The Zags are my pick to win again in Las Vegas, but expect the margin to be tighter.

Player who could carry his team in March: Graham Ike, Gonzaga.

Odds of producing a giant killer: Gonzaga reaching a ninth straight Sweet 16 would be mildly surprising but not shocking. Same with Saint Mary’s advancing to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2010.

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