TGS SPECIAL REPORT...COLLEGE CONFERENCE TOURNEY PREVIEWS!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Wow, just like that, the college basketball season has hit the home stretch. (Weren't they just playing the Maui Classic a few weeks ago?) From this point forward, the looming NCAA Tournament will be the major topic of conversation. For us here at THE GOLD SHEET, too, with our next Bracketology on deck for issue No. 20. We're only 2+ weeks away from our annual blowout Big Dance issue (this year available on March 14)!
After six decades of publishing THE GOLD SHEET, we have quite a catalog of sports memories to call upon. And inevitably, some of our favorite recollections are of college hoops conference tournament time. Remember, we predate all of the conferece tourneys save the ACC event, but there remains an unmistakable buzz each year when we move into late February and begin to anticipate conference tourney action and the subsequent Big Dance, all set to commence in March.
We don't think there was ever quite as exciting a time for us as the early '80s, when the ACC finally had some company with its postseason event, and the conference tournaments became standard fare. To this day, we still think those early days of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden were some of the most-magical for us, with the realization that college basketball had finally become a big-time sport, with wall-to-wall TV action (thanks largely to ESPN's arrival on the scene) providing the sort of coverage we had only dreamed about in previous years.
Personally, I caught conference tourney fever in the mid 1970s when the old PCAA (eventually to become the Big West) conducted its second tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center; the initial tourney in 1976 was held at the old Stockton Civic Auditorium, but the 1977 renewal moved several hundred miles south to across the street from Disneyland. It featured a semifinal doubleheader resulting in a pair of pulsating one-point decisions, with San Jose State upsetting San Diego State, and then Long Beach State winning a thriller in overtime against Cal State Fullerton before the 49ers took the crown the following day against the Spartans. So captivated was I by the spectacle of the semifinals that I changed course on a tradition of attending the Santa Anita Handicap the following day in Arcadia, bypassing that for another evening of college hoops in Anaheim.
From that point forward, I was hopelessly hooked, and followed the PCAA Tourney through subsequent years in Anaheim, then its move to the Inglewood Forum in 1983, featuring a couple of unforgettable battles in the '83 and '84 renewals between Jerry Tarkanian's glory-era UNLV and Boyd Grant's Fresno State, then at the apex of its "Red Wave" days. The Forum would be packed with fans in slightly different shades of red when Runnin' Rebels and Bulldogs briefly engaged in one of the nation's most heated rivalries. For me, I looked upon the first day of the tourney as a Christmas in March, watching four games in person. TGS founder Mort Olshan, who recalled his own memories of days watching the old Los Angeles Classic during the holidays in the early '60s, had no problem giving me those days off to watch hoops in person!
In later years I would expand my visits to the Pac-10/12, West Coast, Mountain West, WAC, and eventually Big Ten (in Indianapolis) and SEC (in Atlanta) and Big West (in Anaheim) Tourneys in one three-day jaunt in 2008, a story we will likely reprise again on our web pages when tourney time rolls around next week. (We were there in Atlanta the night of the infamous tornado that damaged the Georgia Dome). Nowadays, I don't have to go far to watch all of the action, as hometown Las Vegas is a conference tourney fantasyland, with four (WCC, Mountain West, Pac-12, and WAC) taking place at three difference venues in early March. This year, I'll make it to at least three!
So, it's no surprise that we're getting excited again, as we at TGS are again fast approaching our favorite time of the year! Indeed, from this point forward, "March Mayhem" will become the major talking point of the college basketball campaign. And the postseason is approaching quicker than you might imagine, as, believe it or not, we'll be starting our conference tournament previews next week.
We first began an early preview of the conference tournaments and an early look-ahead to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, and it quickly became one of our favorite editorial assignments of the hoops season. Now is the time we really begin to count the days to the conference tourneys and Selection Sunday, now just over two weeks away. And we have long believed that a mid-to-late February look at college hoop squads vying for potential NCAA invitations to be a worthwhile exercise. Knowing where teams might (or might not) fit into the postseason equation can be especially useful handicapping information this time of the year. The Big Dance prospects of many teams (especially those on the proverbial "bubble") will be decided in the next few weeks, adding an extra factor to be considered when forecasting their upcoming games.
This 2016-17 season is also providing some of the most perplexing "bubble" questions we can ever recall. All to be examined more fully, as mentioned, in our upcoming issue (TGS Hoops 20) when we provide our next "Bracketology" update.
Beyond the aforementioned "bubble" teams that need every win to stay in the good graces of the NCAA Tourney Committee, it's also worth paying attention to the squads with Big Dance bids securely in hand. Those entries might not all approach the final weeks of the regular season (or conference tourneys) in the same manner, some seeking to develop extra depth and avoid key injuries, others emphasizing a strong drive through the regular-season tape and hopefully carrying that momentum into the postseason.
Following is our annual late-February look at the major "board" conferences and their chances of sending multiple entries to the NCAA Tournament. As you've no doubt noted from our featured storylines throughout recent seasons, we're also our own "Bracketologists" at TGS and have divided the teams into three categories--Solid, Looking Good, and Bubble. Solid is self-explanatory. Looking Good teams can expect an NCAA invitation as long as they don't slump badly in the next few weeks. Bubble teams, however, remain at the mercy of the Tourney Committee, and desperately need every win down the stretch to keep their Big Dance hopes alive.
Keep in mind that EVERY Division I team can now qualify for an automatic Big Dance berth by winning its conference tournament. With the Ivy League finally relenting and adding its own four-team tourney, every conference now has a postseason event. In the meantime, as always, the number of upsets in conference tournaments can alter the look of the Big Dance. Also included below are conference tourney sites and dates; Conference Power Rankings (thru Feb. 22); and last year's postseason participants, including NCAA, NIT, CBI, CIT, and VEGAS 16/8 action. Note that when referencing last year's NCAA Tourney, we have reverted to the new/old designations, wherein the play-in games are referred to as the First Four, the sub-regionals referred to as the first and second rounds, etc., as the NCAA thankfully changed back to its former designations a year ago.
AMERICAN--Solid...Cincinnati. Looking Good...SMU. Bubble...Houston. Conference Power Rating-7th. Tourney March 9-12 at XL Center, Hartford, CT. Last year...NCAA-4 (UConn-2nd round, Cincinnati, Temple, Tulsa-First Four); NIT-1 (Houston). Notes...The American looks a bit less crowded this season, likely just a 2-bid league unless SMU or Cincinnati don't win in Hartford. Houston is still hanging on to the edge of the bubble as March approaches.
ACC--Solid...North Carolina, Florida State, Duke, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame. Looking Good...Miami-Fla., Syracuse, Virginia Tech. Bubble...Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson. Conference Power Rating-1st. Tourney March 7-11 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY. Last year...NCAA-7 (North Carolina-Runner-up, Syracuse-Final Four, Virginia-Elite Eight, Notre Dame-Elite Eight, Duke-Sweet 16, Miami-Fla.-Sweet 16, Pittsburgh). NIT-3 (Georgia Tech-Quarterfinals, Virginia Tech-2nd round, Florida State-2nd round). Notes...Could the ACC match the Big East from six years ago as the most-heavily represented loop (11) in NCAA Tourney history? Note the first-ever foray into the Big Apple with the conference tourney in Brooklyn.
ATLANTIC TEN--Looking Good...Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth. Bubble...Rhode Island. Conference-8th. Tourney March 8-12 at PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, PA, home of NHL Penguins. NCAA-3 (Saint Joseph's-2nd round, Virginia Commonwealth-2nd round, Dayton); NIT-3 (George Washington-Champion, Davidson, St. Bonaventure); CBI-1 (Duquesene-2nd round); CIT-1 (Fordham). Notes...Like the American, the A-10 has the look of a 2-bid league with Dayton and VCU, while Rhode Island gamely hangs on to the bubble into late February. The tourney moves to Pittsburgh this season after recent years at Barclay's Center in Brooklyn.
BIG EAST--Solid...Villanova, Creighton, Butler. Bubble...Marquette, Seton Hall, Xavier. Conference-3rd. Tourney March 8-11 at Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY. Last year...NCAA-5 (Villanova-Champion, Butler-2nd round, Providence-2nd round, Xavier-2nd round, Seton Hall). NIT-1 (Creighton-Quarterfinals). Notes...Seton Hall helped its at-large cause greatly with its recent wins over Creighton and Xavier, with the latter result a bit worrying for the Musketeers, now minus key cog Edmond Sumner and faltering of late. So we've moved the "X" from Looking Good into Bubble status. Georgetown now seems officially off of the bubble after its midweek home loss to DePaul.
BIG TEN--Solid...Wisconsin, Maryland, Purdue. Looking Good...Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan. Bubble...Michigan State, Illinois. Conference-4th. Tourney March 8-12 at Verizon Center, Washington, D.C. Last year...NCAA-7 (Indiana-Sweet 16, Maryland-Sweet 16, Wisconsin-Sweet 16, Iowa-2nd round, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue); NIT-1 (Ohio State-2nd round). Notes...The Big Ten is generating plenty of discussion, especially with some Big Dance regulars (like Michigan State) perched precariously on the bubble, and Indiana probably having played itself into the NIT...if that lucky. This also looks to be the year that Northwestern makes its first-ever Dance appearance. Northwestern in and Indiana out, eh? Note that the tourney moves out of the Midwest for the first time, landing at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., where Maryland will have a regional edge.
BIG 12--Solid...Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia. Looking Good...Iowa State, Oklahoma State. Bubble...Kansas State, TCU, Texas Tech. Conference-2nd. Tourney March 8-11 at Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO. Last year...NCAA-7 (Oklahoma-Final Four, Kansas-Elite Eight, Iowa State-Sweet 16, Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, West Virginia). Notes...The Big 12 will again be well-represented in the Dance, with several of its candidates likely riding the bubble all the way into Selection Sunday. Though Baylor's chances of landing on the top line have taken a couple of hits in recent weeks, Kansas still looks a good bet for a top seed in the Midwest Regional.
BIG WEST--Conference tourney winner will be only Big Dance rep. Conference-30th. Notes...Tourney March 9-11 at Honda Center, Anaheim, CA (home of the NHL Ducks). Last year...NCAA-1 (Hawaii-2nd round); NIT-1 (Long Beach State); CIT-1 (UC Irvine-Runner-up); VEGAS 16/8 (UC Santa Barbara). Notes...For what would be only the second time since the at-large play-in games were initiated, the Big West could be involved in one of those 16 vs. 16 First Four games in Dayton.
COLONIAL--Bubble...NC-Wilmington. Conference-12th. Tourney March 3-6 at North Charleston Coliseum, Charleston, SC (not the home of College of Charleston, which plays at TD Arena). Last year...NCAA-1 (NC-Wilmington); NIT-1 (Hofstra); VEGAS 16/8 (Towson). Notes...UNCW's at-large candidacy has been greatly reduced by recent losses vs. William & Mary, Charleston & Elon. The Seahawks will almost assuredly have to win the CAA Tourney to gain passage to the Big Dance. After three years at Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena, once known as Baltimore Civic Center in the '60s and early '70s when it was the home of the NBA Baltimore Bullets, the conference tourney begins a three-year stint in Charleston.
CONFERENCE USA--Bubble...Middle Tennessee. Conference-22nd. Notes...Tourney March 8-12 at Legacy Arena, Birmingham, AL (not the home court of UAB, which plays at Gene Bartow Arena). Last year...NCAA-1 (Middle Tennessee-2nd round); NIT-1 (UAB); VEGAS 16/8 (Old Dominion-Champion, La Tech). Notes...MTSU appears to be one of the few mid-majors with a chance at a Big Dance at-large bid if it does not win its conference tourney.
HORIZON--Bubble...Valparaiso. Conference-19th. Tourney March 3-7 at Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, MI. Last year...NCAA-1 (Green Bay); NIT-1 (Valparaiso-Runner-up); VEGAS 16/8 (Oakland-Runner-up). Notes...With 21-5 SU record into Friday's showdown vs. Oakland, Valpo is still hanging on the edge of the Big Dance at-large bubble. After years of being conducted at campus sites, the Horizon Tourney begins a second year in Detroit at the soon-to-close Joe Louis Arena, home of the NHL Red Wings. Next year, the tourney is slated to move into the new Detroit Events Center, currently under construction.
IVY--Conference tourney winner will be only Big Dance rep. Conference-20th. Tourney March 11-12 at the Palestra, Philadelphia, PA (home court of Penn). Last year...NCAA-1 (Yale-2nd round); NIT-1 (Princeton); CIT-1 (Columbia-Champion). Notes...The Ivy finally relents with its first-ever tourney, which will include the top four teams and takes place at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Though the Ivy has had an unofficial playoff of sorts a couple of times in recent years with one-game playoffs after ties for the regular-season crown. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale currently appear very good bets to land three of the four slots at the Palestra.
MID-AMERICAN--Bubble...Akron. Conference-13th. Tourney first round March 6 at campus sites; quarters, semis, and Final March 9-11 at Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Last year...NCAA-1 (Buffalo); NIT-1 (Akron); CIT-2 (Ball State-Quarterfinals, Central Michigan); CBI-1 (Ohio-Semifinals); VEGAS 16/8-1 (Northern Illinois). Notes...The MAC has not sent multiple teams to the Big Dance since 1999, when Kent State and Miami-Ohio qualified. That's not likely to change, as top at-large contender Akron just suffered a pair of damaging losses to Kent State and Bowling Green, and has yet to notch a Top-100 win this season.
MISSOURI VALLEY--Looking Good...Wichita State. Bubble...Illinois State. Conference-11th. Notes...Tourney ("Arch Madness") March 2-5 at Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO. Last year...NCAA-2 (Wichita State-2nd round, Northern Iowa-2nd round). Notes...After years as the flagship mid-major conference, the Valley has been a one-bid league at times in recent seasons and might be again this year unless some rep other than Wichita wins at "Arch Madness" in two weeks. Other than the Shockers, who appear a near-certainty into the field of 68, Illinois State is the only other Valley rep that would be under consideration for an at-large on Selection Sunday.
MOUNTAIN WEST--Bubble...Nevada. Conference-9th. Notes...Tourney March 8-11 at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV (home court of UNLV). Last year...NCAA-1 (Fresno State); NIT-1 (San Diego State-semifinals); CBI-1 (Nevada-Champion). Notes...How the mighty (or near-mighty) have fallen, as the MW is almost certainly a one-bid league for the second straight year. Last year was the first time the league received only one Big Dance bid since its inception in 1999. As recently as 2013, the Mountain was a five-bid league!
PAC 12--Solid...Arizona, Oregon, UCLA. Looking Good...Southern Cal, Cal. Bubble...Utah. Conference-6th. Tourney March 8-11 at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-7 (Oregon-Elite Eight, Utah-2nd round, Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Southern Cal, Oregon State); NIT-1 (Washington-2nd round). Notes...A very good chance there will be three Pac-10 protected seeds (Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA) in the Dance. After a four-year run at the MGM Grand Garden, the Pac-12 Tourney moves across the street on the Strip in Vegas to the brand-new T-Mobile Arena, which will also be the home ice of the NHL expansion Golden Knights starting in October.
SEC--Solid...Florida, Kentucky. Looking Good...Arkansas, South Carolina. Bubble...Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt. Conference-5th. Tourney March 8-12 at Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN (home of the NHL Predators). Last year...NCAA-3 (Texas A&M-Sweet 16, Kentucky-2nd round, Vanderbilt-First Four); NIT-4 (Florida-Quarterfinals, Georgia-2nd round, South Carolina-2nd round, Alabama). Notes...We're stretching the bubble to include the likes of Vandy and Tennessee, though we believe the SEC will do a bit better than the mere three entries it received to the Dance last March.
SUN BELT--Bubble...UT-Arlington. Conference-15th. Tourney March 8-12 at Lakefront Arena, New Orleans, LA. Last year...NCAA-1 (Little Rock-2nd round); CIT-3 (UL-Lafayette-2nd round, UT-Arlington-2nd round, ULM). Notes....The Belt has not been a multi-bid league since 2008, when Western Kentucky and South Alabama qualified, and is likely not going to be again this season, though UTA could at least enter the at-large conversation with the Selection Committee if the Movin' Mavs make the final and lose in the Belt Tourney at New Orleans.
WEST COAST--Solid...Gonzaga, Saint Mary's. Conference-12th. Notes...Tourney March 3-8 at Orleans Hotel Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Last year...NCAA-1 (Gonzaga-Sweet 16; NIT-2 (BYU-Seminfinals, Saint Mary's-2nd round); CBI-1 (Pepperdine). Notes...The only likely intrigue at the WCC Tourney will be if Gonzaga can maintain its unbeaten record and enter the Dance as the top overall seed, though the "pre-selection" shows seem to indicate the Committee is more likely to merely award the Zags with the top seed in the West Regional...if Mark Few's team stays unbeaten, that is. After several near-misses in recent years, Saint Mary's will not have to sweat its bid this Selection Sunday.
Included below is tourney info for the remainder of the D-I loops, with any clear-cut favorite accompanied by an *.
AMERICA EAST...Tourney March 1, 6, and 11 at home of highest seed for each matchup. Top eight teams qualify. Vermont enters as the top seed. UMass-Lowell is in its final year of a four-year transition period from Div. II and is ineligible for the conference tournament. Top contenders-Vermont*, Stony Brook, UMBC, Albany, New Hampshire. Last year...NCAA-1 (Stony Brook); CIT-1 (New Hampshire-2nd round); CBI-2 (Vermont-Semifinals, Albany).
ATLANTIC SUN...Tourney February 27, March 2, and 5 at home of highest seed for each matchup. Florida Gulf Coast has earned the top seed and home edge in the A-Sun Tourney. Top contenders-Florida Gulf Coast, Lipscomb, SC-Upstate. Last year...NCAA-1 (Florida Gulf Coast); NIT-1 (North Florida); CIT-1 (NJIT-Semifinals).
BIG SKY...Tourney March 6-11 at Reno Events Center, Reno, NV (home of NBA-DL Bighorns). Top contenders-North Dakota, Weber State, Eastern Washington. Last year...NCAA-1 (Weber State); CBI-3 (Eastern Washington-Quarterfinals, Idaho, Montana); CIT-1 (North Dakota).
BIG SOUTH...Tourney Feb. 28, March 2-3, 5. First round at campus sites, quarterfinals and semifinals at home of No. 1 seed. Highest remaining seed will host championship game. Top contenders-UNC-Asheville, Winthrop, Liberty, Gardner-Webb. Last year...NCAA-1 (UNC-Asheville); NIT-1 (High Point); CIT-1 (Coastal Carolina-Quarterfinals).
METRO ATLANTIC...Tourney March 2-6 at Trans Union Center, Albany, NY. The top five seeds gets byes into the quarterfinals; seeds 6 thru 11 compete in a play-in round. Top contenders-Monmouth, St. Peter's, Iona, Siena, Canisius. Last year...NCAA-1 (Iona); NIT-1 (Monmouth-2nd round); CBI-1 (Siena); CIT-1 (Fairfield).
MEAC...Tourney March 6-11 at The Scope, Norfolk, VA (former part-time home of the ABA Virginia Squires; not the home court of Norfolk State, which plays its games at Echols Hall). Top contenders-NC Central, Norfolk State, Hampton, Morgan State. Last year...NCAA-1 (Hampton); CIT-3 (Norfolk State, Savannah State, South Carolina State).
NORTHEAST...Tourney March 1, 4 and 7 at home of highest seed for each matchup. Mount Saint Mary's or Long Island will be the top seed. Top contenders-Mount Saint Mary's, Long Island, Wagner. Last year...NCAA-1 (Fairleigh Dickinson); NIT-1 (Wagner).
OHIO VALLEY...Tourney March 1-4 at Municipal Auditorium, Nashville, TN (not the home court of Nashville-based Tennessee State, which plays its games at the Gentry Complex, or Nashville-based Belmont, which plays its games at the Mike Curb Events Center). Top contenders-Belmont*, UT Martin, Murray State. Last Year...NCAA-1 (Austin Peay); NIT-1 (Belmont); CIT-2 (UT Martin-2nd round, Tennessee State); CBI-1 (Morehead State-runner-up); VEGAS 16/8-1 (Tennessee Tech).
PATRIOT...Tourney February 28, March 2, 5, and 8, all at home of higher seed for each matchup. Bucknell is the top seed. Top four seeds receive byes in first round. Top contenders-Bucknell*, Lehigh, Boston University, Navy. Last Year...NCAA-1 (Holy Cross); NIT-1 (Bucknell); CIT-2 (Boston U-2nd round, Army).
SOUTHERN...Tourney March 3-6 at U.S. Cellular Center, Asheville, NC. Top six seeds receive bye in first round. Top contenders-East Tennessee State, Furman, NC-Greensboro, Chattanooga, Wofford. Last year...NCAA-1 (Chattanooga); CBI-2 (NC Greensboro-Quaterfinals, Western Carolina); CIT-2 (Furman-2nd round, Mercer); VEGAS 16/8-1 (East Tennessee State-Semifinals).
SOUTHLAND...Tourney March 7-12 at Merrell Center, Katy, TX. Top eight teams qualify. Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian are still in their transitional period from D-II to D-I and are ineligible for the conference tournament, though can participate in the NIT, CBI, or CIT. Top contenders-New Orleans, Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Sam Houston. Last Year...NCAA-1 (Stephen F. Austin-2nd round); CIT-2 (Sam Houston, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi); CBI-1 (Houston Baptist).
SWAC...Tourney March 7, 10-11 at Toyota Center, Houston, TX. Top contenders-Texas Southern, Alcorn State, Southern. Last year...NCAA-1 (Southern-First Four); NIT-1 (Texas Southern); CIT-1 (Jackson St.-2nd round).
SUMMIT...Tourney March 4-7 at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center, Sioux Falls, SD (not the home court of nearby, Brookings-based South Dakota State, which plays its home games at Frost Arena, or nearby, Vermillion-based South Dakota, which plays its home games at the Dakota Dome). The Summit League was formerly known as Mid-Continent Conference. Top contenders-North Dakota State, South Dakota, Denver, Fort Wayne, Omaha. Last year...NCAA-1 (South Dakota State); NIT-1 (Fort Wayne); CBI-1 (Omaha).
WAC...Tourney March 8-11 at Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, NV. Grand Canyon remains in its transition period from Division II and will be ineligible for the conference tournament, but can participate in the NIT, CBI, or CIT. Top seed receives a bye into semifinals. Top contenders-CS Bakersfield, New Mexico State, UMKC. Last year...NCAA-1 (CS Bakersfield); NIT-1 (New Mexico State); CIT-1 (Seattle-2nd round).
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