by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Believe it or not, the commencement of conference tournaments is at hand. And after two weeks ago providing a brief look-ahead to the postseason extravaganzas to be conducted by the major conferences, we provide a quick preview for the conference tournaments of the lower-echelon Division I leagues in this edition.

The rather recent introduction of two new events (the CollegeInsider.com Tourney, or CIT, and the College Basketball Invitational, or CBI) has provided more postseason slots and thus more opportunities for entries from the low-major leagues to have teams participate in tourneys other than the NCAA and NIT. Several of these loops are now sending multiple entries to the postseason, so it behooves handicappers to begin paying attention to these sides before they enter either the Big Dance, NIT, CBI, or CIT. Many Las Vegas sports books, which routinely post numbers on several "added" conferences (Big Sky, Metro-Atlantic, Ohio Valley, Summit, SoCon), will be including prices on almost all of these minor conference tournaments as well. Note that many of the upcoming conference tournaments will also be televised (the introduction of ESPN-3, which streams on computers, has added countless additional college hoops viewing opportunities and will be providing added coverage for many of the lower-rung D-I conference tourneys).

We've listed below, by conference alphabetical order, upcoming tournament specifics for those lower-profile Division I leagues. Also included are any teams that enjoy home-court tourney edges; the top contenders in each loop, noted by italics, with any clear-cut favorite or co-favorite accompanied by an *; and last season's conference results in the NCAA, NIT, CBI, and CIT. Before Selection Sunday, we'll also review how these leagues have fared in recent Big Dance action.

March Madness...it's here!

AMERICA EAST...First round, quarterfinals, and semis March 7-9 at SEFCU Arena, Albany, NY (home court of the Albany Great Danes); final March 15 at home of highest remaining seed. New member UMass-Lowell is in its transition period from Div. II and is ineligible for the conference tournament. Top contenders-Vermont, Stony Brook, Hartford, Albany. Notes...Vermont assumed command of the league race down the stretch and takes a 10-game win streak and top seed into Albany. The Catamounts are well-balanced and fairly good shooting (47.1% from floor and 39.2% beyond arc), though they lack a real go-to threat (6-8 sr. F Clancy Rugg is the leading scorer at 12.7 ppg). The home team of Strat-O-Matic headquarters on Long Island, Stony Brook, is the last team to beat Vermont (67-64 on Jan. 24) and features four double-digit scorers led by soph F Jameel Warney (14.9 ppg). Keep in mind that Albany made the homecourt edge work in the conference tourney last season when stealing the NCAA bid as the fifth seed. None of the bottom four seeds (UMBC, Binghamton, Maine, or New Hampshire) won more than nine games in the regular season. Last year...NCAA-Vermont lost vs. Duke, 73-6; NIT-Stony Brook won vs. UMass 71-58, lost vs. Iowa 75-63; CBI-Vermont lost at Santa Clara, 77-67; CIT-Boston U lost at Loyola (Maryland), 70-63; Hartford lost vs. Rider, 63-54.

ATLANTIC SUN...Tourney March 4, 6, 9, all at homecourts of higher seeds. Florida Gulf Coast is the top seed. Top contenders-Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer, South Carolina-Upstate. Notes...This conference tourney was where FGCU and "Dunk City" started its longshot run to the Sweet 16 last March when the event was held on Mercer's home floor. This season, it's all campus sites, and the Eagles have the home edge based on a tiebreaker vs. the Bears. Mercer, however, also has some postseason pedigree, winning the CIT two years ago and still featuring a couple of key contributors from that team in srs. G Langston Hall (team-leading 14.9 ppg) and F Daniel Coursey (10.1 ppg). Mercer, which defeated Tennessee in a first-round NIT game last March, also beat Seton Hall and Ole Miss in pre-league play. "Dunk City" no longer has last year's coach (Andy Enfield moving to Southern Cal) but does have four starters back from last year's Cindrella bunch, led by jr. Gs Bernard Thompson (15.1 ppg) & Brett Comer (14.2 ppg). Last year...NCAA-FGCU won vs. Georgetown, 78-68; won vs. San Diego State, 81-71; lost vs. Florida, 62-50; NIT-Mercer won at Tennessee, 75-67; lost at BYU, 90-71.

BIG SKY...Tourney March 13-15 at home of regular-season champion Weber State. Top seven teams qualify; top seed Weber State will get a bye into the semifinal round. Top contenders -Weber State, North Dakota, Montana, Eastern Washington. Notes...The Sky had a very topsy-turvy race that didn't sort out at the top until the end of February, when Weber State finally emerged and was able to sew up the home edge in the conference tourney prior to this week's final regular-season games. Although the Wildcats were hardly as dominant as many were expecting after returning most of the team that advanced to the CIT final last season. That was a bit of a surprise considering the presence of sr. G Davion Berry (19.1 ppg), a Cal State Monterey Sea Otter transfer (and another Oakland product as was recent Weber star Damian Lillard) and considered the Sky's best talent. Coach Randy Rahe also returned another All-Sky performer in 6-10 C Kyle Tresnak (11.2 ppg), and frosh combo G Kyle Senglin (11.6 pgp) might be the league's best newcomer. Despite some less-than impressive efforts, they're the team to beat. There are several dangerous scorers among the top contenders, including North Dakota's Troy Huff (19.4 ppg), Montana's Kareem Jamar (19.7 ppg), and Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey (21.8 ppg), although Harvey's Eagles are still no sure bet to even make the field of seven. If EWU qualifies, however, it might be pose the biggest challenge to Weber because of the Eagles' hot recent play. The 2012 & '13 tourney champs from Montana still have the aforementioned Jamar and a potent backcourt, but Wayne Tinkle's Grizzlies are undersized this season and one of the lowest-ranked rebounding teams in the country. Last year...NCAA-Montana lost vs. Syracuse, 81-34; CIT-Weber State won vs. Cal Poly, 85-43; won vs. Air Force, 78-57; won vs. Oral Roberts, 83-74; won at Northern Iowa 59-56; lost vs. East Carolina 77-74; North Dakota lost at Northern Iowa, 77-66.

BIG SOUTH...Tourney March 4-9 at HTC Center, Conway, SC (home court of Coastal Carolina Chanticleers). Top contenders -High Point, VMI, Coastal Carolina, Radford, Winthrop, Gardner-Webb, UNC-Asheville. Notes...Absolutely, completely wide-open event with the top seven teams separated by just two games in the league standings. The most consistent of that bunch has probably been High Point, coached by up-and-comer Scott Cherry, a former North Carolina Tar Heel under Dean Smith whose coaching career includes several seasons on Jim Larranaga's George Mason staff, including the Patriots' Final Four campaign of 2005-06. The Point made the CIT field last season and owns perhaps the most-dynamic element in the Big South, ACC-caliber 6-7 soph F John Brown (19.6 ppg). Keep an eye, however, on explosive VMI, the nation's top scoring team (88.5 ppg) featuring an electric trio comprised of Gs frosh QJ Peterson & sr. Rodney Glasgow, plus 6-9 bruiser PF D.J. Covington, giving the Keydets three players scoring better than 18 ppg. Note of caution in this league...remember that low-seeded Liberty, after just 12 wins entering the tourney last season, won the event to steal a Big Dance bid. The winner in Myrtle Beach is very likely to be involved in one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games at Dayton. Last year...NCAA-Liberty lost vs. North Carolina A&T, 73-72; NIT-Charleston Southern lost at Southern Miss, 78-71; CIT-High Point lost at UC Irvine, 80-71; Gardner-Webb lost vs. Eastern Kentucky, 69-62.

METRO ATLANTIC...Tourney March 6-10 at MassMutual Center, Springfield, MA. The top five seeds get byes in the first round; games will pit 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, and 8 vs. 9, with winners advancing to quarterfinal round. Top contenders -Iona, Manhattan, Quinnipiac, Canisius. Notes...By virtue of wins in 12 of its last 13 games, Iona enters Springfield in the pole position for its third straight MAAC Tourney crown and Big Dance berth. The Gaels are a bit better-balanced than in recent seasons, though still own lots of potency in the backcourt with Gs Sean Armand (17.6 ppg) & A.J. English (17.5 ppg). Iona's only slump this season came when losing 4 of 5 around New Year's when 6-7 F Isaiah Williams (10.7 ppg) was unavailable, but the ascent commenced soon upon his return. Steve Masiello's Manhattan, a bitter loser to the Gaels in last year's title game and the only team to beat Iona in nearly two months, can't wait to take another swing at the Gaels now that do-everything G George Beamon (19.6 ppg; injured last season) is once again in the fold. The Jaspers also own the top defensive force in the MAAC in 6-7 PF Rhamel Brown, one of the nation's leaders in blocked shots (3.9 pg). Canisius cannot be overlooked, either, with MAAC high scorer G Billy Baron (24.9 ppg; son of HC Jim Baron) capable of shooting the Griffs into any game. Last year...NCAA-Iona lost vs. Ohio State, 95-70; NIT-Niagara lost at Maryland, 86-70; CIT-Canisius won vs. Elon, 69-53; won in OT at Youngstown State, 84-82; lost vs. Evansville, 84-83; Loyola-Maryland won vs. Boston U, 70-63; won vs. Kent State, 73-59; lost at East Carolina, 70-58; Rider won at Hartford, 63-54; lost at East Carolina, 75-54; Fairfield lost at Kent State, 73-71.

MEAC...Tourney March 10-15 at the Scope, Norfolk, VA (not the home court of Norfolk State, which plays its games at Echols Hall); First round pits seed 4 vs. 13, 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, and 8 vs. 9; winners advance to quarterfinals, and so forth. Top contenders -NC Central*, Hampton, Norfolk State, Morgan State. Notes... NC Central is the clear favorite entering Norfolk next week, but Levelle Moton's high-flying Eagles had better beware, because the top seed has lost three straight years in the quarterfinal round of this event, not even getting close enough for a sniff of the title game. Having said that, most expect NCC to prevail and note that the Eagles are probably the only MEAC rep that would likely bypass one of the 16 vs. 16 play-in games that have often involved loop tourney champs in the past. The Eagles also took a 15-game SU win streak into Monday's game vs. Savannah State, and Moton's team was good enough to beat NC State and play unbeaten Wichita State within 11 in pre-league play. Senior G Jeremy Ingram (20.4 ppg) is one of the most lethal scoring threats in the league. An interesting darkhorse could be Todd Bozeman's Morgan State, which dealt with a near-suicidal non-conference slate only to emerge stronger for conference play. The Baltimore-based Bears are led by potent sr. G Justin Black (18.8 ppg). Last year...NCAA-North Carolina A&T won vs. Liberty, 73-72; lost vs. Louisville, 79-48; NIT-Norfolk State lost at Virginia, 67-56; CIT-Savannah State lost at East Carolina, 66-65.

NORTHEAST...Quarterfinals March 5, semis March 8, final March 11, all at home of highest seed. Top contenders -Robert Morris, Bryant, Wagner, St. Francis (NY). Notes...Here we go again with the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, Robert Morris, which appeared to be an NEC also-ran after a difficult pre-league experience and being minus three starters from last year's contender that beat Kentucky in the NIT. But HC Andy Toole has confirmed his candidacy for future openings up the ladder by steering the Colonials to the NEC regular-season crown and homecourt edge in Moon Township for as long as RMU stays alive in this tourney. Senior G Karvel Anderson (19.6 ppg) and all-name F Lucky Jones (13.3 ppg), two holdovers from last season, have fueled the charge. Bob Beckel's alma mater Wagner enters the tourney on the heels of eight straight wins. The Staten Island-based Seahawks play their roles well and are the best rebounding team in the loop, as Fs Mario Moody & Orlando Parker stay put in the paint and remain there for 40 minutes (or as long as they are on the floor). St. Francis (NY) beat Jim Larranaga's Miami Hurricanes and almost beat Jim Boeheim's Syracuse in pre-league play. Last year...NCAA-Long Island lost vs. James Madison, 68-55; NIT-Robert Morris won vs. Kentucky, 59-57; lost at Providence, 77-68.

OHIO VALLEY...Tourney March 5-8 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, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State. Notes...Belmont has not skipped a beat since moving from the Atlantic Sun last year, winning the OVC bid to the Dance last March and being the top seed again entering this year's event, played across town from campus in Nashville at the Municipal Auditorium, an early '60s creation that looks as if it landed in Music City straight from an episode of The Jetsons. Rick Byrd's team has been to the Dance six times since 2006 and closed the regular season with six straight wins, with sr. 6-5 swingman J.J. Mann (18.4 ppg) and soph G Craig Bradshaw (15.6 ppg) assuming much greater scoring burdens this season. With four scorers averaging better than 13 points, Murray State has the balance to do well in the bang-bang-bang succession of a tourney format, while Eastern Kentucky has won 46 games the past two seasons, shoots the lights out (49% from floor), and owns maybe the league's best guard in sr. Glenn Cosey (18.8 ppg & 85.1% from the FT line). Looking for a longshot? Try SE Missouri State, which at 50% from the floor (ranks 4th nationally) shoots even better than EKU, and just beat Murray in double OT on Saturday. The Redhawks also have two 19+ ppg scorers in juco F Jarekious Bradley (19.4 ppg) and former Missouri transfer F Tyler Stone (19.1 ppg). Heady sr. PG Lucas Nutt, son of HC Dickey Nutt, is one of the top assist men in the OVC. Last Year...NCAA-Belmont lost vs. Arizona, 81-64; CIT-Eastern Kentucky won at Gardner-Webb, 69-62; lost at Evansville, 86-72. Tennessee State lost at Evansville, 84-72.

PATRIOT...Tourney March 3-12, all at home of higher seeds. Top four seeds receive byes in first round. Top contenders -Boston U, American, Holy Cross, Bucknell. Notes...Patriot newcomer Boston U, which returned all five starters from last year's team that competed in the America East and qualified for the CIT, picked a good year to switch leagues, as some of the recent Patriot powerhouses are down a bit, which was not unexpected after recent stars such as Lehigh's C.J. McCollum and Bucknell's Mike Muscala were drafted by the NBA after last season. The Terriers have been cutting it close lately, however, with five of their last six games decided by single-digit margins, including a home loss vs. CBS head honcho Les Moonves' alma mater Bucknell, which could be an interesting darkhorse after winning its final six regular-season games as sr. G Cameron Ayers (15.5 ppg) stepped up his scoring production. American U set the pace for much of the season thanks to its superb 49.5% FG shooting (fifth nationally), though the Eagles enter the tourney having lost three of five. Still, they will host games in this event, across the street from where Chris Matthews works (and where Norah o'Donnell used to work) at the NBC News Washington bureau, unless they must face Boston U. Last Year...NCAA-Bucknell lost vs. Butler, 68-56; CBI-Lehigh lost at Wyoming, 67-66.

SOUTHERN...Tourney March 8-11 at U.S. Cellular Center, Asheville, NC. Top contenders -Davidson*, Chattanooga, Wofford. Notes...Before bolting for the A-10 next season, Davidson is having a last hurrah in the SoCon, streaking to 12 straight wins to run away with the regular-season crown and establish itself as the clear favorite in Asheville. Savvy vet HC Bob McKilliop, who bears a resemblance to the late, great Leslie Nielsen, had to break in three new starters from last year's Big Dance qualifier, and the Wildcats took their lumps vs. a tough pre-league slate, but they emerged as a force behind a familiar name from past March runs, F De'Mon Brooks (18.4 ppg), plus a Miami-Ohio transfer, G Brian Sullivan, who proved invaluable by contributing 13.5 ppg. Wofford is the only team that played Davidson tough down the stretch, and the upperclassmen-laden Terriers finally put things together in late January when embarking upon a nine-game winning streak fueled by jr. G Karl Cochran (15.2 ppg). Chattanooga had earlier run off ten wins in a row during a surge that roughly coincided with the return to active duty of soph G Ronrico White (11.2 ppg) from preseason hip surgery. Ole Miss transfer and former footballer Z Mason is a force on the blocks as well. Last year...NCAA-Davidson lost vs. Marquette, 59-58; CBI-College of Charleston lost vs. George Mason, 78-77; CIT-Elon lost at Canisius, 69-53.

SOUTHLAND...Tourney March 12-15 at Merrell Center, Katy, TX. New members Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word are in the transition period from Division II and will be ineligible for the conference tourney until the 2017-18 season. Top contenders -Stephen F. Austin*, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Sam Houston State, Oral Roberts, Northwestern State. Notes...If this looks a bit familiar to last year regarding SFA, it should, because the 'Jacks were also heavily favored in this event last March only to get KO'd in Katy and settle for the NIT instead before HC Danny "Cool McCool" Kaspar departed for Texas State in the offseason. But new HC Brad Underwood (who moved from South Carolina, where he assisted Frank "The Bouncer" Martin), plugged in three new starters, and SFA has not skipped a beat. Some suggest that if the 'Jacks met the same fate in the Southland Tourney as a year ago, they still might be on the radar for an NCAA Tourney at-large berth. Could you imagine two Southland entries in the Big Dance? Totally unselfish team led by 6-6 jr. F Jacob Parker, who has almost doubled his scoring output from a year ago to 14.8 ppg. Given a puncher's chance might be Oral Roberts, with a lethal 1-2 punch in former Utah transfer F Shawn Glover (21.7 ppg) and soph G Korey Billbury (14.9 ppg), a local Tulsa product with a string of four straight 20+ games. Last Year...NCAA-Northwestern State lost vs. Florida, 79-47; NIT-Stephen F. Austin lost at Stanford, 58-57; CIT-Oral Roberts won at UT-Arlington, 87-76; won vs. UC Irvine, 76-62; lost at Weber State, 83-74.

SWAC...Tourney March 11-15 at Toyota Center, Houston, TX. Grambling, Mississippi Valley State, Arkansas Pine Bluff, and Southern U are all ineligible for the NCAA Tourney due to APR scores, but will compete in the conference tourney. Top contenders -Alabama State, Texas Southern, Alabama A&M. Notes... The SWAC has received a special exemption from the NCAA to adjust which team earns its automatic berth to the tournament. If one of the four ineligible teams wins the tournament, then the team among the six eligible teams that advances the furthest in the tournament would receive the NCAA tournament bid. If there is a tie among those six teams, then the bid will go to the highest seed among those tied teams. Looks like a 16 vs. 16 play-in game spot for the SWAC, though don't forget that Southern U came as close as we have seen in years to pulling a 16 vs. 1 upset in the sub-regional last season against Gonzaga. Last year...NCAA-Southern U lost vs. Gonzaga, 64-58.

SUMMIT...Tourney March 8-11 at Sioux Falls Arena, 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). New member Nebraska-Omaha is ineligible in its transition year from Division II. The Summit League was formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference. Top contenders -North Dakota State, IPFW, South Dakota State, Denver. Notes...Wins in seven straight and 12 of 13 have thrust NDSU into the pole position for the upcoming Summit event in Sioux Falls. The Bison have also mostly been steamrollering their Summit foes in this surge, fueled by the nation's most-accurate shooting offense (50.9% from floor!). Hybrid 6-7 point-forward Taylor Braun (18 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.0 apg) is a 4-year starter and a matchup nightmare for foes, while another sr., bruising 6'8, 250-lb. PF Marshall Bjorklund (career-best 13.6 ppg), anchors the paint. The best chance to knock off the Bison might be owned by another hot-shooting team, IPFW, hitting 49.1% from the floor (tenth nationally) with a deep (nine players average ten or more minutes) and well-balanced (eight score between 7-15 ppg) roster, led by 6-5 swingman Luis Jacobo's 14.9 ppg. The Mastodons and NDSU split a pair of 11-point decisions this season, and it's worth noting Jacobo more than held his own vs. Braun, narrowly outscoring him (32-30) over the two games. Last year...NCAA-South Dakota State lost vs. Michigan, 71-56; CIT-Oakland lost at Youngstown State, 99-87.

WAC...Tourney March 12-15 at Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, NV. New member Grand Canyon is ineligible in its transition year from Division II. Top contenders -Utah Valley State, New Mexico State. Notes... What is left of the WAC contains only a few familiar names from the recent past (specifically New Mexico State, which has earned two straight Big Dance invitations from the loop). Suddenly, however, there has been some extra Tabasco sauce added to the burgeoning Utah Valley State-NM State rivalry after the melee following last week's Wolverine OT win in Orem. For what it's worth, the Aggies have been something of a disappointment this season, failing to dominate the watered-down WAC as most had expected despite owning more size than any team in the loop (thanks in part to 7-5 soph Sim Bhullar) and the league's most exciting player in skywalking 6-4 G Daniel Mullings (16.9 ppg). But NMSU has mostly played to the level of the competition in this league. Vet HC Dick Hunsaker (former Ball State HC; also interim HC at Utah when Rick Majerus took a leave in 2001) has steered this program since its inception as a 4-year entity in 2002, and his son Holton (a four-year starter at G) leads the team in scoring at 13.5 ppg. Though NMSU is more physically imposing than UVSU, Hunsaker is squeezing more out of his material than Aggie counterpart Marvin Menzies. Last year...NCAA-New Mexico State lost vs. Saint Louis, 64-44; NIT-La Tech won at Florida State, 71-62; lost at Southern Miss, 63-52; Denver won vs. Ohio, 61-57; lost at Maryland, 62-52.

Next issue: Part II of Save This Spot on the Mount Rushmore of Hoops!

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