When people hear the term March Madness, they often think about the NCAA Tournament. However, the madness begins with conference tournaments. Mid-major conferences have more on the line than their major counterparts. For most of them, only one team will be representing the league in the bracket. 12 conferences begin the quest for March glory this week.
Mid-Major Week One Conference Tournament Previews
Favorite: Liberty Flames
Liberty was the preseason favorite to win the league coming into the season. This was on the heels of the Flames pulling off a 12-5 upset over Mississippi State in last season’s tournament. Now, they are looking to make it two for two in tournament appearances as an Atlantic Sun member. They ended up sharing the regular-season title with second-seeded North Florida and showed more weaknesses than expected this year. Still, they won 27 games, a school regular-season record. The Flames will host all tournament games that they play and will still be dangerous if they capture this year’s title.
Sleeper: Lipscomb Bisons
Lipscomb enters this year’s Atlantic Sun tournament far from last year’s historic mid-major season. Still, this year’s three-seed could still make some noise. The Bisons ended the season with a win over Liberty, and also owns a victory over co-champion North Florida. They are 6-2 over their last eight games entering the tournament. Keep an eye on Ahsan Asadullah, who is averaging 17.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Favorite: Radford Highlanders
Radford finished strong to claim the outright regular-season title in the Big South. The Highlanders are hosting the conference tournament for the first time since 2009. However, they have hosted the championship game the prior two seasons. Radford is looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament after being denied by Gardner-Webb in last year’s Big South title game. Carlik Jones can put the team on his back, averaging 19.6 points per game this year.
Sleeper: Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs
Gardner-Webb is the defending champion in this league. The Bulldogs will not be afraid of Radford, as they defeated them on the road in their final regular-season game. They also have a win over second-seeded Winthrop. They have won seven of eight heading into the tournament. Gardner-Webb has four players pacing them with double-digit scoring this season.
Favorite: Hofstra Pride
The Pride captured their second straight outright Colonial title this year. However, last year ended in disappointment in a loss to Northeastern in the title game last season. Hofstra started slow this year, a reversal from their dominance over everyone a year ago. Desure Buie and Eli Pemberton create a one-two punch that can be tough to deal with.
Sleeper: Delaware Fighting Blue Hens
The fifth-seeded Hens might be a slight stretch for a sleeper considering their quarterfinal opponent is Charleston. Delaware could not beat the Cougars this season. However, if they can banish their demons they could make a run. The Blue Hens defeated Hofstra on the road this year, meaning they will not be intimidated if they meet in the semifinals. If teams let Nate Darling get hot, they may see Delaware raising a trophy.
Favorite: Wright State Raiders
Wright State has been a mainstay of competitiveness in the Horizon League over the last few seasons. However, the Raiders won their first outright league title for the first time in school history. That earned them a double-bye straight to the semifinals played in Indianapolis. They will more than likely meet rival Northern Kentucky, whom they have played in the last two conference title games. They swept the Norse this season.
Sleeper: Illinois-Chicago Flames
UIC was the preseason favorite this year in some publications. The Flames were touted because of their upperclassmen-heavy roster. They do own victories over both Wright State and Northern Kentucky this season. The win over Northern Kentucky really stood out, as it was by 30 on the road. Tarkus Ferguson is their go-to guy.
Favorite: Northern Iowa Panthers
Northern Iowa has teetered on the mid-major bubble all season. The Panthers did not help themselves in conference play and will need to win the automatic bid to feel truly comfortable on Selection Sunday. This was the first Missouri Valley regular-season title for Northern Iowa in ten years. Panther fans will be glad to know that their school has won Arch Madness each time they have been the top seed.
Sleeper: Indiana State Sycamores
Indiana State has won four in a row heading into the tournament. The Sycamores just defeated Northern Iowa a week ago which should give them confidence if they face them in the championship game. The third-seeded Sycamores should also find solace in that 39 of the 43 Missouri Valley tournaments have been won by the top three seeds.
Favorite: San Diego State Aztecs
San Diego State continues to be a top-five team despite taking their only loss of the season a week ago. Anything short of a conference tournament title may jeopardize their chances at earning a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs are led by player of the year candidate Malachi Flynn and are a contender for a national title.
Sleeper: UNLV Rebels
UNLV is the four seed in this tournament and is the only team to beat San Diego State this season. They have won five in a row coming in and get the added benefit of playing this competition in their backyard. The Rebels also beat mid-major bubble squad Utah State, who is the second seed. UNLV has a chance to make a run.
Favorite: Robert Morris Colonials
Robert Morris finds itself as the top seed since Merrimack cannot participate due to being a first-year Division I team. That means that this year’s tournament champion will not possess a regular-season title. The Colonials will get to host all their games so long as they keep winning. They are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.
Sleeper: Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
Fairleigh Dickinson is the five seed in this tournament, though they have a sweep over top-seeded Robert Morris this season. The Knights are also the defending tournament champions. Kaleb Bishop paces FDU with 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
Favorite: Belmont Bruins
This is not last year’s version of Belmont that earned a mid-major at-large bid. These Bruins did not even capture the top seed until the last day of conference play. However, they are still dangerous, having won 10 in a row coming into the tournament. If Belmont can get back to the Big Dance they could be a sleeper upset pick.
Sleeper: Eastern Illinois Panthers
Eastern Illinois played Belmont early before they improved this season. They also have wins over Austin Peay and Murray State just a few weeks ago. Josiah Wallace has been on fire recently, and he could be the reason the Panthers make a run.
Favorite: Colgate Raiders
Colgate is the top seed for the second straight year. The Raiders will host all games that they play, giving them an advantage. One thing to watch for is that they could play teams that have beaten them in each round. Colgate has well-rounded scoring, with five players averaging double figures.
Sleeper: Lafayette Leopards
Lafayette is the only team that swept Colgate this year. The Leopards also split against second-seeded American. To make any kind of run they will need to beat Army for the first time this season. Justin Jaworski makes this team go.
Favorite: East Tennessee State Buccaneers
East Tennessee State is the mid-major in the best position to earn an at-large bid. The Buccaneers have shining metrics and a solid profile. As long as they only lose to Furman or UNC Greensboro in this tournament, they should be able to make a strong case for inclusion on Selection Sunday if the auto-bid eludes them.
Sleeper: Wofford Terriers
Last season’s mid-major darlings find themselves as only the seventh-best team in the strong Southern Conference. Still, the Terriers beat UNCG and Furman this year while hanging tough in both losses to ETSU. A team that retains some of the talent from last year’s run can make them dangerous if they can regroup from a seven-game losing streak.
Favorite: North Dakota State Bison
North Dakota State was the preseason favorite, though they did not clinch the top seed until the final day of the season. This team is looking to make back-to-back tournament appearances. Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward average 34.6 points per game combined.
Sleeper: South Dakota Coyotes
South Dakota has beaten second seed South Dakota State and played North Dakota State close. They also have the tournament being played in-state in Sioux Falls. Tyler Hagedorn is a star player who can take over a game when needed.
Favorite: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga finds itself in a familiar position heading into the WCC tournament. They are the unquestioned favorites and national title contenders once again. They were tested more than usual this season, which may open the door for another team to capture the tournament title again this year.
Sleeper: Pepperdine Waves
Pepperdine did not win a game against any of the top three this season, but they pushed Gonzaga in both matchups. The Waves have Colbey Ross, who is a scoring machine, and Lorenzo Romar, who is a seasoned coach. Pepperdine may find a way to disrupt the status quo in this tournament.
Mid-Major Conference Tournaments
No matter who you root for, this is the most exciting time of the year. My suggestion is to sit back and enjoy many of the fantastic games that come out of these tournaments.