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Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Big Ten enters conference tournament week with some intriguing storylines after an unbalanced league schedule and a lot of competitive teams towards the top of the standings. Indiana took home the conference’s regular-season title by two full games, but the Hoosiers played a much weaker schedule than many of their top Big Ten counterparts as this conference tournament should truly tell us where Indiana is at heading into the Big Dance.

Michigan State is also peaking at the right time as Denzel Valentine looks like a potential National Player of the Year and the Spartans look like a major national-title contender. Besides the top two seeds, Maryland, Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin will all try to improve their NCAA tournament seeding with strong showings in Indianapolis while Michigan and Ohio State try to do everything they can to claw their way into the at-large discussion.

The Bracket 

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When: March 9-13

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

Final: Sunday, March 13, 3:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: Michigan State

Would you want to bet against Michigan State in March? Yeah, me neither. The Spartans have won six consecutive games entering the Big Ten Tournament (by an average of 21.1 points per game) as they’re playing perhaps their best ball of the season. Denzel Valentine is one of the best players in the country, Bryn Forbes is a great second option and one of the nation’s best shooters and the Spartans might have more talent on this roster than last year’s Final Four team.

And if they lose?: Indiana

The No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers played an easier schedule than some in the conference this season, but they still deserve plenty of credit for winning the league by two full games. Winners of five consecutive games, Indiana has improved immensely on the defensive end since the start of the season and they feature one of the most potent offenses in the country. Although Indiana is the No. 1 seed, they’re 0-1 against No. 2 seed Michigan State this season, suffering an 88-69 loss in East Lansing on Feb. 14.

Other Contenders:

  • Maryland: The Terps are 2-4 in their last six games, but they have enough talent to compete with any team in the league if they come together.
  • Purdue: Purdue’s front-court depth makes them a tough out in a tournament setting, but the Boilers have to hit perimeter shots to beat the Big Ten’s elite teams.

Sleeper: Wisconsin

Entering as the No. 6 seed, it’s hard to call the Badgers a “sleeper” in this since they’re safely in the NCAA tournament field, but they do have the kind of team that can make a run in Indianapolis. If the Badgers get Maryland in the quarterfinals, they gave the Terps everything they could handle in splitting during the regular season. Wisconsin also owns a win over the conference’s top two seeds, Indiana and Michigan State, this season.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Michigan: The Wolverines have dropped four of their last five entering the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has to beat Northwestern in its opener on Thursday and then follow that up by beating No. 1 seed Indiana on Friday. Even if Michigan wins those first two games, they probably wouldn’t truly feel safe unless they win another game to make the tournament title game.
  • Ohio State: Ohio State is doing everything they can to stay relevant on Selection Sunday, but they’re going to have to win multiple games to get in as an at-large team. The Buckeyes have to beat Penn State on Thursday and probably need another win against Michigan State after that to even be considered. Much like rival Michigan, Ohio State is going to need as many wins as possible next week to feel comfortable as a credible at-large threat.

Big Ten Player of the Year: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

The runaway winner of this award is Valentine, who is also a strong contender for National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior was simply dominant whenever he took the floor this season, as Valentine averaged 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. While filling up the box score every night, Valentine was also ruthlessly efficient, as he improved all of his shooting splits from his junior season (47% FG, 84% FT, 45% 3PT). Besides putting up big numbers, Valentine is perhaps the country’s most important emotional leader, as he gives the Spartans the kind of attitude that makes them legitimate national title contenders when he’s on the floor.

Big Ten Coach of the Year: Greg Gard, Wisconsin

You could just as easily give this award to Indiana’s Tom Crean for the tremendous job he’s done this season, but Indiana was supposed to be good. Wisconsin was in shambles when Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan on Dec. 15. It took awhile for the Badgers to adjust to the veteran assistant — and overcome the emotional departure of Ryan — but Gard has coached Wisconsin to the point of making a NCAA tournament at-large bid when they were only 9-9 on Jan. 12. That’s a remarkable turnaround, and now, the Badgers are a team that nobody wants to play in March again.

First-Team All-Big Ten:

  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (POY)
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa: One of the nation’s most versatile forwards, the senior was top 15 in the Big Ten in scoring (second), rebounding (11th), free-throw percentage (ninth), 3-pointers made (13th) and blocked shots (first). Uthoff’s improvement made Iowa a legitimate threat in the Big Ten and he gave the Hawkeyes a rim protector that they needed.
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue: Among Purdue’s loaded frontcourt, the senior was the toughest cover, as he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in Big Ten play while shooting 57 percent from the floor. Hammons’ numbers are even more impressive when you consider the limited minutes that he played compared to many starting-caliber players in the Big Ten.
  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Another senior to make the All-Big Ten first team, Ferrell was sensational as Indiana’s team leader and point guard. Ferrell continued to improve his all-around numbers while also stepping up as a better defender and team leader. During a season in which the pressure was on Ferrell to win, he guided Indiana to a Big Ten title.
  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Although some of his numbers went down after a breakout freshman season, Trimble became more of a point guard in his second season in College Park. Trimble averaged 5.2 assists per game after only 3.0 per game as a freshman, as he had more weapons around him this season. Still one of the game’s great clutch players, Trimble has ice in his veins with the game on the line.

Second Team All-Big Ten:

  • Peter Jok, Iowa
  • Bryn Forbes, Michigan State
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
  • Matt Costello, Michigan State

Defining moment of the season: Indiana clinched the outright Big Ten title on Iowa’s home floor. It’s the second time in four years that Tom Crean has won an outright Big Ten regular season title.

CBT Prediction: Michigan State beats Indiana

Conference USA Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Conference USA tournament will likely be UAB be and a host of other contenders looking to knock off the Blazers after they cleared the league by three games this season in their quest to secure a second-straight NCAA tournament berth. The Blazers might have separated themselves, but there is enough punching power in the rest of the league to make things interesting in Birmingham.

The Bracket

ChampionshipBracket

When: March 8-12

Where: Legacy Arena at BJCC, Birmingham, Ala.

Final: Saturday, March 12, 1:30 p.m. (FS1)

Favorite: UAB

The Blazers knocked off Iowa State in one of the biggest upsets of last year’s NCAA tournament and continued the momentum to the tune of a 16-2 conference record this season in which they went undefeated at home. UAB is a strong shooting team both inside and out, and the Blazers are one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country. They’ll be a tough out.

And if they lose?: Marshall

The Thundering Herd’s defense is porous, but their offense is the league’s best. And this isn’t a conference known for slowing people down. If they get hot, they might be able to ride their offense into the Big Dance.

Other Contenders:

  • Middle Tennessee: They looked like they might contend for the regular season crown in January, but two home losses in February kept them behind the Blazers.
  • Old Dominion: The Monarchs’ extreme slow-it-down style should keep them close in every contest.
  • Louisiana Tech: Alex Hamilton is a load offensively and could be the difference in at least one game.

CUSA Player of the Year: Trey Freeman, Old Dominion

Freeman carried a massive offensive burden for the Monarchs, but was still able to be efficient, especially during conference play, fueling Old Dominion’s offense through scoring, passing and ball-handling.

CUSA Coach of the Year: Jared Haase, UAB

The Blazers were the pick to win the league this season, but that doesn’t diminish what Haase and UAB accomplished with the rest of the league gunning to knock them off. Should UAB make another tournament, the former North Carolina assistant will no doubt be mentioned as a potential target for high major programs.

First-Team All-CUSA:

  • Trey Freeman, Old Dominion
  • Marcus Evans, Rice
  • James Kelly, Marshall
  • Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech
  • Robert Brown, UAB

CBT Prediction: UAB over Marshall

Big Sky Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Big Sky tournament underwent massive changes in advance of this season, as all 12 teams will get to participate and a neutral site will be used. Reno will be the site this year, which is a big difference from seasons past in which the top seed served as the host. As expected Weber State and Montana were the top two combatants for the regular season crown, with Randy Rahe’s Wildcats claiming the title despite losing league Player of the Year candidate Joel Bolomboy for two games due to injury. The Wildcats and Grizzlies will be the favorites in Reno, but getting to the title game will be a challenge for both.

The Bracket

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When: March 8, 10-12

Where: Reno Events Center, Reno, Nevada

Final: March 12, 8:45 p.m. (ESPNU)

Favorite: Weber State

Many of the players in Randy Rahe’s current rotation were members of the team that reached the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, which should help Weber State even with the changes to the format and location of the Big Sky tournament. Of course it also helps to have talent, and there’s no shortage of that in Ogden. It all starts with the Big Sky’s best big man in Joel Bolomboy, and guard Jeremy Senglin (17.2 ppg in Big Sky games) is a force to be reckoned with as well. And with nine players playing at least 15 minutes per game in conference play, the Wildcats have the depth needed to navigate three games in three days.

And if they lose?: Montana

The Griz missed out on a share of the Big Sky regular season title as they lost to Northern Colorado Saturday, but Travis DeCuire’s team won six of their final eight games with the other loss coming at the hands of Weber State. Martin Breunig has been one of the conference’s best players, and the play of guards Walter Wright and Michael Oguine has been key as expected starter Mario Dunn missed 12 games due to injury. Only Eastern Washington was better in conference play from an offensive efficiency standpoint, and defensively the Griz ranked first in the Big Sky in both defensive rebounding and three-point percentage and third in field goal percentage.

Other Contenders:

  • Idaho: The Vandals shot 38.2 percent from three in Big Sky play (Chad Sherwood shot 45.1 percent), and they were also the best team in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage. Defensively, only Weber State was better from an efficiency standpoint.
  • Idaho State: The Bengals have two guards who can put points on the board in Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando. But they’ll most likely have to figure out their matchup issues with No. 5 North Dakota if they’re to make a run.
  • North Dakota: Brian Jones’ team swept Idaho State during the regular season, and they also split the season series with Weber State. And with a player as gifted as guard Quinton Hooker, UND could very well get to the title game.

Big Sky Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy, Weber State

Bolomboy was outstanding throughout for the regular season champions, averaging 18.2 points and 12.8 rebounds per game while also shooting 59.6 percent from the field. Bolomboy’s an incredibly tough matchup to deal with in the post, and when fouled he converted his free throws at a solid clip (73.8 percent in Big Sky games) as well.

Big Sky Coach of the Year: Bill Evans, Idaho State

Picked to finish dead last in the Big Sky preseason poll, Evans’ Bengals arrive in Reno as the four-seed. Idaho State won 11 conference games this season, with the perimeter tandem of Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando leading the way offensively. Those two combined to average 40.2 points and 4.6 steals per game in Big Sky play, and collectively the Bengals are a much-improved outfit from a season ago.

First-Team All-Big Sky:

  • Joel Bolomboy, Weber State (POY)
  • Ethan Telfair, Idaho State: One of the Big Sky’s most impactful newcomers, Telfair averaged 23.9 points and 5.7 assists per game in conference play (league leader in both categories).
  • Quinton Hooker, North Dakota: Hooker averaged 20.6 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting in Big Sky play, while also averaging four assists and two steals per contest.
  • Martin Breunig, Montana: The senior forward averaged 19.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, shooting 64.8 percent from the field.
  • Venky Jois, Eastern Washington: Averaging 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest in Big Sky play, Jois led the conference in field goal percentage (70.6).

Prediction: Weber State outlasts Montana to take the automatic bid.

Southland Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

(Victor Texcucano/The Daily Sentinel via AP)
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Does the Southland actually have a contender for Stephen F. Austin this season? The Lumberjacks have lorded over the conference for the last three seasons, getting to two NCAA tournaments and look like the overwhelming favorite to get back to a third this season. If anyone can pick them off, it’s probably Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who could end up squaring off with SFA in the title game.

The Bracket

2016_MBB_Bracket

When: March 9-12

Where: Katy, Tx.

Final: March 12, 8:30 p.m. ESPN2

Favorite: Stephen F. Austin

Why wouldn’t the Lumberjacks be the favorite to win the league title? This is the third season that Brad Underwood has been the head coach in Nacogdoches, and he’s not only been to two NCAA tournaments — with a first round win over VCU in there — but he’s lost a single game to Southland foes. In three years. Put another way, SFA is 57-1 against Southland Conference teams in the last three years. That’s absurd. So yes, Stephen F. Austin is the favorite to win the league tournament.

And if they lose?: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

The Islanders are the hottest team in the league not named SFA. They’ve won eight of their last nine games — the only loss coming to SFA in that stretch — and are 15-1 against non-Lumberjacks in Southland play, the only other team they lost to in league play is ineligible for the tournament. They’re athletic, Rashawn Thomas is a stud and they can force turnovers with the best of them. They should get a rematch with SFA in the final.

Other Contenders:

  • San Houston State: SHSU finished third in the conference, although they were 0-4 against the top two teams in the league.
  • Houston Baptist: The Huskies caught a break that Incarnate Word isn’t eligible for the tournament, as they sneak into the No. 4 seed and get a first round bye. They’ve lost eight of their last ten, however, and need to turn things around.

Southland Player of the Year: Thomas Walkup, SFA

The best player on the team that currently holds total dominance over the league is a pretty easy pick for Player of the Year, particularly when that player happens to be the reigning Southland Player of the Year.

Southland Coach of the Year: Brad Underwood, SFA

Coach of the Year is usually an award that’s given to the coach that outperforms expectations by the largest margin, which is a line of thinking that I’m not sure I totally subscribe to. It’s not totally foolish for the most part, but if you think that away about a coach that went undefeated through league play even if his team was predicted to win the league, you’re doing it wrong.

First-Team All-Southland:

  • Thomas Walkup, Stephen F. Austin
  • Rashawn Thomas, Texas A&M-CC
  • Anthony Odunsi, Houston Baptist
  • Aurimas Majauskas, Sam Houston State
  • Ty Charles, Stephen F. Austin

CBT Prediction: Are we really going to bet against SFA? No. No we’re not.

MEAC Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The MEAC conference tournament begins this week as No. 1 Hampton is the heavy favorite after making the NCAA tournament last season and winning the conference’s regular season. The Pirates (18-10, 13-3) are led by a strong inside-outside duo of Quinton Chievous and Reginald Johnson Jr as both players were first-team All-MEAC selections. Norfolk State, South Carolina State and Bethune-Cookman round out the top four seeds in the event as the winner of this conference tournament almost assuredly plays in a First Four game in Dayton.

The Bracket 

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When: March 7-12

Where: Scope Arena, Norfolk, Va.

Final: March 12, 1:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

[   MORE: All of NBCSports.com’s conference tournament previews   ]

Favorite: Hampton

After making the NCAA tournament last season, the Pirates won the conference regular season and have the league’s best duo in Quinton Chievous and Reginald Johnson Jr. Hampton’s offense can struggle at times, but their defense is among the league’s best.

And if they lose?: Norfolk State

Riding the momentum of beating Hampton for the No. 2 seed in the tournament in the last game of the regular season, Norfolk State also owns a win over No. 3 seed South Carolina State in the last few weeks. The Spartans have shown that they can beat the league’s elite and senior guard Jeff Short is one of the top players in the MEAC.

Other Contenders:

  • South Carolina State: Over their last 15 games, the Bulldogs are 12-3 and two of those losses came against Savannah State.
  • Bethune-Cookman: Before a loss to South Carolina State, the Wildcats had won five straight games to get the No. 4 seed.

MEAC Player of the Year: James Daniel, Howard

The nation’s leading scorer (27.2 ppg) and No. 20 nationally in steals, Daniel did everything he could this season for Howard. The junior guard averaged 37.1 minutes per game and was held below 20 points three times all season. His season low was 15. Daniel isn’t the most efficient scorer in college basketball but he consistently puts up points and does it against all competition.

MEAC Coach of the Year: Gravelle Craig, Bethune-Cookman

After three consecutive losing seasons in conference play, Bethune-Cookman re-tooled with nearly an entirely new roster and finished fourth in conference play at 10-6. With only two players returning from last season’s team the Wildcats faced a ton of uncertainty but they were a surprise team in league play.

First-Team All-MEAC:

  • James Daniel, Howard
  • Quinton Chievous, Hampton
  • Reginald Johnson, Jr., Hampton
  • Jeff Short, Norfolk State
  • Dominique Elliott, UMES

CBT Prediction: Hampton over South Carolina State

Southern Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Chattanooga's Matt McCall (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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This year’s version of the SoCon looks quite a bit different than last year’s version. Wofford, who won the league last season, saw their roster almost completely turned over. The team they beat in the SoCon title game last year, Furman, finished last place in the league a year ago. They’re the three seed this season. Will Wade left Chattanooga for VCU and Matt McCall, a first time head coach, out-dueled Steve Forbes, another first time Division I head coach, for the league title.

The Bracket 

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When: March 4-7

Where: U.S. Cellular Center, Asheville, N.C.

Final: March 7th, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

Favorite: Chattanooga

Matt McCall has done a phenomenal job with the Mocs this season. In his first season in Chattanooga, he lost his best player (Casey Jones) and not only won an outright SoCon regular season title, but he did it while beating Georgia, Illinois and Dayton in the process. If the Mocs can get through the SoCon tourney unscathed, they’re going to be a trendy upset pick when the brackets are released.

And if they lose?: East Tennessee State

Another head coach in his first season with a new program, former Wichita State assistant Steve Forbes brought in a boat load of transfers to build the Buccaneers into a contender. ETSU is the most talented team in the league, and while they did get swept by Chattanooga, the Bucs have won eight of their last nine games.

Other Contenders

  • Furman: Niko Medved has done a great job building on last year’s fluky run to the league title game, finishing tied for third in the league while getting carried by Stephen Croone to the league title game.
  • Wofford: The Terriers had a ton of turnover in the offseason, but they’ve been the most consistent program in the league for years.

SoCon Player of the Year: Ge’Lawn Guyn, ETSU

In his first season in the league, the Cincinnati transfer played like a high major prospect, averaging better than 18 points for the Buccaneers. Guyn played a major role in ETSU finishing second in the conference this season.

SoCon Coach of the Year: Matt McCall, Chattanooga

We touched on it earlier, but in his first season as a head coach, McCall won the conference outright and picked off three high-major teams — including Dayton at Dayton! — more or less without the Preseason SoCon Player of the Year. That’s damn impressive.

First-Team All-SoCon

  • Ge’Lawn Guyn, ETSU
  • Stephen Croone, Furman
  • Justin Tuoyo, Chattanooga
  • Tre’ McLean, Chattanooga
  • Spencer Collins, Wofford

CBT Prediction: Furman makes another run to the finals, picking off Chattanooga this season.