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Conference USA Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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UTEP had quite a bit of hype entering the season, thanks in large part to potential first round pick Vince Hunter. Old Dominion was the trendy pick to win the league early in the year, thanks to a win over VCU and the play of star guard Trey Freeman. But at the end of the day, Louisiana Tech, who entered the season as the league favorite, left as the league champion.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology | The updated top 25

The Bracket

source:

When: March 11-14

Where: Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Al.

Final: March 14, 2:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

READ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

Favorite: Louisiana Tech

The Bulldogs are still the conference’s resident powerhouse, as Mike White as built the Louisiana Tech program into one of the most entertaining teams in the country. They have a trio of really good guards that will make them difficult to matchup with, and their defense can be overwhelming at times.

And if they lose?: Old Dominion

The Monarchs flirted with the NCAA tournament bubble for a while, even finding themselves ranked in the top 25 after a win over VCU, but they came back to earth during Conference USA play. ODU finished tied for second in the conference, but with Trey Freeman running the show, they’re good enough to get to the NCAA tournament.

Sleepers:

  • UTEP: The Miners won seven of their last nine games on the season, are coached by former NBA head man Tim Floyd and have a future pro on their roster in Vince Hunter.
  • Western Kentucky: Twice in the last three years, the Hilltoppers have made runs to an automatic bid. And while that was while they were a member of the Sun Belt, having stars T.J. Price and George Fant on the roster certainly doesn’t hurt.

Player of the Year: Trey Freeman, Old Dominion

One of Louisiana Tech’s trio of great guards will probably end up winning the actual award, but for my money, Freeman was the best — and most valuable — player in the conference this season.

Coach of the Year: Mike White, Louisiana Tech

Quite often, the award for Coach of the Year goes to the guy whose team outlived expectations. The Bulldogs were picked to win the league, and they did. By two full games despite the fact that Conference USA was balanced and competitive. That’s impressive.

All-Conference USA Team:

  • Freeman
  • Vince Hunter, UTEP – Hunter averaged 15.2 points, 9.3 boards and 1.0 blocks, all of which were top ten in the conference. He’s the league’s best pro prospect.
  • T.J. Price, Western Kentucky – Price is capable of huge games, and when he’s playing well, the Hilltoppers can beat anyone in the conference.
  • Speedy Smith, Louisiana Tech – Smith averaged less than six points, but he is one of the best passers in America and helped spur on their defense.
  • Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech – Hamilton was the best player on the league’s best team, yet he didn’t lead the team in a single statistical category.

CBT PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech knocks off Old Dominion in the finals.

MAC Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Buffalo's Justin Moss (AP)
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Buffalo’s Justin Moss (AP)

 READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology | The updated top 25

All 12 of the MAC’s members lost at least six conference games during the conference’s 18-game league schedule. So, in other words, this is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable conference tournaments of 2015. The top four seeds in the field — Central Michigan, Buffalo, Kent State and Toledo were all within a game of each other in the standings this season.

The Bracket

source:

When: March 9-14

Where: Campus sites for first round, Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for the rest

Final: Saturday, March 14, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2

READ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

Favorite: Buffalo

Winners of six consecutive games entering the MAC Tournament, the Bulls have a potent duo in forward Justin Moss and guard Shannon Evans and Bobby Hurley’s team appears to be peaking at the right time. It also helps that Buffalo doesn’t have to play until the tournament’s semifinals and they swept potential semifinal opponent Kent State during the regular season.

And if they lose?: Central Michigan

While the Chippewas aren’t as hot as Buffalo, they are the No. 1 seed in the tournament and also get the advantage of not playing until the semifinals. Central Michigan also owns a pair of season sweeps over the Bulls and Toledo during the season, the two teams they could face in the MAC Tournament if the bracket holds to form.

Sleepers:

  • Kent State  – If any team in the field is used to playing — and winning — in close games, it might be the Golden Flashes. Kent State had 12 games decided by five points or less this season and went 8-4 in those games.
  • Toledo – Looking to end a 35-year NCAA Tournament drought, the Rockets won 27 games last season and were the preseason favorites to win the league. They still have a chance to make a run here in a wide-open field.

Player of the Year: Buffalo junior forward Justin Moss

Entering 2014-15, the Bulls had the unenviable task of replacing senior forward Javon McCrea, the MAC’s reigning Conference Player of the Year. Enter Moss, who led the league in scoring (18.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.3 rpg) this season in an increased role after only playing a little over nine minutes per game last season. Remarkably consistent, Moss scored in double figures in all but three games during the regular season.

Coach of the Year: Central Michigan’s Keno Davis

The Chippewas were a MAC afterthought entering the season, as they were picked to finish fifth in the West Division in the preseason coaches’ poll. Central Michigan defied preseason expectations by finishing as the No. 1 overall seed in the conference tournament. With the league’s top offense and a much-improved defense — from last season’s last-place defense — Central Michigan went from 10-21 to 22-7 in one season.

All-MAC Team:

  • Moss
  • Julius Brown, Toledo – Efficiency was a key for the senior as Brown improved his field-goal shooting (46% FG, 41% 3PT) while also being tied for second in scoring (16.4 ppg) and fifth in assists (4.3 apg)
  • Maurice Daly Ndour, Ohio – The imposing 6-foot-9 senior was fourth in the MAC in scoring (15.6 ppg), second in rebounding (8.2 rpg) and second in blocks (2.2 bpg).
  • Chris Fowler, Central Michigan – Leading the MAC in assists (6 apg) was the junior point guard of the Chippewas. Fowler was also seventh in the league in scoring (15.3 ppg) and fifth in steals (1.5 spg).
  • Richaun Holmes, Bowling Green – The senior led the league in blocks (2.7 bpg) while also finishing second in field-goal percentage (55 percent). Holmes also averaged 14.7 points per game and was fourth in the MAC in rebounding (8 rpg).

CBT PREDICTION: Buffalo over Toledo

West Coast Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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Gonzaga looks to complete the double in Las Vegas (AP Photo)

For the 14th time in the last 15 seasons No. 7 Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference regular season title, winning 17 straight before falling to BYU in the regular season finale for both. And that result may have changed the tenor of this year’s WCC tournament, with the Cougars now in possession of the marquee victory their NCAA tournament resume lacked. Mark Few’s Bulldogs, led by senior guard Kevin Pangos, don’t lack for options on the perimeter or in the post and they could be a threat to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

While those talents make Gonzaga the favorites in Las Vegas, it also makes them an attractive target for the rest of the WCC. BYU and Saint Mary’s finished tied for second, and both teams have all-conference caliber options. The Cougars are led by guards Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth, and Saint Mary’s has senior forward Brad Waldow to call upon in the post. But even with the talent that both teams have, this will not be a three-team tournament.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

Pepperdine, led by junior forward Stacy Davis, once again exceeded preseason expectations under head coach Marty Wilson. The Waves won ten conference games, and while teams such as San Diego, Portland and Santa Clara all finished below .500 they have the ability to pull off a surprise or two in Las Vegas. That could make things tricky for the teams expected to get to Monday’s semifinals, but is it enough to provide a surprise champion?

That won’t be the expectation, with the most important question for the WCC being how many NCAA tournament bids will the conference receive. With Gonzaga being the only lock to hear its name called Selection Sunday the best way to remove any doubt is to win the automatic bid. And that should make for a fun five days at Orleans Arena.

MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

The Bracket

source:   When: March 5-10 (no games Sunday, March 8)

Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas

Final: March 10, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Gonzaga

The Bulldogs are the clear favorites in Las Vegas thanks to their dominance throughout WCC play. In addition to Pangos and Wiltjer, Mark Few can call upon a host of experienced options including WCC Defensive Player of the Year Gary Bell Jr., wing Byron Wesley and bigs Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. And with players such as Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan serving as reserves, the Bulldogs have depth as well. Skilled offensively and solid defensively, Gonzaga can use this weekend as a springboard into the NCAA tournament.

And if they lose?: BYU

The Cougars have little trouble putting points on the board, as they averaged 81.1 points per game and shot 46.4 percent from the field in conference games. Haws and Collinsworth lead the way for BYU, with Chase Fischer and Anson Winder both averaging at least 13 points per contest as well. BYU arrives in Las Vegas having won six straight games, and a key during the stretch has been senior guard Skyler Halford. Scoring 8.7 points per game on the season, Halford is averaging 14.8 ppg during this current win streak. If that continues, and BYU can string together stops on the other end, they’re a threat to win the tournament.

Other Contenders

  • Saint Mary’s: Brad Waldow leads the way for Randy Bennett’s team, and they’re experienced on the perimeter thanks to the presence of players such as seniors Aaron Bright and Kerry Carter. The Gaels ranked second in the WCC in both field goal and three-point percentage in league games, and they were tops in the WCC in defensive rebounding percentage. If Garrett Jackson can build on his final two games of the regular season (19.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg), that would undoubtedly help the Gaels.
  • Pepperdine: Marty Wilson’s Waves won ten conference games thanks in large part to their defense, as they were second in the WCC in field goal percentage defense and first in three-point percentage defense. Forwards Stacy Davis and Jett Raines lead the way offensively, and guards Jeremy Major and freshman Shawn Olden are solid as well. The key for Pepperdine: rebounding, as they ranked ninth in the WCC in defensive rebounding percentage in conference games (65.9%).

Sleeper: San Francisco

Unlike the Pilots, Rex Walters’ team enters the tournament having won four of its last five games. Of course three of those wins came against teams seeded seventh (Santa Clara), ninth (Pacific) and tenth (Loyola Marymount), with Pepperdine being the other. Kruize Pinkins and Mark Tollefsen lead the way for a team that has three players averaging between 12.3 and 14.2 points per game.

Deeper Sleeper: San Diego

The Toreros are the five-seed, but they’ve struggled mightily on the offensive end in conference games (last in field goal percentage, eighth in three-point percentage). The good news is that they have an experienced backcourt of Christopher Anderson and Johnny Dee, with the latter having the ability to get rolling from deep. But if they’re to make a run, players such as Duda Sanadze and Thomas Jacobs will need to step forward in the scoring department with Jito Kok serving as the defensive anchor in the post.

WCC Player of the Year: F Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

Teammate Kevin Pangos was the conference’s pick for Player of the Year and that’s certainly understandable given his role on the team. But Wiltjer’s debut season for Gonzaga was an excellent one, as he averaged 16.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and 44.9 percent from beyond the arc.

WCC Coach of the Year: Mark Few, Gonzaga

Sure the expectation was that Gonzaga would win the conference. But that doesn’t mean Few should be prohibited from receiving this honor. The Bulldogs went 29-2 overall and 17-1 in WCC play, with 14 of those conference wins being by ten points or more.

First-Team All-WCC:

  • Wiltjer
  • G Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: Pangos averaged 11.6 points and 5.0 assists per game for the champions, playing an average of nearly 33 minutes per contest.
  • G Tyler Haws, BYU: One of the best shooters in the country, BYU’s all-time leading scorer averaged 22 points per game and shot 47 percent from the field.
  • G Kyle Collinsworth, BYU: An argument can be made that Collinsworth is the most versatile player in college basketball, as he tallied an NCAA-record five triple-doubles this season.
  • F Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s: Waldow averaged 19.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, shooting better than 56 percent from the field.

Second Team All-WCC:

  • G Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara
  • G Johnny Dee, San Diego
  • G Kerry Carter, Saint Mary’s
  • F Stacy Davis, Pepperdine
  • C Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga

Defining moment of conference play: BYU’s win at Gonzaga (February 28)

While the Bulldogs have been part of the one-seed conversation for most of the season, the same wasn’t the case for a BYU team that’s had to navigate multiple injuries throughout the season. And while they had the benefit of a solid non-conference schedule, Dave Rose’s team had yet to pick up a “signature” victory. That changed in Spokane on the last day of February, and that win could be what gets BYU an at-large bid should they need it.

CBT Prediction: Gonzaga wins its third straight WCC tournament title, beating Saint Mary’s in the title game.