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Previewing Championship Week: What to expect from mid-major conference tournaments

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Championship Week kicks off in earnest tonight. Here are the eight story lines from the mid-major ranks to follow over the course of the next 12 days. 

1. Can Gonzaga get to Selection Sunday with just one loss?: Because at this point, that’s probably the only way the Zags can get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Barring something fluky happening over the course of the next 12 days, Kansas, Villanova and North Carolina have pretty much locked up their spots on the top line of the bracket in the Midwest, East and South, respectively.

But the West has yet to be won.

As of today, the Zags are probably the leaders for that spot, but what you have to remember is that the winner of the Pac-12 tournament, if it is Arizona, Oregon or UCLA, could very well add two more top 10 wins to their profile during that run. Let’s say it ends up being UCLA that wins the tournament, and they beat both Oregon and Arizona to cut down those nets. That would give them five top ten wins on the season — only one of which came at home — with wins at Arizona and Kentucky. In total, they would have at least 13 top 100 wins and their only three losses on the season would be at Oregon, at USC and Arizona at home.

I’m all for Gonzaga getting a No. 1 seed. I don’t think I could give Gonzaga a No. 1 seed over that résumé even if they do have a 32-1 record.

2. Will the Missouri Valley be a two-bid league?: This one of our only hopes for an at-large bid coming out of the mid-major ranks, and regardless of who wins the league’s automatic bid — Wichita State or Illinois State — there is going to be some controversy on Selection Sunday.

The Shockers are 27-4 on the season. If they lose in the final of the MVC tournament to Illinois State, they’ll be 29-5 on the year with no sub-50 RPI losses. They rank No. 10 on KenPom, which is largely considered the best site for determining how good teams are, and they have a roster laden with top 100 prospects and coached by one of the best in the business in Gregg Marshall. Logic suggests they should be in the tournament.

The problem, however, is that they have just one RPI top 75 win on the season, and that win came against Illinois State. The Redbirds are in an even worse situation, as they have three sub-100 losses and just one top 85 win which … came against Wichita State. Logic only gets you so far when you don’t have the results to back it up.

One, if not both, of those teams are going to be sweating out Selection Sunday, hoping that they see their names called. And frankly, given the decisions the Selection Committee has made in past seasons and the value they gave big wins during the bracket reveal on Feb. 11th, I’m not sure we’ll see both teams in the tournament this season.

3. First Ivy league tournament: For the first time ever, the Ivy League will be determining their league’s automatic bid by holding a tournament. They were previously the only conference that still awarded their bid to the winner of the league’s regular season title. The tournament will take place on March 11th and 12th at the Palestra in Philly, and it will be a four-team event.

And if you are Princeton, this terrifies you. The Tigers are currently sitting at 12-0 in the conference standings, all alone with a two-game lead with just two regular season games left. But, depending on how things shake out during the final week of the season, there is a good chance that Princeton will have to play a first round Ivy League tournament game against Penn … on Penn’s home floor.

That would be a hell of a way to lose out on an NCAA tournament bid.

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4. Will Middle Tennessee State be back in the dance?: The Blue Raiders orchestrated one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament last season, knocking off the popular pick to win the national title in No. 2 Michigan State in the first round. Kermit Davis brought back a team good enough to make a run against this season, highlighted by the fact that his group has beaten UNC Wilmington on a neutral, Vanderbilt at home and won at Ole Miss and at Belmont. The problem they have is that three of their four losses are considered bad losses, and one of them — at UTEP — only recently climbed inside the RPI top 250. If they don’t win the CUSA tournament title they’ll add another sub-100 loss into that equation.

After what this team did in last year’s tournament, it would be a shame if they missed out on doing it again. But if they don’t get their league’s automatic bid, they may have to watch the likes of TCU or Georgia Tech play in the tournament during their off days in the NIT.

5. Which dominant mid-majors lose in league tournament?: Middle Tennessee and Princeton are the two easiest to identify, but they aren’t the only teams that have stormed to a conference regular season title and will not have to play a tournament to prove their league record is worthy of a tournament bid. Vermont went 16-0 in the America East and gets to host every game of the league tournament on their home floor, but that’s hardly a guarantee. UNC Wilmington won the CAA and earned the league’s automatic bid last season, but it won’t be easy to defend their title in that league tournament. UT-Arlington owns, at worst, a share of the Sun Belt title and a win at Saint Mary’s, but they’re anything but a lock for the tournament. Belmont won the OVC by a full five games while Monmouth won the MAAC by four and Bucknell won the Patriot League by three. Akron, at 13-3, is the only team in the MAC with less than six league losses.

My guess is that at least five of the nine teams that I just mentioned will lose in their league tournament, meaning that the NCAA tournament will feature a team that isn’t the best team from at least five mid-major leagues.

Is this really the best way to do things?

6. Just how healthy is Alec Peters?: The star scorer for Valparaiso, Peters was an NBC Sports preseason all-american, but between a couple of bad league losses and a surge from Oakland late in the year, the Crusaders have reached a point where they are not in position to receive an at-large bid to the Big Dance. But he’s currently dealing with a stress reaction in his foot, and while he’s expected to play in the Horizon League tournament, it’s difficult to know just how healthy he is. Peters is good enough to lead Valpo to a win as a No. 13 or No. 14 seed, and it would be a shame to see him miss out on the Big Dance.

7. Keep an eye on these mid-major stars, who may be the March darlings this year: The name that everyone knows is Marcus Keene, who is averaging 29.7 points and 5.0 assists for Central Michigan this season. He’d be thrilling to watch go up against, say, Malik Monk and Kentucky in a first round game.

Or what about South Dakota State’s Mike Daum? The sophomore big man has a 50-point game to his name already this season. Montana State’s Tyler Hall has gone for 40 once and 30 more times this season. North Florida’s Dallas Moore is one of the best point guards you’ve never seen play.

Someone, from somewhere, is going to step up and make themselves a star in March. The fun is watching it all play out.

8. Which coach earns themselves a bigger job?: The easiest way to move up the ranks of the coaching industry is to get your team to an NCAA tournament and to get a win in that NCAA tournament.

Who are the guys that might be able to parlay postseason success into a bigger job? UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts is a hot name. He’s a former Rick Pitino assistant that coached in the prep school ranks before he made the jump to Division I. He’s turned the Seahawks into the flagship program of the CAA in just three years. MTSU’s Kermit Davis will also likely have some big-name suitors, as the stench of NCAA violations from nearly three decades ago are starting to wear away. Illinois State’s Dan Muller will likely being getting phone calls.

Chattanooga’s Matt McCall and ETSU’s Steve Forbes were hot names entering the season, but Furman’s Niko Medved went out and won himself a share of the SoCon regular season title. Vermont’s John Becker may have a chance to make a move, while Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey, Princeton’s Mitch Henderson, UT-Arlington’s Scott Cross and Monmouth’s King Rice all have their name mentioned with bigger openings.

Two more names to keep an eye on: UNC Asheville’s Nick McDevitt, who has kept that program at the top of the Big South despite losing two star freshmen to transfer to Louisville and Arizona last season, and Mount St. Mary’s Jamion Christian, who led the Mount to a NEC title. Both of those coaches are alums of the program they are currently coaching at.

CBT Podcast: Previewing the Big East Conference

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Today is Big East preview day here at College Basketball Talk.

We published our league preview here, and below, you can listen to an in-depth breakdown of every team in the conference.

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

CBT Podcast: Previewing the Pac-12 conference

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Earlier this week, we published the NBCSports.com Pac-12 preview.

Today, we’re giving you the Pac-12 preview podcast.

In 45 minutes, we give you an detailed breakout of each member of the conference and, since we love being wrong about things, a bold prediction for each team.

So join us, listen, and remember to let us know just how wrong we were.

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Conference USA Preview: UAB and Middle Tennessee try to keep shocking the world

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Nobody respected Conference USA entering last season’s NCAA tournament and it helped contribute to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee’s shocking upset of Final Four contender Michigan State. The Blue Raiders followed in the footsteps of UAB after the Blazers’ win over Iowa State and both teams will once again be in the mix for what will likely be the league’s only tournament bid. But besides the top two contenders, there are a lot of talented teams in the equation this season.

It will be NCAA tournament or bust for preseason favorite UAB as they fell short of the Big Dance after falling to Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Tournament. The Blazers have a new coach in former assistant Robert Ehsan, but they return five starters from a 26-win team — including three all-league players. Middle Tennessee lost some key pieces from that tournament team but sharpshooting guard Giddy Potts and senior forward Reggie Upshaw return along with an intriguing graduate transfer in Arkansas forward JaCorey Williams.

The Stith brothers will lead the charge for Old Dominion as forward Brandan Stith returns after averaging nearly a double-double per game. He’s joined by Virginia transfer and younger brother Bryant Stith and all-freshman selection Zoran Talley to form an intriguing nucleus that could contend immediately. Dan D’Antoni brings back four scorers to a high-scoring Marshall team that went 12-6  in league play. The trio of Jon Elmore, Ryan Taylor and Stevie Browning can put up a ton of points but the Thundering Herd have to get stops to be among the league’s elite.

Western Kentucky will be fascinating under new head coach Rick Stansbury. While Stansbury is generating headlines for his Class of 2017 recruiting efforts, the team he’ll put on the floor this season includes some talented graduate transfers including Pancake Thomas (Hartford), Que Johnson (Washington State), Junior Lomomba (Providence) and Willie Carmichael (Tennessee). Those newcomers with returning forward Justin Johnson make for a talented team. Louisiana Tech loses talented point guard Alex Hamilton, but they get all-conference forward Erik McCree back along with guard Jacobi Boykins. Miami transfer Omar Sherman and the return of injured guard Qiydar Davis could be the key to the Bulldogs’ season.

Four starters are back for North Texas including the potent trio of Jeremy Combs, J-Mychal Reese and Deckie Johnson. The Mean Green also get former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier (SMU) after first semester, but they have to be more consistent to beat the league’s top teams. UTEP will have to replace some key pieces but Dominic Artis, Omega Harris and Terry Winn are returning double-figure scorers. If the Miners can get more consistent play from their frontcourt, they could be a sleeper in this league. Rice has a potential league Player of the Year candidate in high-scoring sophomore guard Marcus Evans and he’ll receive help from guard Marcus Jackson this season as Jackson returns from injury.

Charlotte is still very young and perimeter-oriented by all-freshmen guards Jon Davis and Adrien White are back along with senior guard Braxton Ogbueze. Florida Atlantic has four starters back as they boast one of the league’s most productive front courts. FIU has senior guard Donte McGill back but no other returning player averaged more than eight points per game. UTSA has a new coach in former Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson as he inherits some talented pieces including the backcourt trio of Christian Wilson, J.R. Harris and Gino Littles. Southern Miss is finally finished with its two-year postseason ban but the roster still has a long ways to go to be competitive again.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: William Lee, UAB

The reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, Lee is a pogo stick forward who is one of the best shot blockers in the country. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged 2.9 rejections per game last season in only 24.8 minutes per contest to go along with 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. Lee also shot 49 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range as he projects as the league’s best long-term prospect. If Lee sees more minutes this season he could be among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots as he’s trying to get the Blazers back to the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM:

  • Marcus Evans, Rice: Coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 21.4 points per game and won C-USA Freshman of the Year honors, Evans will try to improve his three-point shooting (30 percent).
  • Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee: Before his starring role in the win over Michigan State, Potts shot a national-best 50 percent from three-point range while averaging 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
  • Chris Cokley, UAB: A productive sophomore campaign saw the 6-foot-8 Cokley averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor as he had some big games against good teams.
  • Reggie Upshaw, Middle Tennessee: The 6-foot-7 senior burst into the national spotlight with his postseason performances as he won C-USA Tournament MVP and scored 21 in the upset of Michigan State.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Conference_USA

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. UAB
  2. Middle Tennessee
  3. Old Dominion
  4. Marshall
  5. Western Kentucky
  6. Louisiana Tech
  7. North Texas
  8. UTEP
  9. Rice
  10. Charlotte
  11. Florida Atlantic
  12. FIU
  13. UTSA
  14. Southern Miss

American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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There may not be another conference in America with as much on the line from a bubble standpoint this week as the American Athletic Conference. With SMU on the sidelines as a result of NCAA penalties, the other ten members convene in Orlando with the top dogs all looking to sew up a bid to the NCAA tournament. Winning the automatic bid is the best way to do that, but with four teams harboring realistic hopes of earning an at-large bid some will likely have to sweat out Selection Sunday.

Temple managed to win the regular season title outright, but there’s still some work for Fran Dunphy’s team to do. The two-seed is Houston, whose non-conference slate likely puts them in a position where they need to win out in Orlando, and seeds three through five (Tulsa, Cincinnati and Connecticut) all find themselves on the bubble. That should make for an intense four days in Orlando, and only the winner will be able to breathe easy in the wait for the announcement of the NCAA tournament field.

The Bracket

american

When: March 10-13

Where: Amway Center, Orlando

Final: March 13, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Temple

The Owls managed to win their first outright regular season conference title since 2012, when they were still in the Atlantic 10. This year’s group has done it with defense, as in conference games they ranked third in field goal percentage defense and first in three-point percentage defense. Offensively senior guard Quenton DeCosey’s led the way, with forward Obi Enechionyia being a tough matchup due to his ability to step outside at 6-foot-9 and emerging as one of the American’s most improved players. Add in contributors such as forward Jaylen Bond and point guard Josh Brown, and Temple has enough to win the tournament. Close games shouldn’t cause much concern either, as in conference games decided by five points or less they’re 7-2.

And if they lose?: Houston

The Cougars arrive in Orlando as one of the hottest teams in the American, as they’ve won nine of their last 11 games (6-1 in their last seven). Forwards Damyean Dotson and Devonta Pollard combined to average 28.3 points per game in American play, and on the perimeter Rob Gray Jr. is the team’s leading scorer (16.3 ppg overall) and the point guard tandem of Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson and freshman Galen Robinson Jr. has been a positive as well. Kelvin Sampson’s rebuilding job has gone well to this point, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they landed the automatic bid.

Other Contenders:

  • Tulsa: Tulsa’s backcourt is very good, with James Woodard, Shaq Harrison and Pat Birt Jr. being the leaders. A key for Tulsa will be finishing defensive possessions with a rebound, as they ranked ninth in the American in defensive rebounding percentage (67.7) in conference games.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats are tough, and only UConn was better in league play when it comes to field goal percentage defense. With Troy Caupain running the point and Gary Clark in the front court, Mick Cronin has the pieces needed to make a run.
  • Connecticut: Kevin Ollie’s team led the American in field goal percentage defense, limiting teams to 38.4 percent shooting in conference games. But the offense has sputtered at times. If Daniel Hamilton looks to take over consistently, making plays for himself and others, this can be a dangerous team in Orlando.

Sleeper: Memphis

Josh Pastner’s Tigers have the league’s top scoring duo in forwards Dedric Lawson and Shaq Goodwin, and there’s talent on the perimeter as well. But can they put it all together over the course of three days? That remains to be seen.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Temple: Opening with either East Carolina or USF won’t do much to bolster Temple’s argument for inclusion. But a loss to either would be damaging. Take care of business there and the Owls should be OK.
  • Houston: The Cougars likely need to win the automatic bid, thanks to the weakness of their non-conference schedule. They have wins over SMU and Temple on their résumé, but that may not be enough.
  • Tulsa: They face Memphis in the quarterfinals, and that’s a win Frank Haith’s team will need to get. They did pick up wins over SMU (in Dallas), Cincinnati and Temple last month, and there’s also the early season win over fellow bubble team Wichita State.
  • Cincinnati: Beat UConn in the quarterfinals Friday, which would be their third win over the Huskies this season. The Bearcats have wins over bubble teams George Washington and VCU to their credit, but there would be a lot less stress if they’d been able to close out Iowa State (81-79 loss) back on December 22.
  • Connecticut: Beat Cincinnati in the quarterfinals and that should sew things up for the Huskies. At the very least a win should get them another shot at a Temple team that swept the regular season series.

American Player of the Year: Nic Moore, SMU

Moore won the award last season and he’d be a good choice for the 2016 edition of the award as well. The senior point guard led the way for a team that was ranked for most of the season despite being ineligible for postseason play, averaging 15.9 points and 4.9 assists per game. A good case can be made for Temple’s Quenton DeCosey as well.

American Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy, Temple

Sure, this can be seen as giving the award to the man whose team was picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches poll. But Dunphy deserves this honor just as much for the way the Owls played once out of non-conference play. Temple began play in the American with an overall record of 5-5, only to take a considerable leap forward in conference play. Led by Dunphy and seniors DeCosey and Jaylen Bond, Temple won the American outright with a conference record of 14-4.

First-Team All-AAC:

  • Nic Moore, SMU (POY)
  • Quenton DeCosey, Temple: If Moore isn’t the choice for league POY then it’s probably DeCosey, who was the leading option on the American’s best team.
  • Troy Caupain, Cincinnati: Caupain averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 assists per game in conference play. He was also fourth in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2).
  • James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard led the Golden Hurricane with an average of 15.6 points per game, ranking sixth in the conference in scoring.
  • Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The conference’s best freshman, Lawson paired up with Shaq Goodwin to form the highest scoring tandem in the American. And to think, he was originally supposed to be in the 2016 freshman class.

Second Team All-AAC:

  • Devonta Pollard, Houston
  • Shaq Harrison, Tulsa
  • Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati
  • Shaq Goodwin, Memphis

Defining moment of the season: Temple hands SMU its first loss of the season

CBT Prediction: Houston continues its recent run of solid play, winning three straight to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.

NEW PODCAST: Mid-Major bubble teams and power conference tourney previews

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We welcomed Brian Snow back onto the podcast to talk about the mid-major bubble teams and why he hates them, KenPom.com and why he hates Ken Pomeroy and the power conference tournaments and why he hates all of those teams.

In other words, listen to find out why no one should be allowed in the tournament, no one is a one seed and why no one is winning any league.

As always, you can listen to the podcast by clicking “play” on the Soundcloud player embedded below. Or you can do so through either iTunes or Stitcher if you so choose. Thanks for listening!