The 2019-2020 college basketball regular season has come to a close. Welcome to Champ Week. It is Conference Tournament time. Last week, 13 conferences began their Tournament play and a number of teams have already clinched spots in the NCAA Tournament field. We are less than a week away from Selection Sunday and 20 more tournaments will take place this week. Of those, 12 will be from Mid-Major leagues, which are all previewed here.
As conference tournament play heats up, make sure to bookmark our Conference Tournament Tracker to follow along with who has secured automatic bids.
Additionally, I’ll be updating my Bracket Projection much more frequently as we move closer to Selection Sunday.
March 7, 10, 14
Higher seed hosts game
Top Seeds: Vermont, Stony Brook
Tournament Format: 8 teams in a normal bracket, reseeded after the first round
Recent History: In 2018 UMBC won the America East Championship on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to upset top-seeded Vermont. The Terriers then went on to become the first 16-seed to defeat a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when they topped Virginia in epic and hilarious fashion. Vermont has appeared in four straight America East Championship Games. The Catamounts got revenge on UMBC in the title game last year. The last time a team other than Vermont, UMBC, Stony Brook, or Albany appeared in the Championship game was in 2011 (Boston U).
Preview: Vermont won the regular season title for the fourth straight season. In that timespan, the Catamounts have gone an incredible 59-5 in regular season conference play. Their only conference tournament loss came against the aforementioned UMBC team. Vermont had the league’s stingiest defense this season, allowing just 59 points against per game (PAPG). The Catamounts are led by two-time America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb (16.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 BPG). In addition to winning Conference Player of the Year honors in 2019 and 2020, Lamb has won the Tournament MVP as a freshman in 2017 and as a junior in 2019. Vermont’s only conference losses this season were by 4 to Stony Brook and by 2 to UMBC, two teams they may have to go through to get back to the Big Dance. Stony Brook and UMBC both average about 69 points per game and hold opponents to around 66, but are built very differently. UMBC relies on senior guard KJ Jackson (14.1 PPG, 4.2 APG, 1.7 SPG). Stony Brook has an elite scorer in Elijah Olaniyi (18 PPG) and a pair of big men in Mouhamadou Gueye (2.0 BPG) and Jeff Otchere (1.5 BPG) who lead the conference in blocks.
Top Seeds: Dayton, Richmond
Sleeper: St Louis
Tournament Format: 14 teams with the top 4 getting byes to the quarterfinals and the bottom 4 teams playing in two play-in games.
Recent History: The A-10 has been one of the most successful mid-major leagues at earning At-Large bids. Part of this is because the top seed has only won the tournament once in the last 9 years. Strangely, the most successful teams have come from the 4-seed, winning 5 of the last 11 titles. St Louis won the tournament last year from the 6th seed, just the second time in the last 12 years that a team won the A-10 without getting a first round bye (top four seeds).
Preview: Dayton and the electrifying Obi Toppin (20 PPG, 7.5 RPG) stormed through the conference, averaging 80 points per game. The Flyers ran out to a 29-2 record and are in position to earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they can complete their perfect season in conference play. Dayton has won 20 in a row and ran away with the league title by 4 games. Defending tournament champions St Louis have the third-best defense (65.2 PAPG). At the beginning of the season, it looked like 4 A-10 teams were capable of making the NCAA Tournament, but VCU fell off dramatically and Rhode Island has stumbled down the stretch. Richmond is still in the bubble picture and has the second-best offense in the league (75.3 PPG). St. Louis did give Dayton their two closest conference games of the season – losing by just 2 and 6 in their prior meetings.
Top Seeds: Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado
Tournament Format: 11 teams with 3 play-in games between the bottom 6 teams
Recent History: Montana and Weber St have one of the best rivalries in the mid-major ranks. These two schools have dominated the Big Sky Tournament and at least one of them has appeared in each of the last 10 championship games. In that timespan the two schools have also faced off four times in the league title game. The Big Sky has been very successful at getting their top teams to the Big Dance. Only once in the last decade has a team outside the top 2 seeds won the the automatic bid. In fact, the top seed has won 8 of the last 9 tournaments. Montana has defeated Eastern Washington in the last two Big Sky title games.
Preview: The Big Sky is always one of my favorite small conference tournaments because the conference usually features dynamic offensive teams. This year is no different as top-seeded Eastern Washington averages 80.1 PPG and enters the tournament on a 7-game winning streak. Not far behind is Portland State who won their last 6 games to catapult to the 4th seed and average 78.7 PPG. The Vikings are led by Holland Woods (17.7 PPG, 5.2 APG, 2.1 SPG). The team to watch is second-seeded Northern Colorado with the third-best offense (74.3 PPG), second-best defense (62.7 PAPG), and the top 3-point shooting team (38.4%). The Bears are led by senior guard Jonah Radebaugh (16.5 PPG, 6.5 APG). Montana always seems to find success in the Big Sky Tournament and is worth watching with Sayeed Pridgett (19.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG).
Top Seeds: UC Irvine, Cal St Northridge
Tournament Format: The top 8 teams in the conference play in a normal bracket
Recent History: The Big West has the most parity of any conference in basketball. In the last 11 years, 9 different teams have won the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The only teams to win it more than once were UC Santa Barbara (who won back-to-back in 2010 and 2011) and defending champion UC Irvine who also won in 2015. The only current school in the conference that has not made the NCAA Tournament in the last decade is UC-Riverside.
Preview: Defending tournament champions UC Irvine won the Big West regular season title by 3 games. The Anteaters had the second-best offense (74 PPG) and second-best defense (65.2 PAPG) in the Big West this season. Cal State Northridge was the highest-scoring team (75.8 PPG) and had the league’s leading scorer in Terrell Gomez (19.8 PPG). The Matadors won their last 4 games, including a 2-point victory over UC-Irvine, to finish in second place.
Top Seeds: North Texas, Western Kentucky
Tournament Format: All 12 teams play in the tournament with the top 4 seeds receiving byes
Recent History: The first round bye has always provided a massive advantage in the C-USA tournament. The eventual tournament champion has come from the top 4 seeds in 11 of the last 12 years including 9 straight. However, the top seed has failed to win the tournament in 4 of the last 6 years. Old Dominion winning from the top seed last year was the first time since Memphis left for the AAC in 2013. The Conference USA Champion has won first round games in the last three of the last four NCAA Tournaments. Middle Tennessee St upset #2 seed Michigan St and #5 seed Minnesota in 2016 and 2017 then Marshall defeated #4 seed Wichita St in 2018.
Preview: Defense has been the name of the game this season in Conference USA. Regular season champions North Texas and #3 seed Louisiana Tech both held opponents to 63 points per game. Second-place Western Kentucky was the second-highest scoring team at 76.6 PPG. Western Kentucky has lost in the C-USA title game each of the last two seasons. The highest-scoring team in the league is 10th-seeded UTSA (77.2 PPG) who features C-USA’s top two scorers in Jhivvan Jackson (27.2 PPG) and Keaton Wallace (18.5 PPG). Jackson is the nation’s second-leading scorer. Old Dominion is the defending conference champions and return guard Xavier Green (12.7 PPG) who won the tournament MVP award last year.
Top Seeds: Yale, Harvard
Tournament Format: The top four teams play in a normal bracket.
Recent History: The Ivy League was the last holdout from having a conference tournament and held their inaugural four-team tournament in 2017. This is the fourth year of the Ivy League having an official tournament and has had three different champions thus far. Harvard, Yale, and Penn have appeared in all four tournaments. Princeton has appeared in 3 of 4 tournaments, missing in 2018. These four teams have dominated the last decade, earning all of the Ivy League’s automatic bids.
Preview: Harvard is the only one of the four teams in the Ivy Tournament who has not won the Tournament, despite appearing in all four iterations. Harvard will host the tournament this season and have won 7 of their last 8 including a season finale win over rival Yale. Yale has the highest-scoring offense (76.1 PPG) and best defense (64.6 PAPG) in the tournament. Yale’s Jordan Bruner (10.9 PPG) ranks in the top 5 in the Ivy in rebounds (9.2 RPG), assists (3.7 APG), and blocks (1.7 BPG). Bruner will have a tough matchup in the opening game against Penn’s AJ Brodeur (17.3 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.8 BPG) who leads the league in assists and is second in rebounds and blocks. Princeton is the best free throw-shooting team in the conference, which always comes in handy in March.
UPDATE: The Ivy League cancelled its conference tournament due to concerns about the Coronavirus. Regular Season Champion Yale receives the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Ivy League has decided to cancel the League's upcoming Basketball Tournaments and implement highly-restrictive, in-venue spectator limitations for all other upcoming campus athletics events.
— The Ivy League (@IvyLeague) March 10, 2020
March 11, 14-16
Top Seeds: Akron, Bowling Green
Tournament Format: 12 teams with the top 4 seeds receiving byes to the quarterfinals
Recent History: Top seeds have not fared well in the MAC Tournament. In the last 11 years, the #1 seed has only reached the NCAA Tournament 4 times. Buffalo has won the last two MAC Championships from the top seed and won 4 of the last 5 automatic bids. The Bulls won first round games in the NCAA Tournament each of the last two years, upsetting #4 seed Arizona by 21 points in 2018 then earning a #6 seed and beating 11th-seeded Arizona St in 2019.
Preview: The MAC has some offensively-talented teams with 6 squads averaging over 75 points per game. Buffalo (84.9 PPG) and Central Michigan (82.7 PPG) lead the pack. Regular season champion Akron had the best defense (63.8 PAPG) followed by Toledo (68.4 PAPG). Akron’s Loren Cristian Jackson (19.8 PPG, 4.5 APG) was the league’s second-leading scorer. Toledo has a dynamic duo of Marreon Jackson (19.7 PPG, 5.4 APG) and Willie Jackson (12.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG) who averages a double-double. Fourth-seeded Northern Illinois has the league’s leading scorer in Eugene German (20.5 PPG). With the amount of talented scorers in this conference, it will definitely be a tournament to watch.
Top Seeds: Siena, St Peter’s
Tournament Format: 11 teams with 3 play-in games between the bottom 6 teams
Recent History: Iona has owned the MAAC Tournament in recent years. The Gaels have won 4 straight MAAC Tournament titles and appeared in 7 consecutive championship games. Iona won the tournament from the top seed last year, which was the first time the regular season champion also won the MAAC Tournament since 2010. The 8 tournament champions between 2011-2018 were all in the top four seeds
Preview: Despite their recent dominance of the MAAC Tournament, Iona enters as the #7 seed, having lost 3 in a row. That said, the Gaels have the league’s leading scorer in EJ Crawford (18.8 PPG) and are capable of making a run. Top-seeded Siena closed the year on a 9-game winning streak and has the league’s best offense (72.6 PPG) and a talented guard in Jalen Pickett (15.3 PPG, 6.0 APG). This isn’t the offensively-dynamic group of teams that is typically seen in the MAAC but the tournament figures to be wide open once again. Siena edged St Peter’s by just one game who got to the top with tough defense (64.4 PAPG). Quinnipiac finished in the middle of the league with a .500 record in both MAAC play (10-10) and overall (15-15). The Bobcats have a double-double machine in Kevin Marfo (10.2 PPG, 13.3 RPG) who leads the nation in rebounding and a quality guard Rich Kelly (16.7 PPG, 5.9 APG).
Top Seeds: NC Central, North Carolina A&T
Sleeper: Norfolk St
Tournament Format: 10 teams with 2 play-in games between the bottom 4 teams
Recent History: North Carolina Central is the three-time defending MEAC Champions. In the last 12 years, the MEAC Tournament has either been won by a favorite (7 times by the #1 or #2 seed) or a massive upset (4 times by the #6 or #7 seed). NC Central won the title from the #3 seed last year after winning from the #6 seed in 2018. While generally thought of as one of the lower-tier mid-major leagues, the MEAC has produced 3 of the biggest NCAA Tournament upsets in the last 25 years (Coppin St over South Carolina in 1997, Hampton over Iowa St in 2001, and Norfolk St over Missouri in 2012). The MEAC owns 3 of the 8 15-over-2 upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Preview: The top 3 teams in the MEAC went back and forth all season. Norfolk State had the early lead then NC Central and NC A&T came on strong. NC Central won their last 5 games to claim the regular season crown, including a head-to-head season finale against North Carolina A&T. Norfolk St had the MEAC’s best defense (64.9 PAPG) followed closely by NC Central (65.7 PAPG). NC Central’s Jibri Blount (19.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG) – son of Steelers great Mel Blount – is capable of carrying his team to a fourth straight title. NC A&T’s Kameron Langley (9.7 PPG, 7.7 APG) ranks third in the nation in assists. The MEAC Champion is nearly guaranteed to be a 16-seed as all 11 teams rank worse than 240th in NET.
Top Seeds: Stephen F Austin, Abilene Christian
Tournament Format: The top 8 teams in the conference qualify for the tournament. The top 2 seeds get double byes to the semifinals and the #3 and #4 seeds get byes to the quarterfinals.
Recent History: The non-traditional bracket has benefited the Southland Conference. Since the conference moved to this format, the eventual champion has received a double bye in 6 of the last 7 years. Stephen F Austin missed the tournament last year but have won 4 of the last 6 Southland titles.
Preview: After missing the Southland Tournament last year, Stephen F Austin stormed through the league with a vengeance. The Lumberjacks shocked the nation in December, becoming the first non-conference team in over a decade to win in Cameron Indoor Stadium. They followed up that victory with a 19-1 conference record, the only blemish a 1-point loss to Texas A&M-CC. The Southland is stacked with offensively explosive teams. SFA and McNeese St both average 80 points per game with Sam Houston St (78 PPG), Nicholls St (77 PPG), Abilene Christian (76 PPG), and Northwestern St (75 PPG) all averaging over 75 points per game. The top two seeds are also the league’s best defensive teams with Abilene Christian (65.3 PAPG) just ahead of Stephen F Austin (67 PAPG). McNeese’s Sha’markus Kennedy (18.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 2.7 BPG) is the top scorer entering the tournament. SFA is a deep team that has 10 players averaging over 10 minutes per game and are led by Kevon Harris (17.5 PPG). McNeese shoots over 40% from beyond the arc, the second-best mark in the nation.
March 10, 13-15
First round at higher seed, semis and finals in Birmingham
Top Seeds: Prairie View A&M, Southern
Sleeper: Alcorn St
Tournament Format: The top 8 teams qualify in a normal bracket
Recent History: The top seed has won the SWAC in 5 of the last 8 years. Since 1999, the only time the SWAC Champion did not receive a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament was 2015 when Texas Southern got a 15-seed. Prairie View A&M won the SWAC title last year, which was the first time since 2012 that a team other than Texas Southern or Southern won the SWAC title. Prior to last season, Texas Southern had won 4 of the last 5 SWAC Championships.
Preview: Prairie View A&M won the regular season title for the second straight season, edging out Southern by one game. Alcorn State was the only team in the league that averaged over 75 points per game this season (75.8 PPG). Alcorn State is also the best 3-point shooting team (37.1%) and free throw shooting team (74.3%) by a wide margin. Southern (67.5 PAPG) and Jackson St (67.9 PAPG) had the best defenses. The top scorers entering the tournament are Jackson State’s Tristan Jarrett (16.9 PPG) and Prairie View’s Gerard Andrus (14.9 PPG). Mississippi Valley State had two of the top four scorers in the league but missed the tournament after finishing with just 3 wins on the season and allowing an insane 89.7 points per game. Every SWAC team has a NET ranking of 200 or worse (Prairie View is the only team ranked higher than 260) which almost guarantees the tournament champion will be in one of the play-in games.
Top Seeds: New Mexico St, UT-Rio Grande Valley
Tournament Format: 8 teams in a normal bracket
Recent History: New Mexico State has won 8 of the last 10 WAC titles and appeared in 8 straight championship games. One of the top 3 seeds has won the last 11 WAC Tournaments.
Preview: New Mexico State rolled to another WAC regular season title, posting a perfect 16-0 record in conference play and finishing 6 games ahead of second place California Baptist (who is ineligible for the tournament as part of their transition from D-II into D-I). The Aggies have won 19 straight games but did have a few close calls with a 2-point win over Utah Valley and wins over UMKC by 3 and 6. New Mexico State won with defense, holding opponents to just 59.7 points per game. Seattle is the highest-scoring team in the tournament (75.1 PPG) led by WAC leading scorer Terrell Brown (20.7 PPG) who also ranks in the top 5 in the league in rebounds (6.2 RPG), assists (4.9 APG), and steals (1.6 SPG). New Mexico State is the only team with a NET ranking in the Top 200 and it would be a massive upset if someone other than the Aggies won this Tournament.