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Breakdowns of men’s college basketball conference tournaments

  • March 02, 2021

The expand-the-tournament crowd likes to argue that college basketball’s showcase event should be larger with more games. But sometimes too much of something great is a bad thing. Why water down the best event in sports with more mediocre teams in search of an unlikely upset?

This is where conference tournaments come in. Except in a few leagues where spots are limited, these postseason events should be seen as an extension of the NCAA Tournament.

Teams have the opportunity to win their way into the field of 68 but in an environment away from the bright lights and national television cameras.

That’s for the smaller conferences. in the bigger leagues, the fight mostly is for seeding, though there can be surprises from teams on the bubble.  

Without the Ivy League playing this season, there will be 31 tournaments starting at the end of February and extending through Selection Sunday on March 14.

A breakdown of each event where automatic qualification for the tournament can be won:

America East

Dates: Feb. 27-28, March 6, March 13

Favorite: Vermont

Other contenders: Maryland-Baltimore County, New Hampshire

It’s splitting hairs whether to choose the Catamounts or the Retrievers as the favorites, as they finished tied for first and split their regular-season series last weekend. Vermont has a slightly better NET ranking (101 to UMBC’s 126), but the Catamounts played no games outside the conference. UMBC claimed the top seed on tiebreakers and would host the final should it get there. The top two have byes to the semifinal round, while the remaining seven participants will play in pods hosted by No. 3 New Hampshire and No. 4 Hartford to determine the other two semifinalists. Vermont is led by Ryan Davis and Stef Smith, both of whom can heat up from long distance, while R.J. Eytle-Rock does a little of everything for the Retrievers.


Saturday, Feb. 27

Massachusetts Lowell 64, Stony Brook 62

Hartford 77, Binghamton 60

Albany 76, NJIT 66

Sunday, February 28

Massachusetts Lowell 72, New Hampshire 64

Hartford 83, Albany 77

Saturday, March 6

Massachusetts Lowell at Maryland-Baltimore County, 2 p.m.

Hartford at Vermont, 4 p.m.

Saturday, March 13

Semifinal winners, 11 a.m.

Atlantic Sun

Dates: March 4-5, March 7

Favorite: Liberty

Contenders: Lipscomb, North Florida

The Flames, led by diminutive sharpshooter Darius McGhee, head the eight-team tournament field. Ninth league member Jacksonville had to withdraw due to the program’s ongoing COVID shutdown. In an interesting subplot, Bellarmine won 10 conference games and earned the No. 2 seed in its first year in the league but is still transitioning from Division II is not eligible for the NCAA tournament. The same is true of No. 5 seed North Alabama. Should either of those teams prevail, Liberty would still claim the automatic bid as regular-season champ.


Thursday, March 4

Liberty vs. Kennesaw State, 2 p.m.

North Florida vs. North Alabama, 2 p.m.

Lipscomb vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 7 p.m.

Bellarmine vs. Stetson, 7 p.m.

Big South

Schedule: Feb. 27, March 1, March 4, March 7

Favorite: Winthrop

Other contenders: Radford, Campbell

The Big South tourney will be contested as usual on campus sites. This was one of the conferences that managed to complete its tournament in 2020 before the pandemic shutdown. The Eagles won the title and will be heavily favored to do so again after running away with the regular season. Chandler Vaudrin is the Eagles’ top scorer, rebounder and assist man, but he gets plenty of help with five other players averaging at least 6.7 points. It is worth noting, however, that a potential semifinal encounter looms with fourth-seeded North Carolina-Asheville, the one team that managed a win against Winthrop this season.


Saturday, Feb. 27

Hampton 67, Presbyterian 65

High Point 65, South Carolina-Upstate 60

Monday, March 1

Winthrop 83, High Point 54

Radford 67, Hampton 52

Longwood 77, UNC Asheville 61

Campbell 63, Gardner-Webb 57

Thursday, March 4

Campbell vs. Radford, 6 p.m.

Longwood vs. Winthrop. 7 p.m.

Sunday, March 7

Semifinal winners, noon


Date: March 6-9

Favorite: James Madison

Other contenders: Northeastern, Hofstra

James Madison hasn’t been in the tournament since 2013, but enter as the No. 1 seed after tying Northeastern at the top of the conference standings. The Dukes are led by the conference’s leading scorer, Matt Lewis (19.7 ppg). The top two seeds split their regular-season meetings. A third game would have to wait until the finals. Hofstra looms as a potential spoiler. The Pride pushed both the leaders in the four losses.


Saturday, March 6

Elon vs. Towson, 3 p.m.

William Mary vs. UNC Wilmington, 6:30 p.m.

Sunday, March 7

Hofstra vs. Delaware, 11 a.m.

James Madison vs. Elon-Towson winner, 2:30 p.m.

Northeastern vs. William Mary-UNC Wilimington winner, 6 p.m.

Charleston vs. Drexel, 9:30 p.m.

Horizon League

Dates: Feb. 25, March 2, March 8-9

Favorite: Wright State

Other contenders: Cleveland State, Northern Kentucky

Wright State and Cleveland State finished tied atop the league standings. Though the Vikings have the No. 1 seed via tiebreakers, most analytics peg the Raiders as the league favorites, led by the efficient inside-outside tandem of Loudon Love and Tanner Holden. It won’t be easy, though, as fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky just gave them all they could handle in splitting the final regular-season series last weekend. The league’s seeding formula implemented due to COVID-19 causing schedule imbalances didn’t sit well with everyone, most notably Detroit Mercy. The Titans were seeded fifth despite an 11-7 league record and will have to play an extra game to reach the four-team championship round in Indianapolis.


Thursday, Feb. 25

Detroit Mercy 83, Robert Morris 73

Youngstown State 74, Illinois-Chicago 58

Purdue Fort Wayne 89, Wisconsin-Green Bay 84 (2OT)

Wisconsin-Milwaukee 84, IUPUI 72

Tuesday, March 2

Detroit Mercy at Northern Kentucky, 7 p.m.

Youngstown State at Oakland, 7:30 p.m.

Purdue Fort Wayne at Cleveland, 7 p.m.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Wright State, 7 p.m.

Missouri Valley

Dates: March 4-7

Favorite: Loyola-Chicago

Other contenders: Drake, Missouri State.

Three years after their surprising run to the Final Four, the Ramblers are positioned again to make another deep run. It would be helpful to their seeding to win the postseason tournament, but there are no worries they will miss out altogether. Drake split with Loyola in their two-game series, giving the Ramblers one of their two conference losses  However, the Bulldogs are likely to be without Roman Penn and Shanquan Hemphill, two of its top players, due to injury. Upsets are possible in Arch Madness. Bradley has won the last two tournaments as none of the top three seeds have reached the final.


Thursday, March 4

Southern Illinois vs. Bradley, 6 p.m.

Illinois State vs. Northern Iowa, 9 p.m.

Ohio Valley

Dates: March 3-6

Favorite: Belmont

Other contenders: Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky

Only the top eight finishers will be in Evansville, Indiana, this week for the OVC tourney. The defending champion Bruins were on a 21-game league winning streak and had the top seed locked up before dropping their last two games on the road at Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State. Belmont was without high-scoring center Nick Muszynski with an undisclosed injury for both those losses, but those results likely torpedoed any shot the Bruins might have had to get an at-large berth in case they don’t claim the automatic bid.


Wednesday, March 3

Belmont vs. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, 7 p.m.

Morehead State vs. Southeast Missouri, 9:30 p.m. 

Thursday, March 4

Jacksonville State vs. Murray State, 7 p.m.

Eastern Kentucky vs. Austin Peay, 9:30 p.m.

Patriot League

Dates: March 3, March 6, March 10, March 14

Favorite: Navy

Other contenders: Colgate, Lafayette

It was a unique season in the PL. With most teams not tipping off until after the first of the year and then limited to games within one of three league-wide pods, many have yet to face outside competition even from the rest of the conference. The Midshipmen were able to get some contests in earlier, including a huge win for the program at Georgetown on Dec. 1. Then there’s Colgate, who went 11-1 against just three other teams with an elevated NET rankings that could prove to be an interesting test case for the committee in terms of seeding should the Raiders earn the automatic bid.


Wednesday, March 3

Lehigh at Boston, 7 p.m.

Loyola Maryland at Holy Cross, 6 p.m.

Friday, March 5

Loyola Maryland-Holy Cross winner at Navy, noon

Lehigh-Boston winner at Colgate, TBA

Bucknell at Lafayette, 2 p.m.

American at Army, 3 p.m. 


Dates: March 5-8

Favorite: UNC-Greensboro

Other contenders: Wofford, Furman

The SoCon regular-season race came down to the final day as Wofford’s one-point win against Furman denied the Paladins the top seed and handed the crown to the Spartans by half a game. UNCG won the title the last time it held the No. 1 position in 2018, but this year’s event figures to be wide open. Any of the top three in the tightly bunched field could end up going dancing, and the next two finishers, Chattanooga and ETSU, can’t be counted out either.


Friday, March 5

The Citadel vs. Western Carolina, 5:30 p.m.

Mercer vs. Samford, 8 p.m.

Saturday, March 6

UNC Greensboro vs. The Citadel-Western Carolina winner, noon

Chattanooga vs. East Tennessee State, 2:30 p.m.

Wofford vs. Mercer-Samford winner, 5:30 p.m.

Furman vs. Virginia Military Institute, 8 p.m.


Dates: March 6, March 8-9

Favorite: South Dakota State

Other contenders: South Dakota, North Dakota State, Oral Roberts

This will be more of the balanced conference tournaments with the top four seeds all capable of making a run and winning the whole thing. None of the quartet were able to earn a season sweep against the other. Oral Roberts will try to ride Max Abmas, the leading scorer in Division I at 24.7 points per game.

Saturday, March 6

South Dakota State vs. Omaha, 5:45 p.m.

South Dakota vs. Western Illinois, 8:45 p.m.

Sunday, March 7

Oral Roberts vs. North Daktoa, 5:45 p.m.

North Dakota State vs. Missouri-Kansas City, 8:45 p.m.

West Coast

Dates: March 4-6, March 8-9

Favorite: Gonzaga

Other contenders: BYU, Pepperdine

The WCC tournament will utilize its usual format with the top two seeds, Gonzaga and BYU, receiving byes until the semifinal round. The difference this year is the league employed an adjusted winning percentage formula devised by analytics guru Ken Pomeroy to seed the field to account for the disparate number of games played due to COVID pauses. The Bulldogs and Cougars should see their names on the Selection Sunday bracket regardless, with Gonzaga all but assured of appearing on the top line. If there’s a dark horse in such a top-heavy conference, Pepperdine, which split a pair with BYU in January, is at least a possibility.


Thursday, March 4

San Francisco vs. San Diego, 9 p.m.

Santa Clara vs. Portland, 11:59 p.m.

Friday, March 5

Loyola Marymount vs. San Francisco-San Diego winner, 9 p.m.

Pacific vs. Santa Clara-Portland winner, 11:59 p.m.

Follow Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith and Eddie Timanus @EddieTimanus

This story will be updated as conferences reveal their plans amid the pandemic. All times Eastern.

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