Conference Tournament Primer: Part One
SEND IT IN JEROME!!!!!!
So, the Jerome is out (a challenge that allows you to pick the winners of different college basketball conference tournaments, with underdog selections encouraged, full rules linked here), so of course I had to submit my ballot and give out the right picks. But, rather than just send out the graphic and eventually have every single pick turn up correct, I wanted to explain my picks and why I came to the eventually correct conclusions, in each conference.
There are also a couple of teams that I think can shock some people, so now’s the time to mention some of those teams, too.
Note: That was sarcastic and I don’t actually think I’m going undefeated.
My Pick: Vermont
This Vermont team isn’t as dominant as the teams in years past, with UMass Lowell only being 11 spots below them in KenPom, but they also haven’t lost a game since January 11. Vermont has some rough outings in non-conference play, but they’ve ruled over this conference with an iron fist, and until that changes I’m not picking against them.
I think if you’re going to try to seek the bonus points and not pick a top two team, I think it’s Bryant, as they have some legit high major talent, but they're also 60 spots below UMass Lowell in most rankings. It would have to be a decent upset, and I just think Vermont is the safer play here.
My Pick: Liberty
Don’t pick against Darius McGhee. He’s back and he’s making the tournament. Best team, the best coach, and the only team in the conference with two Top 130 units, with both their offense and defense ranking inside of KenPom’s Top 60. This is a team that has that exact Giant Killer formula, that I wouldn’t want to face in March.
Kennesaw is actually the one seed here and beat Liberty the only time these two teams met with the home crowd coming through for the Owls, en route to earning their share of the league title. They’re a legit team and have had an excellent season, but I’m just not picking them over Liberty. I can’t. Liberty is the better team on both sides of the ball, but Kennesaw is a team that’s very capable of fanning the flames.
If there’s any underdog I would back, it has to be Stetson. Their offense ranks 35 in KenPom, which is insane. They make nearly 40% of their threes, and if they just have a hot stretch of basketball, they can beat just about anyone. If that offense is clicking, good luck. You can score on them very easily, but not many teams have the shot-making to go blow for blow with this Hatters team. Lowkey a pretty fun tournament, but I have to go with Liberty.
My Pick: Montana State So, my colleague and our very own Chris Thedinga and I were gracefully invited to be on a show with some of our fellow Road to the Garden Colleagues, and this conference came up. I was put on the spot, had no idea this would come up and I think I pulled out an excellent answer:
Like, come on that’s a guy who knows his college basketball. A genius if you will.
The only thing I will add now is Eastern Washington did lose the game to Montana State, and I don’t like picking teams who are on a bit of a skid. Then again, they won 16 straight conference games, so they’re pretty good. But when I have a guard who’s capable of changing a game like the former Top 100 recruit and Washington transfer RaeQuan Battle, I’m going to trust him. I love backing these awesome guards in March, and that’s what I’m doing here.
I wanted to pick Weber State just because Dame went for 71 the other day, but he's also not in college anymore.
My Pick: Radford
Finally a Bonus Point Pick. Bout time.
I don’t love the teams at the top of this league. UNC Asheville has the best player in this league in Drew Pember who is a guy to watch for if they can make the tournament, but I decided to go dog hunting here. Asheville had some rough non-conference losses to Georgia State, Eastern Kentucky and North Carolina Central, which was enough for me to start looking at underdogs. Pember is a stud and certainly a player to watch, but I needed some underdogs and I liked this one.
Radford is a solid team. In the non-conference they were competitive with Marquette, Notre Dame, VCU and Kansas State, potentially three NCAA Tournament teams. They’ve had their ups and downs in conference play, including a rough ending, which I really dislike. But, if you look at their roster, if you follow the Big East as closely as I do you’ll notice a familiar name.
Former Five-star recruit and Villanova transfer Bryan Antoine is now a part of this Highlander squad. He struggled with injuries at Villanova, after being one of the highest-touted recruits I can remember. His high school tape was filthy. And he’s missed the last couple of games for Radford with a leg injury, with the school playing it safe and making sure he’s available for the conference tournament. With a player as talented as Antoine as your second-leading scorer (DaQuan Smith leads the team in scoring and is a very good shooter at 38.5% from three on the season), that’s a team I’m willing to back to win three games in as many days.
My Pick: Charleston
This team was inside the Top 25 at one point this year. They have six guys that can beat you on any given night, with those guys all averaging between 12.7-9.6PPG. They are super balanced and are an incredibly efficient offensive team, particularly on the offensive glass. But if you’ve been following college hops this season, you know how good this Charleston team is. Rather, I’m going to take a second to explain how this team BETTER make the NCAA Tournament if they make the championship and lose.
That would give them their thirtieth win. They played a pretty tough schedule. It’s not their fault that Colorado State, Davidson, Virginia Tech, Richmond, Chattanooga and Davidson all weren’t as good as they were expected to be. Heck, most of, if not all, of those teams got decimated by injuries. Chattanooga, Colorado State and Virginia Tech in particular are legit teams when healthy, which I believe they were when Charleston beat them. Teams don’t miss the tournament with 30 wins. I really hope they win this conference tournament so it doesn’t come to this debate, but if it does and they miss the tournament, we need to rethink this entire system.
The sleeper team I like in this league is UNC-Wilmington. With Pat Kelsey getting a huge extension from Charleston, the next candidate in this league is Takayo Siddle at UNCW. He’s done a very good job getting this program back, including winning the CBI title a season ago. They beat very good North Texas and Vermont squads in the non-conference, and really know how to defend. Skyheim Phillips is just a winner, he’s a very smart guard who makes winning plays, and I really like watching him play. That’s a team I trust and think can make some noise if you sleep on them. I think they upset Hofstra before falling to Charleston in the Tournament Final.
Oh, by the way, you can’t talk about this conference without mentioning Aaron Estrada at Hofstra. He’s the best player in this league and can go for forty on any given night. He did against Elon earlier this season and is fully capable of taking over any game, at any time. Hofstra’s duo of Estrada and Tyler Thomas is another one that high-major teams would be scared to see in Round One.
A Very fun tournament here.
My Pick: Northern Kentucky
I’m not gonna lie, I wanted the bonus points here. I’m rooting for Youngstown State. A team with their offensive capabilities, plus the Penguin mascot, that’s the team I want to back. If we’re taking away adjusting for opponents and just go with raw offensive efficiency, this Youngstown State team has the fourth most efficient offense in the country. They’re top 25 in both two-point and three-point percentages and can score with just about anyone.
But wait… why did I pick against them?
Well, one, I wanted the bonus points if NKU wins and they have the best defense in the conference. They were only one game back of Youngstown in conference play, and are just more consistent. Northern Kentucky beat a pretty decent Cincinnati team and have shown their ability to defend some of the best offenses in the country. They have a star guard in Marques Warrick, who can take control of any game and has averaged 15.8PPG or more in his three years of college.
Youngstown will get blown out if they just aren’t making shots, and even if Northern Kentucky has an off-day, they can get stops consistently and keep the game close.
I think this is more of a 50/50 decision, if anything I would slightly favor Youngstown State, but with the bonus points, I think Northern Kentucky is the side. Close one though, and I’m going to be rooting for the poignant Penguins to take over.
My Pick: Drake
Drake just lost the league title to Bradley and they should be furious. They will be enraged and will seek revenge. I think this league comes down to these two teams, and I just think Drake is slightly better.
Drake still has some of the core of that team that made the tournament and won their First Four game. Tucker DeVries leads this team in scoring with an efficient 18.9PPG, Roman Penn is still running the offense for Coach Darian DeVries with Garrett Sturtz, DJ Wilkins and Darnell Brodie still playing key roles for the Bulldogs. They know how to operate in these high-pressure situations and have that tournament experience. That’s exactly what I want in this setting.
Coach Brian Wardle has done an excellent job in his time at Bradley, including making two consecutive NCAA Tournaments. This team is riding a hot streak entering the tournament, winning their last ten games and showing that they belong with the elite in this conference. They're an excellent defense, ranking inside the top 40 in KenPom and have six scorers averaging between 14-8.2PPG, for a very well-balanced effort. They don’t have one guy, but play very well as a team.
I just think this Drake team has them matched in multiple spots. I think this is their time, and I like them in this underdog, revenge-seeking role.
If any team can ruin the Drake vs Bradley rematch, I think it’s Southern Illinois. The high-powered duo of Marcus Domask and Lance Jones combine to average 31PPG and cause fits for opposing defenses. I vividly remember Marcus Domask torching Butler in Hinkle two years ago, and Oklahoma State learned the hard way as Jones and Domask combined for 35 of their 61 points, en route to a win at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
My Pick: Wagner
This league doesn’t have a single team above the KenPom top 300. So, it was simple. I wasn’t taking the -120 favorite. If you are below the top 300, you should not be a favorite to win three straight games against fellow D1 opponents. Merrimack is the best team in this league and can win this tournament, but 54.5% of the time, as odds indicate? No way.
So, I went dog hunting. Wagner is the highest-ranked team in KenPom (by one spot) and St. Francis (PA) probably has the most dominant player, so it was a 50/50. Just went with Wagner because I didn’t think anyone else would. No real reason behind it.
My Pick: Morehead State
I wanted to pick Tennessee Tech, I really did, I was impressed by that team when they came to Hinkle. But, Morehead has been on a roll in conference play, winning 11 of their last 12 games, including a 19-point win over Tennessee Tech. They’re the best defense by a decent margin and the second-best offense in conference play.
This would have been a good conference to go dog hunting in, but this bracket is designed for just the top teams to come through. I mean look at this monstrosity.
I liked Southeast Missouri and SIUE as decent dog shots, but winning four games in four days against fresh opponents seems like an incredibly tough ask.
I don’t love it, but I’m going with the favorite here. Feels like they’ve been close to breaking through against Murray State and Belmont over the last couple of years, including making the tournament in 2021. With those two schools leaving for the MVC, it’s time Preston Spradlin’s Eagles take over and get back to the Big Dance.
My Pick: Colgate
Bet against Colgate in the Patriot at your own discretion. I can’t do it. They’ve lost one game since December 30, with their lone loss coming at American University. Since that one-point loss, Colgate has been dominant, winning three of their six games by over 20 points.
Colgate has a veteran roster, they have the leader for conference player of the year and they just beat up on this conference. They’ve won the conference tournament in three of the last four seasons, and this is a team that I just want to trust. Their offense ranks 54 in the country, and no other team in this conference has a unit that ranks above 150. No other team was above 11-7 in league play, and Colgate was 17-1.
Much like Vermont, I’m backing the Raiders until someone can consistently beat them. If I was to dog hunt It’s American, who was the second-best team in the conference all season, before their six-game losing streak, of course coming right after beating Colgate, but I didn’t really consider anyone else. Send 'em to the Dentist.
My Pick: Furman
In the end here, I just took who I believe is the best team. Furman absolutely dissected this Samford defense to win the league title on Saturday, in Samford’s home gym. The game was never competitive. Sans a little caused by Samford’s pressure, Furman absolutely dominated the entire game and was up 15 just about the entire time.
Samford is a legit two-seed, though. Florida transfer Ques Glover is a legit threat to any SoCon opponents, with wings Logan Dye and Jermaine Marshall being able to fill it up with just about anyone. When Glover was down with an injury, those two led the Bulldogs and were able to hold the fort down before he came back. This is a legit team who belongs at the top of this league and will be a very tough out.
As much as 14-4 teams can be slept on, I feel like not enough people are talking about this UNCG team. Their defense ranks just outside the top 50, and they have multiple guys who can beat you offensively, led by senior guards Keyshaun Langley and Keondre Kennedy. They are a team who just stays competitive in these tough games, and again will be right there with anyone who steps in their way.
And lastly, this Chattanooga team is something. Jake Stephens needs to be talked about with the most impactful transfers in the country. When he’s healthy, he’s a 7’0” tall big man who shoots over 40% from three, averages 21 points and ten rebounds, and would be top 15 in the country in blocks per game. Chattanooga has struggled without Stephens who hasn’t played since mid-January and there’s a chance he’s back for the league tournament. The Mocs were touted as a top-tier SoCon team in the preseason with Stephens healthy, and I don’t think that changes today. I think this team can make some serious noise.
The good thing for Furman is that they wouldn’t have to face any of these teams until the final. The bracket really opens up for the Paladins, who arguably have the top two leaders for Player of the Year in the conference, with both Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson averaging over 15 points a game, with either one poised to go ballistic on any night.
Bothwell is a poised, experienced, and very skilled guard who can attack you multiple ways off the dribble, scoring effectively at all three levels, and is capable of putting up 30-point outings against anyone, as he did against Samford. Slawson is the skilled forward who’s very capable of banging inside and stepping out and attacking you off the dribble or nailing a three-point jumper. He’s gone for 25+ multiple times this season, including a 27-point performance over Mercer. Slawson does it all for this team, being second in both scoring and assists, and leading the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks. He does just about everything you could ask him to.
These two lead the 34 ranked offense in the country, which has dominated SoCon opponents this season, and after how last season's conference tournament ended, I expect the Paladins to come out and get that one back.
My Pick: Oral Roberts
I’m not picking against Max Abmas. I’m not picking against this Oral Roberts team, who hasn’t lost since January 9. This is another team that I think should get an at-large bid to the tournament, but I hope that the committee isn’t forced to make that decision. Abmas has been a force offensively (again) ranking sixth in the country in points per game. Conner Vanover has been a force defensively, ranking third in the country in blocked shots.
This team has multiple guys who can beat you on any given night too, with Vanderbilt transfer Isaac McBride shooting over 40% from three in back-to-back seasons, averaging a very steady 12PPG this season. Guards Kareem Thompson and Carlos Jurgens were both key pieces on the Oral Roberts team that made the Sweet 16 and are still there, both playing over 25 minutes per game and providing some steady ball-handling alongside Max Abmas.
So yeah, this is the team I’m backing. They’ve lost four games this season, all Q1 road games against potential tournament teams. Like losing on the road to Houston and St. Mary’s is normal. Those are two Top 10 teams in the NET, who have a combined home record of 31-4. Their other two losses are against New Mexico and Utah State two teams who also have dominated on their home floor this season. There’s nothing to scoff at there, and Oral Roberts has won every game they’re supposed to. I don’t see a reason why I should pick against them. Easy pick.
My Pick: Louisiana
Man, this tournament is going to be fun, so we might as well call it the.... wait for it... Fun Belt!
I’m irrationally excited about this tournament. I can’t wait. This is easily my favorite conference tournament of this slate. The top four teams in this league all rank between 79-96 in KemPom, which just shows you how competitive this tournament will be.
The #1 seed in this tournament is Southern Mississippi, a team who came from under the radar to take the league title. They have three guys who average over 13PPG, led by junior guard Austin Crowley. The Golden Eagles are a very balanced team, that both score and defend pretty well, and really know how to play as a unit. They knocked both Vanderbilt and Liberty earlier in the season, have both their offense and defense inside the Top 120 of KenPom, and clearly aren’t afraid of anything.
Marshall is the betting favorite to win this conference, and I understand why. They're the most balanced team, being the only team in the league to have an offense and defense ranking inside KenPom’s Top 100, with both units ranking inside the Top 90. They have a very hard style to prepare for on short notice, they’re excellent at getting out in transition, and have a star point guard in Taevion Kinsey who is capable of taking over a game at any time. The duo of him and Andrew Taylor combine to average over 42PPG and cause nightmares for opposing defenses.
James Madison was the team I almost picked, as they are the four seed in this tournament and have played some excellent basketball at times this season. They were on a bit of a rough stretch in early January when they lost three straight, but since that point they’ve been absolutely excellent, going 10-3, even with some injuries. This team has seven guys averaging between 12.8 and 8.0PPG. They also play at a lightning-fast pace, force a ton of turnovers, and are very effective at getting to the free-throw line. Those things are consistent in a tournament setting.
Lastly, ranking just outside the top four at 105 in KemPom is my sleeper pick, South Alabama. Despite being the eight seed in this conference, this team has legit talent. They’ve won eight of their last ten games (including a 31-point drubbing of Southern Miss) and played very competitive games earlier in the season with Alabama, New Mexico and Oklahoma. They have the talent to compete at this level, they defend at a high level and have a legit star guard in Isaiah Moore. The DII transfer leads the Jaguars in scoring and assists, averaging 18.5PPG and 4.5 assists per game, on an efficient 53% from the field. He’s a very effective slasher and someone who is very tough to stop in this setting.
But, my pick is Louisiana. This is a Louisiana team that I really like. They’ve won 13 of their last 16 games, their offense is the best unit in this conference and they have two legit high major scoring threats in Jordan Brown and Greg Williams. They’re long, athletic, score on just about everybody, and can beat you in many different ways. This is a guard-dominated league, and because of that, I don’t think there’s anyone that can match up with Jordan Brown. The 6’11” former McDonald’s All-American is a force to be reckoned with in this league, averaging nearly 20PPG and 8.3 rebounds per game. Next to Brown, they have a variety of guards and wings who can attack you in multiple ways, headlined by St. John’s transfer Greg Williams, who averages nearly 14PPG and shoots over 40% from three-point range. They have balance, they have a legit star inside, and the best unit in the conference, so that’s why I backed them here.
I don’t think you can pick wrong in this league, I just really like this Louisana team. This is a tournament to watch though, I’m very excited about it if you can’t tell.
My Pick: Gonzaga
Not going to go super in-depth here. This is a two-horse race between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in a bracket that can only be described as “huh?”
Personally, I think St. Mary’s is the better team (not an insult to Gonzaga), I just think Gonzaga matches up better. These are two teams that are flying under the radar come March, but I think Gonzaga’s length really bothers this slower-paced, more methodical, smaller St. Mary’s team.
Though, if we are talking about the best freshmen in the country, you better mention Aidan Mahaney. He’s just incredible. He’s so smart for a freshman, he hits some incredibly tough shots, he’s an excellent shooter and always makes the right play. He’s in control of the game at all times and has really taken that leadership role on this St. Mary’s team.
But yeah, the pick is Gonzaga. Drew Timme is legit. I’m a little worried about the status of Malachi Smith after he went down with an injury in their last game, but I still think they have enough pieces to win this tournament. Julian Strawther looks excellent and Anton Watson has looked leaps and bounds better than he did earlier in the season.
Gonzaga’s the pick, but this is a pretty 50/50 conference.
So, that’s it. A lot of words on some fun games. Let’s get March started off with a bang.