We’re still more than a week away from Selection Sunday, but March Madness kicks off in earnest Saturday when the Ohio Valley Conference crowns its champion and awards the NCAA tournament’s first automatic bid. A number of other conferences — most of them on the low- to mid-major side of things, plus the Big Ten and its weird early tournament — follow suit over the days that follow.
Here’s a quick look at what to expect from the early conference tournaments.
Championship game: Saturday (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2).
Team to beat: Top-seeded Murray State won 13 OVC titles over a 24-year stretch from 1988 to 2012 but looks to end a six-year drought this year (though, weirdly, no team that has received a double bye in the tournament has won it since 2013). The Racers, who enter the tournament on an 11-game winning streak, are pretty good at shooting three-pointers — conference player of the year Jonathan Stark is one of the nation’s best from long range — and good at stopping them: Opponents are shooting just 31.1 percent from three-point range, which ranks 15th nationally.
Watch out for: Belmont, also receiving a double bye into the semifinals as the No. 2 seed, beat Murray State in their lone meeting this season and also has road nonconference wins over higher-echelon mid-majors Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky. The Bruins rank third nationally in effective field goal percentage, which takes into account that three-pointers are worth more than two-pointers: They’ve made 360 shots from long range this season (only Savannah State and The Citadel have more) and average 11.6 made three-pointers per game. Belmont also is shooting 61.7 percent on two-point shots, tops in the nation.
Championship game: Sunday (1 p.m. EST, CBS).
Team to beat: In search of its first NCAA tournament berth since a Sweet 16 run in 1985, Loyola Chicago shot 51.4 percent from the field (second nationally) and held opponents to 63.4 points per game (seventh nationally) en route to a 25-5 regular season record. (Among the victories was a win at Florida). Stat guru Ken Pomeroy gives the Ramblers a 43.8 chance of ending their March Madness drought; no other MVC team has better than a 9.2 percent chance.
Watch out for: Fifth-seeded Bradley and sixth-seeded Indiana State both scored wins over Loyola this season. Second-seeded Southern Illinois features Kavion Pippen, nephew of NBA great Scottie Pippen.
Championship game: Sunday (1 p.m. EST, ESPN).
Team to beat: UNC Asheville, though the Bulldogs hardly have distanced themselves from the pack with late-season losses to Gardner-Webb and Liberty. They did go 13-1 at home this season and, as the tournament’s top seed, will not have to travel for the duration of the tournament.
Watch out for: Both Winthrop and Radford scored wins over UNC Asheville this season; one of them likely will be waiting for the Bulldogs in the championship game. Both teams rank higher than UNC Asheville in Pomeroy’s overall statistical rankings.
Championship game: Sunday (3 p.m. EST, ESPN).
Team to beat: Florida Gulf Coast, which won 15 of its last 17 games and features Atlantic Sun first-teamers Brandon Goodwin (also the conference player of the year) and Zach Johnson.
Watch out for: Lipscomb, which won at FGCU on Feb. 17. The Bisons, who are looking for their first NCAA tournament appearance, average nearly 75 possessions per game (ranking seventh nationally, according to Pomeroy’s numbers).
Championship game: Monday (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2).
Team to beat: Canisius is the No. 2 seed but has a 31.1 percent chance of winning the tournament, via Pomeroy. The Golden Griffins, who were picked to finish ninth in the conference’s preseason pull but have won 17 of their last 20 games, haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1996. Sophomore guard Isaiah Reese had a triple-double in November, becoming the first Canisius player ever to do so, and ranked in the MAAC top 10 in eight statistical categories.
Look out for: As of this writing, no Division I team had attempted more free throws this season than top-seeded Rider (793). But the Broncs converted only 60.7 percent of them, one of the worst marks in the nation. The MAAC top seed has not won the conference tournament since 2010.
Championship game: Monday (9 p.m. EST, ESPN2).
Team to beat: There isn’t a whole lot of separation between top seeds UNC Greensboro, East Tennessee and Furman, but we’ll give the edge to the Spartans considering they went 3-1 against the other two this season (the Buccaneers went 2-2 and the Paladins went 1-3), with all three wins coming by double digits. UNCG also won at North Carolina State in mid-December. The Spartans allow just 63.3 points per game, sixth nationally, and are 15th in steals and 27th in forced turnovers.
Look out for: East Tennessee also is stout defensively: Teams are shooting just 40.7 percent against the Buccaneers. But ETSU also comes into the tournament having lost four of its final five regular season games. Furman, meanwhile, ranks in the top 20 nationally in made three-pointers per game (10.5), steals per game (8) and total assists (505).
Championship game: Tuesday (7 p.m. EST, CBS Sports Network).
Team to beat: College of Charleston, which tied Northeastern for the CAA regular season title but earned the tournament’s No. 1 seed by virtue of its season sweep of the Huskies. The Cougars are looking for their first NCAA tournament berth since 1999 and are more or less hosting the tournament, which is being played just 20 minutes from campus, but they might be without leading rebounder Nick Harris, who injured his foot in the team’s penultimate game.
Watch out for: Northeastern features Serbian point guard Vasa Pusica, who ranked in the conference top 10 in scoring, field goal percentage, three-point percentage and assists this season. The Huskies also have eight players who average at least 16 minutes per game.
Championship game: Tuesday (7 p.m. EST, ESPN).
Team to beat: Northern Kentucky was swept by Wright State in the regular season but earned the tournament’s top seed and is the clear favorite (Pomeroy gives the Norse a 50.8 percent chance of cutting down the nets, compared with a 20.1 percent chance for the Raiders). Junior forward Drew McDonald has 16 double-doubles this season and 14 over NKU’s past 20 games.
Look out for: Wright State has its own double-double machine: Freshman center Loudon Love averages 12.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, the latter number ranking in the national top 30.
Championship game: Tuesday (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
Team to beat: Wagner has just one NCAA tournament appearance in its history but seems poised to double that total this year, in part because it won’t have to leave home as the tournament’s top seed and in part because the Northeast takes the rare step of re-seeding its teams after each round of the tournament. Speaking of second chances: The Seahawks grab the rebound on 35.9 percent of their missed shots, one of the best marks in the nation.
Look out for: St. Francis (Pa.) closed the regular season with five straight wins, and guard Andre Wolford makes nearly 50 percent of the three-pointers he takes. Mount St. Mary’s also is heavily reliant on the three-pointer, averaging 10.2 made shots from long range per game (20th nationally).
Championship game: Tuesday (9 p.m. ESPN, ESPN).
Team to beat: Death, taxes and Gonzaga. The defending national runners-up have won 17 of 18 and will be dancing later on in March no matter the result of the WCC tournament. Fourteen of those 17 victories were by double digits. The Bulldogs rank in the top 25 nationally in both points scored per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions, all without four departed players and 62 percent of its scoring from last year’s team. Six players on this year’s team are averaging at least 9.9 points per game.
Look out for: Saint Mary’s, which actually was picked to finish first in the league’s preseason poll, also enters the tournament on a roll, having lost four games all season (they also seem ensured of an at-large bid). Among the Gaels’ wins was one at Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s is shooting 51.6 percent as a team, which leads the nation, and its effective field goal percentage of 58.5 ranks seventh. The Gaels also are one of seven NCAA teams to average fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Championship game: Tuesday (9 p.m. EST, ESPN2).
Team to beat: South Dakota is looking for its first-ever NCAA tournament bid, and Pomeroy gives the Coyotes a 50.4 percent chance of doing that even though they’re the tournament’s No. 2 seed. The Coyotes are led by junior guard Matt Mooney, an Air Force transfer who had four 30-point games this season. Two of those games came against rival South Dakota State.
Look out for: Top-seeded South Dakota State has won two straight Summit titles. Only six teams average more points than the Jackrabbits (85.3) and only four have made more three-pointers. Junior forward Mike Daum, likely to be named the conference’s player of the year, topped Mooney with 11 30-point games this season and is averaging 23.6 points per game.
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