On the Cusp of March Madness!

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The most important time of the year in the men’s college basketball season is almost upon us, March Madness, the month long countdown to the Final Four.

For some conferences the madness has already begun with opening round games underway. Indeed, by the close of this weekend, a handful of conference champions will be crowned getting an early start to prepare for every school’s common goal of the season: reaching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

basketballMost of the larger, well known conferences will hold their tournaments next week, crowning their respective champions the following Saturday or Sunday. That second day of the weekend is known as Selection Sunday, the high holy day for the gods of college basketball.

The NCAA tournament is stacked to favor the larger conferences as it should, given that the best programs can be found in the Big East, SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac 10 and Big 12 conferences. But some of the smaller or mid-major conferences traditionally have one team who can play with the big boys, offering a juicy spoiler in the first or second round of the tournament.

On occasion viewers get lucky and are treated to a heroic team such as a Stephen Curry-led Davidson, who comes oh so close to reaching the Final Four.  Even if you’re a big conference fan you can’t help but root for the underdog, especially one who has a future NBA star leading the charge.

ESPN is famous for espousing the science of bracketology, the Joe Lunardi theorem that supposes to pinpoint which “on the bubble” teams may actually make the tournament and which ones will miss out. Most importantly, the science to determine tournament seeding is the central part of this art, one that can help faithful obtain a reasonable guess where their school will be placed.

Of the conference games going on right now, I see the following six schools winning it all and heading to the big tournament which gets started in two weeks:

Big Sky — Weber State avenged its lone conference loss in the last game of the Big Sky regular season, handily beating Montana State by 20 points.  As long as they don’t look ahead, the Wildcats should breeze through the tournament which begins on Saturday.

Horizon — This mid-major conference routinely serves up a high quality team, but this year it isn’t Valparaiso. Butler is ranked #22 in the nation and at 25-3, has four players who routinely contribute ten or more points per game for a balanced attack.

Missouri Valley — Creighton finished the regular season with ten straight wins and should have enough to get to the tournament with an at-large berth. But, given that the ACC and Big East will likely each bring eight teams, the Bluejays know that winning the MVC may be their only assurance of getting in.

Southern — I can’t imagine Davidson having to settle for an at-large berth in this year’s tournament. Then again, they lost to The Citadel and College of Charleston in league play, showing that they are vulnerable. Don’t expect Curry to have a let down — Davidson will be back, but they won’t necessarily be the crowd favorite this year.

Sun Belt — Western Kentucky and Arkansas-Little Rock both won their divisions, finishing 15-3 in league play. But their balanced attack, led by guard A.J. Slaughter gives them just the sort of edge needed to emerge as conference champion on Tuesday.

West Coast — #14 Gonzaga is clearly the best of the mid-major schools in the country, a Pac 10 quality program that can play with just about anyone. Since its 18-point loss last month to Memphis, the Zags have won seven straight and finished at 14-0 in the conference. Saint Mary’s matched the Zags 24-5 regular season record, however, and will only get to the NCAA tournament if they win the conference tournament.  Still, I like Gonzaga in a very close final.

That’s it — March Madness is unfolding, so sit back and enjoy what will likely be a fun month culminating in an early April Final Four in Detroit.

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