Conference tournaments are not created equal in men’s college basketball. The projected winners of many are considered forgone conclusions, but we all know basketball in March isn’t like that. There will be upsets and unlikely champions.
With that in mind, FrontPageBets not only projects the winners, but ranks this season’s conference tournaments by the easiest to handicap to the most difficult.
No. 1 America East
The skinny: Vermont pretty much owns the America East. The Catamounts have won the most tournament titles (tied with former member Northeastern with seven) and they’ll be heavily favored this year since they have a six-game lead in the standings. The Catamounts have a nice inside-out combination with big man Ryan Davis and guard Ben Shungu. Stony Brook might have been a contender but the Seawolves are not allowed to participate because the school is switching conferences to the CAA. If any team’s going to get on a roll and pull off an upset (doubtful), it might be UMBC or Albany.
Projected winner: Vermont.
No. 2 Patriot League
The skinny: Colgate started 4-10, including a loss in its first league game. But since then the Red Raiders have established themselves as the best team in the league, going 16-1. Every tournament game will be in their cozy gym in remote Hamilton, N.Y. (It’s not far from Bedford Falls). The Raiders are smart and savvy with balanced scoring in a lineup that features a big man, Keegan Records, who is quickly becoming a Patriot League force, and sharpshooter Jack Ferguson, who looks like he’d be the last player chosen in a playground pickup game. Boston University is capable of upsetting Colgate but the Terriers suffer from inconsistencies. Navy, always playing hard for 40 minutes, might be another possible upsetter.
Projected winner: Colgate.
No. 3 West Coast Conference
The skinny: The WCC will get multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament as the overall quality of play in the conference is at an all-time high. It doesn’t matter, Gonzaga is the colossus of the league despite the upset loss to Saint Mary’s on Saturday. The Zags are the highest-scoring team in the country, winning by 23 points per game. Saint Mary’s is an NCAA team but will not have the benefit of its tiny gym if the Gaels meet Zags again. San Francisco is a possible at-large NCAA team, but it would take a legendary effort for the Dons to upset the Zags. Santa Clara is a quality team that hasn’t gotten much publicity, the Broncos could make some noise.
Projected winner: Gonzaga.
No. 4 MAAC
Site: Atlantic City, N.J.
The skinny: Rick Pitino has bigger goals for his Iona program than winning the MAAC Tournament. He’s plotting to make the Gaels the Gonzaga of the East. The only thing that could halt Iona’s match to permanent dominance is Pitino turning his back on a supposed lifetime contract at Iona and suddenly jumping to St. John’s to rescue that program. He wouldn’t do that, would he? Monmouth, Siena and Saint Peter’s are the main threats. Saint Peter’s coach, Shaheen Holloway, who could be a candidate for a bigger job, has a team that plays sticky defense. Marist could be an upset outsider behind the play of freshmen guard Jao Ituka.
No. 5 Summit
The skinny: The Jackrabbits of South Dakota State have been untouchable in the wilderness that is the Summit League, going 18-0 this season. They are the second-best shooting team in the country, making 52% of their shots, and No. 1 in 3-point shooting at 45%. Baylor Schelerman, a fascinating 6-6 guard, leads the Jacks in scoring (15.5), assists (4.6), rebounds (8.4) and steals. The threat to South Dakota State is Oral Roberts, last season’s NCAA Tournament Cinderella. The Titans still have high-scoring guard Max Abmas, who’s capable of single-handedly carrying the Titans to the title. North Dakota State also played two close games against the Jackrabbits.
Projected winner: South Dakota State.
No. 6 Ohio Valley
The skinny: Murray State may not have a player as transcendent as Ja Morant this season but the Racers have a whole bunch of good ones, maybe some future pros. The best are 6-10 center K.J. Williams and guard Tevin Brown, who form a great inside-out combination. Williams can stretch out to the 3-point line, too. Wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the Sweet 16 a few weeks from now. Belmont was the preseason selection in this league and the Bruins are good, but they’ve lost their shooting touch recently. Morehead State has versatile big man Johni Broome, who you might be seeing in the ACC or SEC next season. He’ll be valued if he disappears into the transfer portal.
Projected winner: Murray State
No. 7 Horizon League
Sites: First two rounds at higher seed; semifinals, finals at Indianapolis
The skinny: Cleveland State may have lost six games in the league but every loss was close. This veteran unit is still the best team in the league. The Vikings are led by triplets of sort, three 6-4, 6-5 guards, D’Moi Hodge, Torrey Patton and Tre Gomillion. Their coach, Dennis Gates, will most likely be in line for a bigger job once this season ends. Threats to Vikings are Purdue Fort Wayne (winners of nine straight), Wright State and Oakland. Detroit is an interesting longshot behind high-scoring guard Antoine Davis.
Projected winner: Cleveland State
No. 8 Atlantic Coast
The skinny: Remember when the ACC was a basketball league? If you want to connect with that, you’ll have to watch the history of the league’s postseason tournament on the ACC Network. Expansion for football’s sake, has diluted this league. Duke is the unquestioned leader as the Blue Devils attempt to give coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season a Hallmark movie ending. His team plays as most of his teams do, fast offensively and aggressive defensively, and has improved as the season as progressed. The main weapons are freshman forward Paolo Banchero, guards Wendell Clark and A.J. Griffin plus big man Mark Williams. North Carolina, underachieving in coach Hubert Davis’ first season, is in desperation mode and should be inspired to advance as far as possible. Miami has been inconsistent but is capable of high-level play. Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Virginia are also scrambling for NCAA bids but none can match Duke.
No. 9 Southern
The skinny: A couple of weird losses to UNC Greensboro and VMI tarnished Chattanooga’s overall record but over the full conference season, the Mocs were terrific. They have the best backcourt in the league with Malachi Smith and David John-Baptist plus big man Oscar DeSousa, a transfer from Kansas. Furman is loaded with veterans, won at Louisville and played competitively despite losing twice to Chattanooga. Samford holds victories over Oregon State and Mississippi and finished the season strongly, winning six of seven.
Projected winner: Chattanooga
No. 10 Sun Belt
The skinny: At this time last season, Texas State’s T.J. Johnson was still an interim coach, someone plucked from an assistant’s spot on the bench to quickly solve a problem. Now, he’s won two straight Sun Belt championships and has a veteran, defensive-minded team that could win another. The Bobcats will have to hold off Appalachian State and their nifty guard Adrian Delph and Troy. If Arkansas State can regain some early season form, the Red Wolves would be a threat.
Projected winner: Texas State
No. 11 American
The skinny: Houston lost its leading scorer, Marcus Sasser, for the season because of injury but the Cougars have been undeterred. They thrive by playing the best defense in the country and by attacking the offensive boards. Sometimes their best offense is a missed shot. It would be rare for an opponent to play harder. SMU, led by veteran point guard Kenric Davis, holds a victory over Houston. Memphis is loaded with talent and has steadily improved which makes them a wild card. Another late-improving unit is Temple.
Projected winner: Houston.
No. 12 Big East
The skinny: Providence has been the best team in the Big East, clinching its first regular-season title with a veteran unit that never seems to relent in close games. That said, New York City will not become Friartown next week. Villanova is still in the league and although this year’s team might be cut below Jay Wright’s usual excellence, the Wildcats are a deeply experienced team that wins with tough defense and team play. UConn is also a possible threat but that’s only if Huskies’ coach Danny Hurley can maintain his composure and not lose his mind over a random travelling call. He needs to concentrate on making his team better. Seton Hall is an appealing team, there’s lots to love in the New York area because the Pirates play so passionately.
Projected winner: Villanova.
No. 13 Big South
Sites: First round at higher seed; other rounds at Charlotte, N.C.
The skinny: Top-seeded Longwood has basically no Division 1 basketball history. It took a former practicing lawyer and grass-roots coach, Griff Aldrich, to unlock the potential at this Virginia school. The Lancers finished the regular season 15-1 to win the school’s first Big South title. The traditional league power is Winthrop, which has won 13 of these. The Eagles are a veteran team and have a legit big man in D.J. Burns plus finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. North Carolina Asheville can’t be ruled out completely.
Projected winner: Winthrop.
No. 14 Pac-12
The skinny: The idea that Tommy Lloyd would have wild success n his first year at Arizona would have been easy to dismiss. As it turned out, his roster has outplayed all expectations. The Wildcats rely mostly on a towering frontcourt of Azuolas Tubelis, Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo who often intimidate opponents. They are complemented on the perimeter by leading scorer Benedict Mathurin and the mercurial Kerr Kriisa. The roster has eight players who are not from the U.S. UCLA can beat Arizona. The Bruins have just suffered from not having their full roster all the time. When fully constituted, the Bruins can beat anyone. Oregon has been erratic all season but maybe the Ducks will be on the uptick in Vegas.
Projected winner: Arizona
No. 15 MEAC
The skinny: Norfolk State has two things going for it: A barrel-chested, hard-nosed guard, Joe Bryant Jr. and a defense that’s ranked fifth in the nation in field goal percentage defense. MEAC teams find it hard to score against the Spartans who are also a veteran team that won this tournament last season. North Carolina Central, always a threat, holds a victory over Norfolk State. Howard, coached by former Duke player Kenny Blakeney, is becoming a factor in the league.
Projected winner: Norfolk State.
No. 16 Southeastern
The skinny: What’s stranger, the ACC playing in Brooklyn or the SEC in Tampa? Discuss. There are four solid choices who could win this tournament: Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Auburn has high-flying offense, maybe the best freshman in the country in Jabari Smith, and the nation’s best shot blocker in Walker Kessler. Kentucky has been slowed by injuries so who will be available will be critical. But the Wildcats have the national player of the year in center Oscar Tshiebwe. What it lacks in offense, Tennessee makes up for it on defense. Arkansas might put forth more effort than all of them. Then what to make of Alabama? Capable of beating the No. 1 team in the country, capable of losing to just about anyone.
Projected winner: Kentucky
No. 17 Big 12
The skinny: Top to bottom, this is the best conference in the country. The only problem is at the top is Kansas and rarely does the bottom knock the Jayhawks off their pedestal. Baylor did it last season and went on to win the national title. But injuries have slowed the Bears somewhat even though they were able to beat the Jayhawks on Saturday. Kansas’ lineup doesn’t make the NBA scouts come out in droves but the Jayhawks are a talented, well-coached unit. Texas Tech plays an unattractive style of basketball, sometimes it looks a taekwondo competition. Texas’ roster features a bevy of transfers. Maybe Iowa State can get on a streak behind the sometimes-electrifying play of guard Izaiah Brockington. One could consider a number of talented teams, but in the end, the winner will be obvious.
Projected winner: Kansas.
No. 18 Missouri Valley
The skinny: If not for a hip injury suffered last season that required a difficult recovery, Northern Iowa guard A.J. Green might be an All-American candidate. He can be that good and he has slowly regained his game this season and proved it by scoring 37 points in the final regular-season game to beat Loyola and clinch the regular-season title. Loyola is still a mid-major darling, a favorite of the geeks who follow basketball at all levels (guilty, as charged). When they’re playing well, it’s like a clinic at both ends of the court led by a rising star in coach Drew Valentine. He’s not long for the shores of Lake Michigan. At one point, Drake might have been one of the most disappointing teams in the country with a roster full of returnees from an NCAA Tournament team. The Bulldogs might have found themselves just in time. Missouri State guard Isiaih Mosley is capable of carrying the Bears to the title by himself.
No. 19 Northeast
Dates: Feb. 28, March 2, 5, 8
The skinny: Bryant has never been to the NCAA Tournament but the Bulldogs are a solid favorite in the NEC after winning 14 of their last 15. They are led by forward Peter Kiss, who averages 25.1 ppg. The well-travelled Kiss has also played at Rutgers and Quinnipiac. Wagner, with a tough inside game, is the main opposition. LIU finished strongly with a six-game winning streak.
No. 20 WAC
The skinny: This league used to be New Mexico State and no one. That’s not true, at least for this year. New Mexico State and others will be leaving next season, but the Aggies would like to make it one last title. They will need to hold off Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Grand Canyon and Seattle, all of which have provided tougher competition than the Aggies have seen in a long time. The Aggies are led by high-scoring guard Teddy Allen, who might be the most on-the-move player in the country, having previously been at West Virginia, Wichita State, Western Nebraska CC and Nebraska.
Projected winner: New Mexico State
No. 21 Ivy League
The skinny: It’s just a four-team tournament played at Harvard and the Crimson, in rare down year, didn’t make the final four. Princeton is led by British big guy Tosan Evbuomwan and doesn’t play the old traditional Princeton way. These Tigers will play quickly. Yale, which split with Princeton, is the main opposition and is led by dynamic guard Azar Swain.
Projected winner: Princeton
No. 22 Big West
The skinny: Long Beach State has overcome a slew of injuries and a 23-day COVID pause to get to the top of the regular-season standings with the help of an 11-game winning streak. The Beach, now the school’s official nickname with the old 49ers discarded, have a quick and entertaining style. Cal State Fullerton is a solid contender. The Titans are led by 6-7 forward E.J. Anosike, who at his third school, previously playing at Sacred Heart and Tennessee. UC Santa Barbara has dominated this league recently and even though the Gauchos have had a down year, they can’t be ignored since they’ve strung some victories together toward the end of the regular-season. UC Irvine, with its patient approach, can’t be eliminated either.
Projected winner: Cal Santa Barbara
No. 23 Atlantic Sun
The skinny: Liberty has won this tournament the last three seasons and is favored again. But the Flames have slipped up a few times this season, so they’re vulnerable. Darius McGhee, a 5-9 guard, would be more widely known if he played at bigger school. He averages 23.9 points per game and had 47 in the final regular-season game. A match for him is Florida Gulf Coast’s 5-8 Tavian Dunn-Martin, who dropped 43 on Liberty recently and has been known to blow kisses to the crowd after hitting a 3-pointer. Jacksonville and Jacksonville State (FYI, not related) are other contenders.
Projected winner: Florida Gulf Coast
No. 24 Conference USA
The skinny: This league really should have two bids but the system is rigged against it and other mid-major leagues. There’s a bunch of good teams competing for this title. Top-seeded North Texas will not make your jaw drop when you watch them. The Mean Green play slowly and give up the fewest points per game in the country. They’re a tough unit that has played some challenging non-conference games. Winning this won’t be easy. UAB could get a huge tournament from entertaining guard Jelly Walker and Louisiana Tech has a tough big guy in chubby Kenny Lofton, Jr. Middle Tennessee has been the surprise team in the league, winning the East Division with a group who meshed after years of losing. If you watch the Blue Raiders, hopefully, you’ll get to see the leaping ability of freshman Teafale Lenard on a big dunk.
Projected winner: Middle Tennessee.
No. 25 Big Sky
The skinny: The Sky looked like it was going to end up with a six-way tie for first until Montana State broke things open with an 11-game winning streak to climb to the top of the standings. That does not ensure any success in the tournament which can be won by as many as six teams. Traditional power Weber State has been slumping and preseason pick Southern Utah never achieved any consistency.
Projected winner: Southern Utah
No. 26 Big Ten
The skinny: In most leagues, the list of teams who can win the tournament would be short. The opposite is true in the Big Ten. Only Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska can’t win. You could make a case for any of the other teams which is fitting since the regular-season champion will have a minimum of four losses. Purdue will dazzle everyone on offense, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis will come through in the clutch, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn will overpower everyone in the post, Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell will go on a scoring binge. Or Rutgers will just be tougher than any other team, Tom Izzo will finally unlock the key to get Michigan State to be consistent, Iowa will just outscore everyone. Maybe Michigan will be inspired by the return of suspended coach Juwan Howard, Indiana’s Trace Jackson-Davis will prove he’s an All-American. You could go on and on. There should be a bunch of closely played games and some upsets.
Projected winner: Illinois
No. 27 Mid-American
The skinny: Before conference play began, Ohio was seen as a cut above the rest of the league. As the end of the season nears, that’s no longer true. Toledo has emerged at the top of the standings and Buffalo and Kent State have put together winning streaks of nine and 10 games, respectively. It would be a too-close to call, compelling final three games if these four advanced, and a competition between four great guards, Ohio’s Mark Sears (19.3 ppg), Toledo’s Ryan Rollins (19.2), Kent’s Sincere Carey (18.9 ppg) and Buffalo’s Jeenathan Williams (19.3 ppg). The final analysis is that this is another league that deserves two bids.
Projected winner: Kent State
No. 28 Mountain West
The skinny: It’s been a season of close, hard-fought games as the Mountain has proven to be a multi-bid conference. Boise State is powered by a pair of transfers, forward Emmanuel Akot (Arizona) and Marcus Shaver (Portland). But the Broncos would only be a slight favorite. Colorado State, Wyoming and San Diego State could just as easily win this. UNLV, which had a decent season, is playing at home. San Diego State has a familiar formula, tough defense. Colorado State has one of the most intriguing players in America in forward David Roddy, who overpowers opponents with his strength inside right after he swishes a 3-pointer. Wyoming has a potent inside-out combination in big man Graham Ike and point guard Hunter Maldonado.
Projected winner: Colorado State.
No. 29 Southland
The skinny: Battered by defections that left eight teams in the conference, the league organized an in-season tournament in January because all the teams were having scheduling problems. That was won by Southeastern Louisiana over Nicholls State. Then the regular season started and Nicholls has forged its way to the top of the standings, but the Colonels lost two more times to Southeastern. They need to avoid them in this tournament. New Orleans put together a nice winning streak in February.
Projected winner: Nicholls State.
No. 30 Atlantic 10
The skinny: The A-10 was once an annual multi-bid league but that’s not the case anymore. If Davidson wins this, it could very well be a one-bid league. Davidson is no lock even though the Wildcats are what they usually are, a team that shares the ball and shoots well. VCU, led by point guard Ace Baldwin, has been on a winning streak. Dayton is very young and sometimes that proves to be its undoing but the Flyers are talented and excellent on defense. Saint Bonaventure, the preseason favorite, seems to have recovered from a rough patch, but the Bonnies often are affected by a lack of dept. Saint Louis and Richmond can’t be ruled out.
No. 31 SWAC
The skinny: Texas Southern, which has had great recent success in the SWAC, has the league’s best victory this season, winning at Florida. Coach Johnny Jones uses 10 players and no one averages double figures. The competition will come from Southern, Grambling and Alcorn State, mostly. Prairie View can’t be eliminated either. Southern won at Tulane and Kent State. It’s wide open.
Projected winner: Southern.
No. 32 Colonial
The skinny: This is the most wide-open tournament in the nation. Proof: Last-place Northeastern is capable of winning it. Top-seed UNC Wilmington was picked to finish last in a preseason poll. Teams between them like Towson, Delaware and Hofstra could win this, too. Wilmington has benefitted from a distinct home-court advance but the Seahawks won’t have that. Towson has balanced offense and tough defense. Delaware, the preseason pick, might be the most talented. Hofstra is the defending champion.
Projected winner: Delaware.
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Joe Sullivan is the former sports editor of the Boston Globe. His college basketball column “Sully’s Court” was a staple in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan