Predicting* Some Conference Champions

With conference tournament season upon us, I decided to shake it up a bit in our coverage of March Madness. There will still be a new podcast released prior to the First Four in Dayton but in the meantime, we wanted to cover the slate of conference tournaments that decide the 32 at-large bids. But having an informed follower of college basketball pick the most likely winners of each tournament is old news. I wanted a challenge.

So, I enlisted podcast member Erik to give me a list of potential conference champions and I was tasked with forming an argument in favor of said teams making it to the big dance. I have split his predictions into four categories: Favorites, Toss-Ups, Hot Takes, and 🔥🔥🔥Takes. Obviously, some conference tournaments have already finished, and some teams are already locked into the tournament with at least an at-large bid, so I’m going to focus on the 19 of the 25 tourneys still in play. I’m also skipping the Big Sky, because as Erik put it so nicely, “Who cares?” and the Ivy League because I refuse to argue against Harvard and Bryce Aiken.

Favorites

We’ll begin with the favorites, of which Erik picked nine and made my job much easier. Each of the nine teams is the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences, and very few have a real threat of being knocked off. Perennial champions New Mexico State and Vermont are in prime position to walk their way in the tournament, and it would take a surprising turn of events for either of those teams to lose. Teams like VCU, Hofstra, and Old Dominion have looked great for much of the season, although VCU should never count out Davidson to finesse their way into March Madness.

Teams like Buffalo and Georgia State are favorites, but they better be sure to keep an eye out for Toledo and Georgia Southern respectively. Which leads me to the favorite that I am least certain about: Wofford. Don’t get me wrong, Wofford is a great team and is definitely deserving of a bid if they don’t manage to win the Southern championship. But, the SoCon is an immensely deep league for a mid-major. UNC-Greensboro and Furman are a who’s who of mid-majors vying for an at-large big early in the season, and ETSU is lingering as a No. 4 team in the conference. Wofford may be the best of the favorites categories, but they have one of the more difficult paths to the dance.

Toss-Ups

Three of the conference champions I’ve deemed toss-ups went to the No. 1 seeds but will have to get past tough competition from other high seeds. Norfolk State will have the easiest run at a title in the MEAC, the second worst rated conference in the nation, but in the regular season finale, they dropped a tough one to Howard, the No. 4 seed in the MEAC. Luckily for Norfolk State, Howard and Bethune-Cookman, the two teams the Spartans have lost to this season, will face each other in the quarterfinals. If they can get past the winner of that matchup, it is smooth sailing from there.

Iona and Colgate, in the MAAC and Patriot respectively, face a similar challenge. Iona faces Monmouth (of bench-mob fame) in the MAAC championship. The Gaels and Hawks split the season series, but Monmouth is riding a wave of momentum after knocking off the No. 3 and No. 2 teams in back-to-back games. The edge has to go to Iona, but you can be certain Monmouth will put up a heck of a fight. Colgate, a team that was practically never talked about as a conference contender early in the season, has given Bucknell quite a challenge this season. The two teams will meet Wednesday with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line, and the Colgate Raiders are poised to stretch their 10-game winning streak even further.
Fairleigh Dickinson is the No. 2 team in the Northeast Conference and will take on No. 1 Saint Francis on Tuesday. In what is a common trend, the two teams split the season series, but Fairleigh Dickinson has been on a roll lately winning seven straight games. I predict the Knights’ defense will overpower the St. Francis attack. The Knights hold advantages in blocks and steals per game and hold their opponents to 4.3 fewer points per game. Another No. 2 seed that Erik picked to make a run is Northern Kentucky. The Norse have been second to Wright State for most of the year, and the two teams are evenly matched. The two teams play in the conference semifinals on Monday, and if they meet in the championship it will be a very tight game. On Northern Kentucky’s side, however, is their semifinal opponent. The Norse face 16-16 Oakland in a game they are heavily favored, while Wright State has to face a very dangerous Green Bay Phoenix. The Phoenix, you guessed it, split the season series with Wright State and are going to be looking to take a 2-1 advantage on Monday night.

The last team in the toss-up category is Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks are technically the remaining favorites after Western Illinois shocked the basketball world by defeating No. 1 seeded South Dakota State and bucket-getting machine Mike Daum. The end of the senior forward’s career was completely unexpected, which is why I’ve labeled the Summit tournament a toss-up. At this point, what's to stop Western Illinois from running the table and increasing their season win total from nine to 12 in some sort of miracle run. Conventional wisdom says Omaha should be the favorites going forward, but with the No. 3 and 4 seeds remaining it is too early to chalk this one up as a sure win.

Hot Takes

The first hot take is really more of a luke-warm take: Abilene Christian winning the Southland over favorite Sam Houston State. Sam Houston has had ACU’s number this year, winning both meetings between the two teams. However, the ACU Wildcats have a much better resume. The Wildcats lost just two games in the non-conference: Pepperdine (who I will talk about later…) and then No. 11 Texas Tech. The Sam Houston Bearkats, on the other hand, lost eight games in the non-conference schedule. In the N.E.T. and my own metrics, Abilene Christian has the edge because of their superior resume.
Texas Southern has been a personal favorite this season, so I was glad to see Erik had picked them to win the SWAC over Prairie View A&M. Texas Southern is a team that has been given no respect late in the season, with the N.E.T. and most bracketologists giving the edge to Prairie View. Texas Southern beat Baylor, Oregon, and Texas A&M on the road! ON THE ROAD!! The hot take here isn’t that Texas Southern will win the SWAC, and that’s because not everyone disagrees. The hot take here is that it won’t even be close. I’d give Texas Southern a 10-point spread over Prairie View and you can take that to the bank.

UCF is a hit or miss team. They went 1-1 against the following teams: Houston, Cincinnati, Temple, Memphis. Those are some good teams and some just ‘okay’ teams. The deciding factor in these games is 7-foot-6 behemoth Tacko Fall. When Fall is on his game, he can diminish any of the nation’s top teams (see: Houston). However, when Fall is off his game it is a different story. In my eyes, Tacko Fall will rise to the occasion and dominate the AAC tournament en route to an automatic qualifier for the Knights. In fact, a story coming in the next week will go more in-depth on how Fall and his UCF team will make a run in the NCAA tournament, as well as a number of other predictions Zane has told me to make a compelling case for.

Outside of Washington in the Pac-12, UC Irvine of the Big West looks like it may be the safest bet to take home the conference championship. Or is it? Erik predicted that UC Santa Barbara may actually come away with the Big West’s auto-qualifier. On first glanced I was shocked, but when I looked into it a bit more I realized it wouldn’t be as surprising as it appears. The Gauchos have a fairly impressive record at 21-9. About what you’d expect of a mid to low-major team near the top of their conference. But then I began to look at their resume and I was surprised at how solid it was. UCSB lost a four-point game to the previously mentioned Washington back in early December, and more recently they defeated San Fransisco. The Dons are a team that had bubble aspirations as recently as January, and their record doesn’t convey just how good of a team they are. Despite being swept by UC Irvine in the regular season, the Gauchos make a compelling case to sneak their way from the Big West to the Big Dance.

🔥🔥🔥Takes

This is where it gets fun. Before I make my case for the last three predictions, I’m going to throw them out there so you can assess them yourself. In order of increasing absurdity: Seton Hall in the Big East; Fresno State in the Mountain West; and Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference. Now … one of these is not like the others … I’ll get to that one last.
The least surprising team here is Seton Hall. An up and down team this year, the Pirates have been mostly written off as a big-time contender in the Big East. The Big East is such a deep league, with teams like Villanova and Marquette seemingly runaway favorites. The way I see it, that makes Seton Hall’s 9-9 record in conference play that much more impressive. Six wins over Q1 opponents, including the early season win over Kentucky, far exceeds their blemishes such as being swept by DePaul. Outside of DePaul, the Pirates have secured wins against each of the other eight Big East teams. In a league where just six games separate the top team from the bottom team, it shouldn’t shock anyone if a 9-9 team runs the table.

The Fresno State Bulldogs could be in a position to walk their way through the MWC conference tournament thanks to some advantageous seeding. Nevada has struggled to win a handful of games they needed to win in order to solidify themselves as an elite team, which has shown the rest of the MWC that the Wolfpack are vulnerable. Their possible quarterfinal opponents are Boise State, a team they managed to beat by just one point early in the season, and Colorado State, who is looking for revenge following a somewhat heated display of running up the score in garbage time. Their likely semifinal opponent isn’t going to go down easy either. San Diego State is one of the aforementioned teams to defeat the Wolfpack back in March. On Fresno State’s side of the bracket, their biggest fear is going to be Utah State. Utah State has challenged Nevada’s supremacy this season, but they aren’t without hiccups themselves. A home loss to Fresno State and a slim two-point win over possible quarterfinal foe New Mexico exposes their fallibility as well. By the luck of the draw, Fresno State has been gifted a chance to claim the MWC’s auto-bid and turning the Mountain West into a three-bid league.
And with that, we’ve arrived at the granddaddy of them all: Pepperdine. Listen, I had to google what Pepperdine’s mascot even was (It’s the waves, by the way). Pepperdine is so infrequently talked about, I could have sworn they weren’t even a Division I basketball team. But here they are, the No. 8 seed, set to face No. 1 seeded Gonzaga in the WCC in tonight’s largest point-spread (-23.5) by a mile. The Waves have somehow found themselves in the WCC semifinals after knocking off the No. 9, 5, and 4 seeds in succession. What makes this even more bizarre, is the fact that No. 7 San Diego has done basically the same thing on the other half of the bracket. The Toreros have defeated the No. 10, 6 and 3 seeds in their way to a matchup against No. 2 Saint Mary’s. The WCC has the chance to be either the most or least unexpected conference title game in the past decade. I’m rooting for the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup, not only because it would be great theater, but because I can see it happening. The Waves have just two seniors on the roster, and they are bursting at the seams with young talent who is fighting for their lives out there. What does Gonzaga have to lose? They’ve been a lock as a 1 seed since the preseason and they aren’t going to be worried about some coastal California team full of no-names. It is a classic trap game, and when the Waves win the WCC, just remember that you heard it here first.

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