The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

With all due respect to you Christmas fanatics, the fact is for College Basketball Fanatics, this is the Most Wonderful time of the year.  From today until April 4th, it’s Christmas for me and many others.  Yes, I love College Football, but there is NOTHING better than tournament basketball and the three weeks of the NCAA Tournament is the absolute best.

Conference tournaments begin today.  This week is largely reserved for the so-called mid to low major conferences.  The reality is that in most – if not all – of these conferences, only one team will be making the NCAA tournament by winning the conference tournament and the automatic bid.  The Atlantic Sun Conference and the Patriot League get the party started with first round games on campus sites.  Both of these leagues learned a long time ago, that taking their tournaments to a neutral site is a recipe for small crowds and losing money.  Likewise, in these one-bid leagues, the regular season champion gets home court advantage as long as they remain in the tournament and that’s only fair because quite often the regular season champion loses in the tournament and a lower seed gets the automatic bid.  Not to mention that if top seed in the Atlantic Sun North Florida reaches the final, the gym will be full putting money in the conference coffers.

The Atlantic Sun Conference actually has one of this year’s more interesting stories in the form of the Highlanders of the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  NJIT has only been a Division 1 school since 2007 and to say they got off to a rocky start is a bit of an understatement.  During the 2007 – 2008 season the Highlanders went 0-29 and that losing streak carried over into the next season eventually spanning 51 games.  They were formerly a member of NCAA’s Division III where they played in the post-season five times.  Tonight’s game against Stetson is the school’s first ever conference tournament game having joined the Atlantic Sun last season.  They are 17-13 and the second seed in the tournament and will play their first two games at home should they win tonight.  The Highlanders opened this year by losing to Kentucky by 30, but they do own a win over St. John’s – a Big East team albeit a very bad one.  Last year they beat then 17th ranked Michigan.  NJIT played in the mid-major college tournament last year, but three wins this week will fulfill what must have appeared to be a pipe dream just a decade ago

Bucknell is the top seed in the Patriot league at 17-12 and 14-4 in the conference.  The Big South Tournament opens tomorrow in Buies Creek, North Carolina with High Point University as the top seed.  This tournament had been on the campus of Coastal Carolina the last several years and was scheduled to be there again this year.  Then Coastal dumped the Big South to move to the SunBelt next year and in response, the Conference took away the tournament.  This Conference has taken the tournament to home courts and neutral sites over the years including the Roanoke Civic Center.  This year’s host is no threat to win.  Campbell is the worst team in the league, but don’t be surprised if come Championship Sunday, Liberty is in the title game.  The Flames were in danger of flaming out at the beginning of the season going just 3-and-10 in the non-conference.  They enter the tournament seeded 5th having won 10 of their last 18.

Stony Brook is the top seed in the American East.  They were last year also and were beaten in the tournament and lost out on a shot at the field of 68.  The Horizon League figures to be interesting.  The top seed is Valparaiso, but watch out for second seeded Oakland who has won 21 games.  In the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference the top seed is Monmouth.  You may have seen these guys.  For one they can flat out play and secondly, their bench players have cornered the market on entertaining sideline celebrations.  Monmouth may be a contender for an at-large, but to make certain, they’d better win the championship.  Wager is the top seed in the North East Conference.  Never heard of Wagner?  Well, the school is located on Staten Island in New York City.  The Ohio Valley sets up shop at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium this weekend.  That’s only appropriate as 5 of the 8 teams participating in the tournament are from Tennessee.  The OVC is a 12 team league but only 8 make the tournament and the top two seeds Belmont and the Skyhawks of UT-Martin get double byes into the semi-finals requiring them to win just two games to make the NCAA field.

In the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State are the top seed with Indiana-University/Purdue-University Fort Wayne also known as IPFW close behind.  The West Coast Tournament takes over the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas later this week.  The top three seeds are St. Mary’s, Gonzaga, and BYU, all of whom have at least 22 wins.  The problem is that I only see the conference champion getting into the field with the other two headed to the NIT.

Finally, there are three more tournaments this weekend.  The Colonial takes over the former Baltimore Arena – now called the Foster Farms Arena after a company that kills a lot of chickens.  The top seed is Hofstra.  This Tournament for years was a staple in Richmond when Old Dominion, VCU and Richmond were part of the league.  It moved to Baltimore a couple of years ago as the league started migrating more from the Southeast to the Northeast.  One first round game matches the two Virginia schools James Madison and William and Mary.  William and Mary is one of just five original Division I schools to never make the NCAA Tournament along with The Citadel, Army, Northwestern and St. Francis of Brooklyn.  The Tribe have an uphill climb to get off of that list.

One of the oldest tournaments in the nation sets up shop in Asheville, North Carolina (a great town by the way) this weekend.  The Southern Conference has been around since the 1930s and West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Marshall among others were once members of the conference.  Numerous cities have hosted the tournament including Charleston, South Carolina and for a long time in the 1970s and 80s, the Roanoke Civic Center.  The top seed is Chattanooga, but watch out for the second seeded Bucs of East Tennessee State.  But, don’t be surprised to see a surprise finalist in the Championship game on Monday night as anything goes in this league.

And finally it’s Arch Madness in St. Louis as the Missouri Valley Conference tournament returns to Scottrade Arena in Downtown St. Louis.  Wichita State is the top seed and there’s a thought that the Shockers are in the NCAA field even if they don’t win the tournament.  They’ve been ranked in the top 25 most of the year.  I’m not so sure about that as the NCAA Tournament committee doesn’t care about the A.P. Top 25.  The Missouri Valley is pretty weak this year.  Only 5 of the 10 schools have winning records.  Wichita State and Evansville each have 23 and 5th Seeded Southern Illinois has 22 against a pretty weak schedule (they played North Texas twice).  The two worst teams in the conference have won a total of 12 games between them.

Next week, the Big Boys begin to slug it out.  There are a total of 32 automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament and 31 conference tournaments.  The Ivy League doesn’t have a post-season tournament and sends its regular season champion to the NCAAs.  Next week there isn’t as much on the line as a large percentage of the major conference teams are already in the NCAA Tournament.  But, this week there’s plenty on the line and it’s part of what makes March mad…so just enjoy it.

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