March Madness has officially arrived. Bubble teams are playing to keep their at-large hopes alive, bracketologists have switched to 4-hours-of-sleep-a-night mode, and the first of 31 conference tournaments commence in a few hours to begin the two-week long journey of determining the final 68 tournament teams.
Over the next two weeks, the No Coast Bias college basketball crew (myself, Andrew Morris, and Tate Vobach) will bring you previews, predictions, and rundowns of each of the 31 conference tournaments. We will start with the conferences that begin postseason play today, the Big South and the Horizon League.
The Big South tournament will take place from March 5-10 at the HTC Center in Conway, South Carolina, home to the South division’s 4-seed, Coastal Carolina. Note: game times on bracket are incorrect, refer to ESPN’s NCAAM schedule for accurate start times
Favored to win:
The Charleston Southern Buccaneers (17-11, 12-4) are projected to be the Big South Champions by both KenPom.com and TeamRankings.com. KenPom lists the Buccaneers as having a 31.6% chance of taking the title, and TR has them at 25.68%. Charleston Southern averages 74.6 points a game (32nd nationally,) 39 rebounds a game (22nd,) and have four players that have attempted more than 100 treys this season. They rank 3rd in both three-pointers attempted (25.6) and made (9,) but come in at 104th in 3P% (35.1).
They certainly need to shoot well in order to win considering their tallest player is 6’7″ (he only averages 16.6 minutes and 3.6 rebounds a game) and rank 344th in average height (74.5 inches). Without a dominant inside presence, the Buccaneers rebound by committee, having 5 players average in between 4.3 and 6.4 rebounds a game.
If the Buccaneers can maintain a quick tempo and protect the ball well, as they typically do, they will have a good shot at taking the Big South crown. If they can do that and hit long-range shots at a high rate, they will most certainly find themselves in the Big Dance as representatives of the Big South.
Underdogs looking for the upset:
Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina are the two teams that could give them the most trouble. Coastal Carolina handed the Buccaneers a 20-point loss, their worst of the season, and Gardner Webb bested the Bucs twice, both in overtime.
Coastal Carolina generally isn’t great with perimeter defense but they managed to hold Charleston Southern to 18.8% (6-32) from deep and out-rebounded them 47-27. I don’t see both of those things happening again if they meet in the tournament, so expect the Bucs to win this time around if they are matched up in the finals.
Gardner-Webb, on the other hand, is far more effective with their perimeter defense, allowing 5.2 treys per game. In their two overtime wins over Charleston Southern, the Runnin’ Bulldogs forced the Bucs to score inside the arc and held them to a total of 16 threes on 47 attempts. If Gardner-Webb can continue to limit shots from deep, they have the best chance of upsetting the Buccaneers.
Players to keep an eye on:
1. Stan Okoye (6’6″ SR), VMI Keydets
Okoye was named Big South Player of the Year and is averaging 21.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game this season.
2. Saah Nimley (5’8″ SO), Charleston Southern Buccaneers
Nimley was given First-team All-Conference honors this year and is averaging 16 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.3 steals.
3. DJ Covington (6’9″ JR), VMI Keydets
The Big South Defensive Player of the Year is averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1.2 steals and is shooting 55.3% from the field.
4. Anthony Raffa (6’1″ SR), Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Raffa is a First-Team All-Conference guard and is averaging 19 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.9 steals a game.
The Horizon League tournament will take place from March 5-12 at various locations. The championship game can be seen on ESPN at 9 PM.
Favored to win:
The Valparaiso Crusaders (24-7, 13-3) are heavily favored to take the title by both KenPom.com and TeamRankings.com, given odds of winning at 60.4% and 57.07% respectively. Valparaiso is an offensive-minded team that excels at passing, getting to the line, and shooting the ball effectively. Bryce Drew’s squad ranks 7th in 2P% (55.8), 35th in 3P% (37.5), 38th in FT% (74.0), and average 0.419 free throws per field goal attempted which ranks 39th. They also rank 78th with 0.573 assists per field goal made.
They rely heavily on shooting the three well, with 39.9% of their attempted field goals coming from behind the arc. In their two worst losses (by 13 points at Saint Louis and by 12 at Youngstown State,) the Crusaders were held to a total of 8 treys on 41 attempts. In four of their five other losses they either shot poorly from behind the arc or were held to far less than their average of 20 attempts from long range.
The Crusaders will cruise to victory if they can get to the line, shoot well from deep, and limit their opponents rebounds which is another area they are proficient in. Valparaiso ranks 3rd nationally in opposition rebounding, allowing an average of 28.5 a game, but somehow only pull down 33.2 a game on their own which comes in at 237th.
Underdog looking for the upset:
The Detroit Titans (20-11, 12-4) are the only other squad with a legitimate chance of capturing the title according to KenPom and TR, given chances of winning at 28.8% and 32.04%. The Titans are also an offensive-minded team but are much more balanced in their attack than Valpo, and with an average of 70.9 possessions per game are capable of putting up points in no time at all.
Detroit lost their first match with the Crusaders by one point after out-scoring them in the first half 50-32, but returned the favor on the road by beating Valpo 84-74, with 38 of their points coming in the last ten minutes. In that game, Valparaiso shot the ball well quite well but were out-rebounded and turned over the ball 18 times, giving the Titans more possessions, thus more field goal attempts and more trips to the charity stripe.
When the Titans are turning the ball over (ranked 3rd in TO rate on defense) to fuel their transition offense, they can be nearly unstoppable. Any team capable of scoring 50 points in a half, or more incredibly, 38 points in ten minutes, is a team that should not be taken lightly. Look out for the Titans in the Big Dance if they can make it past the Crusaders and the rest of the field in the Horizon League tourney which I believe they have a good chance of accomplishing.
Don’t sleep on these guys:
For KenPom’s and TeamRanking’s conference predictions, the Wisconsin-Green Bay Phoenix (16-14, 10-6) and the Wright State Raiders (19-11, 10-6) are both given a less than 6% chance of winning the Horizon League tournament. Both teams have beaten Detroit once, but dropped both against Valparaiso. Wright State lost by 6 and 7 points in their contests against the Crusaders, but the Phoenix didn’t fare as well.
The Raiders and the Phoenix are playing the best defense in-conference this season, allowing an average of 92.6 and 95.5 points per 100 possessions respectively. Green Bay has been particularly impressive on defense in conference play, ranking 1st in opponent effective field goal percentage, limiting offensive rebounds, opponent two-point percentage, and block rate, swatting the ball a phenomenal 17.2% of the time.
Wright State may be more effective overall and are led by Horizon League Coach of the Year Billy Donlon, but Green Bay’s squad is led by a First-team All-Conference guard and two First-team defenders, one of which is 7’1″. The Phoenix also beat Marquette 49-47 back in December, so they are certainly capable of high-level competition. Keep in mind that Green Bay beat the Golden Eagles even with a shooting percentage of 38.6, making their victory even more impressive.
Players to keep an eye on:
1. Ray McCallum (6’3″ JR), Detroit Titans
The Horizon League Player of the Year is averaging 19.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.8 steals and is shooting 50.2% from the field.
2. Ryan Broekhoff (6’7″ SR), Valparaiso Crusaders
Broekhoff, a forward hailing from Australia, is averaging 15.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and is shooting 43.4% from the arc.
3. Keifer Sykes (5’11” SO), Green Bay Pheonix
Sykes is averaging 15.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, and is shooting 81.6% from the free throw line, an improvement of 14.9 percentage points from his freshman campaign.
4. Nick Minnerath (6’9″ SR), Detroit Titans
Minnerath is the perfect inside compliment to McCallum’s speed and court vision. The First-team All-Conference forward is averaging 15.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals, and is shooting 47.5% from the field.
note: all stats come from KenPom.com, TeamRankings.com, and ESPN.com