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February 27, 2007

SCS.comChampionship Week starts today. It's that time of year, when teams from the lower and middle conferences begin their Cinderella run through their conference tournaments. Sub -.500 teams upset the top seeds on their way to an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament, while the regular-season champs try to pull of the championship sweep. In my opinion, March Madness has officially begun.

With that in mind, Iíve decided to take the first five conference tournaments to begin and break them down. You might not know much about these conferences, but the winner could be a Cinderella in a few weeks.

Big South

The Big South Conference race was never really in doubt, although it technically came down to the final week. Preseason favorite Winthrop went 14-0, but they were only up two games on High Point with two games left. However, the Eagles overcame a halftime deficit to knock off the Panthers. High Point finished 11-3, but no other team finished more than one game over .500.

Favorite: Who else would it be? Winthrop led the conference from start to finish, and even knocked off Missouri State in the Bracket Buster in mid-February. They should win the conference tournament, as well. Torrell Martin and Mike Jenkins form a terrific wing combination, while Craig Bradshaw provides balance on the interior. Chris Gaynor is an experienced point guard. The Eagles are third in the conference in scoring offense, but have one of the stingiest defenses in the country.

Contender: The only team that was within striking distance of Winthrop in the standings was High Point. The Panthers only lost by one at home, and were up at halftime in Rock Hill. Arizona Reid is one of the best players in the conference, and dominates the paint. They also have a solid perimeter group, led by point guard Mike Jefferson and wing Landon Quick.

Sleepers: Coastal Carolina finished only 7-7 in the conference and lost seven of their last eleven, but the Chanticleers lost only one conference game by double-figures. Jack Leasure and Joshua Mack form a very good backcourt, while Moses Sonko is tough inside, despite being undersized at 6-5. Liberty is another team that could make a run in the Tournament. The Flames finished above .500 in league play, and have the best shooting team in the Big South. Larry Blair is a big-time scorer in the backcourt, and Dwight Brewington has provided another dimension since becoming eligible. Inside, Alex McLean is a good scorer and one of the best rebounds in the league.

Prediction: This is one of the easiest conference tournaments to pick. Winthrop is clearly the best team in the Big South. They have an outstanding defense, and an offense that can beat any team in the country if they hit their outside shots. Remember, this is a team that nearly knocked off North Carolina and Wisconsin. The only question is if Winthrop gets an at-large bid should they get upset in the tournament. My answer? It wonít matteróthe Eagles will roll to the automatic bid.


The Horizon League had one of the more underrated conference races in the country. Everyone knew about Butler, who started off hot and put themselves for an at-large bid early. However, the Bulldogs wonít be the #1 seed in the conference tournament. That goes to Wright State, who had won nine in a row before falling in their season finale. The loss ended up meaning nothing, though, as Butler also lost that nightóat home to Loyola (Chicago). Only one other team finished .500 or above.

Favorites: Obviously, the two teams that tied for first come into the tournament as favorites. Butler knocked off Notre Dame, Indiana, Gonzaga, Tennessee, and Purdue in non-league play, but lost three conference games, and also fell in three of their last six overall contests. A.J. Graves is one of the best guards in the country, and is capable of carrying the Bulldogs. His backcourt partner, Mike Green, does it all. He can score, rebound, pass, and play defense. Brandon Crone and Pete Campbell are solid performers up front. Campbell can shoot the lights-out. Wright State, on the other hand, has flown under the radar. They have one of the most underrated guards in the country in Dashaun Wood. He is a terrific scorer that can also distribute the ball and rebound very well for his size. Vaughn Duggins teams with him in the backcourt, while Drew Burleson is the main option up front. With the title game on Wright Stateís home floor, the Raiders will be tough.

Contender: The only other team to finish above .500 in league play was Loyola (Chicago), who came into the season as the favorite. They won seven of their last eight games, including a road win at Butler. Blake Schilb is one of the best all-around players in college basketball, capable of doing a variety of things. Majak Kou and J.R. Blount round out arguably the best perimeter group in the conference. Leon Young is solid up front.

Sleeper: Illinois-Chicago might be hitting their stride. They have won three in a row, including a road victory over Loyola-Chicago to end the season. The Flames also knocked off Butler, and took Wright State to overtime. Othyus Jeffers is very difficult to stop up front, and is the best rebounder in the league. Josh Mayo and T.J. Gray form a good backcourt, and Jovan Stefanov is solid in the frontcourt.

Prediction: Despite Butlerís overall resume, Iím going with Wright State to win it all. The title game, should WSU get there, will be on the Raidersí home floor, where they are 12-1 this season. Butler is struggling lately and I donít see them beating WSU on the road. Moreover, the Bulldogs better watch out for Loyola in the semi-finals, so they donít avoid a repeat of last week. The Horizon looks like a two-bid league this year, since Butler has locked up an at-large invite.

Ohio Valley

The Ohio Valley didnít turn out as expected. Preseason favorite Samford finished fifth; league champion Austin Peay was projected to finish seventh in the preseason poll. Even Tennessee State, picked to finish second, ended in seventh-place. The title race lacked excitement. Austin Peay got off to a 15-2 start to conference play, and locked up the regular-season championship with several games left. Despite that, expect a wide-open conference race.

Favorite: Austin Peay won the league by three gamesóand lost two of their final three. In other words, the Governors ran away with the conference championship. They are led by their forward duo of Drake Reed and Fernandez Lockett. Diminutive point guard Derek Wright runs the show, and wings Landon Shipley and Todd Babington are solid. Austin Peay is efficient at both ends of the floor, and is the best shooting team in the country. Their late struggles mean they lack momentum heading into the conference tournament, though.

Contenders: Tennessee Tech could be a real threat to Austin Peay. They knocked off the Governors a week ago, and have the best backcourt and trio in the conference. Belton Rivers and Anthony Fisher are explosive in the backcourt. They are two of the top scorers in the conference, and are capable of carrying the Golden Eagles to an automatic bid. Inside, Amadi McKenzie is one of the premier post players in the conference. Another team with a chance to make a run is Murray State. The perennial power has won three in a row and eight of their last ten. Bruce Carter and Tyler Holloway form a very good guard duo, while Shawn Witherspoon is tough but undersized down low.

Sleeper: Samford came into the year as the preseason favorite, but they went 3-7 down the stretch to drop out of contention. However, only two of those losses were by double-figures, and the Bulldogs still have talent. Randall Gulina is a big-time scorer at the guard position, and Jerry Smith does a little bit of everything next to him in the backcourt. Travis Peterson is one of the best big men in the conference.

Prediction: Even though Austin Peay dominated the league for the most part, the Governors come into the conference tournament losing three of their last four games. They still have the ability to win it all, but Iím going with Tennessee Tech to get the automatic bid. The Golden Eagles have terrific guards in Anthony Fisher and Belton Rivers, as well as an inside presence with Amadi McKenzie. They have won 12 of 15, and are the only team in the league to beat every OVC squad.


The Patriot League went pretty much as predicted. Holy Cross and Bucknell came into the season as the favorites and they didnít disappoint. Both teams finished 13-1 in league play, with the lone loss for each team coming at the hands of the other. No other team came anywhere near the Crusaders or the Bison, as the next-best squad was only 7-7. The conference tournament should see these two play their rubber match.

Favorites: As mentioned before, Holy Cross and Bucknell are the clear-cut best teams in the conference. Holy Cross has won 15 of their last 17, with the two losses by a combined four pointsóat Bucknell and at Hofstra. The Crusaders are led by the best player in the conference, Keith Simmons. He is a prolific scorer and a very good rebounder for a guard. His backcourt partner, Torey Thomas, is one of the more underrated players on the mid-major level. He is a terrific defender and distributor who is also a very good three-point shooter. Tim Clifford provides balance up front. Bucknell didnít start the season well, going 0-4 to kick off the campaign. However, they have won twelve in a row and are on a roll. They will be without leading scorer Donald Brown, who has been out the entire month. Center Chris McNaughton will have to pick up the slack. He is capable, averaging over 15 points and 8 rebounds in Brownís absence. John Griffin is a solid guard, while Abe Badmus is one of the best point guards in the Patriot.

Contenders: American could be the team to break through the Holy Cross-Bucknell contingent for the automatic bid. The Eagles have won four in a row since going through an awful stretch where they lost 11 of 15. AU took Holy Cross to overtime, and lost to Bucknell by a combined nine points. Their perimeter trio could be enough to get them on a run. Andre Ingram is one of the better guards in the conference, while Derrick Mercer is a very good distributor. Arvydas Eitutavicius is another double-figure scorer.

Sleeper: In all reality, thereís not another team that is playing well enough to win the conference tournament, but Lehigh has the nucleus to pull off an upset. They finished 7-7 in the league, but lost their last three and six of their final nine. Jose Olivero and Marquis Hall form a very good backcourt, while Kyle Neptune can shoot the three. 6-10 Jason Mgebroff missed 13 games but is back on the inside.

Prediction: This will be a two-team battle for the championship. Bucknell and Holy Cross split their regular-season match-ups, with both teams winning on their home court. The edge goes to the Crusaders, though, because the title game will be held on HCís home court. The Crusaders won the tie breaker with Bucknell as a result of having a higher RPI. Their backcourt of Toey Thomas and Keith Simmons will be too much for the Bison, as Tim Clifford should be able to control Chris McNaughton down low.

Sun Belt

The Sun Belt Conference didnít have a great conference race for the top spot, but seeds two through six in the conference tournament were separated by only two games. South Alabama clinched the title a few weeks ago with their 13-2 start, but the Jaguars dropped their final three games heading into the conference tournament. That means one could expect an exciting conference tournament.

Favorites: South Alabama got off to a hot start in conference play, and carried that to a league title. However, as mentioned above, USA didnít finish well, losing their final three games to end the season. The Jaguars donít have much momentum heading into the conference tournament, although their focus will be back. The backcourt of Demetric Bennett and Daon Merritt is one of the best in the league, with Bennett the do-it-all player and Merritt the distributor. Up front, Ernest Little is one of the best big men in the league, putting up almost 13 and 9 per game. Western Kentucky was the preseason favorite, and they might be hitting their stride. They have lost their five league games by a combined 16 points, and have won three in a row. Courtney Lee is the best player in the conference, and Tyrone Brazelton is a very good point guard. Orlando Mendez-Valdez and Ty Rogers provide even more perimeter production. The Hilltoppers do lack a consistent post presence, though.

Contenders: Florida Atlantic finished third in the East division, but they knocked off Western Kentucky and South Alabama in their final four games. DeAndre Rice and Carlos Monroe form the best inside-outside combination in the combination, with Rice lighting it up from the perimeter and Monroe dominating down low. Arkansas State won their final four games of the season to get a share of the West division title. Adrian Banks is one of the best scorers in the conference, putting up over 21 per game. Isaac Wells anchors the interior, averaging over 15 points and 8 rebounds a contest. Louisiana-Monroe lost three of their final four, but still won a share of the West title. They have four guys averaging in double-figures, led by guards Tony Hooper and Jonas Brown.

Sleeper: The Troy Trojans only finished 8-10 in the conference, but they won four of their last six games, including a win at South Alabama and a one-point loss to Western Kentucky. They have five players averaging in double-figures, giving them one of the most balanced lineups in the league. OíDarien Bassett leads the way from the perimeter, while Richard Chaney and Sammy Sharp form arguably the best frontcourt duo in the league.

Prediction: The conference tournament should be wide-open, with six teams finishing above .500, but all within three games of each other. South Alabama won the regular-season title, but Western Kentucky will get the automatic bid. They have a terrific perimeter group and the best player in the conference in Courtney Lee. He can carry the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament. This is going to be one of the most exciting tournaments around.

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