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Conference Basketball Tournament Capsules, Pt. II: OVC, Big South, Missouri Valley, Sun Belt

From Loyola’s farewell to the Valley to some top-heavy mid-majors around the country, here’s what to look for tipping off tonight in college basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament-Drake vs Loyola Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball’s happening! RIGHT NOW!

...well, later tonight. But we’re continuing our previews of the various conference tournaments around the country with another slate of conference tournaments that tip off from St. Louis to Evansville to Charlotte—TONIGHT!

Remember, as well, that the ASUN, Horizon League, and Patriot League also tip off tonight—here’s what to expect in those conference tournaments.

Ohio Valley Conference:

March 2-5 [Official Bracket]

All games at Ford Center in Evansville, IN

Structure: 8vs.5/7vs.6; 3 and 4 get bye; 1 and 2 get double-bye to semifinals

35 years, if you’re counting

Betraying the proverb the any team can make the NCAAs, the OVC only lets in the top eight teams, cruelly dashing the dreams of Tennessee Martin (my favorite old-time country singer BTW) and Eastern Illinois (shout out to Henry Domercant!)

Oh, wait, Murray State 28-2/18-0 is in the OVC? Okay, screw those schools. The real question, then, is if the Racers have enough juice to get an at-large bid if they lose. The #24 NET ranking says yes; the two Quad 1 victories say maybe not (though it’s twice as many as Iowa has).

Murray State is the prohibitive favorite, but five of their nine road wins were by single-digits, including 4, 2, and 2 in their last three (one of which was Tennessee Martin, who, you, careful reader, will recall didn’t even make the tournament). If they fall, it will likely be one of the other traditional powers in the league—2-seed Belmont and 3-seed Morehead State—who snag the auto bid. That said, Murray State has beaten Belmont by a combined 55 points and Morehead finished the season 2-4.

Upsets happen, but KJ Williams is a 6’10” matchup problem for everybody else, and Tevin Brown and Justice Hill combine to make 4.5 threes per game at a 37.6% clip. And the double-bye means Murray State only needs to win 2 games to punch their ticket. They’re the smart pick.

MNW: Yeah, absent some really catastrophic neutral court action, the MVC-bound Racers are the ones to do it here. One thing it’s worth noting is that only the top three seeds in this one even managed a winning record in conference play—fourth-seeded SEMO State managed an 8-9 record. Anyone could come out of those first two games, but if it’s not Murray State taking on the winner of Morehead-Belmont, I’d be surprised. And with that easy run-up, gimme the Racers.

Big South Conference:

March 2, 4-6 [Official Bracket]

All games at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, NC

Structure: Standard 12-team tournament

Longwood (23-6/15-1) snared the 1-seed and, given that it looks to be a three-way race with Winthrop and Gardner-Webb, the benefit of a more advantageous semifinal. None are at-large possibilities.

KenPom suggests that Drew Pember of UNC-Asheville is the best player in the conference, so they could be a live dark horse as the 5-seed. That said, you’re only watching one game from this tournament, at most, so let’s talk bout DJ Burns of Winthrop. The 6’9”, 275 lb. junior has yet to play more than 27 minutes in a game this year, but has 8 different 20+ point outings. Would seem to be a matchup nightmare who gets winded easily.

For that reason, I’m taking Gardner-Webb to make the championship. They are the top defense in the league and, per KenPom, the gap between them and 2nd is almost the same as between 2nd and 10th. Look for them to avenge Winthrop’s season sweep and then knock off Longwood, who gets pushed in the semis by UNC-Asheville, to grab the auto bid.

MNW: THE BOJANGLES COLISEUM! All we need is the Cook-Out Arena and I’m set for life.

I was coming here to mention DJ Burns, so I’m not going to be able to offer much new here—this is the first time four-seed USC Upstate’s had a winning record in conference play since legendary coach Eddie Payne led the Spartans to an 8-6 ASUN mark in 2014-15, so that’s a kind of fun story here.

Tough to pick against the brand I know in Winthrop, and the Eagles have the best offense of the bunch—but Gardner-Webb plays some P5-level defense. Looking at their Big South performance, though, the Runnin’ Bulldogs didn’t nab a single win against the top four seeds, going an impressive 0-5 against the Lancers, Eagles, and Spartans. So they’re out in my book.

Instead, we look once again to the Never Made the Tourney Club—and it’s 15-1 Longwood who finally penetrates the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri Valley Conference: ARCH MADNESS!

March 3-6 [Official Bracket]

All games at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, MO

Structure: Standard 10-team tournament

1 year, if you’re counting

This one is going to be fun.

Loyola Chicago was on the 8-9 line 10 days ago, but has lost twice (home vs. Drake, and @Northern Iowa) since, costing them the regular-season title, which UNI won Saturday night in a thrilling 102-96 OT affair. The Ramblers are currently 31 in NET, which raises a really interesting question whether a mid-major team that wins neither the regular season nor the conference tournament title can still get an at-large bid.

Even worse for Loyola Chicago, it’s basically a five-team race this year, and the loss to UNI knocked them all the way down to the 4-seed, where they will have a quarterfinal matchup against 5-seed Bradley, who split the regular-season series with the Ramblers and who are definitely good enough to win Arch Madness. [Obligatory Northern Iowa video below.]

On the other half 2-seed Missouri State and 3-seed Drake see likely to meet in a semifinal that would see the Bears trying to win a third game over Drake this year (the first two wins were by 5 and 4 points), though Southern Illinois is pretty good as far as 6-seeds go, having lost to Drake by 1 and 2 points (the latter coming just last Saturday night on the road).

Any prediction here is basically throwing darts. Loyola still looks like the best team by any statistical measure, but Brian Wardle led Bradley to Arch Madness titles in 2019 and 2020 form the 4/5 slot, and the Braves went 4-4 against the top four teams. Drake was the preseason pick and, but for a three-game losing streak in early February, certainly looked the part most of the year. But Northern Iowa is playing the best right now, going 14-3 in calendar year 2022, with two of the losses coming in OT (though so have three of the wins).

All that said, I’m going to take Missouri State, who hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1999 (a Sweet 16 run under Steve Alford that featured, oh the trauma, a 43-32 win over Wisconsin), to finally break through behind the league’s best offense and the inside-outside tandem of Gaige Prim and Isiaih Mosley.

NOTE: The semifinals will be on CBS Sports Network Saturday afternoon. You really should check those out. Might be the best semis of any mid-major tournament.

MNW: Please check out our friend over at MVC Beat, as well—Kind of... is a legend, but help support another independent blog bringing some great MVC analysis, scoops on the conference’s goings-on, and insider info on which MVC team will be upsetting Northwestern next in non-conference football.

No one beats Darien DeVries three times in a row, and we’ve seen that the Ramblers are vulnerable to another knock-down, drag-out affair with UNI, so give me Drake: here’s to the one who wears the D!

Sun Belt Conference:

March 3, 5-7 [Official Bracket]

All games at Pensacola Bay Center in Pensacola, FL

Structure: Standard 12-team tournament

South Alabama* is the highest-ranked team by KP and second by NET, and they’re the 5-seed, so this is a crap shoot. (Eight teams are ranked between 126 and 191 in KP!). 6-seed Arkansas State has (second-year) freshman sensation Norchad Omier, a 6’7”, 230 lb. double-double machine who could break out nationally with a great performance. The Red Wolves are 4-6 down the stretch and Omier may have hit a wall, but, assuming they beat 11-seed Louisiana Monroe in the first round, keep an eye on their quarterfinal with Georgia State, who plays great defense and is riding a seven-game winning streak, but could be had given very suspect shooting.

*Fun fact: South Alabama is 1-8 all-time in the NCAA tournament. The lone win came in 1989 over Alabama, and they gave eventual national champions Michigan a really tough game in the second round, trailing 83-80, but with the ball, with just over two minutes to play.

The 2- (Appalachian State), 3- (Georgia State), and 4- (Troy) seeds have won this event five of the last seven years (2016 and 2020 champ Little Rock—Purdue fans certainly remember the 2016 version—is the 12-seed and no threat), but let’s go with the feel-good story of 1-seed Texas State making their first NCAA tournament since 1997, which was rudely ended by Minnesota in a 78-46 1 vs. 16 route (long time ago, huh?)

The Bobcats boast a starting lineup of five seniors and a very balanced scoring load. The only hesitation is a defense that ranks 7th in the conference (though they’re closer to 2nd than to 8th), and the fact that, when they lost to Arkansas State, Omier scored 23 points on 12 attempts, and added 13 boards. However, I do think Appalachian State—who starts four seniors and a junior—will advance to the final to create a somewhat counter-intuitively chalky championship battle before falling to Texas State.

MNW: 12-3 Texas State, 12-6 Appalachian State, 9-5 Georgia State, 10-6 Troy...sure, a very normal 1-2-3-4 seeding slate. Why not. That’s a normal thing.

This is a very guard-driven, small-ball league, but both Georgia State and Troy have a little height—the Panthers’ Jalen Thomas, the Trojans’ Efie Odigie—that can make problems if they’re on their day.

Amid all this uncertainty, the hot hand is Texas State, who’s on a 9-game heater. I like them to meet Georgia State in the title tilt, though a 3-4 matchup wouldn’t shock me. Let’s say Texas State for now, though.