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Conference Tournament Preview Capsules, Pt. III: West Coast, Summit, Colonial

Who’s a bigger favorite to win their conference: Gonzaga or South Dakota State?

NCAA Basketball: South Dakota State at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Moving into the first weekend of conference tournaments—or the last weekend of pointless Big Ten play (thanks for nothing, Purdue)—we’ve got two of the iconic mid-major tournaments tipping off in Las Vegas and...Sioux Falls?

Yes, it’s time for the West Coast Conference and Summit League tournaments, plus the Colonial Athletic Association’s tourney, along with a particular debate the former two open up: should conferences set up brackets to protect their best teams? Let us compare and contrast:

West Coast Conference:

March 3-5, 7-8 [Official Bracket]

All games at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, NV

Structure: 5 and 6 get bye to second round; 3 and 4 get double-bye to quarterfinals; 1 and 2 get triple-bye to semifinals

Yes, the WCC continues to lead the country in “advantaging its better teams in the conference tournament.” I used to be staunchly opposed to that, but then I decided I really don’t care.

But you should pay attention. Gonzaga is obviously the overwhelming favorite. But Saint Mary’s is safely in the NCAA field and San Francisco is on that 8/9 line in most brackets. The tournament format does make it less likely they suffer a bad loss.

Can the WCC get four in? Probably not, but don’t count out BYU yet. If they beat San Francisco, and then throw a scare into Gonzaga, they’d be in the conversation. But they’re 0-2 vs. Gonzaga this year by a combined 59 points, so maybe the WCC should be happy with three teams.

Five different games will be on ESPN/2, so tune in and brush up on your “San Francisco could definitely knock off a 1-seed” takes. Still, expect Gonzaga to win the thing, which is a bit boring. So, enjoy this video of 1990 WCC champ Loyola-Marymount setting the all-time record for points in a tournament game, as they dropped 149 on defending champion Michigan:

MNW: God, that is just a work of art. And the first two rounds on BYUtv. Beautiful.

Count me among those who still roll my eyes at the WCC triple-bye, but also, like...with this Gonzaga, is it really making any difference? That season ending loss to Saint Mary’s was the Zags’ first WCC game where an opposing team had been within fewer than 12 points of them. 2002 was the last time the WCC wasn’t in the automatic-semifinal setup, and the Zags have won all but five of those. At this point the Zags have become so transcendent that maybe the Gaels can gum a game up enough to trip them up again, but it won’t matter.

Kind of... is right about the BYU-USF game on Saturday night being a banger, though. A loss could be rather injurious to the Dons, though it’s no guarantee that BYU gets past someone like the Lions in the second round.

Anyway, Gonzaga over Saint Mary’s. You knew that. Moving on.

Southern Conference:

March 4-7 [Official Bracket]

All games at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, NC

Structure: Standard 10-team bracket

Chattanooga and Furman are head-and-shoulders above everybody else, and one of them should win. Furman finished 3-4 down the stretch, but that wasn’t Jalen Slawson’s fault. The sleek 6’7” PF combines 58% 2-pt shooting with 79% from the line while patrolling the defensive boards AND dropping 4 assists per game.

Regular season champ Chattanooga counter with Malachi Smith, who shots 83% FT/54% 2 pt/41% 3pt while averaging about 36 minutes a game. Seeing how Chattanooga swept Furman in the regular season and knocked off VCU in non-conference play, you should definitely keep an eye on their progression through the bracket.

Not much else to say. Maybe Wofford could make some noise as the 3-seed? Really seems like the top two are on a collision course, though, and that would make for a fabulous title game. Proverbs be damned, I’m calling for Chattanooga to hand Furman a third loss in winning the tournament.

No, not this Malachi

MNW: Tell you what’s bummed me out for the players—the collapse of East Tennessee State. When HC Steve Forbes left for Wake Forest in 2020, assistant Jason Shay took over at the helm, then was forced to resign after one season because some donors in ol’ Johnson City couldn’t handle some players taking a knee on the court.

Anywho, one good story we’ve not talked about is how Samford jumped from a 6-13 (2-9) record to 20-10 (10-8) mark this year under second-year HC Bucky McMillan, whose up-tempo “Bucky Ball” style brought him from high school right to the D-I coaching ranks. Under “Bucky Ball”, the Bulldogs knocked off two P5 opponents in Oregon State (admittedly terrible) and Ole Miss in non-conference play and split their season series with both the Mocs and Paladins.

If we’re setting up for a Chattanooga-Furman final, though, I’ll take the Paladins just to be different.

Summit League:

March 5-8 [Official Bracket]

All games at Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, SD

Structure: Standard 8-team bracket

Forget Gonzaga, the biggest favorite to win their conference might be South Dakota State. Okay, they probably aren’t, but that’s only because the Summit League does the traditional bracket, exposing the Jackrabbits to a bit more risk. That said, the real SDSU went 18-0 in league play, have wins over Bradley and Washington State, and are led by Douglas Wilson and Baylor Scheierman, both of whom had better years than March 2021 hero Max Abmas of Oral Roberts, according to KenPom.

Despite the dominant record, SDSU’s two wins over 2-seed North Dakota State were only by a combined 8 points, and 3-seed Oral Roberts took them to OT just last week. So the tournament could get pretty interesting.

But let’s talk about South Dakota State a bit more. They hit 44.1% of their 3 pointers this year; #1 in the nation by a HUGE margin. Purdue was #2, making 39.8% of their 3’s. The gap between SDSU and Purdue is larger than the gap between Purdue and Tennessee, who finished #125. Please read that sentence again.

Part of the explanation is that only 34.8% of their FG attempts were 3’s, so the Jackrabbits are more selective than most teams. I doubt I’m the only person who finds this fascinating, but I will stop testing your patience. I think this is going to be a sneaky good tournament. The South Dakota*/UMKC winner could give SDSU a game in the semis, and I have a gut feeling Max Abmas is going to have his revenge and Oral Roberts will pull the upset in the title game.

*If you consider yourself a cosmopolitan type, you’re probably think of Vermillion, SD as a pretty provincial place. But check out the Coyotes starting lineup: Hunter Goodrick (Sydney, Australia), Kruz Perrott-Hunt (Auckland, New Zealand), Tasos Kamateros (Athens, Greece), Boogie Anderson (Chandler, AZ), and Mason Archambault (Rapid City, SD). Okay, Archambault is only from across the state, not the world, but they do have Nikola Zizic (Podgorica, Montenegro) coming off the bench.

MNW: I’m amazed how Todd Lee’s been getting those guys to come to Vermillion. Nice enough place, but when it’s a good 15 minutes off I-29 and that drive on SD-50 is...bleak...

Whatever. Some good collections at I.D. Weeks Library. Bill Janklow was a wild dude. Interesting period in South Dakota history, the 1980s.

Worth noting this tournament has gotten goofy in past years (and, given that I was doing research at the time, I’ve watched some of these upsets in bars from Fargo to Vermillion):

  • 2021: #4 Oral Bob’s def. #1 SDSU, #3 NDSU def. #2 USD
  • 2020: #7 Fort Wayne def. #2 SDSU, #6 UND def. #3 USD, #6 UND def. #7 Fort Wayne
  • 2019: #8 Western Illinois def. #1 SDSU

2018 was the last time chalk held, with SDSU beating USD in a good, old fashioned SOUTH DAKOTA SHOWDOWN—but this time seeing a rematch of the Jacks and Oral Bob’s House of Learning would be great. Fun—and efficient!—offense, good tempo, decent defense. Go Summit League. Gimme the Jackrabbits.

Colonial Conference:

March 5-8 [Official Bracket]

All games at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington, D.C.

Structure: Standard 9-team bracket (James Madison is leaving the conference and ineligible for the tournament)

Guess what? 8-seed William and Mary probably isn’t breaking their never-made-the-tournament streak this year, either.

Instead, you have a tale of two co-champs. Towson (24-7/15-3), who hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1991, is #64 in the KenPom rankings. They play a slow pace and grab a bunch of offensive rebounds, and sure have the profile of a team that could ruin somebody’s dreams in the first round.

UNC-Wilmington (21-8/15-3) is underwater in their KenPom AdjEM (-1.47) and checks in at #188, which is sixth of ten Colonial teams. What gives? I really don’t know. They lost to #342 Southern Miss, but otherwise, they look like a solid mid-major.

Keep an eye on Hofstra, too. Going 13-5 in a 10-team league and finishing third suggests they won’t be an easy out. You know what also suggests that? The non-conference win over Arkansas. That’s enough to persuade me that the Pride will knock of UNC-W. But I’ve still got Towson taking the NCAA ticket for the first time in over 30 years.

Still, shout out to first-year Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton, a Hofstra alum and 2000 first-round draft pick. After playing his college ball under then-Hofstra head coach Jay Wright, Claxton won a title with the Spurs in 2003, having a moment in the Game 6 series-clincher as he spelled a struggling Tony Parker, dropping 13 points and 4 assists while playing inspired defense on Jason Kidd.

MNW: Ah, finally! A chance to see the best of the Colonial!

This conference is in the thrall of fucking FloSports, meaning unless you pony up more money for an average service, you’re not going to see that sweet, sweet Drexel-Northeastern regular season action. Hell, you’re not even going to see the mediocre of the conference, because they’re still behind the paywall. Damn.

The lower semifinal should be an interesting contrast in styles—the W takes the air outta the ball, while Hofstra pushes the pace and Charleston, if they can pull the upset are the fastest-tempo team in the country. Could be a good time.

Not educated enough to make a real pick in this one, but that’s never stopped me: gimme Towson, head and shoulders the highest-rated team in the conference.

Perhaps a thread for the day’s basketball? Check out Parts I and II of the tournament to get a full breakout of who’s in action today:

Today we’ve got the Sun Belt tipping off at 11:30am on ESPN+, and who knows—that’s when I’m done teaching class, so I’ll try to throw a schedule up for you then. Enjoy.