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Jeff Eisenberg

Projecting the conference tournaments winners (part I of II)

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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What better way to celebrate the arrival of college basketball's showcase month than the start of conference tournament play Tuesday night?

To get you ready for the 12-day mad scramble for NCAA tournament berths leading up to Selection Sunday, my colleagues Ryan Greene, Chris Chase, Graham Watson and I got out our dartboards and our ouija boards and made some conference tourney picks.

Here's a quick breakdown of the 15 tournaments that begin this week including projected champions and dark horses from each of us. We'll have a second post on Monday for the tournaments that begin next week.

America East

Dates: March 3, 5-6, 12

Site: Quarters, semis at Hartford's Chase Arena, title game at highest remaining seed

Outlook: Even though Vermont won 13 of its first 14 league games on its way to the regular season championship, there's reason to be concerned about the Catamounts. They dropped their final two conference games and lost leading scorer Evan Fjeld and third-leading scorer Brendan Bald to ankle injuries in the process. Vermont's woes could open the door for second-place Boston University, which has won eight in a row to close the season and swept two meetings with the Catamounts. The Terriers also have an injury worry of their own as star John Holland (ankle) sat out the regular season finale.

Projected champion: Boston University (JE), Vermont (CC), Vermont (RG) Boston University (GW)

Dark horse: Maine (JE), Stony Brook (CC), Maine (RG), Albany (GW)

Atlantic Sun

Dates: March 2-5

Site: University Center (Macon, GA)

Outlook: No team more thoroughly dominated its league this season than Belmont, which went 19-1 in Atlantic Sun play and won 16 of its league games by double figures. The Bruins notched a pair of 10-point victories against second-place East Tennessee State, suffering their only loss at fourth-place Lipscomb on Jan. 25. If anyone can keep Belmont from the NCAA tournament, it's probably East Tennessee State or Lipscomb. The Bucs and Bison feature two of the three leading scorers in the conference in guard Mike Smith and forward Adnan Hodzic.

Projected champion: Belmont (JE), Belmont (CC), Belmont (RG), Lipscomb (GW)

Dark horse: Lipscomb (JE), Lipscomb (CC), Lipscomb (RG), Mercer (GW)

Big Sky

Dates: March 5-9

Site: TBD

Outlook: If Northern Colorado defeats last-place Sacramento State on Wednesday night, the Bears will win the Big Sky title outright and earn the right to host the semifinals and finals of the conference tournament. That's crucial not just because of home court advantage – it also means avoiding fellow league powers Weber State and Montana until the title game. Even if the tournament is at Northern Colorado instead of Weber State, the Wildcats will not be an easy out. Weber State has won eight of nine to close the season despite losing star Damian Lillard for the season in December.

Projected champion: Northern Colorado (JE), Weber State (CC), Montana (RG), Weber State (GW)

Dark horse: Montana (JE), Montana (CC), Montana (RG), Northern Arizona (GW)

Big South

Dates: March 1, 3, 5

Site: Quarters at top four seeds, semis at Coastal Carolina, Finals at highest remaining seed

Outlook: For a Coastal Carolina program that not long ago appeared destined to be one of the NCAA tournament's most charming underdog stories, the past few weeks have been a sobering reality check. The Chanticleers dominated much of the regular season, but injuries, disciplinary issues and an NCAA investigation have robbed them of three of their top players, making the Big South tournament far more wide open. Who can take advantage of Coastal Carolina's woes? Second-place Liberty staggered to the finish line with four straight losses, but third-seeded UNC Asheville and fourth-seeded VMI surged late and you can never count Winthrop out in the postseason.

Projected champion: Coastal Carolina (JE), Liberty (CC), Liberty (RG), Winthrop (GW)

Dark horse: UNC Asheville (JE), Winthrop (CC), VMI (RG), Charleston Southern (GW)

Colonial Athletic Association

Dates: March 4-7

Site: Richmond, VA

Outlook: Top-seeded George Mason and second-seeded Old Dominion are both NCAA tournament locks, so that means some of the lesser teams may arrive in Richmond with greater motivation this week. Third-seeded Hofstra won six of seven to end the regular season and has the runaway player of the year in senior Charles Jenkins. Fourth-seeded VCU gets to play in Richmond but faded badly late in the season. And fifth-seeded Drexel has a non-conference win over Louisville and finished the season on a high note with three straight wins.

Projected champion: George Mason (JE), Drexel (CC), George Mason (RG), George Mason (GW)

Dark horse: Drexel (JE), James Madison (CC), Drexel (RG), Hofstra (GW)

Horizon League

Dates: March 1, 4-5, 8

Site: Milwaukee, Wisc.

Outlook: If Butler is even going to have an opportunity to make another memorable NCAA tournament run, the Bulldogs may need to win the Horizon League tournament. Butler could still earn an at-large bid thanks to non-league wins over Florida State and Washington State, but the Bulldogs certainly will not feel safe without the automatic bid. The trouble for Butler is that path will not be easy. Up first will likely be either conference player of the year favorite Norris Cole and Cleveland State or longtime nemesis Wright State, followed by perhaps host Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the title game.

Projected champion: Butler (JE), Butler (CC), Butler (RG), Cleveland State (GW)

Dark horse: Cleveland State (JE), Valparaiso (CC), Detroit (RG), Detroit (GW)

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Dates: March 4-7

Site: Fairfield, Conn.

Outlook: Just a few points shy of upsetting Siena in the MAAC title game last season, Fairfield enters this year's tournament in the role of favorite. Led by guard Derek Needham and big man Ryan Olander, the Stags won the league by two games and reeled off 11 wins in 12 games prior to a season-ending loss at second-place Iona. Does that mean Iona is Fairfield's greatest challenger? Most likely, yes. In fact, Ken Pomeroy's rankings actually suggest that the Gaels are a better team than the Stags, though Fairfield would have an edge being on its home court.

Projected champion: Fairfield (JE), Fairfield (CC), Fairfield (RG), Rider (GW)

Dark horse: Rider (JE), St. Peter's (CC), Iona (RG), Iona (GW)

Missouri Valley Conference

Dates: March 3-6

Site: St. Louis, Miss.

Outlook: Arch Madness will be an all-or-nothing event for every team involved this season because a down year in the Missouri Valley has left the league without an at-large contender. Neither conference champion Missouri State nor runner-up Wichita State accomplished enough in non-league play to even be on the fringes of the bubble entering the conference tournament. Nonetheless, the Bears and Shockers enter the conference tournament as favorites to meet in the title game. Missouri State swept the season series, winning on the road by three in January and at home by five in the regular season finale.

Projected champion: Missouri State (JE), Wichita State (CC), Wichita State (RG), Wichita State (GW)

Dark horse: Creighton (JE), Northern Iowa (CC), Northern Iowa (RG), Northern Iowa (GW)

Northeast Conference

Dates: March 3, 6, 9

Site: Highest seed hosts each game

Outlook: Outside of one inexplicable 15-point loss to eighth-place St. Francis (Pa.) six weeks ago, Long Island has been nearly flawless since New Year's Eve. The Blackbirds have won 18 of 19 games during that stretch, beating second-place Quinnipiac by 10 and third-place Robert Morris by 16 in the process. The only reason to be hesitant in projecting a Long Island title run is the Blackbirds' quarterfinal opponent will be the team that beat them. Can Long Island get revenge on St. Francis (Pa.) and earn an NCAA tournament berth? Don't bet against it.

Projected champion: Long Island (JE), Long Island (CC), Quinnipiac (RG), Long Island (GW)

Dark horse: Robert Morris (JE), St. Francis (Pa) (CC), Robert Morris (RG), St. Francis NY (GW)

Ohio Valley Conference

Dates: March 2-5

Site: Nashville, Tenn.

Oulook: Only one game separated first-place Murray State from Morehead State and Austin Peay, but winning the regular season title could loom large for the defending conference tournament champion Racers. Whereas Morehead State and Austin Peay will likely meet in one semifinal, Murray State will get either Tennessee State or Tennessee Tech, two teams the Racers swept during the regular season. Murray State returned the core of a team that nearly upset Butler to advance to the Sweet 16 last year, but the Racers did not fare well in non-conference play this year and only recently have begun to put it together against league competition. Both Morehead State and Austin Peay split with Murray State in the regular season.

Projected champion: Murray State (JE), Murray State (CC), Murray State (RG), Eastern Kentucky (GW)

Dark horse: Austin Peay (JE), Tennessee Tech (CC), Austin Peay (RG), Austin Peay (GW)

Patriot League

Dates: March 2, 6, 11

Site: at highest seeded team

Outlook: Those who like seeing a lower-seeded team come from nowhere to make a run probably will not enjoy the Patriot League tournament because this has been a two-team league all season. Bucknell went 13-1 in league, American finished 11-3 and no other team won more than seven league games. Bucknell swept American during the regular season and would host a title game between the two if both advance that far. Really the only red flag for the Bison is their first-round opponent, last-place Army, which inexplicably handed Bucknell a 90-70 loss on Jan. 29.

Projected champion: Bucknell (JE), Bucknell (CC), Bucknell (RG), Bucknell (GW)

Dark horse: Lehigh (JE), Navy (CC), None (RG), Lehigh (GW)

Southern Conference

Dates: March 4-7

Site: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Outlook: Even though College of Charleston dominated much of the regular season and boasts the league's best player in guard Andrew Goudelock, the way the Cougars ended the regular season has to give the rest of the league hope. Appalachian State and Western Carolina both upset College of Charleston last week, surprising results considering how well the Cougars had been playing. It would be a shame if Goudelock never gets the chance to showcase himself on the NCAA tournament stage, but there are a handful of teams capable of taking advantage if College of Charleston continues to falter. Defending champion Wofford tied the Cougars atop the South division standings behind the play of big man Noah Dahlman, while Western Carolina surged to the finish line with eight wins in nine games.

Projected champion: College of Charleston (JE), College of Charleston (CC), College of Charleston (RG), College of Charleston (GW)

Dark horse: Furman (JE), Furman (CC), Furman (RG), Davidson (GW)

Summit League

Dates: March 5-8

Site: Sioux Falls, S.D.

Outlook: Tested by a monumentally difficult non-conference schedule featuring the likes of Ohio State, Purdue and West Virginia, Oakland thrived once it began league play in January. Behind NBA prospect Keith Benson and veteran guard Reggie Hamilton, the Golden Grizzlies won 17 of 18 games against Summit League foes and won the regular season title by four games over Oral Roberts. Third-seeded IUPUI was the only team to beat Oakland in the regular season, but Oral Roberts may be the bigger threat to the Golden Grizzlies in the conference tournament. Oral Roberts swept IUPUI in the regular season, lost by single digits both times to Oakland and enters the tournament on an eight-game win streak.

Projected champion: Oakland (JE), Oakland (CC), Oakland (RG), Oakland (GW)

Dark horse: South Dakota State (JE), North Dakota State (CC), IUPUI (RG), South Dakota State (GW)

Sun Belt

Dates: March 5-8

Site: Hot Springs, Ark.

Outlook: Even though Isiah Thomas' last-place Florida International team receives by far the most publicity in this league, there's another well-known coach who has enjoyed far more success with his rebuilding project. Former St. John's and George Washington coach Mike Jarvis has led Florida Atlantic to a 21-9 overall record and a championship in the Sun Belt's East division. Expect FAU to be pushed by a handful of teams in what appears to be a wide-open field. Middle Tennessee and Arkansas State are two of the more obvious challengers, while further down the draw Western Kentucky and North Texas performed better in non-conference play than against Sun Belt foes.

Projected champion: Florida Atlantic (JE), North Texas (CC), Florida Atlantic (RG), Louisiana-Lafayette (GW)

Dark horse: North Texas (JE), North Texas (CC), Louisiana-Lafayette (RG), Western Kentucky (GW)

West Coast

Dates: March 4-7

Site: Las Vegas, Nev.

Outlook: It appeared three weeks ago that Saint Mary's would be an-large lock and Gonzaga would need to win the conference tournament, but now the situation is almost completely reversed. The struggling Gaels likely cannot earn an at-large after late-February losses to San Diego, Utah State and Gonzaga. The Zags meanwhile would have a decent shot at hearing their name called on Selection Sunday as long as they make the WCC tournament title game. It's likely the title game will be a Gonzaga-Saint Mary's rubber match since both teams need just one victory to get there, but there are some potential spoilers. Fifth-seeded Portland, in particular, is dangerous because of its outside shooting prowess.

Projected champion: Gonzaga (JE), St. Mary's (CC), St. Mary's (RG), Portland (GW)

Dark horse: Portland (JE), Portland (CC), Portland (RG), Santa Clara (GW)

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