The Little Dance: Our picks for the conference tournaments that begin March Madness

When my colleague Pat Forde and I entered our annual conference tournament Pick'Em contest last March, we didn't exactly make a strong showing.

I performed like Arkansas on the road and finished a distant 133rd, no doubt behind a handful of folks who made their picks based on which logos they liked better. Pat checked in a slightly more respectable 81st but failed to even win family bragging rights, finishing 66 spots behind one of his sons.

Our quest for redemption begins Tuesday afternoon when Winthrop and Radford tip off in an opening round Big South tournament game that marks the start of this season's conference tournament action. Over the next 13 days, 30 leagues will crown tournament champions and hand out automatic NCAA bids.

[Bracket Brad's Big Board: 'Zags make jump to No. 1]

Hoping that public shame would provide sufficient motivation to make better picks this March, both Pat and I have listed our predictions below for the 14 tournaments that tip off this week. We'll both have picks for the remaining 16 tournaments next week – unless our pride gets the better of us.

America East (March 8-10, 16)
Site: Quarters, semis in Albany; High seed hosts final
Top three seeds: 1. Stony Brook 2. Vermont 3. Hartford
PF: Stony Brook. Seawolves have been the class of the league all year and enter the tourney on a six-game winning streak. Time to lock down the first NCAA bid in school history.
JE: Stony Brook. The past two years, Stony Brook has been one win away from the first NCAA bid in school history only to fall in the America East title game. This year the Seawolves finish the job.

Atlantic Sun (March 6-9)
Site: Macon, Ga.
Top three seeds: 1. Mercer 2. Florida Gulf Coast 3. Stetson
PF: Mercer. Won the regular-season title and has the tourney in its hometown of Macon, Ga. Bears haven't been Dancing since 1985.
JE: Mercer. It's a tough call between Mercer and FGCU, both of which had impressive non-league wins over major-conference foes and carried that momentum into Atlantic Sun play. Mercer gets the nod because it will play on its home floor, where it did not lose all season.

Big South (March 5, 7, 9-10)
Conway, S.C.
Top three seeds: 1. High Point 2. Charleston Southern 3. Gardner-Webb
PF: Gardner-Webb. In a crapshoot league tourney, go with the hot team. Bulldogs have won seven straight games and 10 of their last 11.
JE: Charleston Southern. A season-ending injury to High Point's leading scorer, John Brown, means the Panthers are no longer the favorite. Give me Charleston Southern and its formidable backcourt of Arlon Harper and Saah Nimley over surging Gardner-Webb.

Colonial (March 10-12)
Site: Richmond, Va.
Top three seeds: 1. Northeastern 2. Delaware 3. James Madison
PF: Delaware. Blue Hens have mastered the art of winning the close ones -- last six victories are all by five points or less -- and all the games figure to be close in a tourney diminished by the departure of VCU.
JE: Delaware. The CAA's worst season in years will fittingly end with a watered-down seven-team tournament because Georgia State, ODU, UNC Wilmington and Towson are ineligible. The Blue Hens are the best bet to emerge because they finished with 10 wins in 12 games and they're in the softer half of the bracket.

[Forde Minutes: March begins with every team fighting for something]

Horizon League (March 5-12)
Site: at higher seeds
Top three seeds: 1. Valparaiso 2. Detroit 3. Wright State
PF: Detroit. Ray McCallum Jr. raised his game and carried the Titans to the title last year, and he can do it again -- especially with no Butler to deal with.
JE: Valparaiso. Last year, Detroit routed Bryce Drew's team in the Horizon title game. If there's a rematch this year, the top-seeded Crusaders have a great chance to get even.

MAAC (March 7-11)
Site: Springfield, Mass.
Top three seeds: 1. Niagara 2. Rider 3. Loyola
PF: Rider. The Broncos showed a spark late, beating Charleston Southern in the BracketBusters game and finishing a sweep of regular-season champion Niagara.
JE: Iona. In a wide-open league in which five teams finished within two games of first place, why not a dark horse? The Gaels faltered in February, but their duo of Momo Jones and Sean Armand are dangerous.

Missouri Valley (March 7-10)
Site: St. Louis
Top three seeds: 1. Creighton 2. Wichita State 3. Northern Iowa
PF: Creighton. This could be a chaotic tournament -- or the best player in the league (Doug McDermott) may put the Bluejays on his back for three games.
JE: Creighton. Evansville and Northern Iowa are surging, Indiana State and Illinois State are dangerous and Wichita State is a likely at-large team, but I'm sticking with Doug McDermott and the Bluejays.

Northeast Conference (March 6, 9, 12)
Site: At higher seed
Top three seeds: 1. Robert Morris 2. Wagner 3. LIU Brooklyn
PF: Robert Morris. Regular-season champions have won 14 of their last 16 after starting league play 0-2.
JE: Robert Morris. The top three seeds all have a realistic chance of winning, but only Robert Morris is guaranteed to be at home every game it plays.

Ohio Valley (March 6-9)
Site: Nashville
Top three seeds: 1. Belmont 2. Murray State 3. Eastern Kentucky
PF: Belmont. A lot of people will pick Murray State here, but unless Isaiah Canaan scores 50 on consecutive nights in Nashville it won't happen. Bruins have been the best in their first season in the league.
JE: Belmont. The Bruins have an outside shot at an at-large bid even with a loss in the title game, but they won't need it. Behind the senior backcourt of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson, Belmont will validate its 14-2 conference record and secure an automatic NCAA bid.

Patriot League (March 6, 9, 13)
Site: At higher seeds
Top three seeds: 1. Bucknell 2. Lafayette 3. Lehigh
PF: Bucknell. Going with the dominant player theory here (see: McDermott and McCallum) and saying Mike Muscala carries the Bison to the NCAAs.
JE: Bucknell. The top-seeded Bison may have been the favorite even if Lehigh's C.J. McCollum were healthy. He's not, so it's hard to see anyone toppling the regular season champs.

Southern Conference (March 8-11)
Site: Asheville, N.C.
Top three seeds: 1. Davidson 2. Elon 3. College of Charleston
PF: Davidson. Best team. Best coach. Case closed.
JE: Davidson. The defending champion Wildcats rolled to a 17-1 league record, avenging their lone league loss Saturday by 35 points. It will take a major upset for any SoCon team but Davidson to reach the NCAA tournament.

Summit League (March 9-12)
Site: Sioux Falls, S.D.
Top three seeds: 1. South Dakota State 2. Western Illinois 3. North Dakota State
PF: North Dakota State. Best defensive team in the league will guard its way into the Big Dance.
JE: South Dakota State. The league's best player and the league's best home court advantage? I'll ride with Nate Wolters and the defending champion Jackrabbits.

Sun Belt (March 8-11)
Site: New Orleans
Top three seeds: 1. Middle Tennessee 2. Arkansas State 3. South Alabama
PF: Middle Tennessee. There are some intriguing spoiler possibilities in the Belt, but it would be a massive upset if anyone beats the 27-4 Blue Raiders.
JE: Middle Tennessee. In a league in which everyone else lost at least six games, the Blue Raiders went 19-1. They were upset last year in the quarterfinals, but it will be an even bigger stunner if they fall again.

West Coast (March 6-11)
Site: Las Vegas
Top three seeds: 1. Gonzaga 2. Saint Mary's 3. BYU
PF: Gonzaga. Zags didn't lose to a single WCC opponent all year, home or away. Hard to see that changing now on a neutral court.
JE: Gonzaga. The Zags won their league games by an average of more than 18 points apiece. With a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament on the line, they'll have plenty of incentive to avoid a semifinal or title game letdown.

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