The four biggest storylines from week one of conference tournaments

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RICHMOND, KY - FEBRUARY 16: <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/141675/" data-ylk="slk:Ja Morant">Ja Morant</a> #12 of the Murray State Racers is seen before the game against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/teams/e-kentucky/" data-ylk="slk:Eastern Kentucky Colonels">Eastern Kentucky Colonels</a> at CFSB Center on February 16, 2019 in Murray, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, KY - FEBRUARY 16: Ja Morant #12 of the Murray State Racers is seen before the game against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels at CFSB Center on February 16, 2019 in Murray, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

College basketball’s marquee conference tournaments don’t begin until next week, but the undercard tips off Monday night. The Atlantic Sun starts off the postseason, followed by the America East, Patriot and Horizon the following evening.

Below is a look at the four biggest storylines from week one of conference tournament play:

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1. Will Ja Morant get a chance to shine on a national stage?

One of college basketball’s most exciting players may not have the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Murray State may have to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to ensure future NBA lottery pick Ja Morant has the chance to play on college basketball’s biggest stage.

While Murray State enters the postseason with a 25-4 record, a nine-game winning streak and a share of the OVC title, the Racers are still a long shot to reach the NCAA tournament if they fail to capture their league’s automatic bid. They’ve lost the only three games they’ve played against teams in the NET top 100, not an encouraging sign even in a year when the Big East is down, the Pac-12 has hit rock bottom and the Atlantic 10 is in jeopardy of securing just a single bid.

Murray State’s path to the OVC tournament title will not be easy because the Racers’ league has two other capable teams in it. Co-league champ Belmont (25-4) has an NBA prospect of its own and a stronger at-large case than Murray State. Third-place Jacksonville State (23-8) boasts a 3-0 regular season record against Belmont and Murray State and is coached by a man notorious for unexpected conference tournament runs.

Any of those three teams would be dangerous in March, but the chance to see Morant try to lead Murray State would be especially compelling.

Only a few years ago, Murray State stumbled across Morant by chance when a former assistant coach grabbed a bag of chips at a concession stand and ended up poking his head into an auxiliary gym where the point guard was playing. Now Morant is averaging 24.1 points and 10.4 assists, leading SportsCenter with his dazzling slams and making a strong case to be a top-five pick in next June’s NBA draft.

2. Can Gonzaga sew up the No. 1 seed in the West?

There’s more at stake for Gonzaga in Las Vegas than merely attempting to add another WCC tournament title to its trophy case. The Zags can also practically assure themselves of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s West Region if they avoid taking a surprise loss.

At 29-2 with a victory over full-strength Duke, quality wins against Washington and Creighton and no losses to teams outside the top 10 in the NET rankings, Gonzaga has a resume that compares favorably with other contenders for a No. 1 seed. It hurts the Zags’ case that they play in the WCC instead of a power conference, but they’ve done all they can against that schedule, steamrolling league opponents by an average of 27 points.

Saint Mary’s and BYU have traditionally provided the most resistance for Gonzaga among WCC competition, but the Gaels lost too many key cogs from last year’s 30-win team and the Cougars can’t defend anyone. Fourth-seeded San Francisco actually gave Gonzaga its toughest game in WCC play, even taking a brief lead in the closing minutes before the Zags closed with a 17-2 finishing kick.

When the NCAA tournament selection committee unveiled an early version of its bracket last month, Gonzaga was among the No. 1 seeds. It’s hard to see that changing if the Zags don’t suffer another loss.

3. Can last year’s Cinderellas get back to the Dance?

Villanova may have won the national title in convincing fashion last spring, but you can make a case the Wildcats’ dominance wasn’t the most memorable part of the 2018 NCAA tournament. Sixteenth-seeded UMBC’s historic opening-round upset of top-seeded Virginia was likely more notable, as was Loyola-Chicago’s stunning run to the Final Four.

For either UMBC or Loyola to make more March magic this year, they’ll both have to secure NCAA bids by winning their conference tournaments. UMBC appears headed for a No. 3 seed in the America East tournament behind league champ Vermont and Stony Brook. Loyola earned the top seed in this weekend’s Missouri Valley tournament after sharing the conference’s regular season title with Drake.

UMBC’s offense lacks the firepower of last year’s edition because of the graduation of guards Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura, but the Retrievers (19-12, 11-5) have still shown the potential to compete with the America East’s best. Led by forward Joe Sherburne, UMBC swept a pair of games against Vermont in the regular season and split the season series with Stony Brook.

Loyola may be the No. 1 seed at Arch Madness this weekend, but the Ramblers don’t have the separation last year’s team achieved. Last year’s Loyola team overwhelmed opponents with skill, spacing and unselfishness en route to winning the Valley by four games. Nothing came easy to this year’s Ramblers, who overcame a disappointing non-conference performance and a 35-point January loss at Missouri State to share first place with Drake.

4. Could the Southern Conference send two teams to the NCAA tournament?

In Stephen Curry’s final collegiate season, Davidson won its league by three games, toppled West Virginia and NC State in non-conference play and entered Selection Sunday with a 26-7 record. Unfathomably, that was not enough to secure the Wildcats an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, a snub that looks more egregious when you consider that only a year earlier, Curry led his team on a memorable run to the Elite Eight.

This story is worth revisiting only to demonstrate how hard it is for a Southern Conference team to make the NCAA tournament via an at-large bid. In fact, not once has the SoCon managed to secure multiple bids.

That could finally change this year thanks to the league’s unusually strong top tier. Wofford, UNC Greensboro, Furman and East Tennessee State each enter the conference tournament with at least 23 victories, including some marquee ones in non-league play.

Wofford is the closest to a lock to make the NCAA tournament, having ripped through the 18-game league slate without a loss after only falling to top 50 power-conference teams in November and December. The Terriers currently project in the 8-10 seed range and they could move up with a conference tournament title.

None of the SoCon’s other top-tier teams are certain to receive a bid on Selection Sunday if they don’t win their conference tournament, but Furman has the strongest case. Though the Paladins actually finished third in the conference behind Wofford and UNC Greensboro, they actually have the SoCon’s second best resume thanks to a 24-6 record that includes a road win over Villanova.

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