March Madness Begins Now

gmu.jpgThe NCAA tournament begins today.

Okay, not officially. But, for all practical purposes, conference tournaments are the beginning of March Madness. Right now, nearly every team in NCAA-Div. I men’s basketball has a chance to win a national championship (with the exception of a few leagues that exclude teams from their tournaments, as well as a few independent teams).  The road to the Final Four doesn’t start with the “play-in” game on March 13 — it starts with the fight for automatic bids that takes place in conferences across the country.

This week, as the stakes rise for the small guys fighting for a chance to be “Cinderella” at at this year’s dance, you will see players laying it all on the line.  Nowhere is this more true than in the small conferences, where automatic bids are often the only ticket — conferences like the Colonial Athletic Association, the Southern Conference and the West Coast Conference. 

This week, you will see guys diving for loose balls, sprinting up and down the court and playing “in-your-face” defense. You’ll see blood, sweat and tears. You’ll witness teams playing basketball the way it was meant to be played.

Bring it on.

But don’t think for a second that just because these conferences aren’t the big dogs, they won’t produce some intense, high quality matchups between teams that will have a legitimate shot at making a run in the tournament. After all, where do you think cinderella teams like last year’s George Mason come from?

Here’s a look at a few tournaments and teams to keep your eye on as the beauty of March Madness begins to unfold this week:

Missouri Valley Conference: Based on an earlier post, you might guess that I think this tournament will be the best one of the week.  You’re right. Also known as “Arch Madness,” the Valley tournament promises to be one heck of a ride. Yet again, Valley teams have proven that they belong on the same court as the big boys.  But after compiling an impressive nonconference resume, teams in the Valley have beaten each other up. This is probably one of the most solid leagues from top-to-bottom in the country, where any team can beat any other team on any given day.  Last year, the MVC tournament gave us Bradley, who played their way into the NCAA tournament by making the MVC Finals.  The Braves then proceeded to play their way into the Sweet 16.  This year, Southern Illinois is the only NCAA lock. But, there are three other teams with at-large aspirations (Creighton, Missouri State and Bradley) and a host of other teams with the potential to win the conference tournament.  Look for another exciting weekend in St. Louis.

Colonial Athletic Association: This is the conference that gave us George Mason in 2006 — one of the greatest NCAA cinderella stories of all time. At this year’s CAA tournament, look out for Drexel, Hofstra, Virigina Commonwealth and Old Dominion.  They all have tournament-caliber talent and solid resumes. But, only one (maybe two) will get to go to the dance. Think that’s a recipe for intensity?

Southern Conference:  Keep an eye on Davidson, Appalachian State and College of Charleston.  All had excellent seasons, but only one will get to go.

West Coast Conference: The home of Gonzaga. But, this year, the ‘Zags have some competition, most notably from Santa Clara. And guess who played at Santa Clara the last time they made a run in the NCAA tournament?  One Steve Nash — NBA MVP. 

Big South Conference: Winthrop has had an impressive season, winning 20 games and going undefeated in conference play. Should they happen to lose in the Big South tournament, they may have an outside shot at an at-large berth. But, obviously, they would rather go with the sure-fire automatic bid.

Atlantic Sun Conference: Two teams from the “Rocky Top” state could decide this one, as East Tennessee State will likely face their biggest challenge from Belmont University out of Nashville.

Here’s to March — enjoy the ride!

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~ by ahalperin on February 28, 2007.

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