Now that it's less than a month until Selection Sunday, we're slightly overdue to review the races in 22 of the 23 conferences that can will probably only receive one bid to this year's tournament. The 23rd is Memphis (or FedEx U, based on this story) and the 11 Dwarves, and since that race is once again nowhere even close to competitive, I won't talk about it here.
Why do I use the term "Banana Peel List"? Well, in one-bid leagues a single slip-up in the conference tournament can send a regular season champion off to the NIT. (Although, this is a major improvement over the years where this rule wasn't in place.) And a single slip-up in the regular season can really impact seeding for said conference tournaments. In some leagues, this can deprive a team of the homecourt advantage that may just push them into the Big Dance.
Today and tomorrow, I will present my annual rundown of where each of these races stand at the moment, along with my pick for the eventual auto bid winner. My prognostication skills are a bit lacking, however. Last season, I only selected 10 of 22 winners correctly. This year, the Missouri Valley and Western Athletic Conferences are one-bid leagues for the purposes of this column. (They'll appear tomorrow.) The Colonial, Horizon, and West Coast also appear here, even though it's possible that each league could receive multiple bids based on how things break on Championship Week. I'll discuss those permutations in each league's section. I''ll also update the state of these races in upcoming bracket projections.
Current Leader: Vermont (11-3)
State of the Race: Tight. Binghamton (10-3) is a half-game behind the Catamounts. Boston University is a full game back at 9-4. Binghamton has the best record against the other favorites, 2-0 against UVM and 1-1 against BU. Vermont has beaten BU by 14 and 28! The only time these three may meet up with each other is at the conference tournament. Currently, no one else in the America East has a conference record over .500.
Conference Tournament: Preliminary Rounds at Albany, March 6-8; Championship at highest remaining seed, March 15
My Pick: Binghamton, since they have the inside track at the top seed. They also have UVM's number and a better than even shot at knocking off BU, since they managed to win there.
Current Leader: Jacksonville (12-3)
State of the Race: Tight. The Dolphins lead A-Sun powers Belmont and East Tennessee State by a full game. The Dolphins split with the Bucs (each winning at home) and beat the Bruins in Jacksonville. (They'll meet in Nashville on the last day of the regular season, February 28.) Belmont and ETSU split their two meetings, each winning at home.
Conference Tournament: March 4-7 at Lipscomb (Keep in mind that Belmont is just a few short miles away.)
My Pick: Belmont, since they have the talent and experience to get them through tough postseason matchups.
Current Leader: Weber State (11-1)
State of the Race: Remember back when Portland State looked like they were going to build off the Gonzaga upset and shoot their way to a 12 or 13-seed? Well, those days are long gone. The Vikings are currently, third, three-and-a-half games behind the Wildcats. Montana is Weber's most serious threat at the moment. The Grizzlies are two games back in the loss column at 10-3, and they host WSU on Thursday night. Weber won the previous encounter in Ogden, 71-55.
Conference Tournament: Higher seeds host (semifinals at one site), March 7, 10, and 11.
My Pick: Weber State because of their dominance over both UM and PSU so far this season, and because they'll probably end up hosting the bulk of the tournament.
Current Leader: Radford
State of the Race: The Highlanders took advantage of VMI's stereotypical 100-97 loss on Saturday to take the conference lead, at least temporarily. While the bulk of teams living below the red line take part in BracketBusters this weekend, the Big South race could be decided. VMI hosts Radford Saturday afternoon. The Keydets won the earlier meeting, a relatively low-scoring 87-72 encounter. Don't sleep on Seth Curry's Liberty Flames. They currently sit three games behind Radford in the loss column. They close their regular season with a visit from VMI followed by a trip to Radford. Liberty won at VMI earlier and dropped the rare 12-point double OT decision to Radford at home.
Conference Tournament: Campus sites, March, 3, 5, and 7
My Pick: VMI, just because their style may very well wear out their competitors on short rest.
Current Leader: Cal State-Northridge (8-3)
State of the Race: The Matadors are being chased by Long Beach State (7-4) and Pacific (7-5), but the 6-loss trio of Fullerton State, UC Davis, and UC Riverside can't be discounted either. Northridge has used a 6-game win streak to take the lead, but they've lost to Pacific at home and Long Beach on the road. They'll face those reverse fixtures over the last two weekends of the regular season. Long Beach opened their conference slate with five straight wins, and they've promptly lost five of their last seven. The 49ers did sweep the season series with Pacific, however. The Tigers, predictably, have eschewed streaks, alternating wins and losses in their first six. Now, they're alternating pairs of wins and losses. (They're due to lose two straight based on their current pattern.)
Conference Tournament: March 11-14 at Anaheim
My Pick: Long Beach State, as they seem to play their best against the league's best.
Current Leader: Virginia Commonwealth (11-4)
State of the Race: It looked like VCU or Northeastern (also at 11-4, they currently sit second in my pecking order because of VCU's better overall record) had the best chance to run away and hide from the rest of the league. Both seem to have caught a case of the winter doldrums, however. The Huskies just dropped games to Drexel at home and George Mason on the road. Those two now sit a game behind the leaders and are in position to earn the bid. The Dragons have a shot to send the Patriots down to 4th place on Wednesday night in Fairfax. (GMU won an early December encounter at the DAC, 56-55.) This one is going to go all the way down to the conference tournament in Richmond.
Conference Tournament: March 6-9 at Richmond
My Pick: Drexel. They're playing the best right now and they not only play Mason Wednesday, but they get Northeastern at home on February 25. This means that they can still win the CAA regular season title and get the top seed for Richmond.
Current Leader: Butler (13-2)
State of the Race: Closer than you'd think, especially after the Bulldogs dropped a 71-67 decision to lowly Loyola Sunday afternoon. Butler currently leads Green Bay by two games (and the Phoenix split the season series, losing by 9 at Hinkle and winning by 9 at home). Cleveland State and Wright State are three games back. Butler is almost assuredly getting an at-large if they don't take the auto bid, so bubble teams across America will be cheering for the Bulldogs during the Horizon League tournament, which they should host.
Conference Tournament: Campus sites, March 3. Highest seed, March 6-7. Highest remaining seed, March 10.
My Pick: Butler, since they should have the advantage of the double-bye to the semifinals and hosting the semifinal.
Current Leader: Cornell (7-1)
State of the Race: Sitting in the Palestra on Saturday the 7th, the gasp heard when it was announced Princeton, fresh off a 20-point pasting of Cornell, had beaten Columbia by 28 was something to behold. Since then, the two teams have gone in completely different directions. The Tigers dropped a 12-point decision at Yale and an 18-point one at Brown. Meanwhile, the Big Red have won three straight, including a 79-76 2OT nailbiter against Dartmouth, and lead Princeton by a game in the loss column. Cornell has two games in hand, however.
Conference Tournament: The Ivy League doesn't conduct a postseason tournament.
My Pick: Cornell. This will be another case where experience will win the day. Plus, the Big Red still host the Tigers to close out the regular season.
Current Leader: Siena (14-1)
State of the Race: This is another race that seemed like it would get out of hand, but a loss by the favorite (in this case, Rider's 90-88 home win over the Saints) meant the gap closed slightly. Niagara (12-3) is really the only other team that has a chance at the regular season title, but the Purple Eagles lost in Albany 82-65. The two will meet again in Lewiston on February 27, but since the Saints have recovered nicely from their lone setback, it may be too little, too late.
Conference Tournament: March 6-9 at Albany (Siena's homecourt)
My Pick: Siena, since they've recovered from adversity in the league, have been more than challenged outside of the league, and host the tournament.
Current Leader: Buffalo (9-2)
State of the Race: Unbalanced. Only one team has a winning conference record in the West (Ball State at 6-5) and no team in the East has a losing league record. East leaders Buffalo just lost at West leader Ball State, 53-51, on Sunday afternoon. The Bulls should be considered the favorite, but things just become so unpredictable when the action shifts to Cleveland in mid-March.
Conference Tournament: March 11-14 at Cleveland
My Pick: Buffalo, but that's because I pulled their name from a hat.
Current Leader: Morgan State (9-2)
State of the Race: Not close. The Bears, who are the conference's best chance at not just avoiding the opening round but the 16-line altogether thanks to their win at Maryland, have six teams chasing them. The problem for those six is that they're three games back in the loss column with five (or six, in the case of Howard) to play. Naturally, the true test for Morgan State comes at the MEAC's traditionally unpredictable tournament.
Conference Tournament: March 9-14 at Winston-Salem
My Pick: Morgan State, as none of their immediate chasers have been able to beat them yet.
Part II comes tomorrow.