The Championship Festival Approaches: How Do The Mid-Major Conference Races Stand?

If you've taken a look at a calendar today, you'll notice that February is disappearing quickly, and March will be here in less than a week.

The arrival of 2011's third month brings us to the time when actual Tournament tickets are punched, the time when the Bracketology and Bubble talk that is the focus of this site takes a back seat to teams earning bonafide entry into the field of 68. ESPN has taken to calling this time of the year "Championship Week," but this doesn't reflect the actual time elapsed between the start of the Big South and Horizon tournaments on March 1st and Selection Sunday, March 13th. Kyle Whelliston came up with the more accurate term "Championship Fortnight" for the Mid-Majority. Here at BtB, I've decided to focus on the fun side of these 13 days; therefore, I'm calling early March the "Championship Festival." Expect to get tired of this name at some point on March 2nd.

Since conference tournaments will be here in short order, I figured it might be a good idea to catch my loyal audience (all five of you, anyway) on what's been going on in the mid-major races. In past years, I've done a post like this a few weeks earlier, and included my pick for the bid, which typically turned out to be wrong, wrong, wrong. This year, there's no pick, but a quick look at the race at the top, and bottom, if necessary, for those conferences that don't allow every team to participate in the postseason.

I've left the six BCS conferences, Mountain West, and Atlantic 10 out of this post, as they will all earn multiple bids, and their conference tournaments will take place towards the end of the Championship Festival.

After the jump, a look at the other 23 conferences that will earn an automatic bid to the 2011 NCAA Tournament. (Sorry, Great West.)

America East

Conference Tournament: March 3, 5, 6 (University of Hartford, Hartford, CT) and 12 (highest remaining seed)
Vermont has clinched the regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament. The Catamounts have just one regular season game left, a home contest against a Boston University team they fell to by nine back on January 9th. Incidentally, the Terriers sit at second in the league, so the two teams could meet again in the conference final. The America East's event begins with early rounds at Hartford's Chase Arena between March 3rd and 5th, with the semifinal winner meeting on the higher seed's home court for the auto bid on Selection Eve.

Atlantic Sun

Conference Tournament: March 2-5 (Mercer University, Macon, GA)
Even though they aren't going to finish unbeaten in the conference, Belmont has been rolling through A-Sun play, as they're three games up in the loss column on second place East Tennessee State with two to play. Keep in mind the Buccaneers have represented the conference in the last two NCAA Tournaments, so they're unlikely to go away quietly. The A-Sun Tournament involves the top eight teams in the league, but two of the conference's 11 members, Florida Gulf Coast and USC Upstate, are not yet eligible as they're still reclassifying from Division II. That means Campbell (6-12), Kennesaw State (6-12), and Stetson (5-13) are battling for the final two spots in Macon. Note that the conference's four quarterfinals take place over two days, with the top two seeds playing on Wednesday, earning a day off with a win before Friday's semifinals.

Big Sky

Conference Tournament: March 5 (higher seeds) and 8-9 (regular season champion)
Big Sky Confusionageddon is approaching, as Montana and Northern Colorado are currently tied at the top of the conference with three losses apiece, having split a pair of meetings. Determining a regular season champion is crucial, as this team gets to host the tournament semifinals and final on March 8th and 9th. The Big Sky's chosen tiebreaker, the RPI, works to the Grizzlies' advantage. They also have one less conference game to play than the Bears. Otherwise, only the top six teams advance to the postseason event, with the bottom five all alive for the last two spots.

Big South

Conference Tournament: March 1, 3, 5 (higher seeds host)
Coastal Carolina leads Liberty by a game in the loss column, after the Chanticleers were stunned by a UNC Asheville buzzer-beater Tuesday night. The Flames could tie for the league crown if they win at Winthrop and Presbyterian on Thursday and Saturday and Coastal falls at Charleston Southern in their final. However, as the Chanticleers swept the Flames, they've earned home court advantage throughout the campus site tournament, which culminates on Saturday, March 5th. The big worry for Cliff Ellis is his backcourt, as point guard Kierre Greenwood is gone for the year after suffering an ACL tear, and shooting guard Desmond Holloway has run afoul of the NCAA eligibility police.

Big West

Conference Tournament: March 9-12 (Anaheim, CA)
Long Beach State can wrap up the regular season crown and top seed in the conference tournament, to be held at the Honda Center instead of the smaller Anaheim Arena, with a home win over second-place Cal Poly on Thursday night. The 49ers beat the Mustangs by 16 in San Luis Obispo on December 30th. The top eight teams in the nine-team loop make it to Anaheim, with UC Davis (3-9) chasing its next two opponents, UC Irvine (4-9) and UC Riverside (4-8), for the final spot.

Colonial

Conference Tournament: March 4-7 (Richmond, VA)
Things will be very exciting in Richmond between March 4th and 7th with the CAA looking likely to have at least two, and potentially three, bids in the field of 68. Four teams have already clinched byes to the quarterfinals: NCAA contenders George Mason, Old Dominion, and VCU, and Hofstra. The Patriots are two games up on the other three, and with games remaining against tenth-place Northeastern in Fairfax and at ninth-place Georgia State, they'll likely clinch the title outright before Saturday is done. A potential ODU-VCU semifinal would attract a lot of interested observers on Sunday, March 6th.

Conference USA

Conference Tournament: March 9-12 (University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, TX)
This league is, to put it nicely, a jumbled mess. UAB, Memphis, and Southern Mississippi share the league lead at 9-4, with the Golden Eagles getting the edge for the auto bid this week because of a superior overall record. Two teams, tournament host UTEP and Tulsa, are a half-game back at 8-4. Sixth-place SMU sits at 7-6, while seventh-place Marshall is at .500. Naturally, the profiles for these seven are lacking in one way or another in terms of at-large selection, meaning C-USA is likely back to being a one-bid league (after a year with an unexpected two). With each three to four conference games left on each contender's slate, expect things to change a few times before the 12 teams convene at the Don Haskins Center on March 9th.

Horizon

Conference Tournament: March 1 (higher seeds host), 5-6 (regular season champion hosts), 8 (higher seed)
I've said on numerous occasions that this is one of the most fascinating conference races in the country, and it looks that will continue all the way to the end, with tiebreakers (http://horizonleague.org/2011mbbchampionship) an important piece in determining seeding for the conference tournament. Cleveland State (12-4) leads Butler (12-5) by a half-game and Valparaiso and Milwaukee (both 11-5) by a full game. The top seed hosts the quarterfinals and semifinals, with the top two seeds earning a spot in the last four automatically. Figuring those spots out will be tough, as the Bulldogs have swept the Vikings and split with the Crusaders, but dropped a pair to the Panthers. Cleveland State has one win over Milwaukee (with one still to play) and a split with Valpo, a team that has a 1-1 mark against the Panthers. We'll have a clear picture after Saturday's regular season finales.

Ivy

No Conference Tournament
The one conference that doesn't hold a postseason tournament may still see some extra basketball this year, thanks to Princeton's Saturday loss at Brown. That put the Tigers back into a loss-column tie with Harvard, with the two meeting at Lavietes Pavillion to end the regular season on March 5th. If the two remain deadlocked at the top of the standings, the only tiebreaker required will be of the one-game on-the-court variety.

Metro Atlantic

Conference Tournament: March 4-7 (Fairfield University, Bridgeport, CT)
Fairfield, who happens to host the conference tournament this season, has sewn up the MAAC regular season crown, as they lead Iona, Rider, and St. Peter's by three games with two to play. The Broncs are the only one of the three to beat the Stags, topping them 96-87 in Lawrenceville on February 6th.

Mid-American

Conference Tournament: March 8 (higher seeds host), 10-12 (Cleveland, OH)
The MAC race rivals those of Conference USA and the Horizon League in terms of wildness, and we haven't even reached the conference tournament in Cleveland, where an Ohio team that finished 7-9 in the regular season claimed the auto bid in 2010 (and won a game in the NCAAs to boot). With four games left in this campaign, Kent State and Miami University are tied for first in the East and overall at 9-3, with the Golden Flashes getting the bracket nod because of a superior overall record. Five teams--Akron, Bowling Green, and Buffalo from the East and Ball State and Western Michigan from the West--are two games back at 7-5. Ohio, the last place team in the East is at 6-6, good for seventh overall, a game better than Central Michigan, who sits at third in the weaker West. Keep in mind though that even though the division winners and the next two teams overall will earn byes to the quarterfinals in Cleveland, the overall standings determine the seedings, not the divisional ones.

Mid-Eastern

Conference Tournament: March 8-12 (Winston-Salem, NC)
With between two and four games left in the regular season (depending on the team) and the conference tournament, the MEAC is running out of chances to avoid a date with the First Four. Current leader Bethune-Cookman sits at 11-4, but with their five non-conference wins coming against four non-D1 schools and Stetson, who might miss the Atlantic Sun tournament, the Wildcats would likely be destined for Dayton if they claimed the auto bid. So would third-place Coppin State (9-4), as a team that beat Navy and UMBC, as well as three non-D1 teams. Even second-place Morgan State (9-3) would be in danger, though the Bears did play a completely Division I schedule. The conference's best hope is for fourth-place Hampton (9-5), a team that beat Colorado State, Boston University, George Washington, and Georgia State, amongst others in the early season to make a late run to the crown. However, a MEAC crown may only give the Pirates a 16 seed in the main draw, bypassing a trip to UD Arena and potential tournament win share for the conference.

Missouri Valley

Conference Tournament: March 3-6 (St. Louis, MO)
The regular season title will come down to Saturday's game between Wichita State and Missouri State in Springfield, but surprises are possible before that potential Arch Madness final preview. The Shockers host Creighton, a team that's trying to steal a quarterfinal bye, on Wednesday night, while the Bears visit eighth-place Southern Illinois. The two co-leaders are assured of the top two seeds, and Indiana State claimed the third seed by topping Northern Iowa Tuesday night. The Panthers are the likely No. 4, though Creighton has a chance if they top Wichita State and then UNI on Saturday.

Northeast

Conference Tournament: March 3, 6, 9 (higher seeds host)
Long Island University has wrapped up the regular season title and has home court advantage for as long as they last in the NEC Tournament. The top eight teams advance to the event, and since eighth-place Bryant is not yet eligible for the postseason, ninth-place St. Francis (PA) (6-10) and the two teams tied for 10th, Sacred Heart and Monmouth (5-11), all still have a shot to book a place over the final week of action. Note that the Red Flash and current fourth-place team Robert Morris are so far the only two teams to knock off the newly-minted conference champs during the regular season, with the Colonials able to top them in Brooklyn.

Ohio Valley

Conference Tournament: March 2-6 (Nashville, TN)
Like the NEC, only the top eight from the OVC make the conference tournament, but this time all of them will advance to the main site, Nashville Municipal Auditorium. However, the OVC has adopted a format similar to the Horizon League and West Coast Conference, where the top two seeds receive byes to the semifinals and seeds No. 3 and 4 are automatically placed in the quarterfinals. Heading into the last week of action, Murray State and Morehead State (12-4) are in line for the double-bye, but Austin Peay (11-5) is a threat. That's because the Racers and Eagles meet in Murray on Thursday, guaranteeing that one of those schools will have five losses too. As the Governors have split with both teams, tiebreakers may once again come into play. Tennessee Tech looks set for the fourth seed, as they lead Eastern Kentucky by a game in the loss column, but have swept the Colonels.

Patriot

Conference Tournament: March 2, 6, 11 (higher seeds host)
Bucknell leads second-place American by two games with two to play; however, the Bison swept the Eagles during the regular season, meaning they'll have home court advantage throughout the tournament. American has the two seed sewn up, as they lead third-place Lehigh by three games.

Southern

Conference Tournament: March 4-7 (Chattanooga, TN)
College of Charleston will go into the conference tournament as the favorite, as they lead Wofford, a team they swept, in the South Division and overall standings by two games with two left, but the venue is an issue. The Cougars lost at Chattanooga, the host and potential North Division winner, by three on January 17th. They also lost the 2009 SoCon final to the Mocs at McKenzie Arena.

Southland

Conference Tournament: March 8-12 (Katy, TX)
Things we know about the Southland Conference Tournament: Eight teams will attend. The winner will likely be headed to Dayton. The event will be played at the Merrell Center in Katy, Texas between March 8th and 12th. With four games left in the regular season, Central Arkansas (1-11) won't be there and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (3-9) probably won't make it.

Things we don't know: Pretty much everything else, as the remaining 10 teams in the league have records ranging from 8-4 (McNeese State and Texas State) to 7-5 (four teams) to 6-6 (another four).

Southwestern Athletic

Conference Tournament: March 9-12 (Shreveport, LA)
Much like its Gulf Coast counterpart, the Southland, the SWAC winner is fairly certain to find themselves in Dayton on March 15th and 16th. Right now, the leading candidate for that honor is Texas Southern, a team that played 13 of its 14 games away from home, beating Texas State and Oregon State, before jumping into a league slate that they've dominated. The Maroon Tigers (13-1) lead the Blue Tigers of Jackson State (10-4) by three games with four to play. Texas Southern's only conference loss came at the hands of third-place Mississippi Valley State (10-5), who beat them by 13 at Itta Bena on January 24th. Keep in mind that either the one or two seed has won each SWAC tournament held since 2003, which happened to be the year Texas Southern last won, as a four seed.

Summit

Conference Tournament: March 5-8 (Sioux Falls, SD)
Oakland (15-1) is the runaway regular season winner, as they lead Oral Roberts and IUPUI by four games with two to play this week. The Jaguars are the only team to top the Golden Grizzlies in the conference season, winning 100-88 at the Jungle, but IPFW, Oral Roberts, and the two Dakota schools have played Greg Kampe's team close. Keep an eye on South Dakota State, who currently sits in fifth, as the tournament is again being played in their backyard.

Sun Belt

Conference Tournament: March 5-8 (Hot Springs, AR)
Florida Atlantic, who last reached the NCAAs in 2002 as the Atlantic Sun champion, is the favorite this time around, with former George Washington and St. John's coach Mike Jarvis at the helm. The East-leading Owls have a two-game lead on a trio of 9-5 West Division teams (Denver, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State) for the overall Sun Belt lead. However, the divisions do play a role in determining the bracket for Hot Springs, so one of those three West contenders will fall into Saturday's first round. The Owls and most likely Middle Tennessee State (9-6) will earn the East byes. Western Kentucky (7-7), third in the East, could force a tie if they top Florida International (coached by the shadowy Isiah Thomas) at home on Thursday, then win in Murfreesboro on Saturday.

West Coast

Conference Tournament: March 4-7 (Las Vegas, NV)
Fans of bubble teams from coast-to-coast will be focusing on the Orleans Arena for nine-day period, as it hosts a pair of conference tournaments with a lot of potential to create problems. The first is the WCC event, which features two at-large contenders, St. Mary's (10-2) and Gonzaga (9-3). Those two meet in Moraga on Thursday night, with the Bulldogs looking to avenge a two-point home loss back on January 27th. A Bulldog win creates a tie at the top, and both teams would earn a bye to the semifinals. However, if the Gaels win, they'll clinch the regular season crown and a semifinal bye, but the Zags are likely to fall all the way down to third, and a single bye to the quarterfinals. That's because San Francisco (8-4) has a great shot to will win their remaining two games (at home against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount), giving them a tiebreaker edge over Gonzaga.

Western Athletic

Conference Tournament: March 9-12 (Las Vegas, NV)
The situation at the top of the other conference that will crown its champion at Orleans Arena is far less complicated. Utah State leads second place New Mexico State by three games in the loss column, and can earn the outright title with a home win over Idaho, the same team they lost to in Moscow on February 9th, on Saturday. However, bubble teams everywhere will be cheering for the Blue Aggies to take the crown, especially since they improved their case for an at-large considerably by winning at St. Mary's on Saturday night. This is another conference where the top two seeds earn a bye to the semifinals, while teams 3 and 4 are automatically placed in the quarterfinals. However, only the top eight get to make the trip to Vegas. Currently, Louisiana Tech (2-10) would stay home, though they're only a game behind San Jose State (3-9). Those two meet Saturday in the Bay Area.

If I've made any errors in this post, or you can provide clarification on things like tiebreakers, please leave a comment, and I'll make the change!

This time next week, I'll be back with an update on the mid-major conferences that close regular season play during the first weekend of March. And if the races are interesting enough, I may throw in the major ones too.

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