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Conference Tournaments 2019: What’s New

The biggest change is how you’ll watch the early rounds for many mid-major tourneys.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Colorado
For accuracy’s sake, imagine this jacket bears a plus sign—at least when it comes to conference tournament coverage.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

TV Changes

I’m going to start here because your conference tournament viewing experience will change significantly this year. The days of switching between different ESPN3 feeds for your mid-major tourney fix are not quite over, but the sun seems to be setting on them. That’s because a whopping 15 leagues will have at least one round air on ESPN+, the Worldwide Leader’s relatively new over-the-top streaming service.

  • America East: quarterfinals (3/9) and semifinals (3/12)
  • Atlantic 10: first round (3/13)
  • ASUN: quarterfinals (3/4) and semifinals (3/7)
  • Big South: semifinals (3/8)
  • C-USA: first round (3/13)
  • Horizon League: quarterfinals (3/5 and 3/6)
  • MAC: first round (3/11) and quarterfinals (3/14)
  • MVC: first round (3/7) and quarterfinals (3/8)—these games will also appear on TV via the Valley’s cable TV partners
  • NEC: semifinals (3/9)
  • OVC: first round (3/6) and quarterfinals (3/7)
  • SoCon: first round (3/8), quarterfinals (3/9), and semifinals (3/10)—select Nexstar-owned stations will air the quarters and semis
  • Southland: first round (3/13), quarterfinals (3/14), and semifinals (3/15)
  • Summit League: quarterfinals (3/9 and 3/10) and semifinals (3/11)
  • Sun Belt: first round (3/12), second round (3/14), quarterfinals (3/15), and semifinals (3/16)
  • WAC: quarterfinals (3/14) and semifinals (3/15)

Only these games will remain on ESPN3:

  • Big South: first round (3/5) and quarterfinals (3/7)
  • Big West: quarterfinals (3/14) and semifinal No. 1 (3/15, game No. 2 is on ESPNU)
  • MAAC: first round (3/7), quarterfinals (3/8 and 3/9), semifinal No. 1 (3/10, game 2 is on ESPNU)

If you’re wondering when you should finally sign up for your seven-day free trial of ESPN+, you’ll get the most bang for your lack of bucks between Saturday, March 9th and Friday, March 15 with 52 games. While tarting on Friday, March 8th and ending Thursday, March 14 will give you two more games, 54, you will miss out on semifinal action from the Southland and WAC on the following night. If you can’t wait and want to start with the ASUN quarters on Monday, March 4th, you’ll do okay—as there are 40 games between then and Sunday, March 10th.

The MEAC also moved its preliminary games behind a paywall, switching from ESPN3 to The final will still remain on ESPN2, however. In fact, every conference championship game will appear on actual television. Since it’s an odd-numbered year, ESPN takes the Pac-12 Tournament’s late quarterfinal, late semifinal, and championship off FS1’s hands. (Lucky them.) That means 24 of the 32 title games will appear on an ESPN network in 2019.

The MAC’s second semifinal will appear on Fox College Sports Atlantic (and Fox Sports Go, since few people have a cable package featuring that channel) this season.

Your Net-Cutting Schedule

If you’re most interested in when bids will actually be decided, keep this list handy. All times are Eastern.

  • Saturday, March 9 (1): OVC (8 p.m., ESPN2)
  • Sunday, March 10 (3): Big South (1 p.m., ESPN), MVC (2 p.m., CBS), Atlantic Sun (3 p.m., ESPN)
  • Monday, March 11 (2): SoCon (7 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2), MAAC (9 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2)
  • Tuesday, March 12 (5): CAA (7 p.m., CBSSN), Horizon (7 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2), NEC (7 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2), WCC (9 p.m., ESPN), Summit (9 p.m., ESPN2)
  • Wednesday, March 13 (1): Patriot (7:30 p.m., CBSSN)
  • Thursday, March 14 and Friday, March 15: none
  • Saturday, March 16 (13): America East (11 a.m., ESPN2), MEAC (1 p.m., ESPN2), Mountain West (6 p.m., CBS), Big 12 (6 p.m., ESPN), SWAC (6 p.m., ESPNU), Big East (6:30 p.m., Fox), MAC (7:30 p.m., ESPN2), Big Sky (8 p.m., ESPNU), ACC (8:30 p.m., ESPN/Raycom), C-USA (8:30 p.m., CBSSN), Southland (9:30 p.m., ESPN2), Pac-12 (10:30 p.m., ESPN), WAC (10:30 p.m., ESPNU)
  • Selection Sunday, March 17 (7): Big West (12 a.m., ESPN2), Ivy (12 p.m., ESPN2), Atlantic 10 (1 p.m., CBS), SEC (1 p.m., ESPN), Sun Belt (2 p.m., ESPN2), American Athletic (3:15 p.m. ESPN), Big Ten (3:30 p.m., CBS)

The Selection Show ...

Returns to CBS (Sunday, March 17th, 6 p.m.). The same applies to the Final Four, since it’s an odd-numbered year. Both go back to TBS in 2020.

Format Changes

While the Big Sky and MEAC are both losing first-round contests due to realignment and the ASUN did not add games despite a membership changes (correction: the Big South did, however), no fewer than three conferences adjusted their formats for this season.

The Horizon League once again tinkered with its bracket. That’s undoubtedly due to the recent struggles of top four seeds, who managed to go a combined 3-5 in the 10-team, split-quarterfinal doubleheader setup employed in 2017 and 2018. So in 2019, the ninth- and 10th-place teams are out, as was the case in 2015 and 2016. Plus, only the semifinals and final will take place at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena. (It’s also the final year of Motor City Madness; the tournament heads to Indianapolis next season.) The top four seeds will instead host the quarterfinals on March 5th and 6th (according to the bracket). I’m guessing that the quarters will be split again, with the top two seeds playing on the 5th and the third and fourth playing on the 6th, but neither the schedule or bracket make this clear.

Both the Sun Belt and WCC will return to the “ladder” format the OVC and Southland have been using of late. In other words, the top two seeds will only need to win a semifinal and final to make it to the NCAAs. The WCC last used this style of bracket in 2013, while the Sun Belt experimented with it between 2014 and 2016. While all 10 WCC teams will travel to Las Vegas and play starting on March 7th, just eight Sun Belt squads get to go to New Orleans. For starters, the 11th- and 12th-place teams won’t even qualify, while the No. 7 and 8 seeds will host the 10 and 9 seeds, respectively, in first round games on Tuesday, March 12th.

New Host Cities

After its unusual early timing in 2018 to get into Madison Square Garden, the Big Ten Tournament returns to Selection Week this year. It will end just before the Selection Show, as normal, and will also take place in the Midwest, as it should. Chicago’s United Center will host between March 13th and 17th. The Atlantic 10 is also back in familiar surroundings, Brooklyn, after two seasons away due to the ACC’s presence at the Barclays Center. That league also returns to its traditional heartland—North Carolina—though Charlotte will host, not Greensboro, as usual. As for the SEC, it also heads back to its usual home, Nashville, for three years, after a single season in St. Louis. The conference will leave the Music City again for a single season in 2022, when Tampa will host.

The Big Sky will play at Boise’s CenturyLink Arena (not at Boise State) after three seasons in Reno. The Ivy League is also switching from the Penn Quakers‘ home court, the Palestra, to that of the Yale Bulldogs, the Lee Amphitheater, after its first two events. As for the SWAC, it returns to the site of its headquarters, Birmingham, after nine years in Houston and its environs.

As for pending changes (beyond the Horizon’s move to Indy), this will be the last of three seasons for the CAA in North Charleston, S.C. In 2020, the association will play out of the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena in the Nation’s Capital. The MAAC, meanwhile, will depart Albany after five years for Atlantic City.

And yes, Conference USA will do again the dual-court, simultaneous-games thing for the first round and quarterfinals at the Dallas Cowboys’ facility in Frisco, Texas.

Who’s Ineligible

We have no newly-eligible teams this year, but a pair of teams starting on the road to a completed Division I transition, the ASUN’s North Alabama Lions and WAC’s Cal Baptist Lancers, will not be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. (Update 2/26) The Lions will apparently play in the ASUN Tournament, however, at least based on the conference website listing it as a potential host and the standings listing them as having clinched a bid. The Florida A&M Rattlers and Alabama A&M Bulldogs are out for APR reasons. While the Rattlers won’t play in the MEAC Tournament, reduced to 11 teams, the Bulldogs might. While the Grambling State Tigers missed out in 2018 as the regular-season champ, the conference has allowed ineligible squads to play in recent events (like the top-seeded Southern Jaguars in 2014).

Note that the Savannah State Tigers, transitioning down to Division II after this season, will play one last MEAC event in Norfolk.

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