In lieu of March Madness settling in, I find it most appropriate to offer predictions on any and every conference tournament. This analysis should provide some insights as to what sleepers may emerge in the NCAA tournament. But, more importantly, it will detail some of the most gut-wrenching battles during the best time of year for sports.
Clear Cut Favorite: VCU
Eric Maynor and VCU are the favorites to win the conference. Maynor has free reign within this offensive scheme and is able to distribute the ball to his teammates. Fellow shooter Jamal Schuler should be a weapon to contend with as well. If Sanders can get involved down in the post, VCU stands a chance against George Mason and the rest of the conference. If the Rams' three point shots are not falling and defenses shut down Maynor's dribble drive game, VCU will be dethroned. However, if Eric plays with the same poise and consistency that he did a couple of years back, it will be very tough for any team in this conference to slow him down. Also, their ability to rebound the basketball will be the X factor in this contest. With Maynor operating on all cylinders and Sanders playing like a force down low, the Rams should have little difficulty advancing to the NCAA tournament.
My Selection: George Mason
How can you discount this team after they have made it to the finals the past several years? Jim Larranaga's club has simply rebooted from a year ago, when they lost Thomas and Campbell to graduation. This year they are led by second team all conference seniors John Vaughan and Darryl Monroe. Vaughan's perimeter defense is probably the most critical aspect of Mason's strategy- as he is going to be called upon to shut down the tougher guards in the Colonial. If he can be successful in this endeavor and hit his perimeter shots, George Mason could very well win this tournament. But, this club features more than just one perimeter weapon. Steadily improving guard Cam Long can shoot it from deep, but also is able to drive in the lane and kick. The ability of he and Dre Smith to attack the basket will be the essential part of the Patriots' offensive strategy. Finally, they will need the post play of Darryl Monroe to open up the game for their perimeter shooters. If he is able to proficiently rebound the ball, utilizing his strength down low, the Patriots could very well receive an NCAA bid.
Sleeper Pick: Northeastern
At second place in the conference, this team is not really a sleeper within the conference. However, they receive very little notoriety from outside media and thus warrant the sleeper pick nomination. This team is comprised of a solid inside-outside duo in Matt Janning and Manny Adako. Janning has a knack for scoring and getting to the free throw line, while Adako is a very efficient post option that plays within the team's system. This is a very patient offensive club that likes to move the ball around before they shoot. Whether or not they can play at their methodical pace will determine how they fair in this tournament. They are not a great outside shooting team, and this will limit their chances of coming back from a large deficit. Because they are an efficient offensive team, they may not need to outrebound their opponent to come out wiht a victory. The key for the Huskies' chances rests in their ability to have few empty possessions and slow the tempo of the game down.
Clear Cut Favorite: Binghamton
After a tremendous season in which the Bearcats finished first in the American East regular season, Binghamton looks to receive an NCAA tournament berth. This squad contains many notable transfers, who have gelled together and are now the best team in the American East. They are led by star guards DJ Rivera and Tiki Mayben, transfers from St. Joes and UMass respectively. Rivera is a dynamic slasher who can score virtually at will against conference opponents. Mayben, is a consummate distributor that works to get everyone on the team involved. His steady play has enabled this team to defeat rival Vermont twice. In their hopes for an NCAA tournament appearance, Reggie Fuller's ability to control the glass is going to be critical. They have struggled on the boards this season, so his contributions will be the most vital piece in their attempt to secure a bid.
My Selection: Binghamton (same)
Although they are really not the clear cut favorites, they have faired well recently, winning their last eight contests. After an early season victory at Rutgers, I believe that their guard play is some of the best at the midmajor level. If they can speed up the pace and attack teams in transition, the Bearcats will come out on top. If they advance and face Vermont, I expect them to win in a thriller.
Sleeper Picks: Vermont and Boston University
While they certainly should not be termed a sleeper, I believe that they have a great shot to win this American East tournament. They do not match up well with Binghamton, but they do possess the interior might to contend with them. If guard Trimboli can hit his perimeter shots, and Marquise Blakely can be effective inside, this team will be hard to stop. Also, underappreciated forward Colin McIntosh should be a serious factor in their tournament hopes. Finally, the Catamounts will need consistent play from Michigan St. transfer Maurice Joseph, who has lost his offensive swagger. If he can keep defenses honest as he did in the Big Ten, Vermont should advance to the NCAA tournament.
Boston University is a sleeper team that could make some noise in the American East tournament. Led by guards John Holland and Corey Lowe, this Terrier club is capable of catching fire in a hurry. Look for them to give Binghamton some headaches if they can advance far enough.
Clear Cut Favorite: Davidson
No one expects Davidson to lose in this tournament. With that said, they are facing a much deeper Southern Conference than in year's past. When examining Davidson, it is impossible to understand the team dynamic without accounting for their top weapon. Stephen Curry is not only the best player in this conference, but is probably one of the top three guards in the nation. His overall impact on the game turns an average Davidson squad into a potential upset team come time for the Big Dance. Curry is more important to the Wildcats than any other single player in the country is to their team. The offense runs through him, and his ability to distribute the ball really solidifies Davidson as the favorite to garner a bid from this conference. Curry's ability to shoot the ball is the greatest factor in Davidson's success. If he is stifled offensively, he is more than willing to defer to his teammates. Davidson's top big man is another offensive weapon worth mentioning. Andrew Lovedale is a capable post scorer that can defend virtually anyone. But, if Davidson is to find success, teammates Bryant Barr, Max Paulhus Gosselin, and Brendan McKillop will have to make three point shots in order to keep defenses honest. Archambault and Rossiter must clean up on the boards and assist Andrew Lovedale in the post. Finally, the X factor for this team is Ben Allison, who has shown flashes of excellent athleticism in the paint.
My Selection: College of Charleston
While I thoroughly enjoy Davidson's team and believe that they are far and away the best team in the conference, I feel that College of Charleston may have the willpower to defeat them. Perimeter scorer Andrew Goudelock is arguably the best perimeter shooter in the conference not named Curry. His ability to hit shots is crucial to the Cougars' success. He is 8-33 from behind the arc in College of Charleston's conference losses. Their point guard Tony White Jr. is a capable spot up shooter as well, and his ability to hit shots down the stretch will go along way for this team. If they are to win, they must rely on their greatest strengths- their strength and athleticism in the post. Experienced forwards Jermaine Johnson and Dustin Scott are commanding physical presences that will spell trouble for conference opponents. Throw in emerging big man Jeremy Simmons and you have a nice frontline. The X factor in their success will be Antwaine Wiggins, probably the top defender in the conference. If he can lock down Curry and other top scorers, the Cougars will earn their right to dance.
Sleeper Picks: Wofford and the Citadel
Wofford has won seven of their last nine games in conference. (Their two losses coming against College of Charleston and Davidson) The Terriers rely heavily on the interior play of undersized forward Noah Dahlman, who is extremely difficult to contain. On the outside, they have three point gunner Junior Salters. If Wofford wants to earn a bid to the Big Dance, they will have to play tremendous team defense and limit their turnovers, which have been a problem in the past.
The Citadel is another team that is playing well down the stretch. This twenty win team features forward Demetrius Nelson, who is coming back from an injury that made him miss most of last year. If Nelson is able to get the opposition in foul trouble, the Citadel might be able to earn a bid. Sophomore guards Cameron Wells and Zach Urbanus will need to find Nelson when attacking the basket. If they are able to penetrate to the basket, this team has a very good chance of upsetting either Davidson or College of Charleston.
Clear Cut Favorite: Gonzaga
Gonzaga has established themselves as the best team in the WCC this year, as usual. Josh Heytvelt has nearly returned to his original form and is probably the toughest post player the WCC has to offer. His combination of height and athleticism is going to be difficult to handle, even for a loaded St. Mary's club. Guard Matt Bouldin is a capable scorer who can penetrate to the basket and either score or dish the ball to a teammate. Micah Downs has really improved this season and is showing that he can hit the long ball and be an effective defender. But, if Gonzaga is to win the automatic bid, Jeremy Pargo and Austin Daye will have to be factors. The former is having a down year, not looking as powerful on the block as he once was. And, his perimeter shot has not been falling. If he can get on track by finding his offense, the Zags should win. Also, Daye is going to have to be a factor on both ends of the floor. If he can play stronger than his strength limitations, the Bulldogs will thrive. However, if he fails to show up offensively, and becomes a liability on the other end, they will most certainly fall.
My Selection: St. Mary's
While I believe that they have done enough to merit a bid, St. Mary's is not going to want to leave their tournament hopes to chance. With a healthy Patty Mills, this team is undoubtably the best squad in the WCC. He is unquestionably the best player in the conference and is capable of slashing to the hoop or reigning three point shots. Mills is a crafty player that is able to find his teammates and opens up the game for virtually everyone. Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson, his post counterparts, are nice interior compliments that can snatch rebounds and score inside. Outside shooters such as Carlin Hughes will have to step up if this team is going to make it past a deep Gonzaga squad. If this team can avoid getting into foul trouble and Mills plays as he did right before his injury, St. Marys will earn the automatic bid.
Sleeper Pick: Portland
The third place team in the conference earns the sleeper nomination simply because San Diego has too many injuries. Nik Raivio, the younger brother of former Gonzaga guard Derek, is quietly having an excellent season for the Pilots. If he catches fire, this Portland team is difficult to stop. Look for sharpshooter Jared Stohl to fill it up from three point range. Raivio and big man Robin Smeulders will have to share the rebounding duties. With so many tough big men in this league, they will have to at least match the Zags and St. Mary's on the glass in order to come out on top. And, if they can continue to share the wealth on offense, they should put up a fight against their top WCC foes.
Clear Cut Favorite: Siena
The key to the success of the Saints is going to be the play of Kenny Hasbrouck and Edwin Ubiles. If they can penetrate and hit jump shots, the Siena offense should be effective. Ronald Moore is going to need to distribute the ball to these two go-to scorers. On the interior, Steve Rossiter and Alex Franklin will need to play physical basketball. If they are unable to control the defensive glass, Siena could be upset by either Rider or Niagara. If this team is patient offensively, they may be able to outscore their opponents. However, their ability to defend some of the bigger MAAC players is going to determine whether or not they receive an NCAA tournament berth.
My Selection: Siena (same)
This team has the most offensive firepower, and even though they lost against Niagara recently, their squad knows how to play well down the stretch. Also, they are undefeated at the Times Union Center this year. All indications point to them winning this MAAC conference tournament.
Sleeper Selections: Niagara and Rider
These two teams both upset Siena at home. Niagara has the interior presences in Bilal Benn and 6'10 behemoth Benson Egemonye to earn the MAAC automatic bid. This team is very physical and they play tough post defense. On the perimeter, they clog the passing lanes and are able to steal the ball for open fast break attempts. Tyrone Nelson is an excellent scoring guard who can attack the basket or shoot it from deep. This team will need to exploit teams inside if they are to advance to the NCAA's.
Rider also has a star big man in Ryan Thompson. (the brother of former Bronc and NBA player Jason). He is an adept post player that can shoot from beyond the arc as well. They also have four other double digit scorers including guards Harris Mansell and Justin Robinson. If they can get balanced scoring and control the glass, Rider has a chance to upset either Niagara or Siena.
Clear Cut Favorite: Robert Morris
The Colonials are looking to make the NCAA tournament after falling short just a season ago. Led by NEC player of the year Jeremy Chappell, this team is dynamic on the offensive end. They work to distribute the ball and find the open shooter. As a result, they are an excellent three point shooting team that can fill it up in a hurry. Guard Jimmy Langhurst is also a capable scorer, who should have the ball in his hands. If Rob Robinson and Dallas Green can collect the loose boards, this team should fulfill their regular season title and advance to the Big Dance. Finally, Robert Morris must work on minimizing turnovers if it hopes to outlast conference rivals.
My Selection: Robert Morris (same)
I believe that this team has the offensive fire power to defeat any NEC opponent. If Langhurst and Chappell play under control, they should face little difficulty all the way to the title game.
Sleeper Pick: Mount St. Mary's
This team upset Robert Morris in the semifinals last year in order to secure a bid. And, they return key members of that squad in Jeremy Goode and Kelly Beidler. This team wins by forcing turnovers against its opponents and altogether playing solid defense. They do stand a chance of upsetting Robert Morris again, if they can play tight perimeter defense and not allow Chappell to settle into a rhythm. All in all, this team must play a very methodical game by controlling the glass, if they hope to gain an advantage over their NEC foes.
Clear Cut Favorite: Creighton
After a tremendous all around season, the Blujays seem to be streaking at just the right time. They recently defeated contender Illinois St. and probably solidified an at large bid, assuming they are not upset early in this tournament. The play of conference POY Booker Woodfox will need to be a constant if the Blujays are going to win this chaotic conference tournament, where teams are upset year in and year out. Even with the steady play of their lead guard, the offensive production from P'Allen Stinnett is going to be the X factor in their race for a bid. If he can score on all cylinders and play within himself, Creighton has a legitamite shot to win. However, if his production slows down, as it has over the course of the season, the Blujays will need one of their role players to step up. Creighton is a hard nosed defensive team that scores in spurts. Because they are not very big inside, their greatest key to victory will be limiting offensive rebounds.
My Selection: Illinois St.
After losing late contests against Creighton and Northern Iowa, the Redbirds will look to capitalize on their 20+ win season and finally make the dance, after being left out a year ago. The keys in this effort are the perimeter duo of Camp Oguchi and Osiris Eldridge. Osiris's play down the stretch has been a bit inconsistent and he will have to take his game to the next level if the Redbirds are to win. Dinma Odiakosa has been dominant inside as of late, and his defensive play will be critical if the Redbirds are looking to stop the likes of Northern Iowa. In the end, Oguchi and Eldridge must make their shots down the stretch and play tough perimeter defense. It seems that virtually every Valley team is capable of getting into a groove from beyond the arc. The Redbirds are going to have to limit this, if they hope to earn an NCAA bid this year. They have the personnel to win this tournament, but must have consistent defensive performances, if they can actualize this potential.
Sleeper Picks: Evansville and Drake
Shy Ely and the Purple Aces look to upset the top of the conference and prove that they are worthy of a bid. After coming into the conference season with considerable momentum, Evansville has suffered some setbacks, but still possesses the wherewithal to defeat their conference rivals. This team plays at a methodical pace, but is capable of attacking the basket and hitting three point shots under pressure. They are a consummate team and tend to share the ball and slow the pace of the game down. However, they must play consistent defense if they are to be a realistic contender. They already hold two wins against the other sleeper pick. If they can control the tempo of the game and hit the three ball, they will come out on top.
The other conference sleeper pick is last season's representative, Drake. After losing to Western Kentucky in a thriller, this team should come out motivated. Returning leaders Jonathan Cox and star guard Josh Young will look to outshoot their opponents. If they can distribute the ball instead of having too many empty possessions, they should be a deadly team to face. Cox must receive help on the boards- the likely candidate being Heemskerk. Despite being fairly thin inside, Drake will not face too many post oriented teams. So, if they are able to fill it up from beyond the arc, they could also reek havoc in the Missouri Valley Tournament.
Clear Cut Favorite: Jacksonville
After appearing dominant in the early going of the conference season, Jacksonville has seemed to find its rhythm, winning five of their last seven going into the conference tournament. After closing out the season with a road win against Belmont, it seems as though they have hit their stride. While they do stand alone at the top of the conference, they are vulnerable to an upset. The likely candidates are the streaking Lipscomb (who recently defeated them at home), Belmont, and East Tennessee St. On the season Jacksonville is 4-2 against these teams, but has not been as solid of late. Their ability to hit the three point shot relative to their opponent will be key in securing a tournament bid. Ben Smith and Lehmon Colbert are going to have to hit some shots, and the Dolphins must play some tough perimeter defense. If their contests escalate to a three point shoot out, this team may very well lose. Thus, their ability to contain and recognize shooters is critical to their success. On the interior, Marcus Allen and Colbert must score inside for this team to stand a fighting chance.
My Selection: East Tennessee St.
After splitting the series with Jacksonville, the Buccaneers will look to exploit their considerable experience against conference foes. More than likely, Courtney Pigram will play a vital role in initiating the offense- attacking the basket and hitting big shots down the stretch. However, it will be the offensive threat of Kevin Tiggs that really separates this team from the rest of the pack. If he can hit shots from the outside, this team may simply outscore their opponents. And finally, guard/forward Mike Smith rounds out this trio. He is a crafty player that is capable of attacking the basket and playing within himself. If he is utilized properly, the Buccaneers should receive little trouble from their conference foes.
Sleeper Pick: Lipscomb
The key for this team is to continue their hot pace by making three point shots. Interior presence Adnan Hodzic is going to have to produce inside in order to open up the game for Lipscomb's perimeter game. As of late, they have been red hot, winning their past eight contests. Brian Wright will have to continue his steady production and try to stay out of foul trouble. If he can do this, Lipscomb should have the frontcourt to dominate inside and secure a bid for the NCAA tournament.
Clear Cut Favorite: American
American has been the overwhelming favorite the entire season. They have only one loss on the season, despite winning several close contests including a battle on the road against Navy. The Eagles are led by diminutive guard Garrison Carr, who is quite difficult to contain from beyond the arc when he catches fire. Moreover, American has a fairly strong supporting cast led by frontcourt mates Brian Gilmore and Jordan Nichols. If they can successfully control the glass against Patriot League opponents, American should win out. The biggest key to their offensive success rests in the hands of an even smaller guard in 5'9 Derrick Mercer, who will have to control the pace of the game. His ability to distribute the ball is going to determine how well Carr and the rest of the team fairs on offense. If they can maintain their rebounding margin over opponents and avoid foul trouble, the Eagles should make an appearance in the Big Dance.
My Selection: American (again)
In recent memory, the favorite has always made it to- at the very least- the Patriot League final. So, I cannot imagine American getting upset before that time, unless they run into significant foul trouble. Barring an offensive collapse on the part of Carr and Gilmore, American should run the table and claim their rightful spot as the Patriot League champion.
Sleeper Picks- Navy and Holy Cross
The greatest sleeper pick that this tournament has to offer is clearly 3rd place finisher Navy. While they have lost to American, their contests have always been down to the wire. 6'4 guard Kaleo Kina impacts the game in a variety of ways- he is a capable passer, a finisher attacking the basket, and a great rebounding guard. His success on the offensive end will determine how well Navy fairs against the likes of Holy Cross and American. He has seen some success against American in the past, but has struggled against the Crusaders. This team must come to play early in the game with significant defensive pressure in order to simply wear out its opponents. If they can control the glass, the Midshipmen could very well come out on top. That responsibility falls in the hands of senior forward Adam Teague, whose production is the X factor in Navy's Patriot tournament run.
The second sleeper team is usual contender Holy Cross, which is back towards the top of the conference. The Crusaders have won eight out of their last ten to close the regular season. This young team will rely on their defensive pressure to upset the likes of Carr and Kina. They are fairly balanced offensively and possess many different weapons. If they play within themselves and at the tempo they desire, the Crusaders could very well win the Patriot League yet again.
Clear Cut Favorite: Western Kentucky
After a highly improbable run to the sweet sixteen last March, the Hilltoppers are the leading candidate to once again win the Sun Belt. This season, they bulster a huge blow out victory against a since improved Louisville squad. However, this team is as deadly as any bracket buster in the country. After the losses of Brazelton and Lee however, WKU possesses a much more balanced offensive attack. Mendez-Valdez and AJ Slaughter will hit shots from the perimeter. Both are deadly weapons from the three point line. However, WKU wins when their interior players are at their best. This means that Jeremy Evans and Magley will have to corrale some offensive rebounds and play physical defense. Evans possesses the length to alter shots and be a solid help defender. Kerusch and Pettigrew will have to provide some help scoring inside if this team is to make an NCAA tournament appearance.
My Selection: Middle Tennessee St.
While this may seem highly unlikely- especially with the way this team has been playing of late- the Raiders are still a force to be reckoned with. If star forward Desmond Yates can stay out of foul trouble, this team could very well surprise experts. Kevin Kanaskie must hit some perimeter shots and Green has to find some success attacking the basket as well. If Yates can defend some of the bigger forwards inside, this team could make a run. The key is the ability to Nigel Johnson and Green to feed him in post up attempts. If their passes are lacksidasical, this team's chances are shot. Also, Kermit Davis must keep his team from playing selfishly on the offensive end, which they are prone to at times. Finally, the emergence of Haddock on put back attempts coupled with the potential production of Calvin O' Neil are going to be X factors in the Raiders attempt to reach the NCAA tournament- after falling just short a year ago.
Sleeper Picks: Troy and Arkansas Little-Rock
Troy has been one of the greatest enigmas in the league this year. They are on a tear as of late, winning twelve out of their last thirteen games. The Trojans are a team that relies exclusively on the three point shot. When they hit some long range bombs, they can stay in a game, but when they go cold, it is often difficult for them to recover. Brandon Hazzard has been unconscious from behind the three point line. If he and slasher Richard Delk can provide a consistent scoring threat to go along with their scrappy defense, several teams may be in for a big surprise.
My other sleeper choice can hardly be considered a sleeper. Holding the best overall record in the entire league, Arkansas Little-Rock is a balanced scoring club. The inside outside combination of Shane Edwards and Steven Moore lead the charge on this end of the floor. Moore is a capable shooter, while Edwards has a knack for scoring inside. The ability of John Fowler to lock down top scoring options is going to be the greatest key to this other Trojan team's success. If Moore can minimize his turnovers, these Trojans should advance far and potentially receive a bid.
Clear Cut Favorite: Butler
After a tremendous year which was supposed to be one of rebuilding, Butler finds itself again as the favorites against its Horizon league foes. This young team simply retooled from a year ago and looks to be as strong as ever. After defeating Davidson on the road in the Bracket Buster game, it appears that this team will have an at large bid lined up regardless of the result of this tournament. Most predict that this team will come out on top as in years past. If they are to win, their youthful squad is going to have to show poise under pressure. And, Matt Howard is going to have to be a factor on both ends of the floor. This can only occur is Hayward and Mack are hitting from the perimeter, however, because their shooting (or the very threat) opens up the game inside.
My selection: Cleveland St.
The preseason conference favorites are streaking at just the right time, winning 8 out of its last 10 contests to close out the regular season. It is clear that the Vikings have the experience to win at this time of year. However, they clearly have a tough road ahead of them: potentially facing league sleeper UIC in their first matchup, and then matching up with the difficult 2 seed in Wisconsin Green Bay- all before facing Butler, who has defeated them by a combined four points in two contests. If Cleveland St. can get consistent play out of Jackson and Cole, they will stand a chance. As last year proved, Bullock cannot work alone. Will it take another heroic Cedric Jackson heave to establish a tournament bid? Maybe not. But, one thing is for sure- the Vikings have a tough road ahead of them before they can punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
Sleeper Picks: UIC and Green Bay (and to a lesser extent Wright St.)
This league has so many sleeper picks, from a Wright St. team that can upset virtually anyone on any given day, to a very talented UIC squad. Jimmy Collins' team has the potential to make a run in the Horizon League tournament. With arguably the most dynamic inside-outside combination in the league (Mayo and Vandermeer), UIC stands a fighting chance against anyone. Several factors must occur if UIC is to go on a tear. First and foremost, Josh Mayo is going to have to play consistent basketball and not score in spurts. If he is not shooting well, Robo Kreps will have to overcompensate as a significant offensive threat. Next, Vandermeer must continue his consistent play inside- blocking shots and corralling rebounds. Tori Boyd is an X factor who could be a scoring spark inside as well. Finally, Spencer Stewart must play under control if this team wants to make a late season run.
The second team that I feel has a solid shot at surprising everyone is Wisconsin Green Bay. While it would not be much of a shock if this team received an automatic berth to the Big Dance, (they have defeated Butler already and finished second in the conference) they have consistently underachieved over the years. This is what makes them a sleeper pick despite their record. The keys to their success rest in the hands of Ryan Tilemma and Troy Cotton. If they can provide a steady perimeter offense, Green Bay will be competitive. Undersized forward Terry Evans is going to have to lock down some of the tougher offensive threats that the Phoenix face. Finally, after a decrease in production and playing time from a season ago, Mike Schachtner will have to be a solid presence inside for Green Bay to win the tournament. Because Green Bay is on average being outrebounded by its opponents, his ability to control the glass will determine how far the Phoenix go.
Worth mentioning is Wright St. because they play at a very methodical pace and can beat you inside. Vital to their success is star Todd Brown- one of the best rebounding guards in the conference.
Clear Cut Favorite: Radford
This year's Radford team has the best conference record and has played the best as of late. This high scoring team has many weapons, but is led by 6'11 center Artsiom Parakhouski- a huge presence inside. His ability to dominate the glass is going to be critical against such teams as contender VMI. Their squad likes to play a transition game and is going to attempt to tire this Radford team with their pace. Therein, Artsiom's ability to control the offensive glass will be critical in determining the tempo this game is played at. (that is, assuming both teams make it to the final) He should receive some help from fellow frontcourt mate Joey Lynch-Flohr, who is a consistent weapon inside. Thus, their ability to feed the post is probably the most important factor in their gameplan. Moreover, second leading scorer Kenny Thomas must make some perimeter shots. Finally, Radford must minimize their turnovers all around and play under control.
My Selection: VMI
VMI is one of the most interesting teams in the country. What started out as an experimental system has now become one of the most difficult strategies to play against. After the graduation of leading scorer Reggie Williams, this team has a much more balanced attack. Travis runs the point and is a capable passer as well as a solid rebounding guard. His brother Chavis can fill it up from the outside. While the other cogs in their offensive system can score effectively, they are missing a significant rebounding big man. This is going to hurt them against the likes of Radford and other such teams. They will probably be able to wear them down through a constant transition offense attack. That means that the defense of Willie Bell will determine how far VMI can go in this tournament. Their style is difficult to face for the first time and should disrupt an NCAA tournament team first round, if they can get that far.
Sleeper Picks: Liberty and Winthrop
If Radford faces some difficulty getting to the title game, it is possible that Liberty might secure a bid. After winning several key games in its nonconference schedule, including a four point win on the road at Virginia and a thrilling three point victory over George Mason, Liberty has the potential to make a run at the Big South title. Seth Curry is a dynamic scorer who can fill it up and put his team on his back. If he catches fire, we could see something similar to his brother's breakout performance in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, fellow guard Anthony Smith is a solid weapon who can rebound the ball as well. However, if they face Radford at any point, I do not believe that they will be able to counter their interior presence.
The second team that should never be counted out of a Big South tournament run is the 8th seed Winthrop. After a shaky start at the beginning of their conference season, Winthrop has stepped up their game at the right time of year, winning their last five conference games. They have a tough battle ahead of them at UNC Asheville, but they should be ready after defeating them a season ago. (with game-changer Kenny George) Winthrop has a very balanced attack with forwards Charles Corbin and Cameron Stanley leading the way. Their stifling team defense should give them a chance against anyone in the conference. Look for guard/forward Mantoris Robinson to have a breakout performance.
Clear Cut Favorite: UT- Martin
While it cannot be said that there is one clear cut favorite in this conference, the team with best player and the best record deserves this honor. Lester Hudson, a legitamite NBA prospect, has led his team in virtually every category this year, dishing out assists and grabbing rebounds. Hudson is a born winner and will try to lead his team to the promise land. Complimentary guard Marquis Weddle is going to have to score and make some plays for his team. If Hudson can defer the distribution duties to Marquis, UT-Martin should have a fighting chance defending their regular season title. Senior forward Olajide Hay is going to be the key focal point in their frontcourt defense.
My Selection: Austin Peay
Never count this team out of any Ohio Valley tournament. Year in and year out, they have made it to the title game and most of the time, they receive a berth to the Big Dance. The Governors are led by the underrated duo of Drake Reed and Wes Channels. Their defensive pressure against Hudson and some of the other top guards in the Ohio Valley is going to determine their fate. If they can force turnovers and convert on offensive sets off of empty possessions by the opposition, they should come out on top. Their inside-outside combination should provide instant offense. Caleb Brown's decision making should be the X factor for this high scoring offense. Not only do they have the personnel to win this tournament, but the Governors are also streaking at the right time, winning five of their last seven.
Sleeper Picks: Tennessee St. and Murray St.
Far and away, the hottest team in the conference right now is Tennessee St. They have won their last six games, including a victory on the road against Austin Peay. They play my other sleeper pick in round one and the outcome of this matchup should have fairly large implications for other contending teams. Diminutive guard Gerald Robinson Jr. is going to play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of their season. His scoring numbers, as of late, have been fairly consistent. The only issue of concern for this team has been their turnovers, which need to be minimized if they stand a chance at an NCAA tournament berth. Parker Smith is going to have to produce from the outside and Jerrell Houston must dominate the boards for this team to win. The strategy for the Tigers will be to outscore their opponents and minimize their errors on offense. If Robinson Jr. can get into a rhythm, and his supporting cast can get open, this team could role to the title game.
Murray St. has had a tremendous season thus far with a fairly balanced offensive attack. The Racers are a solid defensive team that can disrupt the offensive sync of their opponents. Moreover, streaking guard Isacc Miles should provide the brunt of the scoring load. If he and Kevin Thomas can distribute the ball and Miles can find his offense, the Racers should find success on both ends of the floor. Inconsistent freshman Ivan Aska could be the X factor for this team in their hopes of another NCAA tournament appearance. (since their heart breaking loss to UNC four years ago) He and the other two members of the Racers' frontcourt trio- Tony Easley and Jeffrey McClain- should be able to control the glass. The real question is whether or not their offense will show up.