The Patriot League got March Madness officially underway on Monday, the first conference to have their first-round tournament games begin. On Tuesday, two more conferences join the party: the Atlantic Sun and Horizon League.
These aren’t the big boys, of course. As far as these schools are concerned, the NCAA tournament begins now. There is no tomorrow. Only one team goes dancing. Maybe one, but likely none, could be rewarded an NIT consolation prize. Survive and advance. These schools begin that journey more than a week before Duke and Kansas and Florida. Almost assuredly, their trek won’t last as long.
In the Patriot League, Bucknell is the defending champion after beating Lafayette in last season’s title game. Unfortunately, they were seeded against Butler in the NCAA tourney and quickly ousted. They also won the league title in 2011 and were matched against Connecticut, who just happened to go on and win the national championship that year. Despite those two brutal matchups, the Bison have managed two NCAA tournament victories in recent 10 years, having upset Kansas in 2005 and Arkansas in 2006.
Lehigh and their eventual first-round pick C.J. McCollum were league champs in 2010 and 2012, also losing in the first round of the NCAA tourney both times. The favorite this year is new league member, Boston University. The Terriers won the regular season crown after making the move from the America East Conference. American University is the No. 2 seed, while Bucknell will be seeded fourth in their search for a third title in five years and fifth since 2005.
The Atlantic Sun was the talk of the tourney last year, courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast, who alley-ooped their way into America’s hearts, as well as the Sweet 16, after upsetting both Georgetown and San Diego State. They go into this year’s conference tourney seeded second, which I’m sure they don’t mind one bit. The pressure is all on regular season champion Mercer, who was in the discussion for a possible at-large bid before losing two of their last four games and watching their RPI fall to 91st heading into the postseason. That dream is dead now, but they’re still the class of the league, even though they split their two games with FGCU.
The Horizon League may actually have an outside chance at two bids. The Phoenix of Green Bay were the regular season champs and come into the tournament with an RPI of 51, which has been good enough to get more than one team into the Big Dance in the past. This team beat Virginia this season. All Virginia’s done is clinch the outright ACC championship. Green Bay also swept the league’s No. 2 team, Cleveland State, so they’re no joke. If they don’t win this trophy, they could still get into the tourney, and I personally believe they should.
It wouldn’t be without precedent, either. On nine occasions, the Horizon League’s received more than one bid to the NCAA tournament, most recently in 2009 when both Butler and Cleveland State made it, with current Miami Heat point guard Norris Cole leading CSU to a first-round win over Wake Forest. Then there was Butler, who almost single-handedly put the Horizon on the map in recent years, making it to the national championship game in back-to-back years (2010 and 2011) before leaving for the Atlantic 10, and now the Big East.
Wednesday will see three most conference tournaments get started. High Point goes into the Big South tourney as the No. 1 seed, Robert Morris is the top dog in the Northeast Conference, while Belmont once again will be the team everyone’s chasing in the Ohio Valley.