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Week Ahead: NCAA Conference Tournaments (Part 1: The Mid-Majors)

Week Ahead: NCAA Conference Tournaments (Part 1: The Mid-Majors)
Mar 06, 2009, 07:45 pm
The Week Ahead: NCAA Conference Tournaments (Part 1: The Mid-Majors)

Kyle Nelson

It’s March and the madness is just starting to set in as the bubble is getting smaller and the automatic bids are getting more and more important. Thus, it’s the perfect time to kick off the conference tournament preview, starting with the mid-major conferences. Scouts will be watching, as many mid-major prospects might not be playing again this season, especially if their teams can’t claim an automatic bid.

Mid Majors:

Atlantic 10 Conference
March 11th-14th
Championship on Saturday, March 14th: 6 p.m. on ESPN2

Xavier sits atop of the Atlantic 10 Conference this year and are co-favorites to win the tournament. They were last year, too, but surprise runs from Temple and St. Joseph’s dethroned the Musketeers. Expect nothing less this season, as Rhode Island and Dayton will be fighting to keep their NCAA tournament at-large hopes alive. And, don’t forget Temple, Duquesne, and St. Joseph’s, teams who should never be counted out.

Prospect to Watch:

Temple’s 6’5 senior swingman Dionte Christmas has been streakier than usual this season, but he has added more dimensions to his game in addition to his ability to knock down three point shots. This is likely his last chance to show scouts that he can score efficiently while finding ways to impact the game in a positive manner if his shot isn’t falling.

Big South Conference
Championship on Saturday, March 7th: 4 p.m. on ESPN2

Radford and VMI meet tomorrow to decide who claims the Big South’s automatic bid. The real question is whether or not VMI’s run and gun, up-tempo offense can translate into an NCAA bid.

Prospect to Watch:

VMI 6’4 swingman Chavis Holmes certainly has the numbers of an NBA prospect: 22.1 ppg on 51% FG, 45% 3PT, and 83% FT, 4.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, and 3.4 spg. VMI’s system is notorious for fostering empty numbers, however, and as Holmes is not even a lock to participate in Portsmouth, he should look to prove that he is an exception, just like Reggie Williams before him.

Colonial Athletic Association
Championship on Monday, March 9th: 7 p.m. on ESPN

After a dramatic loss last season, this is Eric Maynor’s last chance to return to the NCAA tournament, where he made magic happen as a sophomore with the shot heard ‘round the world. This year, however, getting back won’t be easy as Virginia Commonwealth still has get through Old Dominion, George Mason, and Northeastern before they can get back to the tournament. This is certainly a tournament to watch, especially if Virginia Commonwealth can make a run to the finals.

Prospect to Watch:

Virginia Commonwealth’s senior point guard Eric Maynor has emerged as one of the nation’s top prospects and is currently projected as a first round pick in this June's NBA Draft. He will be looking to carry the Rams to one last tournament appearance and, should he succeed, he will have more opportunities to showcase his game against the best in college basketball.

Conference USA
March 11th-14th
Championship on Saturday, March 14th: 11:30 a.m. on CBS

This tournament is Memphis’s to lose, as is often the case, and based on Conference USA’s weak profile; there is likely just one bid to be won here. Tulsa and UTEP are the only teams in the conference that have given Memphis a scare this season, but considering how talented UAB and Houston can be on any given night, this tournament could get interesting if Memphis slips up earlier than expected.

Prospect to Watch:

6’6 freshman Tyreke Evans has been playing point guard ever since Memphis dropped out of the Top 25 in December. His progress has been key to Memphis’s success this season, which reminds some of last year’s freshman point guard Derrick Rose. Evans isn’t nearly as good of a prospect as Rose, but this season hasn’t been lost in scouts’ eyes and a collection of big performance with the bright lights shining could pay dividends in June.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
March 5th-March 9th
Championship on Monday, March 9th: 9 p.m. on ESPN2

Siena made a surprise run in the NCAA tournament last season, but getting back won’t be easy, especially with Niagara and Rider breathing down their necks. Look for one of these teams to claim the automatic bid, but don’t be surprised in the least if a previously unknown rises to the challenge and steals the title.

Prospect to Watch:

Rider’s junior swingman Ryan Thompson entered the season with lofty expectations after his brother was picked in the lottery last summer and while, Rider has underachieved this season, Thompson has had another efficient campaign, shouldering a bigger load of the offense and proving to scouts that he is a legitimate prospect separate of his brother. Powering Rider to the NCAA tournament certainly wouldn’t hurt his stock, either.

Horizon League:
March 3rd-March 10th
Championship on Tuesday, March 10th: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

Butler has looked mortal this season, dropping conference games to Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Loyola (IL) as well as cutting it close against Cleveland State, a team that upended Syracuse earlier in the season. The odds still favor Butler to win the tournament, but it’s more open ended than usual. Butler is the only team with a shot at an at-large bid, however; so expect things to get interesting.

Prospect to Watch:

Butler’s 6’8 freshman combo-forward Gordon Hayward was unheralded before the season began, but has since tallied one of the most impressive freshman campaigns in the country, to the tune of: 13.8 ppg on 49% FG, 45% 3PT, and 83% FT, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.6 spg, and 1.0 bpg. He did not play well during Butler’s two-game in-conference losing streak in February and is essential to the Bulldogs maximizing their potential. He is definitely a player to watch and should he continue to improve, could emerge as the top mid-major prospect in the country.

Ohio Valley Conference:
March 3rd-March 7th
Championship on March 7th: 7 p.m. on ESPN2

Tennessee-Martin lost 16 games season, but has cut that total in half this time around and now sits atop of the Ohio Valley Conference. They are the favorites, but not by much. Murray State, Austin Peay, and Morehead State have all had their moments this season where they have looked capable of challenging the Skyhawks for the title. Coincidently, all happen to be in the semifinals.

Prospect to Watch:

Tennessee-Martin’s senior combo guard Lester Hudson made a splash in last year’s Pre-Draft Camp, but returned for his senior year and has almost single-handedly led the Skyhawks to their spectacular finish. This season, Hudson has proved capable of scoring in bunches and stuffing stats sheets, but has stumbled somewhat against the better teams that he has faced. Scouts would love to have another chance to evaluate him against a high major in the NCAA tournament before seeing him play in Portsmouth. With this in mind, leading Tennessee-Martin to the Ohio Valley Conference championship and claiming the automatic bid would do wonders for his stock.

Southern Conference
March 5th-March 9th
Championship on March 9th: 7 p.m. on ESPN

After a magical NCAA tournament run last season, Davidson came into this year with high expectations. Flash forward to March, where the Wildcats might have landed on the wrong side of the bubble with two conference losses and a 25-6 overall record. The only team to beat them at full strength is 23-7 Charleston, who looks to be the Wildcats’ main challenge in what has been an otherwise weak Southern Conference.

Prospect to Watch:

Davidson point guard Stephen Curry has been the most lethal scorer in college basketball and scouts will be waiting to see if he can continue to deliver in the clutch with less talent around him and higher expectations. He has struggled at times since coming back from an ankle injury and with his draft stock as high as it is, he must prove himself against the nation’s best players in the NCAA tournament.

West Coast Conference
March 6th-March 9th
Championship on Monday, March 9th: 6 p.m. on ESPN

Gonzaga looked to be the clear-cut favorites to win the West Coast Conference crown until it was revealed that Saint Mary’s point guard Patrick Mills would be returning to action for the West Coast Conference tournament. Now, it seems to be a two-team race, between the Bulldogs and Gaels, who both may even be on the right side of the bubble, anyway. The earlier rounds don’t promise a tremendous amount of intrigue, but keep your eyes on the finals.

Prospect to Watch:

Saint Mary’s point guard Patrick Mills was in the midst of a solid sophomore campaign when a broken hand threatened to derail his season. Now, it seems as though he’ll be back, and scouts will be watching to see if he continue to score at will using his combination of quickness and athleticism. He isn’t a point guard in the pass first mold, which, given his size, has made his potential at the next level somewhat of a question mark, but if he proves that he can score against anybody at this level and get his teammates involved in the process, the first round is certainly a possibility.

Mountain West Conference
March 11th-March 14th
Championship on Saturday, March 14th: 7 p.m. on Versus.

Five teams in the Mountain West Conference won 20 games or more this season and UNLV, currently in fifth place, is only trailing by two games top seeded Brigham Young. On top of that, Brigham Young, Utah, New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV are not exactly locks for at-large bids. This, of course, makes for a great conference tournaments, with teams fighting for their post-season lives and the shot at an NCAA bid. Brigham Young is the favorite out of this group, as they are arguably the most talented team and have performed consistently well inside and outside of conference play. It will be close, though, which makes the Mountain West Conference Tournament a can’t-miss event.

Prospect to Watch:

While Brigham Young sports three players worthy of attention, the top prospect in this tournament looks to be Brigham Young’s 6’7 senior swingman Lee Cummard. Cummard’s versatility and efficiency make him a solid prospect for the next level, even if his lack of bulk and athleticism are causes for concern. If he can prove to scouts that he can compete against bigger and more athletic competition, then getting drafted is certainly a possibility. Winning the Mountain West Tournament isn’t a bad place to start.

Western Athletic Conference
March 10th-March 14th
Championship on Saturday, March 14th: 7 p.m. on ESPN2

The Western Athletic Conference is not as deep as it’s been in years past, but that doesn’t mean that the tournament won’t be exciting. Utah State is the clear favorite and, despite their 26-4 record, are anything but locks for an at-large bid, so it looks as though every game is going to be a must-win battle for the Aggies. On any given night, Nevada, Boise State, and Idaho have proven to be tough match ups, as well. Utah State should win the automatic bid, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if another team rose to the challenge.

Prospect to Watch:

The freshmen are the future in the Western Athletic Conference and there are two players worth watching in this tournament. Nevada combo-forward Luke Babbitt gave UNC All-American Tyler Hansbrough fits when the two met on New Year’s Eve and has wrapped up a successful freshman campaign, posting numbers of 16.5 ppg while shooting 46% FG, 4% 3PT, and 84% FT and 7.5 rpg. Fresno State’s freshman combo-forward Paul George has had a superb season, also, showing the ability to play inside and outside, as well as possessing a nice shooting stroke from the perimeter. Both of these players have the ability to change games and, at the very least, will be big factors next season.

Stay tuned for Part 2: High Majors, which will be coming tomorrow, here on Draft Express.

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