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#pounditFriday, March 31, 2023

10 biggest storylines for the mid-major conference tournaments

Marcus Keene

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament gets all the attention as the height of excitement in college basketball. Though that happens on a bigger stage, the next two weeks can put up an argument as the peak of intensity, pressure, and excitement.

Conference tournaments are underway and every single team in action has a simple directive: win a few games a row and earn a bid to the big Dance or lose and your season is over. Every Cinderella story blossoms in the NCAA Tournament, but the seeds are planted this week. Even if every tournament has excitement built in, these ten storylines stand out as extra entertaining.

1. The Ivy League joins the fun

For the first time ever, the Ivy League will hold a postseason tournament to determine its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Even better, the top four teams in the Ivy will head to one of college basketball’s most iconic venues to duke it out, the Palestra in Philadelphia.

Princeton will be the favorite, but Harvard will give them a tough test. If Penn can steal the fourth and final spot in the tournament, it would boast home court advantage and a wild hot streak, after starting 0-6 in conference. The Quakers could play host and spoiler simultaneously.

2. Can Gonzaga bounce back?

Depending on the Bracketologist, Gonzaga losing its perfect season on Senior Night against BYU may not have cost the Bulldogs a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Losing again almost certainly would do so.

Dropping the conference tournament championship to St. Mary’s (or even BYU) wouldn’t be a terrible loss, but the committee would likely favor the Pac-12 champ to a two-loss Zags team for the West Region top seed.

The Zags went from cruise control to needing a title in the WCC Tourney in Vegas in order to earn a No. 1 seed.

3. Marcus Keene’s green light

The nation’s leading scorer isn’t going to miss the NCAA Tournament without putting up a fight.

Central Michigan guard Marcus Keane will do everything he can to shoot his way through the MAC Tournament. He’s small, inefficient, and his shot selection is questionable at times, but no player can get hot quicker than Keene.

While watching other games this week, keep half an eye on the Chippewas’ box scores. If Keene starts to hit shots, and you’ll know when he’s hitting shots, find a way to watch because he will drop your jaw.

Keene is averaging 29.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game for Central Michigan.

4. Middle Tennessee is no Cinderella now

After beating Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the first round of last March’s NCAA Tournament, Middle Tennessee added JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas. The 6-foot-8 senior has fit in perfectly with the pieces remaining from last year’s squad and the Blue Raiders are poised for another shot at the big time.

Last season, MTSU was a mere 15 seed, but this year they’ll be in the conversation for an at-large bid if they fail to win the Conference USA Tournament. They’d likely find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble, so the Raiders are best off taking care of business this week and getting another shot at a top dog in the tourney.

MTSU had the best record in conference during the regular season, but Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Rice and UTEP also did well and will pose threats in the conference tourney.

5. William and Mary shoots for its first ever bid

While Northwestern is desperate to end its streak without a tournament berth, they aren’t alone. The Wildcats are one of five original Division I teams to have never reached the Promised Land. Three of the other four face an uphill battle (or worse). Army is already eliminated. The Citadel was only 4-14 in conference, and St. Francis (NY) is 4-27 this year and working on a 14 game losing streak. Both would need a minor miracle.

The same is not true of William and Mary.

The Tribe enter the Colonial Athletic Conference Tournament as the fourth seed, but did get wins over the top two teams in the league this season, including an 18-point beatdown of top seeded (and heavy favorite) UNC-Wilmington. Charleston and Towson are the other top teams in the conference entering the tourney.

See Nos. 6-10 on Page 2

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