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Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Champ Week: Setting up Week 1

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Championship Week is set to get under way. Here's what to look for in the 14 conference tournaments that begin this week, in order of their start dates.

Big South

When: Tuesday (first round); Thursday (quarterfinals); Saturday (semifinals); Sunday (championship)
Where: HTC Center in Conway, S.C. (Coastal Carolina)

The favorite: Only three teams in the Big South are ranked in the top 200 of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. That spotty defense has defined the unpredictability in the Big South this season, especially in the final weeks. Charleston Southern averages 74.6 PPG, 32nd in the country. The Buccaneers, who won the conference's South Division title, possess the offensive potency to win the conference tourney. Plus, Arlon Harper (14.7 PPG) and Saah Nimley (16.0 PPG) comprise one of the league's most effective duos.

The top challengers: High Point's 6-foot-9 forward Allan Chaney (14.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 81.7 percent FT), who transferred from Virginia Tech after he was sidelined with a heart condition, has led the Panthers to the North Division crown and eight wins in their past 10 games. Gardner-Webb is on a ridiculous run right now, too. The Runnin' Bulldogs -- led by Tashan Newsome (14.0 PPG) -- have won seven in a row and 10 of 11.

My pick: When I talked to Chaney last summer, he told me that his main goal was to end his career with an NCAA tourney berth. I don't see Chaney and High Point leaving the HTC Center without that bid. The Panthers will win this one.

Horizon League

When: Tuesday (first round); Friday (second round); Saturday (semifinals); Tuesday, March 12 (championship)
Where: First round at higher seed; second round/semifinals at Valparaiso; championship at highest remaining seed

The favorite: Valparaiso secured the Horizon League crown with a strong finish. The Crusaders won seven of their last eight conference games. Ryan Broekhoff (15.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) is not just one of the best players in the league, he's also one of the country's more versatile forwards. And his team is ranked seventh in effective field goal percentage per Ken Pomeroy.

The top challengers: Settle down, Detroit fans. Yes, you're right there, too. The Titans split their series with the Crusaders this season; both games were thrillers. And when it wants to be, Ray McCallum Sr.'s crew is a fascinating highlight reel. But Detroit has mixed that potential with some ugly stretches of bad basketball, too. Still, Ray McCallum Jr. (19.2 PPG) is the player I'd want to lead my program if I were entering this tournament. Wright State is ranked 45th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and the Green Bay Phoenix have been one of the toughest teams in the conference in recent weeks. Plus, it's always helpful to enter any postseason event with a 7-1 center -- Alec Brown is averaging 13.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 1.8 BPG.

My pick: I believe in McCallum Jr. in a single-elimination tournament and am going with the guy I trust to make the clutch plays Detroit will need to advance and win the championship. The Titans are a really fearless unit when they're rolling.

Atlantic Sun

When: Wednesday-Thursday (quarterfinals); Friday (semifinals); Saturday (championship)
Where: Hawkins Arena in Macon, Ga. (Mercer)

The favorite: Mercer, the league's champion, has the most efficient defense in the conference (93rd in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). In December, the Bears beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. They've won nine of their past 10 games. Travis Smith (13.4 PPG) is one of five Bears averaging at least 7.2 PPG.

The top challengers: Sherwood Brown (15.2 PPG) has helped Florida Gulf Coast earn 21 wins this season. The Eagles split their two games against Mercer and defeated Miami in early November when the Hurricanes didn't have star Durand Scott. Stetson is ranked 29th in effective field goal percentage per Ken Pomeroy.

My pick: Mercer plays at home. That's a major advantage in this tight league, and it's enough to help the Bears earn the crown.

Northeast

When: Wednesday (quarterfinals); Saturday (semifinals); Tuesday, March 12 (championship)
Where: Quarterfinals at higher seed; lowest seed at highest seed and third-highest seed and second-highest seed in semifinals; championship at higher seed

The favorite: Robert Morris earned the conference crown after winning its last five games in the regular season. The Colonials possess the NEC's best scoring defense (65.2 PPG allowed in conference play). They shot 40.7 percent from the 3-point line in conference play, too. But standout Karvel Anderson (12.7 PPG) has endured wrist pain in recent weeks.

The top challengers: Bryant is ranked 64th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. LIU-Brooklyn's Jamal Olasewere (19.2 PPG, 8.4 RPG) could lead the Blackbirds to another NCAA tournament bid. Wagner held conference opponents to a 42.3 percent clip, No. 1 in the NEC.

My pick: I think Olasewere and the Blackbirds will rise above the field and win this conference tourney. Last year's experience should help this team.

Ohio Valley

When: Wednesday (first round); Thursday (semifinals), Friday (semifinals), Saturday (championship)
Where: Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

The favorite: Belmont is ranked 40th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings for a reason. If the Bruins compete at 90 percent of their potential, they'll win this tournament. Ian Clark (18.1 PPG) is arguably the best player in the conference after Isaiah Canaan. Belmont averages 77.2 PPG (16th nationally). Five players average at least 9.9 PPG. The Bruins stumbled in early February, but they've won their past four games.

The top challengers: With Canaan, anything seems possible for Murray State. But the Racers have been so inconsistent and ended the regular season on a low note, losing four of their last six games. Huh? Eastern Kentucky is ranked 52nd in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. And Tennessee State is led by one of the league's most complete players. Robert Covington averages 16.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.4 BPG and 2.1 SPG.

My pick: I should pick Belmont. The Bruins are the obvious favorites. Even Murray State makes sense despite its recent challenges. But the Tennessee State Tigers should get ready to dance. They're going to shock the field and win this tourney. I like Covington as a difference-maker in this event, and the Tigers are neutralizing squads with their ability to defend the 3-point line. (OVC opponents shot just 33.3 percent against the Tigers from beyond the arc in the regular season.)

Patriot League

When: Wednesday (quarterfinals); Saturday (semifinals); Wednesday, March 13 (championship)
Where: Quarterfinals at higher seed; semifinals at higher seed; championship at higher seed

The favorite: Mike Muscala is the first player to win both conference player of the year honors and defensive player of the year honors in the Patriot League. Muscala (19.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.5 BPG) has played like an All-American all season, leading Bucknell to the Patriot League's regular-season crown. The Bison earned that crown with strong D (43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency) and Muscala's drive.

The top challengers: Lehigh defeated the Bison after it lost star C.J. McCollum to a broken foot in January. But a three-game losing streak ruined the Mountain Hawks' chances of securing a share of the Patriot League title. McCollum is progressing, but it seems unlikely that he would compete in the conference tournament. Lafayette has also defeated Bucknell this season, and the Leopards have won five in a row. Seth Hinrichs (14.5 PPG, 45.1 percent from the 3-point line) is one of the conference's stars.

My pick: Muscala is a game-changer in any game. He can elevate Bucknell in unique ways and leads the Bison on both ends of the floor. They've won regular-season titles but lost in the conference tourney in recent years. Not this year. Bucknell will win this one.

West Coast

When: Wednesday (first round); Thursday (second round); Friday (quarterfinals); Saturday (semifinals); Monday (championship)
Where: The Orleans Arena in Las Vegas

The favorite: Well, Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in America. The Zags are shooting 50.5 percent from the field. They went 16-0 in WCC play. Kelly Olynyk (17.7 PPG) is a national player of the year candidate. Gonzaga is one of the deepest teams in the country. There's really nothing to knock or question about the team when it comes to its ability to dominate this conference tournament.

The top challengers: Saint Mary's (eighth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) is Gonzaga's top competition. Matthew Dellavedova (16.5 PPG, 6.2 APG) is one of the top guards in the country. BYU has 21 wins, and the Cougars are led by one of the top players in America. (Tyler Haws is averaging 20.9 PPG.)

My pick: This is Gonzaga's tournament. The Zags lost the regular-season and conference tournament titles for the first time in more than a decade last season. They'll secure both this season. They won't be challenged in Las Vegas.

Missouri Valley

When: Thursday (opening round); Friday (quarterfinals); Saturday (semifinals); Sunday (championship)
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis

The favorite: Creighton secured the Missouri Valley's regular-season title with a weekend victory over Wichita State. Doug McDermott has scored 99 points in his past three games combined. He dropped 41 in Saturday's 91-79 victory over the Shockers. Creighton has not been flawless, though. The Bluejays lost three in a row in early February. But McDermott is the top player for a squad that's the favorite entering the MVC tournament.

The top challengers: The Shockers are ranked 38th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and they defeated Creighton once in the regular season. But the Shockers' offensive inconsistency (they've failed to score more than 56 points three times since Jan. 29) is a problem. The rest of the contenders? Take your pick. Northern Iowa has wins over Creighton and Wichita State. Illinois State has been very high and very low. But the Redbirds have the athleticism and star power (Jackie Carmichael, 17.4 PPG, is a stud) to compete with anyone in the field. Colt Ryan (20.0 PPG) and an Evansville squad that's won four in a row? Sure.

My pick: I've watched a lot of MVC basketball this season. Surprises were the norm throughout the regular season. So Creighton should win it. Wichita State could win it. In a season like this, however, someone else will. I'll go with Illinois State. Carmichael & Co. will turn it on this week.

Southern

When: Friday (first round); Saturday (quarterfinals); Sunday (semifinals); Monday (championship)
Where: U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C.

The favorite: Davidson is ranked 43rd in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Jake Cohen (14.9 PPG) and De'Mon Brooks (13.4 PPG) comprise the best duo in the conference. Davidson was unmatched in the SoCon's South Division, and the Wildcats haven't lost since Jan. 14 (70-57 at Georgia Southern).

The top challengers: Lucas Troutman (15.1 PPG) leads Davidson's toughest foe, Elon. The Phoenix earned the North Division title, and they lost to Davidson by only six points on Feb. 27.

My pick: The Wildcats will win this conference tournament. Easily. They're a step above the rest of the conference.

Sun Belt

When: Friday (first round); Saturday (quarterfinals); Sunday (semifinals); Monday (championship)
Where: Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark.

The favorite: Middle Tennessee, the Sun Belt's regular-season champion, has won 17 consecutive games. Marcos Knight (12.6 PPG) is a veteran leader for Kermit Davis' balanced roster. The Blue Raiders are ranked 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They've won four games by 30 or more points since Jan. 17.

The top challengers: Arkansas State dealt the Blue Raiders their only conference loss of the year. South Alabama's Augustine Rubit (18.9 PPG, 10.8 RPG) is an offensive star who could lead the Jaguars on a surprising run in the conference tournament.

My pick: The Blue Raiders have spent the past two months making a statement by dominating the Sun Belt. Perhaps more folks will take notice when they win this tourney and ultimately compete in the Big Dance.

America East

When: Saturday (quarterfinals); Sunday (semifinals); Saturday, March 16 (championship)
Where: Quarterfinals and semifinals at University of Albany, SEFCU Arena; title game at highest remaining seed

The favorite: Stony Brook earned the America East regular-season title. The Seawolves are ranked 32nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, and Jameel Warney (12.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG) leads three Seawolves averaging double figures. The 6-8, 255-pound forward has been a matchup problem all season.

The top challengers: Vermont (55.9 PPG allowed in conference play, second in the conference) and Hartford (plus-2.19 turnover margin, No. 1 in America East) are certainly contenders. Boston University's D.J. Irving (14.3 PPG) is one of the top players in the league. But the Terriers are ineligible because they're leaving the AE.

My pick: The Seawolves. That's all. They're the best team in this field, and they're also the conference's most versatile team.

CAA

When: Saturday (quarterfinals); Sunday (semifinals); Monday (championship)
Where: Richmond Coliseum in Richmond, Va.

The favorite: Last season, the CAA was recognized as one of the top mid-major conferences in America. That's not the case this season. The league struggled throughout its collective nonconference slate, so this is a one-bid league. Northeastern should be the favorite. Barely. The league champion finished a game ahead of Towson and Delaware and led the CAA with a 41 percent clip from the 3-point line. Joel Smith is one of four Huskies players (with at least 80 attempts) shooting 35.8 percent from beyond the arc.

The top challengers: Towson earned one win last season. Then Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon (17.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG) arrived, and the Tigers earned 13 conference wins season. But the Tigers are banned from the postseason, which is too bad because that would've been a heck of a storyline. Delaware, led by Devon Saddler (20.2 PPG), has won 10 of its past 12 games. James Madison allowed just 60.8 PPG in league play, No. 1 in the CAA.

My pick: The Fightin' Blue Hens will take a lot of momentum into this tournament. Saddler is flowing. They held CAA squads to a 40.3 percent clip from the field, No. 1 in the conference, in the regular season. I think they'll win the CAA tourney.

MAAC

When: Friday (first round); Saturday (quarterfinals); Sunday (semifinals); Monday (championship)
Where: MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.

The favorite: Niagara overcame a rocky three-game losing stretch in February to secure the MAAC regular-season championship. Antoine Mason (18.3 PPG), son of former NBA standout Anthony Mason, and Juan'ya Green (17.0 PPG) fueled the Purple Eagles' late rally. They've won four of their past five games.

The top challengers: Dylon Cormier scored 15 points when Loyola (Md.) defeated Niagara in double overtime in early February. The Greyhounds could give Niagara trouble in the MAAC tournament. Rider has held its conference opponents to a 31.5 percent clip from beyond the arc, No. 1 in the league. Lamont Jones (23.2 PPG) and his Iona teammates can score in bunches (22nd in adjusted offensive efficiency).

My pick: Niagara averages just 10.8 turnovers per game. It has a potent backcourt, too. The Purple Eagles will win the conference tournament.

Summit

When: Saturday and Sunday (quarterfinals); Monday (semifinals); Tuesday, March 12 (championship)
Where: Sioux Falls Arena in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The favorite: The Summit League's best tussled for the crown down the stretch. But South Dakota State earned the title. The Jackrabbits finished 13-3 in conference play. Western Illinois (13-3) lost two matchups to SDSU and finished second. Nate Wolters (22.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.7 APG) guides a Jackrabbits offense that's ranked 45th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.

The top challengers: North Dakota State is ranked 33rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, and top scorer Taylor Braun (14.8 PPG) has returned from his foot injury. Travis Bader (22.0 PPG) and Oakland could shock the field. Western Illinois looked like the best team in the conference for a chunk of the season.

My pick: Wolters is a star, but Braun's return has elevated the Bison. Saul Phillips' program will win the league tourney.