We’ve finally made it to that magical time of year: March Madness.
As we all know, the fun doesn’t start with the NCAA Tournament. It starts with all of the conference tournaments, some of which are played mostly for fun while others determine the automatic bids for smaller conferences.
A year ago, we were deprived of many of the conference tournaments, some of which ended early or never got the chance to start. Meanwhile, some of the winners never got their chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. That makes this year’s slate of conference tournaments more meaningful and will make fans all the more eager to watch. In a perfect world, you would be able to watch every game of every tournament. But in case that’s not an option, here are the 10 college basketball conference tournaments you don’t want to miss in 2021.
The Atlantic Sun is usually one of the first conference tournaments to be played and helps set the stage for the rest of Championship Week. This year shouldn’t be any different.
The conference has been dominated this season by a couple of upstart programs in Liberty and Bellarmine. Liberty has won both the A-Sun regular-season and conference tournament titles in back-to-back years. The Flames even won a game in the NCAA Tournament in 2019. But Bellarmine, which is located in the basketball-loving city of Louisville, has had a great first season at the Division I level. The caveat is that the Knights can’t qualify for the Big Dance, but that will take any pressure off them, enabling them to play free and easy.
Meanwhile, Lipscomb is an interesting wild card in the A-Sun Tournament while the famous Florida Gulf Coast Eagles will also be interesting to watch in the conference tournament.
The depth inside the CAA gets overlooked every year.
While James Madison and Northeastern have stood out from the pack during the regular season, there are at least five or six teams that have a legitimate chance to steal the league’s bid to the Big Dance. Hofstra, Charleston, and Drexel are teams from the middle of the pack to watch closely.
If nothing else, the presumptive final between James Madison and Northeastern figures to be one of the best conference title games we see this March because both teams are good enough to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament if they make it.
If you haven’t been watching West Coast hoops this season, the Mountain West Conference Tournament could end up being more interesting than the Pac-12.
Boise State, San Diego State, and Colorado State are all on the bubble and will need strong performances in the conference tournament to feel safe on Selection Sunday. But this is far from a three-horse race. Utah State and Nevada are both for real and have enough talent to become bid-stealers.
By the time this conference tournament reaches the semifinals, get ready for some high-level games with big stakes.
Admittedly, the Big East isn’t as deep this season as we’re accustomed to seeing, as the league is projected to put just three or four teams in the NCAA Tournament. That being said, many of the rivalries in this conference run deep, so the intensity is always high. Plus, the tournament is played at Madison Square Garden, which is a special venue regardless of how many fans are in attendance.
While Villanova and Creighton will be heavy favorites to reach the finals, outside of last-place DePaul, any team in the Big East can beat anybody else. Even teams at the bottom like Marquette, Butler, and Georgetown have scored quality wins this season, which means the Big East Tournament is poised to be wild and unpredictable.
Regardless of its official name, the Atlantic-10 Conference has 14 teams, and nearly a dozen of them are more than capable of winning a game or two in the conference tournament.
Both St. Bonaventure and VCU are in the running for an at-large bid, but neither will want to leave their fate in the hands of the committee. The problem is that both will have to avoid upsets from talented and motivated teams on their way to the tournament final.
UMass is incredibly talented despite being held up by many canceled games. Richmond took down two SEC teams earlier this season. Davidson is always well-schooled and nearly pulled off an upset of Texas. The likes of Dayton, George Mason, and St. Louis aren’t pushovers either, which means there are a ton of teams in the A-10 Tournament that could make a surprise run and steal a bid.
As usual, the Missouri Valley is one of the mid-major conferences worth watching this time of year. A few years after their magical run to the Final Four, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are back in the top-25. Meanwhile, the Drake Bulldogs began the season 18-0 and have still lost just two games this season. Both those teams have a chance to get an at-large bid, but they are also on a collision course for an epic tournament final. But they aren’t the only teams in the Missouri Valley worth watching in the conference tournament.
Both Missouri State and Indiana State have quietly put strong campaigns and should be considered threats to make a run in the conference tournament. Finally, don’t forget about Northern Iowa, as the Panthers were preseason favorites and still have a chance to redeem themselves following a disappointing regular season.
With Kentucky in the midst of a down season, the SEC Tournament will be more interesting than usual.
Alabama will enter as the favorite, but the Crimson Tide is far from invincible. Florida has overcome some hardships and had a strong second half of the season. Arkansas is coming on strong at the right time of year. LSU is one of the most entertaining teams in the country. Also, Tennessee and Missouri will both be a tough out. That’s six teams that are close to level footing heading into the postseason.
Plus, you can’t forget about John Calipari’s Wildcats. Winning the SEC Tournament is Kentucky’s only path to the Big Dance, and following a three-game winning streak that included a 15-point win over Tennessee, the Wildcats will be the wild card of the SEC Tournament.
Unfortunately, the ACC isn’t quite as deep as past years, nor does it have an abundance of national title contenders. But it’s still one of the most competitive conferences in the country, which means the conference tournament is going to be among the most compelling.
Even if you take away a few teams at the bottom, there are still a dozen teams that believe they can beat any team in the league. Keep in mind 10th-place NC State just beat second-place Virginia, so it’s safe to say that anything can happen. Plus, there are several ACC teams, including traditional powers like Duke, North Carolina, and Syracuse, that are squarely on the bubble and will be under pressure to win at least two or three games, which should contribute to an exciting and unpredictable ACC Tournament.
With all due respect to these teams, we’re hoping that Kansas State and Iowa State lose in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. If that happens, we’ll be left with an incredible eight-team tournament that will be almost impossible to predict.
Granted, Baylor remains unbeaten and will be favorites to win the conference tournament. But will the Bears be motivated knowing that the NCAA Tournament is what really matters? Even if Baylor brings its A-game, there are five other top-20 teams who could challenge the Bears and win the tournament. That doesn’t even include Oklahoma State and potential No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, who could make the Cowboys a fascinating wild card in the Big 12 Tournament.
In short, starting with the quarterfinals, every game will be a big-time game between two quality teams.
The Big Ten has been the best conference in the country all season, so there’s no way you can miss seeing what happens at the conference tourney in Indianapolis.
At the moment, there are four Big Ten teams in the top 10 and up to 10 teams that could receive an invitation to the Big Dance, including a few teams that will need a good showing in the conference tournament. Outside of Nebraska, every team in this conference can be competitive with any other team, meaning every game has a chance to come down to the wire.
If nothing else, watching the Big Ten Tournament will give you a good idea of what teams will be able to handle the pressure of the NCAA Tournament, making it a little easier to fill out your brackets on Selection Sunday.
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