March Madness in February? Yep that's right. On Tuesday February 28th, the Big South Conference Tournament begins. 8 of the 9 teams from the conference qualify for the tourney. VMI is the only team that is left out thanks to their last place conference finish. On Tuesday, the top 4 teams, Winthrop, Coastal Carolina, Birmingham Southern, and Radford all host quarterfinal games. The winners advance to the semifinals on Thursday in Rock Hill, and the title game is Saturday at high noon on ESPN2 at the home of the higher seeded team. Winthrop, Birmingham Southern, and Coastal Carolina are the favorites to grab the automatic bid to the NCAA tourney.
Winthrop University has always held a special place in my heart, as the campus is only about a half hour away from my hometown. It is also the first place where I had the pleasure of seeing Tim Duncan play in person when Wake Forest visited in January of 1995. What the Eagles have achieved under Gregg Marshall is amazing. In his 8 seasons at the school, Winthrop is 162-77. The Eagles have garnered 5 NCAA bids, including 4 in a row from 1999-2002 during his tenure. They finished in alone in first place with a 13-3 conferenc erecord this season. Before his arrival, the Eagles had zero NCAA appearances and were among the dregs of the Big South Conference. Surprisingly, he is almost never mentioned when up-and-coming coaches are discussed, but his credentials speak for themselves.
Birmingham Southern, in only their 5th season of Division I basketball finished in a tie for 2nd place at 12-4 with Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers are coached by former Tennessee head man, Buzz Peterson and are the hottest team in the Big South. They have not lost since January 21st, a streak of 10 in a row. During that win streak they have defeated Winthrop twice. If the Eagles do not make it 6 for 8 in Big South titles under Gregg Marshall, expect Coastal Carolina to be the tourney Chants.
The Ohio Valley Conference also begins it's tournament on Tuesday with the top 4 seeds all hosting games. The winners advance to the semifinals on Friday at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The championship game is at 3 PM on Saturday and is also broadcast on ESPN2. Murray St. won the regular seaosn title with a record of 17-3. Samford (and Son), a team that plays the 3rd slowest pace in Division I (thanks Ken Pomeroy) finished second at 14-6, and Tennessee Tech finished 3rd, one game behind Samford. Expect one of those 3 teams to gain the automatic bid. If Samford wins, their methodical glacier-like pace could give a #2 or #3 seed fits for a little while come mid-March.
Finally, also on Tuesday, the Horizon League begins its conference tourney. The top 3 seeds, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, last years NCAA cinderella, Butle, and Wisconsin-Green Bay all have byes into the second round. Milwaukee and Butler also have byes into the semifinals. I like this policy of conferences protecting their best teams in the conference tourney. 3 months worth of work is probably more indicative of a team's ability than a 3 game tournament. Milwaukee hosts the quarter and semifinals, and the title game (9 PM on Tuesday March 2nd on ESPN) is hosted by the highest remaining seed. Milwaukee and Butler definitely appear to be the class of this conference. Milwaukee finsihed league play with a 12-4 mark, and Butler was only one game off the pace. No other team finished above .500, as 5 teams finished exactly 8-8.