It’s a fair question and a fun one to ponder around this time each year. Which is better? The first week of conference tournaments? Or the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament?
A case can be made for either. Those who love college hoops can answer yes to both, enjoying each on its own accord. The best approach is to sit back and enjoy the basketball festival. Melt into a couch or chair and absorb the continuous stream of games as each tournament crowns a champion.
These early championships are fascinating because the goal is out there, on the court to be won or lost in a 40-minute game. Sometimes requiring an extra five, or 10. Blazing through the regular season and earning the top seed is great but most teams below the Power 6 Conference level must validate their performance by winning two or three games, often on a neutral court. Teams who achieve the goal, collect the net as a reward. Then it’s time to order the pizzas for Selection Sunday.
Here are four storylines to follow.
Can Towson snap a 31-year NCAA tournament drought?
Towson emerged from a deep, balanced Colonial Athletic Association in February, stomping UNC Wilmington by 24 on its home floor and rallying from a nine-point deficit in the second half to defeat Delaware in the season finale and earn the top seed in the tournament, which starts Saturday in Washington D.C.
Fully healthy for the first time this season, the Tigers have won seven in a row behind a potent balanced offense featuring point guards Jason Gibson and Terry Nolan on the perimeter feeding forwards Cam Holden and Charles Thompson in the paint. Towson led the CAA in offensive and defensive efficiency, something not done since George Mason pulled it off in 2011.
Still, nothing comes easily in March.
The co-champs UNC Wilmington have savvy point guard Jaylen Sims orchestrating the second-best offense and an opportunistic defense, forcing turnovers on 20 percent of the opponent’s possessions. Hofstra follows the lead of smooth point guard Aaron Estrada and his ability in the mid range while Drexel, Delaware and even quarterfinal foe Charleston are talented enough to make a deep run in D.C.
Does the Big South still run through Winthrop?
If the four first round games played Wednesday in Charlotte are any indication, expect a wild weekend in the Big South Tournament at the Bojangles Coliseum.
All four games were tied with six seconds remaining in regulation with three going to overtime and two decided at the buzzer. It’s no surprise to anyone who followed the conference this season. Single-digit margins were the norm in the 16-game regular season schedule but Longwood emerged as the champion, finishing at 15-1 and earning the league’s automatic bid to the NIT.
The Lancers covet a bigger prize of course and until another team proves otherwise the Big South runs through two-time defending champion Winthrop, which is 54-6 against its conference brethren the last three years and trying to extend its streak under first-year coach Mark Prosser.
Gardner Webb, the No. 3 seed, has the only coach who has cut down the Big South nets, Tim Craft, who has an excellent tournament record during his nine years on the sidelines. If it’s an ultimate Cinderella you crave, why not the 12 seed Charleston Southern, who stunned UNC Asheville at the buzzer in the quarterfinals for only its third win against a Division I team this season. The Bucs face surprising USC Upstate in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Can we get Murray State / Belmont round 3?
The first two matchups between perennial Ohio Valley Conference rivals Murray State and Belmont left no doubt who the chief of the league was this year. Murray won the two games by a combined 55 points and barring any shenanigans by the NCAA tournament selection committee has built a resume worthy of an at-large bid.
Still, it’s unlikely the Racers are satisfied with their unbeaten regular season. They are departing the OVC for the Missouri Valley Conference after this season and would love to add to their rich tradition by winning one last tournament title at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
A dynamic backcourt of Tevin Brown and Juice Hill along with 6-10, 245-pound forward K.J. Williams forms one of the best trios in the nation - at any level. But the Belmont Bruins won’t go away easily. The Bruins are 25-6 - with four of their losses to top-25 KenPom teams - and top 100 in all the typical metrics. Nick Muszynski is a handful in the paint and Belmont has five other regulars with a 110.0 offensive rating or better, including veteran guard Grayson Murphy.
Anything is possible this weekend in Asheville where the Southern Conference will crown its champion at 7 p.m. Monday night. But it would be a shock if a team other than top seeds Chattanooga or Furman prevails.
Those two have been the class of the nation’s 12th best conference this season and both are aiming to return to the NCAA tournament. Chattanooga was a March Madness regular in the 1980s and 90s but has made only three appearances in the last 25 years, most recently in 2016. The Mocs have a winning postseason formula, relying on veteran guards David Jean Baptiste and Malachi Smith, complemented by former 5-star center Silvio De Sousa.
Furman, for all of its regular season success in recent seasons under Niko Medved and for the last five years under Bob Richey, hasn’t competed in the NCAA tournament since 1980. A trio of seniors - Mike Bothwell, Jalen Slawson and Alex Hunter - have played a key role in 86 victories over the last four seasons but lost in the Southern quarterfinals as a high seed each of the last two years. They’re hungry for more and a full table awaits in Asheville this weekend.