Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 03/03/2020
Conference tournament week is here, which means mid-major teams are soon to punch their ticket to the dance or be left heartbroken after months of hard work.
The margin for error has never been this slim. Teams like Stephen F. Austin and Liberty — which are a combined 53-7 this season — will likely miss the NCAA Tournament if they are unable to take home their conference tournament titles.
Here are the five teams with the most to prove during the first conference tournament week.
Which version of Winthrop is going to show up in the Big South tournament? Pat Kelsey’s Eagles went nearly two months without losing a game, winning 14 straight before dropping three of their final six down the stretch. The league’s No. 2 seed will begin its quest for an autobid Thursday against either USC Upstate or High Point, which Winthrop went a combined 4-0 against this season.
One of the three No. 12 seeds to pull off an upset last year, Liberty is aiming to return to the NCAA Tournament as the Atlantic Sun champion. The Flames were one of the nation’s final unbeatens at 14-0 before falling to LSU in late December. A senior-oriented group led by Caleb Homesley and Scottie James, Liberty finished tied atop the A-Sun standings with North Florida at 13-3, but were granted the No. 1 seed due to the league’s NET ranking tiebreaker. A loss to North Florida in January and another close call last month could set up a heavyweight bout between the Flames and Ospreys for the A-Sun crown.
East Tennessee State
With a 40th overall NET ranking, a 24-4 record and a road win over LSU, it’s possible that ETSU has done enough to punch a ticket to the madness. It wouldn’t be by much, though. The Buccaneers escaped an 11-point deficit against Western Carolina over the weekend in what would have been a backbreaking loss. Steve Forbes’ team now has its sights set on winning three games in three days and clinching the SoCon autobid.
Can Saint Mary’s pull off another WCC tournament shocker? Last year’s Gaels squad picked off Gonzaga in dominant fashion to secure a March Madness bid via the WCC tourney title. This time around, Saint Mary’s is led by workhorse Jordan Ford, who leads the nation in minutes played and is averaging 21.2 points per game while shooting 41.2 percent from deep. With an at-large bid not necessarily locked up and BYU and Gonzaga looking like heavy favorites, the time is now for the Gaels to rise to the occasion.
HEAT CHECK: Latest bracketology
This certainly hasn’t been the season Utah State was expecting heading into the year. The Aggies brought back Mountain West player of the year Sam Merrill and future NBA big Neemias Queta to an experienced and deep roster that started the year No. 17 in the preseason AP poll. A six-game winning streak was abruptly halted Saturday with an inexcusable loss to New Mexico, pitting Utah State in an even more bubbly tournament scenario. If Craig Smith’s team fails to reach the MW title game on Saturday, you might not see them in a bracket later this month.
Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.
Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member.