The first college basketball conference tournament starts in less than a week. In fact, 12 of them will start by next Saturday.
We have a pretty good idea of who these teams are and what we have to work with as the season comes to a close. However, there may still be some opportunities for teams making a push or those that are ready for the season to be over.
I’m also always looking for indicators of positive and negative regression. That means we have some teams to back and teams to fade in the closing stretch of the regular season.
Teams to Fade
Maine: Some conference tournaments don’t include every team. One of those is the America East, and the team that will be left out in the cold is Maine. The Black Bears scored a nice win over NJIT on Sunday, but with three games to go, they’re still 2.5 games back for the final spot in the tournament and have to play Vermont in the regular-season finale.
Albany is in a road revenge spot against Maine on Wednesday after losing 73-63 in the Black Bears’ best offensive performance against a Division I opponent this season. Maine plays UMBC on Saturday. UMBC beat Maine by 42 points on Jan. 22. Vermont beat Maine by only 13, but the Black Bears were 14-of-26 from 3 while the Catamounts were only 3-of-12. Maine and Vermont square off March 1. The standings are tight (except for Vermont, which has a six-game lead), so these games matter for Albany and UMBC. Maine could very well get rolled in all three and will be a massive underdog in the last two.
James Madison: The Dukes are moving to the Sun Belt Conference, and the Colonial Athletic Association gave them a resounding middle finger on the way out the door. The CAA imposed a postseason ban on all sports except football, so James Madison’s season will end with a home-and-home against Towson on Wednesday and Saturday. Towson is a really good team and is fighting for a regular-season title.
With nothing left to play for but pride, we’ve seen JMU fight valiantly of late, but I think the reality of what lies ahead will set in for these two games against Towson, where the Dukes will be a clear underdog in both.
JMU is 293rd in eFG% defense, 282nd in offensive rebounding percentage against and 347th in 2P% defense. Those are all really bad things against a very good Towson offense. On top of the motivation concerns, it looks like a bad matchup for James Madison.
Teams to Back
Georgia State: The Sun Belt Conference tournament looks wide open, but one team I’ll have my eye on is Georgia State. The Panthers round out the regular season with Louisiana Monroe and Louisiana Lafayette, two teams they already beat on the road. Rob Lanier’s team is offensively challenged but plays incredible lockdown defense and forces a ton of turnovers with a TO% of 23.1, which ranks 16th in the nation.
In the games against the Redhawks and Ragin’ Cajuns, Georgia State forced 37 turnovers in 129 possessions. The Panthers have greatly improved their 3-point defense as the season has gone along, with none of their last seven opponents making more than seven shots from beyond the arc. This looks like a team that will take care of business in these last two regular-season games and maybe even move up a couple of spots in the standings.
Buffalo: Some teams play the bully role extremely well. The Bulls seem appropriately named in that respect. Buffalo has rattled off six straight wins and has scored at least 80 points in five of them, including a couple of triple-digit efforts. Jim Whitesell’s team doesn’t always play defense, but this is an impressive offense that is dominant on the offensive glass.
The Bulls will have the chance to flex their rebounding muscles against Northern Illinois in a home-and-home on Thursday and Saturday before facing stiffer tests against Toledo and Kent State. I’m not sure how those two March games will go, but I see no reason to believe the Bulls will be slowed down by NIU. Frankly, Buffalo could be live against Toledo after shooting just 12-of-32 at the rim in the first meeting, an 86-75 loss. The Bulls also beat Kent State by 13 earlier this season.
This looks like a team that will finish strong and could be dangerous in Cleveland for MAC Madness.