Championship Week games tip off on Tuesday with three conferences (Big South, Horizon and Ohio Valley). Kyle Whelliston takes a look at the whys, whos and whats of the early-week tournaments.
Why to Watch: Can Belmont make it three straight? The Bruins are creating what amounts to an A-Sun dynasty, earning automatic bids in 2006 and 2007 and entering this year's Nashville-based tourney as the No. 1 seed. Longtime coach Rick Byrd has been masterful at molding winners out of widely-varying personnel with differing approaches; last year's squad was second in the nation in 3-point defense and allowed 59 points per game at home. This year's version resembles the 2006 team with its up-tempo style and exemplary long-distance shooting.
Who to Watch: Ben Smith, Jacksonville -- It's the only A-Sun program with a notable hoops history (led by Artis "A-Train" Gilmore, JU made the 1970 Final Four), but the school may be on the cusp of returning to glory. Coach Cliff Warren has brought wave after wave of outstanding recruits to campus the past three years, and the most impressive this year has been the speedy Smith, a 5-10 sophomore point who leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg), assists (4.9) and steals (1.7). Now he'll try to steal the automatic bid from Belmont.
What to Watch: Should Belmont fall, the NCAA Tournament might be a chance to catch up with a team responsible for the league's run of surprising early upsets. Remember when Mercer won at USC? It's a dangerous low seed in this event. And don't forget Gardner-Webb, which has battled up-and-down inconsistency all season but can beat anyone on any given night -- even Kentucky.
Why to Watch: After a decade of Winthrop dominance, UNC Asheville broke out to a 7-0 league start, and claimed the regular-season championship on Saturday with a 63-50 win on Winthrop's home floor. Either could certainly fall in a tourney that has been traditionally marked by upsets and close calls. For six straight seasons, a No. 6 seed or lower has advanced to the semifinals, and sixth-seeded VMI came within three points of upsetting eventual round-of-32 participant Winthrop in last year's title game.
Who to Watch: Kenny George, UNC Asheville -- At 7-foot-6, 360 pounds, the Chicago native is the largest player in Division I and is second in the nation in field-goal percentage at 71 percent. When the Bulldogs inbound from under the opponent's basket, they position George on the low block, throw it in high to him for an automatic layup. His knees have bothered him all season, but if he can play 18-20 minutes a game during the tourney, UNCA might end up dwarfing the competition.
What to Watch: In Randy Peele's first year at the helm since Gregg Marshall moved on to Wichita State, No. 2 seed Winthrop has achieved milestones not seen during its long run of titles. The 2007-08 Eagles have beaten two ACC teams (Miami and Georgia Tech) and set school standards in defense. At the start of the season, Peele challenged his squad to set a 60-point ceiling, and so far WU has responded, allowing opponents an average of only 59 points per game.
Why to Watch: Nationally ranked Butler may have been BracketBusted last weekend at home against Drake, but these Bulldogs claimed the HL's No. 1 seed on Thursday with a stirring 66-61 win over last year's league champ, Wright State. Despite the Bulldogs' run to the Sweet 16 in 2007, Wright beat Butler in two of three tries last season, stealing both the regular-season and tourney titles. But with a loaded lineup featuring senior guards Mike Green and A.J. Graves, as well as home-court advantage, Butler could enter the 2008 NCAAs as a double champion -- not just as an at-large runner-up.
Who to Watch: Todd Brown, Wright State -- As a freshman last season, the 6-5 Canton, Ohio, native spent a lot of time on the floor in a backcourt supporting role. He has blossomed into a major scoring threat in his second year. Brown (12.9 ppg) is an explosive jumper and the team's primary 3-point threat with a 44 percent average. With Brown and fellow sophomore Vaughn Duggins (13.9ppg), the young Raiders have tough scoring and defense despite tender age.
What to Watch: A long-suffering Cleveland State program opened up a 7-0 start to take a surprise lead in the Horizon race, but lost five in a row when the league adjusted to its attack. But then, coach Gary Waters' readjustments helped result in a stretch of five wins in six February games. Will the Vikings' momentum carry through to the tournament, or will the rest of the league find a way to solve CSU again?
Why to Watch: The MVC has been a solid multibid league for the past decade, peaking with a record four bids (and a pair of Sweet 16 entrants) in 2006. A big reason for that is a "Valley Curse" that befalls regular-season champions once they reach Arch Madness -- a lower seed has claimed the conference tourney every year since 1998. So don't hand the double-championship over to Drake just yet. Illinois State, Bradley, Southern Illinois or Creighton could steal the title in St. Louis.
Who to Watch: Osiris Eldridge, Illinois State -- The Redbirds' 6-3 slashing sophomore has been sensational, leading the team in points (16.3 ppg). Recently, he dropped a career-high 34 on Indiana State on 12-for-18 shooting. A likely league MVP candidate, he's helped ISU make the jump from perennial also-ran to high seed in former Kansas assistant Tim Jankovich's first season in Normal.
What to Watch: Drake has been the Cinderella story of the season, rattling off 21 straight wins and clinching its first MVC regular-season championship in 37 years. But after a streak-breaking 65-62 loss at Southern Illinois, the Bulldogs lost three of their next five and have been outshot by seven consecutive Valley opponents. Are they wearing down at the wrong time, or can they snap the league's string of title splits?
Why to Watch: The NEC has perennially sent its champions to the slaughter -- the league has the worst mark of any Division I conference (2-26) in the NCAA Tournament -- and those two victories occurred in play-in rounds. But Robert Morris, a team that beat Boston College in early January, has home-court advantage in the campus-site tourney. With 25 overall victories, a 16-2 league record and 13 straight wins, the 2007-08 Colonials may be the best NCAA upset candidate the league has ever produced.
Who to Watch: DeMario Anderson, Quinnipiac -- The Bobcats moved from NEC irrelevance to midtable this season, and increased production from their 6-3 senior sharpshooter is a major reason for the team's ascension. Anderson leads the conference with 21.7 ppg, and he has built a reputation for single-handedly leading the team to victories. Last week, he hit a half-court buzzer-beater in overtime to defeat defending champion Central Connecticut State.
What to Watch: It was the most exciting league race in years. RMU, Wagner and Sacred Heart battled it out for the top seed until the final week, when RMU delivered blowout losses to the other two front-runners. But Sacred Heart managed a split with the Colonials during the season, and Wagner enters the tourney with loads of experience. Each of the five starting Seahawks has scored more than 700 points in his career.
Why to Watch: Austin Peay won the 2007 regular-season title but fell to Eastern Kentucky in the title game, 63-62, when backup guard Josh Young sailed in for a layup with 2.8 seconds remaining. Since that moment, the Governors have been singularly focused on making the 2008 NCAA Tournament. On Thursday, they clinched their second consecutive regular-season championship with a symbolic 65-59 win on EKU's home floor. Intensity certainly won't be an issue this week for the Govs, who will open with a home game against EKU as the top seed.
Who to Watch: Lester Hudson, Tennessee-Martin. One of the most dynamic, pure shooters slipped through the cracks last summer, all the way down to a program that had only one winning season in its history (15-14 in 2001-02). But the 6-3 juco transfer burst on the scene with a 35-point effort in a season-opening loss against Memphis on Nov. 5. Ever since, he has ripped apart OVC defenses to the tune of a 25.4 ppg average, currently fourth in the nation. The formerly sorry Skyhawks are streaking and soaring now, thanks to Hudson.
What to Watch: No. 2 seed Murray State underwent something of a rebuilding year in 2006-07, when Mick Cronin left for Cincinnati after leading the Racers to the 2006 OVC title. But second-year head coach Billy Kennedy and MSU split with Austin Peay during the 2007-08 regular season, and this year's version featured the same efficient shooting and balanced scoring as the squad that took a 69-65 close-call loss to No. 3-seeded North Carolina two years ago. For a school with a thoroughbred for a mascot, Murray is the perfect OVC dark horse.
Why to Watch: The eight-team conference has two first-round NCAA wins to its credit over the past three years (courtesy of Bucknell), and no team other than Bucknell, Holy Cross or Lehigh has won the league this century. But there's new blood at the top of the Patriot: No. 1 seed American (which has never made the Big Dance) and Navy (absent since 1998) fought it out for the top spot all season.
Who to Watch: Greg Sprink, Navy -- The 6-5 senior Midshipman is one of the nation's most prolific shooters -- he's taken more than 475 shots this season (and 225-plus 3-point attempts), and leads all Patriot League scorers with 21.2 ppg. He's also one of the nation's most streaky, and there's usually a correlation between his shooting percentage and whether the Mids win. But with a 34-point performance in a home win against American on Thursday (on 11-for-24 shooting), Sprink all but wrapped up conference player of the year honors.
What to Watch: Don't count out the perennial Patriot powers. Defending champion Holy Cross, for example, started strong with a 9-4 nonconference record but lost five in a row as the Crusaders struggled with injuries. They rebounded to win four of five during a February stretch, but will still open the campus-site tourney with a deep disadvantage as the No. 8 seed. And there's No. 7 Bucknell, which has been getting steadily increasing returns from Darren Mastropaolo, the 6-8 senior who returned in January from a badly torn ACL.
Why to Watch: "Sun Belt" and "two-bid" haven't been in the same sentence since 1994, but this season the league has its best chance in more than a decade to send a pair of teams to the tourney. Western Kentucky and South Alabama have battled for first place in the SBC East division all year, both hitting the overall 20-win mark in mid-February. The teams offered fans two classic regular-season battles, both won by South Alabama in four-point decisions. South Alabama has the better nonconference résumé, but if there's a third matchup on March 11 in Mobile and it's won by WKU, the Belt could double-dip at the Dance.
Who to Watch: Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky -- The 6-5 senior Hilltopper (20.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is a potential NBA draft pick with his combination of speed, shooting, skill and smarts. This year, the athletic wing has matured from being a role player in previous seasons to the kind of star who can take over games. In his final season at WKU, he's poised to take over the Sun Belt tourney.
What to Watch: South Alabama has held the home-court advantage for this event all year because the league preselects its tournament hosts. But the Sun Belt tourney has been less than kind to hosting institutions. No home team has won since Western Kentucky in 2003, and no host has achieved even the semifinal round since. Last season, Louisiana-Lafayette lost on the road in the campus-site first round, and didn't even get to play at its own home site.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.