Ranking All 31 CBB Conference Tournaments
March 12th, 2013| by Lost Lettermen
The phrase “March Madness” is typically synonymous with the NCAA tournament, but the madness truly begins in the two weeks beforehand. It’s in that period that every conference in Division I with the exception of the Ivy League stages a conference tournament to determine the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
The drama from these often match or exceed that of the NCAA tournament itself. Disappointing seasons can be salvaged; programs that finished the regular season below .500 are just a couple victories away from the NCAA tournament; plucky underdogs can emerge and capture America’s affection; and of course, there are game-winners and buzzer-beaters galore.
With that in mind, we rank each of the sport’s 31 conference tournaments from worst to first on an overall basis taking into account the teams, location, venue, atmosphere and history.
31. Great West
Started in 2010, the Great West tournament that consists of five teams this year is like a tree falling in a forest, as it is the only conference tournament that doesn’t have an automatic bid to the Big Dance; the winner instead gets an invite to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Um, no thanks.
Frequently, the 16-seed that the Big Dance’s top overall seed gets to feast on comes from this league. One of the teams not making the trip to the Dallas suburb of Garland this year is regular season champ Texas Southern — 16–2 in conference play yet just 17–14 overall — due to NCAA violations. The only drama left here is if Grambling State can avoid an 0–28 season.
29. Atlantic Sun
Yes, this is in fact the name of a college athletic conference and not a Carnival cruise ship. This year’s edition of the conference tournament was staged in Macon, GA – home of regular season champion Mercer – and was won by Florida Gulf Coast, a school you’ve probably never heard of.
28. Summit League
The nicknames of the participating teams — Leathernecks, Jackrabbits, Mastadons, Kangaroos — are significantly more interesting than the teams themselves or the conference tournament’s location in middle-of-nowhere Sioux Falls, SD. In the Big Dance, no current member has done better than a victory in the play-in game.
Like the SWAC, the MEAC perennially serves as the conference that generates the NCAA tournament’s 16- and 15-seeds. Every now and then, the MEAC tourney champion can pull off a shocker, like Norfolk State over Missouri last year (photo below) or Hampton over Iowa State in 2001. More often than not, however, they’re on the wrong end of a rout.
26. Big South
There’s certainly nothing big about the Big South tournament’s host city of Conway, SC (population: 16,317). The fourth-lowest rated conference in the country, according to TeamRankings.com, perhaps it’s good that so few people were on hand to watch subpar basketball last weekend – which saw a 20-loss team (Liberty) reach the Big Dance.
Katy, TX, (population: 14,102) is an even sleepier conference tournament site than Conway, SC. But at the very least, the Southland conference can boast better teams than the Big South, including regular season champion Stephen F. Austin (24–3). Nipping on the Lumberjacks’ heels this season was Northwestern State, who you may remember from its 2006 Big Dance upset of Iowa.
Stephen Curry isn’t walking through that door a la 2008, yet Davidson (26–7) remains the class of this conference – once the home of Maryland, Duke, North Carolina and NC State – after capturing its second straight SoCon tournament title on Monday. Whoever draws the Wildcats in the second round of the Big Dance best be on their guard, as Davidson will enter the tournament on a 17-game winning streak.
23. Big West
Long Beach State and Pacific provide this tourney with quality programs, and we like the fact that it is being held in the neutral but easily-accessible spot of Anaheim. (Every participating team but Hawaii is located in California.)
Often times the winner of the MAAC tourney does damage in the Big Dance, as evidenced by Manhattan (2004) and Sienna (2009 and 2010). Can high-scoring Iona (third in the nation at 80.7 PPG) do the same in 2013? At the very least, the Gaels will be grateful to play in front of a bigger and livelier crowd than they did at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA.
21. Big Sky
Be wary of the tournament champion from this conference if it’s either regular season champ Montana (21–6) or Weber State (22–5), both of whom have NCAA tournament upsets to their name. Having the games held at schools’ home arenas definitely provides a charged environment – albeit a very one-sided one.
20. Sun Belt
Hot Springs, AR, is more well known as a destination for spa lovers, not college hoops fans. This marks the fifth consecutive year that the central Arkansas town has hosted the Sun Belt tournament, out of which Western Kentucky emerged in 2008 en route to a surprise Sweet Sixteen run. Can this year’s Hilltoppers squad do the same after its 2013 Sun Belt tourney win?
19. America East
Oddly enough, this tournament starts out at a neutral site (the SEFCU Center in Albany, NY) before moving to the home court of the highest remaining seed for the title game. We’ll always be grateful to the America East — even if it does sound like the name of a low-budget airline — for giving us the Vermont team that shocked Syracuse in 2005.
Another conference where campus sites serves as the hosts of tournament games, the NEC’s postseason atmosphere is intimate but charged. And often times these teams thrive when the action takes them up and down the floor, as high-flying LIU Brooklyn demonstrated in style en route to two straight titles (with a possible third tonight). The conference is small in recognition but boasts historically successful programs with the likes of Fairleigh Dickinson, Mount St. Mary’s and Robert Morris.
17. Ohio Valley
Nashville is typically the home of many underexposed but talented musicians. It’s additionally been the home of underexposed but talented Ohio Valley teams every March but one since 1994. Each of the past three conference tournament champions — Murray State in 2010 and 2012, Morehead State in 2011 — have won their opening NCAA tournament game. After a dramatic victory over Murray State in the OVC title game on Sunday, can conference newcomer Belmont (26-6) make it four in a row?
The WAC tournament has seen better days, namely when the likes of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Tulsa were in the league years ago. While a lot of defections have hurt the conference, there’s still some good basketball being played here – most notably by Louisiana Tech (26-5) this season. And big ups to holding it in Las Vegas since 2011.