By Shane Gravlin
It’s March, the madness is in the air. Conference tourneys, the big dance, in one shining moment, it’s all on the line! A couple of teams have already punched their tickets to March Madness 2021 in Indianapolis: Liberty won its third straight Atlantic Sun tournament, Winthrop breezed through the Big South tournament, winning the championship by 27 points, Loyola-Chicago beat a solid opponent in Drake to clinch the Missouri Valley tournament, and Morehead State beat the top-seeded Belmont to claim the Ohio Valley title.
For less powerful conferences, the conference tournaments are critical for teams within that conference if they want to qualify for the national tournament, better known as March Madness. This is because the committee that selects the March Madness teams will rarely dish out bids, or invitations, to teams from these smaller, less powerful conferences unless they had an exceptionally dominant regular season or win the conference tournament, in which they automatically qualify.
In short, the conference tournaments often mean do or die. That kind of mindset will be brought to Frisco, Texas, the site of the 2021 C-USA men’s basketball tournament where 14 teams will compete for one spot in March Madness. C-USA is generally regarded as a mid-major level league, and it’s certainly capable of producing more than one tournament team in the future, but most bracketologists, such as Joe Lunardi, do not believe that any team other than the champion of the conference will receive an invitation to Indianapolis to play in the big dance this year.
Conference USA is divided into east and west divisions, and the top two teams from each of those divisions, East and West, earn a double-bye. The teams that accomplished that are Western Kentucky (1) and Old Dominion (2) from the East and then Louisiana Tech. (1) and Alabama-Birmingham (2) from the West. Those teams are the favorites in Vegas simply because of their path to the final. Those teams would only need to win three games to win the tournament, whereas the lowest seeds would need to pull off five wins.
The team that didn’t finish in the top four and earn a double-bye that could still make some noise is Marshall. The Thundering Herd are winners of six of their last seven, one of those being an impressive blow-out win over Old Dominion. Old Dominion was the last team to win the C-USA tournament, which was in 2019 and not 2020, as the 2020 tournament wasn’t completed due to covid. Old Dominion defeated Western Kentucky narrowly in that game, but then lost in the first round of March Madness. Nonetheless, all the teams will be playing fervently for a shot at one shining moment.
While the top five of the conference is close, there are some teams in the conference that face a really uphill battle, those being Middle Tennessee State, Florida International, and Southern Mississippi. Those three teams combined for nine total conference wins in the regular season, so it’s safe to assume that they won’t find themselves playing into late March.
Some more teams in the middle of the pack with some intrigue are Florida Atlantic, with a +12.3 point differential on average, when they win, they win big. Then in the West division, from three through five, those teams are very close in record and talent, those teams being North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, and Texas-El Paso. Those second round games when these teams are playing should be extremely competitive and entertaining. Jhivvan Jackson on UTSA is 17th in the country in scoring, too, so he could put on a show.
My personal pick to win the tournament and go dancing is Western Kentucky, and that is because early in the year, they defeated Alabama, who’s a top ten team in the country. The Hilltoppers furthermore almost beat a ranked West Virginia team. Western Kentucky is sneakily scary. If they take care of business in the conference tournament, as they should as a one seed, they could even make some noise in the big dance.
Early rounds of the tournament can be streamed on ESPN+ and then later rounds will be broadcast on CBS Sports. The first games will be on Tuesday, March 9, and feature Rice taking on Southern Mississippi and then Middle Tennessee battling Florida International.
Edited by Emma Moloney