Warren’s Watchlist: 3 Conference Champions that could win you your bracket pool

Sam Warren

Warren’s Watchlist is a weekly predictions column written by senior Sports Editor Sam Warren on everything associated with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament throughout the month of March.

It’s that time again. The rain and snow has fallen. The grass is greener. Daylight savings time will torment students and workers alike for taking an hour away from their slumber. It’s the turn of spring, and for sports fans, that means one thing. It’s time to prepare those sick days, sign up for those streaming services and save that money for your bracket pool buy-ins because March has arisen and the madness of the NCAA Tournament is about to begin.

It’s been a crazy year in college basketball. We have seen 111 upsets of top 25 ranked teams, 106 of them caused by unranked teams, and we still have time to play. Furman beat defending champion #8 Villanova, Lipscomb beat #18 TCU, Radford beat #17 Texas, Seton Hall beat #9 Kentucky and Princeton beat #17 Arizona State. Buffalo and Wofford made appearances in the top 25 for the first time in their schools’ history. Four teams have held the number one ranking in the sport, and season opening top team Kansas falling all the way to number 18 as of March 9. That’s all without mentioning attention-grabbing, high-flying, game-dominating Zion Williamson, a freshman from Duke and consensus number one pick in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft.

Now, while teams like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Gonzaga and Virginia will be in the spotlight when the time comes to sit down and craft your bracket on March 17, the true spotlight should be on the Cinderella teams that could upset those powerhouses when the first round rolls around on March 21.

When picking an underdog team to make a run in the Big Dance, there are normally two formulas that provide a team with a shot of taking out a top seed. The first fits the category of teamwork: a solid, fundamental team plays tough defense and hits big shots to outlast and tire out an overconfident top dog filled with hot-shot future NBA players. The second formula seems to be the opposite: having one stud player, typically with a chip on their shoulder and a story to tell, carry his team’s weight and dominate a powerhouse who overlooked his skill and didn’t do their homework. With that in mind, here are three conference tournaments you should be paying attention to for that inside scoop into who could become the next Belle of the ball.

Ohio Valley Conference

In the Ohio Valley Conference, the latter formula rings true for the tournament champion Murray State Racers, headlined by stud sophomore guard and projected lottery pick Ja Morant. The Racers, the first team to punch their ticket to the Big Dance, have been a force to be reckoned with during the regular season, finishing with a 27-4 record, mostly thanks to Morant’s efforts. Morant, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, averaged a double-double for the Racers, leading them in points (24.2 points per game) and assists (10.3 assists per game), along with 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game as well.

Morant also has a story to tell. The guard was only actively recruited by one power-5 program, South Carolina, and was unranked on national recruiting sites despite winning All-Region Most Valuable Player three times in high school. Morant chose Murray State over South Carolina, as he felt “wanted” in Murray, getting the opportunity to start as a freshman and sophomore. This lack of recognition has put a major chip on Morant’s shoulder, and now he is ready to prove the doubters wrong on the national stage.

After seeing Murray State’s convincing 77-65 victory over Belmont, where Morant dropped 36 points in the conference championship game, major programs should be shaking in their boots if they draw the Racers in the first round. Whether it be Steph Curry, Kemba Walker or CJ McCollum leading their underdog teams to improbable runs in the tournament, a recent precedent has been set for an outstanding NBA talent to single-handedly drive a counted-out team to a prolonged bout in March Madness, and Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers are primed to be another example.

American East Conference

While the Racers may rely on Morant to carry them through the tournament, the American East Conference features a number of teams that follow the first formula of teamwork and grit.

There may be no better Cinderella story in sports history than that of the UMBC Retrievers March Madness run last year. Headed by the backcourt tandem of K.J. Maura and Jairus Lyles, the Retrievers achieved something that 527 16th seeded teams had tried and failed before them: beat a number one seed in the first round. The Retrievers run was short lived after demolishing the number one overall team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points, and then losing in the next round. Yet, the team proved that the seemingly impossible was possible and paved a path for 16 seed teams in the years to come.

But, this is a new year, and a new American East Conference. Both Maura and Lyles have graduated, and the Retrievers finished third in the conference standings. Ahead of them is a team that is no stranger to March Madness, the Vermont Catamounts, who have made six tournament appearances since 2003. The Catamounts, the regular season champions, are headlined by junior power forward Anthony Lamb who averaged 20.8 points per game and is a veteran to the tournament after participating in 2017.

For UMBC, they could make a splash in the Big Dance once more if they make it through the Catamounts in the conference tournament. Despite the loss of Maura and Lyles, the Retrievers are returning senior forward Joe Sherburne, leading the team with 14.3 points per game, and have become a tireless defensive team. Whether it be UMBC or Vermont, look for whoever comes out of the American East conference to make another run in the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri Valley Conference

While the Retrievers may have been the biggest upset of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, they almost fail to overshadow the astounding run that the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers made to the Final Four with Sister Jean along their side. Despite losing to Michigan in the Final Four, the Ramblers felt primed for another bid at the Big Dance in 2019, returning the backcourt tandem of Clayton Custer, 2018 MVC Player of the Year, and Marques Townes, who hit a clutch three with 6.3 seconds left to send the Ramblers to the Elite Eight, from the year before. Despite this, the Ramblers fell short of expectations this season, only achieving a 20-13 record and losing in the conference tournament semifinals on March 9.

The team that knocked them out of contention, however, might be the team that everyone is talking about when the end of March rolls around. The Bradley Braves felt a bit of big win hangover in the conference tournament finals after their victory over Loyola, trailing by 18 points in the second half, but came back and completed the biggest comeback in MVC Championship history. The Braves, led by junior guard Darrell Brown and sophomore forward Elijah Childs, went just 20-14 in the regular season, but ran the table in the conference tournament, clinching victory as a five seed.

Now, while the Braves might not look that great offensively on paper, ranking 299th out of all 351 DI teams in scoring offense, the Braves maintain a crafty defense, allowing their opponents just 66 points per game, which is 45th in the nation. Along with this, in recent history, the teams to make the tournament out of the MVC have been no joke. Along with the Ramblers, teams such as Wichita State, Northern Iowa, and Creighton have all made deep runs in the tournament since 2010. Although this will be Bradley’s first appearance in March Madness since 2007, look for the Braves to follow in line to be the latest MVC team to bust some brackets.