The first of the 32 conference tournaments begins on Tuesday with the Big South. Top seed Radford and second seed Winthrop are clear favorites to reach Sunday's championship game while the rest of the league looks to play spoiler.
High Point/South Carolina Upstate vs #2 Winthrop, 12:00, ESPN3
Campbell/UNC Asheville vs #3 Gardner-Webb, 2:30, ESPN3
Presbyterian/Charleston Southern vs #1 Radford, 6:00, ESPN3
Game 4 winner vs Game 5 winner, 6:00, ESPN+
Game 6 winner vs Game 7 winner, 8:30, ESPN+
Semifinal winners, 1:00, ESPN
Radford eyes their second NCAA Tournament berth in three years conference Player of the Year Carlik Jones (19.6 ppg, 5 5 apg). With four double-doubles this year, including 14 points and 11 rebounds in a victory at Richmond, the junior guard is the best player on the league's best team. The Highlanders are a veteran team, the 11th-oldest in the country.
Winthrop also had a big non-conference win, going out to Moraga and stunning St. Mary's. They carried that momentum into conference play, starting 12-0 before a mini-slump saw them split their last six games and drop to the second seed. Forward D.J. Burns was named Freshman of the Year after averaging 12.2 points per game while shooting a league-best 58.5 percent from the floor.
The dark horses
Defending champion Gardner-Webb led eventual national champion Virginia into the second half of their NCAA game last year. The star of this year's team Jose Perez left for personal reasons, but the third seeded Runnin' Bulldogs went 6-2 in his absence, including wins over both Radford and Winthrop.
Fifth seed Hampton is led by their explosive duo of senior guard Jermaine Marrow, who leads the league in scoring (24.3) and assists (6.5) and sophomore forward Ben Stanley (22.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), giving the Pirates their best chance of winning the league since joining three years ago.
Phlandrous Fleming is fourth in the Big South in scoring (17.3 ppg) and assists (3.4) while topping the league in rebounding (8.4). He was also named Defensive Player of the Year. His presence makes Charleston Southern a very dangerous eighth seed.
Who will win the tournament?
The Big South has had a habit of producing upsets in recent years. Look no further than last year when Chris Clemons and Campbell were the top seed only to lose in the semifinals. Therefore, if Radford or Winthrop weren't cutting down the nets come Sunday, it would be a surprise, but not a stunner.
With that being said, the league isn't as close as it has been in recent years. The Highlanders lead the conference in scoring defense (66.0 ppg), field goal shooting (46.7%), field goal defense (41.7%), fewest turnovers per game (10.5), assist to turnover ratio (1.30).
The Eagles are the league's best offensive team, leading the Big South in points per game (80.8), scoring margin (+9.0), 3-point field goals made (9.5), offensive rebounds (40.6), rebounding margin (+7.4) and assists per game (16.2). They will want to make all of their games high-scoring, up-tempo affairs.
In my own opinion, Hampton seem likeliest to prevent a Radford-Winthrop final. Marrow and Stanley give the Pirates a dynamic inside-outside scoring punch and have a bue into the quarterfinals. Whether they can go through the top two to reach the NCAA's for the first time as a member of the Big South is another question.
This will likely end up being a year where the top two seeds are in the final. Haunted by a loss to Gardner-Webb in last year's final, Radford will get a third straight championship game at home and hold down Winthrop's high-flying offense just enough in the rubber match in what will be one of the closest finals of Championship Week.
Prediction: Radford def. Winthrop