Minor and mid-major conference tournaments are all the rage this week, with a number already completed, some still ongoing and three more crowning champions last night.
Gonzaga 77 Santa Clara 68 - Gonzaga, a fixture in the Big Dance for many years, captured their 8th West Coast Conference (WCC) in the last nine years, earing them an automatic bid to March Madness. Derek Raivio scored a season-high 28 points for the Bulldogs, who will likely earn a 6 or 7 seed on Selection Sunday (March 11).
Gonzaga has had great success in the NCAA tournament and is widely recognized as one of the teams that popularized the term "Cinderella" when it comes to tourney jargon. The "Zags" - as they are commonly referred-to - routinely upset higher-ranked teams as the field of 64 is whittled down over the first weekend. They typically get through the first two rounds, but have gone as far as an Elite 8, never reaching the Final Four.
Expect some excitement from the Zags again this year. The 23-10 record is somewhat deceiving because of the tough non-conference schedule. Gonzaga played at North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Butler, Stanford and Washington State and hosted games against Duke, Washington, Memphis and Nevada. Of those, they only beat North Carolina, Texas, Stanford and Washington, which alone is saying something. The 7 non-conference losses are to teams which will likely to be playing next week, and if there's anything such as a quality loss, circle the losing - 78-77 - effort on Feb. 17 against Memphis, which currently has won 19 straight.
If nothing else, Gonzaga is battle-tested.
Niagara 83 Siena 79 - Tyrone Lewis scored a career-high 24 points as Niagara took home the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) championship, and with it a trip to the field of 65. The 22-11 Purple Eagles won their 11th straight game and will be in the NCAA Tournament for the 2nd time in three years.
Niagara got the automatic bid despite starting out the season 1-6, with losses to teams like Valparaiso, Akron and St. John's. But they went about business in the MAAC with a 13-5 record, and then knocked off Rider, Loyola and Siena on consecutive nights to earn the title.
The Purple Eagles didn't play a ranked team this season, but non-conference wins over Central Michigan and Duquesne offer a glimpse of what they have as a team - not much. They will likely be a 15 or 16 seed and match up against some team like Kansas, Georgetown or UCLA in the opening round.
VCU 65 George Mason 59 - With a name that's not at all common around college basketball circles, Virginia Commonwealth University won the Colonial Atlantic conference tournament, snatching the automatic bid from last season's Cinderella, George Mason.
In 2006, the Patriots ran all the way to the Final Four before losing to Florida, 73-58. This season, George Mason will not go to the Big Dance, having posted a 18-15 record and finishing 8-8 in the conference.
The 27-6 VCU Rams will move on, however. After going through their conference schedule with a 16-2 record, they knocked off Georgia State and Drexel before last night's championship victory. The Rams won 10 straight from Jan. 3-29, and are likely to be a 16 seed.
Along with these three there are now 9 teams that have earned automatic bids, including Penn (Ivy League), Belmont (Atlantic Sun), Eastern Kentucky (Ohio Valley), Winthrop (Big South), Creighton (MVC) and Davidson (Southern).