5 Conference Tournament Sleepers

That time is here.

You know — the time of year when weekday day games appear with regularity on the college basketball schedule. Your hand-held device discovers its purpose during work breaks. If you work in or near a space that has a sports bar you can go to for lunch, you'll have actual games to watch instead of re-hashed SportsCenter highlights or talking points.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year, made even more frenetic and exciting when that unheralded team in the Colonial Athletic Association makes a run through the brackets in Richmond, Va., putting the zing in the best month of the sports calendar.

March isn't just reserved for the three weeks of the NCAA tournament, after all — the two weeks of conference tournament competition are as vibrant as the Big Dance. In the first week of this fortnight, which sleepers will awaken and cause havoc in a bracket? The Run The Floor staff is on the case:

 

5 – DREXEL (Colonial Athletic Association)

The Dragons are seeded fourth in the CAA Tournament. Their path in Baltimore — the new site for the CAA Tournament after many years in Richmond, Va. — is as follows: On Saturday, they play fifth-seeded Northeastern. If they can survive that game, they'd likely face top-seeded Delaware on Sunday in the semifinals. Lurking in the other half of the Colonial bracket are second-seeded Towson and third-seeded William & Mary.

Why can Drexel storm the gate and mount a Colonial uprising? The Dragons do two things that can very easily translate into postseason success: They defend, and they protect the ball. Drexel is one of only two teams in the CAA that holds opponents under one point per possession, at 0.995. (Charleston is the other.) The Dragons concede only 7.8 turnovers per game, 8.3 in conference games alone. Those numbers, if sustained throughout this weekend, will give coach Bruiser Flint's team a very good chance to win against Delaware in a potential 4-versus-1 semifinal. 

The top three seeds in the Colonial — Delaware, Towson, and William & Mary — all excel at the offensive end of the floor, averaging at least 1.088 points per possession. Drexel's defense can stymie each of those three teams — first, the Blue Hens in the semis, and then the Towson-W&M winner if the Tigers and Tribe face off in the bottom half of the CAA bracket. Drexel leads the conference in blocked shots per game (4.1) and will be in position to win as long as it can win a majority of loose-ball scrambles, setting the stage for runouts and easy fast-break buckets that can remove pressure from the Dragons' halfcourt offense.

4 – WESTERN CAROLINA (Southern Conference)

Our sleeper for the Southern Conference is Western Carolina. The Catamounts are the 5 seed. While they aren't anything extraordinary offensively, they do have the third best defense in the league in points per possession. The Catamounts are matched up with Elon in the 4/5 game in the quarterfinals. The teams split their two regular season meetings, both winning by double figures. 

Western Carolina does enter the conference tournament having lost two games in a row. That wrong turn cost the Catamounts at least two seeds, maybe even three. WCU was able play Davidson, a likely semifinal opponent, and Chattanooga, the 2 seed, very close. The Catamounts are the best foul shooting team in the league and one of the better 3-point shooting teams. With a three-headed offensive attack behind Trey Sumler (16.4 points per game), James Sinclair (13.4 points), and Brandon Boggs (13 points), this could be a team that shakes things up. 

3 – CANISIUS (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference)

We like Canisius for one reason and one reason only, Billy Baron. He averaged nearly 26 points a game in conference play while hitting 42.4 percent from three-point range. He's an 87-percent free throw shooter to boot. He can get hot and carry a team through a three-game tournament — we're banking on him to do just that.  The Golden Griffins won their only meeting with Siena, their first opponent in this tournament, in triple overtime. They ended up on the other side of the bracket from two of the three teams that beat them in conference play. They would have a potential semifinal game with top-seeded Iona, a team they beat at Iona earlier in the season. Moreover, Iona likes to play at a fast pace. What is always said about postseason basketball? It's easier to slow down than speed up.

2 – COLGATE (Patriot League)

The Raiders won the first conference tournament game in this wild and wonderful two-week stretch, disposing of Navy to move to the Patriot League quarterfinals. With Murphy Burnatowski and Austin Tillotson providing an inside-outside scoring combination, Colgate can score from various spots on the foor. The Raiders, when at their best, are able to space the floor and scatter opposing defenses. A quarterfinal against second-seeded American will definitely be tough, but American's defense is not what it was in January. The Eagles, once 10-0 in the Patriot League, lost their hold on first place due to a February downturn — they are ripe for the picking.

The Raiders led the Patriot League in offensive efficiency, scoring 1.09 points per possession in league play. What makes them especially dangerous, though, is that they are shooting 40.6 percent from three on the season, which ranks fourth nationally, and they are attempting almost 37 percent of their shots from beyond the arc this year, which is 10th most in the country. They probably don't have the defense to pull off the NCAA tournament berth, and playing on someone else's home floor will be difficult, but with their three-point attack (which their coach claims is by accident), none of the top seeds will want to see them.

Run The Floor's Steve Fetch had more to say about Colgate's chances as a sleeper in his complete Patriot League Tournament preview.

1 – SAN FRANCISCO (West Coast Conference)

For many years, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have lorded themselves over the rest of the West Coast Conference. This year, the Zags have retained their perch atop the league, but that seat of power feels less secure than in the past. Gonzaga has not been very convincing this season, giving pundits reason to look elsewhere.

Brigham Young could very legitimately be seen as the favorite in this tournament. The Cougars have played better than any other team in the conference over the past month. Yet, with BYU, Gonzaga, and Saint Mary's getting all the publicity for one reason or another, the San Francisco Dons are in position to become the off-the-radar team that swoops into Las Vegas and steals the show.

San Francisco's place as a sleeper is as much a product of its opponents' weaknesses as anything else. Gonzaga is a shell of its former self without Kelly Olynyk, who made the Zags into the top seed they were last season. BYU remains a team that can be exposed in the paint, and the same applies to Saint Mary's.

One thing to appreciate about San Francisco is that its senior point guard, Cody Doolin, left the team in November due to… well… the fact that he didn't like his teammates very much. The Dons were left reeling, but their ability to finish third in the WCC speaks well of them and their resilience. Even without Doolin's passing (he averaged 7 assists per game in the few games he played for USF in November), the Dons have managed to produce four players who all play at least 20 minutes per game and hit at least 51.8 percent of their field goal attempts. That kind of efficiency can certainly translate into three tournament wins.

There's one more point to make about the West Coast Conference Tournament which should help San Francisco and other lower seeds in the event: In past years (including 2013), the WCC Tournament gave the top two seeds a bye into the semifinals. With the addition of Pacific as the league's tenth member, the conference finally gained a balanced bracket and found less of a reason to truncate the length of its tournament. Gonzaga and second-seeded BYU must now win three games to take home the tournament.

The new wrinkle in the tournament schedule is that there will be a one-day break between the quarterfinals and semifinals, with the final being pushed back from Monday night (its home for the past several seasons) to Tuesday night of next week. (The first round takes place on Thursday, the quarterfinals this Saturday.) It just feels as though if there was ever a year in which the WCC Tournament — a playground for top seeds — is finally going to be a little wacky, this is it. The top two seeds have met in 11 of the last 12 WCC finals. San Francisco could bust that pattern in 2014. 

BONUS SLEEPER: EASTERN KENTUCKY (Ohio Valley Conference)

Belmont is the favorite to win the Ohio Valley, but the Colonels shouldn't be too far behind. They beat Belmont by 9 at home and only lost by 3 on the road. Like Colgate — another sleeper on this list — Eastern Kentucky takes a large portion of its shots (35 percent) from beyond the arc. However, the Colonels excel at scoring from two as well, making 55.6 percent of their twos on the season. They've struggled big time defensively this year, ranking 11th in the league in 2-point field goal defense, but they force a lot of turnovers. With the amount of threes they shoot and how well they shoot them, in a short-term scenario they'll be incredibly dangerous. Yet, to win the whole thing, they'll probably have to beat Belmont in Nashville.
 
Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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