Let the madness begin! Early conference tourney picks

Let the madness begin! Early conference tourney picks
March 6, 2013, 2:00 pm
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While we are still 11 days out from the reveal of the NCAA Tournament field and bracket, the picking of postseason champions has begun.

For the first time this year I'm participating in "The Jerome," a college basketball conference tournament prediction pool apparently among writers and media types - and named after this famed call by broadcaster Bill Raftery of former Pittsburgh star Jerome Lane's backboard shattering dunk.

Basically I love making picks and since soon enough I'll need...no, we'll all need to ponder whether the likes of Belmont or Stony Brook are Cinderella stories or Gonzaga is Final Four bound, might as well start with the homework.

My ego could be shattered if these calls go clank rather than swish, though admittedly, I didn't exactly catch lots of Big South or Summit League action on cable this season. With that said, I made my picks for the first week's worth of tournaments and in some cases with actual rationale. Next week's picks will come, well, next week.

­There is a scoring component to the game - two points if your team reaches its tournament final, three more for a title win and potentially another two points for a long shot call.

So, on with the picks...

Ohio Valley -- Belmont*

Big South -- Gardner-Webb

Atlantic Sun -- Florida Gulf Coast

Missouri Valley -- Creighton*

Southern -- Davidson*

Colonial Athletic -- William & Mary^

Metro Atlantic Athletic -- Niagara*

West Coast -- Saint Mary's

Sun Belt -- Middle Tennessee*

Summit -- South Dakota State

Horizon -- Detroit

Northeast -- Mount St. Mary's^

Patriot -- Bucknell*

America East - Stony Brook*

*Regular season champion

*Seeded fifth or lower

*If you're one of those Virginia or Maryland fans hoping for an at-large berth, root for Creighton or Wichita State out of the Missouri Valley since both the Bluejays and Shockers will make the Field of 68 one-way or another. Since we love when star players double as the head coach's son, we clearly love (or at least have feelings for) top-seeded Creighton. It also helps that said son - Doug McDermott - is a perimeter shooting dynamo who ranks second nationally in scoring behind Virginia Tech's Erich Green with 23.4 points.

*While Mount St. Mary's finished fifth in the Northeast Conference standings, the Mountaineers (16-13) are also on a tremendous roll, winning seven straight and nine of 10. First-year coach Jamion Christian, a former assistant at VCU under Shaka Smart, brought the Rams "Havoc" defense to Emmitsburg - and that's exactly what the Mount might do in the NEC Tourney.

*Raise your hand if you picked the number one team in the nation to go down and go down hard this week. That's right, I went against Gonzaga, taking Saint Mary's as the West Coast Conference champs (and likely taking away an at-large berth in the process.) Obviously, the Bulldogs, winners of 12 straight, are the heavy favorite and a national title contender. They also hold the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history. Between that extra (at least presumed) mental pressure, a game Saint Mary's team could need the automatic bid to keep playing - and with most other "Jerome" players likely picking the favorite, I'm going with a contrary opinion.

*Belmont has become a NCAA Tourney staple with two straight appearances and five since 2006. Last season the Bruins (22-6) lost to Georgetown in their opening game. This season they have a sneaky strong RPI (23) and six top-100 wins. If Belmont falls this week, Murray State, led by preseason All-American candidate Isaiah Cannan, likely does the takedown.

*Finally, we come to the CAA. As I've written before, realistically six of the seven participating teams - yes, only seven - have a legitimate puncher's chance to win three straight games in Richmond (top seed Northeastern only must triumph twice). If the goal were simply to pick the winner, I'd go with No. 2 Delaware, winners of 10 of its last 12 games and led by the stud inside-outside combo of Devon Saddler and Jarvis Threatt. Granted potential semifinal foe James Madison won both games against the Blue Hens this season, Northeastern and Drexel have the kind of guard play March covets, and George Mason's depth in a three-day event is a nice asset.

Yet for some reason, I keep coming back to the one team that makes no sense historically speaking and perhaps little this season. William & Mary is one of five original D-I programs never to go dancing. The Tribe also sports a losing record this campaign; even with three wins in the tournament, W&M would only be 15-16. They also lost twice to their first opponent, JMU. So what gives?

Well, again, upsets receive more points in the game. In addition, I love all things related to Jon Stewart, a noted W&M grad, so there's that. As for legitimate on-court reasons, the Tribe leads the CAA in field goal shooting percentage, won four of their final six games and have a truly gifted scoring guard in Marcus Thornton. The former Bishop McNamara star leads the CAA in made 3-pointers, and is second in scoring and free throw percentage. Thornton is also not a one-man offensive show; three players average over 13 points and three of the top four scorers shoot at least 49 percent from the field. If I'm going to crazy, might as well do so with a team capable of a hot shooting streak. Besides, the Tribe is bound to send it in and reach the NCAA's one of the years, right?