Conference tournament season is here!
The madness begins one day before the first of March with a play-in game in the Northeast Conference.
After that, the next two weeks will be filled with plenty of drama as teams try to make the final push to qualify for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Six conferences kick off their conference tournaments from Monday-Wednesday. A majority of them will be spread out over the next week. The Ohio Valley Conference is the only league that will start Wednesday or earlier and finish by the weekend.
The odds may lock for the Northeast Conference and other leagues that kick off in the next 72 hours, so we started our conference tournament picks with those leagues.
Some of the tournaments will be dominated by the No. 1 seed because of regular-season play and home-court advantage, while other leagues have a more level playing field.
The NEC and Patriot League are the most top-heavy tournaments of the ones starting right away, which is why I landed on dark horse picks for four of the six leagues listed below.
Tournament Dates: Monday, February 28 (play-in round), Wednesday, March 2 (quarterfinals), Saturday, March 5 (semifinals), Tuesday, March 8 (Final)
My Pick: Bryant (+120)
Bryant may have won the Northeast Conference in its regular-season finale against Wagner.
The Bulldogs defeated the Seahawks, 78-70, to earn the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed, which comes with home-court advantage.
Bryant went 16-2 in the NEC regular season and it did not lose at home in conference play. The Bulldogs' only losses were in overtime on the road at Wagner and at Long Island.
Bryant has the best scorer in Division 1 on its roster in Peter Kiss and its offense, which plays at the fifth-highest tempo, has been hard to stop by anyone in the NEC all season.
Wagner is the lone true contender to Bryant in the NEC, but the Seahawks crumbled in the last week with road losses to FDU and Bryant.
Tournament Dates: Tuesday, March 1 (first round), Thursday, March 3 (quarterfinals), Saturday, March 5 (semifinals), Tuesday, March 8 (final)
My Pick: Liberty (+130)
Liberty has to be viewed as the team to beat in Atlantic Sun because of its past success in this event.
The Flames are the three-time reigning champion of the A-Sun tournament and that experience should be vital to help them rebound from a rocky finish to the regular season.
Liberty may be seen as vulnerable because it lost three of its last six games. Only one of those defeats came against a top-four squad in the conference.
Liberty has the best team and the top scorer in Darius McGhee, and you can't devalue its experience at this stage of the season.
Darkhorse Pick: Jacksonville (+900)
Jacksonville gained traction in the betting world because it has the third-best record against the spread in Division 1 behind Middle Tennessee and Long Beach State.
The Dolphins rank 10th in three-point defense and 37th in effective field-goal defense. They like to win their games with strong defense.
Jacksonville beat Liberty at home on February 12 and it comes into the tournament hot with five wins in its last six games.
Tournament Dates: Tuesday, March 1 (first round), Thursday, March 3 (quarterfinals), Monday, March 7 (semifinals), Tuesday, March 8 (final)
My Pick: Northern Kentucky (+425)
Northern Kentucky intrigues me as the No. 3 seed in the Horizon League tournament.
The Norse carry a victory over each of the other top four seeds. They beat Wright State twice and knocked off Purdue Fort Wayne and Cleveland State as part of a three-game stretch that also included their first game with Wright State.
That three-game stretch is important to the tournament schedule. NKU won those three games in a five-day stretch.
The Horizon League re-seeds after every round, so it is not a guarantee that NKU will face Purdue Fort Wayne in the semifinals, but that is the likely matchup and it would favor the Norse from their regular-season clashes.
Cleveland State is vulnerable because it lost three of its last five games. Purdue Fort Wayne is on a nine-game winning streak, but five of its six conference losses came to the other top four seeds and Wright State went 3-3 in its last six contests.
Darkhorse Pick: Oakland (+550)
Oakland is the top-rated Horizon League team on KenPom.
The Golden Grizzlies have to play an extra game, but it should not be much of a problem since they face an IUPUI squad that has been decimated by injuries and departures this season.
Oakland finished the regular season with a win over Cleveland State, which is a positive sign because it entered that contest on a three-game losing streak.
Oakland might be the most dangerous No. 5 seed on the mid-major level, but its consistency gives us something to worry about.
Tournament Dates: Tuesday, March 1 (first round), Thursday, March 3 (quarterfinals), Sunday, March 6 (semifinals), Wednesday, March 9 (final)
My Pick: Colgate (-185)
The Patriot League tournament is Colgate's to lose.
The Raiders are looking to become repeat champions of the Patriot League tournament and they have been the dominant side in the league all season.
Colgate went 16-2 in league play and its only two Patriot League losses came on the road before February 1. That is significant because the Raiders would only play at home in the conference tournament.
Colgate might be a darkhorse upset candidate in the NCAA tournament. It ranks fifth in three-point percentage and 23rd in effective field-goal percentage.
The other two potential contenders for the tournament title are Boston University and Navy, but their odds are not long enough to be considered dark horses and they both lost to Colgate on the road this season.
The winner of that potential No. 2-versus-No. 3 game will be a significant underdog in the Patriot League title game against Colgate.
Tournament Dates: Wednesday, March 2 (quarterfinals), March 4-6
My Pick: Winthrop (+200)
The Big South plays the most traditional format of the conference tournaments getting underway over the next few days.
The entire conference will play in a traditional bracket at a neutral site in Charlotte.
All signs point to a Longwood-Winthrop title clash on Sunday afternoon inside the Bojangles Coliseum.
Longwood won the only regular-season meeting with Winthrop by four points. Winthrop shot a better overall field-goal percentage in that game, but Longwood hit 56 percent of its threes.
If Winthrop's three-point defense, which is ranked 278th, improves in a potential showdown with Longwood, it can grab the Big South's automatic bid.
Winthrop enters Charlotte on an eight-game winning streak and it beat No. 3 seed Gardner-Webb on two occasions in the regular season. The Eagles should get past that semifinal hurdle to land in the title game.
Darkhorse Pick: UNC Asheville (+750)
UNC Asheville has much better odds as the No. 5 seed than No. 4 seed USC Upstate, but that is for good reason.
UNC Asheville has the No. 5 three-point defense in the country and it played close games against the top three seeds over the last month.
UNCA held Longwood to 56 points, lost by one to Gardner-Webb and fell to Winthrop by five points.
Asheville just beat USC Upstate by 27 points on February 12, which could be a sign of things to come in the quarterfinal round. Upstate lost by 30 points to Winthrop on Thursday and lost four of its last seven.
If UNC Asheville wins that quarterfinal showdown, it will have a shot at Longwood, which is all you ask for with a dark horse team.
Ohio Valley Conference
Tournament Dates: March 2-5
My Pick: Belmont (+250)
Belmont will play with a sense of desperation and with revenge on its mind at the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in Evansville, Indiana.
Belmont scored 43 points in a 33-point loss to Murray State on Thursday. That victory essentially confirmed Murray State's spot in the field of 68. That is an important factor to note.
As long as Murray State reaches the final, it should be in great shape to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Racers do not play until the semifinal round, so that seems like a near lock.
Belmont needs the OVC automatic bid to get into the field of 68, and what better way to do so by earning revenge from two regular-season losses.
The Bruins have the No. 1 two-point offense and they rank 10th in effective field-goal percentage. They should be more than motivated to prove the 43-point performance against Murray State was a fluke. That is why I'm on the hungrier team in the OVC tournament.
Darkhorse Pick: Morehead State (+800)
The OVC was a three-team league all season.
Morehead State stumbled to the finish line to steal away the hopes of a three-bid league.
The Eagles lost four of their last six games and they have to play an extra contest in Evansville before they would face a rested Belmont team.
Morehead State did hold Belmont to 48 points and Murray State to 57 points in back-to-back losses in mid-February.
Morehead State ranks in the Top 30 in five different defensive metrics, and if that defense shows up in Evansville, it will have a fighting chance to upset both of the top two seeds.