By Mary Cunningham
March Madness officially starts this week with conference tournaments from sea to shining sea.
Here’s a preview:
Thursday-Sunday at Memphis
Favorite: Houston. It hasn’t been the return of Phi Slama Jama; this team wins with defense.
Contenders: Cincinnati, Central Florida, Temple. Cincy and UCF can almost match Houston for defensive intensity. These games won’t necessarily be pretty to watch.
Long shot: Wichita State. The Shockers are playing their best right now.
Prediction: Central Florida, beating Houston, 31-30.
Wednesday-Sunday at Brooklyn
Favorite: Virginia Commonwealth. Defensive pressure and the chaos it causes has returned to VCU.
Contenders: Davidson, Dayton, St. Bonaventure. Dayton has the best young player in the league in Obi Toppin, plus some veteran pieces.
Long shot: Rhode Island. The Rams found some shooting touch late in the season, plus they have a top big man in Cyril Langevine.
Tuesday-Saturday at Charlotte, N.C.
Favorite: Virginia. The Cavs seem to be able to handle everyone but Duke.
Contenders: Duke, North Carolina, Florida State. With Zion, Duke could be the favorite. Without him, the Blue Devils’ future is uncertain.
Long shot: Louisville. This would have to be the Louisville team that won at North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
Prediction: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have been overlooked in some ways.
Wednesday-Saturday at Kansas City, Mo.
Favorite: Texas Tech. Coach Chris Beard has had a magical touch in Lubbock. His team outplays its potential, mostly by playing great defense.
Contenders: Kansas State, Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State. Much like Tech, K State has outplayed its projections, tying the Raiders for the regular-season title. They might be missing a key player in Dean Wade, however.
Long shot: Oklahoma. I’m always willing to back coach Lon Kruger.
Prediction: Texas Tech, if Wade doesn’t play. Kansas State if he does.
Wednesday-Saturday at New York
Favorite: Villanova. The Wildcats aren’t great, but they were good enough to win the regular-season title. This is wide open.
Contenders: Marquette, St. John’s, Georgetown. I love Marquette’s personnel, but the McGuires are the second-most continually disappointing sports team behind the US men’s national soccer team.
Long shot: Seton Hall. Guard Myles Powell could shoot the Hall to the championship.
Prediction: Seton Hall.
Thursday-Saturday at Boise
Favorite: Montana. The Grizz’s balanced offense has dominated the league most of the season.
Contenders: Northern Colorado, Weber State, Eastern Washington. NoCo recently won at Montana.
Long shot: Portland State. The Vikings have finished the season strongly.
Wednesday-Sunday at Chicago
Favorite: Michigan State. The Spartans have overcome injuries and will need to continue to do that.
Contenders: Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin. The Wolverines have been consistently underrated; they can change that.
Long shot: Minnesota, a veteran group that has the potential to run off a winning streak.
Prediction: Michigan State
Thursday-Saturday at Anaheim, Calif.
Favorite: UC Irvine. The Anteaters’ players come from great genes, especially Max Hazzard, grandson of UCLA great Walt Hazzard.
Contenders: UC Santa Barbara, Fullerton State. Fullerton has finished strongly.
Long shot: Long Beach State. The Beach is hardened by a tough schedule and holds a victory over Irvine.
Prediction: Fullerton State.
Wednesday-Saturday at Frisco, Texas
Favorite: Old Dominion. The Monarchs are seasoned and well-coached.
Contenders: Texas San Antonio, Western Kentucky, Southern Mississippi. UTSA has two players, Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, averaging more than 20 ppg.
Long shot: Marshall. Hillbilly Ball gives the Thundering Herd a chance.
Prediction: Texas San Antonio
Saturday-Sunday at New Haven
Favorite: Harvard. Since Bryce Aiken has returned from injury, the Crimson have been the best team.
Contenders: Yale, Princeton. Yale will be playing on its home court.
Long shot: Penn. The Quakers forced their way into the tournament with a big win last Saturday over Brown.
Wednesday-Saturday at Las Vegas
Favorite: Nevada. The Wolfpack can’t indulge any team that wants to turn a game into a 3-point shooting contest.
Contenders: Utah State, Fresno State, San Diego State. Utah State deserves an NCAA bid even if it doesn’t win this.
Long shot: UNLV. The Rebels are on their home court.
Wednesday-Saturday at Las Vegas
Favorite: Washington. The Huskies have dominated a weak league.
Contenders: Arizona State, Utah. The Sun Devils, much like the entire league, have talent but have been inconsistent.
Long shot: Oregon State. The Thompson brothers, Stephen and Ethan, are a good duo.
Prediction: Oregon State.
Wednesday-Sunday at Nashville
Favorite: Tennessee. The Volunteers have slipped up only on the road this season.
Contenders: LSU, Kentucky. LSU better enjoy this before the NCAA comes knocking about recruiting violations.
Long shot: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ guards, Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters, can match up with anyone.
Wednesday-Saturday at Katy, Texas
Favorite: Sam Houston State. The Bearkats win with defense but are no lock in this wide-open event.
Contenders: Abilene Christian, Southeast Louisiana, New Orleans, Lamar. It’s been a closely contested league the entire season.
Long shot: Central Arkansas. The Bears had a big win over Sam Houston last week.
Prediction: Lamar. The Cardinals finished the season with an eight-game winning streak.
Tuesday-Saturday at Birmingham, Ala.
Favorite: Prairie View A&M. Point guard Dennis Jones has become a Sully’s Court favorite.
Contenders: Texas Southern, Grambling, Jackson State. Southern has won 11 of it last 12.
Long shot: Arkansas Pine Bluff. The Bluff played the View tough in the last meeting.
Prediction: Prairie View A&M.
Tuesday-Sunday, first round at higher seed,
Favorite: Georgia State. It always has an advantage with coach Ron Hunter on the bench.
Contenders: Texas State, Georgia Southern, Texas Arlington. Texas State slumped near the end of the season, but if it regroups, it can win.
Long shot: Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns can heat up from behind the arc.
Prediction: Georgia State.
Thursday-Saturday at Las Vegas
Favorite: New Mexico State. The Orphans stand tall in this league
Contenders: Utah Valley State, Grand Canyon. Valley is led by BYU transfer Jake Toolson, who is Danny Ainge’s nephew. They also have Connor Toolson, who’s not related but whose father, Andy, was a good player at BYU.
Long shot: Seattle. The Redhawks have five players who average double figures.
Prediction: New Mexico State.