(all games at UTEP)
Favorite: Louisiana Tech. The Fightin’ Malones are a lukewarm favorite in a well-balanced league but overall they’ve had the best season and can use their pressing, running game to win the title.
Contenders: Southern Mississippi, Middle Tennessee, Tulsa, UTEP. Southern Miss and Middle Tenn are both obvious threats as they were part of a four-way tie for first along with La Tech and Tulsa. Tulsa has overachieved under coach Danny Manning (Yes, that Danny Manning) but I think the Hurricanes are a cut below. UTEP has a chance because the tournament is played on its home court.
Longshot: East Carolina. The Pirates have some talent, especially shooter deluxe Akeem Richmond, and could catch fire and pull off the upset.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech
(first round at campus sites, all other games in Cleveland)
Favorite: Toledo. The Rockets, led by point guard whiz Juice Brown, served notice early this season by winning at Boston College and they’ve kept it up all season. The MAC was evenly matched, however, and this tournament won’t be easy.
Contenders: Buffalo, Western Michigan, Akron. Behind first-year coach Bobby Hurley (yes, that Bobby Hurley), Buffalo had a shockingly good season and won the East Division. Western Michigan surged in the second half to tie Toledo for the West title. Akron is always superbly coached by Keith Dambrot.
Longshot: Ohio. Guard Nick Kellogg, son of CBS announcer Clark, played on two NCAA tournament teams and is capable of leading the Bobcats to the upset.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
(all games in Norfolk, Va.)
Favorite: North Carolina Central. The Eagles are on a 17-game winning streak and only lost one conference game. Plus they hold regular-season victories over NC State, Old Dominion, and Winthrop. Right now, they’re looking look a 15 seed and they are definitely capable of an upset.
Contenders: Hampton, Norfolk State, Morgan State. Hampton and Norfolk, while not on a home court technically, it’s the general area so it’s an advantage.
Longshot: Coppin State. With coach Fang Mitchell on the bench, Coppin is always a threat.
Prediction: North Carolina Central.
Southwestern Athletic Conference
(all games in Houston)
Favorite: Southern. The Jaguars have had success with great defense (opponents shoot 37 percent) and tough rebounding (plus four rebounding margin)
Contenders: Texas Southern, Alabama A&M. Texas Southern, coached by former Indiana coach Mike Davis and led by former LaSalle and West Virginia player Aaric Murray, will only have a short drive to the Toyota Center.
Longshot: Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils have a win over Southern this season.
Prediction: Texas Southern