Five Teams to Watch Ahead of Conference Tournaments

Nelson, Tyler (3)
Tyler Nelson and the Fairfield Stags may be below .500 in MAAC play, but they can’t be counted out down the stretch and into the conference tournament. (Source: Fairfield Athletics) (Header: Times Union)

LONDON, Ont. — Move over football, it’s college basketball’s time to shine!

With Super Bowl 52 now a thing of the past, the attention in the sporting world shifts to college basketball and the March to Madness. With the conference races heating up all across the country, teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack as they look to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.

As we all know from history, not all things go according to plan. Teams atop the conferences right now aren’t guaranteed of a spot in the field of 68, as anything can happen come late-February and early March.

Every year, there are teams that come from the middle of conference standings to make a run at their respective conference tournament title. It will happen again this year, without question, and we will see a few surprise entrants in the bracket come Selection Sunday as conference champions.

Here are five teams who currently sit in the middle of the pack in their respective conferences that could make some noise down the stretch during the regular season and into the post-season.

Albany Great Danes (18-7, 6-4 in America East)

Coming into the 2017-18 season, many projected the Great Danes to be the top challenger for the Vermont Catamounts in the America East. However, through 10 games, Albany finds themselves in fourth place in the league at 6-4 overall, and are 3.5 games behind the Catamounts for top spot. There are still a handful of regular season games left before the conference tournament, which gives Albany more time to climb the standings.

They have one of the best back court tandems in the country, in Joe Cremo and David Nichols. The pair rank first and third, respectively, in scoring for the Great Danes this season, as Cremo is averaging 17.4 points per game while Nichols is averaging 14.8 points. When you add in forwards Travis Charles and Greg Stire into the mix, and the Great Danes have the combination of talent and experience that all good teams seem to possess.

While they have already fallen to the Catamounts once this season, Albany has another chance to make a statement on February 8th. The Great Danes take on Vermont at home, and will look to pick up their third straight win. They’ve alternated a loss with two wins over their past nine games (L-W-W-L-W-W-L-W-W-?), and they will look to buck that trend with a big win over the top team in the America East. Head coach Will Brown and company will have the Great Danes more than ready for the game, and will look to make some waves as the post-season quickly approaches.

Fresno State Bulldogs (16-8, 6-5 in Mountain West)

Back in the 2015-16 season, Fresno State won the Mountain West tournament as the two-seed in the league, as they went 13-5 during the regular season. That year resulted in the Bulldogs’ sixth trip to the Big Dance, and first since 2001. After getting a taste of March Madness again, Fresno State is hoping to make another run at the conference tournament title in 2017-18.

Fresno State currently sits fifth in the league at 6-5, and are 3.5 games back of the Nevada Wolf Pack for the top spot in the league. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Bulldogs on the court, in terms of results and due to injuries to key players. With that said, they are coming off an 18-point win on the road over the Wyoming Cowboys, a place in which the likes of the Boise State BroncosSan Diego State Aztecs, and Nevada have all lost this season.

With injuries, the Bulldogs have seem several different players step up over the course of the season. Junior guard Deshon Taylor has been a star all season long for the Bulldogs, averaging career-highs with 19.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game this season. Sophomore forward Bryson Williams averages 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and looks like a star in the making for Rodney Terry moving forwards. With only seven games left before the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas, the Bulldogs will look to give themselves a bye into the quarter-finals with a few more wins.

The Bulldogs have the guards to match up with anyone in the conference, and they are capable of pulling off an upset or two come conference tournament time.

UAB Blazers (15-9, 6-5 in Conference USA)

All eyes are on the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in the Conference USA, and rightfully so. Two years ago, they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history when they knocked off the second-seed Michigan State Spartans as a 15-seed, 91-82. Now, they reign supreme in the Conference USA with seven games to play, at 10-1. However, there are a plethora of teams within five games of the conference title, and while it’s unlikely that many of them have a shot at the crown, they can’t be overlooked.

Lee, William
William Lee is one of the nation’s top shot blockers, and he will look to lead UAB to a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a senior in 2017-18. (Source: Sporting News)

The UAB Blazers are one of the teams in the Conference USA log jam that can turn some heads down the stretch and into the conference tournament. They’ve come into the last two seasons with considerable hype, but haven’t been able to live up to expectations. Last season, an injury to Nick Norton never allowed the nation to see the Blazers at full health. This season, with the pieces all in place, the Blazers have shown flashes of what they’re capable of, but haven’t been able to sustain it for long periods of time. UAB has four winning streaks of at least three games this year, but haven’t been able to stretch any of them longer than four games.

Freshman Zack Bryant is a player that most don’t give enough attention to across the country. He is currently second on the team in scoring with an average of 13.1 points per game, and he trails only Chris Cokley (18.5 ppg) for the team lead. The Blazers have a healthy balance of youth and experience on their roster which bodes well for their future.

Six of their nine losses this season have come by single digits, including four of their five losses in conference play. If at least two of their conference losses had gone the other way, the Blazers would be right near the top of the league. If they can win those close games down the stretch and into the Conference USA tournament, UAB could find a groove and turn some heads.

Campbell Fighting Camels (12-12, 6-6 in Big South)

Remember what Campbell did last season in the Big South tournament? Here’s a quick refresher. As the seven seed in the conference tournament, the Fighting Camels rattled off three wins in a four-day stretch to punch their ticket to the title game against the Winthrop Eagles, who had won the regular season crown. Chris Clemons averaged an even 35 points per game over the four game tournament.

Campbell would go onto reach the quarter-finals of the Tournament, but they have their sights set on bigger and better things this season. The Big South Conference, like many other conferences this season, is log jammed in the middle and the Fighting Camels are right in the thick of things. Losers of their last three games, Campbell has fallen into a three-way tie for fifth spot after being near the top. Still, they’re just three games out of first place and they have the memories of last season’s run to fall back on.

Over his career with the Fighting Camels, Clemons has been an absolute star. To put his production into perspective, he has played in 87 games over two-plus seasons with Campbell. He has recorded double digit points in 86 of those games. Clemons was held to nine points against the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs back on January 6th, 2016. He is averaging 24.4 points per game as a junior in 2017-18, down slightly from his 25.1 points per game average as a sophomore. Simply put, Clemons is one of the best players in all of college basketball.

Then, when you add in the likes of Marcus Burk and Andrew Eudy, there’s no reason why Campbell can’t make another run at the conference title in 2017-18.

Fairfield Stags (9-13, 4-7 in MAAC)

It’s safe to say that the 2017-18 season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Fairfield Stags through their first 22 games of the year. The Stags were considered to be a top contender in the preseason, but currently sit in seventh place at 4-7 against MAAC foes, and are 5.5 games out of first place with seven conference games to play. The road to the regular season is an uphill battle, but they can definitely make some noise and build some positive momentum heading into the conference tournament.

At one point, the Stags had lost seven of eight games in league play, and were trending in the wrong direction. Now, they have won back-to-back close games, a stretch that included a 103-100 win over the Iona Gaels at home. Five of their seven losses against MAAC teams have been by single digits, much like the Blazers in Conference USA play, so their record could very easily be significantly better.

Leading the way is none other than Tyler Nelson, who many had tabbed as the Preseason MAAC Player of the Year. Despite the team’s struggles, Nelson is having self a big year, averaging career-high marks in both points (21.5) and rebounds (4.3) per game, while also dishing out 3.3 assists and picking up 1.3 steals. Sophomore Ferron Flavors Jr. (11.6 ppg) is the only other player averaging double digit points per game this year for the Stags. But, they do have five players who have appeared in all 22 games and are averaging at least 6.9 points per game.

Fairfield has 10 players who have appeared in at least 13 games this season and are averaging double digit minutes per contest. If they can find the right rotation over the final seven games of the regular season, they could very well make some noise come the MAAC Tournament.

– T. Bennett