Feb 25, 2017; Spokane, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs center Przemek Karnowski (24) celebrates during a game time out against the Brigham Young Cougars during the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center.  James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament gets all the attention as the height of excitement in college basketball. Though that happens on a bigger stage, the next two weeks can put up an argument as the peak of intensity, pressure, and excitement.

Conference tournaments are underway and every single team in action has a simple directive: win a few games a row and earn a bid to the big Dance or lose and your season is over. Every Cinderella story blossoms in the NCAA Tournament, but the seeds are planted this week. Even if every tournament has excitement built in, these ten storylines stand out as extra entertaining.

1. The Ivy League joins the fun

For the first time ever, the Ivy League will hold a postseason tournament to determine its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Even better, the top four teams in the Ivy will head to one of college basketball’s most iconic venues to duke it out, the Palestra in Philadelphia.

Princeton will be the favorite, but Harvard will give them a tough test. If Penn can steal the fourth and final spot in the tournament, it would boast home court advantage and a wild hot streak, after starting 0-6 in conference. The Quakers could play host and spoiler simultaneously.

2. Can Gonzaga bounce back?

Depending on the Bracketologist, Gonzaga losing its perfect season on Senior Night against BYU may not have cost the Bulldogs a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Losing again almost certainly would do so.

Dropping the conference tournament championship to St. Mary’s (or even BYU) wouldn’t be a terrible loss, but the committee would likely favor the Pac-12 champ to a two-loss Zags team for the West Region top seed.

The Zags went from cruise control to needing a title in the WCC Tourney in Vegas in order to earn a No. 1 seed.

3. Marcus Keene’s green light

The nation’s leading scorer isn’t going to miss the NCAA Tournament without putting up a fight.

Central Michigan guard Marcus Keane will do everything he can to shoot his way through the MAC Tournament. He’s small, inefficient, and his shot selection is questionable at times, but no player can get hot quicker than Keene.

While watching other games this week, keep half an eye on the Chippewas’ box scores. If Keene starts to hit shots, and you’ll know when he’s hitting shots, find a way to watch because he will drop your jaw.

Keene is averaging 29.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game for Central Michigan.

4. Middle Tennessee is no Cinderella now

After beating Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the first round of last March’s NCAA Tournament, Middle Tennessee added JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas. The 6-foot-8 senior has fit in perfectly with the pieces remaining from last year’s squad and the Blue Raiders are poised for another shot at the big time.

Last season, MTSU was a mere 15 seed, but this year they’ll be in the conversation for an at-large bid if they fail to win the Conference USA Tournament. They’d likely find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble, so the Raiders are best off taking care of business this week and getting another shot at a top dog in the tourney.

MTSU had the best record in conference during the regular season, but Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Rice and UTEP also did well and will pose threats in the conference tourney.

5. William and Mary shoots for its first ever bid

While Northwestern is desperate to end its streak without a tournament berth, they aren’t alone. The Wildcats are one of five original Division I teams to have never reached the Promised Land. Three of the other four face an uphill battle (or worse). Army is already eliminated. The Citadel was only 4-14 in conference, and St. Francis (NY) is 4-27 this year and working on a 14 game losing streak. Both would need a minor miracle.

The same is not true of William and Mary.

The Tribe enter the Colonial Athletic Conference Tournament as the fourth seed, but did get wins over the top two teams in the league this season, including an 18-point beatdown of top seeded (and heavy favorite) UNC-Wilmington. Charleston and Towson are the other top teams in the conference entering the tourney.

6. Monmouth is back!

The Hawks were last year’s national darling, beating power programs and dancing along the bench as they did so. This year, Monmouth’s non-conference slate was good but not noteworthy like last season. Since then, the Hawks have set fire to the MAAC.  

Monmouth’s only conference losses came on December 31 and January 2. Aside from that holiday blip, King Rice’s team has carved up the conference. Point guard Justin Robinson is one of America’s most electric players in the open court with the ball in his hands. After a last-second bubble pop last season, Monmouth is hungry for a tourney berth.

The Hawks enter their conference tourney with an impressive 18-2 conference record and 26-5 overall clip.

7. How Valpo fares without Alec Peters

Valparaiso senior forward Alec Peters was one of America’s leading scorers and best players last season. When his coach, Bryce Drew, left for Vanderbilt, conventional wisdom led everyone to believe Peters would head for the pros or take advantage of the graduate transfer rule and try to win a championship.

Instead, he returned to Valpo to shoot for a Horizon League title.

Last season, the Crusaders earned the top seed in the conference tournament but were upset in a wild overtime game by Green Bay. Peters, who was averaging an absurd 23 points and 10 rebounds per game, will now miss the rest of the season with an injury.

The Crusaders will need to fight for a spot in the Big Dance as the top seed in their tournament, without their top player.

8. VCU and Dayton dance before the Dance

Earlier this week, the Dayton Flyers beat VCU at home to clinch the outright Atlantic-10 regular season championship. Both teams have rock-solid resumes for an at-large bid, but that won’t stop them from trying to win a championship in Pittsburgh.

The two teams split regular season meetings and a championship rubber match could be one of the best mid-majors games we see. It would factor into seeding for the NCAA Tournament, but more than most Championship Week games would be more about the game itself than the future implications.

Dayton is 15-2 in conference and 24-5 overall, while VCU enters the A-10 tourney 13-4 and 23-7 overall.

9. “Arch Madness” could be wild

Perhaps the only game more intriguing than a VCU-Dayton rematch would be a showdown between Wichita State and Illinois State in the Missouri Valley title game. The Shockers and Redbirds both went 17-1 in conference, each winning on one another’s home court in the regular season. Third place in the Missouri Valley Conference? How about a two-way tie at 9-9.

The rest of the conference displayed a wild amount of parity, leaving Wichita State and Illinois State as the kings among a group of peasants. A third match-up between the two could be fantastic, but they don’t call the MVC Tourney Arch Madness for nothing. Upsets always show up in St. Louis.

If neither of the top two win the automatic bid, they’ll head to the bubble and make a lot of teams across America nervous.

10. Will Vermont keep rolling?

The Vermont Catamounts are as hot as any team in the nation.

It has been 18 games and over two months since Vermont lost a game, dating all the way back to December 21. Four of the Catamounts’ five losses this season have come at the hands of top 55 teams in the KenPom rankings. Vermont has simply mowed down fellow mid-majors, especially in the America East Conference, where the Cats went undefeated.

Though the America East doesn’t have the name or respect of a major conference, going undefeated through the conference and winning the conference tournament would turn some heads and earn Vermont some buzz as a possible sleeper in March.

The Catamounts enter their conference tourney 27-5 overall.

This article first appeared on Larry Brown Sports and was syndicated with permission.

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