There are conference races, and then there are conference races. Those are going on right now in five leagues across the nation, none of which you probably saw on SportsCenter last night.

Why those five? As simple as A-B-C. 

A. They’re basically one-bid leagues, which means the only open door to the dance floor in March is by winning the league tournament. No reprieves, no second chances.

B. They are the only five leagues where the highest-seeded teams from the regular season get to be host in the conference tournament. This is not the Big East gathering in Madison Square Garden, or the Missouri Valley in St. Louis.

C. Where would you rather face the moment of truth for your NCAA tournament dream – in your own arena before your own adoring fans, or somewhere else with the hostility up to your waist?

No wonder Vermont is so happy to be leading the America East by 2 1/2 games.

And Florida Gulf Coast is ecstatic about the three-game lead in the Atlantic Sun.

And UNC Asheville is clinging tenaciously to a one-game lead in the Big South.

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And Wagner, with one NCAA tournament appearance to its name, is anxious about protecting a two-game gap in the Northeast.

And Bucknell, two games ahead, is eager to put away the Patriot League.

Yeah, Virginia and Purdue want to win their conference regular season titles, too. But in the end, will it matter? They’re still in the NCAA tournament, and besides, their league tournament sites will be nice and neutral.

Not so for these five. Look at last season. The host team won the league tournament in all of them. Five-for-five.

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“Typically, your role guys play much better when they’re at home. It matters,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said. “I think a lot of why we won last year was we played at home, and some guys stepped up. There’s certainly more of a comfort level playing where you practice every day.”

So the last thing the leaders want to do in February is get passed in the standings, and deal with the menace of having to win the league tournament on the road.

Vermont coach John Becker: “As a coach, to some degree it helps keep the guys motivated and focused game-to-game, because they understand the opportunities.”

UNC Asheville’s Nick McDevitt: “I think it only raises the stakes that much more for every single game though the regular season. In conference tournament games, it just feels like every possession is that much bigger. It could be the exact same time and exact same score as a regular season game, but a tournament game has a different feel.  Being in familiar surroundings just relaxes you a little bit more.”

Some of the five look pretty safe. Vermont, for instance. The Catamounts are 9-0 in the America East and have yet to win by single digits. They’re 19-5 overall with a 12-game winning streak. Four of their five losses came by a total of 14 points, including 73-69 at Kentucky. Yeah, they’re likely going to be home for the conference tournament, and good luck to the rest of league dealing with that.

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But Becker also had one disclaimer about home court advantage.

“It’s huge, but interestingly enough, when you get to the championship game, it can add a layer of pressure just because you’re kind of expected to win at home in the playoffs. Last year we were undefeated in the league and had won 18 in a row heading into the championship game and were down nine points with eight minutes to go. I thought our guys played with some pressure on them. You flip that around in the last eight minutes and we came back and I thought the crowd helped us.”

Not a bad dilemma to have, right?

“You take it every time.”

Or Florida Gulf Coast. You might know the Eagles better by their stage name, Dunk City. Been that way since they showed up in the Sweet 16 in 2013 as national darlings. Nothing cuddly about them in the Atlantic Sun this season, though, with a 9-0 record by an average of 18.2 points, and a three-game lead with five to go. They’ve trailed only 28:22 out of 360 Big South minutes. About the only mystery left in the regular season is how many different starting lineups they’ll use (16 at last count) and how many dunks (76, so they’re well behind last season’s slam-a-thon of 159.)

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It’s still a little dicey for Wagner, with defending champion Mount St. Mary’s only two games behind. Four of the Seahawks’ last five games are on the road, including the season-ender on Feb. 24 at Mount St. Mary’s. That could be a big day for a Wagner program that saw its only NCAA tournament bid 15 years ago.

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Bucknell has had its way in the Patriot League, winning five of the last 13 tournaments, including 2017. The Bison want to keep that trend going, and the best way is to play the league tournament in the friendly confines. That makes next Monday’s game against second place Colgate on the important side.

UNC Asheville? Boy, would the Bulldogs love to have the Big South championship game at their place, where they’ve won 20 games in a row. But defending champion Winthrop is one game behind, and Radford two. Both still have a game with UNC Asheville to close the gap, but the Bulldogs are home for both.

The urgency must be easy for the players to sense to about now.

Davis: “I think it’s something that’s kind of known, but not said a lot about.”

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McDevitt: “I don’t know if it’s something that they feel right from the start but I would say coming down the stretch they do.

“If you slip up, somebody else is going to take that spot.”

Hosting a tournament guarantees nothing, of course. No wonder they feel the heat in the leagues where there is only one vacancy for the NCAA tournament.

“There’s an amazing amount of pressure,” Becker said. “You want to finish off a great season that you’ve had. You just want it for your program and your kids so badly and you just know how it is; anything can happen on any given day.”

Two bad hours in the conference tournament can finish the best of them. So they have to win big games now, for the right to play even bigger games at home later. The ACC never faces that issue.

 

Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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