WBB Conference Tournament Preview: Mid-Majors

It's conference tournament season, and after last week's SEC and Sun Belt tournaments got the state of Texas off to a nice start, this week is where things really start to happen, with six conferences that feature Texas teams playing their tournaments. In this piece, we'll look at the five that aren't the Big 12.

So, what should we know about these tournaments? Let's go over the basics.

American Athletic Conference

DATES: 3/8 - 3/11

TEXAS TEAMS: Houston (No. 3 seed)

WHAT TO KNOW: By virtue of their third seed, Houston won't have to play on Monday when the tournament opens, getting a bye to the second round, where it'll face No. 6 East Carolina. The Cougars have more to play for in this tournament than almost any team in the country, as they've consistently been one of ESPN's "first four out" teams in bracketology, while The Next had them as the final team in their final regular-season bracketology.

The big problem for Houston? South Dakota State lost in the Summit League tournament. There's no way the committee leaves a team that was ranked No. 22 in the country out, so Houston's now competing for a tournament bid with one fewer at-large bid available.

What does Houston need to do? Probably beat South Florida, arguably the best mid-major team in the country, again. Maybe making it to the finals win a win over UCF in the semifinals would help Houston's case, but winning the conference title against South Florida might be the only way to guarantee this team is playing in San Antonio.

Houston won that last meeting 67-49, showing off their defense and shooting 46.7 percent from three. Houston was able to take Bethy Mununga out of the game, forcing her to turn the ball over seven times and holding her to 0-for-5 shooting. The Cougars will need that kind of defensive effort again to lock their way into March Madness.

PREDICTION: I want to pick Houston, but South Florida is just so good. They'll defeat the Cougars in the title game.

 

Conference USA

DATES: 3/10 - 3/13

TEXAS TEAMS: Rice (1W), UTEP (2W), North Texas (3W), UTSA (7W)

WHAT TO KNOW: Two Texas teams — Rice and UTEP — have byes into the third round, while UNT has a bye into the second round and UTSA will play in the first preliminary round on Tuesday.

This is very likely to be a one-bid conference, and even though Rice has flirted with a top 25 ranking at times this year, it's not hard to imagine the Owls finding themselves on the outside looking in if they don't win the conference. It might not be fair, but Rice doesn't have any big non-conference win and a four-point loss to Texas A&M probably isn't enough to ensure an at-large. Rice, led by star center Nancy Mulkey, needs this. They're the best team in the conference and one of the 64 best teams in the country, with the inside-outside build to beat almost anyone. But they still have to get in.

On the other side of the bracket, UTEP gets that double-bye, where they'll likely face Florida Atlantic barring an upset. The Miners have been hot lately, winning 11 of the last 13 games. A 1-3 record against Rice and North Texas is concerning, but those games were played at the very start of the conference schedule. Ever since, UTEP has been tough to beat. Katia Gallegos is one of the most underrated players in the country and the fact that we get to watch her for two more seasons in El Paso is something we all need to collectively appreciate. But this probably isn't the year for UTEP to make the NCAA Tournament, though the post-Mulkey era for Rice could offer UTEP an opportunity.

The team to really watch if we're looking for an upset of Rice? North Texas. 13-6 on the year and 10-4 in conference play, the Mean Green just played a tight two-game series against Rice. It took a late Owls comeback to keep UNT out of the win column in the first game, but UNT responded the next game with a 75-66 victory. Quincy Noble has been fantastic all season and the Owls had no answer for her on Saturday. Don't forget her name, because she's going to rule this state for the next couple of years.

As for UTSA, the Roadrunners were 0-14 in conference play. They'll face UAB in the opening round, who they were supposed to play last weekend to close the regular season before the games were postponed. UAB has three conference wins. Don't count this young UTSA team out, but it's a longshot.

PREDICTION: Rice clinches an NCAA Tournament bid with a tournament championship.

 

Southland

DATES: 3/10 - 3/14

TEXAS TEAMS: Stephen F. Austin (No. 1 seed), Sam Houston (No. 3 seed), Lamar (No. 4 seed), Abilene Christian (No. 7 seed), Houston Baptist (No. 8 seed), UIW (No. 10 seed)

WHAT TO KNOW: The final iteration of the Southland tournament to feature the Texas 4 will tip-off this week, and SFA are heavy favorites to come out on top.

There's not much to say on the Ladyjacks. They're 14-0. According to Her Hoop Stats, they're second in the nation in net points per game, with a 30.5 margin of victory. They're sixth in offensive rating and first in defensive rating. SFA is good. Really, really good.

The other schools don't stand much of a chance here, but there are some interesting storylines.

For Sam Houston, it's a story of how they turned around a so-so conference start to win four of their final five games, with the only loss being to SFA. The duo of Faith Cook and Amber Leggett are arguably the best non-SFA pairing in the conference. If a team could take down the Ladyjacks, this might be the one.

Lamar is the four seed. After three years in a row with at least 15 conference wins, the Cardinals fell off a cliff last year, going 6-14 in the Southland. But this team got going in the right direction again this season, with a 9-6 conference record. They'll look to have a solid tourney and leave the year with some good data to help them make an instant impact in the WAC next year.

Abilene Christian is the seventh seed. The Wildcats were my big miss of the year, as I thought they'd finish second in the Southland. This team just never really put all the strong parts together, ending the year on a 1-4 skid. There are good players here and the coaching and personnel to bounce back in 2022.

HBU is the eight seed. The Huskies won 46.2 percent of their conference games. They'd won 33.3 percent or fewer for four consecutive seasons. In the post-Texas 4 version of the Southland, this team has a lot of room to grow.

UIW rounds out the field. COVID led to them playing nine conference games, with a lot of them stuffed in at the end of the season. This team is better than the 10 seed. It's a young squad down in San Antonio, but it's one with a ton of talent. At least in women's basketball, UIW seems primed to become the place to go in the Alamo City when it comes to basketball.

Anyway, that's the field. Here are some observations on the bracket:

- ACU/UIW on Wednesday is going to be a lot of fun. UIW lost 64-55 to them on Saturday in their only matchup of the season, but with the Wildcats struggling lately, UIW could get the upset win.

- Sam Houston and Lamar get byes to the third round. We'll see them for the first time on Friday.

- SFA gets a bye to the semifinals, where they could see Lamar. Considering how big both Ladyjack wins over Lamar have been, it seems like SFA's best chance of getting upset will be in the Finals.

PREDICTION: SFA is going dancing.

 

SWAC

DATES: 3/10 - 3/14

TEXAS TEAMS: Texas Southern (No. 7 seed)

WHAT TO KNOW: Prairie View missed the tournament, leaving only Cynthia Cooper-Dyke's TSU squad to represent Texas in the SWAC tourney.

The seventh seed, the Tigers open against second-seed Alabama State. In two meetings this year, Texas Southern is 0-2 against ASU, but the games have been relatively close.

This Tigers team is far from full strength at this point, but Te'Aire Hambrick and Ataiya Bridges in particular are excellent basketball players. They aren't going down without a fight. Yes, this was a disappointing year, but this team is going to bounce back.

PREDICTION: Jackson State is the SWAC's best team. They're 14-1 in conference play, losing only to Alabama State by two. They've bulldozed the rest of their schedule, including blowout wins over Texas Southern and Prairie View. They'll win the SWAC.

 

WAC

DATES: 3/10 - 3/14

TEXAS TEAMS: UTRGV (No. 6 seed)

WHAT TO KNOW: With Tarleton not eligible for postseason play yet as they transition to Division I, UTRGV is left as the only Texas school to represent the state in the WAC tournament.

The Vaqueros were 2-8 in conference play, with wins over Seattle and Tarleton. Amara Graham and her teammates had a respectable year, but the gap between the WAC's top teams and bottom teams is wide this season. Three-seed Grand Canyon, who UTRGV play in the first round, had two double-digit wins over the Vaqueros, though Graham scored 21 in the second meeting and helped UTRGV to a halftime lead.

All of this is fairly moot though, because...

PREDICTION: Cal Baptist is going to run through this thing. 14-0 in conference play, the Lancers didn't lose a game all season. They've got an average margin of victory of 15.9. It would be a huge upset if anyone else won this conference.

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