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Rick Nixon | | March 6, 2014

Automatic berths at stake

Notre Dame's Kayla McBride and DePaul's Brittany Hrynko

With conference tournaments tipping off around the country this week, 32 teams will be seeking the special invitation by earning automatic qualifier (AQ) status for the 2014 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship by winning their respective conference tournaments. Here’s a conference-by-conference breakdown of what to look for during the next two weeks of March Madness:

America East Conference
Regular-season champion: Albany (25-4 and 15-1)
Conference tournament: March 7-9 (SEFCU Arena) & 15 (highest seed)

Albany dominated the conference regular season, winning 16 consecutive games before suffering a letdown 66-56 loss at home to Stony Brook this past Saturday. Albany had defeated Stony Brook earlier in the season by a 66-51 count on the Seawolves’ home court. Barring an early tournament upset, Albany and Stony Brook appear on a collision course to meet again on the 15th, this time with an NCAA tournament position as the prize.

American Athletic Conference
Regular-season champion: Connecticut (31-0 and 18-0)
Conference tournament: March 7-10 (Uncasville, Conn.)

Forty-six. That’s the number of consecutive wins that Connecticut hopes to be carrying into the 2014-15 season. Currently riding a 37-game winning streak, Connecticut is the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference tournament and advance into the NCAA tournament, where six more wins would be needed to claim a record ninth national championship for the storied program. A convincing 68-48 win at Louisville on the final day of the regular season before a sellout crowd of 22,163 at the KFC Yum! Center was another exclamation point to what is the third-longest streak in school history. Louisville, which went 0-2 against Connecticut this season by an average margin of 18.5 points per game, hopes to get another shot at the Huskies at the AAC tournament.

Atlantic Coast Conference
Regular-season champion: Notre Dame (29-0 and 16-0)
Conference tournament: March 5-9 (Greensboro, N.C.)

Notre Dame reigned supreme this season in one of the deepest conference’s in the country. The Fighting Irish answered every challenge to post a program-first undefeated regular season. Duke, Maryland, NC State, North Carolina and Syracuse are all challengers who will be looking to take down Notre Dame in Greensboro, but with three all-conference performers in Kayla McBride, Jewell Loyd and Natalie Achonwa, the Fighting Irish figure again to be the favorite.

Atlantic Sun Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 11, 15-16 (home of highest remaining seeds)

Stetson (24-5) will play host to Florida Gulf Coast (22-7) with the Atlantic Sun regular-season championship on the line this Saturday. The two teams come in with identical 16-1 conference records. Stetson’s only conference blemish came at the hands of the Eagles back on Jan. 4 in a 72-56 loss, while Florida Gulf Coast has won eight consecutive games since a defeat at Northern Kentucky on Feb. 1. The two figure to battle it out for the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament title, as well.

Atlantic-10 Conference
Regular-season champion: Dayton (21-6 and 14-2)
Conference tournament: March 5-9 (Richmond, Va.)

Nine wins in the last 10 games propelled Dayton to the Atlantic-10 Conference regular-season championship. Tournament play promises to be a battle with St. Bonaventure, George Washington, Saint Joseph’s and Fordham all legitimate challengers. George Washington got Dayton’s attention by winning the regular-season finale 88-79 in what might be a sign of things to come in Richmond at the conference tournament.

Big East Conference
Regular-season champion: DePaul (24-6 and 15-3)
Conference tournament: March 8-11 (Rosemont, Ill.)

With dynamic guard Brittany Hrynko leading the way, DePaul went 8-1 in the last nine games to win the league title. The Blue Demons clinched the conference regular-season championship with wins against its closest competitors, Villanova and St. John’s, last week. Creighton and Marquette hope to make some noise during tournament play, as well.

Big Sky Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 13-15 (home of regular-season champion)

The reward for winning the Big Sky Conference regular season is that North Dakota would play host to the upcoming tournament on its homecourt where it has gone 13-1 this season at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center in Grand Forks, N.D.  North Dakota can clinch the title and No. 1 seed with a win Thursday at Southern Utah, its closest challenger.

Big South Conference
Regular-season champion: High Point (20-9 and 16-4)
Conference tournament: March 4-9 (Conway, S.C.) 

Five consecutive wins to close the regular season lifted High Point to the championship and the No. 1 seed entering tournament time. With four teams in the league notching 18 wins or more, High Point will receive challenges for the AQ from a group that includes Liberty, Winthrop and Campbell.

Big Ten Conference
Co-regular-season champions: Penn State (22-6 and 13-3) and Michigan State (21-8 and 13-3)
Conference tournament: March 6-9 (Indianapolis)

Penn State will be the No. 1 seed entering the Big Ten tournament but will be watching closely the play of the hottest team in the league, Michigan State, which won nine of its last 10 games to share the conference regular-season title. Also hoping to have something to say about it are Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, with each capable of going on a tournament run.

Big 12 Conference
Co-regular-season champions: Baylor (26-4 and 16-2) and West Virginia (27-3 and 16-2)
Conference tournament: March 7-10 (Oklahoma City) 

West Virginia capped a remarkable regular season with 10 consecutive victories, including several statement wins down the stretch. The Mountaineers brought a halt to Baylor’s 35-game home conference winning streak this past Sunday, winning 71-69 in Waco, Texas. West Virginia then showed no signs of a letdown in beating Kansas 67-60 at home on March 4 to clinch a share of the conference regular-season championship with Baylor, who will be the No. 1 seed at the upcoming Big 12 tournament. Led by the nation’s leading scorer in Odyssey Sims, who averages 30.2 points per game, the Lady Bears possess enough firepower to go on a run of their own. Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma will also be looking to add to their respective resumes with good tournament showings.

Big West Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 11-12, 14-15 (Long Beach, Calif. on March 11-12; Anaheim, Calif. on March 14-15) 

Cal State Northridge (15-14, 11-4) is in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed, leading Cal Poly (16-12, 10-5) and Hawaii (15-11, 9-5) by one game with one regular-season game remaining. A league with plenty of parity, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen at the Big West tournament next week.

Colonial Athletic Association
Regular-season champion: James Madison (25-5 and 15-1)
Conference tournament: March 13-16 (Upper Marlboro, Md.) 

The Colonial automatic berth appears to be James Madison’s to win or lose. The Dukes stormed to the CAA regular-season title with 13 consecutive wins from early January until being stopped by Charleston 85-78 on Feb. 27.  Charleston, which ranks 39th in the nation in scoring, will be looking for a repeat of that performance when the chips are down at the Colonial tournament.

Conference USA
Regular-season champion: Middle Tennessee (26-4 and 15-1)
Conference tournament: March 11-15 (El Paso, Texas) 

Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Insell celebrated the end of the regular season in style, winning his 1,000th career game on March 5 at Tulane. Insell’s career victory total spans his high-school and collegiate days. Insell won 775 games at Shelbyville Central High School and has amassed 225 more victories as Middle Tennessee’s all-time winningest coach. Insell became the fourth coach, either high school or college, to win 1,000 games, joining Pat Summitt (Tennessee), Jim Smiddy (Bradley Central High School) and Lamar Rogers (Clarkrange High School). It was a fitting end to the regular season for Middle Tennessee, which has dominated Conference USA play this season. Southern Mississippi, which defeated Middle Tennessee during the regular season, is lurking as a possible barrier between the Blue Raiders and another automatic bid.

Horizon League
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 10, 12, 14, 16 (home of the highest remaining seeds) 

Green Bay (18-8, 11-3) is in the driver's seat with two games remaining in the regular season by virtue of two head-to-head wins against its nearest competitor, Wright State (22-8, 11-4). With all Horizon League tournament games being played on the home court of the highest seed, Green Bay will be looking to use that to its advantage in gaining another NCAA tournament bid.

Ivy League
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: None

Penn (19-6, 9-2), Princeton (18-7, 9-2) and Harvard (19-7, 9-3) are all in the hunt to decide the Ivy League’s automatic berth the old-fashioned way, by earning it with a regular-season championship. The Ivy League is currently the only conference without a tournament to decide its NCAA tournament participant. All could be riding on Penn’s trip to Princeton on the final day of the season on Tuesday. The Quakers will be hoping that it won’t be a repeat of the first meeting between the two schools earlier in the season, with Princteon routing Penn 84-53.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Co-regular-season champions: Iona (25-4 and 18-2) and Marist (24-6 and 18-2)
Conference tournament: March 6-10 (Springfield, Mass.) 

Neck and neck all season, Iona and Marist shared the MAAC’s regular-season championship, even though Iona will be the No. 1 seed at the conference tournament.  A regular-season ending home loss to Marist (79-67) prevented the Gaels from winning the title outright. The two teams split a pair of games this season, with the MAAC tournament final on Monday looming as a possible decider in this matchup.

Mid-American Conference
Divisional regular-season champions: East -- Bowling Green (26-3 and 16-1); West -- Central Michigan (20-9 and 16-1)
Conference tournament: March 10, 12-15 (Cleveland) 

Winners of 11 consecutive games, Bowling Green is the conference’s hottest team and will be the No. 1 seed at the MAC tournament. Central Michigan, the No. 2 seed, split a pair of regular-season games with the Falcons, and behind the strong play of forward Crystal Bradford possesses enough firepower to threaten Bowling Green come tournament time.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Regular-season champion: Hampton (24-4 and 15-0)
Conference tournament: March 10-15 (Norfolk, Va.) 

Undefeated in conference play in 2014, Hampton appears on the verge of a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The Pirates' closest margin of victory in conference play was a seven-point win against Howard on Feb. 22. That was the only non-double-digit victory for Hampton in Mid-Eastern play.

Missouri Valley Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 13-16 (St. Charles, Mo.) 

Just a few weeks ago, the conference regular-season title seemed secure in the hands of Wichita State (22-6, 13-4). Stumbling down the stretch, the Shockers have lost four of the past five games to allow Indiana State (17-10, 12-4) and Northern Iowa (16-11, 12-4) to enter the regular-season title picture and have left the Missouri Valley tournament wide-open for the taking.

Mountain West Conference
Regular-season champion: Colorado State (22-6 and 14-3)
Conference tournament: March 10-15 (Las Vegas) 

Seventeen wins in 18 games from Dec. 4 to Feb. 19 made Colorado State the talk of the conference. The Rams have come back to Earth recently with losses in two of the past three games to Wyoming and San Jose State, but still appear to be the team to beat for the Mountain West Conference automatic berth. Fresno State and Nevada appear poised to give the Rams a run for their money in Las Vegas next week. 

Northeast Conference
Regular-season champion: Robert Morris (18-11 and 14-4)
Conference tournament: March 9, 12, 16 (home of highest remaining seed) 

Robert Morris can rely on its considerable homecourt advantage throughout the Northeast Conference tournament. The Colonials have posted a 9-0 home record in conference play this season. Mount St. Mary’s,  the No. 2 seed, lost twice to Robert Morris during the regular season.

Ohio Valley Conference
Divisional regular-season champions: East -- Belmont (13-16 and 10-6); West -- Tennessee-Martin (22-7 and 15-1)
Conference tournament: March 5-8 (Nashville, Tenn.) 

The road to the Ohio Valley automatic berth goes through UT Martin, which is on the verge of its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament dance ticket. With 15 wins in the past 16 games, the Skyhawks feature the backcourt tandem of Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome that has has earned first-team all-OVC honors the past four years. Butler ranks ninth in the nation in scoring with a league-leading 24.1 points per game and recently became the league’s all-time leading scorer with 2,811 career points.

Pac-12 Conference
Regular-season champion: Stanford (28-2 and 17-1)
Conference tournament: March 6-9 (Seattle) 

Under head doach Tara VanDerveer’s watch, Stanford captured its 14th consecutive Pac-12 regular-season title and is again the team to beat in the conference tournament. The Cardinal are paced by national player of the year candidate Chiney Ogwumike, who was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and Pac-12 Defensive Player this week. California (21-8, 13-5), which was last year’s Cinderella en route to the Final Four, lost both times to Stanford this season, but enters the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 2 seed. Surprising Oregon State (21-9, 13-5) has had a breakout season and is worth keeping an eye on.

Patriot League
Regular-season champion: Navy (23-6 and 15-3)
Conference tournament: March 4, 6, 10, 15 (home of highest remaining seeds) 

Navy was able to outdistance Army (22-7, 14-4) by a game to win the Patriot League regular-season championship. Five of the Midshipmen’s losses were to teams in the top-100 RPI, including a split of the season series with Army, which has plenty of firepower behind two-time conference player of the year, sophomore Kelsey Minato, who led the league with a 21.6 points per game scoring average that includes a 45-game double-digit scoring streak. Minato is in the midst of one of the best single seasons in Academy history, as she ranks atop the team's single-season lists in points (627), free throws (182) and 3-pointers (71).

Southeastern Conference
Regular-season champion: South Carolina (26-3 and 14-2)
Conference tournament: March 5-9 (Duluth, Ga.) 

The SEC can boast of having the top RPI conference in the country during the regular season, which makes conference champion South Carolina nervous going into the league tournament. A season-ending loss to Tennessee shouldn’t dampen what has been a breakout season for head coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks in winning the SEC for the first time. Tournament competition will come from all sides of the SEC bracket, with No. 2 seed Tennessee poised to make a run, along with Texas A&M, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, LSU, Florida and Georgia.

Southern Conference
Regular-season champion: Chattanooga (26-3 and 18-0)
Conference tournament: March 7-10 (Asheville, N.C.) 

Chattanooga head coach Jim Foster is sitting at the brink of coaching history as his team enters the Southern Conference tournament. If he can lead the Mocs into the NCAA tournament this season, he will become the first coach in history to lead four different teams into the Big Dance. The Hall of Fame coach has previously led Saint Joseph’s, Vanderbilt and Ohio State and he is currently on a list of eight coaches who have taken three teams to the tournament. Chattanooga, which last lost on Nov. 30, has reeled off 22 consecutive wins and is the prohibitive favorite to win the Southern tournament title next week.

Southland Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 12-15 (Katy, Texas)

Central Arkansas (18-9, 12-4) is in the driver's seat for the regular-season title and No. 1 seed with two games remaining. If the Bears stumble this weekend, Stephen F. Austin (17-11, 11-5) and Lamar (16-11, 11-5) will be looking to take advantage. The fight for the Southland tournament will come between those three teams, with McNeese State and Nicholls State worth watching, as well.

Southwestern Athletic Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 11-15 (Houston, Texas) 

With Southern ineligible to compete in the NCAA tournament due substandard Academic Progress Rates, the SWAC automatic berth will be determined by which eligible team advances furthest in the conference tournament. In the event of a tie (for example, all tournament-eligible teams are eliminated in the same round), the automatic berths will go to the highest-seeded team. Texas Southern (17-10, 14-2), Prairie View A&M (11-15, 11-5) and Jackson State (12-14, 10-6) appear to be the three most likely to emerge.

Summit League
Regular-season champion: South Dakota State (22-8 and 13-1)
Conference tournament: March 8-11 (Sioux Falls, S.D.) 

Talent and a partisan crowd will be tough to overcome for the rest of the Summit League as they try and take away the league’s automatic berth from the hands of regular-season champion South Dakota State. Winners of 13 of the past 14 games, the Jackrabbits will play the Summit League tournament at nearby Sioux Falls Arena, where they have enjoyed past success winning the past five Summit tournament titles. Watch IUPUI (21-8, 11-3) as a possible bubble-burster, as the Jaguars split the season series with South Dakota State.

Sun Belt Conference
Regular-season champion: Undecided
Conference tournament: March 12-15 (New Orleans)

Arkansas State (19-10, 13-4) can clinch the Sun Belt Conference regular season and No. 1 seed with a win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. The road to the conference’s automatic berth will be difficult for the Red Wolves as they will need to fight off Western Kentucky, UALR and Texas State. Against those three teams in the regular season, Arkansas State went 5-1.

West Coast Conference
Regular-season champion: Gonzaga (26-4 and 16-2)
Conference tournament: March 6-11 (Las Vegas) 

Five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and another West Coast Conference regular-season championship have made Gonzaga the team everyone else in the league is chasing. A late season loss to BYU has given the other teams chasing hope that the Bulldogs can be beat, but it will take a supreme effort.  BYU (24-5, 14-4) is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time. Also watch Pacific, San Diego and St. Mary’s as all have enough talent to grab the conference tournament title and automatic berth.

Western Athletic Conference
Regular-season champion: Idaho (20-8 and 13-1)
Conference tournament: March 12, 14-15 (Las Vegas) 

Seeking a second consecutive NCAA tournament invitation, Idaho has embraced the role of conference favorite and run with it this season. The Vandals won 13 of the last 14 games to claim the WAC regular-season championship. Their only loss since Jan. 2 was at home to Cal State Bakersfield on Feb. 13.  A rematch with Bakersfield (17-10, 11-4) figures to be in the cards when the WAC tournament lands in Las Vegas next week.

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