(CBS Local/CBS Chicago) While conference basketball week starts in earnest next week, there are several conferences battling it out to determine their automatic NCAA Tournament bids this weekend. The Atlantic Sun, Big South, Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley conferences will all determine their champions this Saturday and Sunday. That means college basketball fans get their chance to see guys like Lipscomb’s Garrison Matthews, Campbell’s Chris Clemons and, of course, Murray State phenom Ja Morant make their bids for the tournament this weekend.
And in the Missouri Valley, whose championship game is on CBS this Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern, fans may see a familiar face. The number-one seed in the MVC is none other than Porter Moser’s Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, who burst onto the scene last year with a spectacular Final Four run. The Ramblers haven’t been as dominant this year in conference as they were last year, but there is still a load of experience on this year’s team. We caught up with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Swin Cash, who told us that experience is a big thing to lean on come this time of year. Cash also gave us her picks, as of right now, to make the Final Four, and one of the teams may surprise you.
CBS Local Sports: Swin, we’re officially in March with Selection Sunday a little over a week away, what is your favorite part about this time of year?
Swin Cash: My favorite part is that a lot of times people know the big brand-name schools, they know the top players. But there is always that Cinderella. There are people who become legendary, household names. That is always this time of year, when people make the stories that they’re going to tell their grandkids about one day. That is the beauty of March.
CBS Local Sports: On the court this weekend, CBS officially kicks off championship week with the Missouri Valley Conference Championship. Loyola-Chicago won Arch Madness last year before their Cinderella run. They’re back as the 1-seed in this year’s tourney. Can this year’s team find that same March magic?
Swin Cash: What they have is experience. You can talk about what they have lost, but there is something to be said for players who have had the ability to sniff out a Final Four. Players who have had the experience of being on a run. You can’t teach that experience, sometimes you just have to live it and play in it.
As they (Loyola-Chicago) go into conference tournament time and try to make their mark this March, that is what they can lean on. ‘Hey, we have been there before, so we know how to get there.’ They had some key matchups early on in the season, with Nevada and Maryland, that were opportunities to maybe get a win and do something special. That didn’t happen, but I think they have learned through those losses this season, and I’m interested to see if they can make a run come tournament time.
CBS Local Sports: Speaking of Loyola-Chicago’s run last year, is there a team that’s more off-the-radar that you think could make some noise this year in the tournament?
Swin Cash: There are a few teams in the American that I like. If you look at a team like Houston that can score and defend as well as they do, they could be a team to make a run. The other team in the American that I like is my iron-man team in Cincinnati. They’re a team that has been to the tournament nine years in a row, and you’re just waiting for Mick Cronin and the team to take that next step. Could this be the year for the Bearcats? I don’t know, but I do look at them as a dark-horse team.
CBS Local Sports: Who is your favorite player to watch in college basketball this season?
Swin Cash: Obviously, you can’t take your eyes off of what Zion Williamson does on the floor. He is the go-to where it’s like he is a cheat code on NBA 2K. But, I think, in terms of a guy that isn’t on TV as much, you have to look at Ja Morant and what he has been able to do at Murray State.
The kid is going to be a top lottery pick if he comes out this year. He puts on a show. From his dunks to how he plays the game and the level and intensity that he plays at, it’s fun to watch. I’m hoping they do get an opportunity to get into the tournament, because all eyes would be on him, because he is one of those guys that you’ll pay for a ticket to go and watch.
CBS Local Sports: We’re heading into the final weekend of the regular season for most teams. With that in mind, who are your favorites at this point to make it to Minneapolis for the Final Four?
Swin Cash: I’m going to give you my prediction as of right now, but it could change by the time Selection Sunday comes. That said, right now I love the way that North Carolina is playing. This also may be the year where you look at Tony Bennett and Virginia as a Final Four possibility. You have to have Duke in there. And those are all probably number-one seeds that we’re looking at. But, my fourth team, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is a possibility, depending on how things go, that LSU could be there. You look at that team and what Will Wade has done there, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a team like LSU end up getting to the Final Four.