liberty

Okay, so we still have to wait more than a week for the real tournament to tip off, but any college basketball fan knows that Championship Week is where the real Madness begins as automatic bids and Conference championships across the States are decided while at-large bids are strengthened and secured.

As we speak, five teams have already punched their tickets to the dance with five more bids to be decided tonight.

Let’s examine…

Florida Gulf Coast – Atlantic Sun tournament winners

The Eagles earned their first NCAA tournament berth in school history by defeating top-seeded Mercer in the Atlantic Sun championship on Saturday. Florida Gulf Coast finishes up 24-10, but their only game against a ranked team saw them get blown out by 21 points at Duke back in November.

Liberty – Big South tournament winners

If you’re looking for an early Cinderella team to feel good about, look no further than the Big South champion Liberty Flames. The Flames went just 11-20 in the regular season and 6-10 within the conference to enter the Big South tournament tied for the ninth-best record in a 12-team conference. From there, Liberty upset Coastal Carolina, High Point (the top seed from the North division), Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern (the top seed from the South division) to capture the tournament.

It’s a great story, but if you actually pick Liberty to win a game in the tourney, you’re a braver man than I.

Harvard – Ivy League regular season champions

Check out the 2012-13 Ivy League champion Harvard Crimson. The next Jeremy Lin may be on that list. Not really.

Creighton – Missouri Valley tournament winners

The Bluejays won their Missouri Valley quarterfinal and semifinal games over Drake and Indiana State by a combined 33 points before holding off Wichita State in the championship game.

Don’t be surprised if Creighton, who finished up 27-7, ends up with a top-8 seed in one of the four NCAA Tournament regions. With their run to the MVC tournament final, Wichita State (26-8) probably did enough to secure an at-large bid themselves.

Belmont – Ohio Valley tournament winners

Belmont survived an overtime thriller versus Murray State on Saturday night to win the school’s first ever Ohio Valley Conference championship, finishing their season with an impressive 26-6 record. The Bruins won six in a row and 17 of 19 to close out their schedule, but a 29-point loss to Kansas in their only matchup against a ranked team this season – albeit way back in December – won’t do much to instill confidence in bracket-filling fans.

***

While five teams have already clinched automatic bids into the tournament, five more conference titles will be decided tonight. Here’s what’s on tap for the first evening of Championship Week…

West Coast Championship: Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary’s – 9:00 PM ET

The clear cut headliner of Championship Week’s opening night pits the WCC’s top two seeds against each other for the conference title and an automatic bid into the tournament. Both teams are virtually locked in for a tournament berth, but conference championships still mean a great deal to these programs and you can be sure that neither school will be looking past this game. The Bulldogs and Gaels combined to go 57-7 overall and 30-2 within the WCC, with Gonzaga going a perfect 16-0 within the conference.

After keeping their first matchup close and losing by only five at Gonzaga in January, Saint Mary’s dropped their home game against the Bulldogs in more embarrassing fashion, falling 77-60 on Valentine’s Day. Is the third time the charm for the Gaels, or will Gonzaga complete the most impressive pre-tournament season in school history with a conference title to all but guarantee themselves a No. 1 seed in the tournament?

Colonial Championship: Northeastern vs. James Madison – 7:00 PM ET

Metro Atlantic Championship: Iona vs. Manhattan – 9:00 PM ET

Southern Championship: Davidson vs. Charleston – 7:00 PM ET

Sun Belt Championship: Florida International vs. Western Kentucky – 7:00 PM ET