O26 Primers: Big Sky, Summit League and Sun Belt TourneysPosted by KDoyle on March 6th, 2011
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
Three more conferences begin things tonight. The Big Sky and Sun Belt look to be very competitive with multiple teams capable of getting hot at the right time and running away with the title, while the Summit League features the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the head of the pack and everyone else trying to keep up. All three conferences are definite single-bid leagues meaning all games will be played with a great sense of urgency; the agony of defeat and glory of victory becomes that much more apparent as well.
The Favorite: Northern Colorado has played the best ball in the Big Sky over the course of the past month and they also have arguably the league’s best player in Devon Beitzel on their side. Montana will have their chance to prove me wrong, but right now it is the Bears who are the favorite.
Dark Horse: Any team that is proficient at shooting the three ball cannot be discounted in a game. Despite having a middle of the road 9-7 record within the conference, Northern Arizona can stroke it with anyone. Cameron Jones, Gabe Rogers, and Eric Platt all shoot well over 40% from downtown.
Who’s Hot: Northern Colorado has won eight of their last nine games and 15 of 18 to enter the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team.
Player to Watch: Cameron Jones has had his way with Big Sky teams this year as he is averaging just shy over 20 points on the year and has scored in double figures in every game save one. He’s got Northern Arizona playing well entering the tournament as the Lumberjacks have won four of five games with the lone loss coming to Northern Colorado by a point.
First-Round Upset: Eastern Washington over Weber State. Although they have struggled for most of the season, Eastern Washington is riding a modest two game winning streak entering the Big Sky tournament with their last win coming against the team they will do battle with in the tournament’s first round: Weber State.
How’d They Fare? It was one of the most heroic performances that you have never heard of in college basketball. Anthony Johnson’s performance in the second half of the Big Sky Championship game against Weber State propelled Montana to the NCAA Tournament where they narrowly lost to #3 seed New Mexico. Montana was trailing 40-20 at the intermission, but Johnson scored 34 of his 42 points in the decisive half to defeat the Wildcats. If Johnson’s unbelievable performance carried over to the New Mexico game, Montana advances to the second round. Instead, they were defeated by the Lobos 62-57.
Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simple one of the greatest moments—if not the very greatest—in Big Sky history came in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina fans, close your eyes:
The Favorite: With a dominating 17-1 record in the regular season, Oakland is the obvious favorite to win the Summit League. The dynamic combination of Keith Benson and Reggie Hamilton are two of the bigger pieces of what is the most explosive offense in the league.
Dark Horse: Considering that IUPUI handed Oakland their lone league loss, they have to be taken as a threat to derail the Golden Grizzlies of title aspirations.
Who’s Hot: Boasting a near upset over Michigan State, a win over Tennessee in Knoxville, and a near perfect league record makes Oakland the hottest team entering the conference tournament.
Player to Watch: There are not many players coming from the Summit League that will have a career in the NBA, but Keith Benson is an exception. The senior big man has the moves and the shot of a small forward, but the size of a center. Benson averages 17.7 points, a shade of 10 rebounds, and can occasionally step outside and hit a three (40%).
First-Round Upset: South Dakota State over IPFW. The Jackrabbits are limping into the tournament having lost their last two regular season games, but having already defeated IPFW twice this year they will not be lacking confidence against them. Having the best sophomore guard in the league in Nate Wolters certainly doesn’t hurt the cause either.
How’d They Fare? As a #14 seed, Oakland came out flat against Pittsburgh and was never really in the game as they lost 89-66.
Interesting Fact: Since 1998, the Summit League only has one NCAA Tournament victory and that came in the Play-in game when Oakland defeated Alabama A&M in 2005. We all remember the 1998 Tournament as Valparaiso dramatically upset Ole Miss on Bryce Drew’s famous shot as time expired. Drew’s desperation heave is a highlight that is played during seemingly every NCAA Tournament. Although Valpo is now in the Horizon League, they put the Summit League on the map during their tenure in the conference. Need a refresher of that shot?
The Favorite: Florida Atlantic has been the top team in the Sun Belt throughout the entire season, but come March I like the team who has been playing their best ball of the season in a single elimination tournament setting. The Owls are 5-3 in their last eight games with losses to Western Kentucky, Denver, and Louisiana Lafayette. Meanwhile over in Louisiana, the Ragin’ Cajuns have turned things around in a big way since the first half of the season. Louisiana Lafayette has won 11 straight to conclude the regular season. I like their balance and first-year head coach Bob Marlin to continue their streak all the way into the NCAA Tournament.
Dark Horse: Western Kentucky, considering their talent and experience in the NCAA Tournament in the past few years, has been largely a disappointment. With just an 8-8 record in the Sun Belt, the Hilltoppers have underperformed, but the abilities of Steffphon Pettigrew and Sergio Kerusch cannot be discounted.
Who’s Hot: As previously mentioned, Louisiana Lafayette is hands down the hottest team entering the tournament riding an 11 game winning streak after beginning the season with an ugly 3-14 mark.
Player to Watch: He is only a freshman, but South Alabama’s Augustine Rubit has performed like a seasoned veteran. Standing at just 6’6, he is the Sun Belt’s leading rebounder averaging just over 11 a game. South Alabama probably will not make much noise in this year’s tournament and Rubit may only have a game to strut his abilities, but he has a very bright future for the Jaguars.
First-Round Upset: Troy over North Texas. Don’t be surprised if the Trojans—behind the complete and all-around solid play of Will Weathers—gets by North Texas. Troy has already defeated them earlier this year 89-81.
How’d They Fare? North Texas, as a #15 seed, lost to Kansas State by 20 points. Prior last year’s Tournament, Western Kentucky found great success coming out of the Sun Belt as they won two games in the 2008 Tournament (beat Drake 101-99 and San Diego 72-63) and in 2009 beat Illinois 76-72.
Interesting Fact: The Denver Pioneers have never tasted the fruitful waters of the NCAA Tournament, but things may change this year if they can string a few wins together. Although their 13-16 record is not impressive, they have compiled 9 wins in the Sun Belt and are another dark horse to win the tournament.
We have a two day break with no Other 26 conferences beginning their tournament on Sunday or Monday, but Tuesday will feature the following leagues getting things going: the Atlantic 10, the MAC, and the MEAC.