ATB: Big East Tourney Begins and Four More Teams Punch NCAA Tickets…

Posted by rtmsf on March 7th, 2012

[Ed. note: Technical difficulties last night led to late publication of this post. For that, we apologize.]

Last Night’s Lede. For some in the Northeast, the Big East Tournament is the most spectacular event in the college basketball season. The classic six overtime Connecticut-Syracuse game from the 2009 tourney was replayed last night on ESPNU and brought us all on a trip down (recent) memory lane to one of the best games of the past decade. The conference’s powerhouses will hopefully bring us some more classic moments in Madison Square Garden this week, though Tuesday night’s first round didn’t include a single close game. Elsewhere, three more NCAA Tournament bids were earned in small conference tournaments, and the Ivy League’s champion was also determined a bit earlier than expected. Let’s get into the rundown of another fun Championship Week night…

Your Watercooler Moment.  South Dakota State Finally Dances.

SDSU Celebrates Its First Ever Trip to the Dance (Summit League)

It was a shocker when top-seeded Oral Roberts fell in the semifinals of the Summit League Tournament last night to Western Illinois, and last night’s heavily favored Jackrabbits nearly suffered the same fate. WIU led for much of the night on Tuesday and had a chance to win this game in regulation but could not convert. The Leathernecks (great team name, by the way) had another chance to tie or win it in overtime down by two but again fell short, giving South Dakota State its first ever Summit League championship and NCAA Tournament berth. The Jackrabbits have a mid-major star in Nate Wolters, who averages 21.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game, and will look to lead SDSU to an upset victory in next week’s Big Dance. South Dakota State has a fine RPI of #55 and could actually end up as a #14 or even #13 seed, giving it a realistic chance to bust open a bracket with an upset or two. Wolters scored just 14 points on 5-22 shooting in Tuesday’s low-scoring, 52-50 affair, but the guard is capable of going for 30 in any game.

Last night’s Quick Hits…

  • Western Kentucky the Most Unlikely Bid Winner Thus Far. In early January, Western Kentucky was a 5-14 team that had just fired its head coach after one of the strangest finishes you’ll ever see to a game, in which WKU’s opponent used six players on the final possession to win the game. Interim coach/permanent coach Ray Harper is now two months later leading the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament after their 74-70 win over North Texas on Tuesday night. This Sun Belt champion was the #7-seed in the tournament and will enter the NCAA’s as the sixth team in the past decade to have a record below .500, at 15-18. This resilient Western Kentucky team has gone through a wild ride and now will surely be playing early next week as part of the tournament’s ‘First Four’ games, looking to advance to take on a #1 seed.
  • Harvard Can Celebrate Early. The Harvard Crimson were sitting in the Ivy League clubhouse at 12-2, waiting for Penn to wrap up its season on Tuesday night with a likely victory over Princeton to put itself into a tie for first place. Of course, the Ivy is the only conference that determines its NCAA bid based on regular season record, not a postseason tournament. So when the Penn Quakers ended up losing on Tuesday night, that meant that Harvard’s sole possession of first place at 12-2 was its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Holding opponents to just 54.8 points per game this season, the #36 RPI Crimson will be in line for a decent seed, perhaps in the #9-#10 range, and will not be an easy out.

Tommy Amaker Got It Done at Harvard After All

  • Detroit Reaches Its Upside En Route to Berth. In the preseason, Detroit was expected to have a big-time year under the guidance of Ray McCallum, Sr., thanks to his son, Ray Jr.’s expected emergence as a star in the Horizon League. Throw in two other talented seniors in Eli Holman (former IU transfer) and Chase Simon, and the Titans had the talent to take the Horizon League crown from Butler. A very mediocre start to the season left this team as a disappointment, but by the end of the year it has gelled to reach that high upside. It culminated in the 70-50 beatdown of #1 seeded Valparaiso in the conference tourney finals, and the Titans have indeed stolen the Horizon bid from Butler (and Valparaiso, on its home floor). A team with solid talent that is 13-2 in its past 15 games, Detroit will be a scary matchup as a projected #14 seed.
  • Seton Hall and Connecticut Notch Key Victories. Beating Providence and DePaul, respectively, won’t help SHU and UConn make the NCAA Tournament, but avoiding a bad loss was obviously mandatory for these two bubble teams. Not only did both come away as winners, but each delivered a dominant performance that sent strong signals to the selection committee. Seton Hall completely thrashed the Friars with a 79-47 victory while the Huskies disposed of DePaul, 81-67. Both teams are now 9-10 against Big East opponents and could use another victory tomorrow to solidify an NCAA bid.

… and Misses.

  • Tony Mitchell’s Mental Blunder. Down by two with about 10 seconds remaining, North Texas just needed its opponent to miss a free throw in order to get the ball back with a chance to tie or win. The Mean Green got just what they wanted, but star forward Tony Mitchell didn’t realize that it was a one-and-one situation at the free throw line. The Hilltoppers clanked the first free throw, but Mitchell made no attempt for the rebound and allowed his man to soar for the board and the putback, sealing the victory for WKU. See the highlowlight here. Tough way for North Texas to go down in the Sun Belt finals.
  • Penn Fails to Provide Playoff Excitement. While there’s no conference tournament in the Ivy League, the tight competition in the league’s regular season often leads to a one-game playoff to settle a tiebreaker between the two top teams. All the Quakers needed to do was beat Princeton on the road on Tuesday night, and we would get to see this do-or-die scenario in the Ivy, the equivalent of a tournament final. But Pennsylvania scored just 52 points and Zach Rosen could not lead his team to a late surge, handing the Ivy title over to Harvard, as described above.

Survive and Advance. We’ve covered the winners of the Sun Belt, Summit, Ivy, and Horizon Leagues already. There were four other leagues in action, including the first power conference tournament and another high major in the A-10.

  • Atlantic 10 – The big guns had the night off in the A-10 conference, but the second tier of teams all had to play in Tuesday night’s first round. The higher-seeded favorites all advanced, which includes UMass, St. Joe’s, Dayton, and LaSalle. They’ll each meet a top-four opponent Friday in Atlantic City.
  • Big East – Moe Harkless’ 25 points wasn’t enough to keep St. John’s alive as Pittsburgh’s big three of Woodall, Gibbs, and Robinson all had big games for the Panthers. Villanova’s Maalik Wayns outscored the entire Rutgers team in the second half as ‘Nova cruised over Rutgers, 70-49. Connecticut got things started at Noon ET with a strong offensive performance to beat DePaul, 81-67, and the aforementioned Pirates rocked Providence later in the night. Each of the four winners will match up with a team seeded #5-#8 in the tournament tomorrow, with a chance to then take on the big boys on Thursday.
  • Big Sky – Not lost in the shuffle is the Big Sky conference, whose semifinals took place on Tuesday night and saw its top two teams advance. The tournament championship tomorrow between Weber State and Montana will be fantastic to watch. Both teams have RPIs in the top 80; the winner will not be an easy out in the Big Dance.
  • MEAC – Elsewhere, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference started its tournament on Tuesday. There are not a lot of strong teams in this league. Hampton, Howard, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M won their first-round games; not a single of those teams has an above-.500 record. We’ll get to see Norfolk State and Savannah State, more talented teams, play in the tourney tomorrow.

Tuesday’s All-Americans.

  • Ray McCallum, Detroit (NPOY) – A former McDonald’s All-American who went to Detroit to play for his father, McCallum but the Titans on his back with 21 points, six rebounds, three assists, and four steals on Tuesday night en route to the Horizon League title.
  • Maalik Wayns, Villanova – The Wildcats’ leader outscored Rutgers in the second half by himself, 19-15. Wayns finished with 28 points, six rebounds, and four assists in VU’s first-round Big East game. The leading free throw shooter in the conference hit 13-14 shots from the line.
  • Jeremy Lamb, UConn – On some nights, Lamb is as pure a scorer as you’ll find in the country. Tuesday was one of those nights, as the sophomore swingman scored 25 points with five boards and four assists while UConn cruised in its first-round Big East Tourney win over DePaul.
  • Damian Lillard, Weber State – The leading scorer in the nation plays for Weber State. He’s one of the best point guards in the country and might be a future NBA first-round pick. If you don’t know him, you definitely need to watch him play in tomorrow’s championship game. On Tuesday, he had 22 points, four assists, and four steals in the Big Sky semis.
  • Jordan Theodore, Seton Hall – He’s been in the conversation as the best point guard in the Big East. Theodore had 13 points and 13 assists, with just one turnover, in Seton Hall’s easy victory over Providence in the Big East Tourney first round.
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