The Other 26: Let the Madness BeginPosted by IRenko on March 2nd, 2013
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
As the calendar turns to March, let us declare: Let the Madness begin. The NCAA Tournament is still three weeks away, but the fight to get there begins in earnest this coming week, as 12 mid-major conferences will kick off their tournaments. The Big South and Horizon League will have the honor of kicking things off on Tuesday night, with their first round tournament games. Ten more conferences will follow suit with the first auto-bids being awarded a week from today in the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley.
We’ll be back next week with updates on all the action, but until then, there is still the homestretch of the regular season to attend to. So let’s move on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and (regular season) games to watch this week.
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
- Conference Champions — Jason King had a nice little piece at ESPN this week lamenting the declining relevance of regular season conference championships, a casualty of a year-long on the year-end NCAA Tournament. These teams don’t just catch lightning in a bottle, they. Here are the teams who have clinched an outright regular season conference championship: Gonzaga (WCC), Bucknell (Patriot League), Middle Tennessee State (Sun Belt East), Arkansas State (Sun Belt West), Northeastern (Colonial), Stony Brook (America East), Murray State (OVC West), Robert Morris (NEC), Elon (SoCon North), Davidson (SoCon South), and High Point (Big South North).
- Akron Zips Along — Heading into this past week, Akron was riding a 17-game winning streak, but they would face two big challenges, a Bracketbuster game against North Dakota State and a trip to conference foe Ohio. The Zips dispatched NDSU with relative ease, taking a 14-point lead by halftime and cruising to a 15-point win. It was a different story at Ohio, where the Zips fell behind by 11 point by halftime. But a strong second-half run pulled them back into it, and they finished the job with a gutsy overtime win before a hostile crowd desperate for a win that would’ve put the teams into a tie for first-place. Instead, Akron is now two games clear of the Bobcats in the MAC’s East Division, with three games to play. The Zips’ run has put them in the at-large conversation, though Drexel’s experience last year suggests they may have some difficulty getting into the Tournament if they don’t win the MAC conference tournament.
- Texas Southern’s Tale of Two Seasons — The Tigers finished non-conference play with a 1-12 record and lost their SWAC opener to Southern. But they have since won 15 of 16, capped by a win over Southern on Thursday that broke a tie for first-place in the conference. Senior guard Omar Strong led the way with an outstanding offensive performance, scoring 34 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field (including 7-of-13 from three-point range) and 9-of-10 from the free throw line. It was a huge bounceback game for Strong, who is averaging 16.9 points per game on the season but had scored just 17 points combined in his last three games. The Tigers are now in position to clinch the regular season championship outright when they host Alcorn State today.
- Princeton Holds Home Court — In the 14-game Ivy League round robin, every game counts, but none more than the two matchups between league favorites Harvard and Princeton. The Crimson won the first contest a couple weeks ago in Cambridge, but Princeton repaid the favor last night, winning 58-53, to pull themselves into a first-place tie in the loss column. It was an unusual game in which the two teams, among the nation’s best in three-point shooting, combined to shoot 1-of-19 from behind the arc. But Princeton had a major advantage on the boards, rebounding more than 92 percent of Harvard’s misses and 37 percent of their own — the latter an especially surprising statistic for a team whose style of play favors stopping the transition game over pounding the offensive glass. If both teams win out, they will square off in their second playoff in three years to determine who gets the Ivy’s at-large Tournament bid.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Here are the games to keep an eye on over the next week.
- Butler at VCU (3/2) — The A-10’s newest arrivals looked like its best teams for much of the conference season, until St. Louis swept through both of them like a tornado. But they remain at the top of the standings just behind the Bilikens and will be jockeying for at-large credentials and A-10 tournament seeding when they square off in Richmond today. VCU has to be licking its chops in this one, as their pressure defense sets its sights on a Butler squad that has struggled with turnovers all year. The Bulldogs have had a week to prepare for the Havoc, but will that be enough? For their part, Butler will try to slow the game into a half-court contest, where they can free up their shooters, work methodically out of the post, and pound the offensive glass.
- Wichita State at Creighton (3/2) — After 17 grueling games in the guantlet that is the MVC regular season, it comes down to this. The Shockers and the Bluejays, the two pre-season favorites, have had their ups and downs, but at end of the day, they remain tied atop the standings with one game to play. The Shockers won the first matchup between the two, a game that went down the last possession, behind a 17-point performance from Carl Hall. Bluejays fans are hoping that the change in venue, to the 18,560-seat CenturyLink Center in Omaha, will help invert that result.
- Northwestern State at Stephen F. Austin (3/2) — The two teams tied atop the Southland standings at 13-2 will square off tonight. It will surprise casual fans to learn that Stephen F. Austin has the fourth-best defense in the country, one which received the ESPN spotlight last Friday in a Bracketbuster win over Long Beach State. What’s even more impressive is that the Lumberjacks don’t rely on any kind of full-court pressure or gimmicky approach. They are just incredibly disciplined with their positioning and team defense principles that they make opponents work very hard for a good shot. But it wasn’t their defense that let them down in the last meeting with Northwestern State, which they lost 61-57. It was their 22 turnovers, a stat that reflected an ongoing problem for the Lumberjacks this year.
- New Mexico State at Denver (3/2) / Louisiana Tech at New Mexico State (3/7) — The WAC has flown under the radar a bit this year, but the coming week will be their time to shine. The league’s three best teams will square off in a three-game round robin that starts today with New Mexico State visiting Denver. NMSU then hosts Louisiana Tech on Thursday (before Tech moves on to play at Denver on Saturday in a game that could decide the conference championship). New Mexico State has had a surprisingly good season, given the amount of talent that it lost from last year’s squad. But the development of several underclassmen and the addition of giant 7-5 freshman center Sim Bhullar has the Aggies competing at the top of the WAC pack. They’ll have their hands full this week with two teams who merit more national attention than they’ve received. Denver has won 14 of its last 15 games and is coming off a big Bracketbuster win at Northern Iowa in which they showed off their efficient Princeton offense. Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, is riding a 17-game win streak and is undefeated in WAC play. Ten players get meaningful minutes in Tech’s uptempo, pressure game, which generates turnovers and chokes off the three-point line. Their offense leaves a bit more to be desired, but sophomore guard Raheem Appleby is a dynamo who leads the team with 14.7 points per game.