O26 Storylines: Regular Season Champs and Potential Cinderellas

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 11th, 2014

Championship Week is in full swing. For the O26 conferences, it’s more than halfway over. Eight automatic bids have already been handed out as of Monday night. Let’s take a look at this week’s storylines before Sunday’s Selection Show.

Belmont is just one of many regular-season champions that will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. (GASTON GAZETTE)

Belmont is just one of many regular-season champions that will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. (GASTON GAZETTE)

Should one-bid leagues send their regular-season champion to the NCAA Tournament?

It’s in the best interest of one-bid leagues to send their best team to the Big Dance. That increases the likelihood of an upset, and thus more exposure for the school. We’ve already seen seven teams that won their respective conference’s regular-season title fall in the conference tournament. Enjoy the NIT, fellas. Belmont (Ohio Valley), Davidson (Southern), Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Green Bay (Horizon), High Point (Big South), Iona (Metro Atlantic) and Vermont (America East) all were #1 seeds in their conference tournaments, and all probably were legitimate threats to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, those leagues will be represented by weaker teams that don’t have much upset potential. Those top seeds aren’t rewarded for season-long excellence. Instead, they’re being punished for one slip-up. It won’t change because there’s no way any league’s going to want to lose the exposure that comes along with their tournament title game being broadcast on ESPN. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see those teams dancing, and as a result, we have a watered down NCAA Tournament field. Matt Norlander made an interesting argument here.

Which one-bid leagues boast NCAA Tournament representatives that could pull upsets?

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Conference Tournament Primer: Conference USA

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 11th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with another conference tourney tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, Conference USA gets started.

Dates: March 11-15
Site: Haskins Center (El Paso, Texas)

2014 cusa tourney bracket

What to expect: Four teams tied for first during the regular season at 13-3 — Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Middle Tennessee, and Southern Miss — and they’ll be seeded in that order here. Without much of a chance for at-large bids, the C-USA tourney should be a dogfight between those top four. Semifinal Friday should be a doozy if the chalk holds. The automatic bid winner could be a potential Cinderella in the big bracket.

Favorite: Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are the top seed, having won four straight and eight of their last nine games. Tech gets it done on the defensive end, ranking 22nd in the nation in defensive efficiency (94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Bulldogs aren’t too shabby on offense, either, ranking second in Conference USA in league games with 110.1 points scored per 100 possessions.

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The RTC Mountain West Superlatives

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 10th, 2014

Not only did the Mountain West regular season title come down to the final moments of the season, but the Player of the Year race was held in the balance until late Saturday night. Below, one man’s opinion on the best in the Mountain West.

Player of the Year

Xavier Thames, Senior, San Diego State – With 12 minutes left in the conference regular season and New Mexico up 16 at Viejas Arena, Cameron Bairstow looked like he had a hammer-lock on the POY award. A 26-7 run later, the Aztecs were conference champions and now Thames is the pick as the league’s MVP. But don’t believe for a second that this is a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision based largely on recentness; this was just a race that was neck and neck all season long, and Thames was the one to nose the finish. Bairstow winds up leading the conference in scoring, averaging better than three points a game more than Thames, but the Aztec point guard was not only his team’s leading scorer (16.9 PPG), but he was also their lead playmaker (3.0 APG), their most important defender on a top-ten defense nationally, and their rock down the stretch of close games. Down the stretch Saturday night, as Bairstow was held to a single point over the final 12 minutes of the game, Thames scored 10 points, as well as collecting two steals, two assists and a rebound in leading his team to a win. Bairstow had an excellent year, and the improvement in his game deserves plenty of recognition, but he also played with two other guys who deserve strong consideration for a first-team all-conference spot. For Thames, he was the Aztecs’ main guy and the one most responsible for their regular season conference title.

In Helping His Team Cut Down the Nets On Saturday Night, Xavier Thames Earned the RTC Mountain West Player of the Year (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

In Helping His Team Cut Down the Nets On Saturday Night, Xavier Thames Earned the RTC Mountain West Player of the Year. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

Coach of the Year

Steve Fisher, San Diego State – This one doesn’t require nearly as much of an explanation. Fisher took a team that was picked by the media to finish fourth in the conference (full disclosure, RTC picked them 2nd), a team that had to replace four of its six leading scorers, including all-conference types Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, and turned this Aztec team into a national top ten team. At times it seemed like he was doing it with smoke and mirrors, but facts remain: 27-3; losses only at home to Arizona and on the road to Wyoming and New Mexico; regular season conference championship; and a likely top-four protected seed in the NCAA Tournament. Sounds like a Coach of the Year to me.

All-Conference

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What San Diego State’s Win Over New Mexico Says About Their Postseason Chances

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 10th, 2014

By now, if you care, you know already: San Diego State put together an impressive late-game run to overcome a 16-point deficit to knock off New Mexico on Saturday night, earning the Mountain West conference regular season title and thrilling the capacity Viejas Arena crowd. It was a great game, a great scene and a great encapsulation of all that we love about college basketball.

The Show Rushes The Court Following The Aztecs' Stunning Win Over New Mexico Saturday Night

The Show Rushes The Court Following The Aztecs’ Stunning Win Over New Mexico Saturday Night.

For San Diego State, the run at the end of the game was indicative of what they’ve done all year. Back in February, we wrote that what made this team special was their ability to do what they wanted to do on the court and prevent their opponents from doing what they wanted to do. However, for most of the middle part of the game, it was New Mexico that was having their way. They were pounding the ball inside with big guys Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and with 12 minutes remaining in the game, that duo had outscored the Aztecs 33-25 by themselves. And then came the 1-3-1 zone, a last resort from Aztec head coach Steve Fisher to prevent those Lobo bigs from doing them in. And it worked to a T. Bairstow had only a single free throw after that point, New Mexico only scored seven points the remainder of the game (three of which came on a meaningless Kendall Williams three at the buzzer) and the Aztecs finished on a wild 26-7 run to earn the title. There were 18 possessions when the game was still in doubt after the Aztecs switched to a 1-3-1 zone; in those 18, they forced eight turnovers and five missed threes (for completeness’ sake, the other five possessions included a pair of missed two-point jumpers, a total of one-for-four from the free throw line and – the lone bit of good – a Deshawn Delaney corner three).

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Increasingly Balanced WCC Could Have Bright Future Ahead

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 10th, 2014

Let’s play a little word association game. I say WCC, you say… Gonzaga – right? But when I say Gonzaga, there are bound to be a dozen or so words that will escape your lips before you say WCC. This only makes sense, because for as long as anyone can remember, Gonzaga has been the WCC. Or, at the very least, that interchangeability has served as a quick and easy (and fairly accurate) mental shortcut. But here in 2013-14, the times are a changin’ as Gonzaga has shown more fragility than it has in a long while, but more importantly, the rest of the conference has taken a significant step forward.

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15.

That pairing of Zag vulnerability and WCC uprising was on full display Saturday night in the WCC quarterfinals, where a Santa Clara team that finished eighth in the league pushed Mark Few’s team to the final buzzer. Gonzaga managed to narrowly escape the Broncos’ challenge (on a David Stockton coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds) and is still the clear favorite to take the WCC Tournament title this week, but are these more balanced days here to stay and flourish in the WCC?

The WCC will likely only send two teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament (an outside shot at three if Saint Mary’s or San Francisco can steal the WCC Tournament title), but even with Gonzaga slightly down, the league has been better than it has been in a very long time. Their current conference RPI and KenPom ranking of #9 is the best since the 2004-05 season, and there may be even better days ahead. Saint Mary’s core of seniors leaves Randy Bennett’s team vulnerable to a significant drop-off next season (the SMC situation almost demands its own post, honestly), but outside of the Gaels and a senior-laden Pacific team, most every WCC team will return the bulk of its core. The young nuclei around the league have all had their moments this season, and coaching staffs at Pepperdine, San Diego, Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara should all be expecting improved teams to return in 2014-15.

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O26 Superlatives, Part II: CAA, C-USA, MAC, MEAC, MVC, SoCon, Summit & WCC…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 10th, 2014

In Part II of our three-part series, we pass out 2013-14 superlatives to the best teams, performers and performances from eight different O26 conferences: CAA, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, SoCon, Summit and WCC. In alphabetical order:

Colonial Athletic Association

The Blue Hens outworked the rest of the CAA for much of 2013-2014. (The Post and Courier)

The Blue Hens outworked the rest of the CAA for much of 2013-2014. (The Post and Courier)

  • Team of the Year – Delaware (22-9, 14-2). Not even early- and late-season suspensions of two of Delaware’s best players could stop the Blue Hens’ run to a CAA regular season title. Monte Ross’ up-tempo club raced off to an 11-0 start in conference play, amassing a large enough lead that preseason favorite Towson was never able to catch up.
  • Player of the Year – Jerelle Benimon – Towson. You want beastly numbers? How about these: In 32 games, the 6’8’’ Benimon averaged 18.9 points, 11.7 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, recorded an NCAA-best 20 double-doubles and reached the free throw line 258 times, good for sixth in the country.
  • Coach of the Year – Monté Ross – Delaware. Ross found a way to keep things together, to keep winning after guard Devon Saddler – the team’s leading scorer – missed seven games due to suspension early in the season and Jarvis Threatt – the team’s third-leading scorer – was suspended for the entire month of February.
  • Upset of the Year – Northeastern over Georgetown, 63-56. In the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, miles from Boston or Washington D.C., Scott Eatherton and the Huskies pounded Georgetown in the paint and pulled off an unexpected upset. Alas, it was another full month before Bill Coen’s bunch wound up back in the win column.
  • Dunk (or Dunker) of the Year – Johnathan Burroughs-Cook – College of Charleston. Burroughs-Cook cares not that you are D-II school or that he is playing in a preseason game—he will still annihilate your attempt to draw a charge.

Conference USA

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Conference Tournament Primer: Mid-American Conference

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 10th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the MAC and the MEAC get started.

Dates: March 10, 12-15
Site: First Round: Campus sites; Second Round, Quarters, Semis and Championship: Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland, OH)

MACBracket

What to expect: The MAC’s power pendulum has swung numerous times this season, so it’s difficult to tell which contender has the best shot in Cleveland. Buffalo came on strong in the second half of the year and might boast the league’s most dominant player in Javon McCrea, a double-double machine who recently set the school’s all-time scoring record, while Western Michigan enters the event having won 10 of its last 11 games. Toledo, meanwhile, set a school record with 26 overall wins and will get a triple-bye (yes, a triple-bye) all the way to the semifinals, along with the Broncos. More likely than not, one of those three clubs will emerge as champion. Still, don’t be surprised if one of the conference’s other up-and-down challengers – like recent NCAA Tournament representatives Ohio and Akron – put together a run and leave with a trophy.

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Conference Tournament Primer: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 10th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the MAC and the MEAC get started.

Dates: March 10-15
Sites: The Scope (Norfolk, Va.)

2014 meac bracket

What to expect: It’s been two years since #15 seed Norfolk State pulled off a stunning upset of Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. While the MEAC boasts a different team this time around — North Carolina Central — it has another one that could put a scare into a top seed in the first round. That is, of course, if the Eagles can earn the league’s automatic bid this week. Hampton and Norfolk State will be their main challengers, and remember, the #1 seed has won this tournament only three times in the past 10 years. That tells some of the story as to why the MEAC is only 5-32 in NCAA Tournament games all-time

Favorite: North Carolina Central. The Eagles ran away with this league, winning it by two games over Hampton. Funny story, NCCU played Hampton once this season, but it didn’t count as a league game and I couldn’t find an explanation as to why that occurred. Nevertheless, NCCU has won 17 straight games, including 15 in a row in conference play. The Eagles ranked first in the MEAC in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

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Wichita State Makes History on its Way to the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 9th, 2014

Twenty-three years ago. That’s the last time a college basketball team entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Until now. The Wichita State Shockers completed their inexorable march toward regular season perfection with an 83-69 victory against Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game Sunday afternoon at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Thirty-four times opponents attempted to end Wichita State’s bid for perfection, and 34 times they failed. The 1990-91 UNLV team that entered the NCAA Tournament at 30-0 will no longer be the answer to a modern-day trivia question. That honor now belongs to Wichita State. “I wouldn’t say it was a celebration or a relief, but we understand what we accomplished is something special,” Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said. “At the same time we still have business to take care of.” Added Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet: “We’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to embrace it and appreciate it. This stuff doesn’t happen.”

Wichita Has Surprised Everyone On Its Way to Unbeaten Heading Into Selection Sunday (credit: TSN/Ryan Fagan)

Wichita Has Surprised Everyone On Its Way to Unbeaten Heading Into Selection Sunday (credit: TSN/Ryan Fagan)

Let’s forget the omnipresent strength-of-schedule argument surrounding the Shockers. Let’s forget the detractors who won’t be satisfied until Wichita State proves itself in the Big Dance. Let’s celebrate the accomplishment for what it is. Wichita State is just the second team in history to begin the season with 34 straight wins. The other? That UNLV squad that reached the Final Four at 34-0 before falling to Duke. This is one of the biggest stories in the history of college basketball. The Shockers pulled off a feat that’s only been done once before. And should they — with their inevitable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — be able to avoid the first #16 over #1 upset in Big Dance history, Wichita State would stand alone as the only team to start a college basketball season with 35 consecutive victories. “It’s got to be [one of the greatest stories in college basketball history],” Van Vleet said. “You’re talking about 34 up, 34 down. I don’t care who you’re playing or where you’re at or where you’re from, 34-0 is 34-0.”

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Jeff Neubauer Perseveres, Leads Eastern Kentucky Back to Big Dance

Posted by David Changas on March 9th, 2014

In 2007, while in his second year as head coach at Eastern Kentucky, Jeff Neubauer led the Colonels to the NCAA Tournament, getting there with a group that he largely inherited from his predecessor. That team was a #16 seed and lost to a Tyler Hansbrough-led North Carolina squad in the first round. In the seasons that followed, Neubauer has had teams that have been competitive in the Ohio Valley Conference, but none of which has been able to get back to the Big Dance. That changed on Saturday, when Eastern Kentucky took down defending champion Belmont, 79-73, to win the OVC Tournament championship in Nashville. It was a surprising result to many, mostly because Belmont, which had won the regular season title, seems to never fall short of the NCAA Tournament. But to those who have watched the league closely over the past couple of years since Belmont’s arrival, it was no surprise at all that Neubauer was able to get this senior-laden team back the place every coach in a one-bid league aspires to.

Corey Walden, the OVC Tourney MVP, Cuts the Nets (AP)

Corey Walden, the OVC Tourney MVP, Cuts the Nets (AP)

For Neubauer, despite the many years of being not quite good enough, there was never a doubt that he would eventually make it back. “The thing I’ve had in my mind is that it is inevitable that we will end up back in the NCAA Tournament. I think, as a coach, you have to have that mentality that it’s going to happen,” he said after the win. “It’s something we all should really appreciate.” Given the wealth of experience that this team had, missing the NCAAs would have been a lost opportunity. The Colonels are led by guards Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden, who combined for 52 points in the win, and who give Eastern Kentucky as athletic a backcourt as exists in the OVC. With a total of six seniors, this was clearly Neubauer’s best opportunity to get back to the Big Dance. Last year, in a league with an even better Belmont squad and an extremely talented Murray State team, winning the league’s automatic bid was a tall order and was one the Colonels narrowly fell short of in a semifinals loss to the Racers. It was that game that proved to Neubauer that his team could win it. “Our experience being here last year in the semifinal, if you would ask these players, really helped us understand what this OVC Tournament was all about.”

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Conference Tournament Primer: Summit League

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 8th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week-plus of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the America East and the Summit get started.

Dates: March 8-11
Site: Sioux Falls Civic Center (Sioux Falls, S.D.)

2014 summit league tourney

What to expect: Top-seeded North Dakota State is looking for its second NCAA Tournament bid in program history. The first came in 2009, the year the Bison became eligible for postseason play in NCAA Division I. NDSU is on fire, winning seven straight and 12 of 13 games to close the season. IUPU-Fort Wayne and Denver could pull upsets, as both beat NDSU this season.

Favorite: North Dakota State. NDSU has won seven straight games and 12 of 13 to close the season. The Bison won the league by two games with a 12-2 mark and seem to be peaking at exactly the right time.

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Conference Tournament Primer: America East

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 8th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week-plus of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the America East and the Summit get started.

Dates: March 8, 9, 15
Site: Quarterfinals and Semifinals: SEFCU Arena (Albany, NY); Championship: Campus site (higher-seeded team hosts)

ameast1

What to expect: After suffering its only conference defeat in late January, Vermont thoroughly dominated the America East over the remaining five weeks of the regular season. Throughout the month of February, the team steamrolled opponents, winning ten straight games by an average of 21.3 points per contest and capturing the league’s top seed in the process. Their KenPom ranking has skyrocketed from 169 to 62 since the New Year, a byproduct of the numerous beatdowns in that span. Stony Brook has talent – 6’8’’ forward Jameel Warney is a load underneath – and should present the most substantial threat in this tournament. There could be some level of drama if they meet up in the title game, but either way, expect the senior-laden Catamounts to go dancing for the third time in five years.

Favorites: Vermont. The Catamounts nearly upset Duke back in November, yet they might be a better team now than they were then. Five of their six top-scorers are seniors, and each of them probably remembers the sting of last year’s home loss to Albany in the conference championship game. Focus will not be an issue for Vermont.

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