We’re just days away from the postseason, yet several leagues with imminent conference tournaments remain up for grabs heading into this weekend. Let’s take a look at the most crucial match-ups on tap – games that will decide top seeds — highlighted by the de facto Missouri Valley championship game on Saturday.
Stetson (9-20, 3-10) at North Florida (19-11, 11-2)– 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Saturday. North Florida completed a sweep of Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday and can clinch the No. 1 seed – and home court advantage in the A-Sun Tournament – by beating Stetson on Saturday. KenPom gives the Ospreys a 96 percent chance of doing just that.
Florida Gulf Coast (21-8, 11-2) at Jacksonville (9-21, 3-10)– 2:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Saturday. After losing at home earlier this week, Dunk City needs some help. The Eagles should handle lowly Jacksonville on Saturday, but then it’s a matter of hoping Stetson pulls off the stunner later that night.
High Point and Charleston Southern will square off for the Big South’s top seed. (Laura Greene / hpenews.com)
High Point (22-7, 13-4) at Charleston Southern (18-10, 12-5)– 4:30 PM ET, Saturday. After all the craziness and parity (earlier this month, seven teams in this league were tied for first place), the Big South championship and top seed come down to this one game. High Point breezed past the Buccaneers in January and will earn its second straight outright conference title (third overall) if it beats them again, but Charleston Southern – led by 5’8’’ point guard Saah Nimley (20.8 PPG) – is 12-2 at home this season and owns the tiebreaker should it win. Plus, who knows – this game could also decide whether Nimley or High Point’s John Brown (18.2 PPG) garners Player of the Year honors.
Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
Harvard. One could argue that Harvard’s season was at stake against Yale on Saturday, or at least close to it. The Crimson, 4-1 in Ivy League play, faced the prospect of falling two games back of the undefeated Bulldogs and severely damaging their hopes for a fourth-straight outright conference title. A victory for Tommy Amaker’s group would even up the records with a return game in Cambridge still ahead on March 6; a loss, and Harvard’s NCAA Tournament destiny would no longer rest in its own hands even if it did beat Yale next month. This was about as “must-win” as it gets in early February.
Harvard regained control of the Ivy League on Saturday. (Robert F. Worley / The Harvard Crimson)
Yet the pivotal showdown would have been even direr for Harvard had it not been for some late-game heroics the night before. Trailing Brown by two with only a few seconds left, it took reigning Player of the Year Wesley Saunders corralling his own miss and banking in a shot at the buzzer just to send Friday’s game into overtime. In the extra period, the Crimson controlled things – ultimately winning by two – and Saunders finished with a career-high 33 points. “We’ve had these kind of games against Brown,” Amaker said afterwards, referring to his team’s third overtime victory in as many seasons against the always-pesky Bears.
Call it ‘survival,’ call it what you want, but a win is a win – and Harvard made the most of its second life the following night in New Haven. After an ugly 20 minutes of basketball (Harvard took a 16-11 lead into the locker room), the Crimson held on to their advantage throughout the second half, beating the Bulldogs 52-50 in their own house. Saunders again led the way, scoring 16 points and hitting two clutch free throws in the closing seconds, and in a matter of 24 hours Amaker’s team went from the brink of disaster to re-establishing control of the Ivy League. “We’ve taken these kinds of shots from the other teams the last few years; we’ve been up to the challenge,” he remarked afterward. With Harvard returning home for six of its final eight contests – including the Yale game in a few weeks – the Crimson’s ability to take those shots and respond when it mattered most has put them in good position to retain the conference crown and return to the Big Dance.
Honorable Mentions: St. Bonaventure (2-0: at Davidson, vs. VCU); Boise State (2-0: at Utah State, vs. San Diego State); Ohio (2-0: vs. Akron, vs. Eastern Michigan); Vermont (2-0: vs. Maine, at Stony Brook); IPFW (2-0: vs. South Dakota State, vs. Oral Roberts)
Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks’ season began (in earnest) with a home loss to Northern Iowa – the team’s first defeat in its own building since February 15, 2012 – and a pair of road losses to Xavier and Baylor. All respectable games to drop, sure, but the latter two weren’t even close, as SFA was bludgeoned by margins of 18 and 16 points, respectively. They certainly weren’t the types of outcomes people expected after last season’s 32-3, Round of 32 campaign – especially with Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker back in the fold. But after a pair of easy victories in the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend, the Southland favorite had a chance to get its swagger back – and climb above .500 – with two tough-but-winnable games last week at Memphis and home against Long Beach State.
The result? Swagger has been restored.
Stephen F. Austin is our O26 Team of the Week. (Getty Images)
Not only did the Lumberjacks beat Memphis on Tuesday, they held the Tigers to their lowest point total in FedEx Forum since the 2009 Conference USA Tournament. Not that SFA was necessarily scorching the nets either, but midway through the second half its ball movement picked up dramatically and the perimeter shots started falling, prompting a 23-6 run over the game’s final 10 minutes. It was as if Underwood’s group found another gear – one that it has yet to shift down from. Following Memphis, SFA returned home on Friday to face a Long Beach State unit coming off wins over Xavier (who beat the Lumberjacks, if you remember) and Nevada in its previous two contests. KenPom predicted a single-digit outcome; the Lumberjacks had other plans, beating the 49ers down by 29 points in a wire-to-wire victory, a performance made even more impressive by the fact that Parker scored only four of those. They crushed LBSU on the offensive glass, took away the three-point line and forced a bunch of turnovers, all key ingredients in the recipe for a blowout. Now, SFA (which also popped Ouachita Baptist by 24 on Sunday) is looking almost as good as it did last year. And without another difficult non-conference test remaining on the schedule, could it achieve similar success, too… another 29-game winning streak, anyone?
Honorable Mentions: Harvard (3-0: vs. Northeastern, at Vermont, vs. Boston U.); Yale (2-1: at Bryant, at Connecticut, at Florida); New Mexico (vs. New Mexico State, at Valparaiso); Idaho (2-0: at Washington State, vs. UC-Davis); Fairfield (vs. Manhattan, at Quinnipiac)
Tonight kicks off ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon, a jam-packed, 24-plus hour slate of basketball featuring numerous mouthwatering options for O26 fans. And with many of these games serving as important resume-building opportunities, you better come hungry. Let’s check out the menu.
R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)
UC Santa Barbara at Florida Gulf Coast – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Tonight. We are not even sure if this is formally part of the Marathon, but what better way to whet your appetite than by watching Alan Williams take on Dunk City? After logging 22 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas on Friday, UC Santa Barbara’s 6’8’’ center gets a shot at the Atlantic Sun favorites in Fort Myers – the first of two contests between the Gauchos and Eagles this season. Florida Gulf Coast’s Brett Comer is among the better point guards in the country, while his running mate, Bernard Thompson, is a conference Player of the Year candidate. Both squads could wind up dancing in March.
Georgia State at #14 Iowa State– 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Tonight. Certain to be one of the most popular appetizers on the menu, this game features a loaded underdog taking on a top-15 team in one of college basketball’s best environments. The Cyclones better be prepared for Georgia State, which boasts a pair of Bluegrass State transfers – Ryan Harrow (Kentucky) and Kevin Ware (Louisville) – and arguably the Sun Belt’s best player, guard R.J. Hunter (18.3 PPG in 2013-14). Hilton Coliseum will be rocking, as always, but perhaps maybe its magic will work in the Panthers favor, instead of the other way of around.
#22 SMU at #13 Gonzaga– 11:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tonight. This is one of those fill-you-up-before-the-entrée type items, a hearty match-up of Top 25 units with high expectations. SMU took a serious hit when forward Markus Kennedy, the team’s best player, was ruled academically ineligible for the first semester, so Gonzaga is in great position playing at home. Still, even though Mark Few’s bunch looked utterly dominant in its opener against Sacramento State (with newcomers Byron Wesley, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis combining for 44 points), the Bulldogs must come out and execute against Larry Brown’s defensively-tough Mustangs. Kevin Pangos vs. Nic Moore is one of the best point guard match-ups of the young season.
Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region of the U.S: the Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Colonial, MEAC and Southern Conference. Previous installments include the Northeast region leagues and the Midwest region conferences.
VCU– 2013-14 record: 26-9 (12-4). Shaka Smart has led VCU to four straight NCAA Tournaments including a Final Four run in 2011, and yet this might be his most talented bunch to date. Perhaps his most highly motivated, too. After suffering a bitter, never-should-have-happened defeat to Stephen F. Austin in the Round of 64 last March, preseason all-conference picks Treveon Graham and Briante Weber return, along with several other key pieces and Smart’s best recruiting class. Graham, a 6’6″ forward, is poised to break the school scoring record this season, while the quick-handed Weber looks to build on the career steals mark he already shattered – it’s like the guy was built for HAVOC. The presence of forward Mo Alie-Cox, backcourt contributors JeQuan Lewis and Melvin Johnson, and a trio of heralded freshmen – including four-star Terry Larrier – makes this team more than ready for a tough non-conference slate. Expect a bunch of wins, an A-10 title and big things come March.
VCU is loaded with talent this season. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)
Dayton – 2013-14 record: 26-11 (10-6). Last year’s Cinderella should be top-three good in the A-10, but it may need some time to rediscover the magic. Gone is Dayton’s best all-around player, Devin Oliver, its most important big man, Matt Kavanaugh, and two productive guards. Luckily, Archie Miller’s tendency to use a deep rotation last season – 10 to 12 guys a game – should pay off; this year’s newly-anointed starters all saw quality minutes in 2013-14. Among them will be Scoochie Smith, who steps in as starting point guard following the transfer of Khari Price. Smith’s ability to open up the offense, along with the continued emergence of forwards Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott, will be important factors. Dyshawn Pierre and sharpshooter Jordan Sibert should lead the way, but it is the (probably large) supporting cast that will determine the Flyers’ ceiling.
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)
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?
It’s day three of Championship Fortnight and with three more conferences tipping off today, what better way to get you through the next two weeks of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s conference tournaments. Today, the Big South, NEC and OVC get started.
Dates: March 5, 7-9 Site: HTC Center (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)
What to expect: Chaos. The Big South Tournament might be the most unpredictable conference tourney in the nation. Just two games separated first place from seventh place in the league standings, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise for any of those teams to earn the automatic bid. Remember that Liberty, a squad that finished 6-10 in the league a season ago, won last year’s bid. With the parity in this conference, it could be just about anybody. Pick a name out of a hat for this one.
Favorite:High Point. The Panthers won the league by a single game with a record of 12-4. They could have been a legitimate Cinderella threat had former Florida Gator Allan Chaney not had his career cut short in December due to heart complications. Still, the regular season champion features sophomore John Brown and his 19.6 PPG and his 7.9 rebounds per contest on the inside, and won’t be easy to beat.
Every Friday throughout the rest of the season, the Other 26 Microsite will dig into some of the top storylines featuring those leagues from the previous week.
1. O26 Teams Make Statements Against Power Conference Teams
George Washington’s Joe McDonald and Maurice Creek turned heads with a buzzer-beating win at Maryland (washingtontimes.com)
Saturday: New Mexico cruises at home, handing Cincinnati its first loss, 63-54; Green Bay’s Greg Mays and Keifer Sykes each contribute 20+ points to defeat Virginia, 75-72
Sunday: Maurice Creek’s buzzer-beater lifts George Washington to a big win at Maryland, 77-75
Tuesday: After trailing nearly the entire game, Gonzaga surged ahead late to win at West Virginia, 80-76
Wednesday: North Dakota State’s Marshall Bjorklund scored 26 points to lead the Bison over Notre Dame, 73-69
Near misses: Arizona 63, UNLV 58; Xavier 85, Bowling Green 73 (OT); Washington State 67, Idaho 66; Kansas State 64, South Dakota 62; Xavier 63, Evansville 60.
2. Chances For More Statements to Come
With only a few weeks remaining before conference play gets into full swing, opportunities are winding down for Other 26 teams to trip up power conference opponents. Some of this week’s most intriguing match-ups:
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.
Georgia Tech had the best night out of all the ACC teams, beating a pretty good Georgia team in Athens. The Yellow Jackets, in addition to putting together their usual solid defensive effort, displayed a versatile and balanced offense that saw five different players score in double figures while the team shot 52.1% from the field. If Georgia Tech can put together some more nights like this one, they will easily exceed expectations.
Georgia Tech Won in Athens For the First Time in a Long Time (AP/C. Compton)
Wake Forest and Maryland both nearly took losses but managed to get the win in games that should not have been that close. The Demon Deacons faced the white-hot fury of High Point‘s Nick Barbour who went nova and scored 35 points and hit 7 threes from beyond the arc. Wake Forest also struggled on the boards, allowing High Point to grab twelve offensive rebounds while only securing two of their own. The net result of this rebounding difference helped to create a significant shot disparity where Wake Forest shot the ball only 48 times compared to the High Point’s 63 attempts. That Wake Forest won this game despite these factors is almost impressive. The Demon Deacons were hyper-efficient on offense, shooting 58.3% from the field and making 18 free throws. That this team could turn in such an impressive offensive performance and still come within four points of losing to High Point isn’t a great sign for the future, though. Maryland’s close win had a similar flavor as bad defense nearly undermined a clicking offense. The Terrapins put together a nice evening on offense, including a truly solid game from Nick Faust that included 13 points on five field goals while leading the team with six rebounds, five assists and two blocks. The narrow three-point margin of victory, however, is far from comforting to Terrapin fans.
Virginia soundly beat George Mason in a game where rebounding machine Mike Scott only managed two boards. Was Scott having an off night? Hardly. There just weren’t a lot of misses in the game with Virginia shooting a ridiculous 60.5% and the Patriots managing to make 47.5% in a relatively slow game. Sammy Zeglinski shined as a starter with 18 points on 11 shots and four steals. Meanwhile, North Carolina unceremoniously stomped Evansville, holding the Aces to 25.8% shooting as no starter played more than 25 minutes. In what I thought would be the game of the night, Memphis’s Will Barton put on a show as the Tigers torched an undersized Miami team. Barton scored a ridiculous 27 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and managed four steals. Miami continues to look out of sorts on offense, which is bad news for a team that has really struggled to defend.
Tonight we have a full slate of games, though it’s unclear if the majority of them will be even close to competitive. Still, there are lots of options and a few choice offerings.
An In-State Rivalry!
It's a Peach State Battle in Athens Tonight
Georgia Tech at Georgia at 7:00 PM on ESPN3.com
Despite Georgia’s current three game slide, the Bulldogs have shown flashes of real talent in the early going with a notable win over Notre Dame. Georgia Tech has lost to Saint Joseph’s, Northwestern, and Tulane. Neither of these teams are great, but each has shown great aptitude on the defensive end. While the Yellow Jackets will probably have a tough time handling Georgia at home, this Georgia Tech team is, if nothing else, an outstanding rebounding team and that will keep them in the game as long as the Yellow Jacket scorers aren’t totally shut down.
Mark Bryant oversees multimedia at the Big South Conference. You can follow his updates on Twitter @BigSouthSports.
The Week That Was
Major Conference Assault… Big South teams threw down a few notable upsets since our last report: Presbyterian over Cincinnati 56-54 (Big East), Coastal Carolina over Clemson 60-59 (ACC), Campbell over Iowa 77-61 (Big Ten), and UNC Asheville over Utah 87-65 (Pac-12). Add that to Coastal Carolina’s victory over LSU (SEC), as noted in the last update, and the Big South has wins over teams from five of the six BCS conferences (regrettably no games against Big 12 teams remain, 0-2 in the only chances).
Temporarily Perfect… For the first time in conference history, two teams opened the season with five straight wins. Coastal Carolina and Campbell each reached 5-0 before dropping game number six (Campbell to Creighton and Coastal to FIU).
League Play Begins… Again this season, Big South Conference play gets a December preview before beginning in earnest on New Year’s Eve. Most teams will get two chances to notch an early conference win, with games on Thursday 12/1 and Saturday 12/3. High Point and Asheville are the only two teams who will have just one game against a Big South foe this weekend.
1. UNC Asheville – (3-4/0-0) The record gives an illusion of a lackluster start, but two of those losses were to top five programs (UNC & UConn) and another was to ACC foe NC State. The one the Bulldogs would probably like back is the two-point loss to College of Charleston. Of course, this team also obliterated Utah by a healthy 22-point margin. Asheville is fine, and the tough early tests should only serve to get the squad ready for the games ahead.
2. Coastal Carolina – (5-1/0-0) While we figured any reports of CCU’s death were greatly exaggerated, getting early wins against both LSU and Clemson certainly opened some eyes. The other contests on the Chanticleers’ schedule don’t offer much to go on so far, but even without some of the big-name players of past years, the two-time defending regular season champs are not going away anytime soon.
3. Campbell (5-1/0-0) - Rocketing up the charts, I present the Fighting Camels of Campbell. Okay, I was fooled before in thinking this team would be a middle-of-the-pack bunch this year because they are bringing it! Led by highlight-worthy senior Eric Griffin and rapidly-ascending freshman Trey Freeman, Campbell may well have something to say about the Big South race this season.
4. VMI (3-2/0-0) – The Keydets have knocked off equal and lesser competition so far, with losses to larger out-of-conference foes Air Force and Ohio State, those games also being the only ones with VMI held under 80 points. Led by Keith Gabriel and ESPN Top 10 dunker Stan Okoye, VMI is still running and gunning. We will soon see if they can outpace conference foes this year.
5. Presbyterian College (3-3/0-0) – The Blue Hose got deserved recognition and attention for grabbing a win at top 20 Cincinnati in a demonstration of what can happen when they are clicking. A team that has seen the bottom of the standings in recent years should be no worse than the middle of the pack this season, and could frustrate several league foes along the way.
6. High Point (2-4/0-0) – They may not have the most attractive record to date, but the Panthers have been in every game they’ve played right down to the end. Three of the four losses have been by only four or five points (the other was a 12-point margin). So while High Point has more losses than wins to show for November, the team has also demonstrated a little more fight than they have gotten credit for in the last couple of years and that could be important against familiar opposition in conference.
7. Charleston Southern (3-2/0-0) Saying your most impressive win of the year is against Stetson may not be shaking the pillars of college hoops, but the Bucs do bring a three-game win streak into league play after an 0-2 start, and that’s a very good sign for CSU. Bump them up for now, but see what comes out of the first week of December for a better barometer.
8. Liberty (2-5/0-0) – Ummm…dropping far down, at least for this week, is Liberty. The Flames have lost four straight, and not exactly against a murderer’s row. LU still has a fair chance to be in the mix this season, but the early skid does not offer much to go on. That said, the Flames have come back strong after slow starts before.
9. Radford (3-4/0-0) – What gives? Radford has lost three in a row since the last report and moved up two positions? Believe me, it says more about the other teams than it does Radford. We still think the Highlanders will have a rocky road to travel this season, and will likely finish at or near the bottom, but for now, slot them here.
10. Gardner-Webb (3-5/0-0) – Well, the record isn’t pretty, but some of that is deceptive. Yes, GWU is 3-5, and yes, that includes a four-game losing streak, but Bulldogs had to deal with five games in nine days at the Hoosier Invitational–and still had enough in the tank to pull out an overtime victory on that ninth day (76-74 over Chattanooga). So it’s bad, but it’s not ALL bad.
11. Winthrop (1-5/0-0) – Honestly, this is a “how the mighty have fallen” moment. Winthrop was the class of the Big South for years, and has found a way to matter in the postseason even when not playing from the top, but things have taken a turn this year. Winthrop needs a remedy–and fast. Their lone win came at the expense of Central Penn, a 107-68 thrashing. Outside of that game and a four-point loss to Drake, Winthrop has not seriously challenged its opponents, losing by 12, 21, 22, and 23. To be fair, two of those losses were Virginia and Marquette, and the Eagles were close for much of the Virgina game before being blown away down the stretch, but there aren’t many genuine positives to latch onto yet this season.
There are other games, sure, but the headliners right now are the conference pairings. Here are some key ones to look for…
Liberty — at Campbell 12/1 & at Coastal 12/3… a very tough 1-2 punch to take for Liberty, facing two early power teams on the road, but a sincere measuring stick for where the Flames really stand.
VMI — at Coastal 12/1 & at Charleston Southern 12/3… if you’re looking for entertaining basketball, you should find it on VMI’s road trip, with plenty of running, and threes, and dunks…defense may be optional in these games.
Winthrop — at Presbyterian 12/1 & at Gardner-Webb 12/3… talk about measuring sticks–is it the old guard or the up-and-comers who will prevail? Has Winthrop really fallen that far or was that an illusion?
Caught on Film
I’m not sure it gets much better than this–I can honestly say that it just doesn’t matter how many times I watch this dunk by Campbell’s Eric Griffin: the take-off from the Big South logo just shy of the free throw line, the posterizing of the unfortunate NC A&T player, the sheer vertical involved, you name it…I am spellbound each and every time.