March Mayhem on Deck

March Mayhem on Deck

March Mayhem on Deck
The Gold Sheet

Get ready folks, March Mayhem is upon us! And the college basketball season is ready to shift into a higher gear, especially with Selection Sunday (March 15) fast approaching.

Kicking things off, as usual, in March will be conference tournament action. And this week, we're providing an extra "heads up" on those lower-echelon Division I conferences that will be sending teams to the NCAA, NIT, CBI, and new CollegeInsider.com tourneys. These early conference tiourneys, many of which take place at campus sites, are mostly held before the major conferences take center stage with their versions, and will provide extra wagering opportunities in early March. We will continue with more conference tournament previews over the next few weeks leading up to our big NCAA Tourney sub-regional edition March 16.

And we’d suggest paying close attention to some of the early conference tourneys, because many of the winners in these events have been providing stiff NCAA first-round opposition for the “big boys” for several years. Just ask the likes of Wisconsin, Georgetown, Gonzaga (all beaten by Davidson in last year’s NCAA Tourney) and Vanderbilt (whipped by Siena in last year’s Big Dance). Many of these “under the radar” entries were in action during last weekend’s Bracket Buster, and others made their mark before New Year’s, with a collection of performances vs. major conference foes that caught everyone’s attention (Big Sky rep Portland State, for example, winning at Gonzaga in Deceeber). We’ve found many of these leagues quite compelling in recent years, and we’ve been following them closely since November. Plus, we’ve had many of our scouts and sources keeping us abreast of developments in these leagues. Thus, we’re certainly on alert to keep an eye on a number of these entries, particularly Siena and Niagara from the Metro-Atlantic, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State from the Southland Conference, North Dakota State from the Summit League, Morgan State from the MEAC, and Vermont from the America East. And, of course, Stephen Curry’s Davidson from the Southern Conference, and a number of capable squads from the intriguing Ohio Valley Conference and always-interesting Big Sky. Stay tuned.

We've listed below, by conference alphabetical order, upcoming tournament specifics for those lower-profile Division I leagues. Also included are any teams that enjoy home-court tourney edges; the top contenders in each loop, noted by italics, with any clear-cut favorite or co-favorite accompanied by an *; and last season's conference results in the NCAA, NIT, and CBI. Before Selection Sunday, we’ll also review how these leagues have fared in recent Big Dance action.

Let’s go!

AMERICA EAST... First round, quarterfinals, and semis March 6-8 at SECFU Arena, Albany, NY (home court of Albany); final March 14 at home of highest remaining seed. Top contenders—Vermont, Binghamton, Boston U. Last year...NCAA-UM-Baltimore County lost vs. Georgetown, 66-47; NIT-Vermont (+12) lost, but covered, at Kansas State, 59-57.

ATLANTIC SUN... Tourney March 4-7 at Allen Arena, Nashville, TN (home court of Lipscomb). Top contenders-Jacksonville, Belmont, East Tennessee State, Mercer, Lipscomb. Florida Gulf Coast, Kennesaw State, North Florida and USC-Upstate are ineligible for the conference tourney as they compete the transition to full Division I status. That leaves only seven teams competing, with the regular-season champ granted a first-round bye. Last year...NCAA-Belmont lost vs. Duke, 71-70.

BIG SKY... First round (3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5) March 7 at home of higher-seeded team; regular-season champ (likely Weber State) will host semifinals and final March 10-11. Top contenders-Weber State, Montana, Portland State. Last year...NCAA-Portland State lost vs. Kansas, 85-61.

BIG SOUTH... Quarterfinals March 3 at home of highest seed; semis March 5 at regular-season champion; finals March 7 at home of highest-remaining seed. Top contenders-Radford, VMI, Liberty. Last year...NCAA-Winthrop lost vs. Washington State, 71-40; NIT-UNC-Asheville lost at Ohio State, 84-66.

METRO ATLANTIC... Tourney March 6-9 at Times Union Center, Albany, NY. First round pits seeds 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9; winners advance to quarterfinals, and so forth. Top contenders-Siena, Niagara, Rider, Manhattan. Last year...NCAA-Siena beat Vanderbilt, 83-62; lost vs. Villanova, 84-72, CBI-Rider lost at Old Dominion, 66-63.

MEAC... Tourney March 9-14 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, Winston-Salem, NC. Top contenders-Morgan State*, North Carolina A&T, Bethune-Cookman, South Carolina State, Coppin State. Last year...NCAA-Coppin State lost play-in game vs. Mount Saint Mary’s, 69-60; NIT-Morgan State lost at Virginia Tech, 94-62.

NORTHEAST... Quarterfinals March 5, semis March 8, final March 11, all at home of highest seeds. Top contenders-Robert Morris, Mount Saint Mary’s, Sacred Heart, Long Island. Last year...NCAA-Mount Saint Mary’s won play-in game vs. Coppin State, 69-60; lost vs. North Carolina, 113-74; NIT-Robert Morris lost at Syracuse, 87-81.

OHIO VALLEY... Quarterfinals March 3 at campus sites; semifinals and final March 6-7 at Sommet Center, Nashville, TN (home of NHL Nashville Predators, but not the home court of Nashville-based Tennessee State, which plays at the Gentry Complex). Top contenders-Tennessee-Martin, Morehead State, Austin Peay, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky. Last Year...NCAA-Austin Peay lost vs. Texas, 74-54.

PATRIOT... Quarterfinals March 4, semifinals March 8, final March 13, all at home of higher seed. Top contenders-American*, Holy Cross, Navy, Lehigh. Last Year...NCAA-American lost vs. Tennessee, 72-57.

SOUTHERN... Tourney March 6-9 at McKenzie Arena, Chattanooga, TN (home court of Chattanooga). Top contenders- Davidson*, The Citadel, College of Charleston, Chattanooga. Last year...NCAA-Davidson won vs. Gonzaga, 82-76; won vs. Georgetown, 74-70; won vs. Wisconsin, 73-56; lost vs. Kansas, 59-57.

SUMMIT... Tourney March 7-10 at Sioux Falls Arena, Sioux Falls, SD(not the home court of Sioux Falls-based South Dakota State, which plays its home games at Frost Arena). The Summit League was formerly known as Mid-Continent Conference. Top contenders-North Dakota State, Oral Roberts, Oakland, IUPUI, Southern Utah. Last year...NCAA-Oral Roberts lost vs. Pittsburgh, 82-63.

SOUTHLAND... Tourney March 11-15 at Merrell Center, Katy, TX. Top contenders-Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Nicholls State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio. Last Year...NCAA-UT-Arlington lost vs. Memphis, 87-63; NIT-Stephen F. Austin lost at UMass, 80-60.

SWAC... Tourney March 11-14 at FairPark Arena, Birmingham, AL. Top contenders-Alabama State, Jackson State, Prairie View, Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Last year...NCAA-Mississippi Valley State lost vs. UCLA, 70-29; NIT-Alabama State lost at Arizona, 64-53.

HANGING ON THE BUBBLE

The Big Dance bubble remains as unwieldy as ever, continuing to change shape almost daily. And results from earlier this week indicate that should be the case throughout the upcoming weekend.

Some of the more noteworthy “bubble developments” of the last few days follow.

1) Welcome back Notre Dame...The Fighting Irish, almost given up for dead a few weeks ago after a lopsided loss at UCLA extended a debilitating mid-season losing streak to 7 straight, have re-entered the Big Dance discussion with 4 wins in their last 5 games after Wednesday night’s 70-65 win over pesky Rutgers. Included in that recent uptick was a lopsided thumping of highly-regarded Louisville, 90-57, and a 103-84 romp at fellow Big East “bubbler” Providence. Notre Dame’s computer numbers aren’t looking too bad these days, either (RPI at 38), but there’s still a bit more work to be done to emerge from that crowded, mid-level Big East logjam. A weekend win over UConn (which won by 8 at South Bend Jan. 24, breaking what was then the nation’s longest home win streak) would do a lot for the Irish’s NCAA candidacy, although Notre Dame is still probably going to have to win at least a couple of games in the Big East tourney before it can start feeling comfy.

2) Don’t count out Providence... With NCAA hopes sagging after last weekend’s embarrassing loss at the Dunkin Donuts Center vs. Notre Dame, the Friars were in a near do-or-die situation Tuesday night against high-flying, top-ranked Pittsburgh. But led by a balanced attack (Weyinmi Efejuku 16 points, Sharaud Curry 15 points, and Geoff McDermott’s 11 points and 6 assists), Providence stole an 81-73 decision to move to 9-7 in Big East play. A split in the last two regular-season games vs. Rutgers & Villanova would give the Friars a 10-8 conference mark, and conventional “Big Dance wisdom” this season is that any team that finishes above .500 in the Big East will likely receive an NCAA invite. First-year PC coach Keno Davis would certainly. “We’re in the top half of the best confernece in the country,” said Keno after the Pitt upset. “It puts us in the conversation. I’m sure if we had lost, they wouldn’t be talking about us anymore.”

3) Still stirring at Virginia Tech... And right when it looked as if things were sorting themselves out in the ACC, recently-fading Virginia Tech revived its Big Dance hopes with a stirring 80-77 win at Clemson Wednesday night. Big efforts from Malcolm Delaney (scored 26) and A.D. Vassallo (added 21) paced the Hokies, who survived another brutal night at the FT line (17 of 29) that would have caused HC Seth Greenberg to lose more hair if he already wasn’t bald. VPI now owns road wins over Clemson and then top-ranked Wake Forest, but it won’t get any easier, with three ranked foes (Duke, North Carolina, & Florida State) still on the regular-season schedule before the ACC Tourney in Atlanta. But the win at Littlejohn mans that the Hokies will at least remain in the at-large conversation until further notice.

4) Rhode Island?... Every season, teams come charging down the stretch to make late-season cases for inclusion into the Big Dance. We saw it a year ago in the Atlantic 10, when Temple caught fire in the late going and ended up winning the conference tournament in Atlantic City. The Owls are hot again, but so is Rhode Island, which crept onto the fringe of the bubble Wednesday night with a pulsating 93-91 overtime win over likely NCAA-bound Dayton. Marquis Jones’ circus shot (how about an over-the-head shot with the off hand and the player’s back turned toward the basket?) at the overtime buzzer gave the Rams that crucial win. Wins against Duquesne and UMass to close the regular-season would give HC Jim Baron’s crew 23 wins, and a strong showing in the A-10 Tourney would keep Rhodey (RPI at 63) in the NCAA discussion. Reversing any of the close losses vs. Duke, Providence, and Oklahoma State in non-conference would have certainly strengthened the Rams’ case, which is nonetheless buoyed by a couple of other nice non-league triumphs over Penn State & Virginia Commonwealth.

5) Texas A&M?... Hold off on those NIT plans at College Station. All of a sudden, the Aggies have begun to stir, and that heart-stopping 57-55 win at Nebraska Tuesday night thanks to Josh Carter’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer could be the game that catapults A&M into the Dance. Now, wins in upcoming games vs. Iowa State & Colorado would set up the Ags to finish above .500 in the Big XII if they could knock off Big Dance-bound Missouri at College Station in the regular-season finale. That would give A&M 23 wins and a 9-7 conference mark and certainly put the Ags squarely in the at-large mix. A fast finish to the regular season is always a plus in the eyes of the Selection Committee, and with A&M sitting well with RPI (34) and Strength-of-Schedule (31) numbers, the Aggies could yet be sitting pretty on Selection Sunday.

MEANWHILE, ON THE INJURY FRONT...

Some significant injuries are starting to take their toll on a handful of highly-regarded teams. Of course, Davidson’s issues with Stephen Curry’s ankle injury were amplified in losses last week vs. The Citadel and Butler, though Curry (still far from 100%) returned to action vs. the Bulldogs and looked close to being his old self again when scoring 20 in Wednesday night’s 70-49 romp past UNC-Greensboro. But a couple of other highly-regarded teams might have more to worry about.

In particular, Marquette’s chances of making a deep run in March took a blow when star sr. G Dominic James suffered a season-ending broken foot in Wednesday night’s 93-82 loss in Milwaukee vs. UConn (which presented HC Jim Calhoun with his 800th career win in the process). James, an integral part of the Golden Eagles’ dynamic 3-G attack that also features Jerel McNeal & Wes Matthews, broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, an injury that requires at least 100 days of rehab after surgery. Marquette obviously missed James against the Huskies, and it doesn’t get any easier for HC Buzz Williams’ crew down the stretch, with Louisville, Pitt, and Syracuse on deck before the Big East Tourney. We wouldn’t count out the Golden Eagles from doing damage in the Big Dance, but it won’t be as easy without James.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma is hoping that star 6-10 frontliner Blake Griffin will be able to return from his recent concussion when the Sooners travel to Texas Tech for a Saturday Big XII battle. Griffin, of course, missed most of last Saturday’s 73-68 loss at Texas after suffering his injury, and was in street clothes when Kansas invaded the Lloyd Noble Center on Monday night and exited with an 87-78 triumph. The fact the Sooners slipped so noticeably minus their big man is an indicator of just how important Griffin is to the team, and if anything ought to enhance his Player of the Year credentials. But for OU, Griffin’s absence in the last two games might not have much more of a long-term impact than possibly costing the Sooners a number one NCAA regional seed.

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