Early Conference Tourney Previews!
It's time to get acquainted with some new teams!
While making reference to the much-publicized "Selection Sunday" looming on the horizon (March 17) for the fast-approaching NCAA Tournament, that's also the day the other postseason tourneys announce their fields as well. And, as we know, all of the surviving "off" conference teams suddenly become "on the board" teams in those various events.
A handful of these leagues have had numbers posted this season in the "added games" at most Las Vegas sports books, so a decent number of teams are already somewhat familiar. Still, some leagues will be making their debuts on the "big board" in the next few weeks, and it makes sense to familiarize ourselves with the best of this lower-echelon lot, which will be getting more exposure in coming days. Last year, the likes of Mercer, Fairfield, Oakland, and a few others provided multiple wagering opportunities as they progressed in the various postseason competitions.
The rather recent introduction of two new events (the CollegeInsider.com Tourney, or CIT, and the College Basketball Invitational, or CBI) has provided more non-Big Dance opportunities for entries from the low-major conferences. Many of these loops are now sending multiple entries to the postseason, so it behooves handicappers to begin paying attention to these sides before they enter either the Big Dance, NIT, CBI, or CIT.
We've already gotten a look at several of these teams in last weekend's BracketBusters, and many of the upcoming conference tournaments will be televised (the introduction of ESPN-3, which streams on computers, has added countless more college hoops viewing opportunities and will be providing added coverage for many of the lower-rung D-I conference tourneys). Many Las Vegas sports books will also be offering prices on these lower-echelon conference tourney matchups, and will most assuredly be posting prices whenever teams from those leagues are involved in NIT, CBI, or CIT action.
Listed below, by conference alphabetical order, upcoming tournament specifics for those lower-profile Division I leagues. Also included are any teams that enjoy homecourt tourney edges; the top contenders in each loop, noted by italics, with any clear-cut favorite or co-favorite accompanied by an *; a quick preview of the tourneys; and last season's conference results in the NCAA, NIT, CBI, and CIT. Before Selection Sunday, I'll also review how these leagues have fared in recent Big Dance action.
March Mayhem has arrived!
AMERICA EAST...First round, quarterfinals, and semis March 7, 9-10 at SEFCU Arena, Albany, NY (home court of Albany); final March 12 at home of highest remaining seed. Top contenders--Stony Brook, Boston U, Vermont. Steve Pikiell's Stony Brook Seawolves have assumed command of the league race in recent weeks and will almost assuredly enter the conference tourney as the top seed. Though down three starters from last year's NIT qualifier, Pikiell nonetheless added the AE's Newcomer of the Year, battering ram 6-8 frosh PF Jameel Warney, who leads all Seawolves scorers at 12.1 ppg while hitting better than 62% of his FG attempts (mostly from short range). In a league without many quality bigs, the 255-lb. Warney has become the loop's most feared interior scoring threat. Over the last five games, Warney is hitting an even more eye-opening 73.1% from the floor. The backcourt has an upperclassmen look to it with jr. Gs Dave Coley (top-notch defender) and Anthony Jackson, while 6-5 sr. F Tommy Brenton was the AE's Defender of the Year last season. Keep an eye, however, on the Boston U Terriers, who entered Thursday's showdown with Stony Brook having won six in a row, with frosh G Maurice Watson, Jr. posting some big numbers in recent games. We also wouldn't sleep on Vermont, which beat CAA leader Northeastern and Ivy leader Harvard in pre-league play and just dispatched dangerous Canisius in the BracketBusters. Four starters returned for the Catamounts from last year's conference tourney winner and NCAA qualifier, joined by Illinois State transfer G Trey Blue, who broke into the starting lineup in early February and has scored in double digits in four of his last five games. Last year...NCAA-Vermont lost vs. North Carolina, 77-58; NIT-Stony Brook lost vs. Seton Hall, 63-61; CIT-Albany lost vs. Manhattan, 89-79.
ATLANTIC SUN...Tourney March 6-9 at University Center, Macon, GA (home court of Mercer). Top contenders-Mercer, Florida Gulf Coast, Stetson. By winning eight straight prior to a showdown on Thursday vs. FGCU, Mercer has guaranteed itself the top seed in next week's conference tourney, contested on its own home floor. Better yet for the Bears, there's no Belmont to worry about in this year's A-Sun, with the Bruins having moved their act to the Ohio Valley. Remember, Mercer ran the table to a surprise win in the CIT last year and returns much of that team for HC Bob Hoffman, including Gs Langston Hall (a lanky 6-4 and a good defensive stopper as well) and Travis Smith, both scoring in double digits. Fort Myers-based FGCU made some headlines way back in November when upsetting Miami-Florida, and the Eagles were not embarrassed in other non-league games at Duke and Iowa State. Sherwood Brown, a powerful 6-4 sr. G, has emerged as a compelling force (scoring 15.8 ppg) for the Eagles, who appear to have the best chance vs. Mercer. Last year...NCAA-Belmont lost vs. Georgetown, 74-59; CIT-Mercer won vs. Tennessee State, 68-60; won vs. Georgia State, 64-59; won at Old Dominion, 79-73; won at Fairfield, 64-59; won at Utah State in title game, 70-67; USC-Upstate won vs. Kent State, 73-58; lost at Old Dominion, 65-56.
BIG SKY...Tourney March 14-16 at home of regular-season champion (Montana or Weber State). Top contenders-Montana, Weber State. They've been anticipating another Big Sky Tourney showdown between the Grizzlies and Wildcats since prior to Thanksgiving. The teams split their two regular-season meetings, the home side winning each, which could mean advantage Montana in the tourney as the Grizzlies hold a one-game lead over Weber in the conference table entering the weekend. The Grizzlies really hit stride in mid-December when leading returning scorer G Will Cherry overcame an early-season foot injury; Montana quickly embarked upon a 14-game SU win streak when Cherry (13.2 ppg) returned to the starting lineup. There could be problems, however; Cherry re-injured his foot in the BracketBusters OT loss at Davidson, and sr. F Mathias Ward (leading scorer this season at 14.8 ppg) looks to be out for a longer duration with his own foot injury suffered last week. Weber State is now the in-form side with seven wins on the trot (including an 87-63 romp at Ogden vs. Montana on Valentine's Day night) entering Thursday's game vs. Sac State. Vet HC Randy Rahe has an athletic squad bolstered by Cal State Monterey Bay Sea Otter transfer Davion Berry, an explosive 6-4 G scoring 15 ppg and shooting 50% from the floor. Note that this tourney has changed its format slightly from last season, with the entire event scheduled at the regular-season winner, even if it isn't involved in the title game. Last year...NCAA-Montana lost vs. Wisconsin, 73-49; CIT-Weber State won vs. Utah Valley State, 72-69; lost in OT at Loyola-Marymount, 84-78.
BIG SOUTH...Tourney March 5, 7, 9-10 at HTC Center, Conway, SC (home court of Coastal Carolina); Top contenders-High Point, Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb. Regional sources are alerting to the recent uptick from Gardner-Webb, the only Big South contender to win its BracketBuster last week (vs. College of Charleston) and carrying a six-game SU win streak into Saturday's reg.-season finale vs. the Presbyterian Blue Hose. The Runnin' Bulldogs from Boiling Springs, NC also just knocked off contender Charleston Southern at midweek, though high scorer and former Mississippi Valley State transfer G, explosive Tashan Newsome (14.1 ppg), has been in a recent shooting slump (just 11 of 45 FGs and 8 ppg last four). Newsome had previously posted four straight 20+-point efforts. High Point, coached by former North Carolina player and George Mason (during the Final Four year) assistant Scott Cherry, might be flattening out a bit with two straight losses following a 7-game win streak. But Panther 6-7 frosh F G John Brown (17 ppg) has clearly been the league's top newcomer. As for Charleston Southern, note that the Buccaneers were competitive vs. a variety of high-profile foes (Charlotte, Arizona, Alabama, Wichita State) in pre-league play. Last year...NCAA-UNC-Asheville lost vs. Syracuse, 72-65; CIT-Coastal Carolina lost at Old Dominion, 68-66.
METRO ATLANTIC...Tourney March 7-11 at MassMutual Center, Springfield, MA. First round pits seeds 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9; winners advance to quarterfinals, and so forth. Top contenders-Niagara, Iona, Loyola-Maryland, Canisius, Rider, Fairfield. Absolutely wide-open conference tourney in Springfield, where more than half of the loop believes it has a legit shot to win the event. Several star performers in league, mostly guards, led by Niagara soph G Antoine Mason (18.9 ppg; 23.3 ppg last three), Iona's dynamite backcourt due of Momo Jones (23 ppg) and Sean Armand (17.4 ppg), Loyola-Maryland's Dylan Cormier (17.1 ppg), and Canisius' Billy Baron (formerly Virginia & Rhode Island and son of HC Jim Baron; 16.9 ppg), Harold "The Mayor" Washington (13.4 ppg), and another transfer, ex-UCF G Issac Sosa (12.1 ppg). Well-regarded coaches as well, including Loyola's entertaining Jimmy Patsos (he of the wild sideline gyrations) and the aforementioned Jim Baron, a longtime Digger Phelps aide at Notre Dame and an accomplished mentor at St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island before landing the Canisius gig. Last year...NCAA-Loyola-Maryland lost vs. Ohio State, 78-59; CIT-Fairfield won vs. Yale, 68-56; won vs. Manhattan, 69-57; won vs. Robert Morris, 67-61; lost vs. Mercer, 64-59; Manhattan won at Albany, 89-79; lost vs. Fairfield, 67-57; Rider lost at Northern Iowa, 84-50.
MEAC...Tourney March 11-16 at the Scope, Norfolk, VA (not the home court of Norfolk State, which plays its games at Echols Hall); First round pits seed 4 vs. 13, 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, and 8 vs. 9; winners advance to quarterfinals, and so forth, Top contenders-Norfolk State, NC-Central, Savannah State. Fans of the old ABA might recall the venue for this year's MEAC Tourney, the Norfolk Scope, then a rather new facility when one of the "regional" homes (along with the nearby Hampton-Roads Coliseum in the Tidewater area, the Roanoke Civic Center, and the Richmond Coliseum) in the early 1970s for the old Virginia Squires, Julius Erving's first pro team. Norfolk State, which stunned Missouri in last year's Big Dance, no longer can count upon frontliner Kyle O'Quinn (now with the NBA Orlando Magic), but the Spartans are unbeaten in league play entering this weekend. A truly top-heavy league, with Norfolk, NC-Central, and Savannah State head and shoulders above the rest of the loop (and the only teams above .500 for the season in the alliance). Last year...NCAA-Norfolk State won vs. Missouri, 86-84; lost vs. Florida, 84-50; NIT-Savannah State lost vs. Tennessee, 65-51.
NORTHEAST...Quarterfinals March 6, semis March 9, final March 12, all at home of highest seed. Top contenders-Robert Morris, Bryant, Wagner, Long Island, Quinnipiac. Another wide-open-looking conference tourney, although Robert Morris, the home team of the Pittsburgh Airport, has moved to the lead in the conference race with wins in six of its last seven games. A well-balanced squad featuring four DD scorers (including all-name F Lucky Jones), the Colonials advanced the quarterfinals of the CIT last season and opened some eyes with a couple of impressive pre-league efforts, including a home upset of Ohio U, another home win over Cleveland State when the Vikings were healthy and had F Anton Grady in the lineup, and a near-miss at Arkansas. Bryant, led by Columbia transfer F Dyami Starks (17.9 ppg), has been one of the nation's best storylines after winning just twice last season. Bob Beckel's alma mater Wagner is the deepest team in the league (bench goes 10 deep) and features rugged PF Jonathon Williams (15 ppg). Last year...NCAA-Long Island lost vs. Michigan State, 89-67; CIT-Robert Morris won at Indiana State, 67-60; won at Toledo, 69-51; lost at Fairfield, 67-61; CBI-Quinnipiac lost at Penn, 74-63.
OHIO VALLEY...Tourney March 6-9 at Municipal Auditorium, Nashville, TN (not the home court of Nashville-based Tennessee State, which plays its games at the Gentry Complex, or Nashville-based Belmont, which plays its games at the Mike Curb Events Center). Top contenders-Belmont, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky. Belmont's move from the Atlantic Sun has strengthened the OVC, and the Bruins' recent whip job of Ohio in the BracketBusters suggests that Rick Byrd's team also has a decent Big Dance at-large argument (especially with its RPI in the low 20s) should it lose in this event. And having the tourney conducted across town from campus at the old Nashville Municipal Auditorium should be a plus. Star G Ian Clark (18.4 ppg) could be a breakout performer in March. Keep an eye, however, on defending loop champ Murray State and star G Isaiah Canaan (21.2 ppg), familiar to many for his exploits a year ago when the Racers won a game in the Big Dance before pushing Marquette in the Round of 32. Murray also won the only regular-season matchup (79-74) vs. Belmont. Last Year...NCAA-Murray State won vs. Colorado State, 58-41; lost vs. Marquette, 62-53; CIT-Tennessee Tech lost at Georgia State, 74-43; Tennessee State lost at Mercer, 68-60.
PATRIOT...Quarterfinals March 6, semifinals March 9, final March 13, all at home of higher seed. Top contenders-Bucknell, Lehigh, Lafayette. With eight wins in its last nine games prior to the regular-season finale vs. Navy, Bucknell has taken command of the race in the past few weeks and will have homecourt edge in the conference tourney. Interestingly, the road team won both regular-season meetings involving the Bison and top contender Lehigh, which is hopeful that star G C.J. McCollum (23.9 ppg, but out since early January with a foot injury) might return in time for the conference tourney. The Mountain Hawks (last year's surprise package, which upset Duke in the NCAA sub-regionals) could use McCollum, too, as they had lost three of their last four entering Saturday's game vs. Army. Last Year...NCAA-Lehigh won vs. Duke, 75-70; lost vs. Xavier, 70-58; NIT-Bucknell won at Arizona, 65-54; lost at Nevada, 75-67; CIT-American U. lost vs. Buffalo, 78-61.
SOUTHERN...Tourney March 8-11 at ExploreAsheville.com Arena, Asheville, NC. Top contenders-Davidson*, Elon, College of Charleston. Regional observers are suggesting the SoCon isn't quite as deep this season, as only Davidson, Elon, and Charleston have above-.500 SU records entering March. Still, Davidson has all of its starters back from last year's SoCon championship side that pushed Louisville to the limit in the NCAA sub-regional at Portland. The Wildcats boast of one of the nation's unique weapons, 6-10 F Jake Cohen, a Euro-style performer who likes to float to the perimeter and shoot 3s and is hitting 50% of his FG tries. Also, do not fall behind the Wildcats and expect them to give away their game at the FT line; Davidson leads the country at a staggering 81.8% FTs. We'd be surprised if Bob McKillop's side doesn't make a return trip to the NCAAs. Last year...NCAA-Davidson lost vs. Louisville, 69-62; CBI-Wofford lost at Pittsburgh, 81-63.
SOUTHLAND...Tourney March 13-16 at Merrell Center, Katy, TX. Top contenders-Stephen F. Austin, Northwestern State, Oral Roberts. SFA will be the favorite in the conference tourney for good reason, as some believe the Lumberjacks might have an NCAA at-large case if they lose in Katy, thanks in part to an RPI that was ranked in the top 20 before league play commenced and notable road wins at Oklahoma and in the BracketBuster at Long Beach State. Disciplined and well-balanced for mustachioed HC Danny Kaspar, with only one DD scorer, F Taylor Smith (15.7 ppg), shooting an astounding 70% from the floor. The Jacks just don't take many bad shots and are snarling on the stop end, leading the nation in scoring defense (50.1 ppg). But Northwestern State, with four DD scorers and a winner over WAC leader La Tech in pre-Southland play as well as a conqueror of SFA on Jan. 26, and Oral Roberts, which moved to the Southland this season from the Summit and features sr. G Warren Niles (18.9 ppg), don't figure to roll over for the Lumberjacks. Last Year...NCAA-Lamar lost play-in game vs. Vermont, 71-59; NIT-UT-Arlington lost at Washington, 82-72; CIT-McNeese State lost at Toledo, 76-63.
SWAC...Tourney March 8-11 at Garland Special Events Center, Garland, TX. Top contenders-Southern U, Texas Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Southern U was the only league rep not below .500 in pre-league play (the Jags were 6-6), which included a 53-51 win at Texas A&M. The backcourt combo of instant-offense G Malcolm Miller (16.3 ppg and 47% beyond the arc, where he takes more than half of his shots, all from off the bench as the league's best sixth man, if not top player overall) and Derick Beltran (16.1 ppg) paces Southern. Houston-based Texas Southern, however, had won nine in a row SU prior to Thursday's showdown vs. the Jags, while Bowling Green transfer PF DaVon Hayes (12 ppg) has added some frontline presence to pesky UA-Pine Bluff, as the Golden Lions had won 7 of their last 8 (including a 55-52 home win over Southern) prior to their regular-season finale vs. Jerry Rice's alma mater, the Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State. Last year...NCAA-Mississippi Valley State lost play-in game vs. Western Kentucky, 59-58.
SUMMIT...Tourney March 9-12 at Sioux Falls Arena, Sioux Falls, SD (not the home court of nearby, Brookings-based South Dakota State, which plays its home games at Frost Arena, or nearby, Vermillion-based South Dakota, which plays its home games at the Dakota Dome). The Summit League was formerly known as Mid-Continent Conference. Top contenders-South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Western Illinois. Although the top contenders all lost their BracketBusters games last weekend, the league still intrigues with its varied styles and well-coached outfits. Both SDSU and NDSU have made Big Dance appearances recently; the SDSU Jackrabbits have much the same look as they did a year ago when advancing to the Dance, led by G Nate Wolters, who scored 53 points in one game this year and spearheaded a rousing upset win at New Mexico in another game in December. As for the NDSU Bison, the good news is that star 6-7 jr. G Taylor Braun (on NBA radar screens) has returned from a six-week absence due to a foot injury, although he was a bit rusty (0 for 4 from the floor in 18 minutes of court time) in his first game back on Wednesday vs. Utah Valley State. Needless to say, NDSU's chances increase in the conference tourney if Braun can get back to near 100%. Keep an eye, too, on rugged and functional Western Illinois, where Lou Saban once coached the football team that spawned some other old AFL names such as Larry Garron and Booker Edgerson. Coached by ex-Bradley mentor Jim Molinari, the Leathernecks play nasty defense (allow mere 52.5 ppg, 2nd in nation behind only SFA), have a post game with 6-8, 250-lb. C Terell Parks (14 ppg & 57% from floor), and a savvy sixth-year sr. PG in Ceola Clark. Last year...NCAA-South Dakota State lost vs. Baylor, 68-60; CBI-North Dakota State lost at Wyoming, 76-75; CIT-Oakland won vs. Bowling Green, 86-69; won vs. Buffalo, 84-76; won vs. Rice, 77-70; lost at Utah State, 105-81.
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This is a 1* Free Play on the Wizards.
It looks like a good spot to pull the trigger on the home side here, as Denver comes into this one disheartened after falling 116-111 in Brooklyn just last night. Washington should be the much “hungrier” side this evening as it’s dropped three of its last four, including a listless 124-116 setback to Orlando at home last time out. Also note that Denver is just 8-11 ATS in its last 19 as an underdog, while Washington is 3-1 ATS in its last four as a home fav in the 3.5 to six points range. Consider laying the points on the WIZARDS.