Five teams are in it to win it
Rex takes a look at the first five teams to clinch automatic bids
Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five teams that impress. Team statistics are through March 10.
Coach Tommy Amaker and his winning pedigree has certainly created a culture of winning in Cambridge, Mass. as his Harvard Crimson held off Cornell on Saturday evening 65-56 to capture the school's third consecutive Ivy League title. In doing so, the Crimson secured a NCAA automatic bid and will represent the Ivy League in next week's NCAA tournament.
Amaker is no stranger to winning in March having played four seasons under Mike Krzyezwski at Duke as a player and then later worked for Coach K as an assistant from 1989-97. A person doesn't spend some 15-years in the Duke system without learning a measure of discipline and that characteristic certainly describes the 2012-13 Harvard Crimson.
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Harvard is the 11th-best field-goal shooting team in the country this season as they make an incredible 48.2 percent of all shots attempted. The Crimson have been a model of consistency this season from beginning to end and will enter next weeks' big dance with a record of 19-9 overall and 11-3 in the conference.
Harvard's strength lies in its backcourt and wing-play. The Crimson are led by 6-foot-5 forward Wesley Saunders. Speaking of consistency, against Cornell on Saturday Saunders finished with 14 points, which marked the 28th consecutive game in which he has scored double figures. Saunders averages 16.5 points per game to go with 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists while notching just under 2 steals per ballgame. The Crimson have received a huge contribution this year in the form of 6-foot freshman point guard Siyani Chambers. Chambers puts up 12.9 ppg, 5.7 apg and 1.6 spg.
As we've seen many times over the years, undersized, smart and disciplined teams prove to be some of the most difficult to prepare for as a coach. You can bet your bottom dollar that some high-seeded staff out there will have a few anxious and likely sleepless nights beginning on Sunday once they see their name in a bracket next to Tommy Amaker's Harvard Crimson.
Coach Dale Layer and the Liberty Flames, barring some sort of unforseeable crazy upset in a conference tournament title game this week, will likely enter next week's NCAA tournament as the most unlikely team to make the big dance in 2013.
The Flames played four games in four days, becoming the first school in league history to do so as they captured the Big South tournament this past weekend. The Flames, a private school in Lynchburg, Va. with an enrollment of roughly 12,000, beat Charleston Southern by a score of 87-76 to secure its first NCAA automatic tourney bid since 2004.
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Liberty becomes on the second school (Coppin State in 2008) to advance to the NCAA tournament with 20-plus losses to its credit. But giving credit where credit is due, the Flames became red-hot over the past week and were absolutely smoking inside Conway's HTC Center.
Much like Harvar, the Liberty Flames are led this season by their backcourt. Junior John Caleb Sanders leads the way with 14.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 3.5 apg. Both Davon Marshall and Tavares Speaks follow close behind at 13.4 and 13.1 ppg, respectively.
To put into perspective just how much of a long-shot this Liberty squad was to make this year's tournament -- the Flames started the season 0-8 and did not beat a DI opponent until New Year's Eve when they squeaked past Western Carolina 63-62. What matters now however, is that the little school from Lynchburg has arrived at the ball. Cinderella's in the house.
In just its second year of NCAA Division I postseason eligibility, Florida Gulf Coast (24-10, 13-5) secured the school's first NCAA tournament berth. The Eagles squared off against the Atlantic Sun's top-seed Mercer in the championship of Sunday's conference tournament and convincingly beat them by a score of 88-75.
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The Eagles are anchored defensively each night they take the floor by A-Sun Defensive player of the year, Bernard Thompson, who averages just shy of 3-steals each ballgame. Thompson also chips in 14 ppg to go with 4.4 rebounds and shoots 38-percent from 3-point range. FGCU is led in scoring 6-foot-4 senior guard and A-Sun POY Sherwood Brown at 15.3 ppg. But it was sophomore Brett Comer who stepped up his game this past weekend for the Eagles, scoring 21 in the championship game against Mercer on his way to being named Atlantic Sun tournament MVP.
FGCU is a high-scoring team (53rd in the nation) and can put points on the board in many ways and from many different players, as Mercer saw on Saturday when five Eagles notched double figures in the finals.
Congrats to Andy Enfield and his FGCU Eagles. This will be a team in next weeks' tournament who knows how to score and playing with house money -- with nothing to lose. A potentially dangerous combination for a high-seed.
What a job coach Rick Byrd and his staff have done in Belmont's first season as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. Byrd and his Bruins are officially "dancing" as they earned one of the first NCAA automatic bids this weekend by beating Murray State in overtime to capture the 2013 OVC title.
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The SEC will hold its annual "power conference" tournament in Nashville this week, but most of the buzz in Music City will likely be about Belmont making the big dance. The Bruins, who had previously been a member of the Atlantic Sun conference, move to the history rich OVC. Belmont quickly caught OVC foes' attention by winning its first 10 games of the conference season en route to the regular season title and grabbing the No. 1 overall seed in the conference tournament.
The Bruins are fourth in the country in field-goal accuracy, shooting an incredible 49.4-percent from the floor. Belmont is certainly a team with southern roots as all four of its double-figure scorers hail from southern states. Leading the Bruins in scoring is senior guard Ian Clark from nearby Memphis. Clark averages 18.1 ppg and shoots a silly 54-percent from the floor while dropping a crazy-good 46.3-percent from beyond the arc. Kerron Johnson chips-in 13.7 ppg.
Byrd's Belmont Bruins may not be a national power just yet but his 2012-13 squad is a potent offensive basketball squad. This is a team who absolutely belongs in this year's NCAA tournament field and a team who can make some noise. Don't sleep on these Bruins.
The Creighton Bluejays led by coach Greg McDermott are making trips to the NCAA tournament old-hat for the school's supporters. And one thing is certain, when the MVC tournament is held in St. Louis, no conference foe should ever want to play Creighton in the finals -- as the Bluejays moved their mark to 9-0 in St. Louis-held MVC league title contests.
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It's fun to watch a team like this Creighton squad perform as they have all season long. The Bluejays play in the always-underrated Missouri Valley Conference. A conference, in which this season, I find to be absolutely better than a couple of the so-called "power" conferences. McDermott's Jays are one of the more efficient offensive teams you'll find in this year's tournament field. They run their half-court sets to perfection and are extremely well-schooled in the areas of timing and angles, which leads to quality execution.
The Bluejays score 75.4 ppg (24th in the nation) and shoot an outstanding 50.8-percent from the floor -- good for second in all of DI basketball. But the mark of any good team, in my opinion, is how well it passes the basketball -- and this team does as well as anyone, averaging 17.2 assists per contest (fifth in the nation). Simply, McDermott and his staff have created possibly the best, most efficient offensive basketball squad in 2012-13.
Creighton is led by coach McDermott's son, All-American Doug McDermott. DM has had another super year for the Bluejays. The guy is a nightmare for defenders -- always moving and as active as any player in the country. The younger McDermott is versatile as well. He can post-up or take you out on the floor and shoot over the top. Doug McDermott is just a beautiful offensive basketball player who averages 23.1 ppg (seventh in the nation) on 56.1-percent shooting while dropping just shy of 50-percent from 3-point range.
No other Creighton player averages double-figures, but that stat is a bit misleading as Gregory Echenique chips-in 9.6 ppg and Grant Gibbs is right behind him at 8.6. Ethan Wragge, Austin Chatman and Josh Jones all average above 7 ppg.
The McDermott boys' Bluejays are definitely a team who has earned everything they've gotten this season en route to a 24-7 overall mark (13-5 MVC). The Jays will also be a squad capable of getting hot and making plenty of noise next week. A fun team to watch.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman