March is here. Gentlemen, start your madness.Twelve conference tournaments will decide champions in the next nine days, almost all of them the no-margin-for-error leagues. That means an at-large NCAA Tournament bid is not happening. To get invited, it’s conference tournament title or bust, which is why the championship games in these leagues can be so compelling. They ain’t playing for seeding. They’re playing for survival.
Twelve questions, then, for 12 league tournaments:
In the ATLANTIC SUN . . . can anyone shoot down the Birds of Trey?
North Florida leads the nation, averaging 12.5 3-pointers each and every game. That has gotten the Ospreys to a 21-10 record and No. 1 seed in the tournament. Coach Matthew Driscoll has trotted out the same starting lineup all 31 games, and five players average 12.9 points or more. North Florida games can be entertaining win or lose; note the 119-108 defeat at LSU.
No. 2 seed is NJIT, where an NCAA Tournament bid would be the top floor for Jim Engles’ remarkable construction project. Eight years ago, he took over a new Division I program trying to find the end of a 51-game losing streak tunnel.
In the BIG SOUTH . . . is it High Point’s time, finally?
The Panthers have won or shared four consecutive Big South season titles, but have never darkened the door of the NCAA bracket. Why? For High Point, the past three league tournaments have turned into Low Points. They lost by one, and by two the next year, and by one in overtime the next year. Could we hear an . . . aggggha?
These current 20-9 Panthers know something about close losses, too. Eight of their nine defeats came by a total of 27 points, including big fish near misses of four points at Texas Tech, and three at Georgia and North Carolina State. The one exception is a 20-point pounding at Winthrop. Guess who’s the No. 2 seed in the Big South?
In the COLONIAL . . . will it be business as usual between Hofstra and UNCW?
In the regular season meetings between the two top seeds in the league tournament, Hofstra won by one and UNCW won by three. Hofstra is 22-8, including a win over Florida State. UNCW is 22-7, including two overtime victories, running Kevin Keatts’ two-year OT record as coach to 5-0. If you don’t get his Seahawks in the first 40 minutes, you don’t get them at all. Hofstra has the Energizer Bunny at guard, Juan’ya Green, who has rested only six minutes in the past nine games. UNCW has Keatts’ lineup card, which changes more often than the Dow. He has sent out 17 different starting combinations.
Not that there aren’t potential intruders into this two-team scenario. No. 4 seed James Madison, for example, has beaten No. 1 seed Hofstra twice, both in overtime.
In the HORIZON LEAGUE . . . Do they need to put down a spike strip to halt Valparaiso?The 26-5 Crusaders won the regular season title by three games, and breezed to 13 of their 16 Horizon victories came by at least 12 points. They own such daunting numbers as being third in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and sixth in rebound margin and scoring margin.
But they’re not foolproof. Consider No. 3 seed Wright State. Those two losses on the right side of Valpo’s 16-2 Horizon record? Both courtesy of the Raiders. Consider No. 2 seed Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies lead the nation in scoring at 87.3 points a game, and since the conference tournament has been moved to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena – 32 miles from Oakland’s campus – they would have a decided crowd advantage in the championship game. And consider one other thing. Valpo’s three narrow Horizon wins, by two against Oakland, four in overtime at Milwaukee, and two at Green Bay, have all come in the past four games.
In the MAAC . . . does the Monmouth fairy tale have a happy ending?
You remember the lovable and fearless giant-killers from the early season, cutting a swath with their magic sword through UCLA, Notre Dame, USC and Georgetown. Now the Hawks are 25-6, and while their record and non-conference resume could conceivably get them an at-large bid no matter what, best not to take the chance. Those folks on the selection committee could be a tad finicky about that No. 53 RPI.
The main threat to this epic would seem to be No. 2 seed Iona. No love lost between the two teams, anyway, and the 19-10 Gaels have won nine of their last 10, including a 16-point whipping they put on the Hawks at Monmouth.
Of course, the supplementary question to all this: What does the Monmouth bench have planned for its floor show for the conference tournament?
In the MISSOURI VALLEY . . . is it true the only sure things are death, taxes and Wichita State?
Never mind that 2-4 start for the Shockers. They are 21-3 since and rolled to their third consecutive regular season title, finishing with a four-game lead over the left-in-the-dust league. They are 51-3 in Valley games the past three years, and just won their last five conference outings by an average of 20.4 points and . . . well, you get the idea.
Now, if anyone could possibly force them into a close game, it might get interesting. Wichita State is 1-5 in games decided by five points or less, for whatever reason. No. 2 Evansville is a veteran team with its highest seed in 17 years. Both No. 3 seed Illinois State and No. 4 Northern Iowa did beat the Shockers by holding them in the 50s. Northern Iowa, winner of nine of 10, is the true wild card. The 12-loss Panthers went 3-0 against top-25 opponents. They beat North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State but lost to Loyola. Twice. You try to figure them out.
In the NORTHEAST . . . who’s the young guy with the team to beat?
That would be Bashir Mason, in his fourth season as Wagner coach and still only 32 years old. He is the second youngest coach in Division I – four months older than Tennessee State’s Dana Ford – and now he wants to get the 20-9 Seahawks their second NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
They won their last five games to earn the No. 1 seed, so they’ll have home court advantage as long as they’re alive in the tournament. The thing is, No. 2 seed Fairleigh Dickinson beat them at Wagner. So did No. 3 seed Sacred Heart. It should be a tournament of eager teams. None of the top four seeds – Wagner, Fairleigh Dickinson, Sacred Heart or St. Francis Brooklyn – have made the NCAA Tournament the past 10 years.
In the OHIO VALLEY . . . is there a Belmont-beater in the house?
The Bruins just love March, advancing to seven NCAA Tournaments in the past 10 years, and going 22-3 in conference tournaments in that span. Since they’re the No. 1 seed at 20-10, this looks like more of the same. And along the way, we could have a pool on when Evan Bradds misses his next shot. He’s leading the nation with a 70.4 shooting percentage.
Their Ohio Valley cousins would beg to differ, of course, since Belmont dropped four of its last eight conference games. No. 4 seed Tennessee State just comes off a 15-point whipping of the Bruins, but hard to tell if that means anything since Belmont already had the top seed in the bag. Their best chance may be that Belmont has to run out of magic sooner or later. The Bruins needed shots in the last four seconds to survive against Murray State in the championship games in 2013 and ‘15.
In the PATRIOT . . . how is Bucknell like the old Yankees?
Answer: Just about every year, the Bison are adding another championship team to the wall. The current 17-12 Bison just clinched their fifth outright season title in six years. In the 26-year history of the Patriot League, Bucknell has won 10 season championships. All the Bison need are pinstripes.
Now they'll try to get to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six years. No. 2 seed Lehigh is a main threat, having beaten Bucknell by 15 points three weeks ago. There's also Lafayette. The Leopards have been a real pest, taking Bucknell to two overtimes before losing last week, and knocking the top-seeded Bison out of the league tournament last March.
In the SOUTHERN . . . is Chattanooga’s drought near an end?
The Mocs have gone to 10 NCAA Tournaments, but none since 2009. The 25-5 record and No. 1 would suggest relief is at hand, in Matt McCall’s first season as coach. It’s the best record at Chattanooga in 33 years.
No. 2 seed is East Tennessee State, winner of eight of its last nine. The only blemish was a 76-68 loss to Chattanooga.
In the SUMMIT LEAGUE . . . wouldn’t a semifinal between state cousins No. 1 seed IPFW and No. 4 seed IUPUI be fun?
Oh yes, even as it led tournament week in capital letters. IUPUI beat IPFW by two and three points the last seconds of heated games, including last weekend when IUPUI coach Jason Gardner jumped up on the scorer’s table immediately after the win to celebrate. The IPFW camp was not amused. ``There is a way to win and there is a way to lose,’’ IPFW coach Jon Coffman said. Gardner later apologized.
For anyone not knowing, might be time to learn IPFW is Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, since the 23-8 Mastodons are having their finest season since moving to Division I in 2001, and are No. 1 seed in the league tournament for the first time ever. They endured losing their leading scorer at mid-season to academics, and have thrived from long distance, as No. 7 nationally in both 3-pointers and 3-point percentage. They split season games with No. 2 seed South Dakota State and No. 3 Omaha.
In the WEST COAST . . . is it midnight for Gonzaga?
The 23-7 Zags and their 17-year streak of making the NCAA Tournament are squarely on the bubble, and they could well need a big conference tournament. Not exactly the way it was supposed to go back in November, when they were rated No. 9 in the AP preseason rankings.
The main problem is No. 1 seed Saint Mary’s, who is 24-4, leads the nation in shooting and assist-turnover ratio, and swept Gonzaga for the first time since the first Clinton administration. But the losses to Saint Mary’s were only by three and five points. Plenty close enough for Gonzaga to trot out the third-time’s-the-charm cliché.
But there’s also 22-9 BYU, who split with both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga and has Kyle Collinsworth and his nation-leading five triple doubles. Should be fun in Las Vegas over the next week.
And lots of other places.