Three more teams will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament tonight by winning their conference championship games.
What’s at stake is clear, a coveted spot in the 68-team field. Let’s take a look at the matchups:
No. 1 Hofstra (24-8) vs. No. 2 UNC Wilmington (24-7)
7 p.m., NBCSN
Royal Farms Arena; Baltimore, Md.
Regular season: UNCW won 70-67 on Feb. 4th, Hofstra won 70-69 on Feb. 25th.
Last Dance: Hofstra (2001), UNCW (2006)
The venerable arena formerly known as the Baltimore Civic Center that has welcomed Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and Stevie Wonder through the years could be rocking again in what should be a tight battle between evenly matched teams who won on each other’s home court and shared the regular season title. Just two years ago, they met in the first-round matchup between the CAA's last-place teams.
Hofstra is led by conference Player of the Year Juan’ya Green, who joins Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Oakland’s Kay Felder in averaging 17 points and seven assists per game. Rokas Gustys is a ridiculous rebounder, hauling down nearly 15 per game in CAA action. The Pride is one of the nation’s oldest teams and relies on its bench less than any team in the nation.
UNCW, which made four NCAA trips between 2000 and 2006, shared the regular season crown for the second consecutive year under coach Kevin Keatts, a former Louisville assistant who could be in demand this spring. Coming off narrow wins in the first two rounds, the Seahawks are deep and balanced on the perimeter led by silky smooth wing Chris Flemmings, a walkon. He leads the team in scoring (16.0 ppg) and rebounding (5.9 rpg).
Quotable: "This whole league, the whole entire season has been crazy. Every team challenges you to the end and there are six or seven teams that could be here. We are fortunate to be in the championship game." - UNCW coach Kevin Keatts
No. 1 Monmouth (27-6) vs. No. 2 Iona (21-10)
7 p.m, ESPN2
Times-Union Center, Albany, NY
Regular season: Monmouth won 110-102 on Jan. 15th, Iona won 83-67 on Feb. 19th.
Last Dance: Monmouth (2006), Iona (2013).
Don’t blink. Both teams prefer a breakneck pace. Monmouth, coached by former North Carolina point guard King Rice, has been one of the best stories in college basketball this season with its theatrical bench crew and head-turning upsets of UCLA, Notre Dame, Southern Cal and Georgetown. The 5-8 junior Justin Robinson drives the Hawks engine, converting 48 percent of 2-pointers, 40 percent of 3-pointers and 85 percent of free throws, attempting six per game. He’s one of four Monmouth players with at least 40 3-pointers, and no team in the MAAC defended better (0.95 points allowed per possession).
The Iona conversation begins with senior guard A.J. English, who averages 22.5 points, 6.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds and can score in a variety of ways. The Gaels led the conference in offensive efficiency (112.5), deadly inside and outside the arc. They enter on a hot streak, having won seven in a row by an average of 13 points including a decisive 81-70 defeat of host Siena in the semifinals.
Quotable: “Last year, I was sitting up here, and everybody thought I was too cocky. Now we're here, and we get a chance. A lot of firsts this year, a lot of firsts. We're not doing it for anybody else but the people in this locker room.” - Monmouth coach King Rice
No. 1 Chattanooga (28-5) vs. No. 2 East Tennessee State (23-10)
9 p.m., ESPN2
U.S. Cellular Center; Asheville, NC
Regular season: Chattanooga won 94-84 on Jan. 16th and 76-68 on Feb. 13th.
Last Dance: Chattanooga (2009), ETSU (2010).
Title battle between two former SEC assistants in their first year as a head coach in Division I. Chattanooga’s Matt McCall set a school-record at Chattanooga for victories in a season, impressive considering the program has made 10 NCAA tournament appearances in 39 years and boasts a .614 all-time winning percentage. The Mocs are deep and balanced - six different players scored in double figures in the first two tournament games. They play aggressive defense with a low foul rate, forcing SoCon opponents into turnovers on more than one-fifth of possessions. In the series sweep, Chattanooga shredded ETSU’s defense for 1.31 and 1.17 points per possession.
ETSU, winners of seven in a row, had the sharpest offense in the SoCon (111.5 adjusted efficiency, per KenPom), blistering the nets at a 40.1 percent clip beyond-the-arc in conference games. Ge’ Lawn Guyn (18.4 ppg) and T.J. Cromer (15.0 ppg) are the leading threats, and fun to watch in the open floor. So is Deuce Bello, who could do something like this at any time:
Quotable: “When I took this job a year ago I said I wanted to play meaningful games in March ... This is the most meaningful one we could play. That’s a credit to our team, our staff, our seniors.” - ETSU coach Steve Forbes