Here are five teams and five players to watch when the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament begins on March 10.
1. Northwest Missouri State, 29-1 overall, 18-1 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. The Bearcats, the No. 1 seed in the Central Region, won the MIAA Tournament for the second year in a row. They won their first 24 games before suffering a loss and has now won five straight games. They have reached the Central Region championship game the last three years, but have fallen short of making the Elite Eight. Two of the last three years they have lost to the eventual national champions in the Central region championship game. Interesting fact: Northwest Missouri broke an 86-year-old conference record for consecutive MIAA regular-season wins with 28. The old mark was 19 set in 1931.
2. Fairmont State, 29-2 overall, 21-1 Mountain East Conference. The Falcons, the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Region, had their eight-game winning streak snapped with a 67-65 loss to West Liberty in the championship game of the MEC Tournament. West Liberty and Fairmont State split the regular-season series. Interesting fact: Fairmont State won its first MEC regular-season title this year.
3. West Liberty, 27-3 overall, 19-3 Mountain East Conference. The Hilltoppers, seeded third in the Atlantic Region, got their revenge on Fairmont State with a two-point win in the conference tournament. West Liberty is 2-1 against Fairmont State this season. Last year West Liberty won the Atlantic region and made it to the Elite Eight where it lost to Lincoln Memorial 103-102 in the semifinals in probably the best Division II game of the season, if not the decade. Interesting fact: West Liberty has reached the Elite Eight in five of the last six years.
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4. Queens (N.C.), 28-3 overall, 19-3 South Atlantic Conference. The Royals, the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region, snapped Lincoln Memorial’s 16-game winning streak with a 75-72 victory in the championship game of the SAC Tournament. Queens is 2-1 against Lincoln Memorial this season, winning 103-101 in overtime on Jan. 9 and then losing to Lincoln Memorial on Feb. 18. The Royals have won five straight since that loss. Interesting fact: This was the first conference tournament title for Queens since the 1998-99 season.
5. Hawaii Pacific, 28-2 overall, 18-2 PacWest. The Sharks won regular season title and tournament title and are advancing to the Division II Tournament for the first time since 1999. Hawaii Pacific has won five in a row. Interesting fact: Hawaii Pacific head coach Darren Vorderbruegge, was an associate head coach at Northwest Missouri in the early 2000 and was on the coaching staff that guided Northwest Missouri to the Elite Eight in 2002 and 2004.
Five players to watch
1. Matt Bingaya, Fairmont State, 6-4 senior forward. Bingaya was selected MEC player of the year. He averaged 19.5 points per game and 7.4 rebounds. He shot 62 percent for the field.
2. Justin Pitts, Northwest Missouri State, 5-9, junior, guard. Pitts earned his second straight MIAA player of the year. He is averaging 20.0 points per game. He is only 20 points away from breaking the school record for points
3. Dan Monterosa, West Liberty, 6-3, junior, forward. This is Monterosa’s first year playing college basketball after playing three seasons of football at Purdue in the Big 10. He made first-team All-MEC. He leads the Hilltoppers in scoring, averaging 19.1 points and is averaging 5.8 rebounds per game.
4. Adam Eberhard, Bellarmine, 6-8, sophomore, forward. Eberhard earned first-team All-GLVC. He averaged 16.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He helped Bellarmine win the GLVC regular-season title and tournament title. Eberhard was selected MVP in the conference tournament.
5. Michael Smith, California Baptist, 6-4, senior, guard. Smith became just the second player in PacWest history to repeat as conference player of the year. He is averaging 24.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game.
Three regions to watch
1. Atlantic: In arguably the toughest region in the country, Fairmont State, West Liberty and Indiana (Pa.) will be among the eight teams in this region fighting for a spot in the Elite Eight. West Liberty has the edge because it has a recent history of winning regional and advancing to the Elite Eight. But not much separates the Hilltoppers from Fairmont State. Both of Fairmont State’s losses have come against West Liberty, including the championship game of the Mountain East Tournament. Indiana (Pa.) had its 18-game winning streak snapped in a 90-87 overtime loss to Shippensburg in the semifinals in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Tournament. Fairmont is seeded one, followed by Shippensburg, West Liberty and Indiana (Pa.).
2. Midwest: Bellarmine, the No. 1 seed, enters the tournament as one of the hottest Division II teams in the country, having won 15 straight games. Two of its three losses, came against ranked teams, Saginaw Valley State and Lincoln Memorial. The Knights, who played Cincinnati, Indiana and Louisville to open the season, are certainly battle-tested, and they will need that experience. Ferris State, 27-4, enters this region as the No. 2 seed on a seven-game winning streak. Ferris State won the GLIAC Tournament title. Kentucky Wesleyan, 28-2, is the hottest team in Division II. The Panthers, the No. 4 seed, have won 26 straight games. Also keep an eye on the No. 3 seed Southern Indiana.
3. West: This is probably the most wide-open region. No. 6 seed Chico State definitely have the players to make a run. UC San Diego earned the No. 1 seed in the region. The Tritons won the California Collegiate Athletic Tournament. Another team to keep a close eye on is No. 2 seed Hawaii Pacific.