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Mike Lopresti | | March 8, 2023

The many reasons conference championship week has been a perfect prelude to March

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Is this the way it’s going to be all March in college basketball? Bananas?

The men’s team from Kennesaw State that was 1-28 three years ago is in the NCAA tournament for the first time because of a free throw with 0.7 seconds left that won the ASUN tournament by a point. Terrell Burden was one of the first players new coach Amir Abdur-Rahim recruited in 2019 in hopes of a program rebirth. Four years later, Burden was going to the line to shoot maybe the biggest free throw in the program’s history and his coach’s last words to him before the crucial moment: “I love you.”

The women’s team from Troy lost a Sun Belt tournament game because nobody with a whistle noticed Old Dominion had six players on the court for a key late basket. The league later apologized but the score stood. “It’s difficult to go in and explain this to players.,” Troy coach Chanda Rigby said.

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The men’s team from Merrimack won the Northeast Conference tournament with a one-point thriller but can’t go to the NCAA tournament because of its four-year transition period into Division I. So runner-up Fairleigh Dickinson, a team that was 4-22 a year ago, gets the bid. But the Warriors will always have Tuesday, when they won the NEC with a late free throw from reserve Jordan McKoy, who had not scored a point all night and had taken only four free throw attempts since New Year's Eve.

In other words, March has gone mad ahead of schedule. We haven’t even had Selection Sunday yet and the NCAA committee is still putting together the bracket in an Indianapolis suburb. But this is why the conference tournaments are easy to love, especially in the one-bid leagues where hearts and hopes are on the line.

Want to know what Championship Week looks like at its most poignant?

Here we are in Indianapolis Tuesday night, moments after Northern Kentucky has edged Cleveland State 63-61 for the Horizon League title, surviving a battle that had 14 lead changes and 12 ties.

Northern Kentucky’s Marques Warrick is holding the tournament MVP trophy and remembering where he was a year ago this night, sprawled on this same court with his heart broken after the Norse had blown a 16-point lead in the title game and lost the NCAA tournament bid by a point to Wright State. “I’ve been thinking about that ever since it happened,” he said of the mission to get back. “It was there every day. But we got it done.”

Nearby, not far from the adult guys in orange hair and horns who have slipped onto the court to help the Norse celebrate, coach Darrin Horn is discussing getting back to the NCAA tournament. He once helped lead Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 as a player and later did the same thing as Hilltoppers coach. So he understands the dream that was at stake Tuesday night.

“At this level it means everything,” he said of Championship Week for the one-bid leagues. “What you realize is how much you being (in the NCAA tournament) impacts so many people around you. The boost that it gives to your family, your friends, your university. To me that’s the best part about it. I’m getting old, I turn 50 this year. Thirty years ago was my first experience as a player and you learn really quick that it’s really about the others you bring with you.”

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But while the confetti is pouring down upon Northern Kentucky Tuesday night, walking away at one end with a towel over his head is Cleveland State senior guard Deshon Parker. “That’s everything we wanted right there. It was right in front of our eyes,” he will say later, sobbing when he tries to explain what first-year Vikings coach Daniyal Robinson has meant to him. “From the start he just looked me in my eyes and said `you’re going to lead this team.’ He gave me the keys right away.”

And Robinson will try to put the emotions of the moment into perspective. “It’s hard. Winning is hard. When you put your heart into something. When you put yourself out there -- most people don’t put themselves out there -- and you don’t get what you want, man, it hurts. Growing hurts.”

That’s why this is one of the best weeks of the basketball season. And this is why, too:

There is a chance for atonement.

In the CAA, UNC Wilmington had lost its most recent regular season games against No. 1 seed Hofstra by 24 points and No. 2 seed Charleston by 32. But in the conference tournament, the Seahawks took down Hofstra in overtime and chased Charleston to the wire before losing 63-58. “Nobody expected us to do anything,” coach Takayo Siddle said. “The fight and the toughness of our guys can’t be questioned.”

Drake lost to Bradley by 12 points on March 26 in the showdown to win the Missouri Valley Conference season title. One week later, Drake won a rematch by 26 in the league tournament final.

There is a chance to send a message.

Gonzaga showed who was still boss in the West Coast Conference. Some thought the Zags had maybe lost a step with some regular season slips. But not after they walloped Saint Mary’s 77-51 Tuesday. “I took for granted winning,” said Drew Timme, on the night he became Gonzaga’s all-time leading scorer. “Sometimes it’s hard not to fall into the mindset we just need to get to March. It was a grind this season. I think that grind has made us as a group appreciate each and every night winning, and what it takes to win and be a good team.”

There is a chance to end a drought.

Furman blew a 20-point lead to Western Carolina in the Southern semifinals but survived and advanced in overtime. Then the Paladins beat Chattanooga 88-79 for their first NCAA tournament bid in 43 years. Furman is tied for 19th in the nation in 3-pointers. The last time the Paladins were in the NCAA tournament, there was no 3-pointer.

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There is a chance to reconfirm dominance.

Oral Roberts owned the Summit League this season with an 18-0 record. They made it 21-0 in the conference tournament, the final show of force a 92-58 rout of North Dakota State in the championship game. The Golden Eagles winning streak of 17 games is the nation's longest.

There is a chance to get noticed.

UNC Asheville took the Big South behind Drew Pember, and the nation might soon get to know his fireworks show. He began the season with 40 points in the opener against UCF. In January, he went for 48 against Presbyterian, the most points any Division I player scored in a game this season. In three wins in the Big South tournament. he scored 29-31-29 and made 41 of 47 free throws.

And there is a chance for remarkable irony.

The Ohio Valley Conference bid was decided between a Southeast Missouri State program that had not been to the NCAA tournament in 23 years and a Tennessee Tech program, that had not been there in 60. It looked like Tech’s time when Diante Wood hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer and the Golden Eagles began their joyous dogpile.

Except replays showed it was only a 2. Tie game. Overtime. Southeast Missouri State took it from there. By the way, the Tennessee Tech coach who designed the play for Wood to hit the shot? John Pelphrey. The same John Pelphrey who was a Kentucky player on the floor in 1992 when Christian Laettner hit his famous shot for Duke to beat the Wildcats in the epic regional final. Thirty-one years later, Pelphrey used nearly the identical play. It worked, but just needed to be a foot longer. He ended up crushed again.

“This is what it’s supposed to feel like,” he said of how his team had given everything it hand. “Except for the win.”

That’s why it’s easy to love Championship Week.

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