Championship Week(s) started last night as the Atlantic Sun Championship got underway. Today, we’ll preview a few mid-major tournaments that get started early this week.
ATLANTIC SUN: Before the season started, Florida Gulf Coast was the heavy favorite to win the league title and while the Eagles did win the regular season crown outright, they haven’t seem to put it all together yet. It started before conference play when they lost to Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Oral Roberts. Then down the stretch, they lost home games to Kennesaw St and Lipscomb. They’re vulnerable and something isn’t quite right and that’s why Lipscomb will make its first ever trip to the Big Dance.
BIG SOUTH: This should be one of the more entertaining mid-major tournaments. UNC Asheville won the regular season outright, but only by a game and they lost to both Radford and Winthrop, the two teams that tied for second. Throw in Campbell’s penchant for buzzer beaters and this will be must-see TV. Asheville gets to host every game it plays and that will make the difference as the Bulldogs will make another trip to the tournament.
PATRIOT: Bucknell, like Florida Gulf Coast, was the prohibitive favorite to win its conference. Unlike the Eagles, though, the Bison made it clear all season long that they were the best team in the Patriot League. Strange things have happened in this tournament in recent years, but don’t expect another sub .500 team like Holy Cross to win this tournament as the Crusaders did in 2016. Bucknell will roll to the second of back-to-back tournament berths.
Here’s an Update on three teams that have been playing well recently.
Saint Mary’s had a disappointing time in the Wooden Legacy tournament earlier this season. The Gaels went 1-2 as they lost games to Washington St and Georgia. They have been on cruise control ever since.
They’re 18-2 and 7-0 in league play – already beating top challengers BYU and No. 13 Gonzaga on the road. Tomorrow they travel to Pacific in what will be a trickier game than most people know. However, the Gaels have set themselves up for a huge finish.
They’ll have opportunities for more quality wins at home and their Kenpom rating of 15 is the best for any team not in a power conference. I thought the Gaels would be the best team in the West Coast Conference before the season started and right now they’re proving that to be true.
Western Kentucky is quietly doing work in Conference USA. The Hilltoppers are 6-0 in league play and are building a solid NCAA tournament resume.
Their RPI is 34 and their Kenpom rating is 46. They have neutral-court wins over SMU and No. 3 Purdue. They have a non-conference strength of schedule (SOS) of 12 with their overall SOS expected to drop to 79 by the end of the regular season due to the competition within the league.
They have two tilts with Middle Tennessee remaining, including at home tomorrow, and have already beaten Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech in league play with another game with Old Dominion coming next month. The Hilltoppers can probably take at least 2 losses and still be ok for an at-large bid.
There was much hand-wringing about Florida Gulf Coast’s non-conference struggles. The Eagles lost to Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Oral Roberts and Bowling Green during non-league play.
All those concerns have been put to bed as they’re in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Sun at 4-0 after beating Lipscomb 88-83 last night.
Those struggles may hurt them a seed line or two on Selection Sunday, but with a conference tournament that’s played on the home court of the higher-seeded team; the Atlantic Sun title will once again go through Fort Myers. They’re still the team to beat.
Florida Gulf Coast (FGCU) senior guards Brandon Goodwin and Zach Johnson proved why they are all-conference selections in game one as they combined for 48 points in a 98-87 win over Illinois St.
“Those two guards are so good and they just keep attacking,” Illinois St head coach Dan Muller said after the game. “I said it before the game; I don’t know if we’ll see a better backcourt than those two the entire year.”
Illinois St, which only allowed opponents to score 61 points per game on 38 percent shooting last season, gave on 98 points in an effort that Muller called embarrassing.
“I’m pretty shocked by what we looked liked defensively,” Muller said. “It’s a lot of things we need to fix.”
It was a back-and-forth first half with neither team leading by more than six points. That margin was held by the Redbirds at 25-19, with 10:19 remaining in the half, after they completed an 11-2 run. That was promptly followed by an 11-0 run by the Eagles put them up 30-25. The two teams would go back-and-forth with the Eagles taking a 45-42 lead into halftime
The second half started in a similar fashion with the two teams trading baskets for the first six minutes. After Illinois St took a 56-54 lead on sophomore guard Madison Williams’ three-pointer with 14:32 remaining, FGCU went on a 21-9 run to grab a 75-65 lead with 9:36 remaining. However, Illinois St refused to go away.
The Redbirds methodically clawed their way back into the game thanks to 57 percent shooting from behind the arc in the second half. They were even able to cut the lead until one at 83-82 with 4:33 remaining.
That was as close as they would get as FGCU senior guard Christian Terrell hit a three to put FGCU up 86-82 on the next possession to create a comfortable working margin.
Johnson’s 27 led the Eagles in scoring while Goodwin pitched in 21 and tied with Terrell and sophomore guard Christian Carlyle with 8 rebounds.
Junior guard Keyshawn Evans led the Redbirds with 28 points while junior forward Phil Fayne scored 24. Junior forward Milik Yarbrough had a team-high 8 rebounds.
FGCU returns to the court on Monday with a road game at Siena while Illinois St will play South Carolina in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which was moved to Conway, S.C. due to Hurricane Maria.
All year long, Steve Alford has been brewing something in Los Angeles. The embattled coach has had a superb bounce back season for UCLA. That was no more evident then on Saturday night as the Bruins took down the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson.
UCLA’s resurgence can be attributed to freshman sensation Lonzo Ball. The sure-fire lottery pick has proven himself to be the best pure point guard in a draft class filled with talented point guards. He leads one of the most explosive teams in the country.
UCLA isn’t always dialed in defensively because they’re so adept on the other end. The Bruins will certainly need to defend better in March, but if they don’t it won’t stop them from being one of the toughest outs in the Big Dance.
Let’s do some conference tournament previews.
ATLANTIC SUN: Florida Gulf Coast, once again, proved to be the class of the Atlantic Sun as it won another regular season title. With many of its primary challengers defecting from the conference recently, the Eagles have enjoyed life at the top. Despite that, they’ll have a difficult time winning the automatic bid here. Lipscomb watched crosstown rival Belmont dominate this league before it left and is ready to step up to primetime. The Bisons have already beaten the Eagles on their home court and that’s why they’ll win the automatic bid.
BIG SOUTH: Winthrop and UNC-Asheville tied for the regular season title at 15-3 with Liberty right on their heels at 14-4. Those three have separated themselves from the pack and look primed to take the bid. UNC-Asheville has the most experience here and thus the Bulldogs are the team no one wants to see in this tournament. Too bad. The Bulldogs will be the team that wins it.
OHIO VALLEY: This one is simple. If Belmont doesn’t breeze through the conference tournament it will be one of the more shocking results in any conference tournament. The Bruins finished five games ahead of their next closest competition and look like a team that can pull off an upset in the Big Dance.
NORTHEAST: Mount St. Mary’s looked to be clear favorites in the NEC until last week when LIU beat the Mountaineers on their home court. It’s going to be a slugfest for the Mountaineers as 7 of the 8 teams that qualified for the conference tournament finished at .500 or above. This will be competitive, but the regency of the the loss to LIU will work in their favor and they’ll return to the dance for the first time since 2014.
AMERICA EAST: The Vermont Catamounts went 16-0 in conference play and are as heavy favorites as Belmont is in the OVC. This tournament will be played on the home court of the higher seeded team. That means teams will have to travel to Vermont to attempt to do something none of them have been able to do all season – beat the Catamounts. That won’t happen. Vermont goes dancing.
On to the bracket.
Last Four In: Syracuse, Illinois, Georgia Tech, Rhode Island
Last Four Out: Marquette, California, Wake Forest, Houston
The Stetson Hatters (7-10) had the Florida Gulf Coast (FGCU) Eagles right where they wanted them after 39 minutes. However, a wacky last minute cost Stetson a chance to start off conference play with a bang as FGCU (12-5) pulled out a 89-88 victory.
It was an emotional loss – one that Stetson head coach Corey Williams says he won’t let his team dwell on.
“That’s supposed to be the best team in our league and [we] had them down,” Williams said. “The same work you put in for Florida Gulf Coast, now you have to put in for every opponent that you play.”
The Hatters shot 65.5 percent in the second half on their way to scoring 52 points – 30 of which came in the last 9:33 of the game.
However, the story of the game came with less than a minute and half remaining where eight-point lead vanished into thin air in large part due to Stetson junior guard Angel Rivera fouling out.
“That’s one of our primary ball-handlers and when he got out of the game it made it a little tough,” Williams said. “Now guys have to step up and handle that ball and make the right decision. We didn’t do a good job of that.”
With 1:21 remaining, junior guard Luke Doyle hit a three-pointer to put the Hatters up 85-77. That’s when things started to get hairy.
On FGCU’s next possession, junior guard Christian Terrell knocked down a three-pointer to cut the lead to five. After a Stetson free-throw extended the lead to six, senior forward Demetris Morant hit two free throws to make it a four-point game.
The Hatters turned the ball over before they could get it pass halfcourt. Eagles’ guard Brandon Goodwin was fouled on the ensuing possession and hit two free throws to bring the score to 86-84.
Stetson turned the ball over again on its next possession and Goodwin drove down the lane unencumbered to hit a layup to tie the game with nine seconds remaining in the game.
This is where the game turned really crazy. Hatters junior guard B.J. Glasford was able to sneak behind the Eagles’ defense to score an uncontested layup with 4 seconds left. On the ensuing inbounds Goodwin was able to get the ball just past half court where he drew a foul on a three-point attempt with .6 seconds remaining.
Goodwin sank all three. On the last possession, Doyle’s desperation heave actually hit the rim.
Then there was the post-game handshake line. Words turned into an altercation that almost spilled into the locker rooms as the two teams had to be separated.
“I told my guys the thing that you have to do is you can’t let your emotions rev up to high,” Williams said.
Junior guard Divine Myles led the Hatters with 21 points while Doyle and sophomore forward Derick Newton both chipped in 18. Goodwin led the Eagles with 20 while sophomore guard Rayjon Tucker helped with 19.
Stetson returns to action on the 12th when it travels to Nashville to play its first road conference game at Lipscomb. FGCU returns to action the same evening at Kennesaw St.
The rumors of UCLA’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Early in the season it looked bleak for UCLA after struggling to beat Georgia and losing to Cal Poly. The Bruins chemistry looked shoddy and they were working to incorporate Shabazz Muhammad into the lineup.
Now the Bruins are tied for first in the Pac-12 and Muhammad, along with other freshmen Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are key contributors to the team’s success.
Those freshmen are now meshing with North Carolina transfers, David and Travis Wear and Larry Drew II, to form a team that can score and will put fear in the hearts of any team in March.
That being said; regular season success isn’t the measuring stick in Westwood. It’s Final Fours and national championships and any season when neither happens is a disappointment. So while I commend the Bruins for figuring it out, they have a long way to go to please their fans.
It’s March. No stock report this week as we have conference tournament previews.
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE: This is a league that’s grown in numbers and appears to be undergoing a changing of the guard. UNC-Asheville and Coastal Carolina had been at or near the top of the standings lately, but this year Charleston Southern and High Point have taken over that mantle. I like experience and until proven otherwise, I think UNC-Asheville will find itself in the NCAA tournament again.
HORIZON LEAGUE: Butler is gone, but the top of the conference looks similar to last season. Valparaiso finished in first, the same place it finished in 2012 while Detroit finished second – one spot above where it finished last year. In the conference tournament Detroit avenged regular season losses to Valpo to get to the dance. I think Detroit is the more talented and more explosive team and will go dancing again.
OHIO VALLEY: One of the more underrated moves in conference realignment was Belmont leaving the Atlantic Sun to go to the OVC. That move has proven to be a good one for the Bruins as they won the regular season title in the league while gaining a conference mate that rivals them in quality in Murray St. The Racers return one of the best players in the country in Isaiah Canaan, but did not finish the season well. Watch out for Eastern Kentucky, but I think you have to go with the Bruins in this league.
ATLANTIC SUN: Florida Gulf Coast beat Miami earlier this season and looked to be in good shape. However, Mercer walked the Eagles down even with a loss to them last week. Mercer is hosting the conference tournament and I expect the Bears to be tough to beat on their home court.
On to the Bracket.
Last Four In: Tennessee, Saint Mary’s, Villanova, Iowa St
Last Four Out: Kentucky, Alabama, Iowa, Arizona St