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.
The Jacksonville Dolphins shot a season high 65.5 percent in the first half and held Lipscomb to 31.3 percent as they rolled to a 87-69 win on Saturday. The win propelled the Dolphins to their first 3-0 start in Atlantic Sun Conference play in 10 years.
“I thought we did a really good job of being locked in on what we were trying to do,” Jacksonville head coach Tony Jasick said.
One of the things they were trying to do was limit Bisons’ junior guard Garrison Matthews. Matthews came into the game averaging over 23 points per contest, but was held to only 3 points in the first half. It was a part of the scouting report that Jasick said he emphasized going into the game.
“We felt like we had to give Garrison Matthews all kinds of attention,” Jasick said. “I thought our guys did a really good job of limiting his effectiveness for most of the game.”
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins’ backcourt of senior guard Devin Harris and freshman guard J.D. Notae scored 19 and 21 points respectively; with both scoring 11 in the first half. Notae was especially impressive as he scored at all three levels.
“I’m very comfortable,” Notae said. “I seem like I fit in real well with my team so I feel like I just go out there and play the game.”
In the first half, the Dolphins used their hot shooting in conjunction with great defense in a performance Bisons just couldn’t match.
In addition to holding Lipscomb to poor shooting, Jacksonville also forced 11 turnovers. The only issue Jacksonville had in the first half is shooting 5-14 from the free-throw line.
However, even that didn’t stop the Dolphins from carrying a 20-point lead into halftime at 47-27.
The second half started in a similar fashion as Jacksonville was able to grab a 59-35 lead. The Bisons would then go on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to 17 at the under-12 timeout at 59-42.
The Dolphins stopped the bleeding and stretched the lead back out to 20 at the under-4 timeout at 74-54.
Then the Bisons started playing pressure defense and forced the Dolphins into several turnovers and even cutting the lead down to 10 at one point. The Dolphins were able to regain their composure and eventually pulled away with the 18-point win.
Matthews was able to get some buckets in garbage time and finished with 23.
The game marked the third time this season Jacksonville shot over 60 percent in a half this season and it was their largest margin of victory over Lipscomb ever.
The Dolphins return to the court on Thursday when they travel to USC Upstate while Lipscomb plays host to Florida Gulf Coast the same evening.
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
For the next couple of days, I’ll be giving previews/prediction of mid-major conference tournaments. Today we’re going to begin with the big South, Ohio Valley, Horizon League, and the Atlantic Sun.
Big South: This is a conference that I’ve been watching all season long. There’s VMI whom opened the season with a win at Kentucky and then led the country in scoring. Watching how perennial Big South powerhouse Winthrop handled a rebuilding year. Then there’s Seth Curry at Liberty who can score just like his big brother. With that in mind, how did Radford win the regular season crown? The Highlanders were consistent throughout league play and were far and away the best team in the league. I expect the Highlanders to cruise to the finals next Saturday where they’ll play Liberty. Unfortunately for Radford, I’m not betting against a Curry in a tournament setting. Seth can put the Flames on his back just as Stephen can. Liberty is going back to the Big Dance.
Ohio Valley: Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, and Murray St are knocking on the door. That should come as no surprise as these three schools have collected all of the OVC’s automatic bids since 2001. These teams all have a win over the OVC’s regular season champion, Tennessee-Martin. The Skyhawks’ Lester Hudson is among the nation’s leaders in scoring and is a leading candidate for OVC Player of the Year. Can he lead them to a trip to the NCAA Tournament. I believe he will and he’ll do it in spectacular fashion.
Horizon League: They’re praying in College Station, TX. They’re praying in Ann Arbor, MI. They’re praying in Providence, RI. They’re praying that Butler cuts the nets down in Indianapolis next Tuesday. The Bulldogs nowhere near untouchable. They’ve lost three games in conference and have been pushed to the limit twice by Cleveland State. I expect to see Butler in the finals along with Wisconsin-Green Bay, a team that caused one of the three conference losses Butler has suffered. The Phoenix will have the Bulldogs un-divided attention and Butler will repeat as conference tournament champs.
Atlantic Sun: Jacksonville wins the Atlantic Sun regular season crown and it’s reward in the semi-finals of the A-Sun tournament could be Lipscomb, the tournament’s host. Such is life for the Dolphins, but I guarantee you they’ll take the situation they’re in right now. I think it’s going to be very difficult for Jacksonville to navigate through a tournament, played in Nashville, when the 2-4 seeds are all from the state of Tennessee. The #3 seed, Belmont has been here and has done this. The Bruins will do it again. They’ll be a dangerous #16 seed in the tournament too.
This week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Miami(FL)
Last Four Out: Florida, St. Mary’s, Virginia Tech, Providence