March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos!
The Atlantic Sun. Or as I like to call it the Florida Gulf Coast Division. In the 2013 NCAA Tourney 15 seeded Florida Gulf Coast knocked off 2 seeded Georgetown. But it wasn’t just that they won, it was that they did so by dunking all over Georgetown’s faces repeatedly.
It was really a sight to behold. And whats more, they followed up that Georgetown upset with a win over 7 seeded San Diego State before finally falling to 3 seeded Florida in the Sweet 16. They missed the Tourney last season, but the Atlantic Sun balled out yet again as Mercer knocked off #2 seed Duke in the first round, so even though they’re a collection of small, relatively unknown schools I’ve developed some expectations for this conference. But let’s take a look at the standings before their conference tourney kicks off tomorrow.
Florida Gulf Coast looked like they might run away with this thing as of a couple weeks ago, but back to back losses last week to North Florida and Jacksonville cost them the regular season title. Instead, then, we’re now left with 3 real contenders for the A-Sun. South Carolina Upstate has the best player in the league with 6’3″ Senior Guard Ty Greene who averages 20 points per game and shoots 43% from 3 point range, and averages 3 made 3 pointers a game. Florida Gulf Coast was probably the best team in the league all season long until last week, and definitely has postseason experience to work on. But the hottest team heading into the A-Sun Tourney is North Florida who are riding a 5 game win streak, swept the season series with FGCU (although they were swept by South Carolina Upstate), and can even boast of a road win @ Purdue this season.
North Florida, however, has a disastrously thin roster. Their 1-6 look like a really solid team, but the 7th man in their rotation starts to look an awful lot like a weak link, and there is basically noone else on their roster beyond that who plays meaningful minutes for the team and has impacted results this season. In fact there are only even 11 players on their roster in total.
Florida Gulf Coast, on the other hand, is replete with depth, I’m just not sure how many of them are any good. Their top 5 are probably the best in the league, and Demetris Morant and Nate Hicks are solid rebounding big men off the bench, but I somehow feel underwhelmed by them. I suppose if I was going to pick someone to win this league and make some noise in the Tourney it would be FGCU, but I really like Ty Greene on USC Upstate. I think that guy is crazy good, and could take over a game come March. The only one of these three who I think could win the league, and lay an egg in the Big Dance is North Florida, but either way I’ll be rooting for the Atlantic Sun to continue its tradition of 15s over 2s in a couple weeks, and am excited to see who comes out of this league.
The Big South, however, does not leave me as confident. Mainly because I have no clue who is actually good there. They have a handful of teams that might be good, and several stud players who I wouldn’t be surprised to see make a lot of noise in March, but there hasn’t been a single team in their league who has consistently produced all season long and left me with a lot of confidence in their postseason abilities.
In spite of that negative intro, however, there are a lot of teams I like in this conference, and I think it might actually just be a sneaky good league. High Point and Charleston Southern I like because they have a pair of absolute studs leading their teams who I could easily see using the NCAA Tourney stage to make a name for themselves. Charleston Southern’s senior guard Saah Nimley stands at a collasal 5’8″ but gets buckets like nobody’s business, averaging 21.5 ppg. High Point’s Jr. Forward John Brown averages 18.6ppg and 5.8 rebounds a game. Either one of those guys could put his team on their backs and carry them into the promised land.
However, Winthrop’s senior swingman Keon Moore may be more impressive than either of them. He scores almost 19 points a game, 5 boards, 2 assists, and is pretty much a one man army for the Eagles of North Carolina. Gardner web brings their own champion to the mix with Jerome Hill who somehow averages 10 (!!!) freaking rebounds a game at only 6’5″ and oh yea, he scores 19 points per game. So clearly there is no lack of star power in this league, and I would absolutely love to see any of these guys get a chance to really shine in the Big Dance.
But as we all know, one man alone cannot win a basketball game. In that vein then Coastal Carolina probably has the most balanced team in the League but they were incredibly unimpressive once they got to conference play after a very impressive non-conference slate that included wins over Louisianna Monroe (who we’ll get to in a couple days) and Auburn (rebuilding, but still a team from a power conference with Bruce Pearl at the helm. And just to round things out let’s throw Radford in the mix who went on an absolute tear through January, throwing together an 8 game winning streak in conference before positively imploding to end the season. If they recover that January form, however, they’d be tough to beat.
So here’s my conundrum with the Big South. I have no idea if this conference is actually sneaky good, or if they’re just a collection of bad teams putting up big numbers against each other. I’d like to believe its the former, but I don’t have too much history to go on, so right now I’m just going to have to assume that noone from the Big South will make any real noise in the NCAAs, and just wait patiently to be proven horribly wrong.
One conference that I KNOW is good and that has a veritable cornucopia of basketball history, however, is the Horizon League. This is the first really dangerous league (as far as the NCAAs are concerned) that we’ve hit on in these previews. The Horizon is the League that gave us Butler’s stellar runs in 2010 and 2011, and they are a League absolutely loaded with programs rich in basketball tradition that can really play. They look a little different these days as conference realignment hasn’t been completely kind to them, but thankfully they were able to rebuild on the fly, and maintain their status as an excellent Mid-Major Basketball Conference.
Headlining that list this season are Valparaiso, and Green Bay. I reeeeeeally like both of these teams this year, but unfortunately the basketball gods (aka Joe Lunardi) tell me the Horizon has no chance to repeat their stellar 1997-98 and 2002-03 efforts and put two teams into the tourney, so we’ll have to break them both down and see who looks like the more worthy bracket buster this time around. Before we get to that though I just want to pay some token respects to both Cleveland State and Oakland who both have excellent basketball tradition, put together really solid seasons this year, and could easily spoil this party by upsetting their way into the Horizon Tourney finals and into the Big Dance. SO with that said, on to two of my favorite potential bracket busters this season.
First on the list would be the Valparaiso Crusaders. Whats not to like about these guys? Cool oldschool uniforms. Spectacular nickname. A history of Basketball excellence (they made the NCAA Tourney 7 times in a 9 year span from 1996 to 2004) complete with one of the more shocking finishes to an NCAA Tournament upset in history.
This year’s Valpo team, moreover, has been on my radar all season long after they posted a stellar 13-2 non-conference record. It was admittedly against some less than stellar competition and included losses against an absolutely atrocious Missouri team and a very underwhelming New Mexico team, but it also included a win over another one of this season’s most impressive Mid-Majors in Murray State. Moreover, they kept up that pace once they entered conference play as the put up a 13-3 record, and largely took care of business all season long.
They’ve achieved all this primarily through offensive efficiency and rebounding, a couple excellent traits to have when heading into postseason play. They’re not dominated by any one individual, but Alec Peters leads the team in points and rebounds with 16.8 and 6.8 respectively. I’m not sure they’ve been tested well enough to gaurentee that they could make a deep run in the tournament, but I full expect them to make the round of 32 and wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them in the sweet 16.
Green Bay, on the other hand, might have a less impressive overall record, but an even more impressive resume. They knocked off Miami earlier this year when they were ranked #15 in the country split their season series with another potentially tourney bound team in Georgia State, knocked off Florida Gulf Coast, and split their season series with Valpo. However, last year may have been their real chance to make some postseason noise when they were upset by Milwaukee in the Horizon Tourney and forced into the NIT rather than the NCAAs. This years team more or less a shell of last seasons iteration and certainly lacks the depth of last year’s team. They’re dominated primarily by three guys (Keifer Sykes [legit stud], Greg Mays, and Carrington Love) who are all legitimately good, but behind them things get real shakey real fast.
If I had to pick either of these teams to win the League and make some noise in the NCAAs Valpo is definitely the safer, more consistent bet, but Green Bay definitely has their share of playmakers, and I could easily see them pulling an upset in the opening weekend of games. In the end, then, it might be somewhat of a down year for the Horizon as a whole, but they still have some elite contenders at the top, who I not only think could pull an upset come NCAA time, but fully expect will do so.