Rejoice! For the month of March has arrived at long last! And that means college basketball takes center stage in the American national sports consciousness. This is of course in large part due to the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament BUT that isn’t all that “March Madness” is. There’s also the Journey to the Tourney itself! Fairly or otherwise College Basketball’s non-Major conferences are generally only able to put 1 team into the Big Dance, and that one team is usually only the winner of their end of season conference tournament (meaning the team that had the best season is often S.O.L. which is where the unfair part comes from). SO in a lot of ways these conference tournaments are every bit as life and death as the big dance for many programs across the country and therefore every bit as interesting to a college basketball junkie! Over the next couple weeks, then, as all these conference tournaments play out I’m going to be previewing each League’s Tourney as the Big Dance’s field solidifies itself. What I’m really looking for, however, are potential bracket busters in the lower leagues and real contenders in the upper leagues.And with that said, onward and upwards!
The Ivy League is a little unique in that it does not have a conference tournament. Personally I kindof like this system it that it is guaranteed to reward the team that had the best season in the league. Traditionally this has been Princeton (24 NCAA Tournament appearances) and Penn (23 lifetime appearances) BUT ANYWAY! Let’s take a look at this year’s crop of contenders.
As of today (March 1st, 2015) only 2 teams have a chance of coming out of the Ivy, Harvard or Yale. Princeton actually put together a shockingly impressive season when you consider the fact that they opened this season 3-8, and I thought Columbia had a much better team than 5-7 in conference, 13-13 overall, but so be it. As it stands, though, we wind up with a pretty interesting race that involves the oldest rivalry in American college athletics and all things college oriented. Ask your average American to name the best two universities in the nation are and almost unequivocally you’re going to get Harvard and Yale. The two are continuously intertwined academically, and athletically as well (their football rivalry used to be the game in college football and dates back to 1897).
However, when it comes to basketball, this football and academic rivalry has generally taken a back seat to Princeton/Penn. The last few years, however, Harvard has absolutely owned the Ivy (and Yale for that matter). Since the 2010-11 season Harvard has finished with the best record in the Ivy or tied for the best, and the only NCAA Tourney they’ve missed in that stretch was the 2011 Tournament where they lost an end of season playoff game with Princeton to determine who the League would send to the NCAAs. Other than that they have made 3 straight NCAA Tournaments, and are in a commanding position to make their 4th straight this season, unless Yale has something to say about it.
For what it’s worth I actually think Yale has a better team than Harvard this season. They have a surprising amount of size and rebounding with Justin Sears and Armani Cotton. Moreover, on paper they look like a more balanced offensive team than Harvard (with Sears and Javier Duren leading the way at 14ppg a piece) who may be excessively reliant on senior guard Wesley Saunders. Moreover, whereas Yale has a stable of serviceable big men, Harvard is lacking in this department outside of Steve Moundou-Missi, and struggles to rebound as a result. Moreover, Yale had a solid showing in the non-conference with wins over Kent State and UConn, but 2 home losses in Ivy League play (one to Harvard and one to Columbia) may have sealed their postseason fate.
Both Yale and Harvard have 2 games remaining on their schedule. One this Friday against each other at Harvard, and one this Saturday. That Friday night game will likely decide the conference, and considering the fact that Harvard beat Yale at Yale, I have a hard time believing they won’t be able to take care of business at home as well. This strikes me as one of those situations where the battle-hardened, more seasoned lot (Harvard) takes care of the team which should be better on paper (Yale). This was exactly what kept Harvard out of the NCAA Tourney in 2011 when they lost out to an inferior, but more seasoned Princeton team, and I have a feeling the same fate is in store for James Jones’ Bulldogs. I’ll be rooting for them to pull off the upset this weekend, but I don’t have much faith that it’ll happen.
No matter which team comes out of this league, however, I don’t have a ton of faith that either of them will do anything once they get to the NCAA Tournament. Obviously matchups matter and can change everything, but I have a hard time believing that a Yale team that hasn’t made it to the NCAAs since 1962 and has never won a game in the Big Dance will do much on their first trip back. And like I said before, this isn’t the same Harvard team as the last couple years when they had legitimate upset alert buzz. They’re a depleted team getting by and veteran savvy and leaning awfully heavily on one player. The fact that they lost to Cornell, Dartmouth (both at home), and Holy Cross, and needed overtime to beat Brown tells me they’re just not the same team they were, and are probably just as likely to go 1 and done in the tourney as Yale would be. But still, that will be an exciting niche game this Friday!
But now let’s take a look at a League that actually has a postseason conference tournament. The Patriot League tourney starts tomorrow and will be played on the 2nd, 4th, 7th, and 11th of March. Now, I’m gonna be real honest with you folks… I know almost nothing about this league this year. And the reason for that is because they are… to put it kindly… garbage. The whole league. Which is a shame because this is the same league that gave us Lehigh over Duke in 2012, but alas… none of those shenanigans are on the Horizon this year.
The League winner will probably be Bucknell? They’ve got some NCAA history in the last few years, winning the League in 2011 and 2013 (both first round losses in the NCAA). However, they’ve had some postseason success as well (they made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in both 2005 and 2006 with a shocking upset win over 3 seed Kansas in 2005 and a win in the 8/9 game over Arkansas in 2006.
Now, both those wins came under former coach Pat Flannery, who has since retired, but the more recent two appearances have been under current coach Dave Paulsen. SO they’ve got pedigree and history, and even a handful of players / coaches on this roster who have already played in NCAA Tourney games.
If anyone is going to do anything in the NCAAs from the Patriot League I would expect it to be Bucknell. The only problem, however, is I’m not sure they’re dominant enough to guarantee a win in their conference tourney. Outside of Jr. guard Chris Hass (who was a freshman on that 2013 tourney team) some of Bucknell’s best players are underclassmen. Nana Foulland (freshman) is their best bigman and leads the team in rebounding. JC Show and Zach Thomas are #3 and #4 on the team in scoring and are both freshmen. John Azzinaro is 5th in scoring and he’s a sophomore. It just looks like a frighteningly young team to me. They’re a team I’ll be keeping an eye on next season, but I’m not certain that this is their time yet.
If not Bucknell, however, I’d expect someone like Colgate to win that league tournament if it weren’t for the fact that they went 3-10 in postseason play. Or perhaps a recent champion in Lehigh with star sophomore big man Tim Kempton, but they barely managed to stay above .500 in conference all season long, so I’m anything but confident about them. In short, then, the Patriot League is a series of majorly flawed teams with little to no chance of making any major noise this postseason. A shame, admittedly, since they have provided us with some exciting upsets in the recent past, but this time around it just doesn’t look like it will happen for the Patriot League.