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!
As far as I see it the America East Conference comes down to a 2 team race. Vermont was in the mix as of a week ago, and could very well upset someone (since neither of the 2 best teams in this conference are especially fantastic) but in the end I think this one will come down to Albany or Stony Brook.
Albany was the frontrunner practically all season long as they reeled off 12 straight losses to open conference play and even after their first conference loss of the season (at home to Stony Brook) the Great Danes still managed to take care of business to close out the season and finish they year 15-1 in conference. They’re led by a couple Australians Sam Rowley and Peter Hooley who both have a well of postseason experience to draw from, having qualified for the NCAA Tournament in both 2013 and 2014. By all accounts, then, they’re the team to beat in the America East, but I don’t have any faith that they can achieve much in the NCAA Tournament itself, largely because of their previous Tournament records (they’ve never made the round of 32) and their unimpressive non-conference results from earlier this season (5-7 in the non-conference).
Stony Brook, on the other hand, performed pretty well in the non-conference. Not necessarily in terms of their overall results BUT they have one win which absolutely dwarfs anything Albany, or any other America East team did all year with their December 28th win over the then #13 in the country Washington Huskies. The Seawolves traveled all the way across the country to Seattle, knocked off the then undefeated Huskies, and by all accounts ruined their entire season, as they never recovered after that loss and will likely miss the tournament. Now, I understand that a win over a Washington team that melted down doesn’t look as great after the fact, but at the time when Stony Brook knocked them off I legitimately thought they were one of the 20 best teams in the nation.
More importantly, however, is the fact that Stony Brook’s roster includes not only some of the best players in the America East, but even some of the best performers in the country. Junior forward Jameel Warney is #5 in the nation in rebounds with 11.4 per game and even throws 16.3 points, 2.1 assists, and 2.4 blocks just for good measure. The guy is a legit stud and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him carry his team into the NCAAs. However, I’m not certain there’s enough firepower on this roster for them to pull off an NCAA upset unfortunately. However, that Washington upset gives me faith that the America East might generate some excitement for us come tourney time.
The Ohio Valley is one of my personal favorite Mid-Major Conferences from the last few years. They always seem to put a team into the Tournament that plays up tempt exciting basketball, shoots the lights out, and scares the absolute piss out of some higher seeded team. So let’s take a look and see if this year’s crop will be more of the same.
First thing I notice when I take a look at this list is Belmont and Murray State. Both of these teams have come out of the OVC in the last few years, and both have put together some really impressive showings in the NCAA Tourney, so if either of them came out of the OVC I’d be happy. However, theres another contender on this list that I’m intrigued with and that is Eastern Kentucky.
EKU knocked off #18 Miami AT Miami earlier this year, and they actually have a fairly potent offense at nearly 73 points per game. Moreover, they’re one of the best teams in the country at generating steals which is exactly the recipe VCU has used to such success in the post season these last few years. Oh… and their star player Eric Stutz looks like this, which I assure you is 100% a positive.
Plus they have freaking Colonel Sanders as their mascot. How could you not get behind these guys?
That being said they are in no way the favorite to come out of the the OVC. And neither are the Belmont Bruins, although they have been frequently in the last few seasons. Belmont always plays an increidbly exciting all offense brand of basketball that is not only fantastic to watch, but exactly the style you want to play if you’re hoping to generate an upset. Nail 3s all day long and it will be awfully hard for even the best teams in the country to keep up with you. Moreover, Sophomore Evan Bradds is SECOND in the nation in field goal percentage at SEVENTY percent. So clearly they’ve got some talent on the roster. However, this years Bears aren’t quite as deadly as they’ve been in years past, and while I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them pull off the upset and win the OVC, I don’t know that they’ll be making any Dayton esque runs to the Elite 8 this year.
Murray State, on the other hand, might do just that. First off they’ve been here before, and recently. Those Isaiah Canaan teams of 2010 and 2012 where fantastic to watch, and really backed up their record with excellent play, scoring an upset over #4 seeded Vanderbilt in 2010 and rising into the top 25 and gaining a #6 seed in 2012, and again making it into the second round before being knocked off by Marquette. A deep tournament run has thus far alluded them, but this year could be different.
Murray is putting up some absolutely gaudy numbers this season. They are currently 13th in the nation in scoring (78.8), 23rd in assists (15.8), 16th in field goal percentage (48.3%), and 48th in steals (7.6). That’s 4 stats where they’re in the top 50 in the country, 3 where they’re top 25, and 2 where they’re top 20. Given the right draw in the bracket, this team could very well make a run into the Sweet 16.
Their star sophomore Cameron Payne averages 20.2 points per game, and they have 4 guys on the roster who average double digit scoring. They have some serviceable size and rebounding with Jonathan Fairell and Jarvis Williams and a whooooole slew of guards who can shoot and put up points. This is the kind of team no program from a major conference should want anywhere near their bracket, because they’re just plain good.
Blemont and EKU are both good. I like both those teams, and either one of them could play a great game and knock off Murray. But if they did it would be a damn shame, because with Murray the OVC has a chance to make a real statement this year in the NCAA Tournament and show the rest of the country that they play an exciting, and good brand of basketball. So I’ll be rooting for the Racers this week and beyond, and hope they make some noise in the Big Dance.