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!
First up on our next slate is the Northeast conference. And this one we can make real quick cuz they’re terrible. This conference sucks. Sorry guys.
St. Francis is the best team in the League and they should win the upcoming Tourney on the 5th handily. If they don’t something went horribly wrong. They’ve got far and away the best player in the entire league in Jalen Cannon. That’s honestly all I have to say here. Mount Saint Mary’s looked good at times, and Robert Morris could be good, but don’t expect too much out of anyone from the Northeast this season.
The MAAC, however, is a little more interesting. This is the same conference that gave us that stellar Manhattan team from last season that should have knocked off Louisville in the first round (aka round of 64… I refuse to call the play in games the first round… they are exciting and I love them but come on…). Again, the MAAC is yet another one of these conferences that takes undersized, less athletic guys, and somehow manages to build a brand of exciting offensive basketball, and this year is no different.
Rider has put together an impressive season this year, and I want to give them all due credit, but Iona is the class of this league this year. They’re on a whole different level. 7th in the country in scoring with 79.6 points per game and 12th in assists with 16.4. This team can absolutely eat up a team trying to grind out a win against them, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them make a Sweet 16 run if given the right circumstances.
David Laury and AJ English are absolute beasts when it comes to putting up points and the rest of Iona’s starting five can really turn the heat up as well. The only problem is that beyond their starting 5 Iona has basically noone who scores. So the way I see it, as long as they can avoid teams like an Arkansas or Duke who want to push the tempo and run they’ll be fine. If they do run into an athletic team, however, it could see them getting worn down easily, and not having anyone on the bench they can turn to for energy or a spark. If the cards fall right, however, Iona is going to make an impressive run.
Where the MAAC only has one team that can make a deep run, however, the Missouri Valley has two spectacular Mid Major Contendors.
This is not the same Wichita State team that entered the Tournament undefeated last year. The loss of Cleanthony Early is a real issue, and while I thought last seasons Wichita State team could very well have won a national title, this year’s team just isn’t in the same league. However, they’re still a great team, and with guys like Fred Van Fleet, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker still on the team you can rest asssured that Greg Marshall’s bunch (currently ranked #8 in the country) are poised for another exciting run in the NCAA Tourney.
However, they have been overshadowed for long stretches of this season in their own conference by UNI. Northern Iowa is no stranger to big moments in the NCAA tournament, and are just a few years removed from a stunning upset victory over Kansas.
They were knocked down a peg for several seasons as Wichita State rose to the top of the MVC, but the Panthers are back now with a vengeance. Currently the #11 team in the country they’ve flirted with the top 10 all season long, and even managed to split the season series with Wichita this year. Seth Tuttle is the real deal and there’s no reason to think this year’s Northern Iowa team can’t match the 2010 team’s Sweet 16 run.
But here we run into our first real contender of the previews. All due respect to Saint Mary’s and BYU. Both schools have spectacular basketball programs, and have put together very impressive seasons. However, Gonzaga is quite obviously the team to worry about in the WCC. By all accounts they should be a #1 seed heading into the NCAA Tournament, but a late season loss to a desperate BYU team may have cost them that luxury.
However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. The addition of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer may be the turning point Mark Few finally needed to break through and win a title. Wiltjer can’t cover your grandmother defensively, but he’s one of the best scorers in college basketball, and in large part thanks to him Gonzaga is the #5 rated team in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency statistics this season. Add to that senior guard Kevin Pangos to conduct the offense, and Domantas Sabonis (son of Arvydas Sabonis) and Przemek Karnowski to protect the rim and grab boards, and I can see absolutely no reason why Gonzaga can’t compete with some of the best teams in the country this year. If they manage to reclaim their 1 seed I’d be perfectly comfortable picking them to make the Final Four. After that it’s anybody’s game, but this has got to be the best roster Mark Few has ever had in front of him during this spectacular streak of 16 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, so if this isn’t the year he finally breaks through and makes at least an Elite 8, it probably will never happen. I for one, however, have faith that it will happen, and possibly even more than that.