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!
Next on our seemingly never-ending list of conference tournaments is the Southern Conference!! Now, in large part this conference is a trainwreck which will make things go faster BUT there are 2 teams in this conference that might actually matter come March, so let’s take a look at the standings.
First team of note are the Fightin’ Yellow C’s of Chattanooga (really they’re the Mocs… but I don’t know what a Moc is… so we’re calling them the Fightin’ C’s). Now, the first thing you’re gonna wanna know about Chattanooga is that their name is hilarious. But after that we have some real analaysis for you. Now, I don’t expect Chattanooga to do anything if they make it to the NCAA tournament, but I do think they could get there. They had an abysmal non-conference performance, and honestly weren’t stellar in conference either BUT they are 7th in the nation in blocked shots, which is pretty darn impressive in my books. This primarily came from 6’10” Sophomore center Justin Tuoyo.
Justin transferred to Chattanooga from VCU where he was recruited by Shaka Smart. Smart is known for recruiting guys with top flight athletic ability who he can then unleash in his HAVOC defense. Tuoyo is just this kind of athlete and while things obviously didn’t work out for him at VCU, they certainly are working out at Chattanooga. He averages 3.3 blocks per game (making him the 3rd best shot blocker in the nation) and has all the athleticism of any star player in a major conference. Moreover, add in the 1.1 blocks per game (and 14.3 points and 7.1 rebounds) of Casey Jones, and you have a pretty potent pair leading the way for Will Wade’s bunch. However, 2 guys, no matter how good they are, might not be enough to get by the true top contender in the Southern, Wofford.
Wofford, on the other hand has put up very respectable, and indeed impressive results all season long. They beat Iona and Sam Houston State in the non-conference (2 Mid-Majors I’m very high on). They also beat Charleston Southern (a good team, if not tournament quality) and even NC State (a bubble team from a major basketball conference). Not too shabby for a non-conference slate. Also, they’re somewhat more battle tested than other small schools of their ilk because in addition to taking on some of the best Mid-Majors out there, they’ve played several schools from High Major conferences (Duke, West Virginia, NC State, Stanford). This is a team whose players understand the kind of competition they’re going to be up against come tourney time, and aren’t as likely to be wowed by the moment and bowled over before they get their wits about them.
Moreover, they’re a senior and upperclassmen laden team so they have plenty of experience playing together and playing at this level. I do worry about their size as they essentially only have guy taller than 6’6″ who gets regular minutes for them (6’7″ Jr. C.J. Neumann) but we’ve seen guard heavy teams win before, why can’t they do it again? All in all I think Wofford will come out of the Southern, and they have as good a shot as anyone to win their opening game, but in the end I just don’t see enough here to pick them to make it to the Sweet 16 or beyond. But that being said they’ve already had a great season and I’d love to watch them continue it.
Next on our list is the Colonial Athletic Association, and let me tell you… this one is a comlete crap shoot.
Drexel is normally the team I default to in this league because they play tough, hard nosed defense, and can normally compete with anyone. This season, however, they’re in full rebuild mode.
Outside of them William and Mary looked very good for stretches this year, but they never seemed to put the whole picture together. They beat Wofford in the non-conference which was an impressive win, but outside of that they’ve done nothing of note all season long. They have a reasonable offense and are in the top 50 in the nation in both points and assists, and are even top 10 in field goal percentage, but they give up points like they didn’t realize college basketball wasn’t just half court. Its possible that they could win their conference tourney, but if they do I fully expect them to get stomped in the opening round.
The real favorite, however, is probably Northeastern, but they really leave me unimpressed. 4 of their 5 starters score in double figures, and all their starter rebound very well which I like, but there’s no star player to catch the eye, no eye popping statistic that shows an edge they have over anyone else in the country, and all in all they’re just boring. Now, boring can win a lot of games, so I could easily see them coming out of the Colonial, but again… this is a team just waiting to get smashed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Summit,on the other hand, might fair a little better in the big dance. Now, I’m admittedly biased because my beloved North Dakota State Bison play in the Summit, but here’s the league as I see it.
First on the agenda are the 2 pseudo contenders. Both IPFW and Oral Roberts could easily get hot and win this tournament starting this weekend. Both have spectacular star players in Steve Forbes (Forward IPFW), Obi Emegano and Korey Billbury (Oral Roberts backcourt tandem). If any one of those 3 players gets hot and stays hot they could carry their team all the way into the NCAA Tournament regardless of their regular season ups and downs. However, neither of them are the real class of this league.
And neither is NDSU for that matter. They won a share of the regular season title with South Dakota State, but lost out on the #1 seed on tiebreakers. Because of this they have to play Denver in the first round of the Summit Tourney (a horrible matchup for them) and could easily get upset right from the start. The main reason for this is that while senior guard Lawrence Alexander is easily the best player in the league, NDSU has practically 0 depth behind him. First year coach Dave Richman essentially runs a 7 man rotation which is woefully thin, and likely won’t cut it if they manage to force their way into the NCAA Tournament.
The real team to look at in the Summit, then, is South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are led by senior forward Cody Larson, a South Dakota native and Florida transfer who has all the athletic ability you would expect from a Billy Donovan forward. Larson will easily be able to match up with players from bigger, more prominent schools, and will definitely allow SDSU to stay in games they otherwise would have no chance of winner. However, I don’t have much faith that SDSU can win a game in the NCAA Tournament. They weren’t nearly as dominant as they should have been once they got to Summit League play, and if they can’t overpower the bottom tier teams in the Summit League, I simply can’t trust them to make a major statement against superior competition in the NCAA Tournament.
But whatever flaws SDSU may have… they certainly aren’t nearly as bad as the cream of the crop in these next two leagues.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference is truly atrocious this year.
In all honesty Alabama State might be the best team in this conference, but they’re academically ineligible to participate in postseason play this year. Soooo Texas Southern becomes your likely representative. Yaaaay?
It’s not really as bad as I made it out to be though. Senior Guard Madarious Gibbs is capable of going off and having a big night, and has done so frequently in conference games. Moreover, Texas Southern has two SPECTACULAR non-conference wins on their resume. They knocked off Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, AND beat then #25 Michigan State in Lansing. If they can somehow conjure up either of those performances come NCAA Tourney time, then they could be this year’s Mercer, Lehigh, or Florida Gulf Coast. Only problem is that all three of those teams pulled their upsets from a 15 seed, so Texas Southern clearly has their work cut out of them.
I’m not certain the MEAC has any such champion to put forth though…
When the season began I *thought* Hampton was going to be pretty good this year. That clearly didn’t materialize. However, even though my preseason pick turned out to be a flop there are still 2 teams in the MEAC that I feel fairly confident about.
Its good to see Norfolk State near the top of the MEAC standings yet again since they gave us a spectacular upset in 2012 when, as a 15 seed, they knocked off a 2 seeded Missouri team that most people though should have been a 1 seed, and maybe even the #2 overall seed that year. This years team, however, doesn’t inspire much confidence for me. Their one and only marquee win on the season was a home victory over Texas Southern, and after reading my rousing endorsement of Texas Southern I’m sure you can tell how swayed I am by that victory. Jeffrey Short is an absolute stud when it comes to making balls go through hoops, and scores like a mad man, and RaShid Gaston is a great post presence for Norfolk both offensively and cleaning the glass, but however talented Norfolk’s roster may look at the top end, there is absolutely no depth on this team. Outside of Short and Gaston there are only really 2 more significant contributors on this team ( D’Shon Taylor and Malik Thomas). If you can’t even get 5 starters, I shudder to think of what your bench looks like. Maybe those 4 guys are good enough to win this MEAC title, and maybe they’re even good enough to pull an upset in the NCAA Tourney, but I am very skeptical.
North Carolina Central has quite a bit of promise to tell the truth. Their starting 5 consists of 3 seniors and 2 juniors which I love. They’re a veteran laden team, they play well together, and the play some great defense. In fact they’re #4 in the country in points allowed. However, the advanced metrics aren’t as kind to them as they are just outside the top 50 (#53) in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive rating which is still very good for a team from such a small conference, but it puts a bit of a damper on their potential to upset one of the big boys. Still, however, as long as they can find some offense when they’re going up against bigger, stronger, more athletically gifted opponents in the NCAA Tournament, I like their ability to come up with stops when they need, then and think NCCU could be a really fun Cinderella to watch this March. Plus their starting Center is from Norway which is just delightful.
In the end I don’t expect much from the MEAC but NCCU has certainly put together an impressive record here by season’s end, and I certainly hope those seniors leading this team get rewarded with an NCAA Tournament berth. Those are the kind of stories that always get me on opening weekend. I love to see guys living out their dreams at the last possible moment in college basketball, and will definitely be rooting for the Eagles to pull this one off.