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!
We’re almost done wading through the Low-Major conferences. I promise. But before we move on to the general contender conferences we have a few more to go, starting with the WAC.
The WAC has undergone myriad facelifts over the years, and no longer resembles the once proud athletic conference it once was. In all honesty they’re kindof a joke these days. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t had bright spots the last couple years.
In large part over the last couple seasons this meant New Mexico State and 7’5″ Goliath center Sim Bhullar.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, however, while Sim’s brother, 7’3″ Tanveer Bhullar is still on the roster, he’s not nearly the player his brother was. (and actually, Tanveer never even sees the court for the Aggies). Now, I actually really love NM State’s starting 5, and it actually resembles an NBA roster more than a Low-Major college basketball team (6’10” center, 6’9″ PF, 6’7″ SF, 6’2″ SG, 6′ PG when most college teams from low major conferences are doing silly things like 6’6″ center surrounding by 4 5’10” dudes) however, things get real bleak real fast beyond that. DK Eldridge is legitimately good off the bench, and I guess Johnathon Wilkins and Jalyn Pennie can grab rebounds sometimes, but really we’re talking about a 6 man rotation here which is not nearly good enough to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. New Mexico State will easily run through the WAC Conference Tourney, but after that I predict a quick 1 and out.
The Big Sky, however, may provide us with a lot more drama.
The team that I should be writing about here is Eastern Washington.
EWU has so many things going for them this year. They came out of the gates great with a 19-5 record to start the season, and even pulled off a hilarious upset win over the Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington.
Moreover, Junior guard Tyler Harvey LEADS THE COUNTRY IN SCORING THIS YEAR WITH 22.8 POINTS PER GAME!!!
With all that going for them, and playing in a relatively poor conference, you would have expected the Eagles to cruise into the NCAA Tourney with ease right? Well… unfortunately they’ve gone 2-3 in their last 5 games dropping their record to 21-8. They’ve cost themselves the lead in their conference and the 1 seed in their upcoming Conference Tourney… and at this rate they won’t even be the 2 seed, as they’re slated to be #3 at the moment. All things considered EWU is the best team in the Big Sky, and they’re the only team I think could do something exciting in the NCAA Tournament (a Sweet 16 bid wouldn’t be completely out of the question given a favorable draw) but the way they’ve been playing lately, we won’t get the chance to see them try.
Instead, we might see Sacramento State who have been solidly the second best team in the Big Sky all season long. To be honest I find them incredibly unimpressive outside of senior guard Mikh McKinney and his 19 points per game. They don’t really have any impressive non-conference wins like EWU’s Indiana upset, and they haven’t done anything impressive in conference either outside of splitting the season series with EWU. They might steal a win in this league if EWU continues this late season swoon, but if they do, they’ll be one and done in the NCAA Tournament for sure.
Sacramento State isn’t the only team capitalizing on EWU’s swoon. However, while the Hornets have kept themselves within striking distance of EWU all season long, Montana has been relatively new to the party. They’re 6-1 in their last 7 games, including a road win over EWU which has taken them from staunchly middle of the pack in the Big Sky to 2nd place. However, outside of Jordan Gregory and Martin Breunig I’m not entirely certain how they’ve managed this turn around. They haven’t been terrible this year, and nearly pulled off road upsets over Boise State and Cal in the non-conference, but never managed to push themselves over the edge until that EWU win. Again, however, this is a team that is playing well enough to win the Big Sky Tourney, but would surely be quickly swept out of the NCAA Tournament.
The Big West Conference, on the other hand, is much more of a 1 horse race (pun intended).
Both UC Irvine, and UC Santa Barbara have put together solid seasons this year, but UC Davis is far and away the class of the Big West. Non-conference wins over Utah State and Air Force, plus a 12-2 record in conference helped push the Aggies to a 22-5 record thus far. They still have 2 games left in the regular season against UC Riverside, and UC Irvine, and either or both of those could turn into losses, but no matter what happens UC Davis is just the best team in this league. They’re led by guard Corey Hawkins and his 20.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, but the thing that worries me about them is that they are prone to becoming a 1 man show. They’re a good team, and head and shoulders above anyone else in their league, but I really don’t expect much from them come Tourney time.
The Sun Belt, however, has a couple teams that I have high hopes for come tournament time.
Louisiana Monroe was leading the conference as of a couple weeks ago, and indeed they are a tough, gritty team, but they’re not the class of the league by any means. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make run into the finals of the Sun Belt Tourney next week, but if they somehow make their way into the NCAA Tournament, I haven’t got any faith that they’ll do anything once they’re there. Louisianna Lafayette could also sneak up on some teams in the Sun Belt Tournament (fear the jalapeno!!!), but again, they’re not really the class of this league.
Georgia Southern, on the other hand, might have a chance to make some noise. I’ve gotta admit, they definitely snuck up on me this year, but I think they might be the real deal. They’ve led the league for long stretches of this season, and with Jelani Hewitt and his 18.2 points per game at the helm they’ve proven that they can be really dangerous for stretches. However, they’re solidly “OK” at everything while not being elite at anything. They strike me as a team that has put together an incredibly strong season, and may very well deserve an NCAA Tournament bid, but wouldn’t necessarily do much with it if they got there.
The real team to beat in this league, then, has got to be Georgia State. Ron Hunter’s bunch are the real freaking deal, and should scare the absolutely piss out of any major conference team unlucky enough to face them in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It all starts with the complicated and enigmatic Ryan Harrow. Harrow is a two time transfer guard who started his career at NC State before moving to Kentucky, and finally ending up at Georgia State where by all accounts he seems to have found his footing.
I’ve seen Harrow in person MANY times during his stay in Lexington, and I can assure you his talent was by no means the problem. The guy is an absolute stud. His size should be a handicap (he’s barely 5′ 10″) but the kid can ABSOLUTELY jump out of the gym. And he can drop 30 on anyone, any given night with ruthless abandon. And he averages 20.3 this season. His only issue at his two Major conference stops was apparently a tendency to shrink from the spotlight. Moving to a smaller school like Georgia State, then, has obviously been spectacularly helpful to his confidence and performance. However, that could be a major fear heading into the NCAA Tournament where the lights are as bright as they could be anywhere all season long. Georgia State doesn’t have to worry too much, however, because they are anything but a 1 man show.
Coach Ron Hunter’s son R.J. is a Junior Small Forward on this Panthers team, and can absolutely destroy fools. He scores 19.6 pointer per night, and there aren’t many teams in the country who can boast of a 1-2 punch as potent as the Panthers have in Harrow and Hunter. And the teams that do have such a 1-2 punch tend to be title contenders (Duke, Gonzaga, Wisconsin etc). Behind those two the Panthers also have Markus Crider and Kevin Ware (Louisville transfer of the fabled broken leg) so there’s more depth there, but honestly I’m not certain that they need it. Obviously there’s some type of flaw inherent in this team if a squad this talented found a way to lose 9 games (and I have a sneaking suspicion its the coach) which is a major worry, but I’ve been on this team ever since last year where they came within 1 point of making the NCAA Tournament when they lost to Louisiana Lafayette in overtime of the Sun Belt finals.
They are far and away the most talented team in this league, they are easily talented enough to upset a “superior” team once the make the NCAA Tournament. My only fear is that they will once again be denied a chance to show what they can do. I couldn’t be more in on this team. I love the father sun story-line. I love the chance for redemption for Ryan Harrow. Everything about this team is spectacular, but clearly something isn’t right with them. I just hope they can keep it together long enough to make the NCAA Tournament, and make a little noise once they get there, because they are more than capable of doing so.
Our last conference on the list has a pair of contenders, both of whom I feel even more confident about than Georgia State.
First on the list is one of last year’s NCAA Tournament Darlings, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.
In addition to having one of the best possible nicknames in the field, these guys also play an astoundingly exciting brand of basketball. Stephen F. Austin used a recipe of all offense, up tempo play, and generating turnovers to upset VCU in the first round of last year’s tournament before ultimately falling to UCLA in the second round.
However, the bulk of that team graduated last season, meaning by all accounts the Lumberjacks should have been in for a rebuilding year. However, head coach Brad Underwood (pictured in euphoric yet angry glee above) pulled some wizardry and rebuilt his team in a hurry going the transfer and JUCO route. Normally this would be a risky play because there’s no guarantee so many new pieces can mesh with your returning players quickly enough to be good, and no way to guarantee they’ll even pick up your system properly, but it has worked out spectacularly for Underwood and the Jacks. All three of their transfers (Jared Johnson, Demetrius Floyd, and Clyde Geffrard) turned out to be solid contributors for this team without being the best players on the roster, which is exactly what you want when you gamble and bring in transfers to repopulate your roster.
Junior Thomas Walkup, and Senior Jacob Parker are the two best players on this team, they lead the team in scoring and have postseason experience, having been on that round of 32 NCAA Tournament team last year.
Then add in Freshman starter Ty Charles and you see an incredibly talented and balanced core for Underwood’s lumberjacks. I love how balanced this roster is, and am legitimately shocked at how close they are to last year’s stellar production levels after so much turnover on the roster. They’re top 10 in the nation in points per game with 79.5 and field goal percentage, #1 in the nation in assists per game with 17.8, and they generate nearly 8 steals per game which is great to see. Stephen F. Austin’s up tempo style would be an absolute nightmare for myriad teams from big conferences, and given the right draw I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them still hanging around in the Sweet 16. That offense is truly elite (Ken Pomeroy has them as the #19 most efficient offense in the country) and these guys could beat anyone on the right night. The only problem, however, is that they might not make it out of the Southland.
The Sam Houston State Bearcats have come back with a vengeance this season to challenge Stephen F. Austin in the Southland after behind kept out of the NCAA Tournament by the Lumberjacks last season. Both teams have absolutely been annihilating their foes in conference, and while Stephen F. Austin has the Tourney experience, and a 1 game lead over SHSU in the standings, the Bearcats may very well have the deeper, better rosters.Their roster is absolutely loaded with upper classmen including senior starters Jabari Peters, Demarcus Gatlin, Kaheem Ransom and senior 6th man Michael Holyfield, then Junior starter Paul Baxter. Then throw in sophomores Dakarai Henderson and Aurimas Majauskas just for good measure and you have the makings of an incredibly deep and talented roster.
And the talent really shows through when you take a look at their stats. Sam Houston is top 10 in the nation in rebounding, #34 in the nation in scoring, and #14 in points allowed per game. By all accounts this is just a spectacularly well rounded team capable of knocking off almost anyone in the country on any given night. Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics even have them as the 14th most efficient defense in the country when you adjust for strength of schedule. No matter how you want to cut it these guys are good.
We’ll have more information on who the best team in this battle of Famous Old Dead Texas Guy Schools really is this Saturday when the two teams meet at Stephen F. Austin, but no matter who wins, both these teams deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament. Its really kindof a travesty that only one of them will make it to the tournament, and I’ll be sad for all the seniors on whichever team misses out. However, whichever team comes out of the Southland, prepare yourself for upset bids because both these teams are easily Sweet 16 caliber rosters.