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Ness Notes: Conference Tourneys

   by Larry Ness - 03/05/2010

Seven of 30 conference tourneys got underway Tuesday through Thursday (Atlantic Sun, Big South, Horizon League, MVC, Northeast Conference, OVC, and the Patriot League). The only league champ 'safe' for a tourney bid out of this group regardless of the tourney results is No. 12 Butler (26-4) from the Horizon. The Bulldogs were the lone school to go through its respective conference unbeaten (18-0) and the Bulldogs will take an 18-game winning streak into their game on Saturday (had bye into the semifinals). The Bulldogs also get to host any tourney game they play (13-0 TY and winners of 32 of their last 34 home games).

Northern Iowa of the MVC won the regular season title with a 15-3 mark (25-4 overall) but a late-season loss to pathetic Evansville has Panther fans worried. Northern Iowa can ill-afford a loss Friday afternoon to 14-18 Drake. The Atlantic Sun entered its eight-team tourney (bottom three schools didn't participate) with four schools at 14-6 and defending tourney champ East Tenn St seeded fifth at 13-7. Three of those four 14-6 schools lost, including preseason favorite Lipscomb (No. 1 seed). Jacksonville is the only 14-6 team to survive (won regular season title LY but then lost in the tourney) and will play Mercer while East Tenn St gets 13-19 Kennesaw St, which upset Lipscomb. It's definitely "tourney time."

In the Big South, Winthrop (No. 3 seed) easily took care of Radford (LY's regular and tourney champs) on Thursday to advance to Saturday's title game at this year's regular season champ Coastal Carolina (now 28-5 and seeking the school's third NCAA berth and first since 1993). The Chanticleers (can't make up that nickname) are 16-1 at home this year. The higher seeds all got home games in the NEC quarterfinals (four teams sat out the tourney) and all four advanced despite going 0-3-1 ATS. Play resumes Sunday with No. 1 seed Quinnipiac (22-8) hosting 14-16 LIU and No. 2 seed and defending champ Robert Morris (21-11) hosting 16-4 Mount St Mary's. The winners meet March 10 at the site of the higher seed.

The OVC resumes on Friday as No. 1 seed Murray State (17-1) takes on Eastern Illinois and No. 2 seed Morehead State (15-3) takes on Tenn Tech. Saturday's final figures to match the top-two seeds and would be a rematch (at a neutral site) of the Feb 25 game in which Morehead State beat Murray St 70-65, ending the Racers' 17-game overall winning streak (also Murray State's lone conference loss this season). Morehead St won this tourney last year and while Murray State has 13 all-time NCAA appearances, they last 'danced' in 2006. The Patriot League resumes play on Sunday (semis), after three of the four top seeds advanced this past Wednesday. No. 1 seed Lehigh is the favorite (will host American) but watch out for Holy Cross which upset Bucknell (No. 2 seed), as the 9-21 Crusaders could be wearing this year's 'slipper' in this league (will play at Lafayette, which it beat at Holy Cross 73-46 on Feb 6).

Binghamton had the No. 1 seed in last year's America East tourney and punched its ticket to the Big Dance by beating UMBC in the title game before losing 86-62 in the NCAA's opening round. Head coach Kevin Broadus was placed on paid leave last October after starting PG Tiki Mayben was arrested on drug charges and five teammates were dismissed for unspecified violations. Mark Macon (former Temple star) was named interim coach but the Beracats finished 13-18 (8-8) this year. Earlier this week the school announced it was voluntarily withdrawing from the America East Conference tournament, citing "possible distractions" while the school addresses a review of the troubled program. The No. 8 vs. No. 9 game (scheduled for Thursday) was eliminated from the bracket and the teams finishing lower than Binghamton (No. 5 seed) in the conference standings were all moved up one slot with the tourney now beginning on Saturday.

Nine more conference tourneys get started this weekend (Friday through Sunday). I mentioned the America East tourney in my earlier article this week and here will comment on the other eight, listed in alphabetical order by conference. Weber St won the Big Sky tourney in 2007, making the school's 14th NCAA appearance. The Wildcats won the regular season last year (15-1) but lost on its home court in the tourney to Portland St. Weber State (13-3) is back as the No. 1 seed and will once again host the tourney where the Eagles have won 12 straight since losing their season opener at the Dee Events Center 66-60 to Utah. Portland St, which has won this tourney the last two years, comes in just 12-17 (7-9) and Weber State's biggest threat comes from Northern Colorado in just its third season as a Division I member. The Bears went 5-24 in 2005-06 and 4-24 the following year but this year come in 24-6 and at 12-4 in league play, as the No. 2 seed (top-two seeds get byes into the semifinals).

A number of experts seem to think that Old Dominion (23-8 / 15-3) will get an at-large invite even if the Monarchs don't win the Colonial Athletic Association tourney but I'm not convinced. The top four seeds get byes into the quarterfinals and that doesn't include last year's regular season and tourney champ Virginia Commonwealth (20-8 / 11-7) which this year is seeded just fifth. VCU has won the last three regular season titles with two NCAA appearances in 2007 and 2009 (nine all-time). ODU last 'danced' in 2007 (its 9th NCAA trip) but there is some sentiment for both No. 2 seed Northeastern (19-11 / 14-4) which last danced in 1991 (Jim Calhoun led the Huskies to five NCAA appearances from 1981-1986) and No. 3 William & Mary (20-9 / 12-6) which has never danced (lone postseason appearance was an NIT invite back in 1982-83).

Siena head coach Fran McCaffery leads the Saints into the Metro Athletic Association tourney with a 24-6 overall record and the No. 1 seed with a 17-1 league mark. Siena has won both the MAAC’s regular season and tournament titles the last two years, crushing 4th-seeded Vanderbilt 83-62 in the 2008 NCAA tournament and then last season beating Ohio State 74-72 in double overtime. When McCaffery led the Saints to the 2008 NCAA tourney, he became just the 31st coach to take three different programs to the Big Dance and he is the first to do so with three programs from one-bid leagues (conference's that sent just one team the year his program advanced). Both Siena and No. 2 seed Fairfield (20-9 / 13-5) get byes into the quarterfinals but with Siena's at-large bubble busted, the Saints know they must win to go dancing. The tourney is being held on Siena's home court and with a 35-game home winning streak, it's safe to say the Saints are favored to earn a third straight NCAA trip? If so, will it cost the school its coach, who should certainly be offered a bigger job?

Davidson won last year's regular season title in the Southern Conference but Chattanooga took the tourney title. Davidson has been the "big dog" of this conference lately, earning five of its 10 all-time NCAA trips since 1998 under head coach Bob McKillop (few will forget the school's Elite 8 run in 2008). Chattanooga also owns 10 all-time NCAA trips but this year Davidson went just 16-14 (11-7) and Chattanooga 14-17 (6-12). The real story in the Southern Conference this year has been Wofford. The Terriers joined Division I in 1995-96 but their first winning season came just last year (16-14). With all five starters returning, Wofford got the No. 1 seed with a 15-3 league mark and since December 29 when the Terriers were 7-7 overall, they are 16-1 with their only loss coming 70-68 at Charleston.

The Mid-American Conference tourney starts with on-campus first round games on Sunday (Mar 7). The top-four seeds get byes into the quarterfinals, played March 11-13 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Ten schools played their last regular season games on Thursday night battling for seeding positions while Kent State visits Akron on Friday (both are 12-3) with the winner getting the top-seed. The MAC hasn't had an at-large bid since 1999, so it will come as no surprise when only the tourney champ goes dancing again in 2010. Keith Dambrot has now led Akron to five straight 20-win seasons and the Zips won the MAC tourney last year, earning the school's second NCCA bid (1st came under Bob Huggins in 1986). Kent State has been the league's best team for a decade, winning 20 or more games for 10 straight seasons (1999-2008) with five NCAA trips. The Flashes went just 19-15 last year but are 22-8 entering Friday's game at Akron.

North Dakota State won both the regular season and tourney titles of the Summitt League last year. It was quite an accomplishment, coming in the school's first full-fledged year of Division I membership. However, last year's team was led by four fifth-year starters and this year's team struggled to an 11-17 overall mark (8-10). Oakland was the league's top team this year (23-8 / 17-1) and will try to earn its second-ever tourney title. The Golden Grizzlies joined Division I in 1999-2000 and the school's only other NCAA bid came back in 2005 when Oakland won the conference tourney after entering with a 9-18 record (took a 12-18 mark into the NCAA tournament). Oral Roberts (19-12 / 13-5) is just the third seed but the Golden Eagles own wins this year over current-No. 8 New Mexico (28-3), Missouri (22-8) and Stanford. Let's also note that Oral Roberts knows how to win this time of year with three straight NCAA tourney appearances from 2006-08.

All 13 teams take part in the Sun Belt Conference tourney which begins with five opening round games on Saturday in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Troy, Middle Tennessee St and North Texas all tied for the best record in conference at 13-5 but after the tie-breaker scenarios were worked out, the Trojans landed the top seed, the Mean Green took the second seed and the Blue Raiders the third. The top three spots in this event receive a bye into the quarterfinals. However, it's fourth-seeded Western Kentucky which is the most decorated team in this event owning seven titles, including the last two (Hilltoppers have made 21 all-time NCAA appearances, including a Final 4 in 1971). The quarterfinals are on Sunday. No. 1 seed Troy won the school's first regular season title since winning the Atlantic Sun regular season crown in 2004 (lone NCAA bid came in 2003). Second-seeded North Texas (21-8) has now posted at least 20 wins in four straight seasons for the first time in school history. Its lone SBC title came in 2007, giving the school its second-ever NCAA (first came in 1988). Third-seed Middle Tennessee St shared the East Division title along with Troy, marking the first time the program has won a share of any league title since 1988-89 (most recent of six NCAA appearances).

The Orleans Arena in Las Vegas will serve as host to the 24th-annual West Coast Conference tourney for the second straight year. Gonzaga won the tourney last year (first time ever at a neutral site) and the Bulldogs won the WCC regular season title for the 10th straight year this season, finishing 12-2 within the league. Saint Mary's finished second with an 11-3 mark (24-5) and both schools get byes into Sunday's semifinals. Portland (20-9 / 10-4) and San Francisco get byes into Saturday's quarterfinals. The opening round is Friday and it should be noted that San Diego (10-20 / 3-11) is the only team aside from Gonzaga to win this event in the last 11 years (won in 2003 and 2008) but the Toreros are hardly a threat this year. Portland made news earlier this year with the school's first national ranking in 50 years and St Mary's would love a third shot at Gonzaga but the Bulldogs are the overwhelming favorites. Gonzaga has won this tourney a record 10 times and the Bulldogs have made 12 straight championship game appearances, winning nine times.

Have a great weekend, Larry.

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