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March Madness Begins

   by Larry Ness - 03/01/2016

The ‘Madness’ Begins:

There are 32 automatic bids to the NCAA tournament and 31 of those will be determined through each conference's tournament. The exception is the Ivy League, whose regular-season champion earns the automatic bid to the Big Dance. Harvard has recently dominated the “Ancient Eight,” winning at least a share of the Ivy’s regular season crown the last five years and representing the league in the past four NCAA tourneys. However, with just one week remaining to this year’s regular season, Yale (11-1) and Princeton (10-1) are fighting for first place.

Princeton owns 26 Ivy League championships and has appeared in 24 NCAA tourneys, including a Final 4 appearance in 1965 (Bill Bradley) and its most recent trip in 2011. Meanwhile, Yale has been to just three NCAA tourneys as the Ivy League’s champ, with the most recent appearance coming way back in 1962. Yale wraps its season on the road, playing at Cornell (2-10) on Friday and Columbia (9-3) on Saturday. Princeton, winners of eight straight and 13 of 14 since January 1, plays at Harvard (4-8) on Friday and at Dartmouth (3-9) on Saturday, before its traditional Tuesday finish, a home game against arch-rival Penn (5-6) a week from Tuesday (March 8). That leaves 31 conferences or leagues holding postseason tourneys and that ‘madness’ begins, as it did in 2015, on March 1. A bakers dozen (13) of those tourneys begin this week. Below is a brief look.

32-year vet Larry Ness was 84-56-2 (+$21,830 @ $100/unit) with all college hoops releases from Mar 1-Apr 6 last year, including 71-46-1 with tourney plays (40-22 on 10*s).

The Atlantic Sun and Patriot League are the first two conferences to open play on March 1. Both are one-bid leagues and all games will be played on campus sites. The North Florida Ospreys earned their first invitation to the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament in 2015, where they lost to Robert Morris 81-77 in a First Four game. North Florida is again the No. 1 seed (with a 21-10 overall record, including 10-4 in league play) and will play all games at home where they were 13-1 SU, losing only to Stetson (?), which finished the regular season 10-21 (4-10).

Bucknell (14-4) is the No. 1 seed in the Patriot League but it was last year as well, when a Lafayette team (just 9-9 during the regular season) took the conference tourney with three straight victories, including upsetting Bucknell along the way to earn the Leopards’ fourth NCAA trip. Lafayette went 6-23 (3-15) this year, so don’t expect a repeat performance. Bucknell has made six previous NCAA trips, including win sin 2005 over third-seeded Kansas and a 2006 win over 8th-seeded Arkansas in 2006. Bucknell’s most recent NCAA visit came in 2013, when it lost its first game to Butler.

Three more conferences begin play March 2 (Wednesday), the America East, the NEC and the OVC. The first two leagues play at campus sites while the OVC will be held in Nashville. Belmont is the top seed and has represented the OVC seven previous times, including four of the last five years (2011, ‘12, ‘13 & ‘15). All games will be played at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. Belmont is located in Nashville and while this is not the Bruins’ home court, the site clearly favors Belmont (another Nashville-based school is transfer-laden Tennessee State, 20-9 overall). Albany won the regular season and postseason titles last year in the America East but Stony Brook (14-2) edged out Albany (13-3) for this year’s regular season title. Will playing on its home court be enough to earn the Seawolves their first-ever NCAA bid? After all, Stony Brook was 12-0 at home this year, before losing its season-ender to Vermont, after it had clinched the No. 1 seed. Wagner is the No. 1 seed in the NEC (quite a turnaround from going 10-20 last year, including 8-10 in league games) and is looking for its second-ever NCAA bid (only previous trip was in 2003). Robert Morris, which won the NEC tourney last year is no threat this time around, having gone 10-21 (8-10).

Three more leagues begin play on March 3 (Thursday), the Big South, MAAC and MVC. The Big South tourney will be contested at Buies Creek, N.C, home of the Campbell Fighting Camels. However, at 5-13, Campbell is the 11th-seed. High Point and Winthrop each were 13-5, with High Point earning the No. 1 seed. Last year’s tourney winner, Coastal Carolina, is the third seed and would be scheduled for a semifinal showdown with Winthrop, a school which has representied the Big South NINE times since 1999 but its most recent appearance was 2010. The MAAC will be played in Albany and some think regular season champ Monmouth (17-3) may have done enough to earn an at-large bid if the Hawks don’t win the tourney Monmouth is 25-6 overall and owns wins against UCLA, Georgetown, USC and Notre Dame.

The MVC tourney has become know as “Arch Madness,” for its St Louis location. “The Valley” sent Wichita St and Northern Iowa to the “Big Dance” last year, while Evansville won the NIT and Loyola-Chicago won the CIT. The Shockers were just 5-5 after 10 games but finished the regular season 23-7, including 16-2 in league play. Most feel Wichita St will get an at-large bid even it it doesn’t win this tourney. Northern Iowa’s (19-12) only road to the NCAA’s would be an Arch Madness title and while Evansville is 23-8 plus owns a dynamic duo in guard D.J. Balentine (20.7) and the 6-10 Egidijus Mockevicius (16.6 & 14.0), I sure wouldn’t want to sweating out Selection Sunday hoping for an at-large bid if I were the Purple Aces. As for Loyal-Chicago, the Ramblers never lived up to expectations this season, going 14-16 (7-11 in MVC play).

The CAA, Southern Conference and the WCC begin on March 4 (Friday), with all games being played at neutral sites. UNC-Wilmington and Hofstra were each 14-4 but Hofstra gets the No. 1 seed. Hofstra’s starting-five all average in double figures led by guards Green (17.7-4.3-7.2), Tanksley (15.6-5.3) and Bernardi (12.5). The Pride also feature a solid pair of frontcourt players in the 6-9 Gustys (13.6-12.7) the 6-8 Koon (11.6-76.7). A title game between Wilmington and Hofstra seems like the “right thing,” as the two schools split the season series, with Wilmington winning at home by three points and Hofstra returning the favor with a one-point home win. However, wouldn’t it be nice to see William & Mary win? The Tribe are one of only FIVE of the original Division I teams that has never participated in the NCAA tournament. The others are Army, Northwestern, St. Francis (NY) and The Citadel. Current head coach Tony Shaver is in his 13th year at the school and just maybe, “13” will be his and the school’s lucky number. The Tribe have won 20 games each of the last two seasons and both years have reached the CAA tourney final, only to lose. William & Mary also got one game (win) away from an NCAA tourney bid in 2008 and 2010.

Chattanooga owns one of CBB’s best overall records at 26-5 and at 15-3, earned the No. 1 seed in the Southern Conference tourney. Wofford has won the SoCon tourney FOUR times since 2010 (including the last two seasons) but the Terriers are just 15-16 this year (11-7). Chattanooga has been to 10 previous NCAA tournaments, most recently in 2005 and most memorably in 1997, when the Mocs advanced to the Sweet 16 by defeating both Georgia and Illinois, before losing to Providence. The WCC tourney will take place in Las Vegas and the HUGE storylines will be can Gonzaga keep its streak of NCAA appearances alive? Do to so, will the Bulldogs have to win here in Las Vegas?

Gonzaga is at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 seasons! The Bulldogs are 23-7 overall and 15-3 in league play. They will be the No. 2 seed in the tourney, as St Mary’s (24-4 and also 15-3) beat Gonzaga in both regular season meetings. Randy Bennett took over at St Mary’s back in 2001, with the Gaels coming off a 2-27 season. His first team went 9-20 in the 2001-02 season and the following season he got the Gaels to 15-15. THIRTEEN straight winning seasons have followed, including this year. His teams have won 20-plus games NINE different times, with St Mary’s earning FIVE trips to the “Big Dance.” However, the Gaels have lived in Gonzaga’s shadow. Is this the year the Gaels come out of that shadow and also break Gonzaga’s streak of 17 straight NCAA trips? What happens in Vegas will NOT stay in Vegas.

The final two of this week’s “bakers dozen” of conference tourneys open on March 5 (Saturday), as the Horizon League starts play in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena and the Summit League in Sioux Falls. Valparaiso (No. 1 seed) and Oakland (No.2 seed) get byes into the semifinals and just maybe the Crusaders, at 26-5, can survive a loss in Detroit and still get an at-large bid (don’t bet on that). The Summit League knows it will get only one bid and South Dakota St and IPFW each won 23 games this year , including 12-4 conference records.

The journey is just beginning...

Good luck...Larry

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