Why should you care about these small conference tournaments that are starting before the big guys have even wrapped up the season? Well, you never know when this season’s Cinderella will get hot and start their march to the tournament and it’s great basketball. Many of these teams and players won’t play in the tournament without a conference title so the extra motivation is there. Not to mention the “lose and go home” aspect of these tournaments always seems to bring out the best in a team. Alright, I’m just a college basketball junkie, okay? This is the time of year when I get my best fix. So here’s what to watch for in these early tournaments.
I’ve waffled between the Bruins and Mercer. However, Belmont is on an 11-game winning steak and were able to put a three-game lead between them and Mercer in the last month of the season. They have an explosive offense (82.7 ppg – 3rd in NCAA), a decent FG% defense (42.4 – 2nd in the A-SUN) and make nearly 9 3-pointers a game (10th nationally). No one’s been able to keep pace with the Bruins in the last month and a half. I don’t see that changing now.
USC Upstate over Mercer
The Spartans’ last two losses were to the top two teams in the league and they beat Belmont back on January 21. They’ve got the track record to make it to the tournament finals and that alone makes me think they could derail some dreams of dancing.
Kerron Johnson, Belmont
Johnson is that spark plug for the Bruins, leading them with 14.0 points a game, is second in the A-SUN with 5.2 assists a game and throws in a steal and a half a game. He doesn’t launch it from beyond the arc as much as some of his teammates, but he’ll feed them to get the open shots. When he’s on, Belmont has a guy that makes the offense click.
Yes, they slipped up and lost to Coastal Carolina and Ohio, but they’ve won their last 2, were 16-2 in the conference and put 4 games between them and the 2nd place CCU. The Bulldogs are another top 10 offense in a small conference (80.8 ppg, 6th) and they spread the ball around (16.5 apg – 8th nationally) and the best team in the Big South from the charity stripe (76%).If they’ve got a weakness, it’s on the defensive end, but up until the middle of February, no one’s really been able to take advantage of that and outpace the Bulldogs offensively.
Coastal Carolina over UNC-Asheville
The Chanticleers have already done it once and are the best defense in the league. CCU were able to get hot in the 2nd half to keep UNCA at bay. They also shot 9-of-18 from behind the arc. IF they can repeat that shooting performance, they could steal the Big South’s bid away from the Bulldogs.
Kelvin Martin, Charleston Southern
Martin leads the Buccaneers nearly averaging a double-double (15.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and could be the difference maker if CHSO gets to the tournament finals. They do have one upset win over UNCAon the road, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see them knock off one of the top two squads.
I’ve waffled between Valpo and Cleveland State for the last month. However, the Vikings’ recent five-game losing streak has many questioning them against the top of the Horizon. On the flip side, the Crusaders have swept Cleveland State and have won their last 3 conference games. The other advantage they have over everyone but Cleveland State is the league’s tournament system, which gives the top two teams byes into the semifinals.
I know the Penguins are just barely over .500 and they will likely not make it past the second round, YSU has shown they have the potential to make some waves. They did win 10 league games and split with both top teams and beat the #3 squad (Milwaukee) in their only meeting.
Ray McCallum, Detroit
The Titans are another talented team that could sneak away with the league title. If they make a run, they’ll be lead by McCallum. The sophomore guard averages 15.1 ppg, is shooting 44%, and drops 3.9 dimes a game. McCallum is the guy who sets the pace for Detroit and is the young court general.
This is the easiest preview of the bunch. The Racers are this season’s Cinderella story and shouldn’t have any problem in the conference tournament. They avenged their only loss of the year, demolishing Tennessee State on the road last week. I think they’re in the tournament even if they should slip up, but that’s not likely to be an issue. You saw Saturday against Tennessee Tech that Murray State knows how to play in those close games as well as running away from teams (see St. Mary’s).
If anybody can knock off the mighty Racers, who better than the only team to defeat them this season. Other teams have played them close but will the really matter? I’m gonna go with no…
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
19.5 ppg, 48.9% 3PT shooting, 3.8 apg, on-court leadership, passion, do you need any more reasons?
Yes, Bucknell dominated the league for most of the season before slipping up and losing two of their last four. One of those was to Lehigh. who are getting hot at the right time. They come into the PL tourney on a five-game winning streak, including a three-point win at Bucknell. I feel you’ve got to go with the hot hand and remember, this is a team that stayed with Michigan State at the end of December, eventually losing by 9. They also sport the top offense in the league as well.
The first team that will have a good change to derail Lehigh will be Eagles. They split the season series and American have sharpshooters from three-point land, shooting a league-best 40%, good from 12th in the country. In the last meeting with Lehigh, they shot 47% (8-17) from behind the arc.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
Hard to argue with a guy that averaging 21.7 points a game and 6.6 boards a game. He’s also peaking at the right time, averaging almost 23 points over the last five games, with a double-double thrown in there for good measure. He’s the Mountain Lions’ workhouse and they are 16-3 when he cracks 20 points.
I know this is the easy way out. The Gaels have lead most of the way through the season and have the best record. But they are one of three teams that have a legitimate shot at taking home the crown. St. Mary’s has the top scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, but they’ve slipped up a little bit down the stretch, losing to Murray State and Loyola Marymount. Gonzaga and BYU are the other two teams that have a shot at the title, but I will say this one. Look for the Cougars in the final. To me, there’s no way they don’t make it that far with that offense.
The Dons have come so close recently to breaking through and making a huge impact in their final 3 games. They upset Gonzaga, pushed BYU before losing by one, then closed the season by running with Saint Mary’s and eventually falling by 7. The time could be right for the Dons and the WCC’s most accurate shooter Perris Blackwell (57%) to make some waves and shock a few teams ahead of them.
Matthew Delladova, Saint Mary’s
The Gaels’ leading scorer is, as I’ve said before, the spark plug that makes this offense run smoothly. He leads the WCC with 6.5 assists per game and makes things happen both with the pass and off the dribble. He’s got a damn good jumper as well. The Gaels will go as far as he can lead them in the NCAAs.