Ohio State was No. 2 in last week’s AP poll and No. 3 (behind Kansas) in the coaches’ poll but on Monday, the Buckeyes found themselves atop both polls. No. 1 Duke lost 64-60 at Va Tech Saturday night, so a change at the top was expected. Ohio St was a solid No. 1 in the AP, getting 45 first-place votes to Kansas’ 14 (No. 3 BYU got five and No. 4 Duke, one) while the schools almost split the first-place votes in the coaches’ poll, Ohio State with 17 and Kansas with 14. The top-six teams were the same in each poll, with BYU, Duke, Pittsburgh and Purdue following Ohio St and Kansas. George Mason (25-5 / 16-2 in the CAA) owns the nation’s longest winning streak at 15 in a row but while the Patriots ‘snuck’ into the coaches’ poll at No. 25, they just missed out in the AP poll, as 26-3 Utah St came in at No. 25 with 129 points (GMU and Temple each have 120 points).
I gave a ‘shout out’ last week to St John’s, which hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2002. The Red Storm was ranked 25th by the coaches’ poll a week ago (last time St John’s had been ranked in the coaches' poll was the final poll of the 1999-2000 season). Steve Lavin’s team went on to defeat DePaul 76-51 (2/23) and then No. 14 Villanova 81-68 (2/26) this past week. St John’s found themselves with a 10-spot ‘jump’ in Monday’s poll, climbing to No. 15 in the coaches’ poll (went from No. 23 to No. 15 in the AP). This week’s ‘shout-out’ goes to UL-Lafayette.
More on some early conference tourneys in just a bit but first let’s check in at the other end of the ‘food chain.’ Towson now owns the longest active losing streak at 18 in a row and Fordham has lost 16 consecutive games with both schools remaining the only winless teams in conference play this season. Towson (4-25 / 0-18) lost 66-63 at home to Drexel on Saturday, becoming the first CAA team to finish a season without a league win in that conference’s history. Towson will get a rematch with Drexel (20-9 / 11-7 ) this Friday in the first round of the CAA tourney. Fordham (6-20, 0-14) lost 90-58 at home to Rhode Island on Saturday, its 16th defeat in a row and 40th straight in A-10 play. Fordham plays at LaSalle (13-16 / 5-9) on Wednesday and is home to UMass (15-12 / 7-7) on Saturday. The Rams’ last conference win came back on Jan 28, 2009 at St. Bonaventure, 67-65.
The 2011 NCAA tournament has expanded its field to 68 teams. Thirty of the 31 automatic bids (note: The Great West is in transitional status and its tourney winner does not get an NCAA berth) will be given to the schools which win their conference tournaments with the remaining automatic bid going to the Ivy League’s regular season champion since it doesn’t hold a conference tournament. The remaining 37 teams will get at-large bids. The selection committee will rank the entire field from one-to-68 with the last four at-large teams selected and the four lowest-ranked automatic qualifiers playing in what’s been coined, the "First Four." The four lowest-ranked teams of the 68 will play each other in a pair of First Four games with two winners advancing to play No. 1 seeds in the traditional four-regional, 64-team field. The last four at-large teams will play in the other two First Four games with those winners moving on to face either a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. Six conference tourneys open play Tuesday through Thursday. A few brief preview comments appear below.
America East: Vermont made its fourth NCAA appearance last season, losing 79-56 to Syracuse in the first round. The Catamounts couldn’t have drawn a worse opponent, as the school made three straight NCAA appearances from 2003-05, upsetting 4th-seeded Syracuse 60-57 in 2005 for the school’s first-ever (and only) NCAA win. Vermont is the league’s regular season champ again at 13-3. University of Hartford's Chase Family Arena will host the tournament's first, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. This nine-school league will open play Thursday with its No. 8 and No. 9 seeds meeting. The winner advances to play Vermont on Saturday along with three other quarterfinal games. The semis are Sunday and then the conference champion will be crowned on the court of the highest remaining seed after a five-day hiatus, on Saturday, March 12 (not the only conference tourney with such a quirk in its scheduling).
Atlantic Sun: Mercer is the host school, although the Bears are just the fifth-seed. East Tennessee St won last year’s tourney and this year enters as the No. 2 seed. Belmont (19-1 in league play) comes in as the No. 1 seed and the Bruins are anxious to return to the “Big Dance” after three straight appearances from 2006-08. You just may remember Belmont’s last NCAA appearance, as the 15th-seeded Bruins came within a Gerald Henderson layup with 11.8 seconds left of upsetting second-seeded Duke. Just eight teams make the conference tourney in this 11-school league and the quarterfinals are played over two days, Wednesday and Thursday. The semifinals are Friday and the championship game will be played on Saturday.
Big South: Eight schools in this 10-team league qualify for the tourney. Presbyterian finished 7-11 and would have qualified for the tourney but the Blue Hose (how about that nickname?) are not eligible for the conference tournament due to their transition to Division I. Replacing Presbyterian is 6-12 Gardner-Webb, which sets up an intriguing first round matchup with the Big South’s regular season champ, Coastal Carolina (16-2). The Chanticleers had won 22 straight games when it hosted Gardner-Webb on Feb 15, which came in having lost 14 of its past 16 games. However, the Runnin' Bulldogs (can’t make these nicknames up!) won 59-57 when Coastal Carolina didn’t make a single field goal in the game’s final 6:42. The first round of this tourney is hosted by the higher-seeded teams on Tuesday while semifinal action will take place at Coastal Carolina on Thursday, the league’s regular season champ. The championship will be played on Saturday at the campus of the highest remaining seed.
Horizon League: Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Butler and Cleveland St all went 13-5 this year. Wisconsin-Milwaukee claimed the No. 1 seed and Butler the No. 2 seed, giving both teams a bye into this tourney’s semifinals. The first round opens Tuesday with the higher seeds owning home court advantage. Friday’s quarterfinals will be played on Milwaukee-Wisconsin’s home court, as will be Saturday’s semis. The championship game is not until next Tuesday (Mar 8), played on the home court of the higher seeded team. Butler, which almost upset Duke in last year’s national championship game, has made made four straight NCAA appearances and nine of the school’s 10 all-time appearances have come since 1997.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee has made three NCAA appearances in school history, all in a four-stretch from 2003 to 2006 which included a Sweet 16 trip in 2005 (under Bruce Pearl). Cleveland St upset Butler on its home court in the Horizon League’s 2009 championship game, earning the school’s second-ever NCAA bid. However, CSU fell to 16-17 last year before rebounding this year to go 24-7. However, the Vikings were the 13-5 team which lost the tie-breakers and will have to win twice just to reach the semis. Note that 13th-seeded Cleveland St beat 4th-seeded Wake Forest 84-69 in 2009’s NCAAs before losing to Arizona in the second round. In the school’s only prior tourney appearance in 1986 (under infamous head coach Kevin Mackey), No. 14-seed Cleveland State beat third-seeded Indiana (led by Bob Knight) in the first round, then beat St Joe’s, advancing to the Sweet 16 (one of two teams seeded 14 or lower in NCAA history to do so) before losing to Navy on David Robinson’s last-second shot.
MVC: “Arch Madness” begins on Thursday with No. 7 Drake taking on No. 10 Bradley and No. 8 Southern Illinois taking on No. 9 Illinois St at Scottrade Center in St Louis. The quarters are set for Friday, the semis on Saturday and the conference championship game is on Sunday. Missouri St (15-3) is the No. 1 seed and is hoping to secure its seventh NCAA bid. The Bears won last year’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament but have their sights set on the NCAA this year for the first time since Steve Alford led them to the Sweet 16 back in 1999. Wichita St (14-4) is the No. 2 seed and like Missouri St, 23-7 overall, but the Shockers well remember that they were NIT-bound last year at 25-9 after losing in the finals of last year’s MVC tourney. Wichita St has made eight previous NCAA appearances, the last being a Sweet 16 appearance in 2006 but prior to that, last went ‘dancing’ in 1988.
Indiana St (12-6) is the No. 3 seed and a great story. The Sycamores went 17-15 (9-9 in the MVC) last year, the school’s first winning season since 2001 while also appearing in its first postseason (the NIT) since that same year. However, head coach Kevin McKenna quit in the off-season to go to Oregon as an assistant under Dana Altman, leaving Greg Lansing (an assistant) as the team’s new head coach. The Sycamores opened 5-6 in non-conference play but despite a five-game conference losing streak from Jan 22-Feb 5, went 12-6 in MVC play (also lost a BracketBuster game) to finish 17-13. ISU has made just three previous NCAA appearances, back-to-back ones in 2000 and 2001 plus in 1979. Larry Bird led that year’s team to the national championship game with a 33-0 record before it lost 75-64 to Magic’s Michigan St team. Northern Iowa, last year’s tourney champs who finished 30-5 after reaching the Sweet 16, are the No. 4 seed at 10-8. The Panthers have been to two straight NCAA tourneys and six all-time, with five of them coming since 2004.
OVC: Murray St won the regular season title at 14-4 and at 23-7 overall, has posted its 24th consecutive 20-win season. Only Syracuse and Kansas own longer streaks (that’s pretty good company). Like in the Horizon, the top-two schools in the OVC get byes into the semifinals on Friday (13-5 Morehead St is the No. 2 seed). The league’s 5th through 8th seeds play Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee (entire tourney is played there) with the winners advancing to Thursday’s semis to face the 3rd (Austin Peay) and 4th (Tennessee Tech) seeds. The championship game is set for Saturday. Murray St ended a four-year NCAA drought (school owns 14 all-time NCAA appearances) with last year’s tourney title and then beat 4th-seeded Vanderbilt 66-65 before losing by two points to Butler in the second round.
I’ll return Thursday night with my next conference tourney update.