One of the dangers of conference tournaments at the mid-major level is that the top seed, regardless of the margin by which they won the regular season title, are just 40 minutes away from seeing their dream of going to the NCAA tournament vanish. While there's still a chance as the Field of 68 won't be announced for another six days Iona and Middle Tennessee no longer have control of their own fate, and that has to be a concern for both fan bases along with the players and coaches. Both teams fell in conference tournament action on Sunday, and with so much to be decided in regards to other teams on the bubble it's likely a long shot that one (or both) of these teams hears their name called on Selection Sunday.
The Blue Raiders can look no further than the foul line as the place to blame in their 64-61 loss to nine-seed Arkansas State in a Sun Belt quarterfinal in Hot Springs. Middle Tennessee shot just 11-for-22 from the charity stripe, and while poor shooting from the free throw line has been an issue all season long for Kermit Davis Jr's team (last in the Sun Belt in all games at 63%, 10th in conference games) they still shot 13 percentage points lower than their season average. If the Blue Raiders make three more free throws, not only do they match their season average but they likely push the game into overtime.
"For the first time all year I had to urge guys to practice at a higher level," said Davis after the game. "We got beat on some 50/50 balls, got out-rebounded, and the bottom line we weren't tough enough to step up and make free throws. [Arkansas State] did and that was the game."
Middle Tennessee, who won the Sun Belt by two games and led the conference in both scoring and points allowed per game, fell because of the "little things" that many tend to take for granted. Free throw shooting and rebounding (39-28 ASU) can come back to haunt a team if they aren't taken care of, regardless of skill level.
As for Iona, the level of play on the defensive end that's been a problem all season long reared its ugly head in their MAAC semifinal against Fairfield. The difference on Sunday compared to many other days for the Gaels: they weren't able to do enough offensively to make up for it.
Fairfield outscored Iona 45-33 in the second half of their 85-75 win, setting up a title game with two-seed Loyola (MD) on Monday night. Rakim Sanders scored 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the way for Sydney Johnson's Stags, who shot 59.6% for the game and their level of defense in the second half (Iona shot 40.9% compared to 58.6% in the first half) proved to be the difference.
Scott Machado led Iona with 24 points and seven assists, but 16 of the points and five of the assists came in the first half, and the Gaels would lead by just two at the break (42-40). In addition to three starters reaching double figures for the Stags, reserve forward Keith Matthews scored 14 points off the bench.
The question now for the Blue Raiders and Stags is whether or not they have enough on their respective resumes to warrant an at-large bid. According to cbssports.com, Middle Tennessee has an RPI of 59 and an SOS of 184, with both numbers dropping due to their loss to Arkansas State. The Blue Raiders' "best" wins: Belmont and Ole Miss, and that regular season finale loss to Western Kentucky didn't help matters either.
Iona has an RPI of 34 and an SOS of 144, and while those numbers are better than Middle Tennessee's the Gaels are fighting an uphill battle as well. Tim Cluess' team does have wins over Saint Joseph's and Nevada to their credit, but they also have two losses in games they led by 18 points (Manhattan and Siena). The door to the NCAA tournament may remain open for both Middle Tennessee and Iona at this point in time, but as the Power 6 leagues begin their tournaments both could end up in trouble.
Other Notable Happenings
1. #24 Creighton wins an overtime thriller to grab the Valley's automatic bid.
Many bubble teams throughout the country were rooting hard for the Creighton Bluejays, whose trip to the NCAA tournament was essentially guaranteed going into Sunday's MVC tournament final. The same couldn't be said for Illinois State, who was looking to grab their first NCAA berth since 1998 and that would have made the Valley a three-bid league. Despite 20 points and five assists from Nic Moore the Redbirds fell short, dropping an 83-79 overtime thriller as the Bluejays grabbed the automatic bid. Doug McDemott was unstoppable for Creighton, scoring 33 points in a variety of ways, and Grant Gibbs made winning play after winning play to score 20, grab seven boards and dish out five assists.
The question for Creighton is what the title does for them seeding-wise. Clearly they can't play in Omaha since those games are on their home floor, but maybe Greg McDermott's team can fight their way into a "protected" seed, thus limiting the distance they and their fans have to travel. Wichita State won the regular season crown but it was Creighton who ends up with the tournament title, and there won't be a long line of teams waiting to play either team in the Big Dance.
2. William Buford's shot gives Ohio State (and Michigan) a share of the Big Ten title.
A Brandon Wood three with 12:03 remaining in the first half gave Michigan State a 22-9 lead, and frankly there weren't too many people who didn't think that Ohio State was in trouble at that point. But the Buckeyes were able to stop the bleeding, eventually pulling to within nine (38-29) at the half. The Buckeyes limited Michigan State, who also lost wing Branden Dawson for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee, to 38.5% shooting in the second half and William Buford completed the comeback with a tough, contested jumper with a second remaining to give the Buckeyes the 72-70 win.
Buford finished with 25 points and Jared Sullinger added 14 and ten boards, but there was an unsung hero as well. Evan Ravenel came off the bench to give Thad Matta seven points in eight minutes of action, and while he didn't play much the Boston College transfer did play an important role in the comeback with Sullinger on the bench. The win also gave Michigan a share of the Big Ten crown, something that hasn't happened in Ann Arbor since 1986. The Spartans remain the top seed in the Big Ten tournament due to tiebreakers, but it will be interesting to see how Draymond Green and company account for the loss of Dawson.
3. VCU jumps George Mason early, holding on to advance to the CAA title game.
By the time Jonathan Arledge scored George Mason's first field goal of the game at the 11:48 mark, the Patriots trailed rival VCU 27-4. it was that kind of start for Paul Hewitt's team, which could not overcome VCU's 22-0 run to start the game, falling 74-64 in the second CAA semifinal of the day. Bradford Burgess led the Rams with 20 points and Troy Daniels added 17 and six rebounds, and VCU's defense combined with foul trouble limited CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson to six points and five rebounds in 23 minutes of action.
Pearson wouldn't be the only George Mason player to struggle however, as guards Bryon Allen and Vertail Vaughns combined to shoot just 2-for-13 from the field. VCU also knocked down 11 of 25 shots from beyond the arc, making seven of them before the game hit the under-8 media timeout. The game was also critical in regards to possible at-large hopes should neither win the CAA's automatic bid, and to fall in this fashion doesn't bode well for George Mason. VCU at the very least picked up their 27th win and lives to fight another day, and that's the least a team can ask for in March.
1. The top two teams will meet in the America East title game as well, as a Dallis Joyner tip-in as time expired pushed Stony Brook past Albany 57-55. The Seawolves will host two-seed Vermont on Saturday morning, as the Catamounts beat host Hartford 77-73 in double overtime.
2. Monday's SoCon final will match the league's best team with its hottest team, as top-seed (South) Davidson and three seed (North) Western Carolina will meet in Asheville. The Catamounts won their seventh straight game on Sunday night as they beat North Division champ UNCG 82-77. Forwards Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks combined for 44 points and 11 rebounds to lead Davidson to an 83-67 win over Elon in the nightcap.
3. The NEC title game will be a rematch of last year's final (and in the same gym as well) as three-seed Robert Morris won 71-64 at two-seed Wagner. Velton Jones led all scorers with 25 points and the Colonials went 30-for-40 from the foul line to make up for their 32.1% shooting from the field. Top-seed LIU Brooklyn advanced with a tough 78-75 win over Quinnipiac as Julian Boyd scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and point guard Jason Brickman added 18 points and five assists.
4. Apparently Sunday was "Damaging Loss Day" in the Pac-12 as both Arizona and California dropped their regular season finales. The Golden Bears, who resume-wise are in better shape at this point, dropped a 75-70 decision at Stanford and that gives Washington the outright regular season crown. Arizona fell 87-80 at Arizona State, and that loss could mean that Sean Miller's team needs at least two wins in L.A. to merit an at-large bid. The good news for both is that the automatic bid is still on the table, and it would be in their best interest to leave no doubt and win that.
5. Middle Tennessee wasn't the only upset victim in Hot Springs as two-seed UALR fell to seven-seed Western Kentucky 68-63. Ray Harper's young Hilltoppers have played some solid basketball since his interim tag was removed, winning four straight and five of their last six going into Monday's semifinal against Denver. Freshman guard Derrick Gordon was outstanding for WKU, finishing with 25 points and 15 rebounds.
6. #1 Kentucky capped an undefeated run through the SEC with a 74-59 win at #13 Florida, dropping the Gators all the way down to the four-seed in this week's SEC tournament. Simply put John Calipari's got the best team in the country, and while it looks effortless there haven't been moments when the young Wildcats have decided to mail it in effort-wise. Good luck trying to beat them.
7. One would think that the victor would receive the spoils in the form of a conference player of the year award and while most likely that would be North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, Virginia's Mike Scott has a very good case. Scott scored a career-high 35 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to push Virginia past Maryland 75-72 to lock up a first-round bye in next week's ACC tournament.
8. A senior class that was a part of a 25-loss season as freshmen experienced their 24th win of the season as #20 Indiana beat rival Purdue 85-74 in Bloomington. Christian Watford led four Hoosiers in double figures with 19 points, clinching the five-seed in this week's Big Ten tournament. Robbie Hummel led the Boilermakers with 16 and eight rebounds, and Purdue will be the six-seed.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Mike Scott (Virginia)
35 points and 11 rebounds in the Cavaliers' 75-72 overtime win at Maryland.
2. G Grant Gibbs and F Doug McDermott (Creighton)
McDermott scored 33 points and grabbed six boards while Gibbs added 20, seven and five assists in the Bluejays' 83-79 overtime win over Illinois State.
3. G Derrick Gordon (Western Kentucky)
25 points and 15 rebounds in the Hilltoppers' 68-63 win over UALR.