Three tickets to the NCAA tournament will be punched on Saturday, beginning with the Big South title game matching seven-seed VMI and regular season champion UNC Asheville. Eddie Biedenbach's Bulldogs have avoided the turmoil on the opposite side of the bracket, which saw both Coastal Carolina and Campbell fall in the quarterfinals. Duggar Baucom's Keydets were the ones who knocked off CCU, as they shot an impressive 14-for-28 from three in their 85-68 win over the Chanticleers. VMI would follow that up with a 75-55 win over Winthrop on Thursday, limiting the Eagles to 32.8% shooting and forcing 15 turnovers.
A repeat of either of those performances will be tougher to come by against UNC Asheville, who relies on the Big South's best perimeter tandem on the offensive end of the floor. Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm average a combined 31.8 points and 7.6 assists per game on the season, and if one struggles the other is more than capable of picking up the slack. The Bulldogs aren't just a two-man attack however, as senior guard Chris Stephenson is scoring just over 13 points a game and forward Jeremy Atkinson adds 11.5 and 6.7 boards. VMI has Stan Okoye and Kenny Gabriel to rely on while Jordan Weethee has shot the ball well this week.
Both teams can clearly score, with UNC Asheville averaging 81 points per game and VMI 80, but the Bulldogs have been the more efficient team with their average of 1.1 4 points per possession. The two regular season meetings were both close, high-scoring affairs with the Bulldogs winning both by a combined 12 points.
VMI can force turnovers with the best of them and they pestered the Bulldogs into 18 of them in the second meeting. But the Keydets can't afford to turn the ball over themselves, something they did in both meetings (17 apiece). Take care of the basketball and VMI's got a shot to go dancing, but if they can't they'll be headed back to Lexington without the crown.
The OVC title game is the one most bubble teams will be tuned into (so long as they're not playing themselves), as Murray State is going to the Big Dance with or without an automatic bid. A Tennessee State win would make the OVC a two-bid league, and given the fact that the Tigers beat Murray State in their gym that's not exactly far-fetched.
Robert Covington is one of the toughest matchups in the OVC, and he put up 24 and 15 in the Tigers' 80-62 loss to Murray State on February 23rd. John Cooper's Tigers have been balanced offensively so it's not just a one-man show, and the same goes for the Isaiah Canaan-led Racers. Donte Poole accounted for 25 and seven rebounds in their win over Tennessee Tech, and Ivan Aska and Ed Daniel are two guys who thrive in physical games inside.
Last but not least there's the Atlantic Sun final which matches top-seed Belmont and six-seed Florida Gulf Goast, who are in their first season of full Division I membership. North Florida entered last season's title game in the same spot as the Eagles, but Belmont was having no part of a "storybook" finish for their opponent. Rick Byrd's Bruins haven't been as dominant as they were last season but they're still the class of the A-Sun with Kerron Johnson and big men Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders leading the way.
FGCU has withstood two off performances from Brett Comer but they need him to be at his best if they're to dethrone the reigning champs. The good news for the Eagles is that big men Chase Fieler and Eddie Murray have played well this week, and another solid outing from them will give FGCU a chance.
Atlantic Sun - Title Game
#1 Belmont vs. #6 FGCU, 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
Big South - Title game
#7 VMI at #1 UNC Asheville, 12:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
Ohio Valley - Title Game
#1 Murray State vs. #2 Tennessee State, 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
America East - Quarterfinals (at University of Hartford)
#1 Stony Brook vs. #9 Binghamton, 12:05 p.m. (AE All-Access Live Video)
#4 Albany vs. #5 New Hampshire, *2:15 p.m. (AE All-Access Live Video)
#2 Vermont vs. #7 Maine, 6:05 p.m. (AE All-Access Live Video)
#3 Boston U. vs. #6 Hartford, *8:15 p.m. (AE All-Access Live Video)
Binghamton kicked things off in America East on Thursday night with a win over UMBC but the climb gets much steeper for Mark Macon's Bearcats as they take on regular season champ Stony Brook. The Seawolves scored just 67.4 points per game but they're one of the league's better defensive teams, limiting opponents to 59.1 points and 0.93 points per possession. If Robert Mansell and Ben Dickinson can shake free from the likes of league Defensive Player of the Year Tommy Brenton maybe Binghamton can hang around, but it doesn't look promising.
The 4/5 game should be interesting to watch due to the presence of Albany's Gerardo Suero, a junior guard who is one of the nation's best scorers and a guy some feel was robbed in the America East Player of the Year voting. UNH can counter with a solid guard of their own in Alvin Abreu, but slowing down Suero is a task that won't be done with ease. Also keep an eye on Albany's Logan Aronholt, who's been dealing with a knee injury that's forced him to sit for two games and play just nine minutes apiece in two others over the last four games.
Big Sky - Quarterfinals
#5 Idaho State at #4 Eastern Washington, 5:00 p.m.
#6 Montana State at #3 Portland State, 10:00 p.m.
The winners in the Big Sky will move on to play Montana and Weber State next week, and given how tight the race for those final tournament spots was these two contests shouldn't lack in the entertainment department. idaho State features one of the league's hottest scorers in Kenny McGowen, but the EWU trio of Cliff Colimon, Cliff Ederaine and Colin Chiverton will be tough to stop. Add in the fact that ISU is 4-12 on the road this season and it could be a tough day for the Bengals in Cheney.
As for Montana State, the Bobcats lost leading scorer Xavier Blount for the season due to injuries suffered in an altercation and it's been a struggle offensively ever since. They visit a Portland State team that hasn't had such issues thanks to Chehales Tapscott and Charles Odum, which means it could be a tough day on the road for Montana State.
Colonial - Quarterfinals
#1 Drexel vs. #9 UNCW, Noon (CAA-TV)
#4 Old Dominion vs. #5 Delaware, 2:30 p.m. (CAA-TV)
#2 VCU vs. #7 Northeastern, 6 p.m. (CAA-TV)
#3 George Mason vs. #6 Georgia State, 8:30 p.m. (CAA-TV)
The "big guns" in the CAA make their debut in this season's tournament, beginning with regular season champion Drexel taking on UNC Wilmington. The question surrounding the league this weekend is whether or not they can find a second NCAA tournament bid, with the Dragons, VCU and George Mason all owning impressive overall records (Drexel and VCU have won 25 games while George Mason has 23 wins). But the computer profiles are a bit lacking in the eyes of some, which could limit the CAA to just one bid come Selection Sunday.
CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson has the ability to put George Mason on his back and lead them to the title, but the same can be said for VCU's Bradford Burgess and Drexel's Frantz Massenat. Also keep an eye on four-seed ODU, led by senior Kent Bazemore. The Monarchs have a tough matchup to deal with in Delaware's Jamelle Hagins, but Blaine Taylor's squad has been solid defensively for much of the season.
Horizon League - Semifinals (at Valparaiso)
#3 Detroit vs. #2 Cleveland State, 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
#5 Butler at #1 Valparaiso, 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
The talk following Friday's quarterfinals was whether or not this was the beginning of another March run for Butler, but it would be wise to remember that Valparaiso is the regular season champion. The Crusaders won both regular season meetings: by six at Hinkle Fieldhouse on December 3rd and by 12 (71-59) in the regular season finale for both last Friday. The time off has also given forward Kevin Van Wijk more time to rest his knee, and that should help Bryce Drew's team along with playing at home. Horizon League Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff was quiet in the second meeting but Van Wijk led the way with 18 and Will Bogan is a solid offensive piece as well.
Butler will need another solid night from Roosevelt Jones and Khyle Marshall along with Andrew Smith if they're to win at Valpo. The first semifinal matches Detroit, who looked very good offensively in their win over Youngstown State, and a Cleveland State team that's struggled since D'Aundray Brown went down. If Brown can go and be effective the Vikings can definitely win, but if he's limited or can't go they likely won't have enough weapons to keep up with the Titans.
Metro Atlantic - Quarterfinals
#4 Fairfield vs. #5 Rider, 2:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
#1 Iona vs. #8 Marist, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
#2 Loyola (MD) vs. #7 Niagara, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
#3 Manhattan vs. #6 Siena, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
The first game of the day in the MAAC tournament is the most intriguing, as not only is the battle between Fairfield and Rider a contrast in styles but both teams have the ability to make a run this weekend. The Stags lost guard Derek Needham for the season due to a broken foot but they've got enough depth to navigate his loss, and in forward Rakim Sanders the Stags have one of the league's toughest covers. Tommy Dempsey's Broncs didn't play as well as expected during the regular season but with weapons such as Novar Gadson, Jeff Jones and Jonathon Thompson, Rider is more than capable of winning a shootout. But can they guard well enough to stick around Springfield for a few days? That's the big question.
Loyola has to be wary of Niagara given the scoring ability of freshmen Juan'ya Green and Antoine Mason, but the Greyhounds' depth and versatility could prove to be too much for the Purple Eagles. In the final game of the night Siena's chances hinge on the health of guard Evan Hymes due to their lack of depth, and Iona needs to take the floor with a killer instinct in their quarterfinal matchup with Marist.
Missouri Valley - Semifinals
#1 Wichita State vs. #4 Illinois State, 2:30 p.m. (MVC TV)
#2 Creighton vs. #3 Evansville, 5:00 p.m. (MVC TV)
The top four seeds meet in St. Louis and while many will expect the Shockers and Bluejays to advance don't sell the redbirds or Purple Aces short. Evansville took Creighton to overtime at home before some costly mistakes in the extra session cost them a win, lost by just three at Wichita State. But given the way Gregg Marshall's Shockers are playing of late it's going to be tough to slow them down given their many offensive options to go along with a solid defense. If Jackie Carmichael can control the paint in his battle with Garrett Stutz then ISU has a chance.
The second game could be a shootout given the offensive ability of both teams. Doug McDermott is a household name and he's got teammates more than capable of scoring as well, but Evansville has a combo in Colt Ryan and Denver Holmes who can get going offensively as well. If Marty Simmons' club can take care of the basketball and limit McDermott's paint touches they can win, but that's a big "if" at this point.
Southern - Quarterfinals
#1N UNCG vs. #5N Appalachian State, 12:00 p.m.
#2S Wofford vs. #3N Western Carolina, 2:30 p.m.
#1S Davidson vs. #5S Furman, 6:00 p.m.
#2N Elon vs. #3S Georgia Southern, 8:30 p.m.
The question is a simple one: which of the other seven teams left in the SoCon tournament can knock off Davidson, the overall regular season champion and prohibitive favorite to win the automatic bid? Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks have been outstanding all season long in the frontcourt and five Wildcats are averaging at least ten points per game. The best story may be UNCG, whose interim head coach (Wes Miller) was named league Coach of the Year due to his leading the Spartans to the North Division crown, and they've got a high-flying scorer in Trevis Simpson as well. Wofford's been to two NCAA tournaments under head coach Mike Young and they navigated the loss of a group of seniors led by Noah Dahlman to finish second in the South Division.
Summit - Quarterfinals
#1 Oral Roberts vs. #8 IPFW, 7:00 p.m. (FCS)
#2 South Dakota State vs. #7 IUPUI, 9:30 p.m. (FCS)
Summit League play opens tonight with the top two seeds tipping things off, and two of the country's best players whose names aren't tossed around on ESPN every night will be on display. ORU's Dominique Morrison has been an outstanding scorer this season, and South Dakota State point guard Nate Wolters is one of the country's most efficient players. Those two are expected to end up meeting in the title game, and even though the Jackrabbits did beat IUPUI by 11 in the regular season finale there was also the 97-93 thriller played between the two earlier this season. Alex Young is averaging 20.7 points per game to lead the Jaguars, who can salvage what's been a disappointing season with a run in Sioux Falls.
Sun Belt - First Round
#6 South Alabama vs. #11 Troy, 7:00 p.m. (Summit Arena)
#8 Florida Atlantic vs. #9 Arkansas State, 7:15 p.m. (Convention Center Court)
#7 Western Kentucky vs. #10 FIU, 9:30 p.m. (Summit Arena)
Seeds six through eleven open up play in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and it will be interesting to see if any of these teams can cause some chaos within the bracket. South Alabama may be the best choice due to the Jaguars being the lone team without a losing conference record (8-8), and after that it's anyone's guess. WKU is a very young team but they're talented as well with freshman Derrick Gordon leading the way. Three teams will keep their seasons alive but it's difficult to see any of them getting to the semifinals much less the title game.
WCC - Semifinals
#1 Saint Mary's vs. #5 San Francisco, 9:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
#2 Gonzaga vs. #3 BYU, 11:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
The three teams many expect to get to the NCAA tournament out of the WCC will be on display, but San Francisco has the ability to surprise Saint Mary's and reach the final. The Dons lost a close one to the Gaels in the regular season finale, and the celebration of their first outight WCC title in more than 20 years did go over too well with U.S.F. wing Rashad Green (he reportedly banged on the SMC locker room door and "asked" them to keep the noise down). Cody Doolin and Michael Williams are playing well and Angelo Caloiaro is one of the WCC's most versatile players, so don't be surprised if San Francisco can push Matthew Dellavedova, Rob Jones and company to the brink.
In the nightcap one would think that a BYU win over Gonzaga, which would give them two this season, would truly punch the Cougars' ticket to the Big Dance if it hasn't been already. Noah Hartsock looked good despite being bugged by a knee injury at the end of the regular season on Friday night, scoring 19 points in the Cougars' win over San Diego. But Matt Carlino can't turn the ball over nine times as he did against the Toreros if they're to knock off Gonzaga, who needs consistent play from Elias Harris and Robert Sacre inside.