Sunday's Conference Tournament Primer
Missouri Valley - Title Game
#4 Illinois State vs. #2 Creighton, 2:00 p.m. (CBS)
The eyes of many bubble teams and their fan bases will be focused on St. Louis and the title game of the MVC tournament. The reason why: Illinois State, a team that was unlikely to be an at-large selection, is 40 minutes away from grabbing the Valley's automatic bid and making it a three-bid league. Standing in the way of the Redbirds is two-seed Creighton, who looked outstanding in their 99-71 win over Evansville and will be headed to the Big Dance with or without the automatic bid.
The problem for Illinois State, who beat Wichita State 65-64 on Saturday to reach the final, is that they've been unable to slow down the Bluejays in either meeting. Creighton averaged 94.5 points per game in two wins over the Redbirds, most recently handing ISU a 102-74 beating in Omaha on February 1st. Doug McDermott led six players in double figures that game with 25 points, and in the two meetings Creighton has shot 57.1% (87-78 win at ISU) and 56.4% from the field.
Tim Jankovich's team has improved since that loss on the defensive end of the floor as only three teams have shot better than 45% from the field since, but the Redbirds' improved defense will be tested this afternoon. Big man Jackie Carmichael has been outstanding all season long, and his physical play is a big reason why Illinois State has been able to reach this point. But he and Tyler Brown are going to need their teammates to step up if they're to have a shot at knocking off this powerful Creighton squad, and Nic Moore's 12 points on Saturday could be a step in the right direction in that regard.
In addition to McDermott the Bluejays have Gregory Echenique inside, and on the perimeter players such as Antoine Young, Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat all have the ability to make plays. The offensive production is rarely a question for Greg McDermott's team, but how well they play defensively will ultimately determine how far they can go in the NCAA tournament. If Creighton can clamp down defensively the upset bid becomes even tougher for Illinois State, but they've got a shot. And at this point in the season that's the least a team can ask for.
America East - Semifinals
#1 Stony Brook vs. #4 Albany, 5:02 p.m. (ESPN3)
#2 Vermont vs. #6 Hartford, 7:15 p.m. (ESPN3)
Three of the top four seeds advanced to the semifinals in West Hartford, with the host Hawks being the lone exception. They were able to slow down a potent Boston University attack, winning 53-49, and at 9-21 on the season John Gallagher's Hawks really don't have anything to lose. But beating a Vermont team that swept the regular season series, winning both games by double digits, will be very tough to do. The Catamounts scored just 14 points in the first half of their 50-40 win over Maine on Saturday but with the likes of Matt Glass and Luke Apfeld don't expect that to happen again.
The first semifinal should be highly entertaining, as regular season champ Stony Brook takes on four-seed Albany, who has the league's leading scorer in Gerardo Suero. Suero, a guy many thought would be Player of the Year, can flat-out light it up and if Logan Aronhalt is effective the Great Danes can be a tough out. Steve Pikiell's Seawolves have five players averaging at least eight points per game with Bryan Dougher leading the way, and in Tommy Brenton they've got the league's best defender.
CAA - Semifinals
#1 Drexel vs. #4 Old Dominion, 2 p.m. (CAA-TV)
#2 VCU vs. #3 George Mason, 4:30 p.m. (CAA-TV)
There's no underestimating how important these two games are from an NCAA tournament standpoint, because while the chances of a second bid are slim given the troubles of bubble teams throughout the country the possibility for the CAA remains. Drexel won the regular season title outright and keeping in mind UAB's selection last season that achievement may hold weight with the selection committee. Frantz Massenat and the Dragons take on an ODU team that played arguably its best offensive game of the season on Saturday, but don't expect offensive fireworks given how good both teams have been defensively. The rubber match between VCU and George Mason will most likely determine the team with the best shot at an at-large should Drexel end up with the automatic bid, but more importantly the winner would control their own fate with a shot at the title on Monday night. Mason escaped Georgia State on Saturday night while VCU was able to take care of Northeastern.
Metro Atlantic - Semifinals
#4 Fairfield vs. #1 Iona, 2:00 p.m. (ESPN3)
#2 Loyola (MD) vs. #6 Siena, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Similar to America East the six-seed is the one "crashing" the party in the MAAC, as a Siena team that goes six deep knocked off three-seed Manhattan in Saturday's quarterfinals. Owen Wignot sent the game into overtime with a three-pointer with eight seconds remaining, and senior Brandon Walters picked a good time to play arguably the best game of his career. The question now is whether or not Mitch Buonaguro's team has enough left in the tank (especially with Evan Hymes battling a knee injury) to battle one of the MAAC's deepest teams in Loyola. Erik Etherly and Dylon Cormier may lead the way, but the Greyhounds can also call on the likes of Robert Olson and MAAC 6th Man of the Year Justin Drummond when needed.
The first semifinal matches the two teams expected to fight it out for the regular season title in top-seed Iona and Fairfield. It took the Stags a little longer than expected to mesh given the addition of Rakim Sanders and Desmond Wade, not to mention head coach Sydney Johnson just arriving by way of Princeton. The loss of guard Derek Needham hurts but Fairfield has the depth needed to navigate such a loss. The Gaels are deep as well, led by seniors Scott Machado and Mike Glover, and with their run last season ending in the MAAC title game there's going to be motivation to take care of business. If Iona can defend at a solid level they have more than enough offensive talent to advance to Monday's final.
NEC - Semifinals
#3 Robert Morris at #2 Wagner, Noon (MSG/FCS)
#5 Quinnipiac at #1 LIU Brooklyn, 6:00 p.m. (MSG/FCS)
The battle between the Colonials and Seahawks will be entertaining, especially when considering a likely matchup between RMU's Velton Jones and Wagner's Kenneth Ortiz. Jones leads the Colonials in scoring with an average of 16.4 points per game, and Ortiz is one of the NEC's best defenders. Both teams are deep, and with Latif Rivers and Tyler Murray also at his disposal on the perimeter Wagner head coach Dan Hurley won't lack for options. The same goes for RMU's Andy Toole, who also has sophomore Coron Williams and freshman wing Lucky Jones. RMU has been the better rebounding team this season, so if Jones and Russell Johnson can control things on the glass they can leave Staten Island with a win.
In the other semifinal high-scoring LIU Brooklyn hosts Quinnipiac, who have one of the league's best scoring guards in James Johnson. The key for QU however could be how well Ike Azotam does inside against Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere. The Bobcats are the best rebounding team in the NEC and Azotam is a big reason why, but Boyd and Olasewere can both step out on the perimeter and draw him away from the basket. Add in guards Jason Brickman and C.J. Garner and the Blackbirds have a rotation that's been tough to slow down all season long.
Southern - Semifinals
#1N UNCG vs. #3N Western Carolina, 6:00 p.m.
#1S Davidson vs. #2N Elon, 8:30 p.m.
Three of the four teams still alive in the SoCon hail from the North Division, which may be seen as a surprise based on how the regular season played out. Wes Miller's Spartans have played so well since he took over that the youngest head coach in America was named SoCon Coach of the Year, and with Trevis Simpson leading the way UNCG can reach the final. But the Spartans will face a Western Carolina squad that's won six straight, and they looked very good in their 82-59 win over Wofford on Saturday afternoon. In the other semifinal the clear favorite to win the automatic bid, Davidson, takes on an Elon team led by Jack Isenbarger. The question for the Phoenix is whether or not they have enough inside to deal with Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks, but then again no one's really had an answer for these two within the league.
Summit League - Quarterfinals
#4 Western Illinois vs. #5 North Dakota State, 7:00 p.m.
#3 Oakland vs. #6 Southern Utah, 9:30 p.m.
The top two seeds, Oral Roberts and South Dakota State, advanced on Saturday night and Sunday's slate features one of the country's most prolific scorers in Oakland's Reggie Hamilton. Hamilton averaged 25.5 points per game in two wins over the Thunderbirds, and Travis Bader is a capable scorer as well. Jackson Stevenett leads four SUU players in double figures with an average of 14.1 points per game, and that balance combined with better defense on Hamilton is the formula for a Southern Utah win. North Dakota State and Western Illinois each have three players averaging double figures in scoring, and guards Taylor Braun (NDSU) and Ceola Clark (WIU) are both capable of leading their teams to the victory. The winners will take on ORU and South Dakota State in Monday's semifinals.
Sun Belt - Quarterfinals
#1 Middle Tennessee vs. #9 Arkansas State, 7:00 p.m. (Sun Belt Network - Summit Arena)
#4 Louisiana-Lafayette vs. #5 North Texas, 7:15 p.m. (Convention Center Court)
#2 UALR vs. #7 Western Kentucky, 9:30 p.m. (Sun Belt Network - Summit Arena)
#3 Denver vs. #6 South Alabama, 9:45 p.m. (Convention Center Court)
The top five teams take the court for the first time in the Sun Belt tournament, and while Middle Tennessee has to be considered the favorite given how well they played throughout the season they won't go unchallenged. Denver put together an outstanding season thanks to the tandem of Brian Stafford and Chris Udofia, and if there's a player who can go on a run and make the tournament his own personal playground that would be North Texas' Tony Mitchell. UALR should also be in the conversation as Steve Shields' team won the automatic bid last season, and they're the two seed entering this year's tournament.