By Ryan Mayer
Conference championship week is well underway as seven teams have punched their tickets to the dance. Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), UNC-Asheville (Big South), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley Conference), Austin Peay (Ohio Valley Conference) clinched over the weekend while Chattanooga (Southern), Iona (MAAC) and UNC-Wilmington (CAA) picked up their automatic bids last night. While much of the focus will be on the big tournaments getting started today and tomorrow, there are four more bids on the line tonight in some conferences that you probably don’t hear about often.
In case you’re wondering: “Well Ryan, I’d like to watch these games, but I don’t know much about the teams.” Perfect, this post is just right for you. Let’s go through each game previewing the match-up and give a thought on who will come out on top.
NEC: #2 Fairleigh Dickinson vs #1 Wagner 7 pm ESPN2
The Seahawks are led by the guard combination of Corey Henson and Michael Carey (13.4 PPG and 12.4 PPG respectively), but also have two players (D’Waun Anderson, Romone Saunders) who are just below the double figures mark. That well-balanced attack combined with a defense allowing just 63.2 PPG has led them to a 22-9 record and a chance for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003.
On the other side, the Knights are an offensive powerhouse averaging 77.6 PPG on the back of four players in double figures (Darian Anderson, Earl Potts Jr, Marques Townes, Stephan Jiggetts). The Knights have had problems stopping teams this season allowing opponents to score an average of 78 PPG. The Knights are looking to punch their ticket to the dance since 2005.
The contrasting styles between the two teams has been evident in the tournament as Wagner has allowed their opponents (LIU & Robert Morris) to score 65 and 50 points respectively where FDU has given up 72 and 75 points to St Francis (PA) and Mount St Mary’s. The two regular season match-ups were split with FDU taking the first in OT 82-79 and the Seahawks winning just a few weeks ago 94-74. In March, trust the defenses which means I’ll take the Seahawks.
The Pick: Wagner
Horizon: #3 Wright State vs #4 Green Bay 7 pm ESPN
The Raiders and Phoenix knocked off the top two seeds (Valparaiso & Oakland) in the semi-finals last night to set up an intriguing game for the title tonight. Wright State has been on fire over the last three weeks winning six straight games to reach this point. Mark Alstork and JT Yoho lead the way for an offense that averages 68.5 PPG. The Raiders are seeking their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2007.
For the Phoenix, they survived a last second shot by Valparaiso that sent the game into OT to win 99-92 after the extra period. The player to know here is Carrington Love. The 6’1″ senior is averaging 17.9 PPG and 3.5 APG this season. Charles Cooper and Jordan Fouse chip in 13.8 PPG and 12.7 PPG respectively as the Phoenix hope to end a 20-year tournament drought (1996).
The two teams split a pair of regular season contests with each winning on its home floor. Green Bay is one of the fastest paced teams in the country while the Raiders like to keep things in the half court. Tough to choose between these two teams, but contrary to the defense rule above, I’m going with the team that will have the best player on the floor and that’s Love for Green Bay.
The Pick: Green Bay
Summit: #5 North Dakota State vs #2 South Dakota State 9:00 pm ESPN2
Battle of the Dakotas! The Bison upset the number one seed IPFW by overcoming a 15 point halftime deficit and an 18 point second half deficit to win on a lay-up with four seconds left from Carlin Dupree. Dupree is an interesting story as he quit the team in January unhappy with his role before returning a couple weeks later. The Bison’s balanced offensive attack featuring Paul Miller (15.8 PPG), AJ Jacobson (13.0 PPG) and Kory Brown (10.6 PPG) looks to lead the team to its third straight NCAA tournament berth.
Standing in the way is a Jackrabbits team that has won 5 straight, but narrowly escaped Denver in the semifinals 54-53. The trio of Mike Daum (15.1 PPG), George Marshall (15.0 PPG), and Deondre Parks (14.7 PPG) lead an offense averaging 77 points a night. The Jacks haven’t been in the tournament since 2013.
As with the other two match-ups, the teams split their regular season meetings. Look for a high scoring affair with both teams averaging around 70 points per game. Should be a fun, high-energy game between rivals, but I think the Jackrabbits stop the Bison’s streak of consecutive tournaments and punch their own ticket tonight.
The Pick: South Dakota State
WCC: #2 Gonzaga vs #1 St. Mary’s 9:00 pm ESPN
There’s a lot on the line here. That seems obvious when we’re talking about an automatic bid to the tournament, but on top of that, Gonzaga has a 17-year streak of NCAA appearances on the line. The Bulldogs sit squarely on the bubble at the moment and winning this game would obviously ensure Mark Few’s squad a spot in the field of 68. The ‘Zags rely on an offensive attack spearheaded by Kyle Wiltjer (20.6 PPG) and Domantas Sabonis (17.5 PPG). Wiltjer, in particular, is deadly from deep shooting 42% from beyond the arc.
As for the Gaels, their back court duo of Joe Rahon and Emmet Naar are two of the best play makers in the country averaging 12 assists per game between the two of them. Like Gonzaga, the Gaels are deadly from the three point line shooting 41% from deep this season. They’ve missed the last two tournaments since falling to Memphis in the Round of 32 in 2013.
The Gaels swept the season series 70-67 and 63-58 which would suggest another tightly contested game this evening. The Bulldogs will need to find a way to get Wiltjer going as in those two match-ups he shot a combined 8-23 from the floor and 1-11 from three point land. St. Mary’s seems to have Gonzaga’s number this year, and I’ll stick with them to pull of a third victory.
The Pick: St. Mary’s
Having said all of that, it’s March, which means tomorrow we’ll look back at these predictions and probably laugh. Oh well, at least you know a little bit more about these teams heading into tonight.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.