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February 28, 2003 Columns No Comments

You Know What Month It Is…

by Bill Thayer

Saturday is the first of the month. No, wait, that doesn’t sound quite right, let me try again.

Saturday is the first of THE month. That’s better.

While the Bracket Buster Saturday was not quite what many associated it had hoped, this weekend may be a bigger make-or-break weekend around the country. Many smaller conferences are hitting their final regular season games, some teams are fighting for conference titles, postseason seeding and even at-large NCAA Tournament bids. Here’s a look around the country at some of the games that can have huge long term impact, or at least some major short term effects (all records through Wednesday’s action).

Ivy League Showdowns (Friday and Saturday)

Penn and Princeton at Brown and Yale

Possibly the biggest of any games you’ll see listed here as Brown, 8-1 in conference, hosts first place Penn (9-0) and third place Princeton (7-2). With only four games remaining, the Quakers can clinch a share of the regular season title by winning their two games, but they will have a fight when they face Brown on Friday night. Penn won the first meeting, 73-66 in Philadelphia, holding Earl Hunt to 14 points in the win. If the Bears do knock off the Quakers, they’ll have to turn around and take on the Tigers, who will look to remain alive despite losing at home against Brown for the first time in school history on Valentine’s Day. A year ago Penn, Princeton and Yale finished in a three way tie, leading to a mini-tournament for the automatic bid (the Ivy League does not use tiebreakers to determine their champion). Yale will have to beat Penn to have a shot this year.

Crystal Ball Out West (Saturday night)

Gonzaga at San Diego

The new-look West Coast Conference Tournament gives the top two teams a major advantage, as they get byes to the semifinal (call it the Gonzaga Rule since the Bulldogs RPI fell after winning their first round matchup last year). Each of these teams have clinched those byes, with seeding yet to be determined. Most likely, we’ll see this game in the WCC Championship, as they’ll have a team who just played the previous night (or two nights in a row if its the 5-8 seeds in the semifinal), so this could be a preview of things to come. Keep an eye on how the Zags handle the Jenny Craig Pavilion crowd, the Toreros will be hosting the conference tournament, so the fans will look to one up the infamous Kennel. With an RPI in the 40s, Gonzaga could still find itself squarely on the bubble if it falls short in its bid to gain the automatic bid, but if the Bulldogs do not have a regular season championship as part of their resume, the likelihood for an at-large bid will dwindle.

A New-Day Dawning? (Saturday night)

Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Butler

Consider their brackets busted last week. The Panthers had a chance to increase their RPI and get a huge quality, late-season win against Southern Illinois but lost it in the final seconds. Heading into Thursday night (each team had another game when this was being written) the Panthers and Bulldogs were tied atop the Horizon at 12-2, so the winner will get the claim of regular season championship to add to their portfolio in case they fall short in the conference tournament (starting to catch that theme at all?). Many claimed Butler deserved to make the tournament last year, but with an RPI in the high 70s and very few quality wins, it was tough to justify the bid, even though the Bulldogs won 25 games. A win here could push them over the top, but the Panthers, with a win earlier this season, may have Butler’s number.

Rising From The Valley (Saturday night)

Creighton at Southern Illinois

If the Horizon was the big loser on Bracket Buster Saturday, then the Missouri Valley is the big winner. Creighton added another quality win to their resume (and locked down a tournament bid in my mind) when they knocked off Fresno State. Meanwhile, Southern Illinois may have pushed themselves into the dance when they knocked off Wisc.-Milwaukee. Despite losses to SMS and Wichita State in recent weeks, the Valley regular season champions will get crowned after this game. Creighton owns a win earlier this season over the Salukis, but they’ll have to deal with a sold out SIU Arena. Students slept out for tickets and snatched up their allotment of 2,000 in just 45 minutes. It’s never easy to win in the Valley and SIU can give themselves an even bigger push heading into March with a Missouri Valley Championship and win over top 25 opponent.

A Red Hot Blizzard (Saturday afternoon)

UNC Wilmington at VCU

UNC Wilmington’s Brett Blizzard became the Colonial Athletic Association’s all-time leading scorer, then broke 2,000 career points last week, but he’ll face a stiff test against VCU’s Willie Taylor. Taylor has been one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the conference and has been a big part of VCU’s turnaround (9-1 in their last ten games after a 4-4 conference start). VCU and Drexel have been jockeying for position behind the defending conference champions, who is lacking the quality wins needed to be considered for an at-large bid. UNCW carries a game and a half lead over both the Rams and Dragons and can wrap up their second straight title by winning out. UNCW trashed VCU 81-50 in their first meeting, at home, and has enough experience to be able to handle playing on the road (where they are 10-4 this year). This game features two of the youngest coaches in the nation, UNCW’s Brad Brownell (34 years old) against VCU’s Jeff Capel (27 years old).

Prove Yourself (Sunday afternoon)

Holy Cross at Lehigh

At 10-1, Holy Cross has run away with the Patriot League regular season title. They are followed by a pack of teams, Lehigh, Bucknell, American, Colgate and Lafayette, who are seperated by two games. American shut down Holy Cross in their only loss of the season in what appeared to be more of an off-night for Holy Cross than anything else. The Mountain Hawks controls their own destiny for second place, which could be the difference in facing 2-10 Navy in the first round of the conference tournament or 6-5 Lafayette. They are looking to wrap up their first ever undefeated season at home (11-0 heading into Thursday’s game against Colgate). Not to mention what a psycological boost Lehigh would have heading into the conference tournament (played at a neutral site in Upper Marlboro, MD).

One other factor here: any of these teams could very easily come away with a win or two in the NCAA Tournament. Keep a close eye on each of these teams, or else you might find your favorite squad on the losing end against them two weeks down the road. Enjoy!


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