Normally, the Big South is not leading news items in college basketball, especially at the end of February, when never-ending talk of bubbles and No. 1 seeds dominate the discussion.
There are no teams from the Big South on the bubble-it’s automatic bid only to the NCAA’s. And the only race for a No. 1 seed is that for the league tournament in a conference that would be happy if its champion receives a 14 seed in the Big Dance.
No conference in NCAA Division I has had a more competitive league race this year, though, than the Big South, which just a few weeks ago had SEVEN teams tied for first place. Five teams still entered Thursday night within one game of first place. In a stunning turn, though, Thursday was finally the night that thinned out almost all of the title contenders.
A wild night resulted in a whole lot of surprises and just two teams with a chance at the regular season title, though both of them control their own destiny. One of those teams in the driver’s seat is High Point,which was one of two teams tied for the top spot entering the night. In a game on ESPNU, the Panthers held off UNC-Asheville 75-71 despite the best efforts of Andrew Rowsey, the Bulldogs’ mad bomber who had 39 points.
Incredibly, of the other four teams that along with High Point came into the night separated by one game, all of them lost. Charleston Southern was tied with the Panthers, but lost at Gardner-Webb 81-71. Coastal Carolina was a half game off the pace entering the evening but lost to Presbyterian 80-69 and can now forget about even sharing the title. Radford and Winthrop also entered the night just a game off the pace, but both are out of the chase as well after the Highlanders lost to lowly Liberty 80-69 and the Eagles fell 65-50 at Campbell.
The result of all of that is High Point leads Charleston Southern by one game and has wrapped up at least a share of the title with one more date of conference games to play. Alas, the Panthers have not clinched the outright league title or the top seed in the Big South Tournament, and only a win on Saturday will get them both. HPU has to travel to face Charleston Southern on Saturday, and the winner clinches the top seed in the conference tourney, which will be hosted by Coastal Carolina.
- Maybe the biggest game of the year in Conference USA wasn’t much of one, as Louisiana Tech comfortably handled Texas-El Paso 77-60. Perhaps most notable about how the game played out is that UTEP coach Tim Floyd was ejected for an eruption in the second half. The Bulldogs now have a 1 1/2 game lead over the Miners and UAB with two games to play.
- Eventful night in the Pac-12. Arizona and Utah both dominated, with the Wildcats winning 82-54 at Colorado and Utah hammering Arizona State 83-41. Also, Stanford trailed Oregon State by nine late in the first half, but the Cardinal heated up and the Beavers ran out of gas, and the result was a 75-48 blowout.
- Minnesota won at Michigan State 96-90 in overtime, aided by a wild rally at the end of regulation that included a comeback from six points down with 34.5 seconds left. Had a hunch the Gophers would make this one tough on the Spartans, but would not have expected MSU to lose while hitting 13 three-pointers or by allowing nearly 52% shooting.
- More games in the Big Ten: Ohio State and Purdue both held serve, with the Buckeyes routing Nebraska 81-57 and Purdue fighting off Rutgers 92-85 despite a frantic late rally by the Scarlet Knights.
- Murray State won its 24th straight, holding off Eastern Illinois 65-57. The Racers still have a tough regular season game left at Tennessee-Martin, but if they win that one, it’s hard to imagine how the selection committee could ever leave the Racers out of the field if they somehow lost in the Ohio Valley tourney.
- Very important result in the CAA, where Elon knocked off Northeastern 72-65. As a result, the Huskies now are tied with James Madison for third in the league at 11-6, one game behind William & Mary and UNC-Wilmington with one league game left for everyone.
- The Big West race is not over yet. UC Santa Barbara tagged UC Davis with just its second league loss, winning 74-60 in the Thunderdome as Alan Williams had 15 points and 16 rebounds. Keep an eye on UCSB in the conference tourney. UC Irvine is now just one-half game behind UC Davis after the Anteaters won at Cal Poly 63-56.
- Three teams entered Thursday tied for first in the Sun Belt. Two remain after Thursday. Georgia Southern rolled over Appalachian State 77-58 and Louisiana-Monroe easily took care of South Alabama 75-57, but Georgia State lost to Arkansas-Little Rock 92-83.
- Keifer Sykes scored 36 points as Wisconsin-Green Bay held off Illinois-Chicago 72-67. More on the Horizon League race below.
- Wofford and Tennessee-Chattanooga are putting on a fine battle for the Southern Conference regular season title. The Terriers won at Mercer 76-72, while the Mocs finally got by VMI 86-82 in overtime, and the result is Wofford continues to hold a one-game lead in the league with one game to play.
- St. Francis (N.Y.) continued its outstanding season, defeating Brooklyn rival LIU 74-69 in overtime on Thursday. It will be a shame if the Terriers don’t finally end their drought as one of five original NCAA Division I members to never make the NCAA Tournament.
- A story from Thursday night’s games came after Vanderbilt picked up a nice road win, defeating Tennessee 73-65. After the game while the teams were shaking hands, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings was caught lighting up freshman guard Wade Baldwin on camera, including saying he would “(bleep)ing kill you.” Stallings apologized very soon after the game, and reports indicate that the coach has been on Baldwin much of the season for behavior similar to what set him off on Thursday, which was when the player was clapping towards Tennessee players in a mocking way as the clock ran out.
Look, it’s understood that coaches can be very harsh in their discipline of players, and if someone is looking for indignation over that, they won’t find it here. The people who were shocked by coaches like Bob Knight or former Rutgers coach Mike Rice in the past are people who haven’t spent much time around college athletics. Many coaches can be and are very hard on their players, and occasionally they may cross the line, but the fact is far more players than not are happy to play under coaches who expect a lot. In fact, Baldwin tweeted as much after the game.
Also, most certainly Stallings didn’t literally mean his words, so there’s no need to interpret them as anything other than venting. The situation as a whole, though, with the continued and repeated berating…the bottom line is it looked really, really bad. Petulant, even, the way Stallings couldn’t even temporarily settle down for handshakes and kept ducking out of the line to go after Baldwin again. It’s a discussion, lecture, scolding-pick your term-that should’ve been had in the locker room, not on the court.
This is far from the first time we’ve seen a coach go off on a player immediately after the buzzer. You see it fairly often when an offensive player dares break that silly code adopted among coaches in recent years that states a team leading should dribble out the rest of the clock at the end of the game when the shot clock is turned off. (Most ridiculous is when, in the name of this code, a coach reams out some end-of-bench kid who works their tail off in practice, with little reward of playing time except for occasionally at the end of games) It comes off almost as a show, as one coach trying to impress another coach by going after their own player, in the name of “respect.”
Respect for an opponent is fantastic, and it SHOULD be a priority. It’s a good thing when sportsmanship is enforced by coaches. But there are also times in end of game situations when coaches need to, for lack of better term, just lighten up. Or, if a situation is deemed serious, it should be handled after the game in private.
- The other big news item of the day was former Louisville guard Chris Jones being charged with raping one woman and sodomizing another, and only a few hours after he had returned from suspension to help the Cardinals to a big win over Miami. The Louisville Courier-Journal has the full story, and needless to say it’s a sad one.
Tonight’s Menu: Full Ivy League and heavy MAAC schedules, plus a few others
Valparaiso at Cleveland State (10 p.m. EST, ESPNU) It the Crusaders win, it’s simple: Valpo takes the Horizon League title outright and gets one of the two double byes into the semifinals of the conference tourney, which it would host as the No. 1 seed. If the Vikings win, then Valpo cannot win the title and tiebreakers will decide the top seed and tournament host between CSU and the winner of Saturday’s Green Bay/Oakland game.
Manhattan at Iona (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2) Another entertaining installment in what is right now the best series in the New York City area.
Harvard at Cornell (6:30 p.m. EST, CBSSN), Princeton at Yale The Ivy’s top two teams-Harvard and Yale-both face worthy challenges.
Ohio at Akron (8 p.m. EST, ESPNU) It’s been a disappointing year for the Bobcats, while the Zips have slipped out of contention for the MAC East title but could still be a problem for opponents in the conference tournament.
Have a super Friday.