Championship Week leading up to the NCAA Tournament provides us all sorts of memorable moments, but almost every year we are reminded that sometimes it is at a cost.
While the upsets are undoubtedly a lot of fun and a big part of what makes March special, the fact of the matter is they also sometimes result in leagues not sending their best representatives to the NCAA Tournament. We have already seen at least two glaring instances of that this year with Murray State falling in the last seconds of the Ohio Valley Conference title game and now Iona losing to Manhattan 79-69 last night in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final.
The Gaels dominated the MAAC this year and defeated the Jaspers twice in the regular season, with one of those wins just over a week ago. Manhattan simply played a better game in the tourney final, though, winning the rebounding battle and holding Iona to 39% shooting. Ashton Pankey (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Emmy Andujar (18 pts, 11 reb.) were outstanding, while the Gaels shot just 5 of 22 from three-point range, far below their average for makes and percentage. It’s a reflection of the toughness Steve Masiello has instilled in his team, and also a payoff for an exceptionally tough schedule played early in the season.
To pull off wins like these in March, sometimes it takes players stepping up beyond what one thought possible, too, and senior Donovan Kates did that for the Jaspers. Kates hit four of six three-point tries for 12 points, nine points over his average and multiple times better from distance than he had been all season. Kates came into the game shooting 11 of 53 from behind the arc, or 20.8%, but for a night he looked like Ray Allen for Manhattan, which is headed to the NCAAs for the second straight year, this time with a 19-13 record.
Both Belmont or Manhattan earned their NCAA bids fair and square, by the rules. And in fact, as far as teams seeded lowly go (both will likely be in the 14-16 seed range), these two are darn good, and will not be pushovers in their first round games.
The NCAA allows conferences to determine their champion by a conference tournament, and the conference member schools consciously make the choice to have tournaments. So there’s no one to blame here, nothing to complain about; everyone is in on this, and they know the arrangement going in.
At some point, though, it needs to be asked by those involved in making that arrangement if it’s all worth it. It is really, really hard for teams like Murray State or Iona to get the non-conference schedule to receive an at-large bid to the NCAAs. Iona did so three years ago, and there is slim hope that maybe one of the two could get a bid this year, but the fact is the “eye test” or an attractive style of play rarely trumps solid numbers for teams like these two.
Both are absolutely capable of at least a Sweet 16 run in the Big Dance, and maybe more-especially the Racers-and both were far and away better than the rest of their conferences all season. Yet in a one-game season, they were beaten by teams they had taken care of confidently earlier in the season. Stunted, awkward brackets with double byes wouldn’t have changed anything either; both of these losses came in championship games.
Conference tournaments absolutely have their benefits-a big national TV date, final chance for teams to salvage a season, student-athletes enjoy them, destination tourneys for fans for some-but is it all worth possibly not sending your best team to the NCAA Tournament? At least a couple conferences aren’t doing their due diligence if they aren’t discussing that very question in their meetings later this year.
Conference Tournament Round-Up
- Along with Manhattan, other additions to the 2015 NCAA Tournament include Northeastern and Wofford.
- Northeastern defeated William & Mary 72-61 in the CAA Tournament final. The Huskies will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years and just their second since 1987, which is remarkable considering the school made six appearances over a seven-year stretch in the 80s. Deserved berth for Northeastern, which has been knocking on the door for this for a while. One can’t help but feel for the Tribe as well. It is not easy to get to the NCAA tourney, and Coach Tony Shaver is right on when he has articulated several times his belief that teams’ success should not be defined solely on whether they make the NCAAs. It is heartbreaking to see just how close his teams have been in recent years, though.
- Wofford is going back for the second year in a row after a narrow 67-64 win over Cinderella Furman, one of the most unlikely conference tournament finalists we’ve had in a long time. The Paladins were the 10 seed in the Southern Conference and came into this game just 11-21, but gave the Terriers everything they could handle. Furman is a very young team with a lot of freshmen playing key roles, making it a team to watch. Wofford is the SoCon’s team of now, though, and behind explosive Karl Cochran, it is a team that has a chance to cause some trouble next week if it can keep the pace to its liking.
- The WCC final is set, and it will be BYU and Gonzaga, as expected. The Bulldogs pulled away from Pepperdine in the second half for a 79-61 win, while the Cougars were on fire from the start in an 84-70 win over Portland. Chase Fischer scored 24 and had six three-pointers, while Kyle Collinsworth delivered his sixth triple-double with 13 points, 14 rebounds and 11 blocked shots. He tied the NCAA record for that category in a career, which he now shares with Michael Anderson of Drexel (1983-88) and Shaquille O’Neal (1989-92).
- Summit League semifinals: South Dakota State and North Dakota State are moving on. SDSU defeated state rival South Dakota 78-65, while NDSU edged Oral Roberts 60-56.
- The MAC tourney first round games were Monday and there were no upsets, though the 8/9 game was a tight one as Eastern Michigan nipped Miami (Ohio) 62-61.
- The MEAC opened its tourney, and Delaware State (64-58 over Savannah State) and Hampton (91-71 over Morgan State) advanced into the quarterfinals.
- Chuck Driesell has been let go as coach at The Citadel. Driesell posted a 42-113 record in five years and never had a winning record at the Charleston, S.C. school. The son of Lefty Driesell had a tough act to follow, coming after Ed Conroy did a nice job that included a 20-win season in 2008-09. The Bulldogs did have some highlights this year-including a win over SoCon champion Wofford-but their 11-19 record was the best in Driesell’s five years. (You can track all of this year’s coaching changes right here.)
- The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced their all-conference awards on Monday. One of them was no surprise-Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky won the Player of the Year award in the Big Ten. One of them was at least a mild surprise, as Oregon’s Joseph Young won the Pac-12’s top honor.
- Unfortunately, the transfer season has already started. Loyola Marymount leading scorer Evan Payne announced on social media Monday that he is leaving the school. Payne, a 6-foot-1 guard, averaged 18 points per game this past season as a sophomore.
Today’s Menu: A light schedule includes just 10 games as most conferences take a couple days before their tourneys
- Four conference championships will be decided, and all three should be excellent. Valparaiso and Wisconsin-Green Bay meet in the Horizon League final (7 p.m. EST, ESPN), which features the top two seeds. Green Bay is looking to avenge last year’s missing out on a bid and searches for its first bid in 19 years. Valpo will host as the highest seed left.
- Gonzaga and BYU square off in a WCC final that should be good. Not sure why the Cougars are getting SO much love from one big win this year, as this is also a team with a number of questionable losses, and not that long ago, but they do have games like last night in the semifinals against Portland when they look really good. A Bulldogs blowout, though, would not be a good final closing argument by BYU.
- St. Francis (N.Y.) takes another shot at its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament when it hosts Robert Morris in the NEC final (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2), which is another that includes the top two seeds. The Terriers will be favorites and are at home, but like William & Mary, have a history of missing out on the NCAAs in painful ways.
- Top seed South Dakota State and defending champion and No. 2 seed North Dakota State square off in the Summit League final (9 p.m. EST, ESPN2). A tourney that already includes terrific crowds should be out of sight for this one, should be an outstanding atmosphere in Sioux Falls, S.D.
- Elsewhere, the ACC Tournament opens with Georgia Tech taking on Boston College and Virginia Tech against Wake Forest (1 & 3:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2). When your tournament includes 11 vs. 14 and 12 vs. 13 games, you know your conference is too big.
- A pair of games in the MEAC tourney, as high-scoring No. 9 Coppin State goes against No. 8 Bethune-Cookman and 10th seed North Carolina A&T takes on No. 7 seed South Carolina State.
- Grambling and Alcorn State play in the SWAC tourney 8/9 play-in game.
- Penn and Princeton (7:30 p.m. EST, CBSSN) meet in their season finale and Jerome Allen’s final game as Quakers coach.
Have a terrific Tuesday.