In a college basketball year that has been defined by unpredictability, we dare say that the host of downright thrilling conference races is a story developing late that is also becoming a signature mark of this season.
Talk of bracketology and bubbles will continue to dominate, but one following the sport nationally is missing out if they haven’t been monitoring some of the intense fights for league honors. There are some fantastic chases going on for championships as well as positioning for league tournaments, and it was evidenced again Thursday night.
The night’s biggest winner was Hofstra, which in a week has vaulted from two games back in the CAA into a tie for the lead and maybe into the driver’s seat for the conference title. The Pride (we still want to call them the Flying Dutchmen every single time) fought back from an 18-point deficit on the road to stun UNC-Wilmington 70-69, ironically reversing exactly what the Seahawks had done to them just three weeks earlier.
It was Feb. 4 when Hofstra built a 20-point lead at home against UNCW, only to watch the Seahawks battle back on the road to steal a 70-67 win that put them in control of the Colonial. Both teams came full circle on Thursday, and they are now tied heading into the final day of regular season play Saturday. Should both finish in a tie, it will come down to tiebreakers, and how those filter out won’t be determined until other results also come in.
The Big South is even hotter heading into its final day of regular season play, with three teams now tied at the top at 12-5. That’s because High Point edged previous leader Winthrop 87-85 in a suspense-filled finish where the Eagles missed two shots to tie in the final seconds. (The Rock Hill Herald had a quality recap here.)
The Panthers won despite losing star John Brown in the second half to a foot injury, and he’ll be evaluated Friday but there is some fear he could be out for a while. Adam Weary stepped up with 24 points, and both teams are now tied with UNC Asheville (a 73-56 winner over Liberty) for the top spot.
The American Athletic Conference regular season title may have little feel because of the far-flung nature of the league, but it can’t be ignored just how important-or how close-the contenders at the top are. SMU and Temple are now tied for first after the Mustangs held off Memphis 69-62, with Tulsa just half a game behind and Cincinnati and Connecticut one game back after an 81-51 destruction of South Florida. Other than ineligible SMU, the remaining teams in that top five all have a lot on the line the rest of the season, with all four in heavy contention for NCAA tourney spots.
Finally, the Atlantic Sun title went right down to the final two seconds of the game between North Florida and Jacksonville. Trent Mackey hit two free throws with two seconds left to give UNF an 81-80 win over its city rival. The night began with four teams separated by one game in the standings and any of the four with a chance to tie for the title. Instead, the Ospreys won the championship by two full games, as NJIT was surprised 72-71 by USC Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast was upset by Stetson 80-73.
Conference play is not the sexiest topic, and it has certainly taken some hits over the years as leagues have overexpanded in size and boundaries. If one attends the games, though, it is play among area rivals and opponents that makes up the heart of sports at almost every level, and especially at the interscholastic and collegiate levels.
These games also take up added importance in college basketball since so much is on the line in conference tournaments. Of course there is seeding and the opportunity to create the easiest path possible to the title, plus a number of leagues-such as the America East, Atlantic Sun, Northeast and Patriot-play all tournament games at the home site of higher seeds. For North Florida, Wagner-which clinched the top seed in the NEC with a 69-54 win over St. Francis (Pa.)-and others, the meaning of league games goes far beyond the regular season and could directly influence their postseason destinations.
- Seton Hall continues to look the part of not just an NCAA Tournament team, but perhaps a darkhorse Sweet 16-type team. The Pirates manhandled Providence 70-52, once again physically dominating inside by out-boarding the Friars 49-36 and holding Ben Bentil to 10 of 27 shooting (Bentil did score 31 points, but needed a total of 39 shots between field goals and free throws to get there).
- Arkansas-Little Rock improved to 25-3, tied with Xavier for the best record in the country, after a 72-60 win over Texas-Arlington. The Trojans have a real shot at finishing the regular season at 28-3, and if they do it would be a shame if they somehow missed the NCAAs.
- On the other hand, a team taking a serious blow last night was Hawaii, which lost at home to 13-15 UC Riverside 77-71. A heated game was marked by four technical fouls. Another example of why margin of victory is a nearly worthless stat: this was a one-point game with 20 seconds left, yet five free throws the rest of the way indicates the Highlanders had this in control the whole way. They did not-Hawaii rallied from a 10-point second half deficit to take a two-point lead late, but still a terrific win for a UCR team that has had its share of bumps this year.
- California continues to surge, with a 75-63 win over UCLA the latest victory. The return of Tyrone Wallace has made all the difference, and even Jabari Byrd is picking up his play now-20 points in this one.
- Alabama-Birmingham just about wrapped up Conference USA with a 95-91 win over second-place Marshall. Dirk Williams continues to emerge for the Blazers, and he had 19 points as UAB is now two games up on the Thundering Herd in C-USA.
- Tennessee-Martin won its eighth straight, handling Tennessee State 72-56. The Skyhawks clinched the top seed in the OVC West Division.
- Kyle Collinsworth did it again, with another triple-double for BYU. The senior guard finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and a John Stockton-like 16 assists as the Cougars’ doused Portland 99-81.
- CBS announced on Thursday that it has changed the time of its NCAA Tournament selection special, moving it up to 5:30 p.m.-one-half hour earlier-and now stretching the show for a full two hours. Unsaid is when the network plans on revealing the brackets. More time for analysis and discussion is not a bad thing, though the NCAA’s stated goal of bringing more “exposure” to the selection process is silly. It’s not as if the selection needed any more exposure, and this is yet another area where the governing body and its schools make it awfully hard on themselves to make the case that their first concern is student-athletes, and not a couple more bucks.
- The final weekend of MAAC play begins with the latest game in the always hotly contested Iona/Manhattan series (7 p.m. EST, ESPNU). Also, the rematch between Rider and Monmouth (9 p.m., ESPN2) comes two weeks after the Hawks rallied from 14 points down in the final four minutes to stun the Broncs.
- If Valparaiso wins its last two in the Horizon League, it will have earned it. The Crusaders begin the Wisconsin trip with a game at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (7 p.m., ESPN2). Also, the burgeoning Detroit/Oakland rivalry is renewed (9 p.m., ESPNU) and we’ll be on hand up in Green Bay, where Illinois-Chicago takes on high-octane Wisconsin-Green Bay.
- Another night of Ivy League play has a huge showdown between Columbia and Princeton, with the winner setting itself up as the top challenger to Yale. Those top three teams are separated by one game, with the Bulldogs currently half a game up on the Tigers and one game up on Columbia. Yale has a challenge itself as it hosts rival Harvard (7 p.m., FS1).
Have a superb Friday and a great weekend.