It’s been a combined 30 years since Wisconsin-Green Bay and Fairleigh Dickinson have made the NCAA Tournament. For that reason and many others, both will be very welcome additions to this year’s NCAA tourney field.
Fourth-seeded Green Bay topped 3 seed Wright State 78-69 to win the Horizon League tourney in Detroit, completing a run of four wins in four days. Meanwhile, No. 2 seed FDU won at top seed Wagner 87-79 to clinch the Northeast Conference title and complete a rags-to-riches season in which the Knights were picked ninth of 10 teams in the NEC preseason poll.
The Phoenix are making their first trip to the tourney in 20 years, since the 1996 team finished 25-4, spent time in the top 25 and received an at-large bid before falling to Virginia Tech in the first round. That year was the end of an era in which UWGB made the tourney four times in six years, and it’s been a long road back. Green Bay has seldom been bad-11 winning seasons in that time, and arguably should’ve been in the Big Dance two years ago-but has reached another level under first-year coach Linc Darner, who is proving to be one of the smartest hires made by any Division I school this year.
The country is going to become very familiar with “RP40” next week. Darner’s style, which stands for “Relentless Pressure for 40 minutes) is exciting to watch, and his team has an underrated size and athleticism that will give someone trouble in the first round of the tourney. Fans will also enjoy watching Jordan Fouse, a stat-sheet stuffer who had 16 points and seven boards Tuesday and is an outstanding defensive player.
Like the Green Bay Phoenix, Fairleigh Dickinson has risen from the ashes of a program that hasn’t won more than 11 games since 2006-07. Coach Greg Herenda has done a wonderful job at FDU, which is making its first trip to the NCAAs since a 2005 first-round loss as a 16 seed to Illinois.
The Knights finished 8-21 a year ago, 10-21 two years ago and bottomed out two years before that with a 3-26 record. It was a bad stretch for a once-proud program that will be making its fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament. This year’s team is ultra-young, with no seniors and only two juniors. The top four scorers are sophomores, meaning perhaps we should get used to seeing FDU at this time of the year.
- The West Coast Conference final was a dandy, with Gonzaga clinching its 18th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament with an 85-75 win over top seed Saint Mary’s. The Gaels now will wait on a possible NCAA bid, and it should be noted the committee hasn’t been kind to SMC at times in the past because of their general resistance to selling out for road games. The question does have to be asked: at 27-5, exactly how much more was St. Mary’s supposed to do?
- The Summit League went to the Dakotas again, with South Dakota State ending North Dakota State’s two-year reign with a 67-59 win over the Bison. The Jackrabbits will make their third trip to the NCAAs and will be looking for their first win.
- Among other conference tourneys, the Big Sky had a surprise as 10th-seeded Sacramento State upended No. 7 Montana State 79-75. The Hornets move on to face 2 seed Montana.
- The Patriot League is one conference that made the inspired decision to put its championship game on another network at the time it preferred, rather than being subject to ESPN’s scheduling of major conference events. The Patriot title game is tonight with Cinderella 9 seed Holy Cross at second-seeded Lehigh (7:30 p.m. EST, CBSSN).
- The way-too-long ACC tourney kicks into high gear with second round games. The biggest game is the first one with Syracuse at Pittsburgh (noon, ESPN), which could be an NCAA Tournament play-in game.
- Conference USA’s also too-long tourney continues with four second round games. The Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and Southland tourneys all get under way with early-round play. The most notable of those games is in the Pac-12, where UCLA takes on USC, with the Trojans trying to stop their late-season slide.
- Having worked at one of its member schools in the past, a plug for the NAIA Division II men’s and women’s tournaments, which both begin bright and early at 8:30 a.m. Central time today. Both tournaments have thirty-two teams narrowed down to one champion in seven days, eight games a day for the first three days, every game at one site. There is no better basketball buffet, especially for small college hoop fans.
Have a great Wednesday.