March Madness is here, and it’s only February.
The first NCAA Division I conference tournament opened Monday night, as the Atlantic Sun-always near the top of the alphabetical D-I conference standings listings-also tipped off the tournament season. One of the few conferences that still gets it right-if unintentionally-with a manageable number of teams, the A-Sun’s eight-team league makes for an event with perfect symmetry starting with four quarterfinal games.
All Atlantic Sun tourney games are played at the site of the higher-seeded team, and indeed the home teams were mainly successful Monday night. Top-seeded Florida Gulf Coast made sure No. 8 Stetson wouldn’t be making another surprise run in the tourney again this year with an 87-57 whupping, No. 2 Lipscomb hammered 7 seed New Jersey Tech 97-66 and third-seeded North Florida edged city rival No. 6 Jacksonville 77-74. The only mild upset came in the 4/5 game as the lower seed Kennesaw State edged fourth-seeded South Carolina Upstate 80-78 for the Owls’ second-ever D-I postseason tourney win.
The regular season standings suggests a collision course to a memorable championship game between the top two seeds, after FGCU outlasted Lipscomb by a game to win the regular season title. It would be a particularly juicy matchup as the Eagles and Bisons split their two previous meetings, with each winning at home by four and five points, respectively, and also as Lipscomb is still searching for its first-ever NCAA tourney appearance after so much success at the NAIA level for many years.
A closer glance, though, suggests the semifinal games should be pretty darn good too. Kennesaw State pushed Florida Gulf Coast in their first meeting, losing by just three, and also was competitive in a 75-63 loss at FGCU 2 1/2 weeks ago. Even more, North Florida actually handed Lipscomb two of its three A-Sun losses, sweeping both games by scores of 90-84 and 93-82. The lower seed Ospreys actually are the team with the burden of trying to beat the Bisons for a third straight time, but also with the advantage of knowing they’re more than capable of beating Lipscomb, as well as the experience of making the NCAAs two years ago and the NIT last year.
Also on Monday, the A-Sun became the first D-I league to announce its postseason honors, and North Florida senior guard Dallas Moore was named the league’s player of the year for the second straight season. He is the third player in conference history (including its old days when it was known as the Trans America Athletic Conference) to win the award in back-to-back years.
- Along with conference tournament play opening, the story of the night was Virginia putting the clamps on North Carolina to the tune of a 53-43 win. Encouraging sign for the Wahoos, while we warned on a recent Periscope with Twitter college hoops maestro Tony Patelis that the Heels are prone to an occasional poor shooting game, and that was the case here (35.4% FG).
- Baylor is not done yet. The Bears surged past West Virginia 71-62, finishing on a 30-13 run after trailing by eight with nine minutes left. Baylor did something few teams ever do, pummeling WVU on the glass 43-23.
- Virginia Tech topped Miami (Fla.) 66-61, as Ty Outlaw hit 8 of 10 from three-point range. Outlaw is now 20-for-26 from three over the Hokies’ past four games. Increasingly we get the feeling the college three-point line may need to be moved back yet again, though you can also blame this on the NCAA’s bad decision to eliminate the five-second closely guarded call on the perimeter, which as expected has given teams no incentive to play pressure defense further from the basket.
- Texas-Arlington clinched the Sun Belt regular season championship with an 82-67 win over Troy. Unlike recent years, this year the conference is again inviting all teams to the tourney, and the top two seeds no longer get a bye straight to the semifinals. UTA will open in the quarterfinals against the winner of an 8/9 game.
- The Southern Conference Tournament has shown promise to be one of the best of them all this year, and the final night or regular season play did nothing to diminish that. UNC Greensboro stung East Tennessee State 72-66 to create a three-way tie for the title between those two and Furman, and its UNCG which now carries the top seed in the conference tourney, with Furman second and ETSU third.
- North Carolina Central didn’t even play Monday night, but the Eagles wrapped up the outright MEAC title after second-place Norfolk State was stopped by rival Hampton 63-59.
- The Big South Conference Tournament opens with two first round games. No. 10 seed Presbyterian is at Campbell, while the 8/9 game has Charleston Southern hosting Longwood. The Patriot League tourney also opens with Army hosting American in the 8/9 game and 7 seed Loyola (Md.) welcoming No. 10 Lafayette.
- The night starts in the MAC, where Buffalo is trying to chase down Ohio for second in the East Division (6 p.m. Eastern, CBSSN). The Bulls are in Athens for this one and still loom as very dangerous to make another run in the conference tournament.
- Is Maryland struggling so much that it could lose to Rutgers? If so, think we can officially label the Terrapins in trouble down the stretch. (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network)
- Florida State still looks shaky, but gets a chance to remedy that with a trip to Duke (7 p.m., ESPN).
- In-state rivals Indiana and Purdue meet for the second time this year, this one in West Lafayette (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Boilermakers still have not lost two straight this season and are coming off a fairly ugly showing at Michigan on Saturday.
- Providence has an excellent chance to continue its late surge in a home date with DePaul (8:30 p.m., FS1).
- Vanderbilt has been playing well of late, and the Commodores get a prime chance for a big-time road win at Kentucky (9 p.m., ESPN).
- Surging Oklahoma State goes to Iowa State, which enters the night alone in second in the Big 12 (9 p.m., ESPN2).
- Finally, two key games in the Mountain West as co-leader Colorado State hosts bitter rival Wyoming in the Border War, while Boise State-which trails the Rams and Nevada by a game-hosts pesky Fresno State, which has every look of a spoiler down the stretch (10 p.m., CBSSN).
Have a super Tuesday and final day of February.