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The Morning Dish – Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March 6, 2018 The Morning Dish No Comments

A second straight late-season charge by UNC Greensboro in the Southern Conference has a happier ending this season. And the Spartans’ story may have another chapter or two left.

One year after an excruciatingly close loss to East Tennessee State in the SoCon final, the Spartans got another chance at the Buccaneers on Monday and took advantage. UNCG pulled away from East Tennessee State late for a 62-47 win in the 97th edition of the oldest conference tournament of them all, wrapping up in very satisfying fashion the third NCAA Tournament berth in school history and the first since 2001.

The Spartans came within a wide-open missed three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation of forcing overtime in last year’s SoCon title game, seeing a nine-game winning streak end and sending UNC Greensboro to the NIT. This time, they emerged victorious over the Bucs by way of what has increasingly become the program’s calling card: stifling defense.

Top seed UNC Greensboro shut down No. 2 ETSU all game long but especially in the second half, at one point holding the Buccaneers to three points over a span of seven minutes. UNCG held East Tennessee State to 30.6% shooting for the game, including a 3-for-19 showing from the three-point line. The Spartans also forced 14 turnovers and also got five blocks from James Dickey, an outstanding shotblocker who epitomizes the talent upgrades across this league.

The resurrection of the Southern Conference has been one of the better unheralded stories in all of college basketball in recent years, and if there were any doubts why the league has become so good, UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State offered a display Monday. Both teams have size and athletes, far more than many might expect at this level. There was plenty of above the rim play in this game, even as both teams’ defenses made it tough to score.

The balanced Spartans were offensively led by 13 points from Jordy Kuiper and Demetrius Troy-normally the team’s No. 5 and 6 scorers on the season, respectively. The team’s only two players averaging in double figures-Francis Alonso and Marvin Smith-scored six and seven points, respectively. That may sound like a bad thing, but it says something when a team is so balanced and so good defensively that it can win a big game like this with others stepping up.

UNC Greensboro is now 27-7 on the season, and is also a team that won at North Carolina State in December. In seeding, the Spartans are a likely 13 or 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but this is a team of higher quality than that. With the way they defend and rebound and also coming from a rugged conference where they were regularly tested, the Spartans are more than capable of a victory next week in the NCAAs.

Side Dishes:

  • Perhaps it’s time to rename the MAAC Tournament the Iona Invitational or the Tim Cluess Classic. With an 83-71 win over Fairfield, the Gaels won their third consecutive tourney title, fourth in the last six years under Cluess and league-best 11th since the initial tourney in 1982. Three of the four MAAC tourney titles under Cluess have come from a 3 seed or lower (the other was as a No. 2 seed), and in all Iona has been to six consecutive MAAC finals. Roland Griffin was outstanding in this one with a career-best 29 points, while Stags star Tyler Nelson concluded a terrific career with 25 points in what was presumably his last game.
  • South Dakota and South Dakota State have appeared on a Summit League collision course for a final winner-take-all in March almost all season. We’ll get it tonight, and it should be fantastic. We wrote about top seed SDSU dominating North Dakota State 78-57 and No. 2 USD hammered 3 seed Denver , making it quite clear these are the league’s best teams, and now they’ll play one more time on a neutral court in Sioux Falls. From our view of these teams and the environment, here is perhaps as much of a must-watch game as there will be this entire week.
  • Cleveland State delivered its second straight stunner in the Horizon League, defeating No. 4 Oakland 44-43 in the semifinals. One game after the Vikings knocked out the top seed Northern Kentucky, they took out the preseason favorites as Tyree Appleby hit the go-ahead shot with 32 seconds left and CSU shut down the Golden Grizzlies’ attempt for a game-winner. Cleveland State now will face No. 2 Wright State, which held off 6 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee 59-53, keeping the Panthers from their second straight trip to the tourney final from a low seed.
  • The first WCC semifinal held little suspense, as Gonzaga brought it’s A+ game from the start and overwhelmed San Francisco 88-60, shooting 53.3% led by Killian Tillie hitting for 26 on 10-for-11 shooting. The second, though, will have all asking what to do with Saint Mary’s now? The No. 2 seed Gaels not just lost but were handled by BYU 85-72, getting thoroughly outplayed the final 10 minutes and most of the game, for that matter. SMC is now 28-5 with a resume consisting of a win at Gonzaga, one at home over New Mexico State and then not a ton else (though two wins over BYU should not be forgotten either now, and especially if the Yoeli Childs-led Cougars can knock off the Zags in the tourney final). At some point 28-5 is 28-5…the bottom line is the Gaels clearly have a bit of a split personality, dominant when they’re rolling-as they were in a 19-game winning streak-but severely lacking on defense at times before and after that streak and especially vulnerable when Jock Landale gets into foul trouble. Saint Mary’s probably deserves to be in the NCAAs, but not a lot more than that.
  • The CAA semifinals saw the top two seeds move on. No. 1 College of Charleston-playing in essentially a home environment at the North Charleston Coliseum-outlasted William & Mary 83-73. The Cougars shot 50% and committed just four turnovers, a great formula to win. They’ll face 2 seed Northeastern, which blew away No. 6 UNC Wilmington 79-52 with a huge second half. The two finalists tied for the Colonial regular season title, but Charleston won both prior meetings.
  • The MAC tourney opened with four first round games with their share of drama. The biggest came as defending champion and fifth-seeded Kent State got a driving banker at the buzzer from Kevin Zabo to knock out Northern Illinois 61-59. Meanwhile, Akron fell behind Western Michigan 18-0 and 27-4 to start the game-on the road. The 11th-seeded Zips came all the way back, though-led by 12 in the second half, actually-and then hung on by their teeth to eliminate the No. 6 seed Broncos 79-78. Central Michigan also moved on with an 81-77 overtime win over Bowling Green.
  • Coaching changes are starting to pick up. Monday saw Maine make a change with Bob Walsh deciding not to seek a contract extension and the school hiring its former women’s coach Richard Barron as its new men’s coach. Walsh’s Black Bears program was one of those hurt the most by the sport’s transfer epidemic; Maine had the look of a team ready to make a major move in the America East two years ago before seemingly everybody jumped ship, apparently mistaken in thinking that the school was a junior college. Barron, meanwhile, coached the Black Bears women’s team from 2011-17, winning a pair of conference titles in that time, then took a medical leave of absence to have craniotomy surgery and eventually left the post, later taking a position as a special assistant to Maine athletic director Karlton Creech. He faces what is nothing less than one of the toughest jobs in the country, a school that has never been to the NCAA Tournament and has only won 20 games twice in its history, both under current La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini in his tenure from 1996-2004.
  • McNeese State will not pick up the contract of Dave Simmons, who just completed his 12th year with the program. The Cowboys improved this year, going 11-17 overall and 8-10 in the Southland, but it wasn’t enough for Simmons, who posted a 154-211 career mark.
  • Marist also fired Mike Maker after four seasons, a move not surprising given his record but that is surprising considering a story quoted the school’s athletic director as essentially saying he would be back next year.
  • From Sunday, Larry Hunter has stepped down at Western Carolina after 13 years in Cullowhee, N.C. A highly respected coach who was very successful at Ohio University, he led the Catamounts to their lone 20-win season in Division I in 2009-10 and annually fielded competitive teams at another of the tougher jobs in the country. WCU has been to just one NCAA Tournament in program history, when as a 16 seed it lost to Purdue by two points back in 1996.

Today’s Menu:

  • The highlight of the day is five conference championships being decided tonight. The CAA, Horizon, Northeast Conference, Summit League and WCC all crown their champions. NEC finalists No. 4 LIU and 1 seed Wagner have had a few days off since their semifinal wins, and the Seahawks will be home looking for their second-ever NCAA Tournament trip and first in 15 years.
  • Semifinal action is on tap in the America East Playoffs, and we love that a conference calls its tourney by that title. Albany was surprised in the quarterfinals, so it’s now Stony Brook meeting heavy favorite and top seed Vermont in one semi. The other has No. 3 Hartford at second-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County. UMBC won both regular season meetings, but the Hawks were the only team to defeat Vermont and kept the Catamounts from an undefeated regular season league mark.
  • If a conference tournament has the same amount of rounds as the NIT and only two less than the NCAA Tournament, it’s probably too long. This is what the once-iconic ACC Tournament now has become. This year’s event opens with most notably an 11th-seeded Syracuse team that will need every win it can get opening against Wake Forest.
  • The Big Sky Tournament tips off with four first round games. Among the games, defending champion North Dakota faces skidding Montana State in an 8/9 game, while Portland State-remember the Vikings and their strong play at the Phil Knight Invitational?-is the sixth seed and opens with No. 11 Sacramento State.
  • The MEAC Tournament is annually one of the longest events of Championship Week, and a six-day run continues with the remaining two first round games including No. 7 Morgan State-once a hot pick to win the league before the season-against 10 seed South Carolina State.
  • The SWAC also opens its tournament with four quarterfinal games all at home sites. Arkansas-Pine Bluff is the top seed and welcomes Mississippi Valley State, Prairie View A&M is seeded second and faces Alcorn State, and 3 seed Texas Southern will be the team everyone is watching. The Tigers open with No. 6 Alabama State. Also, there’s a good 4/5 game with Southern hosting Jackson State.

Have a terrific Tuesday.


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