Ness Notes: Conference Tourneys Begin
by Larry Ness
Rumor has it that Beatles were not too concerned when the 1910 Fruitgum Company released the song "One, Two Three Red Light" in the late 1960s (with good reason). However, as I sat down at my computer Monday night, that song came to mind. I guess because on Saturday both No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky lost (first time nation's top-two teams had lost on the same day since January of 2006) and then No. 3 Purdue, playing with Robbie Hummel the rest of the season, lost at home to Michigan State on Sunday. Come Monday (nod to Jimmy Buffett) and "one, two, three," Syracuse was the nation's latest No. 1 team.
The 27-2 Orange are having quite a season. They were unranked in the AP's preseason poll (coaches had them No. 25) and become just the sixth school ever to open a year unranked in the AP and rise to No. 1 that same season (Kansas in the 1989-90 season was the last to do it). This marks the first time Boeheim's team has been No. 1 since a six-week stint in the 1989-90 season, the same year that Kansas opened unranked and rose to No. 1. Looking for another coincidence? The only other season in which Boeheim's Syracuse team held the No. 1 ranking was the preseason poll of 1987-88. Which school would win the national championship that year? How about Kansas, coached by Larry Brown and led by Danny Manning. How does Kansas vs Syracuse on the day after Easter at Lucas Oil Stadium sound for "all the marbles?"
Kansas fell to No. 2 (was the preseason No. 1 and has been No. 1 in 13 polls), Kentucky fell to No. 3 (was No. 1 for one week) and Duke is now No. 4. If the tournament field was picked as of March 1, the AP's top-four teams would very likely be the four No. 1 seeds. Texas, the only other school to be ranked No. 1 this year (held the spot for two straight weeks), made some history of it's own on Monday as well. Texas became just the fourth school to fall out of the rankings in the same season in which it had held the No. 1 ranking (I never said it was good history!).
The only conference (31 in all) which doesn't play a postseason tourney is the Ivy League. Cornell won its first outright Ivy League title in 20 years in 2008 going 14-0 and last year became the first Ivy League school other than Penn or Princeton to claim consecutive outright Ivy League titles by going 11-3. This year's team is 11-1 and owns a two-game lead with two games to play this weekend at Brown and Yale (both schools are 11-18 overall, including 5-7 in Ivy play). The Big Red should have little trouble clinching a third straight title and with 25 wins have already set a school single-season record for wins (2007-08 team won 22). Now all Cornell needs is a better performance in the first round of the Big Dance, as the Big Red have lost 73-53 (Stanford) and 78-59 (Missouri) the last two years.
Thirty conferences will hold tourneys over the next two weeks with eight beginning play from Tuesday through Thursday of this week. The Big South, Horizon League and OVC begin Tuesday, the Atlantic Sun and Patriot League on Wednesday with the America East, MVC and Northeast Conference beginning on Thursday. A number of these conferences have odd schedules. The Horizon League begins on Tuesday , then resumes March 5 and 6 for its quarter and semifinal games with the championship game being played on March 9 (next Tuesday).
The Big South starts Tuesday and plays every other day with the title game coming on Saturday (3/6). The Patriot League opens on Wednesday, plays its semifinal games on Sunday and waits all the way until March 12 (a week from Friday) to play its championship game. The America East starts Thursday and plays through Sunday but waits until March 13 for its title game. The Northeast Conference also plays this Thursday through Sunday and its championship game is not scheduled until March 10. Regular season champs in the vast majority of these conferences know an at-large bid does not await them and that to 'go dancing,' they must win on the court.
We saw 17 of 24 regular season champs capture their respective conference tourneys (I'm excluding the "Big 6" conferences) last year with just two of the seven losers getting at-large bids (Butler from the Horizon and Xavier from the A-10 were the exceptions). However, those schools have been well-established as "major players" in the 2000s and had strong resumes which few regular season champs from the majority of the other 24 conferences playing these next two weeks won't have. It's win and you're in, lose and you're out for most.
No. 12 Butler (26-4) takes a nation-best 18-game winning streak into the Horizon League tourney, having not lost since Christmas (fell 67-57 at UAB on Dec 22). The Bulldogs were the only school to go through an entire conference season unbeaten (18-0) and are not in any danger of missing this year's tourney regardless of what happens this next week. Head coach Brad Stevens became the 3rd-youngest head coach in NCAA Division I history to lead a team to 30 wins in a season when the Bulldogs went 30-4 in his first year as a head coach (2007-08). When Butler beat Valparaiso last Friday, Stevens broke the record set by Mark Few of Gonzaga in 2002 and tied by Mark Fox of Nevada in 2007 for the most wins in his first three years of coaching (he's 82-14, .854).
While Butler is safely in the Big Dance whether it captures the Horizon League tourney or not, the only other regular season champ of the eight conferences beginning their tourneys Tuesday-Thursday which holds legitimate at-large credentials is Northern Iowa of the MVC (25-4 / 15-3). The Panthers own a very good RPI but 'laid a pretty big egg' by losing at Evansville last week. They should be OK but they did themselves no favors with that loss to the Purple Aces, who entered that game having lost 17 of their previous 18. An early loss in the MVC tourney could be devastating.
Starting Tuesday along with the Horizon League are the Big South and OVC. Radford won both the regular season and conference tourney titles last year but come in as the league's No. 2 seed this season (18-11 / 13-5). Coastal Carolina was the league's best team in the regular season (26-5 / 15-3) and will be gunning for the school's third NCAA bid (1991, 1993). Tenn-Martin won the OVC regular season title last year but the Skyhawks finished 1-17 in league play this year and didn't even qualify the tourney. Morehead State won this tourney last year.
Murray State led the conference this year (27-4 / 17-1) but may have to get by Morehead State again this week (Eagles handed the Racers their only league loss this year on Feb 25) if it wants to break a three-year NCAA drought. The Racers are no strangers to NCAA play with 13 all-time appearances but none since 2006. However, the schoolís lone NCAA win in those 13 appearances came back in 1988 when it beat No. 3-seeded North Carolina St before losing 61-58 to Kansas, which led by Danny Manning, would go on to capture the national title. Thatís something to shoot for.
The Atlantic Sun and Patriot League begin on Wednesday. The Atlantic Sun has four schools tied with 14-6 league marks. Preseason favorite Lipscomb is the No. 1 seed (Bisons are looking for the first-ever NCAA trip), Jacksonville (last year's regular season champs and a Final 4 runner-up to UCLA way back in 1970 with Artis Gilmore) is seeded second, Belmont (represented the league in the NCAA field from 2006-08) is the third seed and Campbell gets the fourth seed (Camels 'danced' in 1992). East Tenn St, which won this tourney last year and then gave Pitt a scare in the first round (lost 72-62) finished at 13-7, one game behind the other four schools. Should be fun. American won both the regular season and tourney titles in the Patriot League last year but the Eagles are just 10-19 (7-7) this year. Lehigh won the regular season (19-10 / 10-4) this year and the Mountain Hawks are looking for their fourth NCAA bid (1985, 1988 and 2004).
Joining the MVC in opening play on Thursday are the America East and the Northeast Conference. Binghamton won both the regular season and tourney titles last year but the Bearcats are just 13-18 (8-8) this year. Stony Brook led the way this year (21-8 / 13-3) and the Seawolves are quite a surprise. Steve Pikiell is in his fifth year at the helm of the basketball program, which made the jump from Division III to Division I in 1999. Pikiell guided the Seawolves to their best season in Division I history in 2008-09, going 16-14 overall and 8-8 (tied for fourth-place). Can the Seawolves cap an already record-setting season with an invite to the Big Dance in 2010?
That leaves just the Northeast Conference. Robert Morris won both the regular season and conference tourney titles last year, as the Colonials made their sixth NCAA appearance. Robert Morris went 15-3 in league play this year but that mark was matched by Quinnipiac, which gets the No. 1 seed by virtue of its 87-79 win over Robert Morris in the only meeting between the two schools this year. Quinnipiac is consistently ranked among the best colleges by U.S. News & World Report and the surveys conducted by its Polling Institute are featured regularly in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and on national network news broadcasts. However, the Bobcats have never gone 'dancing.' Will that change this year?
I'll be back on Friday with more on the conference tourneys.
Good luck, Larry
Get all of Larry's winning sports picks
at Vegas Experts.