March 10, 2009 10:40 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
This was quite unlike the title game of two years ago, that one had to be broken open late. Last night, VCU took command of this contest in the second ten-minute quarter and built a 37-18 lead coming out of halftime, then withstood a late George Mason run (you knew it was coming) to cruise to its second CAA title in three years. You may have heard of Eric Maynor, who scored 25 points despite looking tired from playing three games in three days, but how about super soph Larry Sanders, who chipped in 18 and pounded the glass for 20 rebounds? The Patriots shot just 31 percent, but Dre Smith went out with a bang, scoring a season-high 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting. The Rams, who now have two top 50 wins thanks to Mason (No. 46), will await the kind of NCAA seeding assignment that will allow them to do further bracket damage.
Both finalists in the MAAC love fast pace and wide-open court space, and Niagara showed few signs of fatigue out of the gate after its double overtime KO of Rider in the semis. But Siena's stifling defense wore the Purple Eagles down, and for a team that relies so heavily on its hot-shooting guards, it was the forwards'' time to shine. Ryan Rossiter and Alex Franklin, not the most physically imposing frontcourt in college basketball, stood up to Niagara's 6-10 Benson Egemonye and combined for 32 points and 20 rebounds. The Saints, which would have likely been on the outside looking in, are in a similar position to VCU: a strong contender to win a game or two, with a rÃ©sumÃ© strengthened by the power of its vanquished title-game foe. Niagara resides at No. 51 on the RPI chart, and if outside action moves the Purple Eagles up a peg in the next six days, the Saints suddenly have the top 50 wins that eluded them all season -- two of them.
In a replay of the home loss in late February that eventually resulted in a back-in clinch of the North Division championship, Chattanooga escaped the trap that bound them then: a second-half effort, a lack of collapse. The Mocs opened the second half on a massive 20-0 run, then kept calm as Charleston furiously tried to get back in the game with a 3-fueled 14-0 run of its own. In their final championship test, Chatty held the line at the line (avoiding the 60 percent performance in the February game), making 22 of their 27 foul shots and dousing Charleston's title hopes. The Mocs won their 10th SoCon championship and first since 2005 (the year before the Davidson era began), but it's difficult to see them as an upset contender. Even if Niagara gives them a top 50 win (the Mocs won 99-84 back on Dec. 30), the Mocs are 1-7 against the top 100 and, more importantly, just 16-16 against Division I opponents. They'll likely end up playing one of the top eight teams in the country next week.
Avoiding the drama of the teams' last meeting, North Dakota State took Bison Fever all the way to tonight's title game on the strength of superstar ball control. NDSU turned it over just eight times all night and shot 51 percent, allowing the squad to edge away late in the first half and withstand a pair of double-doubles by Southern Utah's Tyler Quinney (24 and 10) and John Clifford (19 and 11). The Bison will get a collective faceful of Keith Benson tonight, the 6-11 Oakland center who grabbed 14 boards in the Golden Grizzlies' emphatic elimination of South Dakota State. Oakland jumped out to a 23-11 lead, removing any game from the game early.
Courtney Lee is off playing in the NBA, but Western Kentucky may have another star in the making. Sergio Kerusch shares similar physical attributes at 6-5, 210 lbs., and last night he exhibited the same kind of sweet mid-range shots that made Lee so lovable to WKU fans. Against North Texas, Kerusch scored 23 on 7-for-11 shooting and muscled in for 10 rebounds. Dominique Johnson kept the Mean Green in the game with key 3's, but the Hilltoppers advanced to their third SBC title game in four seasons. They'll meet their 2006 opponents, South Alabama, in a faceoff between the two teams that gave the Belt two bids last year. But Team USA is doing this out of a No. 6 seed this time -- they didn't look it, though, holding a thoroughly gassed, questionably-conditioned Arkansas-Little Rock squad to 26 percent shooting in a low-scoring late start that scared away all neutral observers by 11 p.m. lcoal time.
Gonzaga fulfilled its annual destiny as kings of the league, but the days of romping over the other seven all the time in an extended exhibition season (followed by a quick exit in the NCAA's) is over. If you didn't follow the WCC season, you'll have to trust us on that one, because the Saint Mary's Gaels only had about 18 minutes of fight in them last evening. The Zags put six players in double figures, scoring at will against a disorganized defense. On the other end, the Best Frontcourt in Mid-Majordomâ„¢ did everything it could -- Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan combined for 36 points and 18 rebounds -- but the guard play was a minus. Still adjusting to the reappearance of Patty Mills (5 points, 2-for-16), the Gael guards shot just 7-for-33 (21 percent) as a group... the question the pundits with bigger microphones probably won't ask is whether the injured Mills should have come back at all for this tourney, if panning around him was too disruptive to a team just getting its groove back. As it stands, Saint Mary's is at the mercy of the bubble and has a team sheet that could go either way: 2-3 against the top 50, clear excuses for (most) losses, and Mills (whose hype still precedes him) available. How we see it: if the other at-large aspirants were as strong as they were in, say, 2006, this team has no chance to get in. With the meniscus being as brittle as it is this time around, there's a better chance than not that the Gaels make a second straight trip.
On Tap Tonight
I do appreciate all the cards and letters, but this is really how the Big Sky bracket looks (same goes for theNEC and Big West, as well). The seeds are reshuffled after the first round, guaranteeing that the top seed gets the lowest remaining. So Weber State, which earned the right to host both semifinals, Horizon-style, with the league's best record, will host No. 6 Montana State, which upset Montana on its home court last weekend. Defending champion Portland State has to face Idaho State, one of the teams that gave the Vikings fits as the season ground on and it became clear that they weren't the road warriors of a year ago. For Portland State to repeat, it will have to go through the two Mountain Time Zone squads that vastly outplayed it during that fateful Valentine's Day weekend. The last visit to Weber didn't go so well either.
7:00 pm ET -  Idaho State 13-18 (9-7) vs.  Portland State 21-9 (11-5) | Preview
Recent: 02/12/2009 POST 69 @IDST 78 01/10/2009 IDST 58 @POST 85
9:30 pm ET -  Montana State 14-16 (6-10) at  Weber State 21-8 (15-1) | Preview
Recent: 03/03/2009 WEB 84 @MTST 64 01/15/2009 MTST 75 @WEB 70
You're not going to find a more evenly-matched pair of games than the two between Horizon preseason favorite Cleveland State and nationally-ranked Butler, who everybody agrees is in the NCAA Tournament no matter what. Both were complete statistical washes, neither saw a lead extend beyond 10 points at any time, and both were nailbiters to the end. The first one out in Cleveland on Dec. 4 was a come-from-behind survival game for the Bulldogs, one that signaled that the Vikings were vulnerable and that also made clear that a team that starts three freshmen was a viable league championship candidate. The player to watch is Butler's Matt Howard -- the Bulldogs' sophomore Monsterizer and league POY was held firmly in check in the previous two meetings, with just 19 points and eight rebounds across both games. If he can break free and put up those numbers tonight in 40 minutes, Butler will win and increase its seed position. Cleveland State, as you'll hear many times tonight on the broadcast, is seeking its first NCAA trip since 1986 and the second two-bid Horizon in three seasons.
It's been a few years and a lot of miles since the MEAC played its opening rounds in Richmond at the otherworldly Arthur Ashe Center, waiting for the CAA to get over with so it could move into the Coliseum where the floor wasn't, you know, puke colored. Today marks the debut of the event in Winston-Salem, N.C., home for many years to the CIAA (Division II), which springboarded to a status as the third-largest tournament in all of college basketball before outgrowing the town and moving to Charlotte. We'll see if W-S will do the same for the perpetually underachieving MEAC event, which couldn't generate enough buzz in Richmond or Raleigh -- last year, the entire attendance of the MEAC week fit into one CIAA session. "Our Time Is Now?" We'll see. Tonight marks the first round, and it's truly odd seeing three of the last four champions -- FAMU (2007), Hampton (2006) and Delaware State (2005) -- having to fight to play-in to the proper bracket.But the league truly has turned upside down.
6:30 pm ET -  Hampton 15-15 (10-8) vs.  Delaware State 8-23 (7-10) | Preview
Recent: 02/07/2009 DEST 49 @HAMP 39 02/09/2008 HAMP 58 @DEST 67
9:00 pm ET -  Florida A&M 9-20 (7-11) vs.  Howard 8-22 (7-11) | Preview
Recent: 01/10/2009 HOW 74 @FAMU 79 01/12/2008 FAMU 57 @HOW 52
The MAC gets started in Cleveland with a first round of all-day action, which could easily be billed as the annual cannibalization of the conference's Western division. Five of the six Western squads (save for division titlist Ball State, the automatic No. 2). But with the ascension of programs like Bowling Green and Buffalo, the initial slate is full of familiar names from the East too -- both of last year's title game participants, Kent State and Akron, are playing today. In fact, seven of the last eight MAC champions have to play their way into the quarters (Miami, the 2007 winner, is the exception). Kent State's string of 10 20-win seasons will end if it doesn't make the semis (or if the Golden Flashes are given a reprieve by an illegitimate postseason tourney -- always a possibility). Kent will have to make do today without second-leading scorer Chris Singletary, serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch in first minute of the seemingly annual city-game season-closer against Akron.
12:00 pm ET -  Eastern Michigan 8-23 (6-10) vs.  Central Michigan 11-18 (7-9) | Preview
Recent: 02/28/2009 EMU 57 @CMU 56
2:00 pm ET -  Northern Illinois 10-19 (5-11) vs.  Kent State 18-13 (10-6) | Preview
Recent: 02/10/2009 KENT 86 @NIU 83 02/09/2008 NIU 67 @KENT 82
4:00 pm ET -  Western Michigan 10-20 (7-9) vs.  Ohio 14-16 (7-9) | Preview
Recent: 02/11/2009 OHIO 62 @WMU 76 02/09/2008 WMU 54 @OHIO 57
6:00 pm ET -  Toledo 7-24 (5-11) vs.  Akron 19-12 (10-6) | Preview
Recent: 01/28/2009 AKR 70 @TOL 61 01/30/2008 TOL 52 @AKR 68
We've said it 100 times, but North Dakota State's entire previous five years have pointed to this day. The Bison redshirted an entire class so they'd be together and ready for their first official shot at the Big Dance after their transition period from D-II. Oakland, in just its 11th year of Division I life, won the league in 2005 out of a 13-19 record and a No. 7 seed (Hellooo Dayton!) but has trended upwards since then. Under Greg Kampe (who's coached there since the lower-division days in 1984), the G'Grizzlies went from 11 to 19 to 17 to 22 overall wins this year, and have increased their league record every season since 2006. Oakland's won nine in a row heading into this tilt, and NDSU's won six straight. (Please, no mascot fight this time. Unless you absolutely must.)
The 2006 title game was a reverse instant classic: the Jaguars cut through the Western Kentucky zone at will, decimating the Tops by 25 points -- later, it was circulated among the cognoscenti that WKU was the Selection Committee's No. 66 team in that storied Year of the Mid-Major. That was also the last time a No. 1 won the tourney; after 2006, the Sun Belt ditched the SEC-style directional numbers, and the event's been won by a No. 5 (North Texas 2007) and a No. 3 (WKU 2008) since. But a No. 6? Team USA has looked strong in its first two games in Hot Springs, but the Hilltoppers won both close games in their intradivisional battled. It was the first sweep in the series for WKU since 1999.
A big welcome to the WAC, which will begin with a single opening-round game tonight at Reno. Hawaii, used to this kind of thing for sure, had to fly out to Nevada after playing Sunday morning in order to meet its low-seed obligations. Luckily for the Warriors, their opponent is Fresno State, a team that couldn't shoot (WAC-worst 41 percent field goals) and larger squads drove on all year. Two of Hawaii's two wins came at the Bulldogs' expense, and the team struggled to its second straight losing season.
Photos: VCUathletics.com, gomocs.com, sienasaints.com, gozags.com
|Hickory Picket Fences||27629|
|The Hopping Cats||21526|
|Under a Blood Red Line||10379|
|Jen Folds Five||6895|