Diarist Note: Sorry folks, I wanted to do a better piece here, but work is slammed and I'm under the gun here. But, writing is an on going situation. I'll be using the comments for running commentary on these games tonight, so what I failed to say below, will make it out in 'print' anyway. Cheers!
I'm taking a break from my vigilant watch of the NCAA Bubble tonight. Besides, what more can I add that Brian did not with his excellent post from this afteroon.
My focus tonight is on four mid-major conference title games. The Monday of Championship Week is always one of my favorite nights of the Madness. We have four bids handed out, but these aren't your standard 'happy-to-be-here' sort of leagues. All four of these leagues--Colonial, Southern, MAAC and West Coast--are prone to sending competive teams in the Dance and each have seen their champions pull of a couple upsets this decade.
Looking for a dangerous 12- or 13-seed? You might one tonight.
Anyway, instead of rambling on and on about the Bubble and Michigan's tournament chances, I have got quick previews on these four games with, you guessed it, predictions for the night. So far, my March record is looking good, 16-10-2. We're taking half of profits made so far and spreading them out on these games. I'm sure everything will work out just fine.
Colonial Athletic Association Championship, 7pm, ESPN
George Mason vs. Virginia Commonwealth. Line, VCU -3
Three reasons to watch this showdown between league powers:
1.) Eric Maynor. The VCU little guy is one of the best players in the country. There aren’t many guards, if any, from the Big 10 that I would take over this guy. He does it all, scoring, assists, rebounds and makes everyone around him better. He is money in crunch time and in big games. He’s been one of my favorite players to watch in the college game for the last several seasons. Tonight, he’ll try to carry the Rams back into the NCAAs.
2.) The Colonial is one of the most competitive leagues in the land. These two programs have stood above the crowd in recent seasons. They have a combined 7 NCAA appearances this decade. Both teams have had Cinderella March runs. Tonight, these two mid major powerhouses go tête-à-tête with the league’s one and only bid on the line. But, these are not one-and-done type of teams. Either one of these clubs could win a tournament game and even advance out of the first weekend.
3.) We’re doing a little gambling bird dogging in this one. The CAA has been a money maker in the NCAA Tournament this decade. Their teams are nice 10-4-2 ATS in the Big Dance the last six seasons. The CAA Champion carries a 6-2-2 ATS mark in the NCAA First Round the last 10 seasons. Much of that success was built by these two programs. VCU is 4-0 ATS in the NCAAs this decade. Mason, meanwhile, is 6-2 ATS, a number spurred by their 4-1 ATS run to the 2006 Final Four as an at large bid. Rest assured, come next Thursday afternoon, I will have money on one of these teams. Might as well take a look at what I am buying.
As much as I enjoy the George Mason program, I am sticking with the Rams tonight.
The league's top points per possession team meets the top points allowed per possession club. I'll always go with the defense in those situations and that's VCU. Actually, both teams play great defense, but the Rams have a bit more scoring, in large part because of Maynor. The Patriots have a bit more size up front. The Patriots have struggled shooting the ball all weekend and have advanced in spite of their ragged play. The Rams have looked solid all along.
This game will be a defensive battle. It will go down to the wire. In that situation, I’ll take the team with the best player. In this case, it’s Maynor and the Rams. In crunch time, I don’t think Mason has anyone who can trade hoops with Maynor. That will be enough to carry the day.
The Pick: VCU -3, In Eric Maynor I Trust. He dominated the Patriots in the team's only meeting this season. Mason has lost 9 games this year by a combined 44 points, so I hate laying points against them, but Maynor's scoring touch and their own cold shooting of late will do them in when the game is on the line.
Southern Conference Championship, 7pm, ESPN 2
Tennessee-Chatanooga vs. College of Charleston. Line, CC -2
Some of the intrigue in this league disappeared with Stephon Curry and Davidson’s elimination. I won’t lie; I wanted to see Curry and Company playing in this game. That skinny kid is a blast to watch. And, I will be tuning into his NIT games, for sure.
Intrigue still exists tonight. One of these teams will obviously grab an NCAA bid. The other, might not even play in the NIT. Both teams have a lot of seniors. Guts will be on the floor.
The Charleston storyline attracts me. The Cougars were the mid-major darling in the 1990s, before the term was even coined. After tearing it up at the NAIA level, the Cougars made the leap to the D-I level and quickly established themselves as the best team in the small league they joined. That league doesn’t exist anymore as the teams have scattered to various Big South and Atlantic Sun destinations. The Cougars, though, tried to climb the ranks of the college hoops world and joined a tougher league. After making four NCAA appearances (including 1997, when they advanced into the second round) and a pair of NITs in the final six years of the 1990s, the Cougars have not played in a post season game in this attempted climb up the mid-major ranks.
Also, their coach is the one and only Bobby Cremins. During college basketball glory days of the 1980s, Cremins was a central figure. He built powerhouse teams at Georgia Tech. In an attempt to break the Tobacco Road hammerlock in the ACC, Cremins brought in some of the game’s top talents from Mark Price to John Salley to Kenny Anderson. Those were some classic teams.
Cremins is long removed from Georgia Tech. Once a March fixture, he has not coached in the Big Dance in more than a dozen years. If he can coax one more win out of the Cougars, a program and a coach familiar with March success, will be home again on a bracket line.
What I found interesting watching yesterday’s semifinals was Charleston took out Davidson without having to play their best game. They were awful in the first half. They could have won by double digits, but could not convert some late possessions. To beat the league giant without your ‘A’ game tells me something.
Chattanooga, meanwhile, had it all going last night. They played a near perfect game and cruised by Samford, the upstart 6-seed. If they can repeat that performance this evening, they will be heading to the Dance. They're shooting the rock much better in this tournament than they did all season. Tonight they face a defense that stifled Curry and Davidson last night. I doubt they can maintain that kind of accuracy.
The Mocs have also enjoyed a rebounding edge this weekend, but tonight face a Charleston team that collected 17 offensive rebounds last night.
What does any of that mean? I think Charleston has room to improve their showing tonight. Chatanooga does not. The Cougars come in playing their best defense of the season. They will cool off the Mocs who seemed to hit everything they threw up yesterday. Charleston has the personnel and know-how to neutralize the two advantages the Mocs have had--shooting and rebounding--to get to this point. The Cougars went 2-1 this season against the Davidson juggernaught. I think they get it done tonight and return to the Big Dance for the first time since 1999.
The only time the two played this season was on Senior Night in Chatanooga. Charleston won that game. If they beat these guys on the road in February, I expect them to win on a neutral site in March.
The Pick: CC -2. I'll take their defense and hope that the Mocs can't replicate their scorching shooting touch from last night.
Metro Athletic Association Conference Championship, 9pm, ESPN2
Niagara vs. Siena. Line, Siena -3
All season, it was clear that Siena and Niagara were the top teams in the MAAC. In league circles, this game is as anticipated as the showdowns in the Colonial and WCC tonight.
Both clubs ran the other out of the gym with home court advantage. Guess what? Tonight’s game in Albany is played on Siena’s home floor.
Both teams have a lot of scoring. Both teams play a lot of guys. The Eagles have more size up front, but the Saints are the better shooting team. Unless the Hasbrouck injury keeps the kid out of tonight’s game, then I don’t think the Saints will be denied. He played in the title game last year with a bum shoulder. The Saints have enough firepower where they dont need him at his best to win this game. They’ve been clicking on all cylinders all weekend. The Saints have trailed for only eight seconds this entuer tournament. Siena has won 20 in a row on this court. I think that's important, dont you?
The Eagles, meanwhile, have looked sloppy this weekend and were fortunate to advance into this game. This game will be a track meet, and I wonder if the Eagles will have gas to keep up with Siena coming off that double OT win last night. I see this game staying close for 30-35 minutes before a late Siena scoring surge tucks the game away.
Much has been made about the 180 that Niagara has done this season on the defensive end. They had developed a reputation of being soft in that regard. They really have improved this year. However, the Saints scored at will on them in both games this year. They're a buzz saw on their home floor. In my opinion, Niagara still lacks the defensive identity needed to slow them down.
The Pick: Siena -3. Late word is that Hansbrouck is a go, although he skipped the shoot around. The senior has started every game since he arrived in Albany. He's not sitting this one on account of a Charley Horse. His backup scored 16 points the other night, so they wont be dead in the water if he's not 100 percent. Bottom line: Siena is more fundamentally sound than the loosey-goosey Eagles. Siena runs right past them the last 10 minutes or so, for an easier-than-it-looks win.
West Coast Conference, 9pm, ESPN
St. Mary's vs. Gonzaga. Line, Zags -7.5
Pride, rivalry and the league title are on the line when Gonzaga hooks up with St. Mary’s tonight in the West Coast Conference. I don’t believe, however, any NCAA bids are on the line. In my opinion, the Gaels are already in. The selection committee will cut them a break since most of their losses occurred when their best player Patty Mills was out with an injury. Mills looked rusty last night in his first game since January. Now that his feet are wet, we'll see if he can elevate his game.
Just because it's likely that no bid is on the line, that does not make the game any less important. Gael players have been chirping all weekend about sending the Zags a message that they’re not the league’s top dog anymore. Tonight, they get that chance. In order to do that, they have to get by a Bulldog club that looked its best last night in thumping Santa Clara.
The Zags swept the Gaels this year. But, in the only half that Mills was able to play, the Gaels looked to be their equal. St. Mary’s saw their season nearly unravel in February without Mills. With him back in the fold, I expect them to make a bit of a March statement this evening.
They might not win, but I expect them to cover the number.
The Pick: St. Mary’s +7.5. This might be the best rivalry west of the Mississippi River. The Gaels take it straight up if Mills is the best player on the floor. There's a great chance of that happening, but I'll put those points in pocket anyway. Besides, I needed to play at least one underdog
I expect a fun night of hoops and I will provide running thoughts throughout the night. Enjoy!