In roughly one month, there will be conference tournament basketball.
Like the old song says, where does the time go?
Mid-major teams across the country are playing two to three games a week, making up for missed time earlier this month and trying to cram a full regular season into the remaining days. A lot can happen in a hurry. No worries, we’re here to help you get caught up on the conference races and seven of the best storylines unfolding as the calendar turns yet again.
The West (Coast Conference) Is the Best
We told you in November to keep an eye on this loaded conference and how it could put four teams in the NCAA tournament field. Nothing has changed that opinion and the field of bracketologists agree. Gonzaga is well Gonzaga, one of the favorites to win the national title. They’re 4-0 in the WCC with victories by 34, 26, 32 and 16 points. BYU, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco are still safely on the right side of the at-large conversation as well. Each is in the top 35 of the NCAA’s NET ranking. Overall the conference is rated ninth in KenPom, ahead of the Atlantic 10, the Missouri Valley and Conference USA.
UNC Wilmington in the CAA
Not many folks outside of Trask Coliseum, home of the Seahawks, expected this team to contend for a CAA championship this season. The experts picked UNCW ninth in the preseason poll and a middle-of-the-pack finish seemed like a reasonable top end for even the most optimistic observers. Takayo Siddle, in his second-year as coach, and his players had other ideas, however. UNCW won its ninth consecutive game on Monday night - and fourth CAA road game - rallying in the second half to beat Northeastern, improve to 6-0 in the conference and 12-5 overall. Jaylen Sims, Shykeim Phillips and Mike Okauru are a formidable perimeter trio, sparking an offense that’s second in adjusted efficiency in conference games. Siddle praises his team’s chemistry and toughness at every turn and with an upcoming three-game homestand in what’s certain to be a raucous environment, the Seahawks are positioned to enhance their advantage in the standings.
Upstate rising in the Big South
In its first three seasons as a Big South member, USC Upstate won 13 of 30. The Spartans are 5-1 and tied atop the league’s South Division with Winthrop, the two-time defending conference champion. Upstate plays host to Winthrop on Wednesday night in one of the most important games in program history. The Spartans aren’t likely to sustain their 45 percent 3-point shooting in Big South games but their defensive intensity and unselfishness on offense are built for the long haul. Jordan Gainey, whose father Justin starred at point guard for N.C. State, is the best freshman in the conference and Bryson Mozone and Mysta Goodloe provide shooting and athleticism on the wings.
Loyola still rules the Valley
Drew Valentine replaced his former boss Porter Moser as head coach at Loyola Chicago and has the Ramblers atop the Missouri Valley as expected. Still, the most intriguing team is Indiana State, under the direction of first-year coach Josh Schertz, who built a Division II powerhouse at Lincoln Memorial in Tennessee to earn an opportunity at college basketball’s highest level. The Sycamores are 2-5 in the Valley but two of those losses were to Loyola and their record includes narrow defeats to Northern Iowa and Valparaiso. Cameron Henry and Xavier Bledsoe are the kind of guards a coach needs in the dog days of February. The Sycamores are 52nd in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage.
Kennesaw State contending in the A-Sun
Kennesaw joined the Atlantic Sun in the 2005-06 season when it became a Division I member. In that span, the Owls have posted a .500 conference record in four years but never a winning mark. That could change this year. Under third-year coach Amir Abdur Rahim, the Owls are 4-1 entering a Thursday night showdown against Jacksonville State, which is riding an eight-game winning streak and sits 6-0 in the A-Sun. Kennesaw has harassed A-Sun opponents into turnovers on 24 percent of possessions and held them to 42 percent on 2-point shots. That combination and a balanced sharpshooting offense (38 pct on 3s in league play) are a dangerous mix for upcoming opponents.
Murray and Morehead in the OVC
The Ohio Valley title often runs through Nashville and the Belmont Bruins, but nearing the halfway point in the league race, two familiar names from Kentucky have the upper hand. Both have danced in March in recent years. Murray State won at Belmont by 22 points while Morehead State held off the Bruins by nine points at home. Those two meet Saturday in Murray. Murray’s tandem of Tevin Brown and Justice Hill just might be the best backcourt duo in mid-major land. Each has hit more than 40 percent of 3-pointers and earned an offensive rating of 117 plus. Morehead has splashed 41 percent beyond-the-arc vs OVC foes and Johnni Broome controls the paint on both ends. This should be a terrific battle.
Toledo blazing through the MAC
We’ve come to expect excellence from Toledo under coach Tod Kowalczyk. The Rockets won at least 21 games overall and 13 conference games in three of the last four seasons. At the halfway point in the MAC regular season, Toledo is not only on a similar pace at 8-1, it’s won seven of those games by double-figure margins. The Rockets lead the MAC in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage on both ends of the floor as well. They avoid turnovers, make 3-pointers and deny 2-pointers. That formula should hold up through the remainder of the race and make them a nightmare for some higher-seeded opponent if they can squeeze into the 68-team NCAA tournament field in March.