Thursday, March 05, 2009

JCCW Championship Week previews: NEC, MoVal, SoCon

It's finally March, baby--just check out the above pic of South's Dominic Tilford celebrating the Jags moving on (barely ... a 62-60 home win over New Orleans) in the Sun Belt tourney last night. (HT: The Dagger.) So we're keepin' it going with the previews, starting with the ...


Location, etc.: All games at campus of higher seed; top 8 of 11 teams included; semifinals match highest remaining seed after quarterfinals against lowest, rather than following bracket; championship Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2.

The Favorite: I could be wrong here, but I think it's Robert Morris. Behind the league's best defense (.90 a possession) and second-best shooting (behind Sacred Heart), the Colonials merrily rolled along to the league title by a full three games over nearest competitors Mt. St. Mary's, Sacred Heart, and LIU. RMU is about as experienced as it gets--their top six contributors are all juniors or seniors, including senior guard and NEC Player of the Year Jeremey Chappell. After losing at home to Mt. St. Mary's as the top seed in last year's NEC tourney, I somehow doubt there's going to be any lack of focus on the Colonials' part this season.

The Contender: If RMU's the decided favorite, it has to be pointed out they didn't play like it down the stretch. After starting their league slate at 13-1, the Colonials dropped back-to-back contests to Monmouth and Wagner and closed the season by beating Mt. St. Mary's by three points at home. Not confidence-inducing stuff, and if RMU does fall it's most likely the Mountaineers that are going to make it happen: they've got a virtually identical Pomeroy profile, explosive 5-9 dynamo Jeremy Goode running the point, and the confidence of having lost their two games to RMU this year by a total of 10 points (not to mention having picked RMU off in 2008). If I'm a Colonials fan, I'm desperately hoping Wagner or (more likely) Sacred Heart takes the Mount down before the NEC final.

The Darkhorse(s): Seventh-seeded Wagner isn't likely to win the whole ball o' wax, but after closing the year with a four-game win streak that included home victories over both RMU and the Mount, they look hot enough that they might cause trouble. Sacred Heart never really did much during the regular season--their best win, at home to the Mount, came all the back in the first week of December--but they're the best shooters in the league and if they get particularly hot for 40 minutes, who knows.

Prediction: Man, does Robert Morris's wheeze to the finish line--and Mt. St. Mary's Pomeroy mark-- make me nervous. But the Colonials were also playing for pride by the time they started dropping those games. At home, with the bid on the line, in Chappell's final season, I like them to just edge the Mountaineers for the title.


Location, etc.: All games held in St. Louis; all 10 teams included, bottom four play-in to quarterfinals; championship Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS.

The Favorite: Creighton is the league's hottest team, its best offensive team, its most successful Valley tournament team under Dana Altman. The Bluejays aren't heavy favorites, not in this league, but as long as Booker Woodfox is firing away, Josh Dotzler is running the point, and P'Allen Stinnett is there to slash-and-burn, there doesn't look like a better candidate than CU.

The Contender: After that nutso 11-1 start in Valley play, Northern Iowa cooled off and HOW in mid-February, dropping four of five at one point. But just as people were writing off the Panthers and handing CU the league title, UNI edged Illinois St. on the road in a big surprise according to Pomeroy and then saw off streaking Evansville at home for their share of the Valley crown. If the top-seeded Panthers really are back to their January form, a relatively easy path to the title game--Drake/Indiana St. followed by the winner of "eh, they're OK" Bradley and disappointing Southern Illinois--and 7-foot Gigantor clone Jordan Eglseder (the country's fifth-best defensive rebounder) mean UNI has as good a shot as anyone.

The Darkhorse(s): Illinois St. has the league's second-best Pomeroy rating, the league's best and most athletic defense, and Osiris Eldridge's mohawk: there's a reason the Redbirds pounded the Bluejays by 22 Jan. 3. Wichita St. was the opposite of UNI: after starting off 0-6 in Valley play they closed with an 8-4 run that included home wins over all three of the league leaders. Want a reason why Creighton might not take the bid? Their road to the final likely goes through the Shockers in the quarters and then the Redbirds in the semis.

Prediction: After two years of straight chalk in the Valley tourney--both the 2007 and 2008 finals matched the top two seeds--I think we're going to see a little chaos this time as Illinois St. puts things together, first taking down Creighton (who never did catch UNI in the efficiency race) and then blowing by slow-footed UNI in the final.


Location, etc.: All games held at UT-Chattanooga; All 12 teams included, top four seeds get bye to quarterfinals; championship Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN

The Favorite: This Davidson team has this guy you may have heard of. Now that he's healthy ... yeah.

The Contenders: The Citadel--who have not just sucked but completely sucked for as long as I've been following this sport--started off at 3-4 in the SoCon and then, in one of the more amazing things I can remember seeing in this wonderful world of mid-major hoops, rattled off 11 straight wins before slipping up at home against Wofford. The Bulldogs have the league's best non-Davidson D by a freaking mile, an 18-point road win over the Curry-less version of Davidson (still: 18 points!), and the weight of "What a story!" narrative behind them. It won't be easy for Davidson

The Darkhorse(s): The College of Charleston has an offense just as potent by tempo-free measures as Davidson (though their D is awful) and earned the SoCon's only win over the full-strength Wildcats in two years when they won at Davidson's place by two Feb. 7. Curry and Co., at the very least, will be taking them seriously. And while Chattanooga doesn't have anything to recommend them beyond their home-court advantage and ill-gained bye by virtue of "winning" the weak sauce SoCon North, that's more than the rest of the field's got.

Prediction: The Citadel has played so ridiculously well over the past month, particularly when compared to the cracks that seem to be showing in Davidson's armor, that calling the upset is actually a little tempting. But with Curry back to his usual self, Davidson is just too good a team to lose this thing.

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