After Belmont won the Ohio Valley Tournament title Saturday night in thrilling fashion, we officially have our first ticket punched to the Big Dance. It’s a glorious feeling knowing that we’re just one week away from Selection Sunday and the ‘madness’ that comes along with it.
That said, three more teams will join Belmont in the NCAA Tournament today. Here is a brief preview of the three conference championships going on today and what to expect in each game.
All RPI’s courtesy of KenPom.com
Atlantic Sun Championship
No. 3 South Carolina Upstate vs. No.1 North Florida
North Florida comes into this game as the regular-season champs and number one seed while South Carolina Upstate comes in as the three seed.
The North Florida Ospreys have had a great season, which was highlighted by beating Purdue on the road back in December. Since then they have gone 12-2 in the conference and 22-11 overall. They have a respectable RPI of 126. 6’1” sophomore guard Dallas Moore is the engine behind the Ospreys’ success and he leads the team with 16 points and 3.7 assists per game.
It should be noted that the upstart Spartans of South Carolina Upstate will be no pushovers, though. After all, they already swept the season series from North Florida, winning 79-74 on the road and then winning 80-63 in the second matchup at home. The Spartans are led by 6’3” senior guard Ty Greene, who leads the team with 20.2 points and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting a solid .429 from three-point range. If the Spartans win, Greene will no doubt play a key factor.
Look for the winner of this game to get a 15 or 16 seed, as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the conference winner playing in one of the first four games between the 16 seeds.
Big South Championship
No. 5 Winthrop vs. No. 3 Coastal Carolina
If you’ve been an ardent follower of the NCAA Tournament for the last decade or so, you no doubt know the name Winthrop. The Eagles have made the Big Dance nine times in the last 16 years and even beat Notre Dame back in 2007.
The Eagles enter the Big South Championship at 19-12 and 12-6 in the conference (RPI 167), whereas Coastal Carolina enters the game 23-9 and also 12-6 in the conference (RPI 149). Winthrop already beat Coastal Carolina 75-68 in their only meeting in January.
Both teams defeated some major programs this season, as the Eagles took down Clemson earlier in the year while the Chanticleers beat Auburn on the road.
This is a game that is truly up for grabs, even though on paper Coastal Carolina appears to be the slight favorite. Players to watch in this game are the Chanticleers’ Warren Gillis (13 ppg, 3.0 rpg and 3.1 apg; .861 percent shooter from the free-throw line) and the Eagles’ Keon Moore, who leads the Eagles with 18.8 points per game and shoots a healthy .437 from three-point range.
If Winthrop wins, the team will be back to the Big Dance after a four-year absence. If Coastal Carolina wins, they will be back in the tournament after giving Virginia a fight in the first half last year before ultimately losing 70-59. The Chanticleers experience could play a factor in this game.
Missouri Valley Championship
No. 4 Illinois State vs. No. 2 Northern Iowa
In what should be the best conference tournament final of the day, the upstart Illinois State Redbirds will be taking on the prohibitive favorite, No. 11-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers in what they call “Arch Madness” in St. Louis.
It was supposed to be a Wichita State/Northern Iowa final, but Illinois State shocked the Shockers behind two late Daishon Knight free throws that catapulted the Redbirds past the Shockers 65-62 on Saturday. Wichita State enjoyed an eight-point halftime lead but could not come up big in the clutch. This loss should not bother the Shockers too much, as they are safely in the NCAA Tournament and should get a four or five seed in next week’s tournament.
The Redbirds are no slouch by any means. They are 21-11 overall and 11-7 (RPI 62) in the Missouri Valley Conference, in which they finished tied for third place. Meanwhile, the Panthers have been a juggernaut all season and come into the game 29-3 while finishing in second place with a 16-2 conference record (RPI 12). By now we should know how good the Panthers are.
Bubble teams will be sweating out this game, as Northern Iowa could lose this game and not have to worry about a thing concerning their continuing run in March. So, Illinois State will be primed to take down another giant to gain the automatic bid for the MVC and burst some bubbles in the process. Players to look out for in this game include the Panthers’ do-everything forward Seth Tuttle (15.4 points per game) and aforementioned Knight, who paces Illinois State with 13.9 points per game.