Horizon League Tournament Begins
By Jeff Falconio
Championship Week unofficially began yesterday and while there were no surprises among the mid-majors a few power conference bubbles might have burst. UWM pulled out a 77-68 win over Loyola in the first round of the Horizon League tournament. Now the Panthers can rest until Friday and rest they shall for the road to the NCAA Tournament will be a rocky one from here on out.
UWM will face Wright State in Friday's quarterfinal matchup. The Panthers lost to the Raiders 70-60 on February 26 but more importantly the winner faces top-seeded Butler on Butler's home floor in the semifinals. This is why every game counts in college basketball. Had the Panthers won any of the three straight road games they lost in early February it might've changed the seeding of the tournament. In turn, UWM would've avoided the Bulldogs and instead would face Green Bay in the semis.
Speaking of which, can the Phoenix grab an at-large bid? Based on the NCAA's most recent RPI rankings, Green Bay is 71st, right up there with the likes of Notre Dame, Auburn and New Mexico. The argument for the Phoenix got better with Cincinnati and Maryland losing on Tuesday. Both the Bearcats and the Terps now have losing conference records and will finish the season no better than .500 in conference play.
So the debate is on: will the selection committee look at an at-best average major program or a consistent mid-major like Green Bay? The Phoenix have a quality win against Butler and an 8-4 record down the stretch but it's also hard to overlook a low strength of schedule and early season losses to Rollins and Loyola. Like Butler, Green Bay gets the double bye to the semifinals and will probably need to win that game to keep the at-large talk going. The Cleveland State-Illinois-Chicago winner will play the Phoenix.
Also happening last night: the top seeds in the Big South and Ohio Valley tournaments advanced. No surprise there but it should momentarily silence the conference tourney critics who claim the tournaments de-value the regular season.
Longtime WSW favorite VMI beat Coastal Carolina in the Big South quarterfinals. The high-octane Keydets put 96 points on the scoreboard. That's par for the course, VMI has hit the century mark nine times this season.
The Kansas State-Oklahoma State game may turn out to be an elimination game. Both teams are on the bubble and with the Cowboys winning 77-71, Oklahoma State now has 20 wins. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have now lost to two tournament-worthy teams in the last week (the other a 94-74 blowout to Missouri).
Auburn and New Mexico scored big wins. The Tigers picked up a valuable road win against an albeit weak Alabama team while the Lobos notched a quality win by beating Mountain West-leading Utah.