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Friday, March 7, 2008
Championship Week tournaments part II

By Kyle Whelliston
Special to

Championship Week games continue with many mid-majors beginning play on Friday. Kyle Whelliston takes a look at the whys, whos and whats of those tournaments.

America East
Why to Watch: With only one league team with an RPI better than 180, the America East champion may very well find itself buying round-trip tickets to Dayton for the play-in game. But should UMBC (21-8, 13-3) survive the league tourney and achieve its first NCAA bid in school history, the Retrievers could be a dangerous 16-seed. Remember what Albany did two years ago out of this conference, leading No. 1 Connecticut deep into the second half before running out of steam.

Who to Watch: Ray Barbosa and Cavell Johnson, UMBC -- Much of this team's turnaround from a 12-19 record last season can be attributed to its two instant-impact senior transfers, both from James Madison. Barbosa (16.8 ppg) is a fine outside shooter who can drive to the hole if he's given an inch, and the 6-8 Johnson (13.3 ppg, 52 percent FG, 7.2 rpg) has given the Retrievers a serious inside presence with his rebounding and explosive dunks.

What to Watch: The remainder of the "Cats and Dogs Conference" is remarkably weak this season, but none of the other canines will roll over so the Retrievers can fetch an easy title. Defending champion Albany (this year's No. 3 seed) played UMBC to within four points in both of their regular-season meetings, and the No. 6 Terriers of Boston University have won eight of 10 after battling injuries in the early going.

Big Sky
Why to Watch: Tucked into the northwest corner of the country, this league has sent some unheralded and dangerous seeds to the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Weber State, the conference's most decorated champion historically, came within seven points of knocking off Wisconsin in 2003. As a No. 16 seed three years ago, Montana gave No. 1 Washington a game before falling 88-77; the Grizzlies broke through the next year with a stunning 12-over-5 victory over Nevada.

Who to Watch: Jeremiah Dominguez, Portland State -- He's all of 5-6, but plays so huge that he was named the player of the year in the Big Sky. The sophomore provides enough energy to power the entire Rose City, scoring a team-high 14.4 ppg while dishing four assists and nabbing a league-high 1.9 steals per contest. When he's at the free-throw line, the rim's farther away than for most players, but he makes 84 percent of his tries anyway.

What to Watch: Portland State's primary contribution to the sports pages has been the hiring of Jerry Glanville as its football coach and its black uniforms on the gridiron. But the regular-season champion Vikings could make an even bigger fashion statement by painting the NCAA Tournament green and white in a first-ever trip to the Big Dance. First, they'll have to get past No. 2 seed Northern Arizona and the other four tourney hopefuls.

Big West
Why to Watch: The Big West has a total of 40 NCAA wins in its history. Sure, over half belong to current Mountain West school UNLV, but Pacific claimed wins in 2004 and 2005 and pushed Boston College to double OT in 2006. The league won nearly half of its nonconference games this season (54-59), so its champion can't be taken too lightly.

Who to Watch: Tremaine Townsend, Cal State Northridge -- The Matadors have had only two winning seasons since joining the league in 2001, and it's probably because they didn't have a guy like this. The 6-9 forward has excelled as a junior newcomer, hitting 54 percent of his shots and leading the BWC in rebounds. He's also posted nine double-doubles this season after transferring from Saddleback Junior College last summer.

What to Watch: It's been a breakthrough year for CSN, as the Matadors zoomed out to the early conference lead after finishing 14-17 a year ago. But a trio of other California contenders closed the gap down the stretch, and the action in Anaheim will be too close to call with a single bid on the line. Cal State Fullerton and its league-best offense, preseason favorite UC Santa Barbara and resurgent Pacific have all won at least 20 games this season.

Why to Watch: There remains the slight possibility of a two-bid scenario in the CAA and the league's third consecutive multibid year. Defending champion VCU, with a 23-6 overall record and an RPI in the 40s, could still push its way into the final at-large discussion if the Rams were to stage a strong run to the title game and take a close loss.

Who to Watch: Will Thomas, George Mason -- If VCU does lose in the tournament to force a two-bid scenario, the longtime rival Patriots want to be a part of it. Their 6-7 senior leader, one of the heroes of the 2006 Final Four run, has put together a stellar final season in green and gold, leading the team in points (16.0), rebounds (10.4) and field goal percentage (63.2). Does he have one more magic March left in him?

What to Watch: Due to a late Mason slump, UNC Wilmington snuck in as the No. 2 seed. Its 12-6 league record is light-years away from last season's 4-14 disaster in Benny Moss' first year. With star guard T.J. Carter (16.2 ppg) healthy after injury sidelined him for all of 2006-07, the Seahawks are back in the top tier, and could achieve the school's second NCAA bid in three years.

Why to Watch: It's unlikely that any conference tournament this week will be as hotly contested as this one, with the potential for a scorching semifinal round. Four teams -- Siena, Loyola, Niagara and Rider -- have bumped and bruised each other all season at the top of the league. But with the bulk of the RPIs firmly in three digits, the battle in Albany, N.Y., will result in a single bid.

Who to Watch: Jason Thompson, Rider -- Should the Broncs survive this weekend in upstate New York, the NCAA Tournament would provide a showcase for the MAAC's bona fide NBA first-round draft pick. The 6-11 senior has stuffed every stat sheet he's encountered this year, averaging 20.2 ppg and 11.8 rpg and becoming the nation's 15th most productive shot-blocker (2.8 bpg). He had 20 double-doubles, and reached 20 and 20 on three occasions.

What to Watch: The participants in the four-team race are hardly set in stone. No. 5 seed Fairfield was the league's hottest team down the stretch, winning seven straight before a loss on Thompson's Senior Day at Rider this past Sunday. The Stags drew No. 5 Loyola in Saturday's quarterfinals, a team they split with during the regular season. Settle in for a weekend of wild, unpredictable, high-wire hoops with only one survivor.

Why to Watch: Kent State remains firmly on the bubble, with a strong RPI in the 20s and a recent signature win at Saint Mary's. But entering a historically unpredictable league tournament where low seeds routinely earn surprise victories, the Golden Flashes are far from safe.

Who to Watch: Leon Williams, Ohio -- Nobody in the MAC can take over a game like this 6-8 senior paint patroller. Williams posted double-doubles in huge wins over Maryland, Saint John's and George Mason, and is the Bobcats' scoring and rebounding leader (15.8 ppg, 9.7 rpg). The big Baltimore native has a history of great performances in Cleveland. As a freshman, he scored 29 points and 15 rebounds in Ohio's 2005 title-game win over Buffalo.

What to Watch: The No. 4 has been as lucky as a mutant clover in the MAC. Over the past 10 MAC tourneys, three teams have claimed the championship from that seed. Eastern Michigan came out of fourth position to win in 1998. More recently, Williams' Bobcats claimed that 2005 MAC title as a No. 4, and Miami won last season by the grace of Doug Penno's buzzer-beating 3-pointer against top seed Akron.

Why to Watch: The MEAC may have its strongest candidate for an NCAA upset in a decade with Morgan State. In head coach Todd Bozeman's second year, the Bears earned nonconference wins over potential tourney winners La Salle (A-10) and American (Patriot), and dominated the league with a 14-2 record -- their only two losses so far have come by a combined three points.

Who to Watch: Boubacar Coly, Morgan State -- Before surfacing at Morgan, this 6-9 Senegalese shot-blocker was a promising yet injury-prone Xavier prospect. Now that his knee is fully healed, he had his national breakthrough with a 12-and-13 double-double in a losing cause at Connecticut in November's Coaches vs. Cancer event, and has gone on to do nothing less than rule the MEAC glass, averaging 11.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per contest. Both figures are league highs.

What to Watch: Hampton was the team garnering the most headlines in December, with a gritty win over VCU and a devastating 65-31 regular season-opening win over Howard in a battle of the HUs at Madison Square Garden. But the Pirates have spent 2008 in Morgan State's shadow, losing both games against the Bears and dropping an embarrassing six-point decision at last-place UMES. All of that would be forgotten if Hampton prevails in a title game rematch with Morgan, however.

Why to Watch: Many more eyes than usual will be fixed on the SoCon, as Davidson takes a perfect 20-0 league mark into the Charleston, S.C.-based tourney. A 3-6 nonconference record complicates matters, however, with an ambitious schedule that featured losses to UCLA, UNC, Duke and NC State. If the Wildcats lose this week, which will it be -- the NCAA or the NIT?

Who to Watch: Stephen Curry, Davidson -- No. 30 in red grew by leaps and bounds as a sophomore, and not only because the Davidson media guide now lists him as 6-3 instead of 6-0. After a standout freshman season in 2006-07, his game grew too -- he can now transcend the floor in the final minutes and single-handedly lead the Wildcats to victory, as seen in recent efforts at Elon (scoring the final eight points to erase a six-point deficit) and UNC Greensboro (a career-high 41).

What to Watch: If you're searching for a potential spoiler to create bubble brouhaha, look no further than No. 2 seed Chattanooga. The Mocs were the only team in the league to step up a level in a second regular-season meeting with the Wildcats, losing an emotional 78-71 contest at home after being blown out by 27 at Davidson two weeks prior. The key to that return match was Chattanooga's 10 fewer fouls and resulting 32-14 advantage in free-throw attempts. Expect the Mocs to be downright gentlemanly if the two meet again.


Why to Watch: Three intriguing squads battle for a bid in the league that brought you Northwestern State's 2006 Iowa shocker and last season's Texas A&M Corpus Christi squad that led Wisconsin big at halftime in a 2-vs.-15 game before falling. Stephen F. Austin has a gaudy 24-4 record, Lamar has run away with the East division, and Sam Houston State went 12-1 in nonconference play with unexpected wins over Texas Tech and Central Florida.

Who to Watch: Josh Alexander, Stephen F. Austin -- Ninety-five percent of readers have likely never heard this name and number (0) before, but remember it just in case SFA can win three straight to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The 6-4 junior is the Lumberjacks' primary 3-point threat, hitting over 43 percent of his arc attempts and averaging a team-best 16.7 ppg. The Southland's version of "Agent Zero" can also slip in for a few loose balls, as evidenced by his team-leading six boards per game.

What to Watch: No two-bid scenario here, as each of the three primary contenders has bumps, bruises or flaws to hide. SFA has had difficulty rebounding the ball, Lamar's field goal defense is among the worst in America, and Sam State has run into injuries and fatigue during the Southland grind. Which team will cover its shortcomings and claim the title?

Why to Watch: Oral Roberts will attempt to three-peat in the conference formerly known as the Mid-Continent, and return for a third shot at NCAA glory after a pair of 16-point losses on the big bracket. But the inside-outside stars of those squads, little Ken Tutt and big Caleb Green, are gone now. Will the new generation, led by 5-11 flash Robert Jarvis, come through and lead the Golden Eagles back to the promised land?

Who to Watch: George Hill, IUPUI -- With a metal pin holding a surgically repaired right foot together, the 6-2 junior has tightened the screws on most of the Jaguars' Summit League opposition as the No. 2-seeded team built a 15-3 record. During the regular season, Hill scored a league-high 21.2 points and led his team in rebounds (6.6), assists (4.4) and steals (1.8). The all-around threat shoots 56 percent from the floor, but only 36 percent (10-for-28) against ORU.

What to Watch: Oakland has a history of playing spoiler in this event -- you might remember the 2005 title game, when Pierre Dukes hit a 3-pointer with one second left to send Oral Roberts home and the 12-18 Golden Grizzlies on to the Dayton play-in game. OU was the runner-up last season, and comes into this year's tourney as a No. 3 seed. With solid rebounding and a knack for turning possessions into points, the Griz could make another big statement.

Why to Watch: With the number of "guarantee games" at power-conference arenas these teams have to play in November and December, hardly anyone looks good in January. But Alabama State has cruised to the league regular-season title on the strength of an early seven-game win streak that broke the race open. Can the Hornets seal the deal as double champions and return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2004?

Who to Watch: Mickell Gladness, Alabama A&M -- Nobody throws a block party quite like the Bulldogs' 6-11 senior. After setting a single-game blocks record as a junior with 16, he's tied for second in the nation this year with 4.4 a game. What's remarkable is that with all that contact and arm movement, he's fouled out only twice.

What to Watch: With a conference RPI of 32 (last) and an 8-86 record in nonleague games, it's almost a given that this group will send its champion to the play-in game. But ever since Southern won an NCAA game in 1993, there's been a struggle for the soul of the SWAC -- many teams have tried to replicate that squad's "shoot within seven seconds" approach, while recent champs have preached patience and ponderousness. This year, teams like Jackson State, Prairie View and Alcorn State are in the old-school fast camp, while Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Mississippi Valley State like to take it slow. Which style will win the day?

West Coast
Why to Watch: Gonzaga has brought increased visibility and TV exposure to the WCC, and the league as a whole is reaping the benefits, featuring the strongest second tier in years. Saint Mary's has been in and out of the rankings all season. San Diego finished with an 11-3 league record after marching into Rupp Arena and shocking Kentucky on Dec. 29. Could either of these two contenders step up and end the Zags' four-year tourney title run?

Who to Watch: Patty Mills, Saint Mary's -- The Australian freshman has already accomplished a lot in his basketball life, becoming the youngest player ever to make his national team. In his first season in Moraga, he's led the Gaels in scoring (14.4 ppg), assists (3.5) and steals (1.8), and emerged as one of the most exciting young stars in Division I. Is he ready to help lead the Gaels to the big bracket?

What to Watch: It's all purely theoretical, but suppose Gonzaga trips up and loses in the semifinals to Santa Clara, a team that found a way to steal a win in Spokane a year ago. Then suppose host San Diego tops Saint Mary's in a close title game. Would that force the first three-bid WCC in history? With the bracket yet to be played out, the possibilities are still endless.

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to