Welcome to March, the most wonderful time of the year for college basketball fans, when significant matchups to decide regular-season league titles are followed by tension-filled conference tournaments and finally, Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament.
For the mid-majors of the world, however, this is nervous time wondering if the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee will give them a chance to perform on one of the great stages in sports, or if they’ll lose a much-anticipated (and in many cases, deserved) at-large spot to teams from power conferences that weren’t able to achieve a .500 record or better in league games.
According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, in the last five seasons since conference realignment, eight teams with records below .500 in their conferences have made the NCAA field. Only two have advanced past the first round, and the overall record for the eight teams is 2-8.
This has a chance to be a season when several, perhaps as many as seven, such teams make the field of 68. Going into Saturday’s competition, those teams are Clemson (ACC), Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Christian (Big 12), Seton Hall (Big East), and Ohio State and Minnesota (Big Ten).
Yes, these teams have had their quality moments this season. But what about the mid-majors who have played well in their leagues? With conference tournaments beginning next week, would a regular-season champion have done enough to secure one of 36 at-large spots should they get knocked off?
Gonzaga, Buffalo and Nevada have nothing to worry about, and Wofford shouldn’t have to fret. But then you have teams like VCU and Belmont that might deserve an at-large if they lose in the Atlantic 10 or Ohio Valley tournaments, respectively. Maybe even second teams from conferences such as the Southern (Furman), West Coast (St. Mary’s) and Mountain West (Utah State). All are capable of pulling off first-round upsets.
So the question remains, will the committee allow a deserving mid-major to participate as an at-large, or will the power conferences reign again? As teams continue to shift on and around the tournament bubble, it should be an interesting 15-day countdown.
Fran McCaffery gets overheated
It has been a productive season for Iowa, coached by former Penn star and Delaware County native Fran McCaffery. But McCaffery’s temper got the better of him in Tuesday night’s loss to Ohio State, and he was suspended for two games as a result.
After the Hawkeyes went down, 90-70, McCaffery yelled at game official Steve McJunkins after he left the court and was heard using expletives alongside words such as “cheating” and “disgrace.”
“I didn’t want it to be public so I didn’t say it on the floor in front of thousands of people,” McCaffery said the next day. “I said it directly to him and somebody ended up hearing it. OK, that’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of the situation."
McCaffery described himself as a “very passionate person.” As for Tuesday night, “My emotions got the better of me and I apologize for that. I regret that.” He also issued a statement apologizing for the outburst.
Another Penn connection
Co-captains Matt Langel and Michael Jordan led the 1999-2000 Penn team to the Ivy League championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance with the help of freshman sharpshooter David Klatsky. Now the three may have another chance to go to the NCAAs.
Langel is the head coach at Colgate, which is part of a three-way tie for the Patriot League lead heading into Saturday’s final regular-season game at Lafayette. Mike Jordan and Dave Klatsky (yes, that’s how they’re listed on the Colgate web site) are assistant coaches.
The Raiders’ 20 victories are a school record, and their current seven-game win streak is their first since 1996-97. Their last regular-season conference championship came in 1995-96, and to do that this year would guarantee home court advantage throughout the Patriot League tournament.
“We have a special group of guys,” Langel said Wednesday night after Colgate reached the 20-win milestone against Holy Cross. “Any time you can set a benchmark like 20 wins, as a coach, you feel like the players who have been here and the coaches have built a strong culture and program.”
Nittany Lions roaring late in season
And while we’re on the subject of Philadelphia-area coaches, Newtown Square’s Patrick Chambers has led a late-season resurgence at Penn State.
The Nittany Lions (12-16, 5-12 Big Ten) have won three straight games and five of their last seven, a stretch that has included victories over nationally-ranked Michigan and Maryland. They have the best NET ranking, No. 50, of any Division I team with a sub-.500 record.
“Maybe something that you don’t see, but I see, is the connectivity and relationship among the players and staff,” Chambers said after the Maryland win. “I think that type of culture can really push you through to winning. Even during the toughest time in January, we didn’t panic. They just kept coming back. That says a lot about the leadership of the players.”
Cal’s long nightmare ends
In case you missed it late Thursday night, California broke a 23-game losing streak in Pac-12 games with a 76-73 victory over No. 25 Washington, the conference’s first-place team. It marked the Bears’ first win in the league since Feb. 3, 2018, and broke a 16-game losing streak this season.
Expatriate of the Week
Former Roman Catholic High School star Lamar Stevens has been the spark in Penn State’s recent run of success. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound junior forward scored 24 points in Wednesday night’s win over Maryland, his eighth game of 20 or more in the last 10 contests. Stevens, who made his 100th consecutive start on Wednesday, ranks highly in the Big Ten in scoring (19.9 points per game, second) and rebounds (7.7, seventh).
The Week’s Best Games
Kentucky at Tennessee, Saturday at 2 p.m., CBS3: The Wildcats defeated the then-No. 1 Vols two weeks ago, but two changes are in play this time. The game is in Knoxville, and Kentucky forward Reid Travis, who limited Tennessee star Grant Williams in their last meeting, is out with a knee injury.
Texas Tech at Texas Christian, Saturday at 4 p.m., ESPN2: Four days after a 29-point rout of Kansas, the Red Raiders were taken to overtime by last-place Oklahoma State. Tech needs to keep pace with Big 12 co-leader Kansas State, and the Horned Frogs want to improve their NCAA chances.
Nevada at Utah State, Saturday at 8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network: The Wolf Pack is 26-2 but will be playing against a Quadrant 1 team for the first time this season. The Aggies, who are a half-game behind Nevada in the Mountain West, need a win to move up on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Michigan at Maryland, Sunday at 3:45 p.m., CBS3: The Wolverines are a half-game behind Big Ten co-leaders Michigan State and Purdue after Thursday’s win over Nebraska. The Terrapins, coming off a lopsided loss at Penn State, scored a season-low 52 points in losing to Michigan two weeks ago.
Virginia at Syracuse, Monday at 7 p.m., ESPN: The Cavaliers, who began the weekend in a first-place tie with North Carolina in the ACC, held the Orange to 44 points last season, their lowest total ever at the Carrier Dome. They lead the nation in scoring defense, giving up 54.5 points per game.
Mike Daum, South Dakota State, F, 6-9, 235, Sr., Kimball, Neb.
Last weekend, Daum became the 10th player in NCAA Division I history to reach 3,000 career points. He has been a force for the Jackrabbits, averaging 25.8 points (fourth in the nation) and 11.8 rebounds (fifth), while shooting 51.3 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from three-point range, and 83.4 percent on free throws. Daum has 10 games of 30 points or more and two of 40-plus, with a season high of 42. He has posted 19 double-doubles and two games with 30-plus points and 20 or more rebounds.