Small conferences can make big noise

ASSOCIATED PRESS Bucknell's Mike Muscala needs three points to become school's all-time leading scorer.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Bucknell's Mike Muscala needs three points to become school's all-time leading scorer.
Posted: March 07, 2013

FIVE MORE leagues start conference tournaments on Wednesday, including a pair - the Ohio Valley and West Coast conferences - that could have serious implications for a few teams around here.

If the favored mid-majors don't win their conferences, the anxiety level for those fighting to get into the NCAA Tournament will rise.

Atlantic Sun

Regular-season champ: Mercer (21-10) claimed its first crown since 2003. The Bears have wins at Florida State and at Alabama and the conference tournament is in their home gym where they were 13-0 this season.

Sun spots: Second-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (21-10), in just its second season of NCAA Tournament eligibility, already has set the school record for wins. Its most notable victory was Nov. 13 when it shocked visiting Miami, 63-51, despite missing 10 of 11 three-point attempts. The Eagles did have six dunks, however . . . North Florida's Parker Smith has made 42.6 percent of his three-point attempts and his 110 made three-pointers is a conference record . . . The championship is Saturday.

Big Dance prospects: Though former Kentucky star Ron Mercer played in two NCAA Tournaments (1996, 1997), Mercer University hasn't been to one since 1985. This is a one-bid league and it is Mercer's to lose.

Northeast

Regular-season champ: Robert Morris, coached by former Penn guard Andrew Toole, will be the one-seed. The Colonials have gotten to the tournament championship game each of the last 4 years, winning in 2009 and 2010, losing in 2011 and 2012.

N'oreasters: This figures to be a wide-open tournament since one game separated second place from sixth. Eight teams make the tournament and the lower seeds all beat their opening-round opponent at least once during the year. This includes eighth-seeded St. Francis (N.Y.), which beat Robert Morris on Jan. 31 . . . LIU Brooklyn's Jamal Olaswere is one of 25 finalists for the mid-major player of the year. Olaswere, a 6-7 senior forward, averages 19.2 points and is second in the nation in free-throw attempts (236) behind only Virginia Tech's Erick Green (241) . . . The championship is Tuesday.

Big Dance prospects: This is a one-bid league, which likely will produce a No. 16 seed.

Ohio Valley

Regular-season champ: Belmont won the OVC in its first season after 11 years in the Atlantic Sun. The Bruins' Nashville campus is 3 miles from Municipal Auditorium, the site of the tournament.

OVseeds: Murray State had won the last three regular-season titles. The Racers won the West Division and, like Belmont, get a bye all the way to the semifinals. Murray State beat Belmont in their only meeting this season . . . Eastern Kentucky (23-8) set a school record for wins. They are coached by former La Salle forward Jeff Neubauer, who is in his eighth season in Richmond, Ky. . . . The championship is Saturday.

Big Dance prospects: Belmont is one of those teams La Salle, Villanova, Temple and all the other bubble teams are rooting for. The Bruins are 24-6 and had an RPI of 23 entering the week. Their best nonconference wins are against Middle Tennessee and Ohio.

Patriot

Regular-season champ: Bucknell won its third consecutive outright crown and became the first Patriot team ever to win 12 league games in three consecutive seasons. The Bison also own wins over La Salle and at Purdue.

Patriot-isms: Bucknell's Mike Muscala needs three points to become the school's all-time leading scorer. "Two" guard Cameron Ayers (Germantown Academy) is second on the team in scoring (12.7) and has committed just 27 turnovers in 30 games . . . Lehigh went a very-respectable 11-4 after losing All-America point guard C.J. McCollum to a broken foot in early January. It's unlikely he'll play in this tournament . . . Army forward Ella Ellis closed the season with 30-plus points in three of the final four games . . . The championship is Wednesday, March 13.

Big Dance prospects: This is a one-bid league.

West Coast

Regular-season champ: Top-ranked Gonzaga won its 12th regular-season crown in 13 years and became the first WCC team to go 16-0.

West Coasters: Matthew Dellavedova became Saint Mary's all-time leading scorer in the final game of the regular season. He surpassed fellow-Australian Daniel Kickert (2003-06) . . . BYU guard Tyler Haws joined Danny Ainge as the only other player to reach 1,000 career points by his sophomore season. Jimmer Fredette, by the way, had 780 after two seasons . . . The championship is Monday.

Big Dance prospects: Gonzaga is in position for its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Saint Mary's also is in. The key game for bubble teams will be 11:30 Friday night when BYU plays a quarterfinal game against either San Diego or Pepperdine. If BYU wins that, and beats Saint Mary's in the semis the next night, the bubble will get a little more crowded.

Thursday's preview: Missouri Valley.

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