By Ryan Scott
We finally have a field of 64 and the NCAA even opened the wallet for an extra flight to ensure that every possible deserving team had the chance to host. What we don't have is a clear favorite. There are many good teams, but just as many flaws. The NESCAC has five teams in the tournament, but the most controversial selection was the third WIAC entry. There are seven ten-loss teams and one undefeated. I feel like we say this every year, but this tournament seems harder to predict than any in recent memory.
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For the first time in two decades, someone other than Pat Coleman is writing this preview. I will try to honor the tradition and add my own spin; I can only hope to be worthy. We’ll break down each quadrant of the bracket, analyzing matchups, streaks, surprises, and stories. I’ll predict how the tournament will go and, as always, I will be very, very wrong. Why do we do it? Because we love basketball and there’s always hope for a perfect bracket.
Top Left Quadrant
|A.J. Edwards is a force in the post for Marietta, but he's even better when the Pioneers' guards are hitting shots.
Fle photo by Tavana Mercado, Marietta athletics
Rhodes (17-10) at Whitman (27-0); Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (22-4) vs Whitworth (23-4)
LaGrange (18-10) at Hardin-Simmons (22-6); Texas Lutheran (19-9) vs Emory (18-7)
Calvin (17-10) at Marietta (24-4); Thomas More (22-6) vs Guilford (23-5)
Albertus Magnus (23-4) at Rochester (21-4); Union (16-10) vs Wesleyan (19-6)
Best matchup: I am most intrigued by Albertus Magnus at Rochester – a matchup of opposites. AMC tends to play their game and force the opponent to beat them; Rochester often looks to take away their opponents’ strengths. AMC struggled early, but has really come on of late; Rochester is the very definition of backing into the tournament. The Albertus Magnus players have years of tournament experience; Rochester’s players don’t. I could see either team winning by 20 or the game going into 2OT. I do not know what to expect at all.
Biggest challenge: Rhodes’ offense. I know it’s very unlikely the number one overall seed will lose in the first round, but Rhodes runs a version of the Grinnell System and teams typically defend it with strong post play. Whitman has a drive and dish, guard-oriented offense, the kind that is not overly suited to defending the System. Now, Whitman’s guards are very good and should be able to handle the pressure, but if they fall into a shooting contest with Rhodes, things could get dicey. It’s going to take a carefully crafted game plan and real discipline, both to execute it and to not look forward to a fourth match-up with NWC rival Whitworth on Saturday.
What to watch: Marietta’s shooting. They have a lot of shooters and they can probably get out of the first weekend without a stellar shooting performance, but AJ Edwards will not be able to dominate deep into the tournament without the perimeter guys keeping defenses honest. If the long range buckets are falling, the Pioneers will be tough to beat. If they’re not, things could get interesting.
Most likely to surprise: I consider this to be a question of which non-host can most easily get to Salem. The answer is Wesleyan. The end of the season did not work out as they would have liked, but Marietta played Wesleyan and Whitman on back to back nights over the holidays and Wesleyan was the most impressive of the three. If they can find that form again, they might be the best team of the sixteen.
Most likely to disappoint: Whitman. Top overall seed. Undefeated. No matter how good they are, even if its national runners-up, it’ll probably be a disappointment. That is a tough weight to carry, especially give the geographic and travel issues on top of everything else. Best of luck to the Blues and hopefully this is motivation.
Who’s going to win: I am going to pick mostly chalk out of the first weekend – Whitman, Hardin-Simmons, Marietta, and Wesleyan. I think the Pioneers get a chance to avenge at least one, if not both of their Florida losses on the way to Salem. Part of me wants to pick the Blues, but I don’t think they match up well with Marietta (that loss was by one point and Marietta was not in top form). However, if HSU can get past Whitman, they might present a more formidable challenge. Regardless, for our purposes, I’m sending the OAC champs through.
Bottom Left Quadrant
|If Babson's starters are still battling injuries, that puts more pressure on Joey Flannery and the rest of the Beavers.
Photo by Dean Reid, d3photography.com
Staten Island (21-6) at Swarthmore (22-5); Morrisville (22-6) vs Christopher Newport (25-2)
Misericordia (20-7) at Ramapo (25-2); Keene State (19-9) vs Amherst (17-7)
Husson (21-6) at Babson (25-2); New Jersey City (21-7) vs Skidmore (19-7)
St. Lawrence (20-6) at St. John Fisher (22-5); Salem State (17-10) vs Tufts (20-6)
Best matchup: Skidmore and New Jersey City are both much better than their records indicate and would be scary matchups for anyone in the tournament. Instead, they get each other. Both teams are guard oriented and score about the same amount, but in very different ways. I’d pick Skidmore to win, because Edvinas Rupkus will probably be the best player in the game, but if you want high level basketball, this is the first round game to check out.
Biggest challenge: Babson’s health. The Beavers played the NEWMAC playoffs without starters Bradley Jacks and Sam Bohmiller. Obviously players will do anything to get on the floor, especially in the NCAA tournament, and Joey Flannery is one of the few players capable of putting an entire team on his back against top competition. Still, it will be very difficult to do six times in a row. Babson faces Husson and 26.7 ppg scorer Raheem Anderson, one of the few people who can match Flannery basket-for-basket, in the first round, and the winner of our best matchup in the second. Not an easy weekend if you’re two men down.
What to watch: Frank Schettino, senior point guard from Staten Island. His first assist against Swarthmore will put him into solo sixth all-time, with 823. He’s had five triple-doubles this season and helped round a fairly young team into an undefeated CUNYAC champion. The Garnet are very good, but they’ve proven to be inconsistent this season; if they stumble at all, expect Schettino to make them pay.
Most likely to surprise: Christopher Newport doesn’t count, because they were only displaced as hosts by a stellar women’s squad. I think the same goes for Tufts. Amherst doesn’t feel right for a surprise, because they’re Amherst and were preseason No. 1. I know I covered them already, but I have to go with Skidmore. The Thoroughbreds have two All-American talents and the ability to control tempo; it would be a long shot, but I think they could do it, given the right circumstances.
Most likely to disappoint: Ramapo. I love Thomas Bonacum’s game, but I’m not entirely sure we’ve yet seen all that the NJAC Player of the Year can do. With most of the team back next season, I wonder if the Roadrunners aren’t more poised to make noise in 2018. They are also in a bracket with incredibly tough perimeter defending and it's unclear how Rampo’s ball handling will stand up to the on pressure of national tournament caliber teams. I think they can beat Misericordia, but not so strongly I’d wager any money on it. From there things only get tougher.
Top Right Quadrant
|Wyatt Smith and Salisbury hope for a deep tournament run, despite not having much momentum entering the playoffs.
File photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
Farmingdale State (20-7) at Middlebury (24-3); Cabrini (19-7) vs Lycoming (23-4)
Nichols (23-5) at Neumann (25-2); Endicott (22-6) vs Salisbury (20-7)
Medaille (21-6) at Susquehanna (21-5); MIT (21-6) vs Eastern Connecticut (20-8)
Becker (19-8) at Williams (19-9); Oswego State (21-6) vs Scranton (21-6)
Best matchup: Eastern Connecticut vs MIT is not a sexy pick, but it’s incredibly interesting. These are under-the-radar northeast teams with early-season struggles and strong February performances. They might not win a lot of games, but in one, they are a tough out. Hugh Lindo from ECSU is our national active career rebounding leader and found his offensive game this season. Engineers sophomore Bradley Jomard missed thirteen games in the middle of the season, but returned scoring less, facilitating more; they've given Babson three great games. These are two teams from whom I don’t know what to expect, but would not be surprised by any level of success.
Biggest challenge: Middlebury's post opposition. Middlebury’s guys are good; I feel bad putting this in the ‘challenge’ category, but they couldn’t have gotten a worse draw to test the Panthers’ inside game. Farmingdale State has two guys averaging 9.5 rpg and there’s a potential for a second round matchup with rebounding wunderkind, Tyheim Monroe, followed by, perhaps, Wyatt Smith and Salisbury. Clearly Middlebury has held its own this year and the NESCAC is no slouch when it comes to big men, but the Panthers’ starting power forward and leading rebounder transferred to Occidental after first semester and it seems like it would be a miracle if that didn’t end up hurting them at some point. It’s something to keep an eye on, anyway.
What to watch: Nichols at Neumann. The sixth best scoring offense hosting the ninth. There will be points here. The Bison are incredibly young – two 20 ppg scorers, sophomore Marcos Echevarria and freshman Deante Bruton – and finally made the NCAA tournament after years of regular season conference championships. Neumann has been getting disrespected for a weak schedule all year and seem to show up most in the highest profile games. I don’t know if this game will be pretty, but it will be fun to watch, even if Neumann is ahead by 20.
Most likely to surprise: I could see Salisbury winning this bracket. They have the talent to do so, but they’ve been so highly ranked most of the year, it doesn’t feel like a true surprise. I’m going with Oswego State. Brian Sortino is a great player and leader; he can score and distribute. He has experience from a good tourney run last year. Coach Jason Leone told me in December he thought his guys still had to define their roles. I think they may have figured it out. The Lakers have a hard road – Scranton, Williams, maybe Middlebury – but I think it’s as favorable a draw as any team that will be the underdog in every round.
Most likely to disappoint: I know Pat put them in this category last year, and I know Dave McHugh vehemently disagrees with me on this, but I find Susquehanna very shaky. They lost a lot of production from last year and while Steven Weidlich is a talented scorer, I’m not sure the teamhas made up for it. I was unimpressed by the Landmark this year and the River Hawks lost too many games in it. Their draw is not nearly as tough as last year, but they’ve got more expectations than any of the sixteen in this bracket, save Middlebury. I think it’ll be hard to live up to them.
Who’s going to win: I may have just talked myself into it, but I am going with Salisbury for a trip to Salem. Hear me out: yes, they lost seven games, but four of those were to Ramapo, Hardin-Simmons, and CNU. They backed into the tournament with three losses in four games, but they were missing significant pieces to injury. Middlebury is excellent; I have been in their corner most of the season, but it feels like they’re a prime candidate for an inexplicable loss. Williams, Susquehanna, Neumann, and Scranton all have serious questions and consistency issues. On a good night, the Sea Gulls are a knock down defensive team with good inside-outside balance and senior leadership. They have the makings of a surprise and I need one in my final four.
Bottom Right Quadrant
|Since transferring to UW-River Falls, Alex Herink has lifted the Falcons to new heights.
Photo by Wade Gardner, d3photography.com
Bethel (21-6) at UW-River Falls (24-3); Wartburg (19-9) vs Benedictine (23-4)
Northwestern (Minn.) (20-7) at UW-Whitewater (21-6); St. Thomas (19-7) vs Augustana (19-8)
UW-Oshkosh (17-10) at Hope (21-6); Ripon (20-5) vs Washington U. (20-5)
Westminster (Mo.) (19-8) at Hanover (23-3); North Central (Ill.) (17-10) vs Wooster (21-7)
Best matchup: Augustana and St. Thomas graduated eight and six seniors, respectively, from last year’s squads. This year’s young teams struggled to find footing, with flashes of brilliance and periods of confusion. Both were defeated in conference tournaments, and, oh yeah, St. Thomas knocked out Augustana in the Elite 8 last year. The talent in this matchup may or may not be elite, but the intensity and preparation will be at championship levels.
Biggest challenge: Ty Sabin. Sabin is the active career leader in points scored – across all NCAA men's divisions. He has, for a few seasons, been a one man team, but his supporting cast has stepped up in a big way this year and Sabin himself has grown into much more of a team player. He scored 40, with just one three pointer, at Whitewater earlier this year, so it's not just good numbers against bad teams; he also buried an ungodly 8-12 three pointers on the way to 50 in his conference semifinal. On paper, the Red Hawks are no match for the likes of WashU or River Falls, but one transcendent night from one supremely talented scorer can really give a coach headaches.
What to watch: Wooster has won at least one game in eight straight NCAA Tournaments. In the entire history of Division III, only Maryville and Amherst last decade and Potsdam of the 1980s have won in nine consecutive. The Scots are technically the favorite against CCIW champ North Central, but that game is, in reality, a toss-up, at best. Wooster and Steve Moore, who won his 800th game in the NCAC championship, have never cut down the nets in Salem, but they also don’t ever go out easily. The streak might end Friday, or they could still be playing in the second weekend – either way, it’s something to watch.
Most likely to surprise: If you’ve been reading or listening to me this season, my surprise is no real surprise. I sat courtside in Salem last year looking at Benedictine’s roster and the underclassmen on the court and said, “This team is good enough to get back here again.” I believe that. The Eagles have had three players score 30+ points in a game this year, and a fourth, Adam Reynolds, who hit for 27 in the conference championship game last weekend. They might have three of the four best players in a potential second round matchup with River Falls and they definitely have as much NCAA tournament experience as anyone in the field.
Most likely to disappoint: Whitewater has all the talent in the world and they may even get out of this weekend intact, but I think a likely sweet sixteen loss will come as a disappointment for the Warhawks and their fans. Expectations are very high – and they should be – but this team has not come together with enough consistency to do the things they’re capable of doing.
Who’s going to win: I might pick Benedictine in the bracket challenge, but it seems irresponsible when representing D3hoops.com. The truth is, River Falls’ 24-3 is the most impressive record posted by any team this season. Middlebury might have had a better SOS and Oshkosh might have played a tougher schedule, shoot, Whitman hasn't lost at all, but the gauntlet the Falcons ran through this year, with just minor scrapes and bruises is pretty formidable – more formidable, really, that their potential path through this bracket. I love Benedictine, but I hate their second round matchup. I’m not sold on WashU as a final four team and Whitewater has not quite lived up to billing. I expect both of those teams, along with Wooster, to be in the sectionals, but River Falls will come out on top.
This will be my second trip to Salem and I’m looking forward to whatever games I am privileged to see, but there will be a real sense of pride if Babson plays Marietta and River Falls meets Salisbury. That second matchup could be 25-24 at halftime and both teams would be comfortable. Alex Herink and Wyatt Smith battling would be a treat to watch. I think River Falls comes out ahead, though, and makes the championship game.
Marietta is easy on the eyes; they play beautiful basketball – lots of passing and movement – while Babson typically wins down and dirty. I won’t call it ugly because there’s something special about what they do, but it’s very much an execution versus results decision and we’re in a results game. Mareitta graduates a lot of talent, but I see this more as a trip to set up the future than one that pays off now.
Babson – River Falls in the final might actually be high scoring. Despite both teams' playing physical basketball in typically physical conferences, these guys can put up points and trading buckets would be a wonderful way to end the season. Assuming Babson’s full complement of players are on the floor, their experience, confidence, and talent is just too much to overcome. It will give plenty of motivation for the Falcons next year, when they bring back six of their eight rotation players, and be a perfect cap for Babson’s six seniors.
(Or maybe this is all comically ignorant and we’ll see Hanover top Rochester for the title.)