|The Eagles have what it takes to earn a seventh straight NCAA tournament bid in the traditionally one-bid UMAC.
Photo by Russ and Kathy Nelson
For college basketball fans, conference tournament week represents one of the most exciting times of the year. With seasons on the line and often matchups of high-caliber teams, games are full of emotion and meaning.
If you're a basketball purist, though, perhaps part of you questions the importance placed on them.
In Division III especially, where fewer at-large bids are available, awarding an automatic NCAA tournament berth for as few as two wins feels a bit unjust when one team has already separated itself over more than two months of conference action.
In the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, a traditional one-bid league, this conversation arises almost every February since the conference tournament was put in place in 1999, then became part of NCAA Division III in 2008-09 and began getting automatic bids in 2011.
Tim Grosz can see it both ways. Since 2011, Coach Grosz's Northwestern Eagles have won five of seven regular season titles and all six conference tournaments.
"I don't think the No. 1 seeds like the conference tournament nearly as much," Grosz said. "I think you do prove over the course of – in our case – a 16-game schedule that you were the best team by winning the conference outright. But I do understand the excitement a conference tournament brings."
Northwestern again finds itself as the favorite this season, having won the UMAC with a 13-3 record – a game better than Bethany Lutheran and St. Scholastica – but needing two wins this week to dance.
"It's good, it's just a little harder especially in our league," Grosz said. "It's always been just a one-bid league, too. If you were a two-bid league somehow, you'd probably have a little different feeling, too, but we've always been just a one-bid league to this point.
"That does make it a little tricky, but it's the way it is and you've got to go out and earn it and prove you're the best team. I would say in our case this year, our conference is very, very competitive and very, very close. So maybe also it's who's playing the best at the end of the year and in the conference tournament is going to get to move on. Maybe that's the best representation for your conference, too, in the national tournament."
Northwestern is used to having a target in the league and being an underdog nationally. In six NCAA tournament appearances, the Eagles have won twice – both in 2015.
So, as you're keeping an eye on the UMAC tournament – which also involves Bethany Lutheran, St. Scholastica and Minnesota Morris (which beat Northland on Monday) – and thinking about upset picks for your bracket, which factors should you keep in mind?
For Grosz, three program tenets also define winning in the postseason.
Teams that are locked in and focused on the defensive end can overcome size disadvantages with solid rotations.
In a 2015 second-round upset win over Elmhurst, Northwestern held a team with a 110.9 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) to 98.5 in an 84-75 victory.
The Bluejays shot 35.2 percent from 3-point range during the season but were just 4 of 18 (22.2) in this one.
Now, of course teams are going to have off nights and that could have been part of it. But Northwestern shot 38.3 percent, including 8 of 28 from downtown and still won by nine.
At St. Scholastica, 17th-year head coach David Staniger knows this will be important if his team is where it wants to be at the end of the week.
The Saints lost twice to semifinal opponent Bethany Lutheran by scores of 91-76 and 88-79. Last year as the top seed, CSS dropped the conference final to Northwestern, 93-70.
With experience back, including leading scorer and much-improved defender Brandon Newman, Staniger expects a focused group this week.
"Being connected defensively (is the key)," Staniger said. "Just being vocal, talking all the time. Make sure our focus is right, our discipline.
"You get to tournament time and guys try to do a little bit too much. Just keeping your discipline about you, doing your job and trusting the other guys, that they're going to help, they're going to rotate."
But practicing defense can be grueling and for guys that aren't 100 percent late in the year, it's not always the smartest option.
CSS hopes to get back junior Joe Stark this week after he missed both games last weekend.
"It's been a fine line to walk where you want to rest guys but you still need the reps and you still need to stay sharp," Staniger said. "So that's been a balancing act a little bit. We've given guys extra days here and there. We've kind of cut down on practice time, get in, get out, let's make sure we're taking care of ourselves"
Defensive rating: 1. Northwestern (94.6), 2. Bethany Lutheran (105.7), 3. Minnesota Morris (109.4) 4. St. Scholastica (110.6)
You have to end possessions at one shot to win big games.
Not only are second-chance points valuable on the scoreboard, they can be demoralizing for teams playing long stretches of defense against athletic teams this late in the season.
It's a major factor in erasing deficits, too. More rebounds equals more time equals more possessions equals more opportunities to score.
That's where experience – like Northwestern has with its all-senior starting five – can especially make a difference.
"I told the guys, in the playoffs, if you get down 10, 12 points, you can't panic," Grosz said. "You've just got to stick with the game plan and try to execute it and I've kind of seen that all year with our guys. We've been down double digits in multiple games and be able to come back and win our fair share of those or make it really tight in the end. I think that's the biggest thing where seniors who have been through the battle aren't going to panic."
Defensive rebounding rate: 1. Northwestern (76.1), 2. Bethany Lutheran (75.8), 3. St. Scholastica (72.1), 4. Minnesota Morris (69.7)
Offensive rebounding rate: 1. Northwestern (31.6), 2. Minnesota Morris (28.3), 3. Bethany Lutheran (27.1), 4. St. Scholastica (26.5)
3. Taking care of the ball
In Northwestern's 71-70 NCAA first-round win against St. Thomas in 2015, the Eagles turned it over just four times.
So while the Eagles didn't shoot the lights out (45.2 percent, 35 percent from deep), they had plenty of opportunities.
This, again, is where teams with experience often have an advantage. Panic doesn't set in and possessions aren't rushed when emotions are running high.
"Playing in and fortunate to win a lot of these games throughout the year, I think we play with emotion without being emotional, if that makes sense," Grosz said. "I think there's an evenness about us as we play, where we don't get too high, don't get too low."
Turnover rate: 1. Northwestern (11.2), 2. St. Scholastica (12.9) 3. Bethany Lutheran (14.9), 4. Minnesota Morris (15.8)
Beyond that, of course, you have to score efficiently.
First-year Bethany Lutheran coach Matt Fletcher has a team that's clicking offensively right now.
Since a weekend in December in which the Vikings were beaten on the road by Minnesota Morris (96-78) and Crown (64-57), BLC has turned things around. They've won six in a row and 10 of their last 11, including a 92-82 win in the regular-season finale against Northwestern.
Bethany Lutheran leads the conference in scoring and is second in field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage – that part of the game so many fans look to when thinking of Cindarella stories.
"I think the guys finally are expecting to perform at that type of level," Fletcher said.
"After that week (in December), we got back and met as a team and met with individuals and after that it just kind of clicked for them. I think they just kind of decided, we're either going to go all in or it's not going to be very good."
Fletcher, of course, is excited for a chance to get an NCAA tournament bid – and possibly another game against Northwestern.
"I think it's a good way to sum up the season and it helps put your team on the floor when you should be playing your best basketball, so it gives you a chance to put it all together at the end of the year," Fletcher said."
Whether it's fair or not, champions in one-bid leagues like the UMAC have to prove this week they're the conference's best representative.
It's more fun that way for us, anyway.
Ranking the tournaments
Which West Region conference tournaments give us the most intrigue? Here's how I rank them.
1. MIAC: There's a lot to take in here.
For one, an automatic bid is the safest route for just about everyone. Only St. Thomas appears in the latest regional rankings at No. 3.
Then you have the co-champs dynamic, with Bethel tying UST at the top, but having been swept in the regular season and looking for a third shot in the championship.
And then your third seed, Carleton, has won 13 games in a row, including double-digit wins over the top two seeds, and might even be considered the favorite this week.
That's not even mentioning No. 4 and 5 seeds St. John's and Hamline carrying offenses that can explode at any time and a sixth seed, Augsburg, featuring player of the year candidate Collin Olmscheid.
2. NWC: Give me Whitman-Whitworth round 3 please.
Anytime you get a top-four matchup nationally, it's a must-watch.
3. IIAC: No clear favorite in this one-bid league, and the co-champs played an absolute barn burner in the regular-season finale – Nebraska Wesleyan's 101-94 win over Loras.
4. UMAC: A very competitive league that's been dominated by Northwestern recently. Can someone else grab the league's lone NCAA bid.
5. SCIAC: CMS clinched the regular-season title, but fell out of the conference rankings and lost three of four at one point without starting guard Scott Lynds.
That's not to say this won't be interesting. All four teams entered the week within two games of each other in the regular-season standings and Cal Lutheran is absolutely rolling, having won six in a row.
1. NWC: Are all three ranked teams assured a spot in the NCAA tournament? That's hard to say.
But any time you get a top-25 meeting in the semifinals, plus potentially another in the championship, you're going to see quality basketball.
Plus, Lewis and Clark is out to prove it belongs in this conversation.
2. SCIAC: The teams at the top have beaten each other up all year. What happens when teams have to play regular-season finales earlier in the week in which the regular-season title is on the line?
3. MIAC: Two ranked teams that get byes – St. Thomas and Gustavus – and are favored to meet in the championship. Plus, there's familiarity with both coaches being UST alumni.
But No. 3 seed Bethel could throw a wrench in those plans, too – the Royals dropped only two conference games this year.
4. IIAC: Wartburg has been dominant, but if Luther can make the championship, that atmosphere should be outstanding.
The Norse brought dozens of students to the regular-season rivalry meeting at Wartburg and are the only IIAC team to knock off the Knights this year.
5. UMAC: UW-Superior still hasn't lost a conference game entering the league.
Minnesota Morris lost only to the Yellowjackets in UMAC play this year, but it was by a combined 22 points.