2016 men's NCAA Tournament preview

Tahron Harvey and the Eagles of Benedictine are undefeated and the No. 2 team in the country, but they haven't won an NCAA Tournament game in more than a decade.
d3photography.com photo

By Pat Coleman
Executive Editor, D3sports.com

We’ve got some wide-open spaces in this tournament, ready for an experienced program, or a hot program, to take over and make some noise in March. We’ve got some Division III royalty here for another in a long string of tournament appearances, and then we’ve got a tournament without Virginia Wesleyan for the first time in more than a decade.

This is our annual NCAA Tournament preview, where we take each bracket, we pick a surprise team that can win two games away from home to reach the Sweet 16 and a disappointment that won’t live up to the hype, either losing at home or to a lower seed.

So here we go. If this is the last NCAA Tournament preview I write for D3hoops.com (and the first one I wrote was all the way back in 1998) then let’s make it a winner.

Top left bracket

Hardin-Simmons (16-10) at Texas Lutheran (21-6), winner to Benedictine (27-0)
Pitt-Greensburg (19-9) at Ohio Wesleyan (23-4), Lynchburg (22-6) vs. Scranton (19-7)
Northwestern, Minn. (22-5) at St. Norbert (23-2), North Central, Ill. (19-7) vs. St. Olaf (17-9)
St. Vincent (22-6) at John Carroll (25-3), Alma (21-6) vs. Denison (17-11)

The head scratcher: St. Vincent at John Carroll. We talked about this in some depth on Hoopsville and it just seems like the committee forgot that both of these teams are regionally ranked when it put together this four-team pod. St. Vincent deserves to be playing Alma rather than the No. 5 team in the country right out of the gate. Or, if you want to look at it from the other angle, John Carroll earned a more favorable matchup in the first round. Take a look at this bracket: Benedictine is playing nobody, literally. Ohio Wesleyan, ranked behind JCU, is playing significantly unranked Pitt-Greensburg while St. Norbert is playing unranked Northwestern. Both St. Vincent and John Carroll have a gripe here.

Most likely to disappoint: Of the host teams, I can see a couple of chances for a host team to lose in the first weekend. I’m going to spotlight St. Norbert, however, because they are the higher seeded one, and they’re the only one hosting two teams with a legitimate chance of knocking them off. We can’t brush off Northwestern any longer, not after last season.

Surprise: This requires me to pick between Lynchburg and Scranton, two teams which are completely different in style and one of which has not been in the NCAA Tournament since 1979. I give a slight edge to Scranton and then think that the Royals have a shot to knock off Ohio Wesleyan in the second round to qualify as a surprise.

Champion: Generally I am big on a team having NCAA Tournament experience before I pick them to go deep in the tournament but in this case, I don’t know that it matters that Benedictine hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011. That’s because John Carroll hasn’t really been any better in that regard of late, and even if I like North Central’s tournament experience, they’d have to come from kind of deep in the bracket to do so. But North Central was two seconds away from taking Benedictine to overtime in December, so it can happen.

Bottom left bracket

Jonathan Patron leads Plattsburgh State off the bench with 14.2 points per game. Will home court see the Cardinals through?
Plattsburgh State athletics photo 

Husson (21-6) at Amherst (22-5), WPI (20-6) vs. Cortland (20-7)
SUNY-Old Westbury (19-8) at Susquehanna (23-4), Babson (21-5) vs. Hartwick (19-8)
Fitchburg State (18-9) at Plattsburgh State (21-5), Trinity, Conn. (19-7) vs. Johnson & Wales (26-2)
Southern Vermont (24-3) at Tufts (20-6), Franklin & Marshall (22-5) vs. Skidmore (18-8)

The head scratcher: The Babson-Hartwick game. Both teams have a bunch of 3-point shooting but of course, nobody has a player who likes to drive and is as successful at drawing contact as Babson’s Joey Flannery. He has shot almost as many free throws as the top two Hartwick players combined, and he’s made 84 percent of them, to boot. Whichever team is on in this neutral-floor game at Susquehanna is going to have a great chance to move on.

Most likely to disappoint: Susquehanna. Of course, they have the best challenger coming to their place and that makes sense, because Susquehanna was the third-best team in the Mid-Atlantic and got a significant reward by hosting. They shouldn’t get a gimme pod on top of it.

Surprise: Franklin and Marshall. People have been down on the Dips quite a bit this year and I see why but I’m banking on the three sophomore starters no longer playing like sophomores. Another thing I like is that the Diplomats are shooting better from the free throw line over their past eight games, and taking better care of the basketball as well.

Champion: This is the bracket with the question marks, as we’ve said elsewhere. Plenty of reasons to like or dislike lots of teams and I could make a case for Amherst, WPI, Susquehanna, Babson, Plattsburgh, Johnson & Wales, Tufts and F&M. The fact that half of the bracket could be a threat to advance should be a positive but really it’s an indictment of the lack of a top seed. With that in mind, when was the last time a SUNYAC team was in the Final Four? Plattsburgh has a good shot but I’m going to pick Babson to return.

Top right bracket

Ben Ryan leads Augustana in points, rebounds and Academic All-America honors as well.
Photo by Matthew McClure, d3photography.com

Westminster, Mo. (12-15) at Augustana (26-1), Hope (23-3) vs. Mount St. Joseph (18-9)
Covenant (18-9) at Emory (18-7), LaGrange (20-8)­ vs. Birmingham-Southern (22-6)
Central (19-9) at St. Thomas (24-2), Elmhurst (21-6) vs. UW-Oshkosh (18-9)
Chapman (20-6) at Whitman (22-4), winner to Whitworth (26-1)

The head scratcher: LaGrange vs. Birmingham-Southern. I mean, technically this ought not to be one of the head scratchers in the entire bracket; these teams have played before, with LaGrange winning at home 88-80. That alone is enough to consider flipping the rest on a neutral floor but I also want to take into account the fact that the Panthers have won 18 consecutive games, the third-longest active streak in Division III. LaGrange has won just seven of its past 12.

Most likely to disappoint: Whitworth. This is primarily because the Pirates have a strong possibility that they’ll face the only team that has beaten them all year. Whitworth certainly has NCAA Tournament experience in spades but Whitman will get a tournament game under its belt on Thursday and the first-round bye isn’t always a great thing for a team. Now, for Whitman to come into Whitworth and win is a different story than the Missionaries winning in Walla Walla, but they won’t suffer from any issues with confidence if they go into Whitworth on Saturday night.

Surprise: Birmingham-Southern. Although Elmhurst could figure in this discussion as well if they can return to January form.

Champion: Augustana. They’ve been on this list ever since last season. No reason to change now.

Bottom right bracket

Christopher Newport has five players who like to distribute, and Kevin Regimbal is on that list.
d3photography.com photo 

Lycoming (19-9) at Christopher Newport (26-1), Brooklyn (22-6) vs. NYU (20-5)
Keene State (18-10) at Stockton (21-6), Salisbury (21-6) vs. Middlebury (17-10)
Gwynedd Mercy (21-5) at Marietta (25-3), Oswego State (20-8) vs. Delaware Valley (20-7)
Endicott (18-10) at Catholic (22-5), Wooster (21-7) vs. Lancaster Bible (27-0)

The head scratcher: Wooster vs. Lancaster Bible. I mean, seriously – I defy you to tell me you know what Lancaster Bible will actually do in this tournament. You have no idea and neither do I.

Most likely to disappoint: Probably prefacing my next pick but I’m saying Stockton here because the Ospreys have two teams in their pod that I could see taking them down. (Middlebury being the huge wild card.)

Surprise: I like Salisbury’s chances as a road team to get out of their pod. Middlebury, for that matter, as well. The Sea Gulls have quietly put together a fine season under new head coach Andrew Sachs, with wins vs. Wooster, Virginia Wesleyan and Southern Vermont as well as two very close games with CNU. An eight-man rotation is plenty in the NCAA Tournament with media timeouts every four minutes. They’ve shot better from outside the arc as the season has gone on and they shoot well on the road.

Champion: Christopher Newport. The Captains have too much going for them right now and for a program that has a history of disappointment in March (19 NCAA Tournaments, one Elite Eight, zero Final Fours), this is an opportunity to break through and put that all in the past.

The Final Four

Chalk hasn’t been great at advancing in the men’s basketball Division III NCAA Tournament and I probably have picked too many No. 1 seeds. In the left-side bracket semifinal I’ve got two teams that they’d call “mid-majors” in Division I, and I probably have one in the lower-right bracket as well.

That leaves Augustana, which has been my No. 1 team for a few weeks now and it’s difficult for me to go against them. I like Augustana here in an all-Illinois final. Benedictine beat five CCIW teams this year in non-conference play and could pick up one more win against the behemoth next door on the way to Salem, but I see the magic running out. Division III men’s basketball hasn’t had an undefeated national champion since Bo Ryan was still coaching UW-Platteville, and I don’t see 2016 ending that trend.

Enjoy the tournament, everyone, and thanks for following Division III basketball.