By Gordon Mann
Deputy Managing Editor, D3hoops.com
|UW-Stevens Point has had a strong run this season
so far but was not the top-ranked team in the Central Region when
the regular season ended.
UW-Stevens Point athletics photo
Normally Pat Coleman writes both the men’s and women’s NCAA tournament previews. To give him an extra couple hours of sleep -- or more likely an extra couple hours to work on something else – I’ll take over this year.
This tournament bracket should play well on Division III basketball’s islands, those parts of the country where there is only one conference so the first weekend of the NCAA tournament usually looks like an extension of the regular season. That’s not the case for 2011. The Northwest Conference teams from Oregon are in separate pods. So are the American Southwest Conference teams from Texas and Louisiana. The two teams from North Carolina and Georgia don’t have to play each other. While the Southern California teams, Chapman and Occidental, still end up together, Chapman gets to host and play someone different.
This bracket probably plays less well in the Great Lakes where Hope’s regional would make a pretty good Final Four. Entering the tournament undefeated doesn’t equate to an easier road to the Final Four. That’s not a change from prior years – remember undefeated Hope at undefeated Howard Payne in 2007? But precedent probably doesn’t make the folks from Denison or Thomas More feel much better.
Hey, you can’t please all the people all the time. Speaking of which, let’s make some picks that are bound to displease at least a few of you.
This is where we pick a Cinderella team, a surprise team that ideally can win two games on someone else's floor to advance to the Sweet 16. We’ll also pick a disappointment and a champion. We’ll pose a big question in each bracket that goes beyond which team will win a particular game. We’ll offer a first round toss up that could go either way. And we’ll toss out a marquee matchup that would provide fun story lines in later rounds.
As an added bonus, I’ll be at the Final Four in Bloomington while Pat’s in Salem. So when your team advances through the bracket and proves me wrong, you can tell me how wrong I was in person. That’s one more reason for you to look forward to the Final Four.
Illinois Wesleyan Bracket
Webster (17-10) at Illinois Wesleyan
(23-4), UW-La Crosse (23-4) vs. Wisconsin Lutheran (25-3)
Minnesota-Morris (21-6) at Coe (24-3), Lewis and Clark (21-6) vs. Howard Payne (21-7)
St. Norbert (23-2) at UW-Stevens Point (25-2), Simpson (23-2) vs. Concordia-Moorhead (21-6)
Louisiana College (24-3) at Chapman (22-5), George Fox (22-5) vs. Occidental (19-8)
Big question: Will Illinois Wesleyan have a chance win the NCAA tournament without leaving home? This is the fourth year in a row where this is a legitimate possibility. Hope hosted the national semifinals in 2008 and 2009. But the Flying Dutch were sent flying to Texas and driving to Kentucky for the tournament’s second weekend and were eliminated both times. Illinois Wesleyan had a chance to host all six games in last year’s NCAA tournament but UW-Stevens Point beat the Titans in the Sweet 16. Illinois Wesleyan is arguably in position to host all its tournament games again. Whoever wins the Chapman pod is too geographically isolated to host. The Titans were ahead of UW-Stevens Point in the last public regional rankings, so IWU has the edge there. Coe could make a case for hosting the second weekend since the Kohawks were ranked first in the West.
Toss-up: Lewis and Clark vs. Howard Payne. We’ve know that teams from the NWC and ASC can make deep tournament runs. But it’s hard to gauge these two teams since they mostly play their conference mates. Howard Payne seems like a different team since it lost to Coe on a neutral floor in December. Lewis and Clark’s non-conference results are hard to decipher since so many are against out-of-Division opponents. Add in the fact that both teams have a long trip to play this game on a neutral floor and it’s anyone’s guess who will win.
Marquee matchup: How about a rematch between Illinois Wesleyan and UW-Stevens Point in the Elite 8 where the Pointers would have another chance to prevent the Titans from playing for the national title on their own floor? Or how about a sectional final between the last two undefeated national champions, George Fox and Howard Payne?
Most likely to disappoint: Chapman is the biggest underdog of the four teams hosting games this weekend. The Panthers are the third or fourth best team in that regional, at least on paper. They’ve already lost to Occidental and George Fox this year. But the bigger disappointment would be if Coe didn’t make it to the round of 16. The Kohawks are the top team in the West and they went 4-1 against NCAA tournament participants. That said, until the IIAC champion makes a deep NCAA tournament run, the top team from this conference looks more vulnerable than the top teams in the CCIW or WIAC.
Cinderella story: Howard Payne could win two games on the road or the Yellow Jackets could be done on Friday night. The same goes for their first round opponent, Lewis and Clark. So we’ll let these two slug it out on Friday night and the winner gets another game and the Cinderella crown for the assumed second round showdown with Coe.
Champion: UW-Stevens Point. The Pointers ripped through one of the toughest conferences in the country with a 16-0 record. Since beating UW-La Crosse by two in early January, they have basically won the rest of their games by double-digits. They have excellent post players, athletic guards and have shown they can win at Illinois Wesleyan if it comes to that. So UW-Stevens Point over the Titans in the sectional final.
Thomas More bracket
Piedmont (20-8) at Thomas More (28-0); UW-Whitewater (21-6) vs.
Mount Union (25-3)
DePauw (25-3) at Hope (26-2); Denison (28-0) vs. Washington U. (20-5)
La Roche (23-4) at Calvin (24-4); Chicago (22-3) vs. Hanover (25-1)
Gallaudet (24-3) at Juniata (24-3); Greensboro (26-2) vs. St. Vincent (24-4)
Big question: “Why aren’t we hosting?” That was likely the question that Denison and Chicago fans asked when they saw the bracket. The Big Red went undefeated in NCAC play and were rewarded with a first round match up against the defending national champion. Chicago went undefeated in the UAA and got shipped to Calvin. Expect this question to resurface next weekend between Hope and Calvin fans if the Flying Dutch and Knights reach the Sweet 16 and Thomas More does not.
Toss-up: Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater. If the Purple Raiders can stop the run and give their quarterback a chance to throw against the Warhawks’ pass rush, then – oh, wait. Wrong sport. Well, this one should be just as close as recent Stagg Bowls. The top two scorers for the Purple Raiders are guards Kori Wiedt and Rosa Lamattina. The Warhawks are led by their senior center Dana Thompson. Whoever advances will be a tough second round draw for host Thomas More.
Marquee matchup: Hope vs. Calvin in the Elite 8. The Knights took two of three from the Flying Dutch, winning both games in Grand Rapids. Calvin only hosted the MIAA title game because it won a coin flip the previous week. And then Calvin beat Hope on a near buzzer beater. Up the stakes with a Final Four trip on the line and this game would be a lot of fun, if it came to pass.
Most likely to disappoint: The Hope regional. Not because the games won’t be good. And not because the Flying Dutch will lose, though we normally reserve this category for a host team that won’t make it through the first weekend. But three of these four teams are accustomed to deep tournament runs and Denison had every reason to hope for one after going 28-0. Whichever team emerges will have survived the toughest regional of the entire tournament. And the other three teams will head or stay home with disappointment.
Cinderella story: St. Vincent. The Bearcats wouldn’t be a better fit for the Cinderella role if they played the first game wearing glass slippers. The Bearcats tragically lost their coach Kristen Zawacki to a heart attack early in the season. They are NCAA playoff newbies since this is the first year the program was eligible for this tournament. They are playing close enough to home to fill Juniata’s gym if the students and college community are so inclined. And they even have the motivation of avenging an earlier loss if they play Juniata in the second round. The Eagles beat the Bearcats 86-71 in Huntingdon, Pa., earlier this year.
Champion: Thomas More. If we listed all these teams alphabetically, I’d pick Hope as the most likely to win the bracket. But expecting the Flying Dutch to beat DePauw, the Denison/Washington U winner, Thomas More and an Elite 8 opponent in the span of nine days is expecting a lot, especially if the last two games are on the road. I’ve seen the Saints host and lose two Sweet 16 games, including one to Hope in 2008. As Thomas More coach Brian Neal discussed with Around the Nation, maybe the Saints’ time has come.
Neumann (20-7) at Lebanon Valley (25-2); Randolph-Macon (22-6)
vs. Bridgewater State (19-7)
Keuka (24-2) at William Paterson (24-3); Colby (21-5) vs. Stevens (21-6)
York, Pa. (16-12) at Christopher Newport (25-3); Johns Hopkins (21-5) vs. Richard Stockton (17-9)
Vassar (16-11) at Kean (22-4); Messiah (19-7) at Western Connecticut (23-3)
Big question: Is this Kean’s year to make the Final Four? The Cougars have fallen one step short of that goal three of the last four years. Watching this year’s squad, Kean has exceptional athleticism at guard. The Cougars also have one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the country, Tiffany Patrick. Factor in the loss of Tiffany Davis, who was the team's second-leading scorer in her brief tenure on the roster after transferring in midseason, and the Cougars’ size advantage over Lebanon Valley and Kean is clearly the favorite here. Then again, who would’ve predicted Kean would lose to Rutgers-Newark in the NJAC semifinals?
Toss-up: Colby vs. Stevens. The White Mules went a respectable 3-4 against NCAA tournament participants and they have a very solid front court in forwards Rachael Mack and Jules Kowalski. Plus they have experience playing tight games in the NCAA tournament. Colby beat Husson by three in the first round last year and then lost to Babson by three in double overtime. The Ducks play great defense and have good enough outside shooting to draw defenders away from the rim, giving their forwards room to operate. Stevens will also have a marginal home court advantage since William Paterson is only 20 miles from Hoboken, N.J.
Marquee matchup: William Paterson vs. Lebanon Valley. The Pioneers are led by point guard Brianna Lucas, a 5-4 dynamo who can score from anywhere on the floor. Similarly the Flying Dutch are led by Andrea Hoover, a 5-5 point guard who creates havoc for opposing defenses by cutting to the rim for two or feeding open teammates for three. A Sweet 16 matchup between these two would be sweet, indeed.
Most likely to disappoint: William Paterson. The Pioneers’ last appearance in the NCAA tournament didn’t end well. They lost by 31 points to Mary Washington on a neutral court last March. While their 24-3 record is nice, they are just 1-3 against NCAA tournament participants and two of those losses came at home. William Paterson will get past Keuka on Friday, but beating the Colby/Stevens winner in the second round isn’t a given.
Cinderella story: Western Connecticut. The Colonials have flown under the radar this year but take a look at their three losses. They lost by six at undefeated Babson. They lost by three at perennial NCAA tournament team Mount St. Mary. They got beaten soundly at Southern Maine, which is traditionally a tough place to play. But they won all three games against Eastern Connecticut, which also made the NCAA tournament. Preseason All-American Melissa Teel, who is ranked in the Top 50 nationally for scoring and rebounding, has been especially impressive lately. Teel scored 77 points and grabbed 37 rebounds in the last two games of the Little East Conference tournament.
Champion: Kean finally breaks through.
Husson (16-11) at Amherst (26-1); Baruch
(23-5) vs. Eastern Connecticut (20-8)
Daniel Webster (18-10) at Rochester (20-5); Williams (21-5) vs. Muhlenberg (21-5)
Salve Regina (25-3) at Bowdoin (22-5); Emmanuel (21-7) vs. Mount St. Mary (25-2)
DeSales (19-8) at Geneseo State (25-5); Medaille (22-4) vs. Babson (27-0)
Big question: Will anyone challenge Amherst? We actually posed this question last year, too. Williams answered the bell and only lost to its archrival by five. Turn the calendar a year forward and the Lord Jeffs are still beating everyone by large margins. The only teams to stay within single digits of the Lord Jeffs this season are Kean (Amherst’s lone loss) and Williams (seven point loss in the NESCAC semifinals). Incidentally the Ephs are in this bracket, but they’ll have to get past Rochester in Western New York first.
Toss up: Baruch vs. Eastern Connecticut. Coach Machli Joseph always puts together a challenging non-conference schedule for the Bearcats and he did so again this year. Baruch’s 3-3 record against NCAA tournament participants shows they can give any team in this bracket a fight. Eastern Connecticut also played six games against NCAA tournament participants. The Warriors only won one of those games (73-55 over Emmanuel) but playing in the Little East Conference prepares the Warriors a little better for the NCAA tournament than playing in the CUNYAC does for Baruch.
Marquee matchup: Bowdoin vs. Babson. In the first New England region rankings, Babson was undefeated and slotted right ahead of Bowdoin. The Beavers stayed undefeated but they didn’t stay in front of the Polar Bears, at least not in the rankings we’ve seen. In fact Babson was fifth in the last public rankings behind Amherst, Bowdoin and two other NESCAC teams. Were the Beavers underrated or appropriately slotted behind teams with tough schedules? Having a matchup between Babson and Bowdoin on a neutral floor would help answer that question.
Most likely to disappoint: Geneseo State. As impressive as the Blue Knights were in the SUNYAC, they don’t have a signature non-conference win. They played seven non-conference games, two against teams with a record above .500 and lost them both. Geneseo’s first round draw is a team that has won games like this before. DeSales beat Ithaca on its home floor to open the tournament last year. Even if the Blue Knights beat DeSales, it’s hard to pick them over Babson in the second round.
Cinderella: Can Babson really be considered a Cinderella story if it wins two games this weekend when the Beavers are undefeated and ranked in the Top 10 nationally? Probably not, but there aren’t many other road teams who could win two games this weekend. Mount St. Mary has never reached the Sweet 16 and Bowdoin’s a tough place to win on the road in the NCAA tournament. That leaves us with Williams if it can get past Muhlenberg and surprise Rochester in the second round.
The Bloomington Bracket
Amherst vs. Kean. The Lord Jeffs have the motivation of their earlier loss to the Cougars. They have the experience of playing in the Final Four at Illinois Wesleyan. And the national championship game is to Amherst what the Final Four is to Kean – that prize that’s just eluded them the past couple years. So I’ll take Amherst here.
UW-Stevens Point vs.Thomas More. The Pointers will be the de facto home team at Illinois Wesleyan and, like Amherst, they will have played in this gym before, perhaps as recently as the previous weekend. As a program, Thomas More is trying to build depth and size but Stevens Point already has that. So the Pointers advance.
Amherst vs. UW-Stevens Point. G.P. Gromacki coaching against Shirley Egner for the national championship, just like in 2002 when Gromacki’s St. Lawrence team lost a 67-65 heartbreaker to Egner’s Pointers. In these spots, I almost always take the Central team in the Final Four. And I will again here.
UW-Stevens Point wins its third Walnut and Bronze.