Sunday, March 2, 2014

It's tournament time!

With the exception of Liberty, teams from Virginia haven't exactly played themselves into prime position as the first wave of conference tournaments kick off this week. But there's are reasons why they call this time of year March Madness. So here's hoping at least one of our lower-seeded hopefuls can get hot and go on a run.

Big South
Tuesday through Sunday, HTC Center, Conway, S.C.
2013 champion: Liberty
Seeds: 1. High Point; 2. Liberty; 3. Winthrop; 4. Campbell; 5. Gardner-Webb; 6. Coastal Carolina; 7. Presbyterian; 8. UNC Asheville; 9. Radford; 10. Longwood; 11. Charleston Southern
Of local interest:
Tuesday's first round
No. 8 UNC Asheville vs. No. 9 Radford, 11 a.m.
No. 7 Presbyterian vs. No. 10 Longwood, 1 p.m.
Thursday's quarterfinal
Presbyterian-Longwood winner vs. No. 2 Liberty, 6 p.m.

Radford and UNC Asheville have the distinction of playing in the very first women's basketball conference tournament game in the country, which means the loser will be the first D-I team in America to pack up its gear for the season. Fortunately this is a good matchup for Radford (7-22) as the Highlanders got one of their five conference wins against UNC Asheville and led by three with less than four minutes remaining before faltering in the teams' other meeting. A key will be the battle of the boards - UNC Asheville is one of the few teams the undersized Highlanders can outrebound. If Radford can take care of the glass - and our girl Ayana Avery gets hot - we like the Highlanders' chances of setting up a quarterfinal date with top-seeded High Point.

Disappointing Longwood (8-21) staggers into this tournament having lost five of its last six. They did split with Presbyterian during the regular season, though, and since the Blue Hose aren't going to overwhelm anyone with offense, the Lancers should have opportunities to advance. Still, we've never been quite sure what to expect for the 2013-14 Lancers. We like their talent, and we know they've had injuries. But for some reason, the sum of this team has turned out to be less than the individual parts would suggest. That said, Longwood was a surprise tournament finalist a year ago. So who knows? Maybe the Lancers can get on another roll.

Finally, for a while there we thought Liberty, which has won 15 of the last 17 Big South titles, might finally be vulnerable. Then the Lady Flames closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak, using some devastating 3-point shooting to go with their usual low-point dominance. We still think this is the field's best chance to steal a title before Liberty seizes full control of this conference again. But as they proven the last couple of weeks, these Lady Flames ain't giving up the crown easily.

Big South Tournament bracket
Atlantic 10
Wednesday through Sunday, Richmond Coliseum
2013 champion: St. Joseph's
Seeds: 1. Dayton; 2. St. Bonaventure; 3. Fordham; 4. George Washington; 5. St. Joseph's; 6. Duquesne; 7. La Salle; 8. VCU; 9. Richmond; 10. Saint Louis; 11. Rhode Island; 12. George Mason; 13. UMass (top four seeds earn byes; the No. 12 and 13 seeds face off in a play-in game)
Of local interest:
Wednesday's play-in game
No. 12 George Mason vs. No. 13 UMass, 7 p.m.
Thursday's first round
No. 8 VCU vs. No. 9 Richmond, noon

It figures that the two Richmond schools would meet each other in the debut game of the tournament's three-year run in Richmond (although if the league had its way, we're sure this game wouldn't be played at noon on a weekday). Richmond beat VCU once and almost did it twice, as Gen Okoro's potential game-winning putback came a split-second after the final buzzer and VCU held on 63-62 in the teams' first meeting. The Spiders have been hammered by injuries but seemingly have gotten tougher with each blow. As for VCU, while a 9-7 conference record represents tremendous progress from last season, it's actually a bit of a disappointment given that the Rams were at one point 2-0 in the league and riding a 13-game winning streak. That the Rams weren't able to run through the conference isn't terribly surprising, though. Their uptempo "Fury" style demands superior conditioning, mentally and physically. Very few freshmen are prepared to go this hard this long, and the Rams are loaded with freshmen. Fortunately for their tournament hopes, the Rams haven't played since Feb. 26 so Richmond should be braced for full-fledged Fury. Win or lose, VCU (21-8) will probably be invited to the WNIT. Richmond needs two tournament victories to guarantee finishing at .500 or better, one of the criteria for getting a WNIT at-large bid.

George Mason's Patriots have just one conference win, but it was an emphatic 101-73 beatdown of the same UMass bunch they'll meet for the right to get into this tournament's main draw. If they can do anything close to this again, they'll advance to meet No. 5 St. Joseph's on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

Atlantic 10 tournament bracket

Wednesday through Sunday, Greensboro Coliseum
2013 champion: Duke
Seeds: 1. Notre Dame; 2. Duke; 3. Maryland; 4. N.C. State; 5. Syracuse; 6. North Carolina; 7. Georgia Tech; 8. Miami; 9. Florida State; 10. Virginia; 11. Wake Forest; 12. Virginia Tech; 13. Clemson; 14. Pittsburgh; 15. Boston College (top four seeds receive double-byes; seeds 5-9 earn byes).
Of local interest:
Wednesday's first round
No. 12 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Clemson, 1 p.m.
No. 10 Virginia vs. No. 15 Boston College, 3:30 p.m.

Talk about ideal matchups. On Thursday, Virginia Tech beat Clemson by 26 points. Not saying this one will come that easily, but the Hokies (14-15) really should win this rematch. Assuming they do, they would then face No. 5 Syracuse, a team that hammered the visiting Hokies by 25 points. If Tech can win that one, the Hokies would guarantee finishing with no worse than a .500 overall record and would be WNIT-eligible. So that's the deal - two Tech wins and the Hokies will almost certainly play in another postseason tournament. One or no wins and the season is over. But hey, no pressure.

As for Virginia, we're not sure what happens to the Cavaliers once February hits. Last season, Virginia went 1-8 after February 1. To be fair, that team was ravaged by injuries. But this year, a relatively healthy Cavaliers team has gone 2-6 since the second month of the year started and was flat-out crushed over the final 20 minutes of Thursday's Senior Night game against Miami and Sunday's regular-season finale at Florida State. Frankly, it's a mystery why this team is finishing so poorly. Virginia's February slide includes a 69-65 loss at the same Boston College team they'll open with here. On paper there's no reason why Virginia can't reverse that outcome, maybe emphatically. But to do so they'll need to find and sustain a level of play we haven't seen from these guys in weeks.

In terms of WNIT prospects, with a 13-16 overall record Virginia would have to win four ACC Tournament games - in other words, reach the final - to become eligible. And heck, if they get that far, they might as well just go ahead and win the ACC and go to the NCAAs, right?

But first, Boston College.

ACC Tournament bracket

Next week:

March 10-15, Scope, Norfolk
2013 champion: Hampton

Conference USA
March 11-15, Memorial Gym, El Paso, Texas (first three rounds); Haskins Center, El Paso, Texas (semifinals and final)
2013 champion: Tulsa

March 13-15, Show Place Arena, Upper Marlboro, Md.
2013 champion: Delaware

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