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5 Things: Conference Championship Week

Ryan Mayer

Selection Sunday is just two days away, but the Madness has been going on for a full week now. Teams across the country have locked up automatic bids, made their bubble case stronger or had their NCAA Tournament dreams endangered by a loss. With basketball on nearly 24/7, it can be hard to keep up with all the news, stats and significant moments. Here are some things that may have slipped your attention this week.

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1. Northern Kentucky Norse Make Tournament In First Year Of Eligibility

The first question you may have is: “There’s a Northern Kentucky University?” Well, yes there is. They’ve made a pretty remarkable entry into Division I too. The program had been a Division II powerhouse making 12 Division II tournament appearances since its inception, including eight from 2000-2012. Following that 2011-2012 season, they began the transition up to the DI level. Due to an NCAA rule, any team making the transition to DI has to wait four years before becoming eligible for the tournament.

In the Norse’s first four years, the team was 42-75, and they went 9-21 last season. This year, their first year of eligibility for postseason play, the Norse were picked to finish 7th in the Horizon League in the preseason media poll. Instead, they finished tied for third with a 12-6 conference record and then proceeded to beat Wright State in the first round of the conference tournament. From there, they got some help when the number one and two seeds in the conference, Oakland and Valparaiso, who lost to the conference’s number nine (Youngstown State) and ten (UW-Milwaukee) seeds respectively.

The Norse took care of their business beating both Youngstown State and UW-Milwaukee to take the Horizon League crown and clinch their spot in the Dance. They’ll likely be a 15 or 16 seed come Sunday, but some names to know when you watch them are Drew McDonald, a 6’8″ sophomore forward averaging 16 points and 7 boards, and guard Lavone Holland, who’s averaging 14 points and 4 assists.

2. Dunk City Is Back… Again

Remember back in 2013 when we all fell in love with a little-known school from Fort Myers, Florida name Florida Gulf Coast? They entered the tournament as a 15-seed and upset 2-seed Georgetown in the first round while on their way to a Sweet 16 run. That wasn’t the crazy part. We’ve seen small schools make Sweet 16 runs before. However, we’d never seen a smaller school with the amount of flair and high-flying athleticism that the Eagles showed off.

The Eagles made the tournament last year, but were a 16-seed in the play-in games. They ended up facing number-one seed North Carolina in the first round, losing 83-67. Not as exciting. This season, they’ve got a couple of key returnees from last year’s squad along with some impact newcomers. But, most importantly, they have guys who can do this…

Yeah, dunk city is alive and well. And after winning the Atlantic Sun, you should make time to watch them next weekend.

3. Down Goes Kansas… And Baylor

Bill Self’s Jayhawks wrapped up a 13th straight Big 12 conference regular season title last week, finishing with a 16-2 conference record and a 28-3 record overall. They looked to be comfortably set up for a conference tournament title too until just before things got underway in St. Louis on Wednesday. The Jayhawks star freshman wing Josh Jackson was suspended for the team’s first conference tournament game stemming from his involvement in a traffic incident earlier this year.

Despite Jackson’s absence, Kansas was expected to easily dispatch the 8-seed, TCU. Yeah, about that. The Horned Frogs went on a 9-2 run in the final 2:09 of the game to win 85-82.

The win put TCU squarely back in the bubble conversation. For Kansas, the loss doesn’t mean too much in the grand scheme of things, and in reality it probably helps. The Jayhawks will have Jackson back for the tournament, will still likely be a 1-seed and they get some much-needed rest for star guard Frank Mason and his tweaked ankle.

Baylor entered Thursday in a similarly comfortable situation, taking on 6-seed Kansas State in the quarterfinals. The Bears, like the Jayhawks, fell behind in the second half and weren’t able to make a comeback. The Bears may drop a seed line or two, depending on the results throughout the rest of the country. But, like Kansas, they’ll get some more rest heading into the tournament. Neither team was harmed here, but it does speak to the madness of March.

4. Jacksonville State Clinches First Trip To The Dance

Another team will be experiencing the joys of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time. The Gamecocks knocked off the top two seeds in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament (Belmont and UT-Martin) to clinch their bid. They’ve been members of Division I for 22 seasons, and this is only their second 20-win season in that time. Like Northern Kentucky, the Gamecocks were well below .500 last year at 8-23, and were picked to finish last in the conference in the preseason. Ray Harper’s squad is led by a trio of guards in seniors Erik Durham (11.1 PPG 5 RPG), Greg Tucker (11.3 PPG 2.4 APG) and Malcolm Drumwright (12.6 PPG 2.4 RPG 3.8 APG).

5. Wichita State Keeps Its Dancing Shoes On For Another Year

The Shockers have become a perennial mid-major power in the last several years, and you’re probably used to hearing the Shockers name called on Selection Sunday. They’ve made six straight tournament appearances and have been as high as a 1-seed back in the 2014 tourney. This year, you’re going to see some new faces on the court for Gregg Marshall’s team. Guards Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, who have seemingly been playing college basketball for the last 10 years, are now gone, graduated to the NBA. But, that doesn’t mean that this Shockers team is any less difficult to beat.

The Shockers rank as the ninth-best team in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, posting top 20-marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency (11th and 19th respectively). The names to know? Freshman guard Landry Shamet, sophomore forward Markis McDuffie and junior forward Darral Willis Jr. combine to average 33.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. This team is talented. They’ll likely be slotted into a lower seed than they should be because of their weaker non-conference/conference schedule, but they could do some damage in the tournament. You’ve been warned.

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