Whee! Major conference tournaments are starting! (Except only the worst teams in those tournaments are playing) (But we'll still probably watch because DAYTIME BASKETBALL).
Today's biggest shout-out goes not to the four auto-bid winners -- well, yeah, to them, but we'll get to them in a sec -- but to Grambling. Last year they went 0-28, and only their 28th and final loss was by fewer than 10 points. Yesterday, they beat 7-seed Jackson State in the SWAC Tournament, their FIFTH win of the year. They'd already improved their winning percentage by Infinity Percent, and now they're making tourney noise!
They're going daaaaaancingggg YEAHHHHHH
North Dakota State Bison
Hi, I'm Rodger Sherman, SB Nation's resident guy who says really nice things about North Dakota State athletics. I didn't go to school at North Dakota State, and I've never even been to Fargo, let alone North Dakota State, but at this point in time, I'm willing to argue the Bison have both the best football and basketball teams ever to have played any sport ever.
If you ain't heard, the Bison have won three straight FCS titles, and after winning the Summit League title Tuesday night, they're now headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in their five years in Division I.
But here's why we have to be so effusive in our praise of NDSU: So far, every other squad that dominated conference play en route to a top seed and status as a trendy upset pick -- Davidson, Green Bay, Vermont -- has gotten dropped. Of the 11 conference tournaments to wrap up so far, only four have been won by top seeds, and two of those winners -- Wichita State and Gonzaga -- were going dancing anyway. There's been carnage among good mid-to-low-major squads.
NDSU held up its end of the deal. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Bison 56th, 68 spots higher than anybody else in the Summit League, and gave them a nearly 50 percent chance of winning the seven-team bracket. Their first game was a romp, beating Denver 83-48. Their second was a TIGHT ONE.
We'll be honest -- we were kinda pulling for the IPFW Mastodons, because MASTODON and Never-Made-The-Tourney. And they held up their end of the bargain for a bit, leading 37-30 right after the halftime break. But with Marshall Bjorklund struggling with foul trouble, Taylor Braun carried the team on his back. He single-handedly pushed the score from 51-49 IPFW to 59-55 NDSU, and so the Bison will dance.
The Bison play kinda like Bison: with size and wanton disregard for other species. Land on their back, tiny birds! They won't even notice! They lead the nation in field goal percentage despite not having any great shooters. Braun's the star, 6'7 and able to hit over 40 percent of his threes from deep, but Bjorklund is the 6'8 lug most indicative of the team's bruising style; he shoots 62.8 percent from the field. I'd like to see them go up against a team that might not have the bodies to bang inside, just to see what'll happen.
You can set your watch by Gonzaga winning the WCC Tournament, although I don't know why you would, because nobody has actually set a watch since, like, 1997.
The Zags shut up anybody who saw them lose to Portland, lose to San Diego, and struggle with Santa Clara in the first round of the WCC Tournament by turning the blasters up on St. Mary's and BYU.
I'm more impressed thinking about Gonzaga than I am by its resume: not many teams start five dudes who can bust out for 20 points, and not many teams have a frontcourt like Sam Dower and Tall Polish Guy With Letters. I think these guys can explode.
We have our first sub-.500-in-conference play NCAA Tournament team! The Panthers went 7-9 in Horizon League play. They were swept by Valpo; they lost to Illinois-Chicago and Youngstown State and Detroit. But with four wins at the right time of the year, they'll be in the NCAA Tournament. This is what March is about, y'all: errbody's dream is alive.
This run was pretty miraculous: They had to play four times, including back-to-back-to-back games, culminating with a matchup with top-seeded Green Bay AT Green Bay. That's a damn gauntlet. But they knocked off the Phoenix in overtime in the semis, thanks to 28 points by Jordan Aaron. And in the final, they bombed Wright State into submission, getting out to a 21-7 lead early and never relinquishing. They hit 50 percent of their threes and grabbed 13 of 36 offensive rebound opportunities, and that's how you win a game.
Aaron, who I keep calling "Aaron Jordan" because of the dude on Arizona, deserves some credit. The 5'10 senior from the Bronx -- btw, 5'10 seniors from New York are pretty much my favorite basketball players -- averaged 20.5 through the tourney to get UW-M to the dance.
With the Panthers' victory, I had to turn to an old friend. When Northwestern played Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the 2011 NIT, I interviewed a good friend of mine, Bro Wearing A Wisconsin-Milwaukee Sweatshirt. Here was our interview at the time:
SOP: Why are you wearing a Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers Sweatshirt?
Bro Wearing A Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers Sweatshirt: I'm from Milwaukee.
SOP: How does it feel to be a traitor?
SOP: Don't you know that thanks to NIT seeding, Wisconsin-Milwaukee are now our bitter rivals?
BWAWMPS: Yeah. (chuckles)
As you could tell from his voice, he was distraught: his Panthers hadn't been dancing since 2006. Now that the Panthers are dancing, I decided to catch up with the foremost authority on UW-M hoops.
There you have it. Bro Wearing A Wisconsin-Milwaukee Sweatshirt doesn't even feel comfortable endorsing the Panthers.
Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
A No. 1 seed did go down Tuesday night: Mount St. Mary's -- THE MOUNT -- came out and destroyed No. 1 Robert Morris, hitting 60.4 percent from the field.
Road to the Title
Road to the Title
Remember: Mount St. Mary's was down 10 points with 1:29 to go against St. Francis in the quarterfinals, a deficit big enough for me to turn the game off. They won, with Rashad Whack capping a frantic comeback with a game-winning three. (Deadspin noticed the other day that this comeback was partly aided by the Mountaineers using six players on a crucial play. Slick, Mount.)
He'd add 21 in a win at No. 2 Wagner, and had a game-high 20 to knock off Robert Morris. Whack indeed. The leader, though, is Julian Norfleet, who entered the tournament ahead of Whack in scoring and has a 37.1 assist rate, 17th in the nation.
The Mountaineers are probably headed to Dayton -- they went 16-16 on the year, including losses to five teams ranked lower than 300th on Kenpom -- but that's fine for the tiny Catholic school from Maryland, which won a play-in game in 2008 the last time they went dancing. Not a bad job by former Shaka Smart assistant Jamion Christian getting to the tourney in only his second year.
There wasn't that much non-conference-final stuff happening Tuesday, but shout-out to East Carolina's Akeem Richmond for hitting ELEVEN threes as ECU topped UTSA in the 12-13 C-USA game. 14th-seeded Marshall had an UPSET over 11th-seeded Florida Atlantic, messing up your bracket completely. All chalk and disinterest elsewhere.
Onions! Consumption guide
I'm not too interested in any of the multitudes of early stuff, although I'll be watching. The main game I want to watch is the one with a bid on the line. And it's a good one!
Patriot League final: No. 2 American University Eagles vs. No. 1 Boston University Terriers, 7:30 p.m., CBSSN
Yes! The top two teams in a league made the final! That's allowed to happen! It's especially neat since the regular season matchups between these dudes were split: BU beat American by 12 at home, American crushed BU 86-56 for one of the Terriers' two losses.
BU has one of the top point guards you ain't heard of in Maurice Watson, Jr., who leads the team with 15.6 points and seven assists and a preposterous 48.8 assist rate, second in the nation -- that means he assists on 48.8 percent of buckets while he's on the court, including the ones he scores, and he's the team's leading scorer! American has undergone a complete turnaround under first-year coach Mike Brennan, with the No. 6 EFG% in the nation, but they turn the ball over a bit, and BU is good at forcing turnovers.
Anyway: we'd much rather watch two good teams from a mediocre conference -- teams that are evenly matched, with intriguing matchup issues -- duke it out with a tourney slot on the line than watching two mediocre teams from good conferences without a chance to dance. And that's the other option tonight. So be Patriots: watch the Patriot League. There are eagles and dogs, and those are our two favorite things.