Teams and leagues to watch

Originally Published: March 1, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Vermont made a calculated decision by sitting T.J. Sorrentine and Taylor Coppenrath for Sunday's game at Maine.

The Catamounts knew that losing at Maine was worth minimizing the risk of not having Sorrentine and/or Coppenrath for the America East tournament.

"I never thought we could get an at-large berth," retiring Vermont coach Tom Brennan said Tuesday.

Vermont lost to Maine 87-66 to end the regular season and extinguish any hope of an at-large berth, as remote as that seemed for the America East, a league that never has received two bids.

Brennan said Sorrentine's strained hamstring, which he re-aggravated in last Thursday's win over Maryland-Baltimore County, is serious enough that it could affect him in the tournament, which begins this weekend at Binghamton. Coppenrath had the flu.

Brennan is a realist. He knows he needs his two best players healthy for a run at a Vermont-record three straight NCAA Tournament berths. All of this talk about Vermont getting an at-large berth was just that -- talk.

"We've got to win the tournament and hopefully we can here at home," Brennan said.

The America East tries to protect its top team, like some other leagues do, by putting the final on the home court of the highest seed. But Vermont still has to win two games in New York to get back to Burlington.

The drama of a potential Vermont-BU final has been zapped a bit, as BU lost to Northeastern at home and at Binghamton down the stretch, dropping the Terriers to the 3-seed behind Northeastern.

Not having a comparably-ranked team on its heels certainly hurt Vermont's chances for an at-large berth, too. The selection committee isn't going to be as sympathetic if Vermont were to lose at home in a final to Boston University or Northeastern.

Wisconsin-Milwaukee is in a similar situation. The Panthers know they must win the Horizon League title to get an NCAA berth.

Any talk of the Panthers' getting a bid is probably just talk, once again.

"We should win it, and our mind-set is that we don't want to share any conference titles," UWM coach Bruce Pearl said of winning the regular-season title. The Panthers won at Purdue, Hawaii and Manhattan, but that doesn't conjure up an at-large berth.

"The No. 1 seed hasn't won this tournament the last three years, so ..." Pearl said, sounding a cautionary tone. The danger team could be Butler, which led the Panthers at the half in both of their meetings and a team that scares Pearl if they were to meet in the tournament.

"This is a very competitive and balanced league," Pearl said.

Most of them are.

With that, here are the story lines to watch as the smaller conference events unfold:

Atlantic Sun: Gardner-Webb is on the verge of a remarkable turnaround. The NCAA came down hard with scholarship reductions because of extra benefit and recruiting violations, but didn't take away the postseason. Good thing. Gardner-Webb enters the conference tournament as the 1-seed with a 13-7 league record (16-11 overall).

Big South: If the Big South wants to send a team that is worthy, Winthrop must win this tournament. The 24-5 record and 15-1 mark in the league prove this team can play with the best at its level.

Southern Conference: Quick, name the team that has received the least amount of coverage by us that probably deserved much more this season? Davidson. The Wildcats dominated this conference and are one of the last undefeated conference teams. But that's probably why they won't win the league tournament and get the bid. Everyone wants a piece of this squad.

Colonial Athletic: Old Dominion could be this year's Utah State, a mid- to low-major school with a lofty record that gets beat in its conference tournament. There are plenty of teams (we like Drexel here) that could easily spoil ODU's run to the Dance.

Big Sky: Montana State is the team to watch to disrupt Portland State's run to an NCAA berth. Portland State is rather new to the Division I ranks and Heath Schroyer has the Vikings on the verge of their first-ever NCAA berth. Keep your eye on this coach. Schroyer is a star in the making with his Morgan Wooten pedigree and ties to coaches out West.

Big West: Every high major school had better root hard for Pacific. If the Tigers win the Big West tournament then this league gets one bid. But don't sleep on Utah State (nice revenge factor here), Cal State Northridge or Cal State Fullerton).

MAAC: If the league wants to send a team that could win a game in the tournament like last season (Manhattan over Florida), Niagara must win this tournament. Rider could easily beat Niagara for the title, and don't sleep on Fairfield and Manhattan, but Niagara has the talent to cause fits (see Providence in the Preseason NIT opener).

Mid-Continent: Oral Roberts is a legit first-round upset team, but ORU has to get past UMKC and Valparaiso first. They need to win this thing for the Mid-Continent to have a chance to win a game in the field of 65.

MEAC: Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell has his team atop the standings and tied for first. The best story out of this league is Fang. He's coming off early-season surgery to remove a tumor. He's a class guy who epitomizes college athletics.

MAC: There are six teams at 10-6 in the league, so the possibilities are endless for the tournament. Ohio still has a chance to be the No. 1 seed if the Bobcats win out. This league deserves two teams but whether the selection committee sees the same thing we do is another story.

Missouri Valley: You just know that Northern Iowa's win over Wichita State Monday night is an indication that this tournament is headed for a fun-filled week. Realistically, Southern Illinois, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Creighton and Illinois State all could win the league and the MVC could send as many as three teams to the Dance.

Northeast: None of these teams has shown that it could win a game in the first round. Monmouth has the best shot but it seems very remote. If things break a certain way, the NEC rep could land in the play-in game.

Ohio Valley: Tennessee Tech has the inside track but anyone who thinks that Murray State is done doesn't know this team's history. The Racers still have the talent to make a run and get back to the Dance.

Patriot: Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard is adamant that the Crusaders can win a first-round game. Why couldn't Bucknell do it, too? The Bison won at Pittsburgh and at Saint Joseph's. The Patriot League might have a chance to win a game in this year's tournament, depending on whether it can get a decent seed. But one of the right two teams has to win this tournament.

Southland: Southeastern Louisiana was on the home-court win streak list but didn't go to the NCAA Tournament last season. Maybe this is the year after staying atop the league standings this season.

SWAC: The SWAC didn't play in the opening round game for the first time in three seasons last March. Not sure if that would occur again. The SWAC has a lofty 4-23 mark in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama A&M must get the bid for any chance at win No. 5.

Sun Belt: This league makes no sense. Denver is in the Sun Belt? Geography was never a focal point for this group. But this league has offered some fantastic finishes recently at Western Kentucky and at Little Rock. There are capable teams at UALR, Western Kentucky, Denver and Louisiana-Lafayette, all that could cause fits in the first round of the NCAAs.

WCC: Gonzaga and Saint Mary's should meet in the final next Monday. But the semis, potentially with San Francisco and Santa Clara (on its home court), could be two of the best games of the week. Those matchups on Sunday would pit four of the better teams in the West. If USF or Santa Clara wins this tourney, it's not a reach to think about three teams out of the WCC.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com