This time of the year is a delight, but you're often faced with win or go home games being played between teams you've never heard of. Here's a little bit of background info to get you up to speed on the teams fighting to earn bids tonight.
Three automatic bids to the NCAA tournament will be awarded tonight as the conference tournaments in the Colonial, Southern, and MAAC conclude. That's enough introduction, let's meet the contestants.
Furman v. Wofford, Southern Conference (7pm, ESPN2/WatchESPN)
How they got here: this game is interesting for how completely uninteresting it should be. Wofford beat Furman twice by a combined total of 27 points and finished 11 games better than them in an 18-game conference season. That's a little deceptive though, because Furman lost to Wofford by just two at home in a game in which they shot 5-12 from the free throw line. Furman was the lowest seed in the SoCon tournament, but they've already beaten the #2 and #3 seeds on their way to taking on #1 seed Wofford in the final.
Strategic info: on paper, this should be a walkover. Wofford is a mediocre offensive team but they defend really well. I'd say they'll take away Furman's strengths, but Furman doesn't really have any. If Wofford starts turning the Paladins over, they'll run away with this game. Furman doesn't shoot well from three, but they do shoot a ton of them; a hot night could see them through to the unlikeliest of upsets.
Players to watch: for Furman, combo guard Stephen Croone is a reasonable scorer and their only ballhandler who doesn't treat the thing like it's been covered in hot lard. Devin Sibley is a streaky scorer who can carry the team if he gets hot, and 6'6" wing Kris Acox rebounds like a hero on both ends. Wofford only has one rotation player over 6'6", but 6'1" G Karl Cochran rebounds like a maniac on the defensive end. He is also one of four players on the squad shooting at least 37% from deep and is a shameless gunner. Wing Spencer Collins is the other main scorer on the team and forward Lee Skinner provides a threat closer to the basket.
Northeastern v. William and Mary, Colonial Athletic (7pm, NBCSN/Live Extra)
How they got here: these teams played twice in the regular season with each winning by double digits on its home floor. William and Mary was the one seed in the conference tournament, handling Elon with élan before battling out a one-point win over Hofstra in double overtime. Northeastern was the three seed, beating Delaware by 3 in their first game before easing away from second seed UNC-Wilmington down the stretch yesterday.
Strategic info: this game could not be any tighter. The teams are only three slots away from each other in the KenPom rankings. Look for a high-scoring game as Northeastern features a fairly good offense attacking a deplorable William and Mary defense, while William and Mary's offense is borderline elite and will be going after a mediocre Northeastern defense. This game may well be decided at the arc: William and Mary loves to shoot threes, and running opponents off of the three-point line is what the Northeastern defense does best. It should also be noted that William and Mary shoots 56.4% inside the arc, good for 3rd in the country.
Players to watch: Northeastern's 6'8" center Scott Eatherton is the focal point of the offense and a monster on the glass at both ends. 6'6" combo guard Zach Stahl can really score the basketball, especially from deep, and 6'5" F Zach Stahl is a very good rebounder. For William and Mary, senior guard Marcus Thornton never comes off the floor and is an incredibly prolific scorer for all over. Omar Prewitt and Daniel Dixon each average over 11 points a game and have combined to make 106 threes on the year. Forward Terry Tarpey rounds out a quartet of Tribe scoring over 11 PPG and is also one of the best defensive rebounders in the country.
Manhattan v. Iona, MAAC (9pm, ESPN2/WatchESPN)
How they got here: the MAAC plays a 20-game conference season, which seems like a lot of games to me. Anyhow, Iona ripped off a 17-3 record and won all their home conference games to grab the top seed. They scored 1.24 points per possession in winning their first two games of the tournament. Manhattan went a mere 13-7 and took the three seed, but they held their first two opponents in the conference tournament to an aggregate of .736 points per possession to earn their spot in the final. This offense/defense contrast I'm setting up here is foreshadowing, just FYI.
Strategic info: Iona can't defend, but that's okay because Manhattan can't really score. Where this game gets interesting is on the other end, where Iona's offense is 36th in adjusted efficiency but Manhattan's defense is 8th in TO rate. Manhattan turned Iona over on 30.9% of their possessions in losing to them by three at Manhattan and then forced only a 15.3% TO rate in losing the return leg by four. This game is being played on a neutral floor in Albany; if Manhattan can harry Iona into some turnovers, this is a game the Jaspers could steal. If not, Iona shoots the eyes out of the ball (40.4% from deep as a team) and could run away with this game.
Players to watch: Manhattan mostly comes at you in waves of guys who want to steal the ball from you. Beyond that, 6'6" F Emmy Andujar leads the team in scoring, rebounds, and assists, though he also averages an ungodly 4.1 turnovers per game on a TO rate of 24.5%. Big man Ashton Pankey is 6'10", 225 and rebounds like a fiend at both ends as well as averaging 13.3 PPG. Shane Richards rounds out a trio of high-scoring players; he has hit 86 threes this year on a 38.7% success rate. AJ English, Schadrac Casimir, and Isaiah Williams all average between 14.2 and 20.2 PPG and have all hit at least 68 threes on the year. Big man David Laury averages 19.5 and 9.4 and has hit a mere 24 threes. Both of these teams play fast enough to significantly inflate their per-game numbers, but those are still some impressive stats.
Be sure to vote for your game of the night below and tell us in the comments who you have grabbing the bids in play.