Conference tournaments preview: What Rutgers, Seton Hall and others are up against
Time to talk Big Ten, Big East, Ivy and MAAC brackets.
Mitch Henderson played plenty of meaningful games for Princeton great Pete Carril, as well as his successor, Bill Carmody, in the month of March.
Now the coach of his alma mater for going on 12 years, Henderson is ready to lead the Tigers into the first Ivy League basketball tournament hosted on Princeton’s campus.
“Coach Carril used to say, the best thing ever is to walk out of Jadwin and it’s light out at 7 – because we practice at 4:45 – and you’re still playing,” Henderson said Saturday. “We’ve got one more week and we have a chance to do that. Middle of March, the birds are chirping, it’s 7:30 and it’s still light out. And you gotta dance.”
Ivy Madness – the four-team tournament introduced in 2017 that’s either too restrictive or too ignorant of the league’s history, depending on who you ask – is set for this weekend at Jadwin Gym. The women will play Friday and Saturday, the men Saturday and Sunday, with Sunday’s final broadcast on ESPN2 hours before the Selection Show.
I’ll be at Princeton for most of the weekend, grateful to be covering a fun, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it weekend of basketball for the second straight season after trekking to Harvard last year.
But that’s the dessert course at the end of this all-important week of conference tournaments, some of which will have already started by time you’re reading this.
In late February I half-jokingly ran with my idea of how five New Jersey teams could make the dance and turned it into a bracketology-focused edition of the newsletter. Now, we need to prepare for the possibility that the state only sends one representative this year, Fairleigh Dickinson from the Northeast Conference.
Rutgers’ promising regular season ended with a thud, with three uncharacteristically lopsided home losses and a 2-6 finish overall. Once projected as a No. 5 seed back in early February, Rutgers is now on the tournament bubble. Seton Hall wishes it could be on the bubble, as it ended the season with too few convincing wins (Saturday at Providence was an outlier and far too late) for the committee to consider. Its only shot of making the dance is to win the Big East’s auto bid as the No. 7 seed of 11 teams.
That’s why this week is so crucial. The Pirates’ work is cut out for them, Rutgers is in desperate need of some last-minute wins to help the old resume and Princeton and Rider can only qualify for March Madness by winning this week’s New Jersey-based tournaments.
Time to have some fun. Here are my quick and dirty conference tournament previews:
This will sound weirdly optimistic given how flat the Scarlet Knights have fallen in the month of February, but I think I like the path they have in this bracket. Michigan beat Rutgers 58-45 the other week, just an atrocious offensive night even by Rutgers’ standards. But I still like Cliff Omoruyi in a matchup against Hunter Dickinson and the Wolverines won’t take or make a ton of threes, which has been the RU defense’s kryptonite for a while now. This rematch could wind up something like 68-60 Rutgers.
If Rutgers doesn’t win that game, it might not deserve to make the tournament after all. If it does advance, it gets to face Purdue. What a win-win situation. The resume in this scenario is in OK shape, and losing to a top-five team in the country won’t ruin it; then again, Purdue is also a weak No. 1 seed that Rutgers has a trove of experience in beating.
Northwestern’s win in Piscataway the other night sewed up the No. 2 seed. For a program with as little history of basketball success as the Wildcats have, this alone is a tremendous accomplishment. Maryland grad that I am, I’m glad to see Kevin Willard turned the Terrapins around ahead of schedule, though their lack of success away from College Park has me doubtful about this tournament and the NCAA. And if you follow my friend Dylan Sinn (you should), you’d know the kind of whirlwind Indiana basketball puts its fans (and beat reporters) through. Too unpredictable for my taste. You need more than a red-hot Trayce Jackson-Davis to win three straight games in this league.
My prediction: Northwestern. Yes, I’m going there. Although they’re a de facto home team in Chicago, their 7-4 record in road games makes me believe they’re the real deal and can gut out wins in March. You need guards like Boo Buie and Chase Audige to have a successful postseason, and Brooks Barnhizer was on my radar long before he embarrassed Rutgers the other night. The Wildcats could draw Illinois in the first game and get a chance to avenge the Illini’s comeback win a few weeks back.
Sleeper pick: Iowa. I made the Hawkeyes my sleeper pick last season and they won the dang thing, beating Purdue in the final. I’ve seen them get white-hot from the arc against both Seton Hall and Rutgers this year. They’re capable of beating Michigan State, they’d definitely beat Rutgers in a hypothetical semifinal and if they meet Purdue again, I have a gut feeling they’ll shoot better than 5-of-18 from the arc, as they did in the regular-season meeting.
Seton Hall plays DePaul tonight, which is just as advantageous as if they got to play last-place Georgetown. If you’re just joining us, last season the once-proud Hoyas basketball program didn’t win a single conference game, but it gave Seton Hall three scares, losing by single digits each time (including the 6-11 game of the Big East tournament). This year DePaul enters the tournament on a 12-game losing streak… and DePaul lost to Seton Hall by single digits twice in the regular season.
I think everyone wants to see No. 4 seed UConn advance to face Marquette. I get the sense that not everybody believes in Marquette, despite winning the conference by a full two games. UConn had a weird downturn in the middle of the season, but the Huskies are playing their best basketball now and the metrics love them. It’s highly likely the winner between these two wins the whole shebang.
My prediction: Marquette. One of the Golden Eagles’ mere three losses in the Big East came 87-72 on the road at UConn. Rebounding isn’t the Golden Eagles’ strength, but Coach Shaka Smart is not going to let Marquette get outrebounded 48-24 again. Xavier is also a fine pick, except the Musketeers won’t have big man Zach Freemantle the rest of the way after he elected for surgery on his injured foot.
Sleeper pick: Creighton. Folks, a little early bracket advice: Do not sleep on Creighton. The Bluejays can get hot from 3-point range, they play the best defense in the Big East and they have a monster down low by the name of Ryan Kalkbrenner. Creighton has a pretty easy path to the final at MSG, all things considered.
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Talking with both Henderson and Penn coach Steve Donohue, it seems everyone was impressed by how strong the league was this year and how tight of a regular-season photo finish that produced. Truly, any of these four teams can win the tournament.
Let’s start with the fact that all four teams are holdovers from last year’s field with no new blood. Thankfully, we do get some fresh matchups. Cornell is back in the No. 4 slot after giving Princeton a tough game in the 2022 semis. The Big Red rank seventh in the country at 82.5 points per game, and they own a win over Yale this season, though they aren’t playing great at the moment.
Penn had won eight straight games and seven in Ivy competition before Princeton’s big rally Saturday. The Quakers go as Ivy Player of the Year Jordan Dingle goes. Yale has won nine of its last 10, and Princeton has home-court advantage and the motivation of being upended in last year’s championship game as the top seed.
My prediction: Princeton. The Tigers get a rematch with Penn in the 2-3 game after sweeping the Quakers to extend their winning streak in the all-time series to eight games. Even after Dingle dropped 21 on them by halftime last weekend, it’s hard not to like Princeton’s chances against him, since historically he hasn’t scored that efficiently against the Tigers. Then it’s likely on to the foe Princeton has had trouble beating in recent years…
Sleeper pick: Yale. Sorry, I know they’re the No. 1 seed, but I can make my own rules as to what constitutes a sleeper. Nobody’s a “sleeper” when you’re picking among three teams in a four-team tournament. But like Iowa last year, I picked the Bulldogs as this league’s sleeper and they went on to win it all. Yale is flat-out good. It has a NET ranking better than the likes of Oklahoma, Iona, Utah and Wisconsin. The question is whether leading scorer Matt Knowling returns from a sprained ankle this week, and how effective he’ll be. Regardless, the Bulldogs have won games without him as well.
Two-bid Ivy? Two-bid Ivy. ESPN’s Charlie Creme, operating under the assumption that Columbia wins the automatic bid, projects Princeton making the women’s NCAA bracket among the last four in. I think these teams should both make the field of 64 either way, unless one loses unexpectedly in the semifinal.
Megan Griffith, a former Princeton assistant, has turned Columbia into a premier WBB program, which earned votes in the AP poll for the first time earlier this year. Princeton only received the No. 1 seed because it had a better NET ranking as of Sunday – No. 41 over No. 45. That’s how close they are.
My prediction: Princeton. The Tigers had a yearslong Ivy winning streak snapped when they started the league season 0-2. Grace Stone told me back in January that they had to dig down and find their identity again. They haven’t lost since, with a rout of Columbia included in their 13-win streak. Until someone unseats the queens of the league and I see it with my own eyes, I don’t see a reason to pick anyone different.
Sleeper pick: Columbia. Again, my rules. It would actually be a sleeper for me to take Harvard or Penn, and it isn’t impossible for one of those sides to win two in a row this weekend. But for as stellar as Columbia is, dethroning Princeton in this league, especially at Jadwin Gym, would make this outcome an underdog story.
Well, look what we have here. I didn’t pay rebuilding Saint Peter’s much mind this season, especially as it wound up 10th of 11 in the league after a 2-7 start buried it at the bottom of the MAAC. The coach is new, most of the roster is new, but the two players who were there to experience the Peacocks’ improbable run last season are Isiah Dasher and Jaylen Murray, now the two leading scorers on this year’s roster. Murray had a season-high 23 points and Dasher had 13 last night in a 70-52 win over seventh seed Fairfield.
That sets up an all-Jersey quarterfinal meeting tonight, just like when Saint Peter’s faced Monmouth in the MAAC championship game last year. This time, it’s Rider who’s the No. 2 seed and favored to make a run for the title. The Broncs have a win over the other best teams in this league, Iona and Siena, including beating the Gaels on the road; as I wrote Sunday, they looked ready for the postseason even after a two-point home loss to Iona. “If we can play like that and carry that into the tournament, I feel good about things,” Rider coach Kevin Baggett said.
But Iona is the titan of this league, all because of one man: coach Rick Pitino, whose accomplishments and (complex) legacy are far too large to be boxed into a small Catholic school in New Rochelle. There’s been talk he could head to Georgetown or St. John’s before his career is through.
My prediction: Iona. Last year the Gaels lost to ninth-seeded Rider in incredible fashion in the quarters, the kind of unthinkable upset that makes Jon Rothstein tweet, “Anarchy? Nope. Just College Basketball.” Tightly-packed as this conference is, Pitino won’t let that happen again. Iona projects as a No. 13 or even a No. 12 seed in the big dance.
Sleeper pick: Rider. Homer pick? No, just an actual sleeper, because in the time I spent this season on college basketball Twitter, and specifically MAAC Twitter, I could tell the sexy sleeper pick was Siena. Siena, whose nonconference neutral-court wins over Florida State and Seton Hall don’t look that impressive in hindsight. Siena, who ended the regular season on a five-game losing streak, including in overtime at Saint Peter’s last Saturday. The true sleeper is the team most hoops fans outside this state couldn’t point to on a map, the one who’s got a relatively straightforward path into the conference final to probably face an Iona team it knows it can beat.
A quick word about the MAAC women’s basketball tournament. Rider and Saint Peter’s had forgettable seasons, landing 10th and 11th in the 11-team league – SPU went 0-30 – but while the Peacocks lost (by just three!) in Tuesday’s first-round game, the Broncs advanced over seventh seed Marist 63-50, though they remain a massive longshot to go much further.
Thanks for reading. It figures to be a jam-packed week leading up to the Ivy final and Selection Sunday, so this will be my last newsletter until Monday morning. Follow me on Twitter @Adam_Zielonka for live coverage of Ivy Madness. I regrettably won’t be there for the women’s semifinals Friday night, but more than half my weekend figures to be spent in Jadwin.
Time to clean the glass with other news you may have missed the past few days:
NJIT coach Brian Kennedy resigned after seven seasons. His teams went a combined 81-123 since he took the post in 2016-17, never making any postseason noise. This season, the Highlanders posted their worst record of his tenure at 7-23 (4-12 America East), and they never finished better than eighth in the league since it joined in 2020-21.
Rutgers has done an incredible job keeping its coaching staff together, good for recruiting and overall consistency. But don’t be surprised if this opening ends up attracting one of the Scarlet Knights’ well-regarded assistants, namely associate head coaches Karl Hobbs and Brandin Knight. Hobbs has prior head-coaching experience at George Washington, Knight is a native of East Orange and both are accomplished recruiters.
The MAAC announced it will keep the men’s and women’s basketball championships at Boardwalk Hall for the next three seasons, 2024-26. I’ve been to Boardwalk Hall just once, so I’d love to get down there to cover the tournament in person one of these years.
Awards season has begun. Caleb McConnell repeated as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, though this year he’s a co-recipient with Northwestern’s Chase Audige. Both McConnell and Cliff Omoruyi made the Big Ten all-defensive team. Omoruyi was a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the media, but third team by the coaches. McConnell, Mulcahy and Spencer garnered honorable mentions.
Tosan Evbuomwan didn’t repeat as Ivy POY, as I guess Dingle scored too much to be ignored, but he was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy choice. Matt Allocco made the second team and Caden Pierce, with his 8.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 0.7 steals per game, was the obvious choice for Freshman of the Year.