Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Conference Calling: Players to Watch for Championship Week (Part I)

Conference tournaments begin in the next few hours, with the Big South tipping off near Myrtle Beach and the Horizon League playing its openers tonight.

It's about to get real, kids.

In honor of those events starting, let's examine each league and find one player who can determine his team's fate as relates to an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. We'll hit the first 10 today, the next 10 on Thursday and finish up on Saturday, by which point most brackets should be close to set.

Tournaments will be presented in the order they begin after the jump.

Big South: F Allan Chaney, High Point
--It wouldn't have been unreasonable to expect HPU to win this thing before conference Freshman of the Year John Brown went down with a season-ending foot injury. More of the load now falls on Chaney, who's been through much worse. Chaney averages 14.4-7.9 and is a 58% true shooter. If he can actually crash the glass against some of the BSC's better teams (all of his games of eight-plus boards were against teams with losing league records), High Point could still survive and advance.

Horizon: G Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
--Let's be honest: the Horizon League is Ray McCallum Jr.'s world, and the rest of the players just live in it. With Youngstown State's Kendrick Perry possibly out due to injury, Sykes may be the only point guard in the HL who can trade enough shots with McCallum for his team to pull the upset. Sykes made first-team All-Horizon after finishing in the top five in scoring and assists, plus his TS% checks in around 55.

Atlantic Sun: G Sherwood Brown, Florida Gulf Coast
--Brown's been held to single-digit scoring only five times all season, and none of those five came against Miami, Duke, St. John's or Iowa State. He's A-Sun top-10 in scoring, rebounding, steals and three-point percentage with an eFG% of 54.3. His downside is that he's shot 5-20 in his past two games. Brown needs his shot back if FGCU is going to knock off top seed and host Mercer.

Ohio Valley: G Ian Clark, Belmont
--One of the 10 best shooters in America, Clark is entering the tournament in a bit of a slump. The 46-percent three-point shooter is 7-33 in his past five games, averaging only 12.2 points in that span. Murray State and Tennessee State were the only conference foes to beat the new bully on the block, and if Clark has another sub-par night, we may get to see another screening of the Isaiah Canaan Show on CBS this spring.

West Coast: G Kevin Foster, Santa Clara
--A guy who takes 8.4 three-point shots a night can turn a game around quickly if he gets rolling. Foster came third in the WCC in scoring, while also ranking fifth in assists and first in steals. SCU would draw Gonzaga in the semifinals if it won its first matchup, and Foster scored 29 on the Zags in their first meeting. He's shot the Broncos past Saint Louis and nearly Duke, so don't scoff.

Northeast: F Alex Francis, Bryant
--The Robert Morris Colonials come in as the top seed, but Francis averaged an even 20-10 in Bryant's two meetings with RMU. The two teams split honors in those games. Bryant's dropped to the four seed, meaning the Bulldogs (who won only two games last year, BTW) would draw Bob in the semis.

Patriot: C Mike Muscala, Bucknell
--Led the league in scoring, rebounds and blocks, ranking top-25 nationally in all three. Fourth in FG%, ninth in FT%, and even 11th in assists (!). Muscala's the obvious answer, but he's also the only one in this league who could get on anyone's All-American ballot. If the Bison lose, I'll be a sad panda.

Missouri Valley: G Colt Ryan, Evansville
--Creighton bumbled what could have been a special season, to the point that you can almost throw a dart and hit your eventual Arch Madness champion. And speaking of throwing darts, the 6'5" Ryan finished second to Doug McDermott in league scoring at 20 PPG while shooting 40% from deep. He's also top-10 in assists and steals, in case anyone wants to go all Steph Curry on him.

MAAC: G Billy Baron, Canisius
--The coach's kid finished top-10 in the league in scoring, assists, eFG% and TS%. This tournament is wide-open, with top seed Niagara having absorbed four losses to its three closest pursuers. Of course, the Griffins jump out of the gate with a battle against the always-potent Iona Gaels.

Southern: F Ryley Beaumont/F Lucas Troutman, Elon
--Davidson is the prohibitive favorite in the SoCon, and if anyone's going to take them out, they'll need an answer for the Wildcats' frontcourt duo of Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks. Beaumont and Troutman may be the best options. Troutman shows and proves on both ends, ranking top-six in scoring, FG%, eFG%, TS%, plus coming eighth in steal % and leading the league in blocked shots. Beaumont is also a top-10 shooter and ranks seventh in rebounding. Should both get that far, division champs Elon and Davidson would face off in the final on Monday.

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