Somehow, the regular season is entering its final stretch, so much so that Conference USA is about to dive into its new scheduling format. With that in mind, here are some of last weekend’s results that will weigh heaviest on title races and league tournament seeding.
Jacks end dramatic week in the Summit
David Jenkins Jr. to the rescue. After South Dakota State fell to Omaha on a Mitch Hahn masterpiece at the buzzer midweek, the Jacks saw the end-of-game magic swing their way Saturday at North Dakota State.
Jenkins’ winner came as SDSU erased a 17-point second-half deficit in Fargo, and in the process pulled a half game ahead of now-second-place Omaha. For their part, the Mavs backed up that critical win over the Jacks by taking care of Fort Wayne at home.
SDSU (11-2) appears to be in good shape for a regular season title with a game in hand against Omaha (10-2), and with the Mavs finishing with three of their last four on the road. But, as it played out on the court between the teams midweek, it’s not wise to count a Hahn, Zach Jackson and a resurgent Omaha team. Despite the starpower on SDSU, it’s the Mavs and their array of shooters that have produced the Summit’s most efficient offense.
Fittingly, the Valley gets tighter
The optimist would simply view the congealed Missouri Valley standings as nothing but fun, and this weekend may have ensured the regular season race goes down to the wire. Missouri State (9-5) has now won seven of its last eight games after going to the Gentile Center and knocking off previously-alone-in-first-place Loyola Chicago (9-5).
While the Ramblers may be the most consistent team in and up-and-down league, the Bears are arguably the hottest. Dana Ford has dramatically slowed down his team’s pace, and gotten in-season talent infusions from Tulio Da Silva (16 points, 9 rebounds against Loyola) and Jared Ridder. It’s led to a dramatic turnaround and a likely coach of the year nod.
Drake (9-5), however, is 8-2 over its last 10 games and tied atop the standings with the Ramblers and Bears. The Bulldogs visit Springfield on March 2 in a game that suddenly looks like it may decide it all in the Valley. Or maybe not, because it’s probably not smart to try and figure out this league.
Taking care of business in another Valley
Same drama, another Valley. The Ohio Valley saw its co-leaders both win, with Murray State (12-2) bludgeoning Eastern Kentucky by 32 points on the road behind a 25-point, 14-assist effort from Ja Morant. Belmont, meanwhile, did its own damage with a 28-point win at Tennessee Tech to reach 12-2, behind a 21-point, 9-rebound outing from Dylan Windler.
Jacksonville State (11-3) kept pace right behind with a win at Tennessee State, while Austin Peay (11-3) rebounded from its oh-so-close loss to the Racers on Thursday by sneaking past Morehead State on the road.
Fun as the OVC has been — so much offense, such a quality foursome — the schedule did not shine on the final few weeks. The only game involving any combination of the four is a regular season finale between the Governors and Racers in Murray.
Craziness in the MAAC
There are ways to jumble a league race, and then there’s Sunday’s bonanza between Quinnipiac and Sienna. Let the numbers do the talking, paying particular attention to Cameron Young and Jalen Pickett.
Young’s 55 points was the a MAAC single-game record, and the highest point total in Division I this season. Though his team ended up on the losing end, Pickett was not to be outdone with a 46 points, 13-assist effort that, maybe most impressively, included just a single, beautifully lonely turnover.
Crazy numbers aside, the Bobcats overtime win puts them at 9-5, even with Canisius atop the league. Four more teams have six losses — Rider (9-6), Monmouth (9-6), Iona (8-6), Siena (8-6) — and two sit with seven losses — Marist (7-7), Manhattan (7-7). With two weeks left all those teams appear to be in the running to varying degrees, so there’s plenty to be decided out East.
Wright State picks off the leader
Closing it out is the game that led off the weekend. Wright State overcame a 16-point first half deficit to knock off North Kentucky and draw even with the Norse, with both teams sitting on 10-4 league records. Raiders coach Scott Nagy talked about his team’s resolve in a release.
“I think both teams were really, really good in the first half, and we stepped it up defensively in the second half that helped. I am proud of the kids that they didn’t give up after being down by 16, which can happen in big games with the big crowds. Sometimes the kids go flat. The key was not to panic. It was a great college basketball game.”
It’s been a slow build for Wright State, which got the Horizon’s NCAA bid a season ago. After starting the season 8-10, the Raiders have now won eight of their last nine games.