As it now stands, we have reached perhaps the most bittersweet moment in the college basketball season. While the season may be wrapping up and we are ever so closer to the marvelous March Madness, we are also one step closer to the completion of the college basketball season and having to wait months before the best sport of the year returns to our televisions.
Until then, however, I can revel in the fact that this is the time of the year when the best small conference schools come to the forefront of the college basketball landscape. Most small conferences have at least one team that stands above all others and dominates the rest in conference play, which is a wonderful segue into the conference tournaments. Small conferences have tournaments that occur before the ones we normally look forward to (i.e. Big XII, ACC, et. al.), giving us a wonderful opportunity to take a glimpse at some of these terrific small conference schools that are normally overlooked during the regular season.
This season, three small conference schools are standing tall and even garnering some AP Poll votes. Those three teams are the Horizon League’s Green Bay Phoenix (24-5, 14-2), the MEAC’s North Carolina Central Eagles (23-5, 13-1), and the Southland’s Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (27-2, 16-0). All of these teams received votes in the latest AP Poll (11 for SFA, 2 for Green Bay, and 1 for NCCU) and they’re all surging late in the season. For instance, Stephen F. Austin is currently on a 24-game winning streak, with their last loss coming in late November. That’s extremely impressive, to say the least.
Green Bay is certainly the team that is benefiting the most from Butler’s departure from the Horizon League. While it certainly looked like this season would be Cleveland State’s for the taking, the Phoenix have risen to the challenge and managed to have won the Horizon League regular season title, a feat they haven’t accomplished since 1996, which was the last year that they were in the NCAA Tournament. However, if they are to return to the big dance this season, they’ll need to win their conference tournament, which could be easier said than done if they have another run-in with some of the conference’s top teams like Cleveland State and Wright State.
The North Carolina Central Eagles are relative newcomers to Division I basketball, and they are currently pursuing their school’s first ever NCAA Tournament berth. As of now, the Eagles have clinched at least a share of the MEAC Title and are looking for two more wins before the conference tournament starts. The Eagles have won 15 games in a row and are led by one of the top scorers in the conference , Senior Guard Jeremy Ingram. Ingram is averaging 20.2 points per game and is going to provide just the proper push that NCCU needs to propel them through their conference tournament and become just another team to make the tournament before Northwestern does.
Of all the teams on this list that are most likely to make some noise in the big dance, Stephen F. Austin is the one that I think could do just that. The Lumberjacks have only two losses to their name this season and while one was a 10 point loss at Texas, the other was a bad loss to a mediocre East Tennessee State team. This Lumberjacks team knows how to win and this season it has become old hat to them. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Lumberjacks will be dancing this season in what will be only their second appearance in the tournament.
While it has certainly been a strange and somewhat rewarding college basketball season, I don’t know if I could be more excited by the prospect that these three teams hold. This small conference trio wields a great amount of potential and could certainly go into March ready for success. While I highly doubt they’ll win any tournament games, there’s no doubt in my mind that at least one of these teams could give someone who overlooked them a run for their money.