Observations: Zags' Dower seizes opportunity
Jon Rothstein takes a look at the last 24 hours, and the day ahead, in college basketball.
1. Sam Dower made the most of his opportunity this year at Gonzaga.
All this guy did was wait. He spent the better part of three years behind Elias Harris and never averaged more than 18.1 minutes, but Dower finally got a chance to be a starter this season and the Bulldogs have clearly benefited from his expanded role. The 6-9 lefty scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in Tuesday night's 75-64 win over BYU in the WCC title game, and is averaging 15.0 points and 7.1 rebounds on the season. In a lot of ways, Dower epitomizes Gonzaga this season. He's a very capable player but he's not someone who's on the national radar. One year after Mark Few's team was in the national spotlight and earned a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga is known but has yet to be studied. This isn't a team that has the cachet of last season's squad because they don't have a player the caliber of Kelly Olynyk, but this is still a sneaky good squad that could pick a few teams off the in the field of 68.
2. Thursday's Big East quarterfinal game between St. John's and Providence may be the biggest first-round tournament game during championship week.
The stakes in this game are simple. The winner will keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive while the loser will be bound for the NIT. Both the Red Storm and Friars have work to do if they hope to reach the field of 68 and this game will feature two desperate teams who split a pair of regular season meetings. St. John's has the most talented roster in the Big East and will enter the conference tournament this week at Madison Square Garden as the league's most dangerous team. Steve Lavin's squad will be playing on its home floor Thursday against Providence and has the depth, athleticism, and experience to beat any team in the Big East. The Friars, meanwhile, have had a depleted roster all season and now will have to face the conference's scariest team on its home floor if they hope to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. Expect a rock fight on Thursday afternoon at the World's Most Famous Arena.
3. Bid stealers are alive and well heading into multiple conference tournaments.
What is a bid stealer? A team that enters championship week without an NCAA resume but is more than capable of going on a run and winning its conference tournament. St. John's is an obvious potential bid-stealer in the Big East while UNLV fits the same profile in the Mountain West. The Runnin' Rebels will be playing their conference tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center and boast the necessary talent to win multiple games in consecutive days. Two other teams to watch? West Virginia in the Big 12 and La Salle in the Atlantic 10. The Mountaineers are only 17-14 overall but have already beaten Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas State while the Explorers are coming off a big win on Sunday at Saint Joseph's. La Salle has battled injuries throughout the entire season and has taken the top two teams in the Atlantic 10 -- Saint Louis and VCU -- down to the final possession earlier in the year.
4. Mount St. Mary's is equivalent to VCU after the Rams take a sedative.
A Triple-A version of HAVOC? Pretty much. Shaka Smart disciple Jamion Christian led the Mountaineers to an impressive 88-71 victory at Robert Morris on Tuesday night in the NEC title game and displayed the same type of style that his mentor has made a national brand. Mount St. Mary's accelerates the pace, uses its depth, and just like VCU takes quick three-point shots early in the shot clock. The Mountaineers' three senior guards --Julian Norfleet, Sam Prescott, and Rashad Whack -- combined for 52 points against the Colonials and controlled the game from tip to buzzer. The latter stretch of the season is also bringing out the best in Christian. The second-year head coach is an impressive 18-6 the past two years during February and March.
5. The minimal level of separation between teams in college basketball is even minuscule when it comes to mid-majors.
I've talked a great deal the past month about how close teams are to one another throughout the country and that statement was made primarily in reference to teams that played in power conferences. Over the past few days, it's become obvious that the same minimal level of separation extends to mid-major leagues as well. Monday night saw three different title games go down to the final possession and last night saw two teams -- Mount St. Mary's and Milwaukee -- win conference tournament championships on an opponent's home floor. Top seeds have fallen and chalk has dissipated. The sport is simply more balanced than it's ever been -- at all levels.
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