The Siena Saints and Fresno State Bulldogs will square off in a best-of-three series to determine this year's College Basketball Invitational championship.
The Saints stormed past Illinois State with a 61-49 victory to cement their place in the finals. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs topped Old Dominion, 71-64, to advance.
Despite entering the tournament with a sub-.500 record, Siena is one of few teams who will suit up in April with a chance to secure its first tournament victory in school history.
But Fresno State can send senior Tyler Johnson off on a high note, snagging a consolation prize among teams that could not quite meet March Madness standards.
Here's a look at the CBI championship series, which will begin on Monday night at Fresno.
|CBI Championship Schedule|
|Date||Away Team||Home Team||Time (ET)||TV|
|Mon, March 31||Siena||Fresno State||10 p.m.||CBSSN|
|Wed, April 2||Fresno State||Siena||7 p.m.||CBSSN|
|Sat, April 5*||Fresno State||Siena||11:30 a.m.||CBSSN|
|*if necessary, schedule courtesy of GazelleGroup.com|
Neither team figured to play meaningful basketball this late into the season. Siena began the CBI with a 15-17 record, and Fresno State has not competed in tournament play since its 2007 NIT appearance.
On Jan. 25, the Bulldogs sat at 8-13 after suffering their fifth straight loss. While they finished 11-9 in the Mountain West Conference, they couldn't buy a conference victory early on, starting 1-7 within the MAAC.
Johnson, who leads his team with 16.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, spoke about the team's unlikely run with The Fresno Bee's Robert Kuwada:
I know that people never thought we would be in this position, especially being off at a 1-7 start in conference play. Regardless of whether we're playing in the CBI, the CIT, whatever, I don't think anybody really thought we'd still be even playing basketball at this point, so it's a great moment for this team and this program.
On the other side, Siena was fortunate just to receive a tournament bid after beginning the year 2-7. Rob Poole, the Saints' top scorer with 14.7 points per game, is himself surprised to be one of the few teams still playing college hoops. From the Saratogian's Lauara Amato:
Ten teams and we’re one of ’em. I probably could have bet my life at the beginning of the year that I didn’t think we would be one of them,” junior guard Rob Poole said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t confident, but I just didn’t think that was going to happen. It just goes to coach and all the players on the team, they’ve really worked hard and put in a lot of effort.
The odds view Siena as the much more unlikely contestant, with Vegas Insider labeling Fresno State the eight-point favorites. But the pressure is on the Bulldogs to win the opening match, as the next two games occur on Siena's court.
Both teams have won 13 games at home and lost nine times on the road. With both squads posting sub-.500 road records, the Saints' best shot comes from snatching two home victories.
Scouring the Numbers
Going off the full picture, Fresno State deserves to be billed the favorite.
Per Sports-Reference.com, The Bulldogs have accumulated 107.8 points per 100 possessions while allowing 104.1. The Saints rate 260th out of 351 schools with 101.4 points scored per 100 possessions, and their defensive rating sits at 102.6.
There are two glaring weaknesses sparking Siena's offensive inefficiency. For starters, it's simply not a good shooting squad. It shoots 44.9 percent from within the three-point arc and 32.8 percent from long range. Fresno State, by comparison, shoots 48.6 percent on two-pointers and 35.6 percent on threes.
Poole holds an unimpressive 41.6 field goal percentage for the Saints, but he has averaged 19.3 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting through three tournament games.
Turnovers are also a major hindrance for Siena, which coughs the ball up 14 times per game. That bloated rate makes it impossible to thrive offensively and provides opponents with easy scoring chances on fast breaks.
The defense has carried Siena through the CBI, but an increased effort on the other side would go a long way toward its championship chances.
As the superior squad boasting home-court advantage, Fresno State takes Monday night's game to gain the early edge.
A best-of-three series presents these student-athletes with much different circumstances, and the young players may grow complacent knowing they only need one win through two games.
Add the desperation of Siena playing its last game at home, and the Saints steal a tightly contested Game 2 to set up a winner-take-all bout, where the Bulldogs salvage the championship.
Behind Johnson, three more Bulldogs tally more than 10 points a game while the team swipes seven steals per contest. The deeper, thriftier Fresno State gets the edge.
Prediction: Fresno State (in three)