And then there were eight...
For the first time since 1994, a eighth-seeded team has fought its way to the NCAA Division II Basketball Elite Eight.
Saint Joseph's College will make its fourth-ever appearance in the Elite Eight this year after an impressive jaunt through the Midwest Region.
After dispensing the region's top seed, Kentucky Wesleyan, SJC proceeded to knock off Grand Valley State University with a final-second shot in overtime. Then they proceeded to oust Quincy University in a 104-103 triple-overtime thriller to reach the Elite Eight.
Augusta State also earned its bid to the Elite Eight for the third-straight year with a 78-71 win over Montevallo in the Southeast Regional Championship game. Augusta State was one of only three top seeds to make it to the Elite Eight this year, joined by Indiana University of Pennsylvania from the Atlantic Region and Midwestern State from the South Central Region.
Cal Poly-Pomona defeated BYU-Hawai'i 78-75 to win the West Region, and earn a trip to face off against St. Joseph's in the Elite Eight. SJC is the only Elite Eight participant to have not won twenty games this year (18-11).
Perennial powerhouse from the East, Bentley, won the East Region by dispatching Philadelphia University, 81-69. Bentley will face off against Augusta State in the Elite Eight's opening round night cap at 8:30 (EDT) on Wednesday, March 24.
Valdosta State, winner of the Southeast Region, will meet the Atlantic Region's top seed and champion, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. IUP and Valdosta State have a combined record of 52-6. The opening game of the Elite Eight will be between Saint Cloud State and Midwestern State.
Compared to the Division I tournament, the D-II tournament is much more compressed, with the first three rounds taking place over the span of a weekend through the following Tuesday, and the Elite Eight, Semifinals, and Finals taking place Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
While this format certainly adds some uncertainty and produces some amazing upsets, the log layoff between Regional Championships and the first round of the Elite Eight is a momentum killer.
The team that will suffer the most from this long layoff is St. Joseph's.
An unlikely Elite Eight team as the Midwest's eight seed, SJC put together a string of impressive and exciting victories. In each game, SJC was over-matched, yet somehow the Puma's found the will to prevail.
Part of that winning formula was momentum. Riding the emotional high of knocking off one of the nation's best teams in Kentucky Wesleyan, SJC proceeded to battle back against Grand Valley State, and eventually SJC topped GVSU with a last-second shot in overtime.
The comeback kids struck again in the Regional Final against Quincy. Led by Dayvon Sloan's game-high 45 points, SJC overcoming a seemingly insurmountable 14-point second-half deficit to claim the Midwest Regional Championship in triple overtime.
Saint Joseph's College vs. California Polytechnic University-Pomona - Wednesday, 6:00 pm.
Now, the Pumas have more than a week to let reality set in. The luck of the draw has SJC matching up against Cal Poly-Pomona, probably the weakest of the Elite Eight teams, other than SJC.
While not the blockbuster match-up that we'll see in IUP and Valdosta State or Bentley and Augusta State, the SJC-CPP game is probably the most interesting of the Wednesday games.
Can SJC avoid a letdown after an improbable run to the Elite Eight?
My heart says yes, but my head says no. Cal Poly-Pomona by six.
Saint Cloud State University vs. Midwestern State University - Wednesday, 12 noon
Both teams know how to win, and both teams have had success this late in the year. Although combining for only seven losses this year, most of those belong to St. Cloud State.
Midwestern State came into the tournament ranked No. 3 in the national coaches' poll.
While it's unfair to say that St. Cloud is not a good team (SCSU ranked No. 16 coming into the post-season), I just don't think they're as good as they have been in the past, and they're not as good as Midwestern State has been this year. Midwestern State by eight.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania vs. Valdosta State University - Wednesday, 2:30 pm
These two teams combined for only six losses this year, and IUP is the highest-ranked team remaining having entered the tournament ranked No. 2 in the nation.
IUP will face the team that knocked off Arkansas Tech, the No. 1 team in the nation in Valdosta State (who was ranked No. 6 in the nation entering the tournament).
This is the marquee match-up in the first round of the Elite Eight, and I fully expect the winner of this game to have an excellent chance of bringing home a national title.
This game is a true six-to-five and pick 'em. IUP by three.
Bentley College vs. Augusta State University - Wednesday, 8:30 pm
These two teams are certainly used to the confines of the MassMutual Center in Springfield. This will mark Augusta State's third-straight trip to the Elite Eight and Bentley's third trip in four years.
Bentley looks to be a little over-matched in this contest, being an unranked team (albeit the top poll point getter outside of the Top 25) and Augusta State coming into the postseason ranked No. 4 in the nation.
When intangibles are a wash, as they are in this game, one must look to numbers. The numbers are saying Augusta State by 10.
All four games feature match-ups that will provide some excellent basketball, and should provide good drama and suspense.
St. Joseph and Cal Poly-Pomona features an unlikely Cinderella story in SJC against a scrappy team from Pomona.
Bentley and Augusta State features two grizzled veterans of the Elite Eight.
Midwestern State and SCSU are two very successful teams, neither of which are used to losing.
IUP and Valdosta State are two top-ranked powerhouses battling it out.
The brackets certainly have provided us with some entertainment thus far, and I suspect that with the match-ups to come, we won't be disappointed with the final seven games of the 2009-2010 season.
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