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March into Madness: From high fliers to LIers

Stony Brook needs a healthy Elijah Olaniyi to

Stony Brook needs a healthy Elijah Olaniyi to make a run in tournament play.   Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Welcome to March, the month when men’s college basketball is historically accompanied by Madness.

In this season, the pairing happened earlier than usual. Madness hitched itself to the sport’s wagon Nov. 12 in Lexington — when Evansville, now skidding through a 17-game losing streak, stunned then-No. 1 Kentucky — and has ridden shotgun ever since.

The Madness has spared few traditional power programs. It has descended on Cameron Indoor Stadium, where no non-ACC team had won since 2000 until Stephen F. Austin shocked then-No. 1 Duke. It has stopped in East Lansing, whose Michigan State Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the preseason but lost three of their first eight. And it has lingered over Chapel Hill, showing no signs of freeing projected lottery pick Cole Anthony and 11-17 North Carolina from its spell.

But in what could be considered a down year for the game’s blue bloods, others have emerged. Baylor (five weeks) and Gonzaga (four) have held the AP poll’s No. 1 ranking longer than any of the five others who have been lauded as the top team. Those two, along with San Diego State and Dayton, have legitimate chances to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and cut down the nets in Atlanta.

Baylor (25-2) has won 23 straight, including a win over current No. 1 Kansas (25-3) at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The gritty Bears boast one of the country’s stingiest defenses and are tied with the Jayhawks for the Big 12 regular-season title.

Gonzaga (28-2) has beaten Arizona and Oregon away from home. Advanced metrics such as KenPom love the Bulldogs, who have the most efficient offense at an adjusted 119.7 points per 100 possessions.

San Diego State (27-1) is the only team aside from Kansas and Duke (23-5) in the top 15 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive ratings, and Dayton’s Jalen Crutcher and projected lottery pick Obi Toppin rank alongside Duke’s Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. and Kansas’ Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike as the country’s best guard-big duo.

Sidenote: Kansas is really good, as you probably have gathered by now.

Local prospects

Well, not St. John’s, which does not appear in any of the 94 bracket projections tracked by the Bracket Matrix. The Red Storm (14-14) will need to win the Big East Tournament to hear Greg Gumbel call their name on Selection Sunday. But Seton Hall, Rutgers, Hofstra and Stony Brook all have a chance to dance.

Seton Hall (20-7) is the best of that bunch, led by All-American candidate Myles Powell. The Pirates’ 10 quadrant 1 wins rank second behind only Kansas’ 11. They are a tournament lock; now it’s just a matter of seeding. With a tough final stretch at Marquette, versus Villanova and at Creighton, which has been as potent as anyone since mid-January, Seton Hall has an opportunity to play its way into the two-seed discussion.

Former Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell has Rutgers (18-11) on the precipice of its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. How about that for Madness? The Scarlet Knights have been dominant at home, but their 1-8 road record could cause a sweaty Selection Sunday.

The Bracket Matrix lists Rutgers as the second-best 10 seed — not a lock but ahead of several other at-large candidates.

As is usually the case, Stony Brook and Hofstra will need to win their conference tournaments to snag an NCAA bid. Both have reason to believe.

Elijah Olaniyi, Stony Brook’s top scorer, went down with an ankle injury Feb. 8 and the team has gone 2-3 without him. Getting a healthy Olaniyi back for the conference tournament will be critical. With his 28 points and 11 rebounds leading the way, Stony Brook (18-11) beat America East regular-season champion Vermont in Burlington on Jan. 8. The Seawolves, who control their destiny as the No. 2 seed, likely need Olaniyi to repeat that feat in the conference title game.

As for the Pride (22-8), an eight-game winning streak helped clinch at least a share of the CAA regular-season crown. With another experienced roster led by guard Desure Buie and wing Eli Pemberton, Hofstra is peaking at the right time.

Don’t roll your eyes, Pride fans. Yes, Hofstra has won regular-season titles only to fall in the CAA title game twice under Joe Mihalich. And yes, they rode a six-game winning streak into the 2016 conference tournament but lost to UNC Wilmington in the championship game.

These things tend to happen in March, the month when college basketball is always accompanied by Madness. But maybe — just maybe — the Madness will abate March 7-10 in the CAA Tournament in Washington and Hofstra will cut down the nets for the first time since 2001.

New York Sports