Happy March 1st, college hoops fans! March Madness doesn't start when conference tournaments tip off. It starts now, as teams are making their final pushes and trying to boost their resumes, so we're kicking off our March Madness coverage today.
Several college hoops teams in Virginia have high hopes for deep tournament runs. In the interest of having a little fun, we're ranking the state's Division I teams as March tips off.
1. Virginia: This is the easiest of easy decisions. The Cavs enter the final week of the regular season ranked 2nd in the nation at 27-1, 15-1 in the ACC. Since the Wahoos' lone setback against Duke, they've won eight straight, six without Justin Anderson and two without London Perrantes, as well. UVA went on the road to Wake Forest without two starters and won, 70-34. I don't care who you're playing... doubling up your opponent without two starters in a league road game is impressive. Also, don't get me started on those numskulls who said UVA's style is bad for basketball. Tony Bennett has found a formula that works. They're so good at adjusting to what teams throw at them. Look for the Cavaliers to be national championship contenders.
2. VCU: The Rams are 4-4 since Briante Weber went down for the season, but the manner in which they're losing their games is heart-breaking. Of their five Atlantic 10 losses, two have been in double overtime, another one was on a buzzer-beater without Treveon Graham, and a fourth was to Dayton by two points. I can't remember seeing VCU ever beat themselves as bad as it did against the Flyers on Saturday. In any case, the Rams could put it all together any day. They're 21-8, 11-5 in the Atlantic 10, but their strength of schedule is ranked 7th in the country, the toughest schedule of any team in Virginia. For Spider fans puzzled why VCU is ahead of Richmond, despite the Spiders' two wins over the Rams, the strength of schedule is a big reason why.
3. Old Dominion: The Monarchs' are making noise in their first season in Conference USA. ODU is 11-5 in the league, 22-6 overall. Jeff Jones and company have been helped a little bit by a schedule that's ranked 141st in the country, but you can only play who's put in front of you. Many experts feel that the Monarchs are still on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble looking in, but a strong finish and good showing at the league tournament could certainly be enough to get the Monarchs in the dance.
4. Richmond: The Spiders might be the most improved team in the state since the start of the season. They've won five of their last six games at a very crucial time, have climbed into a fifth place tie in the Atlantic 10 entering the regular season's final week, and have seen their RPI ranking climb to 65. Richmond has played the 37th-toughest schedule in the nation and has two wins over a ranked VCU team. Chris Mooney's team also seems to have shaken the road woes that had plagued them throughout the course of the season. I definitely consider the Spiders as a dark-horse contender in Brooklyn.
5. William & Mary: The Tribe is a member of the storied "Forgotten Five," the five Division I programs that have never made the NCAA Tournament, but 2015 looks to be a year William & Mary could erase itself from that list. Tony Shaver's group has lost some close games to some teams that it probably should have beaten on paper, including Saturday at Drexel, where the Tribe missed a chance to lock up the outright CAA regular season championship. Either way, William & Mary is the league tournament's top seed, and finds itself just three wins away from its first trip to the big dance. Marcus Thornton is the man, averaging 19.4 points per game. He recently broke the Tribe's all-time scoring mark, the oldest standing program scoring record in Division I hoops, one that had stood since 1950. Thornton has also eclipsed 2,000 points in his career.
6. James Madison: JMU put together a 19-12 overall record this season and is tied with William & Mary atop the CAA with a 12-6 league record. The Dukes are rolling heading into the conference tournament, winners of six of their last seven games, despite Andre Nation's dismissal from the team. While the Tribe still searches for its first berth in the NCAA's, Matt Brady's group eyes its second voyage to the big dance in the last three seasons. Three players average in double figures in scoring for the Dukes, led by Ron Curry's 13.8 ppg.
7. Radford: The Highlanders wrapped up the regular season 21-10, 12-6 in Big South play, and enter the conference tournament as the fourth seed. Their biggest win of the season may have beena 68-66 triumph over Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum. Javonte Green's 15 points per game pace a Radford team that certainly has a shot at winning the Big South Tournament and finding its way into the field of 68.
8. Virginia Tech: Finding ways to win games certainly has been the hardest part for Buzz Williams and company in his first year as the Hokies' head coach. Virginia Tech has pushed some really good teams to the brink, only to fall in heart-breaking fashion. What has been a rough campaign will set the Hokies up nicely for the future. Next season they'll add some transfer players and get deeper. Look for them to improve significantly, but as far as this year goes, Tech's season will probably end on the first day of the ACC Tournament.
9. Norfolk State: The Spartans are among the best in the MEAC, but are also part of a group chasing North Carolina Central. NSU is 11-3 in the league entering the final week of the regular season, 18-11 overall. Jeff Short is second in the conference with 19.3 points per game, and the Spartans' offense posts about 70 points per contest. They'll have to overtake NCCU in the league tournament and win that title to reach the NCAA tournament.
10. George Mason: It was a rough first year in the Atlantic 10 for the Patriots, and year two wasn't much different. George Mason has struggled once again, limping to just four league wins with two games to play. The Patriots have shown signs of life at times, but the recent struggles certainly have many wondering about Paul Hewitt's future in Fairfax.
11. VMI: Despite having one of the Southern Conference's best scorers in QJ Peterson (19.6 ppg), the Keydets stumbled to a 7-11 league mark, 11-18 overall. They have a strength of schedule of 238 and an RPI of 280, giving them zero chance of a postseason tournament, barring a SoCon tournament rally.
12. Longwood: It was another year of struggles for the Lancers, who finished 9-22, 5-13 in the Big South. They'll enter the playoffs as the number nine seed, after topping Campbell in the regular season finale, but there is still a long way to go for Longwood.
13. Liberty: Of 347 Division I teams, Liberty's RPI ranks as the worst. The Flames' RPI of 347 and strength of schedule of 308 makes them, sadly, one of the worst teams in the nation. They've managed eight wins this season, to go along with a 2-16 mark in the Big South. There's nowhere to go but up in Lynchburg.