By Mike Barber, Daily News-Record
Excuse Kirby Dean if he isn’t completely sure of the selection process for the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament. After all, the Eastern Mennonite program he coaches has never been there.
But with four games to go – and his Royals now in control of their own destiny for a conference title – he may want to start boning up on that information.
“When you get to the point where you’ve got four games left and if you win out, you’re regular-season champs, I think at that point it’s fair to say our goal has to be to finish first,” Dean said this week.
Wednesday’s upset of No. 1 Guilford – the second top-ranked team the Royals have sunk this season – made this year’s team the winningest in school history and clinched a first-round bye in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament. With four more wins, EMU would lock up the ODAC’s regular-season championship for just the second time. It won in 1980.
The No. 16 Royals (17-3 overall, 10-2 in the ODAC) play at Roanoke today.
They then host No. 5 Virginia Wesleyan on Monday, Bridgewater on Wednesday and Washington & Lee on Feb. 20.
While the players are nearing something special for their program, Dean doesn’t think his upstart squad is feeling the heat.
“I would think that the Guilfords and the Wesleyans and the Macons of the world would feel that pressure more than we would,” Dean said. “Those programs have a history of advancing to that level and we don’t. Everything we do is icing on the cake. We’re looking at it as, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
In fact, despite ripping apart the top-ranked Quakers 90-63 in Greensboro, N.C., on Wednesday, Dean said Guilford should still be considered the favorite to win the ODAC.
“I know this sounds crazy to say that I still would think Guilford would be the favorite after we just beat them at their place by 27. It sounds absurd,” Dean said. “But the reality of it is, you’re still talking about a team that lost no one and went to the final four last year. That has to count for something.”
The ODAC tourney starts Feb. 23 with the sixth- through 11th-place teams playing first-round games at the higher seed. The quarterfinals, semifinals and final are Feb. 26-28 at the Salem Civic Center.
To all but assure itself of an NCAA bid, EMU would likely have to reach the championship game of the ODAC tournament – no small feat for a program that hasn’t so much as notched a tourney win since 1983.
“You ask anyone around here, we’re the favorite,” junior swingman Todd Phillips said this week. “But any other school would say that. No one ever really picks us to be No. 1. Any time we win, it’s like, ‘Oh we had an outstanding night that night. We did everything right that night.’ But that’s what good teams do.”
Sixty-one teams receive D-III tournament berths. A selection committee picks the teams from three pools. Pool A is the automatic qualifiers (conference champions from leagues that receive automatic bids). Pool B is independent schools – teams that don’t play in auto-bid conferences. Pool C is at-large bids for all the remaining teams.
This year, the NCAA will hand out 40 automatic bids, two guaranteed Pool B bids and 19 at-large bids.
EMU is ranked fourth in the South Region, behind Guilford and Virginia Wesleyan – two ODAC teams it has beaten on the road this year – and Dallas-Texas.
The tournament field will be announced March 1 via a Web cast.
The ODAC will almost definitely have two teams in the draw, possibly three, and it holds out some hope for a fourth. For that to happen, the top four seeds would likely have to advance to the conference semifinals, although Guilford got an at-large bid last year despite losing in the first round.
“I would hope, given the success that we’ve had, that we’d have at least three,” ODAC commissioner Brad Bankston said this week. “The parity in our league is phenomenal. I don’t think there’s a better league in the country.”
A regular-season title combined with a tournament victory would appear to be enough to get EMU to the NCAAs for the first-time ever.
“If you were realistically taking the top 60 teams in America, I believe you could easily take six ODAC schools,” Dean said. “I can’t imagine that at least three from our league don’t go. I can’t fathom that three or maybe four don’t go.”