PAC Men’s Basketball Tournament Preview: Saint Vincent Still the Favorite, But it Could Get “Messy”

By Justin Zackal

Jaylon Bell and the Bearcats are looking for a 4th straight title.

Jaylon Bell and the Bearcats are looking for a fourth straight PAC title.

Saint Vincent is looking to become the first school to win the PAC men’s basketball championship in four straight years in more than two decades. The Bearcats will have home court advantage for the PAC Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament February 22-27, which will be held on the campuses of the higher seeds of each game and involve all 10 of the league’s teams. Here is a look at the storylines to follow this week:

THE SET PLAY: The four lowest seeds play each other on Monday for the right to play in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round against the top two teams. Thursday is the semifinals and Saturday is the finals. All games start at 7 p.m. except Saturday night’s 7:30 tip-off.

“Not only do the higher seeds hosts, but we reseed after each round,” said Waynesburg head coach Mark Christner, whose Yellow Jackets won two PAC tournament games at home last year before losing at Saint Vincent, 72-66, in last year’s final. “That really allows the teams that had nice regular seasons to take advantage of that.”

THE LAY-UP: Top-seeded Saint Vincent (19-6, 15-3 PAC) was picked to win the PAC in the preseason poll, but they have lost to three PAC teams in the last month of the season and barely got by fourth-seeded Thomas More (15-10, 12-6 PAC), 63-62, in the regular-season finale, albeit after they already had the No. 1-seed locked up. Still, there’s no denying the Bearcats’ tournament experience and their ability to remain atop the standings all year.

“They are the clear favorite going into the year and I don’t think anything has changed,” Christner said. “Their perimeter guys are certainly explosive and to me that’s their separation from the rest of the league.”

Beckman 1

Andrew Beckman and the Wolverines are the hottest team in the PAC with six consecutive wins.

THE GOOD LOOK: Teams that finish the regular season hot can carrying that momentum over into the tournament. Last year, Waynesburg won its last seven games and wound up in the finals. This year’s hot team: second-seeded Grove City (18-7, 13-5 PAC), winners of six straight games, including a dramatic, last-second 65-63 victory at Saint Vincent on February 13. The Wolverines’ 18 regular-season victories are the most for the program since the 1988-89 season, and their 13 conference wins are the most in program history.

THE LONG SHOT: Eighth-seeded Geneva (5-20, 5-13 PAC) opens at home against ninth-seeded Chatham (4-21, 4-14), a team that’s lost eight straight, and if seventh-seeded Westminster (8-17, 8-10 PAC) dispatches the 10-seed, Washington & Jefferson (1-24, 1-17 PAC), the Golden Tornadoes will travel to Saint Vincent instead of meeting the streaking Wolverines. Geneva played spoiler two years ago, beating top-seeded Bethany, 61-59, as the nine seed in the quarterfinals, and this year the GTs have two of the PAC’s top three scorers in Ethan Adamczyk (18.3 ppg) and Chaese Vaudrin (17.2 ppg).

If you’re looking for a milder upset from the bottom five seeded teams, go with sixth-seeded Thiel (12-13, 10-8 PAC) winning at three-seed Bethany (16-9, 12-6 PAC) in the quarterfinals. The Tomcats won their last meeting with the Bison, 84-80, on January 30.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH: Christner touted Saint Vincent’s perimeter players, which are led by senior G Jaylon Bell (16.8 ppg), his pick for league MVP. The Bearcats also have senior Gs Pat Jones (13.9 ppg) and JC Howard (9.8 ppg).

Fifth-seeded Waynesburg (10-15, 10-8 PAC) was able to win at Saint Vincent, 73-64, on February 3. Despite that Bearcat trio scoring 42 of the team’s 64 points, they shot 31.5 percent (12 for 38) and 34.5 percent (19-55) as a team.

“We weren’t afraid of the moment and we really defended them well,” Christner said. “That’s what it takes; you have to be able to guard the perimeter guys and keep in front of them, and you have to be able to hold your own on the boards. If you can do those things, you have a chance.”

Thiel senior Khari Bess may be playing his best basketball at the right time.

Thiel senior Khari Bess may be playing his best basketball at the right time.

Thiel senior G Khari Bess is the league’s stats-sheet stuffer, leading the nation in steals (3.7 spg) and ranking 17th in assists (5.8 apg) to go with his 15.5 scoring average.

“It’s difficult because you try to bring the ball up against him and he kind of waits a little bit and sets your man up and picks your pocket late,” Christner said. “He’s shot it better here as of late, too. He’s playing at a high level.”

How about a player who doesn’t fill up the stats sheet but is just as much of a pain for opposing teams? That’s Grove City sophomore C Andrew Beckman.

“He can get under your skin,” Christner said. “He plays really hard and makes really good plays for his team as far as blocking a guy out or setting a really good screen and just being a general, difficult guy to guard.”

THE LAST SHOT: Anything can happen in a tournament that involves every team in the conference. And while there’s parity in this year’s field, there’s still a clear favorite in Saint Vincent, a streaking upstart in Grove City and after that, who knows.

“If you look at the results in our conference it’s really been as we thought it was going to be and that’s kind of a little bit of Saint Vincent at the top and a little messy in the middle,” Christner said. “Everybody’s going to have the opportunity to go play and that’s the Division III experience; that’s what it’s all about.”