By Justin Zackal
The 2016-17 PAC Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament starts tonight at 7 p.m. with the four higher seeds hosting the four lower seeds in the quarterfinal round, followed by the semifinals Thursday at 7 p.m. and the finals Saturday night at 7:30.
The PAC Sports Network will broadcast Tuesday’s Grove City at Thiel quarterfinal matchup. Check the broadcast schedule for details about later-round coverage.
To preview the tournament, here are five things to watch:
SAME TOP SEED, NEW PLAYERS
Saint Vincent (19-6, 15-3 PAC) won the last four PAC titles, but this was supposed to be the year the Bearcats loosened their grip on the trophy after graduating their top five scorers from last year and having only one senior. But here they are, the top seed for the fourth time since 2013.
“Every year is different and every team is different,” said Saint Vincent coach D.P. Harris. “It’s new to most all these guys in the locker room. We’re the champion until somebody beats us, but we had turnover because of graduation. So we brought new guys in and they are finding their way through.”
Three of the top six scorers are first-year players and four started their playing careers at other schools, including junior guard Matt D’Amico (13.0 PPG), a first-year starter who transferred from Clarion before playing as a reserve for the Bearcats last year.
The Bearcats open against eighth-seeded Chatham (10-15, 6-12 PAC), a team they beat 87-53 and 75-61 this year.
HIGHER SEED TO WATCH
Awaiting Saint Vincent in the semifinals could be fourth-seeded Westminster (15-10, 11-7 PAC), which hosts fifth-seeded Bethany (14-11, 9-9 PAC) in the quarterfinals. As the seventh seed last year, the Titans advanced to the semifinals, losing to Saint Vincent, 70-65. Westminster is even better this year, enjoying its first winning season since 2007.
“Our goal is to move on further than we did last year,” said Westminster coach Kevin Siroki. “That means getting to the finals and, who knows, once you get to the finals anything can happen.”
Westminster is a tough out for any team in the PAC because they are good both on the inside and the outside. The Titans are the only team to rank in the top three in 3-point shooting percentage (35.3) and rebounding (39.3 per game) this year, led by junior forwards Deontay Scott and Jarret Vrabel, who rank first and third in the PAC with 9.4 and 8.0 rebounds per game. Although, they lost twice against Saint Vincent this year, 89-68 on Jan. 14 and on Saturday 73-66.
“I expect to see Westminster come back up the road Thursday night,” Harris said. “They are a tough matchup. They shoot it so well and it’s hard to beat a team three times in a year.”
LOWER SEED TO WATCH
Because the teams reseed each round, any upset in the quarterfinals would prevent Westminster from playing Saint Vincent. One likely team is sixth-seeded Grove City (12-13, 8-10 PAC) who plays at third-seeded Thiel (15-8, 11-7 PAC). Thiel has played without its top two scorers the last three games, PAC leading scorer Tyriek Burton (18.0 PPG) and Josh Lumbus (12.0 PPG).
“I don’t know if they are going to be back for the tournament or not, but they are really good inside,” said Grove City head coach Steve Lamie. “Really big, very strong, great defensive team.”
Grove City is the best defensive team in the PAC, limiting teams to 66.0 points per game. They’ll have to deal with junior forward Clandell Cetoute, who averages 9.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, with double-doubles in his last two games, including 11 and 11 in a 65-60 win over Grove City.
“Our defense has been really good this year,” Lamie said. “That transcends being away or home.”
“Grove City always runs their system really well and they’re tough to play against,” said Siroki, whose Westminster team beat Grove City in overtime Jan. 11 and lost by five on Feb. 8.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Like the streaky nature of tournament play, Lamie said a 3-point shooting specialist could change any game. It’s just tough to predict which player that will be. More consistent play takes place underneath.
Saint Vincent’s 6-foot-5, 245-pound forward Tom Kromka (11.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) is coming off a 15-point, 13-rebound performance against Westminster Saturday. He also scored 14 points against Thomas More Feb. 15.
“Kromka has changed this league,” Harris said. “He is a force, he’s big, he’s physical.”
Saint Vincent may also need him to enter the starting lineup if 6-6 forward Austin Dedert can’t play this week. Dedert left Saturday’s game at Westminster with an ankle injury, making the win even more important for Saint Vincent knowing it can win without a key player.
WHO WILL GET HOT?
Second-seeded Thomas More (19-6, 15-3 PAC) is clearly the hottest team, having won eight straight. But will that carry over into the tournament against seventh-seeded Geneva (10-15, 7-11 PAC)? Teams play more desperate in the tournament with the season on the line.
Here’s what three coaches had to say about tournament play:
“We always say Tuesday is the get-through game, Thursday is the get-there game and Saturday everybody wants to win a championship,” Harris said. “Everybody plays their guts out. For us, we get everybody’s best game.”
“It’s survive and advance. That’s what it’s all about,” Siroki said. “All you need to do is win three games, that’s the great thing about it. Everyone’s played each other twice in the league. It’s a matter of stopping runs and executing. Everybody knows which plays everyone is running and who the players are.”
“If you play well for five days, you’re immortal,” Lamie added. “You can redeem a bad season. It’s not like we’ve played poorly; we’ve been up and down. But (winning the tournament) could make a decent season really, really great. Maybe that is more of a motivation than anything else.”