Mountain East Conference Tourney Wide Open
West Lib, Jesuit?like their chances
WHEELING — If there’s one thing that has become evident during its short existence, it’s that the Mountain East Conference Tournament is annually unpredictable.
One need not look further than two years ago when Wheeling Jesuit, West Liberty and Fairmont State all entered the men’s portion of the event ranked in the top 5 in the country. None of the three even made it to the championship game, much less won it.
It’s shaping up to be another good tournament for both the men and women, with action beginning Wednesday and concluding Sunday at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
Here is a look at how each side stacks up.
Local seeds: West Liberty (1), Wheeling Jesuit (2).
Sleeper: UVa.-Wise (7).
Coach Danny Sancomb and the Cardinals (23-5 overall, 18-4 MEC) were picked to win the conference’s regular-season crown and finished one spot below that projection. WJU, however, just ended West Liberty’s 47-game home winning streak Saturday and also owns a victory against No. 3 Fairmont, who last season was the NCAA Division II national runnerup.
”It’s a grind when you get down there,” Sancomb said. ”For 11 years I have come home unhappy.
”You can’t just say it’s those three teams (WLU, WJU and Fairmont) that will walk right through it. We’ve got to go down there and play good basketball if we want to win.”
First-year Hilltoppers (25-2, 20-2) coach Ben Howlett has had his share of success in Charleston, having won both as a player and an assistant coach. So it stands to reason that Howlett would have the secret ingredients on file, though he wasn’t willing to go that far.
”The tournament is wide open and it’s going to be an all-out war to see who the champion is,” Howlett said. ”With us, Wheeling and Fairmont, those are the frontrunners, obviously.
”But when you have a UVa.-Wise that just beat Wheeling a couple weeks ago and beat Fairmont the game after that, it’s tough.
”And (the Civic Center) has been known to cause teams problems.”
It’s impossible to know for sure, but Howlett believes WLU has to win at least two games to lock up playing host to the Atlantic Regional. The Cardinals likely clinched a place in that field with Saturday’s victory, but would like to continue climbing the ladder.
”It’s only been four years for our seniors, so they don’t have the type of misery I have,” Sancomb said with a laugh. ”They’re a competitive group of guys and they want to do special things this year.
”We’re going to give it a shot. We’re playing good basketball right now and we feel like we can beat anybody.”
Wheeling Jesuit opens play at 2:15 on Friday against the winner of the UVa.-Wise and Glenville contest. West Liberty awaits the survivor of W.Va. State and W.Va. Wesleyan at 6 p.m. the same day.
Local Seeds: West Liberty (4), Wheeling Jesuit (6)
Sleeper: Urbana (7)
Excuse first-year West Liberty (13-15, 12-10) coach Kyle Cooper if he is a little bit excited. The Hilltoppers were picked to finish eighth during the preseason, yet came in a solid fourth. The wins and losses may not show it, he said, but Cooper believes his club owns the ability to walk out of Charleston with hardware if it takes care of business the way he knows it can.
”I believe this in my head and in my heart — we’re capable of making a run in this tournament if we fall in love with the game,” Cooper said. ”We’ve got to value every possession and we’ve got to love it.
”We’re still recovering from not having a true point guard in a point guard-driven system. We’re only two games into it.
”But we’re only concerned about Thursday.”
If West Liberty is to make that run Cooper talked about, it will have to do so without freshman point guard Audrey Tingle who is out with a broken bone in her foot. But the Hilltoppers still have first team All-MEC performer Marissa Brown, as well as Brandi Beader, McKenna Shives and Johnie Olkosky among others.
Wheeling Jesuit (12-16, 10-12) coach Debbie Buff knows all about missing key players. The two-time defending champion Cardinals were without the services of all-conference post player Chenelle Moore in Saturday’s loss to WLU, and Buff was unsure of her availability.
”I know she is going to have an MRI soon and that’s all I will say,” Buff said with a smile. ”I think anybody can win this tournament.
”We have to continue to have other players step up.”
The Cardinals still have plenty of firepower with Mariah Callen, Mo Burns and Cassi Stein leading the way.
Of course the elephant in the room is Glenville State (27-1, 22-0), which didn’t lose to a conference foe all season. It should be noted, however, that the Pioneers were taken to the wire against West Liberty, got all they could handle from Jesuit and narrowly escaped Notre Dame. All of those games occurred in the last month.
”I think that teams are starting to close the gap, but that comes with the territory of always being the hunted,” Cooper said. ”To go undefeated in the conference is special.
”And I also think there is so much pressure on those kids at Glenville. That takes a toll.”
Urbana (12-14, 10-12), meanwhile, owns victories against Wheeling Jesuit, West Liberty and Fairmont — all teams that finished ahead of it during the regular season.
WLU faces No. 5 Fairmont at 8:15 on Thursday night. WJU will meet No. 3 W.Va. State at 2:15 on the same day.