Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference basketball coaches obviously know what they’re talking about.
In the preseason poll of the 16 coaches, they picked East Stroudsburg and West Chester as the top two teams in the East Division and IUP and Slippery Rock as the top two in the West.
Those are the four teams that will converge on IUP’s Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex this weekend for the final four of the PSAC tournament. IUP (22-5) plays West Chester (20-7) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and Slippery Rock (21-7) plays East Stroudsburg (22-5) at 5:30. The winners advance to the championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“I’m not big on preseason polls,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said, “but I knew a lot of the teams in the final four here had really good players returning. I certainly knew Slippery Rock, in my mind, was the favorite from Day One with all the veteran talent they have, so there’s no surprise there. Stroudsburg is the returning tournament champs and have a number of all-league guys back, so that doesn’t come as a surprise. And West Chester had a great year last year and had a bunch of guys back. So none of that comes as a surprise.”
What about IUP? The Crimson Hawks came into the season with three returning starters, but none were preseason all-conference candidates. And no player on the roster had averaged double figures during a college season.
“If there’s a surprise someone’s there,” Lombardi said, “we’re the only team heading into this that didn’t have anybody on the all-conference team to start the season.”
Coaches around the conference would probably laugh off that statement. IUP is, after all, the program that is perceived to have it all, including a shiny, new arena. The KCAC is one of the jewels among Division II arenas, and the two-year-old facility will be the centerpiece of this weekend’s event. Teams usually don’t get to play in this type of facility unless they are serving as a sacrificial lamb for a Division I team or playing in the national quarterfinals.
IUP has lost only twice at the KCAC, once last year and once this year. The Hawks opened the playoffs Tuesday night with an 89-87 overtime victory against Edinboro in front of vocal crowd that numbered 1,500.
Playing at home, though, brings no guarantee of success.
“West Chester had a great year with a 20-win season and they’ve proven their ability to win at home and on the road,” Lombardi said. “They were able to come out West and win at Slippery Rock, and that’s something we weren’t able to do. So they’ve done it on the road, and they beat East Stroudsburg at home. They certainly have a lot of good wins on their résumé.”
West Chester is coming off Tuesday’s 73-63 win over Millersville. The Golden Rams rank second in the conference in scoring offense (75.7 points per game), behind East Stroudsburg. However, they rank only 13th in field goal percentage (.416) and 15th in 3-point field goal percentage (.287) but rank first in free throws made (536) and second in attempts (736).
Four players average in double figures, but none scores more than 11.7 per game.
“They’re a team that relies on a lot of quickness,” Lombardi said. “They’re real good defensively, they create a lot of turnovers. They average almost 11 steals a game, which is a really high number. And with their quickness on offense, being able to guard them off the dribble can present quite a challenge if you don’t sit down in your stance and contain and get help from other guys around you.
“They’re going to try to speed up the game and pressure the ball and play really fast so their quickness becomes an advantage. We have to take the opportunities when they’re there, but we need to play with great poise and play at our speed and not play faster than we’re capable, because when you do that, you’ll have turnovers and become inefficient on offense.”
IUP won the only regular-season meeting this season, 71-52, at West Chester on Dec. 2. West Chester dropped to 3-3 at the time.
“We had to play one of our better games out there to win,” Lombardi said. “That was back in early December so that was over three months ago, and teams have changed. Some guys are playing different minutes, their style is a little different, and they grew into something a little bit different over three months. Our team is a little bit different, too. Some of it is personnel, and some of it is how we attack things.
“That game is not a barometer one way or the other of what to expect in this game. We expect it be a 40-minute, grind-it-out game, and we hope we can make a couple more plays than they make coming down the stretch.”
Last year, West Chester, playing on its home court, knocked IUP out of the playoffs in the semifinals, scoring a 54-51 victory when Jon Breeden hit a 3-pointer in the final second.
“Them winning last year probably legitimized them as a program, and I think our players certainly respect them and the talent they have,” Lombardi said. “I don’t think it’s extra motivation because when you get to the semifinals of your conference tournament, I don’t know that you need extra motivation. If anything, it certainly heightens our players’ respect for them and hopefully heightens our focus and approach to the game from a mental standpoint.”