March Madness officially begins today in the Peach Belt Conference as the top men’s and women’s basketball programs descend on Columbus, Ga., for the league tournaments.
The USC Aiken men and women will enter the four-day, three-round event as No. 1 seeds out of the East Division.
Rival Augusta State is a No. 2 seed out of the East in the men’s bracket, while the Lady Jaguars clinched the fourth and final seed with a win in their regular-season finale.
Augusta State’s men have won the conference tournament title two of the past three years, but USC Aiken has the momentum entering this season’s tournament after Wednesday’s NCAA Division II Southeast Regional poll gave the No. 1 spot to the Pacers.
Holding onto that top ranking
and sending the first three rounds
of the Southeast Regional tournament to Aiken, is a priority for
conference coach of the year Vince Alexander.
“That’s a goal of ours,” he said. “We have to go in there and win the tournament. If we go in there and win it, we’ll be in great shape.”
The Pacers (20-6) have put themselves in a strong position.
Along with Alexander’s award, seniors Re’mon Nelson and Sterling Council both earned spots on all-conference teams. Council made the list of the league’s top five players despite coming off the bench for most of the season – a testament to the team’s backcourt depth.
Alexander said the team’s long list of capable contributors – nine Pacers average at least 16 minutes of playing time per game – will be key this weekend.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a team this deep and this productive,” he said.
“There are so many guys who can contribute. I like our depth, and it’s certainly an advantage as you go on. The deeper you get (in the postseason), the more depth plays a role.”
The Pacers will face West Division
No. 4 seed Clayton State (16-10) in the first round of the men’s tournament at 5 p.m. Friday.
No. 2 Augusta State will play West Division No. 3 Georgia College at 3.
The first round of the women’s tournament is today, with top-seeded USC Aiken facing West Division No. 4 Montevallo.
The Lady Pacers have reached the tournament finals two of the past three seasons but came up short each time.
“I think we have the opportunity to play our best basketball this weekend,” USC Aiken coach Mike Brandt said.
“The last few games (in the regular season) the focus just wasn’t quite there as much as it should be, but we know what’s at stake and this team does a great job of keeping things in perspective.”
The Lady Pacers, ranked No. 2 in the Southeast Regional poll, have a chance to take the regional’s top spot from Clayton State with a conference title.
“We probably have to win the tournament,” Brandt said.
“And if Clayton State goes out in the first round or something, that would help.”
Clayton State, the top-ranked team from the conference’s West Division, will open at 1 p.m. today against Augusta State.
All four semifinals games will be Saturday, and the championship games will be played Sunday.