By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: Emma Reider. SU junior guard Blair Davis brings the ball across half-court against Penn State – Harrisburg. Dec. 2 2017.
Times have turned around here in 2017-18. Spartans surge to the top of the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) while the Captains and Sea Gulls battle for second place. It is a much different scenario than recent seasons.
Lately, Salisbury and Christopher Newport have waged war for supremacy over the CAC men’s basketball map. However, behind a senior-laden squad this season, the No. 4 York College (Pa.) Spartans have found the right formula for their best season in program history to this point.
The argument now is that this blueprint hurts the conference. With only 21 at-large bids spread thin for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the CAC may find themselves as a one-bid league (the conference champion) for the first time in quite a while.
This is from a pack chasing for the No. 2 seed insgead of a typically clear top-2 as both Salisbury and CNU see ‘rebuilding’ years after losing much of their senior talent from a year ago. Currently these two teams are fighting for the second-seed as York owns a slight one-game lead in conference-play after their first loss Saturday against Mary Washington.
One thing is for certain. With so much on the line as York looks to continue their historic season and both CNU and Salisbury attempt to return to the national tournament, it offers an intense battle for fans to watch into February.
One factor that greatly aided Salisbury on their way to NCAA Tournament at-large bids the last two seasons was an excellent non-conference record and strength of schedule. Those two items might hurt the Sea Gulls this time around.
In 2015-16, Salisbury went a perfect 7-0 against non-conference foes; in 2016-17, 5-2; this season, 4-3.
The substantial difference between those 5-2 and 4-3 records is their quality of opponents. Last season, the Sea Gulls were helped by great seasons courtesy of their opponents. Both non-conference opponents Salisbury lost to (Hardin-Simmons; Ramapo) were played on a neutral site and ended the season as NCAA Tournament teams. Four SU opponents made the ‘Big Dance’ last season.
This time around early non-conference losses are only hurting Salisbury. Virginia Wesleyan and Rowan both came into Maggs PAC and ran away from the Sea Gulls with their strong offenses. A road loss right before the Christmas break at Arcadia did not help either. All three of those teams are no better than fifth in their respective conferences.
While Salisbury was undefeated at home a season ago, in this campaign they are 5-3 with still four more home games left.
Right now, a 2-0 record at the College of Staten Island Tournament of Heroes is something the Sea Gulls can hang their hat on, but those two opponents’ resumes are not ideal. Staten Island is currently in a battle for first place in the CUNYAC with a 10-7 overall record. Oneonta State is 10-6 and tied for fourth in the SUNYAC.
The other two non-conference victories came against winless Goucher and five-win Washington College.
Via D3hoops.com, this formula led to an unofficial non-conference strength of schedule (SOS) of 0.480, the lowest among Salisbury and any of its non-conference and top-four CAC opponents. That non-conference SOS drops their overall SOS to a projected 0.504.
SOS and the CAC
The CAC has been beneficial to the Sea Gulls the last two seasons by way of CNU. While Salisbury has only gone 1-5 against the Captains in the last two seasons, CNU’s national and conference success has provided SU with ‘good and tough’ losses which boosted SU’s overall resume.
Two years ago, going 0-3 against a generally top-10 CNU team (with two losses in overtime) made Salisbury’s then-six losses much, much more palatable. Last year, a 1-2 record against another top Captains team provided strength to their resume.
This year things have changed. With both the Captains and Sea Gulls having at least four losses so far this season, their resumes have each taken a hit, which means it hurts their opposition’s resume too.
Unlike recent years, York has emerged as a great strength to Salisbury’s resume. The Spartans have top-16 wins against Swarthmore and Middlebury to this point. They started the season 16-0 and rose to No. 4 in the nation before their loss on Saturday.
Salisbury meets York just one more time in Pennsylvania towards the end of the season. The two ancient CAC-rivals may see each other again in the CAC Championship if SU can stave off the currently trailing CNU Captains.
While all teams are hampered by injuries throughout the season, it is a special case when it comes to the Captains. A team-veteran starting guard in Marcus Carter has been out so far this season with an injury. Add Carter to the mix and close CNU losses could have gone the other way.
Mary Washington is the only other top win on the Sea Gulls resume. Luckily for SU, the Eagles have put together a good season well over the .500 mark. However, UMW continues to fall away from the top-CAC pack.
This season the CAC’s lackluster performance without a defined top-two may prove the downfall of a two-bid league, leaving the NCAA Tournament potentially up to one lone conference champion.
So, you say there’s a chance?
While things are starting to look bleak for a two-bid CAC this season, there is hope for Sea Gull fans out there.
The young team seems to be peaking in performance at the right moment in the season, currently on a five-game win streak.
“I think we’re going to have to win the [conference]. If we win out, maybe. We don’t really have a signature win right now. Our only signature win is Mary Washington on the road,” SU Head Coach Andy Sachs said about the prospects of an NCAA Tournament berth.
Whichever team wins the CAC Tournament gets that elusive automatic bid. The conference will most likely be a two-bid league if a team is able to beat York in the tournament.
It is in Salisbury’s own power to gain the No. 2 for that CAC Tournament. However, there is still hope for SU to gain the No. 1 overall seed. UMW’s win over York was a huge step towards that goal.
York still must travel to CNU. CNU still must travel to SU. SU still has to travel to York. Finally, Mary Washington still can have their say when visiting Salisbury and hosting CNU.
Therefore, there is much that can change among the top-four in the CAC.
Before the Sachs tenure, there is history backing the Sea Gulls this season. The 2014-15 team saw a similar blueprint for the season.
Salisbury was 10-7 (6-3 CAC) under then-head coach Josh Merkel as they entered Jan. 21. The team went on to win eight of their final nine regular season games before winning the CAC Championship and advancing to the NCAA Second Round.
Now SU is 12-5 (8-2 CAC) entering Jan. 21, one game back of the conference leader. The Sea Gulls have eight games remaining; four on the road and four at home. The aim is usually to get to 20 or 21 wins which is definitely plausible by also adding in a potential CAC First Round or Semifinal game.
So, with a little smirk, the question is asked, if there is a chance?
Yes, there is, as the run continues for these younger Sea Gulls.