Loaded PSAC basketball field tips off

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 11:48 p.m.

Slippery Rock men's basketball coach Kevin Reynolds compares his program to baseball's Tampa Bay Rays, a small-market team competing with the titans of the sport.

“We have to go through the Yankees and Red Sox,” Reynolds said, “but the only difference is they put the Phillies, Cardinals and Angels in our division as well.”

Reynolds may be exaggerating, but the PSAC's West Division was strong and balanced this season. Slippery Rock, Indiana (Pa.) and Gannon slugged it out for the division crown until the final game, with IUP winning its fourth straight title. Edinboro, Mercyhurst and California (Pa.) also finished .500 or better in league play.

Then there's the PSAC East, which is led by defending tournament champion East Stroudsburg (21-5), the 20th-ranked team in Division II.

The parity makes it hard to find an overwhelming favorite for the conference tournament, which starts Saturday at campus sites.

The first choice might be IUP (21-5), which received a first-round bye and hosts a quarterfinal game Tuesday against Edinboro (17-9) or Mercyhurst (16-12). The Crimson Hawks, the 16th-ranked team in Division II, have made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and reached the championship game in 2010. Coach Joe Lombardi is used to the pressure of his team being considered the Yankees of the division.

“A lot of times, the greater the challenge, the more satisfying the accomplishment,” said Lombardi, whose team is led by junior guard Mathis Keita's 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. “It certainly becomes harder and more difficult because you're everybody's Super Bowl, and when they beat you, they tend to storm the court and things like that.”

Slippery Rock (19-7) and Gannon (22-6) split their season series with IUP. The Rock had a chance to win the division, but Wednesday's loss to Gannon pushed them down to a No. 3 seed. The Rock host California (Pa.) (12-14) in a first-round game at 7 p.m. Saturday.

If Slippery Rock wins, it will visit Gannon in Tuesday's quarterfinals.

Because IUP is on the other half of the bracket, the championship game — which is March 9 ­— might be an all-West matchup.

“The (West) division is as strong as it's ever been,” Reynolds said. “You can see why we're arguably the toughest conference in Division II.”

The women's tournament begins with four first-round games Saturday.

Gannon (26-3), ranked eighth in the nation, and 18th-ranked Edinboro (21-5) earned byes and host quarterfinals Tuesday.

Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jvella@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.

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