It's a fight to the finish in men's basketball in PSAC West
The IUP men's basketball team is in its familiar spot atop the PSAC West division, but the Crimson Hawks have company — lots of it.
Mercyhurst, Gannon and Slippery Rock are within a game of first place with three weeks left in the regular season.
“It's a grind when you're playing a 16-game conference schedule,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “The best team doesn't always win the conference. It's the team that can sustain consistency over those 16 games.”
The top four teams play each other again as they battle for the West title and first-round byes in the PSAC Tournament that go to the top two finishers.
“It could be wild,” Mercyhurst coach Gary Manchel said. “It's probably going to come down to the last (game).”
No. 11 IUP (18-2, 8-2) has won the past four West titles and three of the past four PSAC Tournament championships. It holds a half-game lead over Mercyhurst (11-8, 7-2) and a one-game lead over Slippery Rock (16-6, 7-3) and Gannon (12-8, 7-3).
“It's not rocket science. IUP has dominated the West,” said Slippery Rock coach Kevin Reynolds, whose team lost 66-64 to the Crimson Hawks on Jan. 25. “They've had the best coaching and the best players.
“They're like the Gonzaga of our league when they had won all those West Coast Conference championships. Everybody had to pick their game up to reach Gonzaga.”
The IUP-Slippery Rock rivalry has developed into one of the league's best, especially after the teams met four times last season. The Crimson Hawks won three of those games, including in the PSAC Tournament title game and the NCAA Division II Tournament.
“That familiarity brings out the best in both programs,” Lombardi said. “I know with the talent Kevin has, that certainly makes us compete even harder and makes us get better.”
IUP, Slippery Rock, Mercyhurst and Gannon play a similar style, relying on a half-court offense and defense-first approach. The four teams rank in the top 11 in the nation in fewest points allowed per game, and that's part of the reason there's little separation in most of their matchups.
A quick look at the teams:
• IUP allows 58.9 points per game, which is second in the nation. Senior guard Mathis Keita, a Gonzaga transfer who was a first-team All-PSAC West selection last season, and senior forward Marcel Souberbielle lead the team with 16.2 points per game. The Crimson Hawks are eyeing their sixth straight NCAA Tournament berth.
• Mercyhurst is seeking its first PSAC title and first NCAA Tournament berth. The Lakers feature a balanced offense led by senior guard Jonathan Ouegnin's 10.2 points per game.
• Slippery Rock senior forward Maurice Lewis-Briggs, a transfer from Division I Morehead State, ranks in the top 10 in the conference in scoring (16.8) and rebounding (7.5). The Rock and Gannon are tied for third in the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.3 per game).
• Gannon is paced by junior guard Adam Blazek, who leads the PSAC with 37.4 minutes per game and averages 15.7 points and 2.2 steals.