The men from Thomas College and Husson University have had a chance to rest up a bit after earning the top two seeds in the North Atlantic Conference basketball tournament, which got under way Tuesday.
The Thomas men won five straight conference games to finish 11-3 in NAC play and 14-10 overall, but still wound up tied with Husson (14-11 overall and 11-3 in NAC). The teams split two games during the regular season, so they went to the second tiebreaker — head-to-head results against the next highest NAC seeds.
Both the Terriers of Waterville and Eagles of Bangor split against No. 3 seed University of Maine-Farmington, so it was up to No. 4 seed Green Mountain College of Poultney, Vt., to settle things. Thomas swept the GMC Eagles, but Husson split so the Terriers took the top seed.
When it’s that difficult to separate the NAC’s top two seeds, what does that mean for the conference tournament?
“I think it means the tournament’s wide open,” said Husson coach Warren Caruso. “Even Maine Maritime, the six seed, beat both Thomas and Farmington. We coaches have been saying that all year long and the standings bear it out.
“I think this is one of those years where really there is no clear, distinct team that’s a favorite. We had chances at times to be that kind of team, but just didn’t do it.”
The Eagles still managed to hook their talons into a bye, something that became more significant as this week began.
“Well, we had three starters out of practice [Monday] who were sick, so it’s helping us to have the bye,” Caruso said. “We love the bye. Right now it looks real good for us.”
Thomas will host No. 4 Green Mountain in a 6 p.m. semifinal at Mahaney Gymnasium and Husson will take on No. 3 UMF at 8 p.m. Friday.
“Thomas is, right now, playing the best basketball at the right time of year in the NAC,” Caruso said.
Thomas head coach and former Morse High School player T.J. Maines won’t disagree with that assessment.
“This is already the best season we’ve had and we’re tied for third-best with wins,” said Maines, now in his third year. The record is 16 in 1974-75.”
A top seeding, hosting a postseason tourney, and the playoffs in general add up to new territory for the Terriers.
“My former athletic director recently showed me an article where I said in three years we’d be contending for a championship, and here we are,” Maines said. “It’s new to all of us, me and the players, to be in this position and you have to guard against it a little bit, but we’re in the spot we wanted.”
Now the trick is parlaying this success into sustained competitiveness and success.
“We have kids who are young and from Maine who are very good, so that sends out a good message to young high school players in Maine that this is a good place to go and be competitive,” Maine said.
Just before the start of the NAC portion of their season schedule, the Eagles looked like anything but a top-seed contender. Husson lost six of its first seven games and was 3-9 overall before conference play began Jan. 13.
“If you look at the second semester, I think we’re 13-5 since the semester began, so we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves,” Caruso said. “We built some momentum, which we had trouble sustaining before that time.
“If you look at our three conference losses, teams played well against us in all three. That says to me our margin for error is not that great.”
In other words, the good news is the tourney is wide open. Then again, the bad news is that the NAC is wide open.
“It certainly doesn’t get any easier at this point of the season, but I’m really proud of this group,” Caruso said. “We overcame a lot to get things going and just get to this point.”