For Towson State, it began as a season with high expectations and hopes for a third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. For UMBC, it began with the hopes of being competitive after yet another disappointing season a year ago.
The Tigers fell well short of their goal, but the Retrievers were able to reach part of theirs. Now each team is left with, at the most, three games to play. And both will be shooting for the title in their last games in the East Coast Conference and probably the league's last basketball tournament -- known this year as the tournament to nowhere.
After two straight years as the tournament's top seed, Towson (14-13, 9-3) enters as the No. 2 seed and will face No. 7 seed Buffalo (2-24, 0-11) at 3 p.m. today. No. 4 UMBC (9-18, 8-4), which is host to the tournament for the first time, will play No. 5 Central Connecticut (6-20, 2-9) at 1 p.m.
While Towson will be looking to be the first team to win three ECC tournaments in a row, the rewards will not be the same as the past two years, when the Tigers made appearances in the NCAA tournament. A league whose membership has changed drastically during the past two years (Towson, UMBC, Rider and Hofstra have already announced plans to leave after this season), the ECC is one of three conferences this year whose tournament champion won't get an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
"It definitely makes a difference," said Kevin Bannon, whose Rider team is the No. 3 seed. "The incentive to win a championship is there, if you're any kind of competitor. But, sure, if there's no chance to get to the big tournament it puts a little blemish on it."
There will be a void when the winner takes home just a trophy, but that shouldn't take away from the competitiveness of a tournament in which four teams -- Hofstra, Rider, Towson, and UMBC -- have good shots at winning.
Everyone will be shooting to beat Hofstra, a team that lost four starters from a year ago but finished first in the league. With Demetrius Dudley, a transfer from St. Peter's, leading the way at 19.8 points per game, the Flying Dutchmen (19-8, 10-2) posted their best record in 15 years.
"This has definitely been a surprise," said Hofstra coach Butch Van Breda Kolff. "This year was one of those where I didn't expect much and hoped to be about .500. That's the fun part of coaching."
With all of its starters intact from a year ago, Towson was expected to roll through the league and notch enough wins to be considered for at least an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. But point guard Devin Boyd received a medical redshirt after going down with an arm injury. After a 4-11 start, Towson rallied with a 10-game winning streak at the end of the season. But the Tigers have lost two straight going into the tournament -- including Saturday's loss to Rider that cost Towson a share of the regular-season title.
"We're disappointed that we didn't win it three years in a row," Towson coach Terry Truax said. "But hopefully our last two games have made us more hungry and anxious to play."
Truax is hoping for better shot selection from his team, especially from seniors Terrance Jacobs and Chuck Lightening who have carried Towson's load since Boyd's injury. After four straight games of shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Towson shot just 36.8 percent against Rider -- the Tigers' probable semifinal opponent.
While Truax is worried about his team's shot selection, UMBC coach Earl Hawkins will be concerned about his team's defensive effort. The Retrievers have allowed 87 points a game, second to last in the conference.
"We just have to play defensively as hard as we possibly can if we want a shot to win," Hawkins said. "Scoring [UMBC's 80.9 points a game is second only to Towson in the ECC] has not been a problem for us all year."
A 4-8 team in the league a year ago, the Retrievers went into the final game of the season with a shot of sharing the league title. But with four more wins in the ECC than a year ago, and playing in their final games before heading into the Big South next season, the Retrievers are looking to make their mark in the tournament while playing on their home floor.
l "Hopefully playing on our home court will help a lot -- it means a lot to be in a familiar surrounding," Hawkins said. "It would very special if we were to end the season on an up note. It's something that we would be able to hang our hat on, something we haven't had here."
Conference officials are hoping that the parity among the league's top teams will amount to an exciting tournament, but the hopes for the future of the league are not good.
"It's not too bright," commissioner John Carpenter said. "It's the last games of the league as we know it.
"I'm not too happy," added Carpenter, who helped found the league 15 years ago. "But we've had some good teams and its been a great league. And this tournament is shaping up to be a very good one."