College Basketball

CIAA basketball tournament: Men’s crown up for grabs

All-CIAA forward Stedmon Lemon leads Johnson C. Smith in scoring with 14.4 points per game. The Golden Bulls, who haven’t won a CIAA tournament championship since 2009, begin tournament play Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena.
All-CIAA forward Stedmon Lemon leads Johnson C. Smith in scoring with 14.4 points per game. The Golden Bulls, who haven’t won a CIAA tournament championship since 2009, begin tournament play Wednesday night at Time Warner Cable Arena. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The CIAA basketball tournament has more intrigue than usual this week.

On the men’s side, there’s no clear-cut favorite when the chase begins Tuesday at Time Warner Cable Arena. Livingstone, last year’s champion, is in the mix, as are Winston-Salem State, Bowie State and Virginia State. No one is head and shoulders above the field, which also opens the door for the possibility of upsets from the likes of Johnson C. Smith, which hasn’t hoisted the trophy since 2009, and Chowan.

The women’s draw, however, may be even more compelling.

Livingstone, which rose to top-10 status in Division II with a 24-1 record, was sanctioned by the CIAA for using an ineligible player and stripped of 18 wins. Shaw, which has won four straight titles and eight of the past nine, is playing for a league-record fifth straight championship.

Five storylines to watch

Sanctions against Livingstone women: The Blue Bears women were nearly unbeatable on the court, but after self-reporting leading scorer Kyra Crosby as ineligible, the CIAA nullified 18 wins. As a result, the CIAA stripped Livingstone of the South Division title and No. 1 seed.

Even without Crosby, Livingstone, which opens Tuesday against Bowie State, has the talent to compete, led by all-CIAA guard Cierra York, who averages 13.1 points per game.

Can Shaw’s women make it five in a row? The Bears all but own the tournament with a pair of four-year title streaks in Charlotte. Shaw has played its best basketball in the past month and has the CIAA’s best player in center Verdine Warner, a force on both ends of the floor.

Livingstone’s men aim for a title repeat: The Blue Bears won the school’s first men’s championship last year and earned a second straight trip to the NCAA Division II tournament. The key to a repeat is whether Livingstone, the South’s No. 2 seed, can muster the defense to accompany its league-leading offense. If the Blue Bears bring both, another title is possible.

Can the North break through? Bowie State (21-7) and Virginia State (18-7) were the North’s best teams, but the South historically has been stronger. The Bulldogs are the only team with 20 wins and went 13-3 in league play, but Winston-Salem State and Livingstone (both 16-9, 7-3 in the South) are top contenders.

Which J.C. Smith squad will show up? Steve Joyner’s Golden Bulls have been up and down all season, which is reflected in their record (14-13, 5-5 South). If J.C. Smith is going anywhere, the Golden Bulls need a big week from all-conference forward Stedmon Lemon (14.4 points per game) and freshman point guard Robert Davis (7.9 ppg), who has come on as a scoring threat.

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