Thursday, March 23, 2006

Better late than never?

JCCW's note: I've temporarily relocated to Birmingham, sort of, and don't have internet access at home. So updates are going to be slow in coming and erratic. As usual, now, I guess. Most of this was written Monday, but couldn't post til today. Sorry.

Recapping the best four days of tournament action, IMHO, since the 1998 Best Tourney Ever…


There are times when it is, to paraphrase something I totally shouldn’t be paraphrasing, a right and a good and joyful thing to be in a sports bar. Like during the Northwestern St. Demon miracle, clear evidence that God does not play favorites when it comes to nicknames (as if sending J.C.J. Redick to the Blue Devils wasn’t clear enough evidence already). Gonzo celebrations with total strangers over the victory of a Southland team are the best celebrations.

And then there’s the unfortunate reverse. When Lofton’s shot fell in, I really, really didn’t want to be in a public place surrounded by a crowd of people. I wanted to be at home, where I could smash something irrelevant into 63 even pieces. I wanted to swear with whatever’s above the top of my lungs. I really, really wanted to overturn a piece of furniture, the surefire No. 1 best way to express one’s anger (just ask any fictional character).

Of course I couldn’t at the bar, despite the rage. Lofton’s shot ticked me off more than any NCAA shot since Drew Nicholas’s for Maryland in the 2003 first round, when the Terps defeated 11-seed UNC-Wilmington on a buzzer-beating off-balance three-pointer that couldn’t have been more “circus” if Nicholas had been covered in white makeup and wearing a big red nose. These kinds of shots bring my blood to boil like nothing else in sports, because it offends my view of the way the world ought to work: I know the fairy tale isn’t going to come true every time, I know the “bad guys” are going to win their fair share of even the close games…but with all of the massive advantages the Tennessees and Marylands of the world have over the Winthrops and UNCW’s, do they really have to have crazy luck to go with it? If they have to win, shouldn’t it come from being better rather than being fortunate? If there’s going to be a sports miracle, shouldn’t it happen to the plucky underdogs rather than the unprepared, fat-cat favorites?

Which is why Northwestern St.’s win is my favorite one since Bryce Drew. It balanced out the luck of Lofton and the Vols. The universe was, even if temporarily, put right again. I would have much, much preferred Bradshaw’s three to fall through rather than Wallace’s. But if I can’t have the scales of fortune tilted in the underdog’s favor, at least it’s nice to know they’re balanced.

More from the WU-UT game:
• Hard to argue with the Winthrop strategy down the stretch: put the ball in James Shuler’s hands and see what happens. He’s been clutch all season--all career, really. Too bad that after that massive three with 3:25 to play, it just wasn’t happening. As I’m sure you know by now, those were WU’s last points.
• There’s likely some gnashing of Rock Hill teeth over Craig Bradshaw’s 5-for-17, 1-for-8 from 3 performance--and don’t get me wrong, the Eagles needed better than that. But there’s plenty of stat sheet blame to go around: Martin turned the ball over 5 times to 1 assist. Shuler’s 1-of-3 at the free throw line led a 10-of-17 (58 percent…ye gods) performance from the stripe. Phillip Williams played 23 minutes and grabbed all of one rebound. Michael Jenkins had his usual 4 shots in 11 minutes type of game (he hit one). What will likely drive Marshall more bonkers over the summer than Lofton’s luck is knowing that if just one player on his team had just been that much better, they’d have won the game.
• That’s not to say Winthrop played poorly. Gaynor was, as always, remarkable (4-of-7 from the field, 4 assists, 0 TOs). Martin’s 13 boards more than made up for Williams’ timidity. As expected, WU basically shut down the Vols’ vaunted three-point shooters (they went 5-of-21). It’s like SI’s Seth Davis, in a rare moment of clarity, said afterwards: there really wasn’t any difference in these teams. One of them just made the last shot.
• Another slice of UT luck: that was the best game this occasional SEC hoops viewer saw from Major Wingate all season. He picked a bad time, from the Eagle perspective, to decide to not give his usual “cockroach when the light comes on” performance on the boards.
• If Marshall stays, he’ll get his team over the hump one of these years. It happened at Princeton. It happened at Valpo. It even happened for Holy Cross, even if it was in the NIT. It’ll happen at Winthrop.


Hilariously, by needlessly raking the Selection Committee over the coals for taking good teams like Bradley and George Mason, it turns out Packer and Nantz did the Committee a gigantic favor. The issue when the brackets were announced never should have been no-brainers like Bradley and GMU: it was the inclusion of blatantly unqualified Air Force and a seeding job apparently done by consulting a Magic 8-Ball. When Air Force didn’t really challenge Illinois and Tennessee all-but-flopped as a 2, the heat should have been turned up even further on Littlepaige and company. Instead, they’ve gotten nothing but kudos as Packer has gone down in Flames. Take Bradley: of course the Braves should have been in the Tournament. This isn’t even really debatable. The issue should have been the Braves’ unbelievable shafting of a 13 seed. But thanks to Packer and Bradley’s outstanding play, now Littlepaige is getting slaps on the back for even including them. As posted previously, I’d never cry any tears for the exclusion of teams like Michigan and Florida St. But to say this Committee did a good job solely because they invited Bradley and GMU falls just a couple notches short of outright blasphemy in the JCCW’s view.


Another year, another pitiful performance picking the tourney. Remind me to never, ever, EVER take a 4-seed to go to the Final Four when I think they might lose in the first round. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson when I picked USC as a finalist in 2001 when they faced Brett Blizzards’s dangerous UNC-W in the first round but noooooooooo….

I guess it wasn’t a complete disaster: Northwestern St. and Montana were good calls, I was only off by one in guessing the number of toasted protected seeds (six went good-bye instead of seven, thanks to the unfortunate demise of Even-Numbered Year Syndrome) and at least three of my Final Four teams are still alive. But I went a remarkable 0-for-8 picking 8/9 and 7/10 games. Next time, I’m going to pick those games by favorite nickname or something.


Why hasn’t more been made of Albany’s performance against UConn? When was the last time, if ever, a 16 seed led the consensus national favorite by 12 with 12 minutes left in the game? Where are the bards? Where are the ballads? I know UConn played like they been chilling at the martini bar beforehand and a lot has been made of it already, but the Great Danes deserved even more praise than they got.

Now that Gonzaga is the hunter rather than the hunted again, look out. Unless they face Bradley, of course.

First good tourney in a while for the SEC. Sure, the Vols fell, but as that was predicted by most earthworms and a majority of jellyfish, it’s hard to see that as disappointment. But Florida and LSU survived and the Tide and UK put up very, very good showings against better competition. For a league that’s gotten very used to seeing high seeds become first-round upset victims, having only one of six teams underachieve (Arkansas, damn them) is a major step forward.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Houston, we have a problem

OK, the officially overfull...NOW.

This is not good. I suspect the Vols already knew they were a trendy pick to be upset, but it's one thing for gnats like myself and that clown at the Sporting News to pick against you. It's another for the sole "expert" bracket on the world's largest sports website to say he expects you to lose to a 15 seed from the Big South. (Guarantee Lunardi's going to pop up in one of those SportsCenter soundbites saying the same thing. And Forde isn't exactly a nobody over there, either.) There's no other way to say it: this is a mighty fat slap in the face to Tennessee, and any hope Winthrop had of sneaking up on the Vols is now officially over.

The good news is that Winthrop is good enough and Tennessee just bad enough that it might not matter. It's way too late to back down from my pick now. But if the Vols do pull it out, expect to hear an awful lot of post-game chatter about "disrespect" and "wanting to show people we're for real," etc. I wouldn't blame them. Hell, it is disrespect. When you're the first 2 seed in history to have people take your chances of being upset seriously, no, people are not showing you a lot of respect.

(As an aside, can you imagine how weird it must be to be Lunardi? It's totally fair to say his Bracket picks could affect how the actual Bracket plays out. If he picks an upset like Winthrop or Utah St., it makes it somewhat less likely the upset will happen. Talk about your Catch-22's.)

There's still plenty of reasons to think Winthrop will manage it, whether they take the Vols by surprise or not:

1) Tennessee's greatest stength is its three-point shooting. Winthrop's, however, is denying the three-point shot. The Vols just don't have the players or the size to really attack Winthrop down low, where they're vulnerable. They also dont rely on dribble penetration much, which hurt the Eagles vs. CCU. Defensively, WU is a terrible match-up for the Vols.

2) Tennessee's press won't faze guards as steady as Gaynor and Martin.

3) Tennessee has zero tourney experience (aside from Pearl) while Winthrop has oodles.

4) Not that the Vols were bad on the road, but Greensboro is going to be pro-Winthrop.

5) Winthrop is just DUE. Eventually, Marshall is going to break through, and if it's not this year, when?

So there you go. Not the full breakdown I suppose I promised, but you can get that elsewhere.

Corrections from this morning's post:

1) The Million Dollar Bracket lives! Over at, where actually I think it came back last year. Too bad I'm senile and forget things like this.

2) One change: Wisconsin over Arizona. I forgot that Olson is never able to get his team fired up for games like this.

3) I didn't do a good enough job this morning of making it clear that I, you, and anyone we know has a better shot at sailing to the moon in an enchanted canoe than filling out a Million Dollar Bracket. But it's always good to have goals, right?

Enjoy the Tourney, everyone. In the exceedingly unlikely event you live in Birmingham and are in the neighborhood, I'll be at the On Tap Sports Cafe in Hoover just about all day Friday. Come say hi. I'll have the BSC hat on and be rooting like a lunatic for any team with a seed in the teens.

The Million Dollar Bracket?

The most depressing development about the NCAA Tournament over the last couple of years? No, not Billy Packer devolving into everyone’s mean Uncle Oscar who always gripes that things were better in the old days, before the war. Nor Gonzaga going from lovable underdog to teeth-gnashing tease. Nor the SEC deciding it had better things to do than actually qualify for Final Fours anymore (nor my unfortunate inability to quit caring about those failures).

No, for the JCCW it’s the end of the Million Dollar Bracket contests. A few years back, CBS Sportsline and (I think) each offered a million bucks for picking a perfect bracket. Now, the best you can do is win a million pizzas…for other people?!? The Holy Grail of a perfect bracket used to promise both fame and fortune. Now, well, there’s probably at least a smidgen of fame still attached. A five-minute interview with that Asian guy on ESPNews, I guess.

So there’s not really any motivation to try and pick a perfect, Million Dollar Bracket anymore. If you’re looking to win your office pool or even your ESPN group, better to avoid picking any big upsets and only deviate from the chalk when absolutely necessary.

But the JCCW has never been about heading into things besides an honest day’s work half-assed. So here’s my system (honestly, what self-respecting college hoops nerd fan doesn’t have some kind of bracket-picking system?) for navigating the way to the Million Dollar Bracket, and where it takes us this season:


In than hands-down most inexplicably ignored development in all of bracket sciences, since 1990 at least one 1 seed has lost in the second round of every even-numbered year. During the same span, no 1 seed has ever lost in an odd-numbered year. For 16 years now this on-off pattern has prevailed, and yet virtually no expert brackets I’ve seen have included this year’s 1-goes-down special, Arkansas over Memphis. The Hogs are about as athletic as even the Tigers, have an NBA-quality leader in Ronnie Brewer, do a better job of attacking the basket, and just have that same “NOW we’re ready” look that ‘Bama had as an 8 two seasons ago (before they knocked off Stanford). After thumping the likes of Central Florida and Southern Miss for two straight months in C-USA Memphis, well, isn’t ready for the likes of Arkansas. (It’s a condition we should call “Few’s Complaint.”)

That removes one contender for the…


Start at the top, with a 1 seed since (duh) no FF’s ever been held without one. UConn should be there. North Carolina is actually being underestimated in my view (no one, and I mean no one has them surviving both Michigan St. and UConn) and the Heels scare me to death here. But the Huskies have Marcus Williams and UNC doesn’t.

Now, how many more top seeds? Little-known fact is that the most frequent number of 1 seeds in the Final Four is just one. Happened 10 times, to two’s 8 times and three’s 3. The JCCW’s guess is that it’s just one again this year. Kansas is just flat-out the best team in the Oakland region; their supposed weakness is being young, which I’m pretty sure Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara successfully disproved was not that big a hindrance three years ago. Texas should win a rematch with a Duke team that never plays its best as a 1 seed (ask Florida, Indiana, or Michigan St. if you like). And I like Florida to be the beneficiary of Villanova and Boston College wearing each other out in a Sweet 16 slugfest. The big n’ balanced Gators are much more similar to Donovan’s 2000 title game squad than the underachievers from the last several tourneys. The 1-2-3-4 collection of seeds adds up to a total of 10, a little higher than average but still lower than last year’s 11.

Another factor in my Final Four decision-making? Kenpom’s efficiency ratings and Lunardi’s adjusted scoring margin (Insider-only, sorry) got my back.


The hard part. Typically the JCCW (well, Jerry…this is technically the JCCW’s first set of brackets) makes three “surefire” upset picks: one protected seed (1-4) to fall in the first round, one 5, and one 6. And then one extra upset—usually a 12 or 11. (No, 8-9 and 7-10 games don’t count.)

For only the second time, I’m picking that protected seed to be a 2. Scroll down a bit to the other posts I made this week and you can see who I’m talking about. (I also had 15 Northern Arizona pegged to knock off 2 St. John’s in 2000. The Lumberjacks had a one-point lead and a foul to give with less than 20 seconds left when the refs made a gawd-awful call, saying that a foul occurred in the act of a St. John’s player tossing in a circus shot rather than being on the floor. I will never, ever forgive or forget this.)

As for the 12-over-5 upset, I think Pitt is too tough for Kent St.; that Utah St. will give Washington a hell of a game but finally have no answer for Brandon Roy; and that Syracuse has just enough gas left in the tank to see off Texas A&M. I’m usually very distrustful of teams coming off of miracle conference tournament runs, but since getting burned picking against Charlotte, Indiana St., and Maryland this decade I’ve revised that a bit. I also don’t think GerryMac will let his team become first-round fodder two years running.

That leaves Montana vs. Nevada. Montana is grossly overseeded as a 12. But Nevada is grossly overseeded as a 5. This Wolf Pack squad does have Fazekas, but they don’t have a Kirk Snyder or a Kevin Pinckney, either. Furthermore, mid-majors with seeds this relatively high in the stratosphere tend to, well, get nosebleeds: Gonzaga’s become the poster children, of course, but Creighton also bombed as a 6 a couple seasons back and Princeton couldn’t live up to unfair expectations as a 5 “back in the day,” either. Montana’s plenty good enough (they took down Stanford and took UW-Milwaukee to the wire) and plenty experienced enough to take advantage of Nevada becoming the latest mid-major favorite to contract a case of the yips.

The 11-over-6? Gimme UW-Milwaukee over Oklahoma. SIU can’t score enough to keep up with the WVU bombers, George Mason has no shot without Skinn, and Indiana’s playing too well at the moment for San Diego St.

So where’s the extra upset come from? I don’t like the look of any other 12s or 11s (I would rate Texas A&M the most likely victors), but more importantly there’s unprecedented opportunity—at least, on paper—for a second protected seed biting the dust in the first round for a second straight season. 15 of the 18 one-bid league championships (not counting the WCC) were claimed by the consensus most dangerous NCAAs team in that league. The result, as has been noted elsewhere by multiple analysts, is the strongest set of 13-16 seeds ever. The ol’ gut tells me that equals another big upset somewhere.

But where? To my view there’s six candidates with legitimate protected-seed upset potential besides Winthrop: Pacific (over BC), Bradley (over Kansas…yes, the same team I just picked to make the Final Four. Bradley’s that good), Iona (over LSU), Xavier (over Gonzaga), Northwestern St. (over Iowa), and Davidson (over Ohio St.).

The most likely two, I believe, are 14 Northwestern St. over 3 Iowa and 13 Pacific over 4 Boston College. Neither would surprise me at all. Skinner does a poor job of preparing BC for the NCAAs and the Eagles don’t play a lot of defense. Iowa struggled away from home, won a lot of close games that may swing the pendulum the other way, and may not handle the quickness of the Demons very well.

Smith and Dudley were so completely dominant on the inside against North Carolina in the ACC tourney game I watched, however, that I can’t see Pacific slowing them down that much, even with senior stud Christian Maraker and the Eagles’ cross-country flight. Iowa looked less impressive to me, even in victory, and Northwestern St. (whatever the seeds might say) is also the more impressive of the two ‘dogs. Says here the Demons will pull it out. (Not a Million Dollar Bracket consideration, but it doesn’t hurt that Iowa would face superior West Virginia in the second round anyway whereas BC would have a substantially more manageable task vs. Nevada or, if you take my word for it, Montana).

It seems fairly insane to predict a 2 and a 3 going down in the same first round, but it’s happened twice before. And really, Winthrop over Tennessee is a 15-2 upset in name only. It’s honestly a 13-over-4 upset the Committee trotted out in a fake-mustache-and-glasses get-up.

One other note about upsets: shy away from the super-popular, just-about-a-consensus ones, like 11 Western Michigan over 6 Vanderbilt in 2004. For the first time I can recall, however, there is no especially popular upset in this bracket. Southern writers like the AJC’s Mark Bradley are all over Tennessee-Winthrop, which bugs me, but not one of the nine expert brackets at and called it. Utah St. and Texas A&M are probably the closest things to consensus upset picks, but neither is as popular as top upsets of years past.


The JCCW defines a Cinderella as a mid-major with a seed of 10 or higher that makes the Sweet 16. There’s been at least one 17 of 21 64-team-tournament years and every season since 1995. There was a string of 12s in the early ‘90s, but since then they’re more likely to be a different seed: only four of the 12 since ’95 have been 12s.

Which is why the JCCW is looking elsewhere, namely to the strongest team in the strongest mid-major conference: Northern Iowa. Sure, the Wildcats struggled down the stretch, but they were struggling as the Team to Beat in a loaded conference while their best player first got injured and then worked his way back into the rotation. They have seniors. They have shooting. They have defense. They’ve been there before. They’ve already beaten customers (LSU, Iowa) just as tough—if not tougher--than either Georgetown or Ohio St. Insert your favorite glass slipper / midnight-striking / Prince Charming / rags-to-riches allusion here.


For a Million Dollar Bracket, you must pick second-round upsets. Consider: since 1997, the highest number of protected seeds to survive to the Sweet 16 in one tourney is 10. The average in that span is 8.8, the average for all 21 64-team tourneys 9.6. So you’re looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight protected seeds to fall during the first weekend. Mine are:

Tennessee, Iowa, Ohio St., Memphis: For reasons listed above. I’ve got Tennessee replaced by Seton Hall, whose big wins matter more for NCAA purposes, to me, than their halfhearted losses.

Gonzaga: Morrison and Batista are obviously great players, but if you can’t beat either San Diego or Loyola-Marymount soundly at home, you’re not going to beat a hot Big 10 team (Indiana) at a neutral venue. Remember, the Zags defeated only one tournament team, and that was yo-yo-esque Michigan St. in Maui in November.

UCLA: The Bruins come from one weak-arse conference. Marquette comes from one bad-ass conference and brings Steve Novak and Tom Crean’s coaching to boot.

Illinois: I feel the same way about Washington I do about UCLA. But with Boston College getting past Pacific and LSU and Kansas all but shoo-ins for the Sweet 16 in my book, advancing Illinois means having all four 4 seeds playing on the second weekend. That’s never happened. Given Kenpom’s support for Wash U, they're good enough for me.

Note: Because they are gutless cowards who do not want to look like fools for calling upsets that don’t happen, MSM experts very, very rarely pick a remotely correct number of first-weekend protected seed victims. You would think a columnist with Gregg Doyel’s shockjock mentality would have idiosyncratic upsets all over the place, but instead he picks all of two 1-4 seeds out in the first two rounds: that would set a new 64-team tourney record. Even the redoubtable Grant Wahl picks a whopping 12 protected seeds to survive to the Final Four.


So if you’ve put all of that together, you know we’ve got Texas over Duke (Elite 8), LSU, and West Virginia in Atlanta; Kansas over Indiana (Elite 8), Marquette, and Arkansas in Oakland; Florida over Villanova (Elite 8), Boston College, and Northern Iowa in Minneapolis; and UConn over North Carolina (Elite 8), Seton Hall, and Washington in D.C.

UConn should handle Florida, and Texas wins the rubber match with Kansas. That leaves the Huskies and Longhorns, and as big a jerk as Jim Calhoun is, he’s done pretty doggone well at the Final Four before. Gimme UConn.


The only thing left are those three meaningless 8-9 games and one 7-10 games. UNC-Wilmington plays defense too well for George Washington; UAB’s press worked against a much better Kentucky team two years ago and should work again; and in a game that will surely be remembered by all a few select Arizona and Wisconsin fans for years to come an hour or two, I like Arizona.

And that’s your bracket. Well, my bracket, rather.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Let me be (one of the) first to call it: Winthrop beats Tennessee this Thursday.

It really, really could not set up any better. Lower-seeded team vastly better than seed? Check. High seed vastly overseeded? Check. High seed from SEC? Check. High seed slumping? Check. Lower seed somehow playing closer to venue than high seed? Check. Lower seed a) MORE tourney experienced b) hungry c) due? Check, check, check.

Let's not ignore the 15 seed. It's a slap in the face from the Selection Committee. And Marshall should still be have one of those Hillshire Farms sausage gift baskets on its way to Littlepaige's house right now. (Even Marshall probably wouldn't disagree: apparently he was expecting the Vols. Methinks if the Eagles had drawn Texas, he'd be substantially more peeved at the seeding.)

How the Committee could possibly have Tennessee on the 2-line defies belief. Consider: LSU won the regular season SEC title by two full games. Florida won the SEC tournament while Tennessee lost in the quarters. And yet is the seeded SEC team. Apparently, victories over Texas go one hell of a long way--even further than actual conference titles. In the JCCW's humble opinion, Winthrop has a better shot at UT than any other 2 seed, any 3 seed, OR any 4 seed. (In fact, better to face Tennessee than 5-seed Pitt, if you ask me.) The Laws of Karma dictate than any team as over-seeded as the Vols must pay for their good fortune. And the Eagles are more than good enough--not to mention karmically justified themselves after the 15 snub--to take advantage. Complete breakdown of this matchup coming later in the week.

That the Big South's finest received both an family-sized portion of disrespect AND their dream first-round match-up only enhanced my feeling, after watching the Selection Show, that this Selection Committee was the hoops equivalent of your grandfather taking on babysitting duties. This Committee was, quite obviously, incompetent. Air Force is the most unqualified invitee I can remember. Boston College being rewarded for their ACC run be being sent to Salt Lake to take on Pacific and Nevada back-to-back was a hose job so big it should have been sponsored by the local Fire Department. Montana as a 12 vs. Northwestern St. as a 14 and Winthrop as a 15 makes as much sense as asking Dick Vitale to become a librarian. ("Please keep your voices down, THANK YOU BABY!")

But just as you can't complain when your grandfather lets you eat Count Chocula for dinner and stay up 'til 11 watching Star Trek reruns because Mom totally said you could (yeah, right), so as a mid-major fan I'm not too troubled by this Committee, well, sucking. Winthrop got the game they needed. George Mason deservedly got in. Utah St. might not have been as qualified as Missouri St. or Hofstra, but the Aggies are a good team that also happened to get royally shafted just two seasons ago. Air Force has no business being in, of course, but I'd still much rather see the Falcons than Michigan, Florida St., South Carolina, or (thank everything holy) Maryland and Gary Williams' triumphantly obnoxious ass. When some major-conference team--and this even appiles to Cincinnati--sneaks in as a 12 or 13 and wins a game, it'll be nice, but it won't exactly go down in the annals of team history. (Ask Florida St. if their fans are still stoked about beating TCU as a 12 before losing to Valpo in 1999.) But if Air Force wins that first-round game, it will be unquestionably the biggest win in program history.

No, that technically shouldn't have any bearing on who gets invited. But it does mean, at least, that I get to be thankful when mid-majors are invited over major conference also-rans.

Other random thoughts:

The next time anyone uses the phrase "East Coast bias" in a discussion of NCAA hoops they get a free foot up their ass, courtesy of me. Utah St. and Air Force got in, Nevada, Cal, and Arizona are all overseeded, and UCLA got the most favorable draw imaginable. Somebody on the Committee is a John Denver fan, I'm guessing.

My only guess on the difference between Montana and Winthrop's seeds--to my view, the most inexplicable of any seeding issues aside from Tennessee's--is this: the Committee has the option (I believe) to move a lower-seeded team up or down a seed line to keep them closer to home. So if Montana was a 13 and Winthrop a 14, changing their seed to keep them both within driving distance (relatively, in Montana's case) might somewhat help explain the difference. Mind you, it's still a joke. WU should have been a 13.

Coastal, as expected, got the NIT shaft. As Ian Guerin points out, not a lot of meat on CCU's nonconference schedule's bones.

The Oakland regional is weaker than an Applebee's cocktail. I'd look for whichever team wins that Kansas-Pitt second-round matchup to go all the way to the Final Four ... unless, of course, that match-up is actually Kent St.-Bradley, which could very, very well happen. What a toss-up.

The JCCW didn't do so bad with yesterday's off-the-cuff bracket guess, getting 32 of 34 at-larges, better than the great majority of online "experts." I would say "I got 63 of 65," but seeing as how 31 of those were chosen for me, it'd be pretty self-serving. I had Cincy and Missouri St. in, Air Force and Utah St. (like everybody else) out.

My complete tournament breakdown--picks, upsets to watch, and all--coming, oh, probably tomorrow. I know you're on pins and needles.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

JCCW Bracketology

My take hasn't changed at all since my last post. Seon Hall, Missouri St., George Mason the last three in. Hofstra and Florida St. the last two out.

The JCCW's pointless last-minute guess:

1s: Duke, UConn, Memphis, 'Nova
2s: Ohio St., UCLA, Texas, UNC
3s: Kansas, Florida, Illinois, Pitt
4s: BC, LSU, Gonzaga, Iowa
5s: Washington, Mich. St., West Virginia, Syracuse
6s: Tennessee, George Washington, Georgetown, Wichita St.
7s: Oklahoma, Marquette, Wisconsin, Nevada
8s: Indiana, NC St., Arkansas, UAB
9s: No. Iowa, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Cal
10s: So. Illinois, Bucknell, Cincy, Arizona
11s: UNC-Wilmington, Bradley, Alabama, Seton Hall
12s: SD St., Missouri St., George Mason, Wisc.-Milwaukee
13s: Xavier, Winthrop, Northwestern St., Kent St.
14s: Iona, South Alabama, Murray St., Pacific
15s: Penn, Davidson, Montana, Oral Roberts
16s: Belmont, Albany, Southern, Monmouth/Hampton

Friday, March 10, 2006

Non-basketball related post

If you're here just for the hoops, you can skip this one. But as a Birmingham-Southern alum, there's something I've gotta vent about. And here's the best place for it.

If you keep up with the news, you probably know that a rash of church burnings swept through West Alabama in February. You probably also heard the news by now that three college students were arrested this week and confessed to the crime. Two of these were Birmingham-Southern students and the third had met the other two while attending BSC, before transferring to UAB.

Like all BSC alums, I have been by turns in a state of shock, blindingly furious, and deeply saddened since the news broke. Birmingham-Southern does not keep a high profile, even in Alabama; within Birmingham the school is overshadowed by UAB and Samford and outside it's all the Tide and Tigers. There are probably many, many rural Alabamians who had never even heard of BSC until this week. And the idea that my alma mater is now Church Burning U--that wearing by BSC cap in the same Greene or Sumter counties where I've covered high school sports might be seen by some of the people there as some kind of deranged support for these punks--makes me so angry I could scream.

Because, of course, Birmingham-Southern as a school had nothing to do with this kind of madness. No, BSC's not perfect: it could be more diverse, there's too much on-campus emphasis (from this independent's admittedly somewhat dated perspective) on Greek life, and the wall and security checkpoints surrounding campus--while necessary--don't exactly project a sense of community involvement.

But when talking about a crime as depraved as this one, environment has nothing to do with it. BSC has, in fact, a long record of service and good works. Yours truly was part of the inaugural "Interim" (i.e. January mini-term) service project in the downtrodden Birmingham neighborhood of Woodlawn. That project has continued on a yearly basis, and there have been dozens of others.

I can admit that the characterization of BSC as a school for Alabama's privileged elite is, while an exagerration, not completely off-base. But BSC does an excellent job, in my experience, of connecting those privileged students to the less privileged world around them. I should know: I arrived looking for the College Republicans sign-up sheet and left it a donating member of the mailing list of Alabama's most prominent lobby for the poor.

In this particular case, no, the school apparently did not make the kind of impact the BSC community hopes for. But what school would have? This kind of insanity goes beyond a student's college community, far beyond his choice of school. As our president said in today's Birmingham News, this is not an issue of responsibility. And I hope anyone who wants to smear BSC with a brush dipped in the black ink of this week's newsprint remembers that. I'm here to tell anyone who cares to listen: to the extent that any school would "try" to prevent this kind of unimaginable thing from happening, BSC tried. I, for one, am still plenty proud to wear my 'Southern cap.

p.s. I don't think I honestly have many BSC readers, if any, and any I do I'm sure have already heard about the school's rebuilding efforts. But just in case, here.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tourney talk


Not long ago, I wished the Winthrop Eagles absolutely nothing but the worst. I hoped their bus blew a tire on their way to road games. I hoped some seven-year-old snuck between their chairs and tied their shoelaces together before they took the floor. I hoped Gregg Marshall spilled salsa down the front of his exquisite suits. Most of all, I hoped they'd lose enough for Birmingham-Southern to take the Big South title, of course.

But all of that's behind me now. Let us raise our glasses to Winthrop, and what will hopefully become the Big South's first-ever first-round NCAA Tournament victory. (And, of course, the recruiting boost that comes from rubbing shoulders with second-round NCAA teams. Promise you: the seeds for the Colonial's rise to current potential at-large-dom were planted when UNC-Wilmington knocked off USC in 2002.)

Will it happen? The good news is that, as I've covered before, Winthrop has many of the necessary ingredients to make it so. ESPN the Magazine published an article this week looking at seven different common factors that defined mid-major "Giant-Killers" in the NCAAs over the last 10 seasons--things like better three-point shooting than their opponents, experience against playing power conference teams, etc. Of the seven, Winthrop failed only one requirement--that Giant-Killers start two or more seniors. Seeing as how Bradshaw, Martin, and most significantly Gaynor all play like them (Gaynor-to-Bradshaw for the Big South title the best available evidence) I don't think this should necessarily be held against them.

(Plus the article admitted that a perfect 7-for-7 isn't really necessary, since all three of 2005's Giant-Killers [Bucknell, UW-Milwaukee, and Vermont] missed on at least one. By-the-by, the five teams that met all of ESPN's factors were UNC-Wilmington, Old Dominion, Northern Iowa, Murray St., and Pacific. Also by-the-by, Birmingham-Southern was cited for missing on only one factor, which was nice.)

But however well-prepared Winthrop might be, it won't mean jack if they simply run into the wrong match-up. As noted yesterday, I think the Eagles are a 13-seed; others will contend they're a 14. (The consensus is that WU's a 14, but I think this is lazy slotting-by-conference-reputation. I can't see South Alabama ahead of Winthrop on the "S-Curve" no matter how hard I try.) So the candidates for the 3-seed and 4-seed lines are also the candidates to go head-to-head with Winthrop in the first round next week. Here's the JCCW's ranking of these potential fallen Goliaths, from least to most desirable from the Go Big South! perspective:

Texas, North Carolina: Both of these teams are more likely 2 seeds but could fall to the 3 line with poor conference tournaments. These teams feature players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyler Hansbrough and coaches that have exactly zero track record of first-round upsets. If Winthrop's doing the "get everybody together to watch the Selection Show" thing and find themselves placed opposite either of these guys Selection Sunday, hopefully they'll have one of those Scottish funeral bagpipers ready to play as they leave the room.

Pittsburgh: Pitt's currently projected as a 4 or even a 5 seed, but I think they'll be the toughest out of the remaining upset candidates. The Panthers have rather easily handled tough upset bids from good teams the last few seasons, and they'll hardly be bothered by Winthrop's preference for a slowed-down, defense-first grind-fest: that's the way they play anyway.

Kansas: Potential 4 seed. Good news: Jayhawks are young and Bill Self's job at preparing his team for last year's Tourney didn't exactly reach "bang-up" standards. Bad news: Youth doesn't play as big a role in NCAA success as it used to (does it, Carmelo?) and the Jayhawk's efficency margin numbers (ask Kenpom) suggest they're actually a little underrated.

But more good news: it gets easier for WU from here.

Gonzaga: I don't list the Zags higher than the teams because I don't think they're more ripe for the upset. I watched the WCC title game vs. Loyola-Marymount and if this team goes to the Final Four, I swear I'll turn this site into an "Adventures of Pluto Nash" tribute page. But after Winthrop scared the holy living crap out of Gonzaga (who's a cinch for a 3-seed IMHO) in last season's first round, I'd put WU's surprise factor at somewhere below zero. And surprise factor is a major part of pulling off the upset.

Iowa: Iowa's one of those teams, like Utah under Rick Majerus, that seem to never lose a first-round game. These Hawkeyes have struggled mightily on the road (loss to Northwestern, drubbing by Michigan St.), so there's hope. But steady, fundamentally sound teams like this one (a likely 4 seed) also don't get upset a lot of the time, either.

West Virginia: The schizophrenic Mountaineers--which could fall anywhere between a 3 and a 6 seed depending on their Big East tourney showing--didn't exactly look like a bad postseason team in 2005, what with their huge Big East and NCAA tourney runs, did they? And their 1-3-1 defense/Bizarro World cuts-and-threes offense combo makes them a tremendous pain-in-the-arse to prepare for. But Winthrop's biggest strength is the ability to defend the three (just ask Messrs. Collins and Leasure) and almost no one in the country shoots more threes than WVU. One off game from outside (very possible, even for guys like Pittsnogle and Gansey) and the Mountaineers are toast.

LSU: Yes, Glen Davis is a cross between the Incredible Hulk and the Thing. Yes, they're the most talented team in the SEC. But have you seen John Brady's tournament track record? Take last year: the Tigers were matched up against UAB. I don't have to tell you that UAB presses like demons and lives for an up-tempo game with plenty of quick shots from both sides, do I? There are jellyfish floating in the Gulf of Mexico right now who could tell you the key to beating the Blazers is to not dribble through the press and not take ill-advised threes early in the shot clock. Which is precisely what LSU did on their way to a savage beating at the hands of the Blazers. I've never seen a worse one-game coaching job than that one from an SEC coach. If Brady pulls that kind of pre-tournament performance again, Winthrop will be more than a match for them. Plus...

Tennessee, Florida: ...the SEC is the go-to conference for an early-round upset these days. Starting with the 3-seed Georgia/2-seed South Carolina twin-killing in 1997 and running right up to Bama's embarrassment against UW-Milwaukee last year, no conference watches more high seeds fall in the first two rounds than the SEC. And tiring Tennessee--a 3 or 4 seed depending on the SEC tournament--looks like the most vulnerable of the bunch. It's impossible to read an article about the Vols now that doesn't use the adjectives "slumping," "fading," or "backsliding." Another positive for Winthrop? The Vols' preferred up-tempo style won't exactly bother an Eagle team that's played VMI, Radford, and High Point twice each, will it? The chemistry-laden Gators will be a touch tougher in the JCCW's view, thanks to their truly beastly frontline of Joakim Noah and Al Horford. But good sweet Lord, has Billy Donovan done a miserable job getting his team ready for the NCAAs in recent years. Despite never being seeded lower than a 5, they haven't made the Sweet 16 since 2001.

UCLA, Washington: UCLA has been injured and inconsistent all season long. Washington did nothing on the road outside of conference and got swept by meek in-state rival Washington St.--a defense-first-and-second team whose style isn't that much different from WU's. The Pac-10 already has a long and storied history of becoming early-round roadkill and Winthrop should salivate at a match-up with either of these teams.

George Washington: This team is a complete fraud. They played one good nonconference team--NC State--and got absolutely creamed. They just lost badly today to a mediocre Temple team. Their best player will be hobbled. Start your candlelight vigils now, Winthrop fans, that this is the team you get.


From this point, consider this a "Mid-Majors NCAA Tourney" blog as much as a Big South blog. Like everyone else I've got a very close eye on where those last few at-large bids might go. Unlike everyone else I have a blog where I can inflict these thoughts on an unsuspecting public. So here goes.

After a) Syracuse beat UConn this afternoon b) Florida St. hilarously threw away their Duke win with a loss to bottom-feeding Wake Forest c) Temple finalized the second, automatic bid for the A-10 only a complete idiot (i.e. 99 percent of college hoops commentators, it seemed) wouldn't have expected, the bubble really comes down to this:

Three bids to divide amongst Missouri St., Michigan, George Mason, Hofstra, and Texas A&M. (Seton Hall has too many good wins to leave out. Cal did too well in a power conference. UAB has no bad losses. Creighton has too many bad losses to leave in. The MWC loser, be it San Diego St. or Air Force, has no wins of impact at all.)

Of those five teams, the JCCW's thoughts are these: Despite scheduling half the SWAC, Texas A&M gets in with one Big 12 tournament victory. Their Big 12 record will be too good. Following them will be Missouri St., which can point to having zero bad losses and a pair of road wins (at UNI, at UWM) over other tournament teams. Michigan can't say the same--their best road victory is at Notre Dame--which combined with their collapse down the stretch (3-7 last 10) slides them just out.

Which leaves George Mason and Hofstra. The majority of internet commentators believe Hofstra's two W's over Mason at the season's conclusion put them above GMU in the NCAA pecking order. I don't see it. Mason has two very important feathers in their cap the Pride don't have: 1) the Colonial's outright regular season title 2) the road win at Wichita St., the undisputed MVC champ. I also don't believe the Skinn suspension will cost them a bid. If the suspension was for the whole tournament, OK, deny away. But it's just for the first round. Denying Mason any shot at the Sweet 16 on the basis of it being substantially harder for them to get past the first round game seems, well, unnecessarily cruel and unfair to the JCCW's eyes. Barring a surprise winner (hardly out of the question) in CUSA or one of the power conferences, I think Mason gets the final at-large bid.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Title tilt and tourneys

All right, I’m way behind with this. But at least it’s long! I’m hoping to make up for a lack of quantity of posts with quality. I know this is like the lefties hoping to impeach Bush so they can get to Cheney, but I gotta make some kind of effort…

Anyways, my reaction to last weekend’s events:


There are probably plenty of, say, Big 12 fans who saw the 51-50 scoreline and thought “Well there’s a couple of offensive powerhouses. Ugh. Guess they’d have about as much chance of taking down a high seed as I’d have of honestly evaluating Texas A&M.”

Meanwhile, those of us who saw this game know what a terrific game of college basketball this was. Sure, there some rushed 3’s and awkward turnovers and poor Jack Leasure is probably still in the shower trying, MacBeth-like, to wash away the smell of his performance … and I still loved every minute of it, and still came away thinking Winthrop is going to be absolute hell for someone as a 13 or 14 seed.

Since I spent the weekend at the Chateau de Girlfriend’s Apartment in Birmingham, a place with some truly great perks but also a little technologically behind the times (no cable, no Internet), I had to head out to catch the game. Went to the Fox and Hound Grill and Pub, a place just about pretentious as it sounds like but one that due to the sheer array of televisions and good food made it an excellent place to spend NFL Sundays. (It also opened at 11 a.m., which I can’t say for my first choice.)

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bad place to watch a mid-major college basketball game. Despite the fact that my girlfriend and I were two of six customers and the only ones interested in the goings-on on the TVs, we were told that they could not turn on the volume on our game. Instead, we would get to listen to their Top 40 satellite video channel! Huzzah! Because what would make a better soundtrack to Coastal’s thrilling second-half surge than John Mayer and Creed back-to-back? (Well, besides a recording of food being shoved down a garbage disposal, that is.)

Oh yeah: the game. No doubt that Winthrop was just a little more focused than in their regular season meetings (after getting owned on the glass both times previously, the Eagles out-boarded the Chants 38-29) or that both teams wanted it about as bad as you can want a college basketball game. Both were flying after rebounds like they’d been possessed by the long-departed basketball spirit of Dennis Rodman. Both got more time jostling on the floor than a Six Flags’ worth of bumper cars. Open looks came at a bigger premium than a cherry-red Corvette driven by a 16-year-old.

(See, the insurance … nevermind. You get the point.)

In a game this close, both scorewise and statistically (rebounding was the only substantial statistical advantage either had), the winner simply comes down to which team—and usually, which point guard--makes the plays in the last minute. Chris Gaynor fired a pinpoint pass to Bradshaw on the block for his sixth assist. Stevens either let Martin get a hand on the ball (Martin’s story) or dribbled it off his leg (what it looked like to me after a dozen replays). It’s not fair to Stevens, who apparently borrowed every bit of Leasure’s poise and cojones in the pre-game locker room (4-of-5 from 3 against that WU defense is something else). But with one possession to get his team a basket, Gaynor got it. Stevens didn’t. End of story. Thrilling stuff to watch, though.

Other observations:
• Watching Leasure this game was like riding a roller coaster that stops at the bottom of the first hill. Oh, he’s just saving it up for the second half became Any minute now, he’s going to catch fire…probably became Well, I guess you have to admire his tenacity became Boy, he really is having quite the howler at the wrong time, isn’t he? became Jack…stop Jack, seriously, don’t…Oh gosh, again, Jack? 1-for-9 from deep, 1-for-13 from the field. Ye gods. Winthrop is a hell of a defensive team on the perimeter, but Leasure should have known, as the song says, when to fold ‘em.
• After the Big South championship game broadcast, this guy said coach’s wife and leading chill-pill candidate Lynn Marshall should have her own reality show. But I say, only if Torrell Martin’s Dad and his Awesomest Homemade Jersey Ever (a “12” iron-on over a gold-and-maroon-striped Polo-esque shirt…my hypothetical son or daughter ever plays DI, I’m following your lead, TMD) gets to come along too. Like, you know, one of those Odd Couple things. (And by the by, given Lynn’s manic performance and Gregg’s usual ball-of-bluster routine on the sideline, I think it’s very safe to say this is a well-matched couple.)
• What is it with Shuler and massive long-distance bombs in the late stages? First the NIU game, and then he dropped one in from the North Carolina border with two minutes left. I said to myself “I bet Marshall hated that shot.” Nice to know I was right.
• I’ve cracked on Michael Jenkins a lot in this space, but kudos for his performance vs. Coastal: 2-2 from the field and 2-3 from the line for 6 points in 13 minutes, a much more subdued performance than the jack attack that hurt his team in the earlier meetings.
• Martin was named tourney MVP, but Gaynor was better in the final. Only one of Martin’s 10 points came in the second half, he shot 3-of-11 from the field, and turned the ball over 3 times without an assist. Gaynor had only two fewer points (10 to 8), only one fewer rebound (6 to 5), while shooting more efficiently (3-of-8, 2-of-4 from 3) and most importantly notching a 6-to-3 assist-to-TO ratio.
• Pele Paelay shot only 5-of-13, 1-of-5 from 3, but it’s hard to say he had a bad game. He seemed to be the only Coastal player really willing to attack the Eagle D. When the rest of the team (Stevens in particular) caught up to his aggressiveness CCU made their run.

Lastly, was this game as good an advertisement for the league as I’d hoped? As I pointed out above, the offensive execution…let’s just say it left something to be desired at times. But the overall level of play in this game was so many light-years beyond the usual Winthrop bludgeoning of a random six-seed (or even Liberty’s thrashing of High Point in the Big South final just two years ago) I can’t complain. Sure, it was a defensive struggle. But so was the Missouri Valley title game, and I remain unconvinced those two teams are all that much better than the two that squared off in Rock Hill. That the game came down to the wire with a coliseum full of screaming lunatics on hand sure didn’t hurt matters, either.


If any Big South fans needed confirmation that awarding home games to the top seed is the right thing to do, all they need to do is check out what’s happening over in the SoCon.
Last season, as you may very well know, Davidson busted ass all season and wrapped up a sparkling, perfect 16-0 conference record. For which they were rewarded with, oh, a pack of airline peanuts. They got upset in the SoCon semis and as far as the NCAAs go, saw all their hard work amount to nothing.
Well, Davidson has some pretty strict admission policies and their players did what all smart kids do: they learned. This season they didn’t put a whole lot of effort into their regular season conference slate. They played half-hearted D and lost five games in what’s generally considered to be the worst SoCon in ages. But when the conference’s neutral-site tourney time came, they were ready, and smoked Chattanooga in the title game to earn their NCAA bid.
Unfortunately, because they goofed off during the regular season, Davidson will be a 15 seed. A terrifying 15 seed, yes (seniors and size and shooters can make for some big problems for a 2), but a 15 nonetheless. Their chances of grabbing an upset are substantially, substantially worse than they would have been as a 14 or 13.
This is what neutral-site tourneys and rewarding good regular seasons with nothing gets a conference. Is it coincidence that since the Big South went to a campus-site, higher-seed tourney that the league as a whole has gotten better while the SoCon has gradually declined? Well, maybe. But I firmly believe that Davidson’s drop-off this season--and the intensity Winthrop showed in their final two title-clinching wins--is due to how much the conference’s regular season title really means.


Winthrop should be a 13 seed in the NCAAs. Starting at the 16 level, let’s work our way up:

16s: SWAC champ, NEC champ, America East champ, Belmont, Oral Roberts/likely Delaware St.
15s: ORU/Delaware St., Big West champ, Davidson, Big Sky champ
14s: Penn, South Alabama

There’s basically no way, in my humble opinion, to argue any of those teams ahead of Winthrop. (Yes, the Sun Belt’s a slightly better conference, but South’s best nonconference win was at home vs. Houston.) So the candidates for the last two 14 slots and 13 slots are (with RPI in parentheses):

Winthrop (73), likely Northwestern St. (70), the MAC champ (Kent. St.? 61), Iona (60), Murray St. (65), Wisc.-Milwaukee (54).

RPI-wise, obviously, Winthrop lags a bit. And of those seven teams’ conferences, only Murray’s (the OVC, no. 20) and Northwestern St.’s (Southland, no. 22) are behind the no. 19 Big South.

But the Committee’s emphasis in recent years on nonconference performance means that Winthrop should still safely be on the 13 line. Kent is the MAC champ and favorite, but their sole nonconference win of note was over Butler in OT and no other MAC team will have the résumé to beat out the other five candidates listed here. Pencil in the MAC champ as a 14.

It gets trickier from there. Murray had close calls vs. Cincy and Southern Illinois and won the OVC regular season title. Iona was second in the MAAC, but knocked off Iowa St. on the road and nearly upset Kentucky. Northwestern St. beat Oklahoma St. and Mississippi St. and scared the hell out of Wichita St. and Iowa St. (who took the Demons into overtime after the official scorer mistakenly awarded Iowa St. a point after a missed free throw…true story). Wisc.-Milwaukee doesn’t have any huge wins to its credit but avoided any horrible teams and has the highest nonconference SOS (23) and RPI (39) of any of these teams.

But guess who has the only RPI top 50 win out of all these candidates? Yup, Winthrop, thanks to that road win over Marquette to tip off the season. Add that in with a) the several close calls to good teams b) the regular season title c) Murray’s lack of signature win and bad loss to Eastern Illinois d) Iona not winning their regular season title and e) Northwestern St. coming from the weakest conference, and I think you get an “S-curve” of

49. Wisc.-Milwaukee
50. Winthrop
51. Iona
52. Northwestern St.
53. Murray St.

Asking the Committee to seed Winthrop any higher with their RPI, loss to Liberty, and lack of “backup” nonconference win is asking for a lot, but I’d very surprised if they fall below the 13 line. It would be a sign that maybe RPI and conference affiliation counts for more than say it does.

Who would the Eagles face? Who would they want to face? I’ll get to that tomorrow.

As for Coastal, I know Buzz is begging for an NIT bid and I naturally think they deserve one. But teams that lose five total games in the Big South, toss up a nonconference RPI of 263, and—it has to be said—will generate precisely zero interest or income for the tournament means they have no shot. The NIT has the “automatic bid” for regular season champs for the precise reason that they can snub the likes of Coastal and still say they’re being fair to small conferences. Neither NIT-ology nor Joe Lunardi even has Coastal on the NIT radar. I know Dean Smith coached Buzz and is on the Committee, but there’s only so much string-pulling to, uh, pull.


Judging by the intensity of the Big South final, the animosity on the two teams’ message boards in the days leading up to the gane, Coastal’s regular-season triumphs, the geography, and the fact that Marshall and Peterson are far and away the league’s most high-profile coaches it’s safe to go ahead and call Coastal-Winthrop a USDA-approved Rivalry. One that could, as Kyle Whelliston kindly pointed out over at ESPN (hope you have Insider), be a terrific thing for the conference.

My initial reaction to Whelliston’s focus on CCU-WU, though, was “HEY! Seven other teams in this conference, you know! One of them led it for a good chunk of this season! One of them won the conference title just two years ago! Come on!” But he’s right. What’s best for the Big South is having two big-name coaches and growing-name teams that bring out the best each in other. Butler and Wisc.-Milwaukee have each gone from the Horizon to the Sweet 16 in the last three years because they knew how good they had to be to beat the other. If Marshall and Peterson and WU and CCU can do something similar, it’s hard to argue that’s bad thing, even for an individual competitor like Birmingham-Southern. If Winthrop gets an at-large bid or Coastal makes Sweet 16 run, you know Reboul won’t mind telling his recruits “See? We can do the exact same thing here.”

But whether any of that will happen is widely debatable. Coastal may follow its football jones and desert for the SoCon. Although I’m amazed it hasn’t happened already, eventually some major-conference program is going to come waving a fat stack of dollar bills at Marshall. And more than one writer has wondered if Peterson could already be on his way elsewhere. Part of me would be delighted to see them walk. But part of me also knows how big that game against Winthrop was to close the regular season, and know how much I enjoyed the title game last Saturday, and wonders if we’ll get that back again. Here’s to hoping they (and Coastal) stick around.

Expanded NCAA thoughts tomorrow.

Friday, March 03, 2006

All the neutral marbles

So, tomorrow at 11 a.m. (12 for you poor Eastern Time Zone heathens, for whom Monday Night Football wraps up at just about daybreak) Coastal and Winthrop are tangling for the Big South's NCAA bid and all the Tootsie Rolls that come with it.

Speaking as someone forced to accept being a "neutral," and also as someone who watched the Big South final for years for no other reason than that it tipped off Championship Week, let me say how thankful I am to the Fakecocks for knocking off Charleston Southern. I don't know exactly how many times the Big South final has ended "Winthrop 274, Low-seeded Supremely Fortunate Surprise Finalist 19," but I swear it's been at least every single frickin' year since Tony Dunkin left the league, and twice some years.*

So there's drama this year. No less an authority than Kyle Whelliston said in his WWLIS chat today that this would be the toughest of all Winthrop's title games under Marshall, and I for one can't think of a counterexample. This is great for the conference: Lord knows the Big South looks just a tad bit better when its alleged second-best team isn't already down by 13 during the national anthem.

But who, as a neutral, am I rooting for? What I want is for the Big South to have its best possible shot at winning a first-round NCAA game. Fortunately, both these teams have several of the key ingredients that go into such an upset. To wit, you have to have...

A savvy point guard who won't go all Peyton Manning on you when the inevitable 12-2 run from the Big Boy comes. In Chris Gaynor, Winthrop (of course) has the league's best pure point. He even dropped 17 on High Point last night. That he's only a sophomore makes the BSC fan in me want to cry.

Meanwhile, Colin Stevens is a senior, which helps. He can always lean on Leasure and Paelay to help him out, which helps. He's also damn good, which helps--third behind Gaynor and McMillan in assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. The biggest knock against Buzz Peterson's Coach of the Year candidacy, in my book, is that it took him half the season to figure out Stevens ought to be starting. Does Stevens get his practice attitude from Iverson or something?

Mad three-point shooting. Martin. Leasure. Yeah, think they've got this covered.

A coach that can push those special NCAA Tournament buttons that so few coaches--and none in the SEC--know how to push. Marshall sort of struggled with this for a while (that play-in loss was especially, well, questionable) but he's gotten closer every year--now it's just a matter of time. And, of course, Peterson made his name doing this exact thing at Tulsa.

So no real advantage either way so far. (Maybe a slight one to Winthrop at the point.) But the next key is where the two teams separate, in the JCCW's mind at least:

Not getting completely annihilated on the boards. Sonko and Harris have both taken on substantially beast-like qualities over the last half of the season (witness Sonko's 21-and-8 and Harris's 16 boards Thursday night), but 6-5 and 6-4 are 6-5 and 6-4. (Unless, of course, you end up playing Tennessee and 6-4 "power" forward Dane Bradshaw. And I wouldn't put it past the NCAA committee to do something as deliciously naughty as pairing Buzz and his old, ahem, mates. But unless Tennessee does some major damage in the SEC tourney, they won't rise higher than a 3. Barring a mountain of tourney upsets, Coastal's a cinch for a 15.) Harris's maniac energy is fabulous to watch, but there's only so much good it would do against, say, LaMarcus Aldridge.

Winthrop, on the other hand, has a 6-10 Kiwi that, like Quikrete, is toughening as we watch (8 boards Thursday). They have 10 fouls' worth of 6-7 and 6-8 in McCullough and Williams. And Shuler is, well, a more experienced Harris with a jump shot and moves. These guys don't just have the potential to out-board power conference teams, they already have: 32-19 over Marquette, 31-28 over Memphis.

And that, combined with the Eagles' edge in the less-important category of Having been there before, is enough for me. I'll be a contented, confident Big South neutral either way. But I'll be just a litle more content, a little more confident, if Winthrop pulls it out.

Which is not to say they will, given Coastal's bizarre success against them the last two seasons. (It's like hearing "Pele Paelay" over the PA distracts Winthrop even more than it does me.) Lord knows if Leasure gets hot and Shuler and Bradshaw pull their Looney Tunes "Vanishing Cream" act again, there are going to be many, many unhappy people in the Winthrop Coliseum.

But the bet here is that Winthrop has finally exorcised those "Instead of playing basketball, think about going out for drinks with that chick you met at the AXO house last weekend" demons that seemed to flutter over their shoulder midseason. (These demons dress wear backward baseball caps, baggy jeans, and some kind of sneaker/boot hybrid, by the way. Pitchforks are so 1994.) In the second half of the game against BSC, there was no tomorrow, and they played like it. In the waning minutes against High Point, there was no tomorrow, and they played like it. Tomorrow, there won't be any tomorrow. Expect Winthrop to play like it, and when they do, even a team as hot as Coastal shouldn't be able to hold them off.

The JCCW's official prediction? Winthrop 71, Coastal 67. Refute as needed.

p.s. Hoopville recaps of the semis should be up ... oh, I don't know when, but they've got 'em.

*I know about Liberty and UNCA, yes, thank you.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Sunny Side

The JCCW is back, coming to you live from what I’m calling “WiFi Cavern,” deep in the bowels of the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. I’m here covering the Alabama high school state hoops tournament for my day job and still battling through a nasal blockage worthy of Atlanta at rush hour, though thankfully with the help of the good people at Aleve the “shakes” have kind of passed.

I’ve got a couple of hours before my next game and I’m trying to count my blessings. I’m thankful, for instance, that in the last five days my car hasn’t exploded. That would be bad. I’m grateful I don’t own a log cabin infested by cannibalistic Gila monsters, as I dreamt a couple of nights ago. (Fever + sleep = Weird. Every time.) Thank goodness the Hawks didn’t draft Chris Paul, as otherwise they might be competitive and there’s another basketball team I’d end up caring about.

See, I’m focusing on the positive, because otherwise the fact that my Birmingham-Southern Panthers went from being 40 minutes away from claiming a conference title and homecourt advantage all the way to the NCAAs to having their season ended in exceedingly embarrassing fashion at home by a team they’d just beaten by 16 on the road would be, well, just the teensiest bit depressing. Not to mention that I’m not exactly singing in the shower that during the exact week when my juggling act of sports editing day job, blog coverage, and Hoopville duties has hit its most difficult peak, I came down with my wickedest case of the Crud this season. “You sound like hell,” a coworker told me yesterday when I called back to confirm he’d gotten my story via e-mail. Yeah, well, over the last five days I’ve felt like it.

Enough chit-chat. Here’s all my thoughts, Chris West-style, about the last several days of developments, starting with Saturday’s BSC-Winthrop game:

1) The turning point in that contest? There’s only about 57 different nominees (ranging from Gaynor’s game-icing three with 1:31 to play to Powe’s second foul less than five minutes in) but for the JCCW’s money it was the three-play sequence beginning with 4:08 to play, after Collins’s three-point play cut the lead to 46-41. That was the only point in the game the BSC crowd--a record 2,500 strong, which could actually get quite loud when it tried--really got behind the BSC defense. Everybody standing. Everybody screaming. And it ended with a) an unnecessary Horton foul at the tail-end of the shot clock b) Collins fouling when BSC failed to grab an offensive rebound following a Bradshaw miss c) Powe anti-capitalizing on Shuler’s miss of the front end by turning the ball over down low. The energy level that greeted that defensive possession never re-entered the building, and not coincidentally BSC never got closer.

2) The biggest (only?) positive for this BSC fan to come out of the Winthrop game? Dwayne Paul. He turned an ankle (I think… that’s what the B’ham News reported, but then why was a trainer rather indecorously massaging the back of his thigh during multiple second-half timeouts?) in the opening minute and despite walking around during stoppages like a guy with an eyepatch, parrot, and peg, still managed to be BSC’s best player: team-leading 6 boards, team-leading 4 steals, 8 points all earned battling with guys six inches taller down low. The guy is 100 percent FDA-approved Warrior, and man oh man I can’t tell you how glad I am to get to watch him for another season.

3) The first half of that game was absolutely bizarre. With Powe’s and Viglianco’s foul trouble (TV’s a bit unfortunate on the officiating) and Paul’s injury, I felt lucky that BSC was only down 24-21; with the mountain of missed layups and Horton’s astonishing bricked dunk, I felt furious BSC was down at all. Which means 24-21 was probably about right.

4) The second half … well, Winthrop just played better. No way around it. They made the shots they had to and BSC didn’t, they defended like conference champions and BSC didn’t. If Martin and Gaynor hadn’t hit those last-tick-on-the-shot-clock bombs from somewhere near I-20 in the last 10 minutes, I wonder … but they did, and that’s the point. The better team won.

5) In case there was any doubt that every single thing out my keyboard needs to be taken with a whole Morton’s container worth of salt, I was way off in my pre-game description of Craig Bradshaw as, well, less-than-tough. He banged around all night, led everyone in rebounds with 9, and played outstanding defense against Powe, whose 3-of-7 3 TO performance was far less than what BSC needed on the offensive end.

6) Of the many BSC heckling efforts, my favorite was a student poster waved at Winthrop that read, simply, “You’re Inept.”

7) It was Scarlett Johansson-HOTT in Bill Battle that night. Whether that was because the folks in charge underestimated the impact of 2,500 bodies x 98.6 degrees or because the A.C. in the Battle just isn’t quite up to it, it was far and away the warmest I’ve ever been in the building. The result was a cavalcade of second-half stoppages as, with towel boys curiously MIA, players and coaches had to take responsibility for wiping up the copious amounts of sweat. (Although the game was decided by then, this was yet another thing Winthrop dealt with better than BSC … Horton and Collins each cramped up while no Eagle appeared fazed.) There was one wonderful fringe benefit to this … Gregg Marshall taking a knee and applying a towel to the court as BSC fans chanted (rather sharply, I thought) “Mop our floor!” I for one was impressed with Gregg. I wouldn’t have blamed him—in fact, it might have been even cooler—if he’s turned to an assistant and said “Sure, like the guy in the $3,000 dollar suit’s going to wipe the floor! Come on!”

8) Goodness gracious, how badly do the Big South’s Award of the Year voters dislike Whit-Holcomb Faye? I mean, yeah, there’s that “lewd gesture” matter and all, but short of his pulling a Ron Artest, should the conference’s third-all-time leading scorer really not only not be Player of the Year but left off the All-Conference first team entirely? I can sort of see Leasure as POY given the way CCU finished (though since it took Stevens’ and Harris’s arrival in the starting lineup to really get the Chants going, I wonder if Leasure is genuinely more valuable to his team than WHF), but for WHF to be behind both Martin and Blair for first-team honors means character played a big ol’ honking part in the ballot process. The JCCW’s take? As WHF was the sole difference between Radford being the conference’s fourth seed and duking it out with Liberty and VMI, he’d have had the JCCW’s POY vote, “lewd gestures” be damned.

9) Great to see Reboul get Coach of the Year, which makes a lot of sense when you see all of one BSC player (Collins) on the All-Big-South two-deep. His response-- “No, seriously, Quin Snyder did a better coaching job than I did” (I’m paraphrasing)--was also delightfully classic Reboul. But the praise for Radebaugh has me a little freaked out … like Coach was psychically forecasting his own team’s demise. Which is, ya know, a little troubling.

10) Sigh…I guess that brings us to the CSU collapse, doesn’t it? That last Sigh didn’t really do it justice. Let’s try this again … Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh. BSC started the season 15-0 at home and finished, in the two biggest games of the season, 0-2. Please excuse me while I find a suitable bridge to hurl myself from.

11) There’s honestly not much to say about the game. When your team enters the postseason and gives up more points than it has in any game all season, what’s there to say? Every loss since the first Winthrop L has screamed for better three-point defense, and CSU shoots 9-of-11 on threes in the first half anyway. I know some of that is just the Bucs getting hot at the right time, but whatever. Bleah.

12) That there was a letdown after the Winthrop game was, of course, inevitable. That’s when you need your home crowd to pick the team up. Too bad the home crowd totaled a whopping 652. Bloody 652! I know BSC is a small school and I know the Tuesday night tip-off isn’t good for off-campus support. But it’s the conference tournament! That’s just not good enough. (Disclaimer: No, I wasn’t there. But I was being paid, by my job, to be elsewhere, and taking a night off when your papers’ teams are playing in the state semifinals isn’t an option.)

13) I do wish Collins, Viglianco, Powe, and Bailey could have departed on a better note. Thanks for the service, guys. You’ll be missed.

14) As for the other quarterfinals, I jotted some snark-free notes for Hoopville. Not quite enough time to add snark here now. Enjoy.

15) Predictions for tonight: Winthrop 87, High Point 74; Coastal 77, Charleston 67. Winthrop gets the title game they really, really didn’t want.