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.


jeremy said...

"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.*"

Yeah, there have been a couple of clunkers along the way, but the 1999 and 2001 finals were both Radford vs. Winthrop...With the two teams being #1/#2 seeds. Both games were very good too...But it has been a while now (and the last 1/2 matchup was the LU/HPU blowout two years ago)...

Jerry Hinnen said...

I should have remembered the RU-WU tilts...I know I watched the one that went into OT. But humor must make sacrifices sometimes, I guess.

jeremy said...

Yeah, and given that BSC wasn't in the conference in those days, I can't expect anyone outside of WU or RU fans to really remember those matchups anyway...