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:

THE GAME

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.

A WORD ABOUT THE TOURNAMENT FORMAT

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.

TOURNEY FALLOUT

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.

THE FUTURE

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.

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