The heart attack-serious, no-exaggeration list of the JCCW’s top six favorite annual days* of the year:
6. “Fall back” Night of One Hour of Extra Sleep
5. New Year’s Bowl-o-Rama
4. First Full Saturday of College Football Extravaganza
3. Opening Saturday of Championship Week Joy
1. Two-Day First Round of NCAAs Festivus
OK, so maybe No. 6 is an ever-so-slight exaggeration. But No. 3 is not. And Saturday and its four back-to-back-to-back-to-back mid-major conference championship games (eight precious hours worth!) proved why once again. Here’s a collection of scattered observations from each:
Big South: Winthrop 84, VMI 81
--I suppose it’s hopeless to expect ESPN’s 14th-string announcers to come in from calling the Great Outdoor Games and not be a complete train wreck. But just for the record, the team assigned to this game was a complete train wreck. First, they only gave the slightest indication that VMI’s numerous statistical landmarks (NCAA record for team steals in a season, Reggie Williams’ DI-leading scoring total, etc.) were a function of the Keydet’s espresso-fueled freakshow pace. Pretending that the 2007 VMI Keydets are better tat stealing the ball than Billy Tubbs’ ’88 Oklahoma team (which oh-by-the-way made the national championship game) without even mentioning the context of VMI’s pace practically redefines “disingenuous.” The play-by-play clown also called Gregg Marshall “one of the best young coaches in the country that no one knows about.” All right, first of all, Marshall’s been at Winthrop since the mid-90s; he’s not John Wooden, but I really think he’s a few years past “young” by now. Secondly, the announcers had made a big deal just a few minutes earlier about Winthrop’s massive USA Today spread. I don’t think “no one knows about” coaches whose teams just headlined the USA Today sports section … especially when, I swear, their picture has shown up on the ESPN college hoops page more often over the last month than Coach K’s.
--I’m not sure the Eagles were really, really ready for VMI to play as well as they played. That’s understandable since Winthrop beat them by a combined 3,245 points in their two regular season meetings (approximately). But there were a few too many 3’s jacked up against the zone (even by the likes of the usually heady Torrell Martin) and a few too many difficult passes attempted under the “Hey, these guys are going to fall apart any second now, we’ll save our discipline for when we truly need it” heading.
--The bright side of that? Maybe this will tone down a little of the all-but-overwhelming “Winthrop is this year’s George Mason!” talk emanating from, well, just about anywhere you care to look on the Internets these days. It’s not likely, since mostly just former Big South geeks like me actually watch these games and very few members of the mainstream media know how bad VMI was this season … but Marshall can only hope. Having every bracket in the country settle on his team as their Cinderella won’t help them actually become that Cinderella.
--Speaking of Marshall … a five, Gregg? Come on. Have you forgotten last year already? You’ll be lucky to get that 10 you turned your nose up at. Remember that despite your close calls you’ve still only beaten two top 50 RPI teams and that the Committee just saw you survive a terrible team by three with your season on the line at home. Take your 11 and quit yer’ bitching.
--Of course, if the Committee was actually watching, they might notice that VMI played a hell of a game. 1.22 points-per-possession against a team with Winthrop’s D? Dizzamn! And where has that Travis Holmes been the last couple of seasons. What I was expecting to be a savage blowout ended up being far-and-away the best—and best-played--game of the day. The Keydets’ sudden transformation into an efficient offensive machine has gotten Duggar Baucom some national credit (mostly deserved), but I have to ask: if Baucom is such a genius, why didn’t he try having them slow the pace down in the regular season? Was he visionary for realizing that his team needed to try something different, or a stubborn coot for not realizing it earlier?
--Kudos to the Winthrop and VMI cheering sections for producing an atmosphere so insane you could feel the insanity leaking from the JCCW’s television. But these kudos come with a bitterness so bitter you can probably feel it leaking from your monitor. Because they come from a fan of a deceased Big South program who once swore on everything holy that if his Panthers ever played for an NCAA bid, he would be there in person come hell or high water. Last year, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that a VMI fan would be able to live that dream before a Birmingham-Southern fan. And yet there the Keydets were Saturday, cheering like lunatics and living the game of their lives, while my team twiddles its thumbs before rebooting in D-III next year. Sigh. Sigh, sigh, sigh.
Atlantic Sun: Belmont 94, East Tenn. St. 67
--I feel gypped. Both the regular-season meetings between these teams ended up in overtime. This one was over, oh, right about the time six minutes in when both teams realized Belmont was never going to miss a three and ETSU’s comeback strategy was a series of12-foot fallaway jumpers from an AI-wannabe named Courtney Pigram. Bleah.
--The announcing was barely better for this one. The color guy told us at one juncture that ETSU had a huge advantage playing at home in front of their too-awesome-to-be-believed fans. Later, Tweedle Dum subtly suggested that the fans at ETSU were very demanding and their unhappiness with the Bucs’ performance might create pressure on the team. In the end, though, the contradicting of himself is secondary to the fact that I seriously doubt ETSU’s fans are especially unique one way or the other.
--If Belmont shoots as well as they did against ETSU and can sneak into a 15 seed, they’ll have a shot in their first-round game. Unfortunately, what’s more likely is that they’ll be a 16 seed and shoot much, much worse. Sorry, Bruins.
SoCon: Davidson 72, College of Charleston 65
--This game was U-G-L-Y, it ain’t go no alibi, it's UGLY … it's UGLY! One team (Davidson) couldn’t shoot for crap. The other team turned the ball over every time their opponents looked at them cross-ways. The SoCon has long considered itself several haughty degrees above the Big South. Last year’s RPI poked one hole in that balloon, and even if the Big South’s RPI collapsed this year, the quality of the conferences’ title games (or lack thereof in the SoCon’s case) suggest there’s still not too much difference (if any) between the two leagues.
--Stephen Curry’s obviously a good player, but the announcers (and maybe Pat Forde) should hold off on the “Curry for President!” chatter. Yes, he scored 29 points, but he did it on 24 shots—many of which would have been quickly labeled “ill-advised” by an announcing crew that wasn’t busy suggesting Curry was capable of solving world poverty. (Admittedly, the eight boards and positive assist-to-turnover ratio were nice.)
--Charleston’s Dontae Drayper singlehandedly ended Appy St’s at-large hopes with a career-high 38 points in the semis. He then scored all of eight on 2-of-11 shooting in the final. If I’m a Mountaineer fan, right now I’m mulling over a serious decision … whether Dontae Drayper’s car deserves to be egged or keyed.
--The ESPN crew argued at length that Davidson had a bid locked up on the basis that all of their losses came on the road to major-conference teams except for their home loss to Appy St. Uh, guys? That’s a mighty big “except” and it’s not like two of those major-conference teams (Michigan and Missouri) have set the world on fire. Davidson wasn’t just not a lock—they didn’t have a prayer of an at-large.
--Ironically, as awful as they looked, I think Davidson’s doink-fest against the Cougars might actually improve their chances of pulling a first-round upset. Because I can’t imagine they’ve got too many bricks left. Better to save your best performance for later if you can help it, I’m thinking.
Ohio Valley: Eastern Kentucky 63, Austin Peay 62
--Terrifically entertaining game. What Championship Week is all about—two teams with absolutely everything on the line giving it their all and having it come down to the wire, where a guy who hadn’t hit a basket all game drives for the winning finger-roll (!). God bless college hoops.
--My biggest (only?) pet peeve about Championship Week: idiot ESPN directors who instead of giving us the off-the-charts celebrations that inevitably accompany every automatic bid, show us the two coaches shaking hands. We got a morsel of EKU’s dogpile on the floor, but not enough—and we saw more of the Colonels celebration than any of the other four. Wake up, ESPN.
--EKU is going to be a 16 seed and they are going to get crushed. No shot at an upset. No biggie—they’ve got what they came for this season.
*Auburn football would be on here, but those days sort of change in excitement each year--and even getting up on the day of the Iron Bowl is sometimes a reason for worry rather than real excitement.