Sunday, February 25, 2007

A happy Appy? plus other randomness

It’s been probably a solid decade since bracket projections first started hitting the web, it’s been 22 years since the 64-team field was unveiled, and you get the sense there’s still more agreement in Congress on Iraq than amongst bracket-watchers on the evaluation of mid-major teams with potential at-large cases.

The latest evidence? Appalachian St., most recently seen extending their winning streak to seven with a 72-63 win over Elon. Joe Lunardi (as of Sunday morning) thinks the Mountaineers aren’t even on the cusp of the bracket. Bracketography and The Bracket Board see them as worthy of consideration, but out. Stewart Mandel, though, thinks that a SoCon title-game berth gives them an all-but-certain at-large.

Who's right? The case for boils down to Appy St.'s sterling 5-2 record vs. RPI top-100 teams, with all five of those wins coming either on the road or on a neutral court, while both losses came at ACC teams before Virginia transfer Donte Minter became eligible. The case against? Three losses (all with Minter) and runner-up status in an utterly mediocre SoCon.

Up until last season, I'd have agreed with K-Dub: A second-place team in the SoCon ain't getting any bid that's not automatic. But then the 2006 Committee took a pair of mid-major teams (well, Air Force is mid-majoresque) with worse resumes than Appy St's this year. And while more than one writer has asked why Appy St. would get in when Davidson got the shaft after running the SoCon regular-season table two years ago, that Davidson team both faced a tougher bubble and accomplished much less in the nonconference.

My guess? Despite the unconscionable Butler and Utah St. NCAA snubs earlier this decade, by and large the Committee has gradually been more forgiving of mid-majors and less forgiving of run-of-the-mill power-conference teams, with the stiff-arm of perfectly deserving Cincinnati last season the biggest middle finger to the Big Boys yet. I think if Appy can make the SoCon final and give Davidson a strong game, they'll sneak in.

Elsewhere ...

How SWEEP it is! We all know most Auburn fans could care less about any sport not played with a ball with points on both ends, but winning two straight against the Tide would be a big deal if we were talking varsity marbles. Just a week after some smart-assed fans were making pithy comments about how much progress was being made, The Jeff Lebo Project gets as big a win as it could ask for. If the JLP can get four games over .500, they might be able to snag an NIT bid. Doesn't sound like much, nut hey, we'll take what we can get ...

The struggles of Creighton and Missouri St. recntly led some to suggest the MoVal might even be a one-bid league, but the JCCW is calling it first: it's going to be a four-bid league. With power-conference teams tripping over themselves left and right, Creighton and Missouri St. should be fine after their wins Saturday. SIU is obviously in and probably a three-seed. But the MoVal tourney never goes to seed and with the top three all looking good entering Arch Madness, either Bradley or Wichita St. (despite their recent suckage) will have motivation they won't. And that'll be enough to steal the automatic bid ...

One of the regets I have about the last few months is that after the move to Ann Arbor, between the jobbity job, the Official Girlfriend of the JCCW, the blog, and the laziness, I haven't carved out the time to effort to check out any of the nearby mid-majors. Which is too bad, since they've been worth watching: Eastern Michigan continued a season of revival from the depths this afternoon by downing Ball St. at home. After winning three games in last year's MAC, the Eagles are a win away from doubling that this year. And a little ways down the road at Oakland, the Golden Grizzlies edged Mid-Con champ Oral Roberts in OT and will enter the MCC tourney as far-and-away the biggest threat to the Jayhawk-killers. Next year, I promise fellas, next year ...

Winthrop is in solid position for an at-large if they need it, but after crushing the closest thing they have to a "rival" by 14 last night on the road, is Gregg Marshall's best team yet really going to be beaten at home in the Big South tourney? Sure, and I hear Rick Majerus is going to be Weigth Watchers' next spokesperson ...

Would someone besides Penn or Princeton please win the Ivy one of these years? Seriously, wouldn't it be great if just once we got to see Dartmouth or Cornell or Harvard play in the NCAAs? Penn's out in front as expected, but after beating the Quakers at home, Yale could have set up a chance to pull even with the frontrunners if they handled 5-6 Columbia at home. Instead they coughed up an 18-point loss. In the meantime, Penn snuck by Dartmouth by two. Sigh.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Weekend in hoops

10 quickie thoughts, one long post, on the weekend that was in mid-majordom:

1. Two Saturdays ago, when I watched Creighton go to Carbondale, it looked like the party line for the last couple of seasons concerning the Salukis—transcendent D, but not enough offense to win in the NCAAs—was probably dead-on. I liked the Jays a little better as a tournament team because of Josh Dotzler’s ability to run the point (the Salukis don’t have a pure PG), more offensive balance (four Jays were in double figures) and chalked up the SIU victory to a flukish 9-12, 25-point performance from forward Matt Shaw.

But there Shaw was again against Butler yesterday, going 4-4 from the field (including 3-3 from 3), grabbing six boards, and scoring 15. The Creighton and Butler games were the first two times Shaw cracked the 15-point mark since New Year’s. If he can keep it up and give SIU a genuine second scoring-option behind previous one-man-band Jamaal Tatum, the Salukis should be able to claim their first power-conference scalp since dismissing Georgia in 2002.

2. Butler is still an Elite 8 type of team. Don’t read too much into Saturday’s game—yes, they lost at home, yes, that’s two losses (the other to future at-large thief Wright St.) in a week. But A.J. Graves looked like Death on two legs against SIU. Actually, make that Death on one leg—it looked like he had a hell of a limp for long stretches in the second half. He fouled out. He missed a free throw (only his second one at home this year). Surely, surely he had some kind of illness or injury, or both.

Butler without Graves isn’t really Butler at all. And they still could have swiped a win in the last minute. As long as Graves is fine, Butler will be fine.

3. Frickin’ Drexel. With road wins over ‘Nova, Syracuse, and now Creighton, the Dragons would have been in primo at-large position if they could have just avoided losing to any of the dregs of the Colonial and maybe taking one decent win at the CAA tourney. Instead they looked past William and Mary, a team so traditionally dreggy they make James Madison look like a contender, and coughed up a 60-47 loss. (To be fair, the much-improved Tribe have gone 8-8 so far in the CAA this season.) Now? It going’s to take a perfect run to the CAA title game and even then Drexel would have to hope for a very soft bubble and a little bit of Air Force-esque luck. Losses to teams like Rider and W&M are just too much when you’re in fourth place in your conference.

4. In the other half of the CAA-MVC Challenge, VCU’s at-large hopes are pretty much toast after their home loss to Bradley. The Rams’ most impressive nonconference win is either UAB or Albany. Their most impressive conference win is either home vs. Old Dominion or at fourth-place Drexel. They whiffed on road shots at Hofstra and ODU and couldn’t even really keep up at home with the MVC’s fourth-best team. They could win the CAA by three games and it won’t matter—they have to have the auto-bid.

5. It tears great rents in my soul to agree with Jay “Spawn of Evil” Bilas, but on the basis of five MVC games I saw all or part of this weekend, I have to say the Valley is, yes, a touch overrated this season. As noted above, SIU is as good as advertised. But Missouri St. and Wichita St. lost at home to schools from the Big South and SoCon. Creighton honked an 11-point second-half lead, again at home, to (it’s worth repeating) the fourth-place team from the CAA. At least Northern Iowa hung with Nevada for a half … but in the end, the MoVal’s six flagship teams went 2-4, and 0-3 at home. Eek.

6. Lord Winthrop is officially in the at-large race after not just beating Missouri St., but pretty well wrapping the game up with a few minutes to play and doing it with a subpar effort from a still-working-his-way-back Torrell Martin (only five shots from the field?). More evidence Gregg Marshall is a great coach: Michael Jenkins, former shot-a-minute bricklayer, went 7-12 from downtown and scored 25. With the Eagles’ road win over Old Dominion looking better all the time and still no loss to a non-tournament team on the ledger, the guess here is that Winthrop sews up a bid if they close out a perfect regular season (not easy: the last two are home against High Point and on the road at semi-nemesis Coastal Carolina) and avoid a first-round loss in the Big South tourney. The caveat: the Committee could sacrifice the Eagles to send a message about scheduling non-DI games (Winthrop played four.) Marshall defends himself (and Katz pronounces Winthrop at-large worthy) here.

7. Appalachian St. remains a stronger at-large candidate than SoCon buddy Davidson. Not only did they push Wichita St. off the bubble for good by winning in Wichita, those Vandy and Virginia wins are only increasing in value. Appy St. also beat Davidson on the road in their only meeting. Still … a 18-6 overall DI record whilst playing in a conference as weak as the SoCon is still a 18-6 overall DI record whilst playing in a conference as weak as the SoCon. They’ll need to sweep their way to the SoCon final, lose it to Davidson, and hope teams like Illinois, Syracuse, and Kansas St. to suck down the stretch.

8. Despite the conference’s well-covered inability to land an at-large big, the MAC is good for an NCAA upset as often as not and they’ve got a great under-the-radar candidate in surging Akron. The Zips have lost five games, but by a total of 18 points and the only home loss was to Nevada by two. They crushed runaway OVC-leader Austin Peay by 17 yesterday. If they can survive the MAC tourney minefield, your annual 12-over-5 winner is right here.

9. The JCCW candidate for conference with the toughest BracketBusters Saturday? The Big West, which saw its top two teams (Long Beach St. and Cal-State Fullerton) rocked by 15 points each at the hands of Hawaii and Wright St. and had its third-best team, UC-Santa Barbara, lose by two to Big Sky middle-of-the-pack team Eastern Washington. Looks unlikely there are any Pacific’s or Utah St.’s in this year’s crop.

10. It’s not mid-major related, but the JCCW does keep tabs on the Jeff Lebo Project. After a brief flirtation with respectability midway through the conference season (apparently leading to some delusional belief about the difficulty of the selection process amongst certain football followers), Auburn’s hoopsters have regressed to their inevitable mean—four straight losses, a 4-8 SEC record, and a no. 113 RPI, worst in the conference. Everyone who knows anything about Auburn hoops knows that patience is needed and that progress is being made—but especially given what Andy Kennedy has been able to do in a single season at Ole Miss, we’re talking about what looks several more seasons' worth of patience.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

BracketBusters Busters

The announcement of the match-ups for BracketBusters, our joyous national celebration Saturday of all things mid-major (and, therefore, American in our purest Horatio Alger-ian, bootstrapped sense … I think celebrating BracketBusters is hella more patriotic than, say, a Labor Day barbecue), is essentially the quarter-pole for mid-majors. The Big Boys on the bubble can still survive a slip-up or three and snag an NCAA berth, but mid-majors that haven’t won the pre-season NIT or are in relative command of the Gonzaga Conference* have no such margin-for-error—from this point, in terms of at-larges, it’s win out (or come damn close) or else.

Many times, of course, teams win out and get “or else” anyway. Sometimes, BracketBusters games change that formula—ask George Mason, which never would have even been on the dance card last season without their BB road win over Wichita St. Sometimes it doesn’t—ask Missouri St., which got the snub despite knocking off UW-Milwaukee in Milwaukee.

So which teams got dates that might propel them along the GMU route, and which got nothing to help—or worse? The JCCW would break it down by “winners, maybes, and losers” if that didn’t seem like so much less fun than by Busters—“Keaton” for the lucky ones (seriously, give “The General” a watch if your library has it), “Douglas” for the to-be-determined (he was horrible, but he did single-handedly free boxing from Tyson’s rule via iron fists) and “Bluth” for the shaftees (“The guy who thought the blue on the map was land?”).


Winthrop: There’s more at-large opportunity here than some seem to think. If Winthrop runs the table in the Big South—a distinct possibility with the trip to closest competitor High Point already out of the way—they will finish their regular season having beaten every single team on their schedule that wasn’t a top-3 seed or Maryland. (Admittedly, that also includes a whopping four D-II games.) That would count for a lot, but not enough without at least one win over another tournament-quality team. That’s where a road win over Missouri St. would come in. It won’t be easy and even in this scenario Lord Winthrop would have to hope for a very soft bubble come Selection Sunday, but the Eagles at least have a beatable opponent (unlike, say, Nevada) that would make it worth discussing (unlike, say, Toledo or Hofstra). Gregg Marshall really doesn’t have anything to complain about.

Butler, Southern Illinois: These two already have at-larges under wraps (especially after SIU’s win in Wichita yesterday), so the next step is a top-5 seed and the protection (well, alleged protection) from a homecourt disadvantage in the first two rounds of the NCAAs. There really couldn’t be any better opportunity than this one, in prime TV position against the season’s OTHER dominant mid-major, to grab the kind of win that would make that happen. Win here and avoid collapse (if you’re Butler) or take your conference by a couple of games (if you’re SIU) and it’s a 4-seed at the worst.

Appalachian St.: Losses to inferior SoCon teams mean that the Mountaineers (in my humble opinion) don’t have quite Winthrop’s chances of sneaking an at-large, but with their wins over Vandy and Virginia looking better all the time, a quality BracketBusters win would demand the Committee at least take a look. They’ll have their chance taking on Wichita St. on the road.

Toledo: The Rockets—a complete nonfactor in the nonconference schedule—aren’t getting an at-large. But if they could still maneuver themselves into the 12- or -13 seed line (a huge difference in terms of NCAA upset potential) if they could nab a quality BB win at home, and a team like Old Dominion is perfect for them—a fringe at-large candidate and possible Colonial tourney champion, but not either of the CAA’s two truly dangerous teams.

Samford: The Bulldogs obviously have to worry more about catching Ohio Valley leader Austin Peay at the OVC tourney than what seed they would get if they did. But nonetheless getting to host a solid MVC team at home (Evansville) is a great chance for a feather in their cap (and the OVC’s)—the sort of feather that might bump them from a 15 to a 14 if they need it.

North Carolina-based mid-major fans: UNC-Wilmington at UNC-Greensboro. Bragging rights aplenty. Why did it take BracketBusters to get it on the schedule?

Oral Roberts: The win over Kansas has probably already pushed ORU out of the 16-seed line, but a very attainable home win over a decent-but-hardly-intimidating Utah St. team would seal it.


Northern Iowa: The rapidly-fading Panthers need to claim a big ol’ honkin’ scalp if they’re going to make up for a joke of a nonconference schedule (No. 282) and a weakening MVC profile. Beating Nevada in Reno would qualify, and would set up a bid if they could finish even 9-7 in conference with a MoVal tourney win or two. But only SIU has a tougher assignment—the Panthers might have been better served with a more winnable game, say, at VCU.

CAA hopefuls: Drexel can’t complain too terribly much, since a win at Creighton would put them back squarely in the at-large hunt, if still leave them with a lot of work to do. But the way the Dragons are playing, will they really be able to take down the resurgent Bluejays in their building? If the CAA had their druthers, they’d have preferred league leader VCU—who’s both playing better and now looking like the stronger at-large—to go to Omaha. Instead the Rams will host Bradley, which will help if the Braves can finish strong in the MVC. If they continue on their current mediocre track, though, a home win over them won’t make the at-large difference for VCU. And oh yeah, as mentioned above, Old Dominion gets a road date at a h-o-double-t HOTT Toledo squad.

TV viewers: Sure, Butler-SIU, Drexel-Creighton, and to a lesser extent Winthop-Missouri St are all must-see TV. But couldn’t the WWL have tried to show some of mid-majordom’s most exciting players as well as their best teams? I’m not sure Albany at Boise St. or Ohio at New Mexico St. couldn’t have been sacrificed to make room for Jared Jordan (at Marist), Rodney Stuckey (at Eastern Washington), or even LeBron’s old high school teammates (at Akron)?

Albany: In theory, the Great Danes would be quite happy snagging a TV game in spite their lackluster performance thus far. Whether it’s worth traveling from upstate New York to Boise is the sort of thing that might make up that difference between theory and practice.


Wichita St.: After blowing an opportunity to get back into the at-large race yesterday so golden it may well have come with and engraved invitation, the Shox desperately needed a big-time opponent (Drexel?) to make a difference on the résumé or, failing that, a patsy they could put away for some confidence and momentum on their trench run into Arch Madness. They got neither: Appy St. is a scrappy, hard-nosed opponent that will do next-to-nothing for their at-large case.

The MAAC: Marist has drastically disappointed in MAAC play, but … Colgate? And Siena’s season-to-date is really so unimpressive they have to host CAA uber-dreg James Madison? Loyola-Md. has a reasonable opponent in Tennessee St. … but with all the eastern seaboard teams in the BB, did they really have to make the trek to Tennessee?

Ohio, New Mexico St.: Ohio probably didn’t want to travel all the way to Las Cruces, New Mexico. NMSU might be able to put together an at-large résumé if they could sneak past Nevada a second time and probably didn’t want a run-of-the-mill MAC team that won’t help that résumé a lick. Ohio got NMSU and NMSU got Ohio anyway.

Cal-State Fullerton: Speaking of travel issues, even for TV, did the Titans really want to travel all the way to Ohio to play an underrated but nonetheless utterly nondescript Wright St. team?

Fresno St.: somehow, I don’t see the Bulldogs packing out the House that Tark Built for the Sam Houston St. Lumberjacks.

Delaware St., Jackson St.: Because of the weakness of their conferences, BracketBusters is the only thing standing in the way of these classes of the MEAC and SWAC, respectively, and a 16-seed. Or at least, it would be, if the MEAC and SWAC let their teams play in it. You would think that since both conferences (like all mid-majors) are desperate for some NCAA success, they would do everything they could to avoid the brutality of a 16. You’d think wrong.

*When your conference is looking at three bids as a disappointment and you've got your own separate box on things like ESPN's Bubble Watch, you're officially straddling the line between mid-major and, uh, not. Not unlike a certain WCC team.