Friday, March 14, 2008

Championship Week diaries: Day 5 / 6

Covering Wednesday's title games before we get to the bubble carnage we saw Thursday:


--Poor, poor Sacred Heart. It's tough enough to have a double-digit lead on the top seed on their floor and still see your first-ever auto-bid slip through your fingers (as happened against CCSU in 2007) but to host the conference's 4-seed in your own gym and still lose by double digits ... I can't exactly claim to know what that's like (the closest parallel in the JCCW's competitive life probably being the one-point runner-up finish at the 1997 Alabama state FFA forestry judging competition, which was tough, yes, particularly since the blind-ass, pathetically incompetent judges robbed us by somehow failing to tell the difference between a Scarlet and a Black Oak, I mean, for bleep's sake come on, so hell yeah I'm still a wee bit bitter about it, but ... nah, still not the same). But I'm guessing words like "devastating" and "heart-shattering" and "soul-crushing" would be appropriate here.

Honestly, I think in circumstances like these, the home crowd can be a curse as well as a blessing. If Heart had ever really gotten rolling, it's a huge help, but there was also that moment with around six minutes to play in this game where SHU was still down eight and you could sense every Pioneer fan in the gym suddenly realize Oh crap, we could actually lose this thing ... we could actually miss out ... it's the end of the world ... seriously, holy f'ing crap ... and the entire atmosphere got as tight as piano wire. It's my opinion players can feed off that kind of (CAUTION: NEW AGE-LIKE HOKUM FOR LACK OF ANYTHING BETTER TO FOLLOW) negative energy as well as the good stuff, and I think it helps explain why Heart started turning the ball over and playing desperation jack-a-three a little earlier than they had to.

--I'll be frank: the level of play in this game was multiple notches down the quality-meter from any other title game yet played during this particular Championship Week. The Mount's going to be a 16 (if not in the play-in) and they're going to be down by 254 points at halftime.

But that shouldn't take away what a hell of an accomplishment it was to win this tourney--they go on the road and beat Robert Morris, far and away the best team in this league, then turn around and beat desperate Sacred Heart on their home floor a game later despite their best player sitting virtually the entire game with foul trouble. Salud, Mountaineers! Now if you could just get your coach to skip the creepy-sounding "I want to see your blue, gold and white spilled out all over the floor" pregame speech next time, we're good.

--With all the ridiculous xtreme logos out there at the moment, let's take one second to applaud SHU for just using the school's crest-plus-"Pioneers" banner on their gym floor. (Looks like this but without the school name.) European football fans everywhere (and the JCCW) approve.

Big Sky

--First: how weird was it to watch mid-major college basketball in a 94 percent-empty Rose Garden with all the Trail Blazers stuff blissfully intact over every inch of the floor? The answer: very.

--Let's spare a thought for Northern Arizona's seniors, who lost in the Big Sky title game their final three years at the school and will try to clumsily bandage over that fact in their heads for the rest of their lives. Small consolation, but they do get to enter a bar and say, truthfully, "I'm a lumberjack," which must be nice. So they've got that going for them.

--It's possible it's whiplash from the sloppiness of the NEC title game earlier that night, but I thought Portland St. looked like a mighty, mighty fine basketball team. Good ball movement (how many times did Rodriguez make a sweet kick-out?), accurate shooting, even some high-major athleticism from the likes of Huff. There's a reason they won this tournament on cruise control.

I've said already that looking at the numbers and their Big Sky pedigree, you had to think they could provide some 1- or 2-seed with a tussle. I saw precisely nothing to dissuade me from that thinking Wednesday night. If Wisconsin sneaks up to a 2-seed after winning the Big 10 tournament ... hmm ...

Hope springs eternal

--As Michael Litos pointed out, yesterday was a phenomenally good one for the mids on the bubble. Ole Miss and Florida biting the dust? Not just one or two but all three Pac-10 bubblers failing to pull the upset? The markedly similar New Mexico and Umass both face-planting to inferior competition? Honestly, I'm not sure I remember a single day in bubble history when that many pretenders crashed out. It's more, much more, than the mids could have hoped for. I can't see St. Mary's or South Alabama left out under any circumstances at this point and whatever you think of VCU's or Illinois St.'s merits, there was a chance entering yesterday that they'd be squeezed out of the "serious" argument entirely. That ain't happening now. No one intelligent or unblinded by their love for some BCS punching bag is going to stand there slack-jawed in shock (a la Air Force in 2006) if either of these teams get in.

As for whether they will ... who knows? Every year the Committee does things that either no one or almost no one predicts. But I think VCU, in particular, has a reasonable shot. Have to say I'm surprised at the just about unanimous consensus that ISU is ahead of VCU in the pecking order. I don't see it: VCU has both the better non-conference profile (not even debatable--ISU's best win outside the Valley is home to Cincy) and I have to think the Committee would see winning the Colonial by multiple games as a better in-conference performance than a runner-up finish with an 0-3 record against the one true power team in the league--even if that league is the Valley.

I think that's more clear-cut than the following comparisons, but I think VCU's got a better angle than the following teams, too:

Temple: Getting a lot of love at the moment, but their best nonconference win was home to Ohio. Don't see 11-5 and second in the A-10 (even with a win over Xavier) as so much better than VCU's title run to cancel out VCU's better work in the nonconference slate.

Arizona St., Oregon: These are trickier: they're power-conference teams and have a bevy of top-50 wins (four for OU, five for ASU) while VCU has none. But I think it's worth noting that the Pac-10 is in tiers: Arizona and these teams are in the middle with UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Wazzu in the top tier. Arizona's three wins against that top tier and long list of decent-to-good nonconference wins means they're in, but Arizona St. went 2-7 against the Pac-10 upper crust and Oregon 1-8. Both have much better nonconference victories than VCU but both have blights in that profile as well, the Sun Devils in the form of one of the worst schedules in the country (a big reason they're now an incredible 81st in the RPI, which would set a record low for an at-large) and Oregon in the form of losses to Oakland and Nebraska. One final point is that Pac-10 teams are getting credit for "conference victories" for beating an Oregon St. team that's the RPI equivalent (inferior to, actually) of Stetson. I would expect the Committe to take one of these teams over VCU, but I'd be surprised if it took both.

UMass: 10-7 in the A-10 without a win over Xavier just isn't even close to what VCU accomplished in-conference, and it's not like their marquee out-of-conference win (a road W over Syracuse) is that much better than VCU's over Maryland. Now 1-4 vs. the RPI top 50 ... is that so much better than VCU's 0-2?

New Mexico: Lunardi's been all over these guys for weeks and still has them higher on the S-Curve than the Rams, to which I can only say: WTF? UNM has the No. 265 nonconference schedule and their best NC win was home to Texas Tech. Whoopee! In-conference they went 11-5 and finished third in a mediocre Mountain West without (like ISU) beating the conference's one truly good team ... and that was before they got bounced by Utah in the first round of the MWC tourney. Unless there's 2006-like "We love the West!" prejudice from the Committee, there's just no f'ing way this team gets in ahead of VCU.

Ohio St.: Take a look. There's just nothing in this profile at all except for the two desperation home wins over Mich. St. and Purdue to close the season. If they lose to MSU today and get in over the Rams with their mighty 2-10 mark vs. the top 50--really, Buckeye-lovers, you think VCU couldn't nab at least 2 of those 12 attempts with half of them either home or neutral?--and the same number of losses to teams between 100 and 200 in the RPI as VCU with three less tries ... well, here come the torches and pitchforks. (If OSU wins today ... eh, we'll cross that bridge then.)

As for everyone else ... it's a tossup. I think St. Joe's and Villanova have a slight edge on VCU, but it's debatable. Basically, I've got the final bubble cut like so: IN: 1. St. Joe's 2. Villanova 3. VCU 4. Arizona St. OUT: 5. Oregon 6. Illinois St. 7. Ohio St. 8. Temple 9. UMass 10. New Mexico.

See you tomorrow and go Spartans.

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