Thursday, February 12, 2009

Before and After: 2/12



Utah St. at Idaho: Like anyone truly devoted to the mid-major cause, I keep a handy mental laundry list of the Selection Committee's most egregious mid-major snub jobs. Drexel '07. Missouri St. '06. Butler '02. And so on.

Right up near the top of that accursed list: Utah St. '04, when Stew Morrill's Aggies went 25-2 overall and 17-1 in Big West play before losing their conference tourney opener by a point ... and being relegated to the NIT because the Committee was in the middle of its "What's really important is nonconference scheduling" phase. (Three years later nonconference giants Drexel would find out the hard way that the Committee had since entered a new "What's really important is how well you dominate your conference" phase, but I guess I shouldn't rehash all that out right now.) The Aggies got some form of recompense when their '06 squad got a bid at the expense of more deserving teams from Mo St. and Cincinnati (see, I can be fair to power-conference teams ... some of the time), but I don't blame Morrill one bit if he looks at his current team's 23-1 overall record, 11-0 WAC mark, and split vs. BYU and Utah and sees--amidst what's obviously some wild success--some horrible reminders of the 2004 hose job. The Ags are four games up on the rest of the WAC field thanks to one of the nation's most efficient offenses--they're second in raw efficiency behind only UNC, according to Kenpom, and rank fourth in eFG--but that's probably not enough for Merrill. He'll want to go undefeated in league play, lest that single conference loss give the Committee a reason to exclude his team, as it did five years ago.

His team will look to clear one of the biggest hurdles to that goal tonight. Future trips to Boise and Reno are more intimidating according to both the RPI and program reputation, but it's Idaho who played the Aggies closer than any of the three in Logan; the Vandals forced a completely uncharacteristic 17 turnovers and pulled within three late in the second half before losing 70-61 Jan. 5. Aside from that game the Vandals haven't been particularly inspiring on the road, but at home in Moscow they've already upset Boise and New Mexico St. and come within four points of doing the same to Nevada. (Not to mention a nine-point takedown of Summit League darlings North Dakota St. back in November.) The Vandals' secret is the turnover game: no team in WAC play has been better at either forcing opponent's turnovers (22 a game!) or limiting their own (10.7 a game ... gee, think those extra 11 freaking possessions come in handy)?

USU's usually pretty good at holding onto the ball (32nd in the country in TO percentage) and will be the favorite for a reason. But make no mistake: this is USU's toughest test in WAC play to date, and passing it will go a long way to making sure the history of 2004 doesn't repeat itself.


Nicholls St. 57, Stephen F. Austin 50: This is what I wrote when previewing this game last week:
A win tonight, and at 6-2 the Colonels will be every bit as alive in the league race as the heavy favorites they host this evening.
And just like that, Nicholls became a serious team to watch in the Southland. Sure, they followed this win--powered by a stingy perimeter defense that held the Lumberjacks to 3-of-16 shooting from outside and a miserable .82 points-per-possession--with a one-point home loss to Southland West leaders Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but they followed that with a huge 60-59 win over previous league leaders Sam Houston St. last night. That's a 2-1 record in a three-game set against the three teams bumping heads at the top of the Southland standings. The Colonels remain two games back of 8-1 TAMU-CC in the overall league race, but with an easier slate of games ahead and the Islanders still with several tough games ahead, it's anyone's conference crown.

Perhaps more importantly, it's now safe to say after their big wins that Nicholls will be heard from at what looks to be a crackerjack conference tourney. The Colonels will enter as one of five different teams--along with S.F. Austin, TAMU-CC, Sam Houston, and hard-luck Pomeroy darlings UT-Arlington--that can have legitimate expectations of coming away with the automatic bid. I'm psyched already.

A p.s. about the images: "Aggies" has always been a vague term at best and a Google image search nets nothing but various sports teams and Texas A&M students in that military dress thing they do. So you get awesome old farmers instead. The band pictured is--you may have figured this out--longtime California punk outfit The Vandals, who totally rocked the Warped Tour I attended in Atlanta in 2002.

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