Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tripleheader teamthoughts

Booker Woodfox, actual real-life Creighton basketball player and not, in fact, a character from a late-period Dickens novel.

It's an amazing age we live in, folks. Your latest example came last Saturday, when ESPN2 decided to air six consecutive hours of mid-major basketball on Valentine's Day. For someone who remembers having to wait the entire season to get a single Championship Week glimpse of any conference with less cred than the A-10--and doesn't have to reach too far into the memory banks for it, as that was the case as recently as the first part of this decade--six hours of mid-majory goodness (including OVc and MAAC action, for goodness' sakes) is pretty amazing stuff as well.

That I got to DVR the whole thing, casually enjoy my Valentine's evening, and spend an entire lazy Sunday afternoon watching mid-major hoops is ... well, these truly are the days of miracle and wonder. Thoughts follow.

Creighton 82, Southern Illinois 60

--It's going to be a crime if the Bluejays don't find their way into the NCAAs, because I don't have a whole lot of doubt that this is the best team in the Valley by a wide, wide margin. They ran the poor Salukis straight out of their own gym in the first half: choking defense, transition buckets, wide-open 3's, clever interior passes for lay-ups even in the half-court set. P'Allen Stinnett and Booker Woodfox (surely, surely the best duo in the conference) applied their foot to the home team's throat early and that was that. 42-19 at the half, 57-30 with 12 to play. Not too much to say, really.

--Having seen both Northern Iowa and Creighton in action, it's no contest which team is better built for potential NCAA glory. UNI has nothing like Stinnett's athletic ability, Altman's been down the road many times before, the Bluejays aren't nearly so reliant on the threes falling, they've got as much beef on the inside ... I imagine the suits at the Valley are already secretly crossing their fingers and wearing their lucky underwear and sacrificing chickens in strange Haitian rituals in the hopes CU earns the auto-bid.

--SIU's had a rough couple of years, but Lowery clearly hasn't forgotten how to coach. The same defensive effort and sets are there, the same patience on offense, the same intensity ... the kids are just too young. It'll come.

Tennessee State 88, Austin Peay 80:

--Good heavens, if the opening minutes of this game had a face we'd be talking about how only its mother could love it, or it'd belong on the radio, or something along those lines. Neither team got a point on the board until the 17:08 mark and after six minutes the two teams had combined to hit one shot from the field. Ewwww.

--What's really weird is that after that, TSU started playing a totally unexpected and startlingly effective midrange game. It looked like something out the NBA; a little pick-and-pop, a little drive-and-dish, and guys like Darius Cox and Emanuel Gaiter just kept ... on ... hitting these little 15-foot jumpers. It's the sort of game-plan you basically never see at the college level, so to see it executed this well by an 8-17 team ... well, it was just a bit surprising, is all. Add in a transition game miles better than Peay's and a just-plain-better effort on both ends than the home team's, and you get a 20-point halftime lead and eight-point win for the Tigers. Go figure.

--Look, I'm never going to endorse a mid-season firing at this level. I'm with Kyle; whatever gains might be made in the last weeks of a lost season aren't worth embarrassing your head coach. That said, it has to be acknowledged that the Tigers went from losing five straight (the last four by a minimum of 18 points) to winning back-to-back road games by a total of 18 points, the latter coming against the one-time league leaders. The ends don't justify the means, but at least TSU's seeing some ends they can be proud of.

--Dude, forget Peay coming out of the OVC tourney. Fifth in the league according to Kenpom, slipping in the standings, and more than anything just disorganized-looking against TSU. The guess here is that Done Ruthless and his crew at UT-Martin are going to take it.

Niagara 83, Fairfield 76

--Scorewise, this was the closest game of the three, but I still found it the least interesting. With Fairfield's top four scorers on the year missing through either injury or suspension, Niagara had the better team, and knew it, and played like they knew it. After breaking open a 15-15 game with a 15-3 run midway through the first half, I never got the sense that the Purple Eagles were interested in really pushing the pedal to the floor; they could tell a 75 percent effort was going to get them a win, so that's what they gave. Oh well.

--Part of that effort was because they've got the players to half-ass their way through a game and still win it with relative ease. Benson Egemonye had his monstrous way in the paint, tossing the Stags' poor second-string post guys away like so many six-year-olds on his way to 23 points. The starting backcourt of Rob Garrison and Tyrone Lewis shot 50 percent from the field and always seemed securely in control. This was pretty clearly an excellent mid-major team when they push the pedal all the way down, so it's not surprising to find they're 72nd to Pomeroy (only three spots behind Siena) and have wins over Buffalo, South Florida, Drexel. Not only do they have to be the biggest threat to Siena at the MAAC tourney, but if they snuck past the Saints to claim the auto-bid, I wouldn't be surprised if they gave some power-conference team pure hell. Not many mids have the athletic goods the way the Purple Eagles do.

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