Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Western Kentucky vs. South Alabamathoughts

If it's a Saturday afternoon on ESPN2, it's time for some mid-major goodness, and after the previous week's turkey of a game between Buffalo and Toledo I was even more thankful for this past week's showcase event: a thriller between homestanding Western Kentucky and hard-luck South Alabama. The Hilltoppers wound up pulling it out 67-59, but ...

Yes, this was a thriller. I know it seems unusual to say that about an eight-point decision for the home team, but South's Dominic Tilford hit a clutch fadeaway three to give the Jaguars a 59-56 lead just before the under-4 minute media timeout. The crowd was quiet, the Jaguar bench was jumping, Tilford was rocking an awesome Rollison-esque mohawk ... everything seemed going the Jags' way.

Then their next five possessions went like so: 1. Bricked 3, offensive rebound, three-second call (!) 2. Charge 3. Bricked 3, offensive rebound, horrible miss from three feet away 4. Turnover 5. Bricked 3. South would go scoreless for the entire final four minutes of the game. Quite the downer after what had been a highly enjoyable back-and-forth battle.

I really should have put this on YouTube. At one point, color guy Bucky Waters (yes, that's his name) tried to explain that one of the Western Kentucky players is versatile, because he collects both rebounds and assists. "He's not a one-trick punky," Waters said. One-trick punky. I think that's the third album for Fail Jacobs and the Powers That Be, where they try to rip off the Clash. Or something.

Not seeing it. I gotta be honest with you, watching this game, I'm not sure how the hell Western Kentucky beat a team like Louisville (and by 14 at that!). After a decent first half, their interior guys got shredded by South's crew in the second half. (And they didn't score in either half.) A.J. Slaughter and Steffphon Pettigrew (the 1 and the 3, respectively) definitely have the height and the hops, but they never seemed particularly anxious to put their stamp on the game. (Though, full credit, their numbers at the end of the game weren't bad; Slaughter had a 6-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio to make up for a 3-of-12 game from the field, and Pettigrew finished 5-of-10 for 13.)

Essentially, the only reason WKU won this game was because Orlando Mendez-Valdez, the 'Toppers' mighty-mite shooting guard (he's listed at 6-1; there's no freaking way he's six feet) went the hell off. 6-of-10 from deep, 24 points, just one turnover despite seeing a lot of the ball ... he was the best player on the floor by a wide margin, and without him (or even without this kind of performance), WKU loses.

Can't say I blame him, either. At one point ESPN aired the Ronnie Arrow detonation after the buzzer-beating loss at UL-Lafayette, as is their prerogative, but kudos to the crew for explaining exactly why Arrow was so steamed: the Jags had lost their previous game (to division leaders Arkansas-Little Rock, no less) when a monitor replay showed that a last-second make by South that would have sent that game into overtime had come after the buzzer. It would have been easy to follow the lead of all these yuksters in the blogosphere and merely tut-tut Arrow for his temper, but ESPN's bunch actually put in the effort to explain both sides. What a concept!

Arrow might not have landed in hot water if his team wasn't so insistent on playing close games. After a seven-point win at Arkansas St. Jan. 17, South played five straight games decided by three points or less ... and given how tight the WKU game was for the first 36 minutes, it could have easily been six.

As expected. The scouting report put together in the JCCW's recent Sweet Home Hello post on South played out pretty much to the letter Saturday: the frontcourt of seniors Brandon Davis, DeAndre Coleman, and Ronald Douglas kept the Jags in the game in the first half while Tilford struggled, and then outright dominated in the second as South wound up in the lead. But the Jags never figured out how to defend Mendez-Valdez on the perimeter and after a brief first-half flurry of competence from LaShun Watson, the backcourt was all Tilford--and he finished the game 5-of-15, 2-of-10 from 3, and unable to stop the offensive bleeding at game's end.

I'm also not sure Arrow helped his team very much by occasionally calling for a full-court press. His team was clearly comfortable in the offensive transition game (Tilford, in particular) but the 'Toppers broke the press with shocking ease and got a whole host of easy baskets. When your team's already as defensively challenged as the Jags are, it doesn't seem like a good idea to me to open up the court even more. It ended up the same old story for South--no discernible difference between the capabilities of themselves and their league-leading opponents, but the other side just ended up making the plays that mattered.

So, tourney hopes? Western still has to be seen as the current Belt favorite--they've got the league's best Pomeroy mark, the tourney pedigree, and the Louisville scalp. But they're just not playing particularly well as of late. They blew out Troy and UALR to move to 3-0 in the 'Belt, but since then they've won only one league game by double digits, lost to also-rans Denver and Florida International, and won their five home games (including tilts against Pomeroy No. 281 New Orleans, No. 247 UL-Lafayette, and No. 296 UL-Monroe) by an average of 5.8 points. If you asked me to place a bet today on either WKU or "the field" to take the league's auto-bid, I'm taking the field.

Could the Jags be that team to come out of the field? Possibly--their strength up front means that if Tilford gets hot and they get anything from the point, they can beat anyone in the conference. But their gaping defensive deficiencies and total reliance on Tilford means it's more likely they have a run like Middle Tennessee's last year--a big upset of a league power in the first round or two, but elimination in the finals or semis when Tilford goes cold.

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