Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Championship Week diaries, Day 3

Colonial: VCU 71, George Mason 50

--I predicted a George Mason triumph back in my CAA preview, but by the time this game tipped off, I wasn't feeling nearly as confident about that. In the latter stages of VCU's semifinal against a solid Old Dominion team, the Rams had already put some real distance between themselves and ODU. Meanwhile, Mason spent their semifinal wheezing past 11th-seeded Towson, who trailed the Patriots by a single point as late as two minutes remaining in the game. One of these teams was trending in the right direction, and the other pretty clearly wasn't. So while I expected the game to be a lot closer than it was--it's a shame such a great season for GMU and the CAA's biggest spotlight of the season ended in such an ugly, blowout fashion--but the final outcome wasn't all that surprising. Get 'em next year, Patriots.

--Eric Maynor gets the plaudits and deservedly so, but Ram forward Larry Sanders was the best player on the floor last night. 18 points on 12 shots, 20 rebounds, 7 blocks?!? That's a man's man putting on a man's man's performance right there. But I do hope Anthony Grant has a word with him about those gymnastics routines he was performing on the rims after a couple of dunks last night. There's plenty of refs out there with quicker triggers who would have T'd him up.

--Maynor's terrific, and certainly when the game is close I don't know if there's a PG in the country you'd rather have, but man I wish he'd play just a leeeeettle bit more under control. 25 points and 8 assists are nice, but they're even better when it doesn't take 20 shots and 6 turnovers to get there.

--If I was a Mason fan, I think I'd have just about pulled myself bald towards the end of the first half as the Patriots' post players--the usually reliable Louis Birdsong and Darryl Monroe--just kept ... on ... missing layups and shots in the paint. Nothing GMU could have done really would have changed the result--VCU was just too good--but man, it could have been a much more competitive game than it was.

--As with virtually every Colonial team that's made the NCAA field this decade, VCU is not a team you'd particularly like having in your pod if you're one of the big boys. Most impressive last night was the Ram defense--VCU was smoething guys all over the court, even out to 30, 35 feet from the basket. You can take those sorts of pesky, pesky risks when you have a force like Sanders behind you. Your standard metaphor involving a team that plays D like that and a trip to the dentist's office goes here. Plus, you know, Eric Maynor.

SoCon: Chattanooga 80, Charleston 69

--Somebody at Chattanooga is, as the saying goes, living right. First the Mocs squeak past Elon by a point, 79-78 in the quarters. Then Samford (9-11 SoCon) upends the Citadel (15-6) in their quarterfinal, leaving Chattanooga with a much, much easier semifinal than expected, which they duly win. Then Charleston surprises Davidson in other semifinal, not only eliminating the vastly surprising Wildcats but leaving the Cougars emotionally spent and very likely a little on the overconfident side. And did I mention the entire tournament was taking place on the Mocs' homecourt? Where in the championship game they shot 27 free throws to their opponents' 7? Full credit to them for taking advantage of every break that came their way, but there's no point in pretending those breaks aren't a big reason the SoCon is now sending a 16-16 team (and the league's fourth-best squad according to Kenpom) to the Dance.

--All of that isn't to say the Mocs don't have some good players or didn't do a lot of things well last night. PG Stephen McDowell is 5-11 and still managed to pull in 7 boards vs. CofC to go with 15 points on 12 shots (for the season, he's a 43 percent from deep) and a 4-to-0 assists to turnover ratio--not bad for a guy whose A/TO ratio for the season isn't even at 1. Every Moc starter grabbed at least five boards, with forwards Kevin Goffney and Nicchaeus Doaks combing for 10 and 16 points. McDowell, Goffney, and Doaks are three of four Moc seniors in the starting lineup who had never been Dancing--gee, you think they wanted that one?

--The term "game of runs" gets used a lot, but when the second half starts with one 20-0 run that's answered by a 14-0 run, safe to say it's a good time to use it.

--Charleston has talent and what's pretty clearly a good mid-major team--there's a reason they beat South Carolina--but they just weren't in it last night. There's no reason a team with us much athleticism as they displayed should have given up 1.16 points a possession to a team that averaged 1.05 during the conference season. The glaring lack of an offensive post presence was, well, glaring: the Cougars shot only 44 percent from inside the arc. I loved junior guard Tony White Jr., though--you don't get a lot more efficient than 31 points on 19 shots, and a lot of those were contested threes.

--With all those seniors the Mocs won't panic or be overawed by the NCAA experience, and McDowell's a nice little player at the point, but that's about all they'll have going for them come the NCAAs. They're headed for a 16 seed and possibly the play-in--only a year after the SoCon sent its representative to the Elite Eight.

MAAC: Siena 77, Niagara 70

--I've seen both these teams a couple of times this year, and this wasn't their best effort--both of them love runnin' and gunnin' and usually do it with a precision most up-tempo mid-majors can't match, but stretches of last night's game wandered into outright sloppiness. Not the best advertisement for the champion's NCAA chances, but Siena eventually showed why they're the league champs and a huge threat next week--they slowed down (PG Ron Moore, in particular, responded to a chewing-out by getting a lot more careful with the ball), attacked the rim in the half-court as well as transition, and eventually pulled away while Niagara was busy turning the ball over 19 times and shooting--cover your eyes--24.3 percent from downtown. Unlike the SoCon final, in this case the "right" team from the "more deserving, bigger threat" neutral-fan's perspective won out in the end.

--Full marks to the Saints' Ryan Rossiter for a 16-and-14 night and easily the best performance I've seen from him. Niagara's senior center Benson Egemonye ate him alive in their last meeting, but Rossiter held his own last night and even got to make the play of the game, a flying soccer goalie-type save of a ball headed out of bounds by his team's bench. If Rossiter and fellow frontcourt mate Alex Franklin (who shot 7-of-9 from the field and pretty obviously needs to see the ball more often) can play like that in the NCAAs, a Sweet 16 run is a serious possibility.

--Kenny Hasbrouck is a great player, but he's got to develop some way to calm that itchy trigger finger of his. He went 2-for-20 from the field in Siena's 100-85 blitzing up at Niagara and put the ball up 21 more times. He hit 8 of those shots and scored 19, but Siena's a lot more dangerous when they're spreading the ball around--Lord knows they've got enough guys who can fill it.

--One of those guys is Edwin Ubiles, the player Siena's got to get going if they're going to pull off another NCAA upset. Ubiles is as long as the day is, uh, long, and usually both a great finisher at the rim and a real pest on D. He didn't make much of an impact last night, though, shooting 4-of-13 and collecting just one rebound. (4 steals, though, to be fair.) If Ubiles is on his game and Hasbrouck isn't playing 1-on-5, look out.

--As for Niagara, after playing a double-overtime thriller the night before, you can hardly fault them for running out of gas at the end. The NIT field has best be ready, because if they're not shooting like they've been blindfolded and playing at a pace so fast that VMI is applauding from a distance, they could just about win the damn thing. Then again, if Bilal Benn is shooting 2-of-15 from the field and Rob Garrison is going 1-of-7 from deep, they could bite the dust in the first round.

West Coast: Gonzaga 83, St. Marys' 58

--Holy hell, what a total abomination of a performance from Patty Mills. You would think "2-of-16 from the floor, 0-of-7 from deep, 1 assist, 3 turnovers in 26 minutes" would do it justice--I mean, it can't possibly be much uglier than that, can it?--but it still, somehow, doesn't. Mills could barely gets his hands on the ball without giving into the urge to fling it at the basket, no matter how defended he was or how awkward the shot or how early in the shot clock. After trying to rev up the MILLS MILLS MILLS hype engine in the pregame, ESPN's crew couldn't really call a spade a spade, but I can: it was a selfish performance, the effort of a player trying to prove he was healthy instead of trying to win his team the game. If Mills was really interested in beating Gonzaga, he'd have recognized his limitations and played provider to the two exceedingly good frontcourt players in front of him in Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson (who did their usual yeoman's work inside, combining for 36 points and 18 boards). Instead he chose to put on the Patty Mills Show, a gritty, true-to-life drama airing on HBO in which our lovable underdogs are pounded by 25 points and get left for dead by the NCAA Selection Committee.

--Have I been wrong about Gonzaga? The Zags haven't just been good the last two nights of the WCC tourney, they've been phenomenal, cutting the heart straight out of two competent-to-good opponents with their seasons on the line. They're up to 5th now in the Pomeroy rankings. That's a stretch, but with Bouldin having taken over the point from Pargo (a change that should have happened long ago) and Daye and Downs looking more confident on offense than ever, Gonzaga looks more like living up to their years of hype than ever.

--A big part of that change is Josh Heytvelt, who still spends way too much time on the perimeter for my taste on the offensive end, but has compensated by suddenly become a lock-down post defender. WCC Player of the Year John Bryant scuffled along to a decidedly subpar performance Sunday night and then last night Samhan and Simpson shot 12of-27 in very large part of Heytvelt's defensive attentions. The one thing I've felt was missing from this Gonzaga team was the inside bruiser of old, the Casey Calvary or Ronny Turiaf that's willing to body up on D and crash the boards with abandon. Heytvelt may get there yet.

--Sorry, but after watching this game I'm not going to cry any tears for the Gaels should they get snubbed by the Committee. With a healthy and functional Mills, yes, they're probably a tournament team ... but they hardly proved that by beating up on the Cal St. Bakersfield's and Fresno St.'s and Loyola-Marymount's of the world. And they don't have a healthy and functional Mills anyway. It's like Illinois St. last season--sure, it's nice to pile up the wins against the rank-and-file of your league or a few susceptible nonconference opponents, but in the end, if you get three tries at the big dog in the league and go 0-for-3, you can't expect mercy from the Committee. We'll see what happens, but the guess here is that the Committee finds more reasons to keep them out than reasons to keep them in.

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