Why is Digger Phelps dancing?
Because the big boys and their ESPN propagandists got the results they needed from the land of mid-majors this weekend. Neither Siena nor Utah St. could handle their road trips to angry league rivals who have probably had the date circled on their proverbial calendars for weeks. Creighton didn't get the help they needed from Evansville to declare an outright title in the MoVal. Butler sealed up homecourt throughout the Horizon tourney, making it more likely the HL will stay a one-bid league. More than ever, it looks like it really is the "down year" for mid-major at-larges we've been hearing about since December.
The good news is that from a quality standpoint, it's as much of an "up year" as ever. The JCCW took in four mid-major games over the weekend: Niagara 100 Siena 85, Butler 58 Cleveland St. 56, Creighton 74 Illinois St. 70, and Gonzaga 58, San Diego 47. Thoughts follow:
--It's a brutal and unfortunate shame that Siena could have their NCAA hopes so badly damaged by a loss like "at Niagara." Because having seen them twice, I can tell you: the Purple Eagles are an outstanding mid-major team. Experienced, guard-savvy, with one hell of a bruiser down low in Benson Egemonye. Friday night they were ready from the jump, at home in front of a crowd frothing at the mouth, in what every one of them knew was the biggest game of their season. Countless bubble teams or even tournament locks would have gone into the Gallagher and left with their tails between their legs. But because Siena's the team that actually had to do it, they're the ones that suffer. So it goes.
--That said, the Saints didn't help themselves in a lot of ways, principally by never really catching up defensively to the breakneck pace Niagara wanted to play. So many layups, so many transition looks. Far and away the Saints' biggest weakness is a defensive presence in the post ... combine that Achilles heel with repeated failures to get back and you get Niagara's two-point percentage of 63 percent. Yikes. On the other end, Keny Hasbrouck could have picked a better game to go 2-for-20. (The rest of the team actually shot 55 percent.)
--If forced to pick at gunpoint one of these teams to go to the NCAAs, I take the Saints, 'cause when you dominate your league the way they did, you deserve it. But I'm not sure the Purps would have any less of a shot at springing a first-round upset if they snag the auto-bid. Bilal Benn is one of those undersized (6-5) power forwards that seems to be about three places at once, Egemonye I've mentioned already, and the three-headed backcourt of Tyrone Lewis, Rob Garrison, and Anthony Nelson are every bit as good as Siena's Franklin/Hasbrouck/Moore trio. Against the Saints, the three of them combined for 16 assists and one turnover. One. In an 80-possession game. Holy hell, man.
--One caveat: fewer threes, dudes. No point in hoisting 22 of them when you're shooting less than 32 percent for the year.
--Cleveland St. at Butler was easily one of the best games I've seen this year, with a flurry of precision offense and shooting eventually giving in to the heavyweight slugfest these teams probably wanted to play all along. It's so "ESPN announcer who just read over the rosters for the first time today but has to pretend to be excited"-style hacky to say something like "Either one of these teams would be a nightmare for a power-conference team down the road," but either one of these teams would be a nightmare for a power-conference team down the road.
--So why, exactly, is a team that only took the third seed in the Horizon tournament by virtue of a tiebreaker so dangerous? Because while a lot of teams talk about their brand of gridiron-style toughness, man, the Vikings live up to it. Forward J'Nathan Bullock--a man so hard the "o" in his first name ran away--is a Bullock in a china shop (ha! I'm so clever) down low. Senior point Ced Jackson caused ESPN color guy Bucky Waters to use the phrase "up in your grill" approximately 2,347 times during the Butler game. Every guy on the team falls in line behind those two. If you're a team that's not used to this kind of punishment, it's going to take some adjusting ... and if you are, you just might be a Big 10 team that's going to accidentally be dragged into a 38-33-style coinflip. Lastly, the Vikes pretty clearly save their best for the best teams on their schedule--witness the win at Syracuse, the competitive loss to West Virginia, the two losses to Butler by a combined four points. If you are a power-conference team with any kind of vulnerability to stout defense: DO NOT WANT.
--Admittedly, the Vikes aren't too much to look at on the offensive end--there's a reason they finished the Butler game with an 8-to-12 assist-to-turnover ratio, a reason they're shooting 31.5 percent from deep for the season. But even against Butler, they looked downright competent for long stretches of time, a good sign as they head into March.
--As for Butler, it's the usual: wicked ball movement on offense, steady no-risk grind-your-teeth man-to-man on D. The Bulldogs endured an off-game from behind the arc and at the free throw stripe against CSU, but nonetheless hit 80 freaking percent of their 2-point shots against one of the top-40 teams in D efficiency in the country. Honestly, if they hit their threes and tone down the turnovers just a bit, there's not a team in the country Butler can't play with.
--That brings us to Creighton, who could shoot just about anyone in the country out of the gym if they're on ... but, uh, had probably better do something along those lines if they make it to March. Because I'm just not convinced they're going to be able to hold their own on the boards. Illinois St. outrebounded the Bluejays 37-26 overall and by a 31 percent to 21 percent margin on the offensive glass. I'm not sure there's a better backcourt in mid-majordom than Stinnett, Woodfox, and Dotzler--6-to-2 combined A/TO, 15-of-22 for 46 points--but Kenny Lawson Jr. and Kenton Walker aren't going to hold up that well against big-conference beef.
--That said, who needs bigs when you've got a stroke like Booker Woodfox's?
--Illinois St. was what they've been all year--athletic, balanced (five guys in double figures), energetic both on defense an on the glass ... and, as always just not quite in control. 17 turnovers (nine more than the Bluejays), some ill-advised threes (though they shot better than usual), just enough defensive lapses to keep Creighton out in front for ... well, pretty much the entire game. That said: if I'm Creighton, I'm hoping Evansville upsets the Redbirds in the Valley first round. The length and athleticism of guys like Osiris Eldridge and Dinma Odiakosa (there's a fun name to say) don't seem to make for a particularly comfortable match-up with CU.
--OK, so the Gonzaga game was hardly thrilling--the Zags went up 10 and pretty much stayed at arm's length the whole game. San Diego doesn't have anyone to run the point well enough to match up with the Zags. And as per usual, Gonzaga was in their usual routine of three or four brilliant, NBA-quality plays with a few "Wow, I don't know if Pargo should have taken that shot" kind of plays. One example from, oh, early in the second half: Heytvelt flashes to the elbow with San Diego playing a zone. Bouldin hits him with a nice hard pass just as Heytvelt faces up. The post defender has strayed too far to his left and Heytvelt has an easy stroll to the basket and a dunk if he wants. Instead he turns and, without hesitation, shoots a little six-foot jumper. Back iron, San Diego the other way. Just go to the rim. If this team had one Casey Calvary or J.P. Batista or Ronny Turiaf, just someone to battle around inside and collect a few offensive rebounds every now and then, I'd feel a lot better about them.