Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sweet Home Hello: Alabama St.

In honor of the only team from the state of Alabama to make it into the field of 65 and in the effort of wishing the Hornets the best of luck in tonight's play-in game--why Chattanooga is a regular 16 seed and double-champion ASU has to suffer the indignity of the play-in, I don't know--we're doing one last Sweet Home Hello for this season.

Let's just get this out of he way: Yes, Alabama St. has a 7-1 center named Chief Kickingstallionsims. Yes, it's funny. But he's the team's fifth-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder. It's more than a little sad that every single media outlet that's reported the Hornets' NCAA berth has taken time to have a chuckle at Chief and ignored point guard Brandon Brooks, the SWAC Player of the Year, or sharpshooter Andrew Hayles, last year's SWAC Player of the Year. Watching Brooks and Hayles and the best NCAA team the SWAC has produced in years treated as a cheap joke over the past few days has been ... well, I think unfair really is the right word to use here.

Last year: After flirting with upsets of Auburn and Miami, the '07-'08 Hornets rolled to the SWAC regular-season title with a 15-3 record, sewing up a postseason berth. They fell short of the NCAAs, though, losing to fourth-seeded Jackson St. in overtime in the SWAC semifinals.

Expectations: With both Hayles and Brooks returning to give ASU the clearcut best backcourt in the SWAC, plenty of size in Chief K., promising freshman Roland Fitch, and incoming transfer Wesley Jones, and much of the league experiencing off-court turbulence, the Hornets were expected to repeat despite the offseason loss of rising sophomore Deshean Porchea, who unexpectedly passed away during the offseason due to a heart ailment.

How it's worked out: As anyone who's printed out a bracket knows: just beautifully, thanks.

The Hornets never quite got over the hump during their guarantee-game marathon in November and December, but put serious scares into Auburn (77-72), Ole Miss (85-81), and Illinois St. (77-71). After those performances, it wasn't a surprise when the Hornets began rolling through the SWAC, frequently winning games by huge margins--87-43 over Alabama A&M and 89-52 in back-to-back games in mid-February--and eventually posting victories in 15 of their first 16 SWAC games. Thanks to Jackson St. keeping pace just a game behind ASU (and handing them their second SWAC defeat in Jackson March 5), the Hornets didn't clinch the outright title until the final day of the regular season, but the title of "SWAC's best team" was never in doubt.

So the only thing left was to finish the job at the SWAC tournament. The Hornets eased past Alabama A&M in the first round, held off traditional SWAC upset kings Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the semifinals, and after watching Jackson St. take an early lead in the final, pulled ahead of the Tigers by double digits midway through the second half and cruised to the finish line. Hello, dancing shoes.

What went right: Put simply, SWAC opponents didn't have an answer for a backcourt as consistent, dynamic, and experienced as Hayles and Brooks. The latter finished the season averaging 13.8 points and an eye-popping 6.8 assists a game, the former 13.7 points on 38 percent shooting from deep. Combine those two with Fitch, Jones, and Chief K. all averaging between 9 and 10 points game in the frontcourt and the best collective turnover rate in the SWAC, and you have what was easily the best offense in the SWAC.

Defensively, the Hornets don't do much gambling--they ranked 10th in turnovers forced in SWAC play--but in a development that's not entirely a surprise for a SWAC team that lists five players at 6-5, 6-7, 6-7, 6-7, 7-1 in its top six scorers, opponents had one hell of a time shooting over them. ASU finished with the conference's best 2-point FG percentage allowed, the best 3-point percentage allowed, the second-most blocks per game ... and in the end, the second-best defense in points-per-possession by a hair behind Pine Bluff.

So ... best offense by a mile, second-best defense by the smallest margin possible? Not much of a surprise they went 16-2.

What went wrong:: Not much. For a team with as much size by SWAC standards as ASU, finishing fifth in rebounding percentage is kind of a surprise.

What's next: Despite Bama St. posting a 20-9 overall record, winning their league title with a 16-2 record, winning their tourney on a neutral floor, and finishing only five spots behind Chattanooga in the RPI, the committee sent the Hornets to tonight's play-in game in Dayton instead of the 16-16, fourth-place, won-their-bid-on-their-own-home-court Mocs.

They'll take on Morehead St., who weirdly started their season 0-6 with a loss to SWAC doormat Grambling--Grambling!--before suddenly catching fire and beating UT-Martin, Murray St., and East Tennessee St. all in the month of December. From there the Eagles yo-yoed their way through the rest of the Ohio Valley season, losing their final four games in the regular season only to win three straight in Nashville to claim the OVC's auto-bid.

ASU's first job tonight is to keep Morehead's Kanneth Faried off the boards. It's easier said than done--he's the sixth-best offensive rebounder in the country according to Pomeroy--but Morehead's poor shooting combined with ASU's excellent FG defense (sixth in the country in eFG, some of that albeit in part to the light-shooting SWAC) means that offensive boards are going to be about the only way Morehead will have of putting the ball in the basket.

On the other end, it's not a great matchup for ASU--they shoot much better as a team from inside the arc, but thanks to Faried's high block rate, far and away the best way to attack Morehead is with the three.

That's what the game will come down to--Gayles and Brooks hitting enough outside shots to keep ASU moving offensively while keeping the Eagles at least a little away from the offensive glass. Even if the numbers don't suggest it, I think the Hornets will rise to the occasion and get it done--you don't by domination of any league, even the SWAC, easily. I think they'll prove to be the better team.

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