Friday, November 28, 2014

A Balanced South Carolina Bounces Back With Win over UNC Asheville

South Carolina appeared to have a good opportunity for success in the Charleston Classic Tournament.  They handily won their first game over Cornell 69-45.  In the second game, they were up twelve on Charlotte, 30-18 in the first half and seemed to be on their way to the championship game.   But it went all downhill from there.

Charlotte rallied from that deficit and took the lead late in the second half.  The Gamecocks rallied to tie the game at 63 with a little less than two minutes left in the game and had a chance to take the lead. The 49ers made two free throws and held off the Gamecocks 65-63. 

Then South Carolina faced Akron in the third place game, a team the Gamecocks handily beat twice last season; a ten point win in the Diamond Head classic and a thirty point regular season game blowout a few days later.  This time was different.  The Zips controlled most of the game, even going up by twelve points early in the second half.  South Carolina rallied to tie the game late but eventually lost to Akron 68-63.

Thus the Gamecocks came home with a losing record from Charleston, 2-3 on the season.  They were hoping Wednesday night that the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville would be the cure to their ailing woes, specifically in the three point shooting department.  In their losses to Charlotte and Akron, South Carolina shot a combined five of twenty eight from beyond the arc (eighteen percent).   However, the Gamecocks would have to play the Bulldogs without their starting forward Michael Carrera who suffered a concussion and a sprained ankle in practice during the week.

Since it was Thanksgiving Eve, which is what many call the biggest night out of the year, and students were off on break,  the Colonial Life Arena was not as filled as usual.  In fact, it was the smallest crowd of the men's or women's basketball seasons so far, with 8223 only in attendance.  Three of those people in attendance were my friend Ian McCormick, veteran Mid Majority writer, who sat with my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew and me.

Those in attendance saw the Gamecocks continue their struggles early on, as the Bulldogs came out firing, well more specifically, Andrew Rowsey came out firing.   Rowsey scored eight quick points, two on three pointers and he assisted on a three pointer by Kem Ubaru.  UNC Asheville was up 12-6 a little more than five minutes into the contest.

This was not the first time I had seen the sophomore Rowsey (#15 in the pictures) play in person.   Last season, I watched Rowsey light up the College of Charleston at TD Arena, as he lead his team to a 67-58 overtime victory over the Cougars.  Rowsey scored twenty three points on eight of eleven shooting, including three from beyond the arc.  Rowsey is an exciting player to watch.  He is quick, has incredibly long range, very accurate shooter (shoots forty six percent from three ) and is not shy about launching a three.

The Gamecocks would respond with a 7-1 mini spurt to tie the game at thirteen.  The Gamecocks tied the game on a three pointer by Justin McKie, a sophomore who has worked his way into the rotation with his solid play.  

After Ubaru put the Bulldogs back up one, 14-13, hitting one of his two free throw attempts, South Carolina would again go on a spurt, this time a 14-0 run over nearly four minutes.  Freshman Marcus Stroman would cap the rally with a layup that resulted in a three point play.  Stroman's free throw gave the Gamecocks a 27-14 lead. 

However, the Bulldogs would respond, again led by Rowsey and a couple of turnovers by Stroman.  Rowsey's two three pointers would ignite an 11-3 UNC Asheville run.  Rowsey's fourth three pointer on the day made the score 30-25 South Carolina with 6:43 left.    The Gamecocks would extend the lead a little going into halftime, 37-29.

The first half was somewhat sloppy, as both teams combined for sixteen turnovers.  As for the Gamecocks, that meant Frank Martin was particularly unhappy on the night.  And unfortunately for South Carolina, the sloppy play would continue into the second half, making Coach Martin REALLY unhappy.

After Tyrone Johnson hit a layup to extend the Gamecocks' lead to ten, 39-29, the Bulldogs responded with five points as Rowsey assisted again on a Ubaru three pointer, then hit a layup of his own to make the score 39-34.  

Then the turnover fest really went into high gear.  Over the first six minutes of the second half, both teams combined for eight turnovers.  This allowed UNC Asheville to hang around in the game.  After hitting another three pointer, his fifth of the game, Rowsey hit two free throws to keep the Bulldogs within ten, 53-43.

But with about twelve and half minutes left in the game, Rowsey was then called for an offensive foul, his fourth.  Rowsey, who had twenty three points at the time,  was forced to go to the bench.  Once Rowsey left the game, UNC Asheville was done.

The Gamecocks took advantage, outscoring the Bulldogs 19-9 over the next seven minutes. This included a span of three plus minutes where the Bulldogs didn't score a point.  A Sindarius Thornwell dunk gave South Carolina a 72-52 lead with a little under six minutes left in the game.

Rowsey would re-enter the game and cut the lead to fourteen, 72-58 with his sixth three pointer of the game.  But the damage had already been done and the Bulldogs would not get closer the rest of the game.   In a high scoring second half, where both teams would combine for nearly one hundred points, the Gamecocks would go on for the 89-75 win.  

Despite the twenty turnovers on the game, there were some bright spots for South Carolina.   The team did have twenty one assists, six by Stroman and six by Thornwell.  The Gamecocks shot eight of seventeen from beyond the arc.  And there was a concerted effort to have balanced scoring, especially working the ball into the USC bigs.  Chatkevicus scored a career high seventeen points and had his first career double double with thirteen rebounds, shooting six of eleven from the field.   He also buried two three pointers, also the first two of his career.

Demetrius Henry had fifteen points on six of eleven shooting.  The Carolina bigs combined to shoot fourteen of twenty six from the field.   Tyrone Johnson, Thornwell and Duane Notice each had twelve points as all five starters scored in double figures.  McKie chipped in with eight points in only thirteen minutes of action.  Finally, USC shot nineteen of twenty six from the charity stripe.

Rowsey led all scorers with thirty points on ten of eighteen shooting from the field, including six of twelve from beyond the arc.  David Robertson was the only other Bulldog in double figures with fifteen as he hit five of nine shots from beyond the arc.   The rest of UNC Asheville shot an unseemly eight of thirty five from the field (twenty three percent).  Ubaru particularly had a rough night shooting two of eleven from the field, though he hit both of his three point attempts.

The Gamecocks next game is on the road vs. Marshall Sunday, December 1st.  It will be USC's first real road game of the season.  In fact it will be their first game outside the state of South Carolina after three home games and three neutral site games in Charleston.  This will be a good test for the Gamecocks as the Thundering Herd are in the top twenty five in the country in rebounding and assists.    South Carolina will again need balance and better ball handling to prevail.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Post Play the Difference as Bears Hold Off Gamecocks


Heading into Tuesday's Tipoff Marathon game against Baylor, South Carolina was looking for payback for a tough two point loss, 66-64 at the Bears' home court last season.   They certainly looked strong entering the contest, as they started their opening season with an 81-56 win over the Ospreys of North Florida last Friday night.  The Gamecocks had momentum, the home court advantage and revenge on their side for the nationally televised noon start on ESPN, which for many people in attendance was a long lunch break.

The problem was that they didn't have the frontcourt on their side to handle Baylor.

The Bears started out quickly with five straight points as Jonathan Motley, who would be a load inside all day for Baylor, scored the first two points of the game.   The Gamecocks would respond by outscoring the Bears 9-2 over the next four plus minutes.  Sindarius Thornwell's two free throws put South Carolina up 9-7.

The mini-spurts for both teams would continue throughout the first half.  After the Bears broke an eleven all tie with five straight points, the Gamecocks responded with seven straight of their own to take an 18-16 lead on a basket by Thornwell.

The Gamecocks would go up by as much as four points, 22-18.  But they would commit four turnovers in the last five and a half minutes of the first  half.  Baylor took advantage of this, outscoring South Carolina 12-5.  Motley again would be a difference maker, scoring a basket with two seconds left in the half to put the Bears up 30-27 at the halftime.

My good friend, Gary Bennett who, along with another good friend  of ours, Charley Adams, sat with me during the game.  Gary made the point that the South Carolina bigs barely had any post touches in the first half.   In fact in the first half, the South Carolina frontcourt scored only four points in the first half; two points on a tip in by Laimonas Chatkevicius of his own miss and two points on free throws by Michael Carrera.  Meanwhile, Motley by himself scored 13 points in the first twenty minutes.

During halftime, I went to see my good friend Mike Brodsky, known as @NUHF on Twitter, who came down from Boston for the game (and is somewhere having crab legs as he celebrates Northeastern's win over Florida State).  He was sitting with former Northeastern forward Kauri Black, who is going to South Carolina for his Masters.  Mike and I caught up on life, then messed with Defiantly Dutch's head by having Kauri take a picture of the Barone Bowl Buddies and posting it on Twitter.

The second half started with Frank Martin seemingly getting the memo from Gary Bennett to work the ball inside.  Carrera scored the first two Gamecock baskets on layups and South Carolina was within one, 32-31.  A little bit later, a Thornwell three pointer put the Gamecocks up one, 36-35 with a little under seventeen minutes left in the game.

It was the last lead South Carolina had on the day.  If Motley was not being a load inside for the Bears, it was Kenny Chery frustrating the Gamecocks from beyond the arc.   Chery's three pointer, one of three on the day for him, put the Bears up 38-36.   It was the start of a critical 15-6 run over the next four minutes.  A Taurean Prince three pointer capped the run and gave the Bears a 50-42 lead with 12:20 left.

The lead would still be eight, 57-49 with 7:44 left when Marcus Stroman nailed a three pointer to cut the deficit to five, 57-52.  The freshman Stroman would have another solid game for the Gamecocks, scoring ten points, grabbing five rebounds and adding three assists with only one turnover in twenty seven minutes of play.

Tyrone Johnson, who led all scorers with twenty one points, added a jumper and the lead was down to three, 57-54.  But the Baylor duo that had caused problems for South Carolina all day, Motley and Chery, would combine to score the game's next seven points and the Bears lead was now ten, 64-54 with about four minutes left.

The Gamecocks made one last run, scoring seven straight points.  A Stroman tip in cut the deficit to three, 64-61 with about two and a half minutes left.  Then South Carolina had a chance to tie, but Tyrone Johnson missed an open three pointer.   A Motley tip in off a rebound would be the final dagger, giving the Bears a 66-61 lead.

The Gamecocks would get as close as two the rest of the way, 67-65 on a Johnson layup with two seconds left.  But South Carolina could not steal the inbounds pass and was forced to foul Chery.  Chery scored the last of his twenty points, hitting two free throws for the 69-65 final score.

Johnson, Thornwell and Stroman combined for forty seven points on seventeen of thirty four from the field.  The problem was the rest of the Gamecocks shot five of twenty from the field.  The Baylor frontcourt outscored the South Carolina frontcourt 37-18.  Motley had seventeen of those points for the Bears, shooting six of nine from the field and hitting all five of his free throws.  Carrera had ten of the eighteen Gamecocks' frontcourt points.

As Gary, Charlie and I left Colonial Life Arena and headed back to our jobs at USC, we lamented the fact that the Gamecocks got little scoring from their forwards.  The bright side is that South Carolina has a terrific guard trio in Thornwell, Johnson and Stroman.   But the Gamecocks need to get their post players more involved.

The bright side is that this weekend's Charleston Classic will give South Carolina three opportunities to improve on that.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

New Season, New Focus


Yesterday's recap of South Carolina's Men's Basketball win over North Florida marks the start of the TENTH season for the College Hardwood. This blog started in December of 2005 and somehow, SOMEHOW, it makes it to a tenth season.

If you told me ten years ago that my site would outlive the Mid Majority, I would have told you "No way."  But the Mid Majority is no more.  As much as I lament the passing of the Mid Majority, there are other many independent blogs and web sites where you can get your daily fill of college basketball coverage, like terrific sites such as Big Apple Buckets and A Daly Dose of Hoops.

And the College Hardwood is also still here.

Over the past ten seasons we've seen CAA NCAA Tournament snubs, George Mason over Hofstra, turn into a Final Four appearance for the Patriots.  We've seen two NCAA Tournament Regionals in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the first, Steph Curry had his coming out party in wins over Gonzaga and Georgetown.   In the second, we saw Mercer make it through "the meat grinder", upsetting Duke in the second round in this season.  We saw VCU grow up before our very own eyes in the 2010-11 season, as they made their own run to the Final Four, which happily resulted in Jay Bilas eating crow.  And there were the fifty eight mid major games I covered in 2011-12 for my site and the Mid Majority.

We've seen a lot, but we've slowed down too.  We now make our home in South Carolina, which has been my place of residence for over two years.   The local trips to Hempstead (Hofstra), New Rochelle (Iona) and Stony Brook have been replaced by the Colonial Life Arena, Davidson, and Spartanburg (Wofford and USC Upstate), albeit not as much.

Life has changed here in the College Hardwood.  I coach both of my sons now in Little League Baseball and the season runs from February to November (two seasons really, spring and fall).   The posts are not as frequent as they used to be.  So if you're wondering why there was no recap of the first day of the NCAA regional from Raleigh, it's because I was coaching and umpiring baseball all day the next day.

Ten seasons is a long time covering college basketball.  This season, the College Hardwood wanted to do something different. As I mentioned, in 2011-12, The College Hardwood had covered fifty eight Division I men's games in a season in conjunction with the Mid Majority's 800 Games Played Project.  But I don't have the time to do that now.

So entering the tenth season, I was looking for some different.  After seven seasons of mid major basketball (men's and women's basketball) and the last two seasons of covering mostly South Carolina men's basketball, with some mid major basketball sprinkled in, I was looking for something else.   And I found it.

The last couple of years being down here in Columbia, South Carolina, I have become quite enamored with the play of the University of South Carolina's Women's Basketball team, coached by Dawn Staley.  The team's play mirrors their coach; a tough minded, extremely talented, defensive oriented team.

When you enter Colonial Life Arena, there are two extremely large posters by each entrance to the seats.  One is of Frank Martin, the Men's Basketball Coach and the other is of Dawn Staley.  Staley has done such an outstanding job that she has put the Women's Basketball team on equal footing with the men, regularly getting crowds over 10,000 (last night's game vs. USC was no exception).

And it's clear when you see the Women's team play of why their crowd's match the men's crowds.  I have seen several USC women's games at Colonial Life, and outside of the men's team's upset of Kentucky last season, the arena has been most alive at the women's games.  And it's easy to see why, in all those games, Staley's team exuded energy through stalwart defense, talent and solid team basketball principles.  

A couple of years ago, the Gamecocks played the Cardinal of Stanford in one of the best defensive college basketball games I ever saw.    Then there was last season's mid November game against my dear friend Tony Bozzella's Seton Hall Pirates, where the Gamecocks pulled away in the second half after only being ahead by two at halftime.   Finally, there was the "Think Pink" Breast Cancer Awareness game where South Carolina used its size advantage to down Florida.

Last season was a great season for South Carolina. The team won the SEC Regular Season Championship, then was the #1 seed in the West Region, where they lost in the Regional Semifinals to North Carolina,   But this season's team looks to be even better than the team from last season.

It's an experienced and talented team that returns all their starters from last season; Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijah Sessions, Alaina Coates and Elen Ibiam, along with key reserves Tina Roy and Asia Dozier.   What might put the Gamecocks over the top is the addition of A'ja Wilson, one of the most talented high school players in the country.  With all that talent, it is no surprise that South Carolina is ranked #2 in the nation currently.

So when I was given the chance to get USC Women's Basketball Tickets, I jumped at the chance.  And the Gamecocks started their season strong last night, rallying in the second half, winning 70-61. Coates and Mitchell each had eighteen points.  South Carolina played their usual strong defense, holding USC to thirty three percent from the field and out-rebounding the Trojans 42-33.

Alas, I wasn't there to witness their first game last night.  As I previously noted,  life has changed here in the College Hardwood over the past ten seasons and a little more than seven years ago, my younger son hadn't been born yet.  But on November 17, 2007, he was born and yesterday we held a birthday party for Jonny, which included a good number of his baseball teammates.   So Dawn Staley's team took a backseat last night.

But come this Thursday, November 20, I will be seating in my new season ticket seats, along with my partner in basketball mayhem, my color analyst, my older son Matthew.   I very much look forward to watching this Gamecocks Women's team play on a regular basis and providing coverage of the team on a regular basis.

For those of you I call "The Few, The Proud," aka the loyal readers of my site, don't worry. There will still be plenty of men's college basketball games that the College Hardwood will cover, including Tuesday's ESPN 24 Hours of Hoops Game between Baylor and South Carolina.

But in large part, the focus will be the South Carolina Women's Basketball Team.  This season's motto is "One", which is a very accurate description of how they play.

Perhaps "One" will also mean at the end of the season "One" as in "One National Championship".

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gamecocks Answer Lots of Questions By Beating Ospreys

The end of last season showed promise for South Carolina.  They won four out of their last six games, including a major upset win over eventual national runner-up Kentucky, plus two wins in the SEC Tournament, one of which likely ended Arkansas' hopes for a NCAA at large bid.   For a team that only went 5-13 in the SEC, the end of the season provided a glimmer of hope for the 2014-15 season.

That glimmer of hope looked more like a large ray of sunshine at Colonial Life Arena as the Gamecocks defeated the North Florida Ospreys 81-56 in the opening game of the college basketball season last night for both teams.  And that ray of sunshine was needed due to an unusually cold night in Columbia, South Carolina thanks to the Polar Vortex cold front.

The first question heading into last night for the Gamecocks was "Who is going to replace last season's leading scorer, Brenton Williams?"  Williams, who averaged just about fifteen points per game for the Gamecocks, graduated, leaving what appeared to be a gaping hole in the scoring column for South Carolina.

The answer after last night was "Everyone".

First, the start of the game showed how important Tyrone Johnson is to this South Carolina team. Johnson, who missed most of last season due to injury, came out of the gate quickly, hitting two quick layups as the Gamecocks would never trail in the game.   Johnson would have a solid night with twelve points, five rebounds, four assists and most importantly, zero turnovers.

The Ospreys would tie the game at 6-6.   But South Carolina would respond with a 19-4 run over the next six and a half minutes.  Duane Notice buried a three pointer to put the Gamecocks up 25-10 with 11:21 left in the half.  Notice would score eight points on the evening, one of nine players to have between six and twelve points on the evening.

It was at this point where the Gamecocks of early last season would have struggled with prosperity, not being able to put away a mid major team.   Against teams like Florida International (down three at half before winning) and USC Upstate (a six point loss), the Gamecocks would look good for a few minutes, then just unravel.

And when North Florida hit two three pointers in a row, the second by Trent Mackey, to cut the lead to nine, 25-16 with nine and a half minutes left in the half,  fans had to have this running through their mind "Are we going to see another USC Upstate game?"

The answer was an emphatic "NO!"

The Gamecocks would answer with a 13-0 run over the next six minutes.  Laimonas Chatkevicius would cap the scoring with two free throws to make the score 38-16. Chatkevicius did his part, chipping in with eleven points in only seventeen minutes of game action.

Finally, the biggest question Gamecocks' fans likely had entering last night was "How good is freshman Marcus Stroman"?

The answer...really good.

Stroman would play twenty five minutes last night, most of them at the point guard position for the Gamecocks.  He scored his first career basket on a sweet jumper during the first Gamecocks' run to make the score 20-8.  Stroman would then assist on the next two baskets.  Stroman would have six points and six assists on the night and just like Johnson, he also had zero turnovers.

But the stats didn't do Stroman justice.  Watching the game, he played like a steady senior, not a flashy frosh.  He showed his quickness when he had to, but he was more content running a smooth offense, an offense that actually moved really well without the ball.   Finally, he showed his defensive prowess, forcing a five second call on the Ospreys' best player, Dallas Moore, a talented sophomore guard who led all scorers last night with twenty one points.

The final stats showed the balance and depth South Carolina need to overcome the loss of a leading scorer.  As aforementioned, nine players had between six and twelve points on the night.  Johnson and Demetrius Henry were the leading scorers for South Carolina with twelve points each.  Nine players also played fifteen or more minutes.

It didn't matter that the second leading scorer from last season, Sindarius Thornwell had less than half his average from last season, scoring only six points.  The team as a whole shot fifty one percent from the field and seventy three percent from the line (19 of 26).   The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Ospreys 42-28 and had nineteen assists and only nine turnovers.

It was a very nice win to start the season.  The team was so solid that Frank Martin didn't seem to be all that upset as only Frank can be at times.  The true test will be when South Carolina hosts Baylor on Tuesday at Noon, part of the ESPN Twenty Four Hours of Hoops.

But if last night was any indicator, the Gamecocks have the answers to pass the test.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

For Dayton and The Mid Majority, It's Memphis in the Meantime



You say you're gonna get your act together
Gonna take it out on the road
But if I don't get outta here pretty soon
My head's going to explode

Sure I like country music
I like mandolins
But right now I need a telecaster
Through a vibro-lux turned up to ten

Lets go to Memphis in the meantime baby
Memphis in the meantime girl

"Memphis in the Meantime" by John Hiatt

For the past ten college basketball seasons, the Mid Majority has been the definitive mid major college basketball site.  The brainchild of Kyle Whelliston, the Mid Majority has chronicled the mid major college basketball teams that take up the majority of the 351 Division I College Basketball teams.   Over these past ten seasons, we have learned so much about the fabric of these mid major schools, the small towns that often comprise these schools and even the famous arenas that have a haunting quality to it.

For seven of those seasons, Kyle did the writing and traveling across the country.   His writing was beautiful, insightful, historical and even gave mid major college basketball a sense of tragedy.  Every season ends in a loss, at least in the case of the mid major team.   There was hope with the two Butler National Championship game teams.  But both Bulldogs' teams came up valiantly short against Duke and UConn.

Due to the constant grind of the road, Kyle took a permanent break from writing.  Season Eight of the Mid Majority was the 800 Games Project, where a group of writers would get together and the goal was to write 800 story recaps of mid major team games.   I was one of those writers and we made it, writing 809 different game recaps and over 900 stories total.  It also gave me a chance to bond with my older son, Matthew, who went to thirty three of the fifty eight mid major games I covered (yes, one recap didn't make it in. It was still fifty eight).

In fact, the three top writers as far as number of recaps; Matt Cayeula, Ian McCormick and I, all now live in South Carolina.  We got together for a brief reunion at the Big South Championship.

Season Nine was a contest involving teams of writers and if we hadn't learned from Season Eight, Season Nine taught us that Ray Curren is one hell of a writer, along with being an ironman covering games.   Season Ten has featured mostly Curren's terrific articles, along with the solid work of Kraig Williams and Matt Konrad.

As we entered the 2014 NCAA Tournament, for the first time since Indiana State was a  #1 seed in 1979, there was a true hope that a mid major team would finally break through that glass ceiling and win a National Championship.  This time, the mid major team was not an underdog, but a proverbial favorite.  Wichita State, a Final Four team from last season, went through the non conference season, the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and the Missouri Valley Tournament undefeated.   The Shockers stood at 34-0 entering the NCAA Tournament and earned a #1 seed in the Midwest.

But this season, the NCAA Selection Committee, led by Ron Wellman, a man so notorious in the college basketball world that Wake Forest fans created a now well known site to voice their displeasure about their basketball team, decided to stack the deck on Wichita State's bracket.  In fact, I wrote about Wellman's incredibly bad decision to fire Dino Gaudio long before the BuzzOut website appeared.

Well, Wellman and friends made the Midwest the toughest bracket in the tournament, as it featured three of the Final Four teams from last season; Wichita State, Michigan, last year's national runner-up and Louisville, the defending National Champion and who was currently the #5 team in the nation as a four seed, which boggled the minds of many, including Rick Pitino.   The cherry on top was making Kentucky, the preseason #1 team and a Top 25 team for most of the season, an eight seed.   Several basketball media pundits nicknamed the Midwest Region "The Group of Death", which is known in World Cup seeding terms as the toughest bracket.

After crushing Cal Poly in the second round, the Shockers met the Wildcats in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.  And in what many thought was a Final Four quality game, the Wildcats barely defeated the Shockers 78-76 in a truly terrific contest.  Both teams hit shot fifty four percent or higher and each team hit twenty seven field goals (it came down to a couple of more free throws on Kentucky's part). The outcome was heartbreaking to those mid major fans who had hoped Wichita State would be "THE Mid Major Team".

But in an unusual case of irony, one mid major school is still left in the tournament.  That mid major school is part of the core, the very fabric of the Mid-Majority.

Dayton.

Dayton has hosted the Play In Game(s), or PIG as called by Mid Majority, since 2001 when the NCAA decided to keep the thirty four at large berths for the Men's Tournament after the Mountain West was formed (unlike the Women's Tournament, where they cut it down to thirty three).  Dayton now hosts the First Four, the first four games of the NCAA Tournament, since it is now sixty eight teams.

Dayton fans have long supported their hometown school Flyers, but they have supported the PIG and now the First Four as well in droves.   In fact, the South Park Tavern has long been the host of the Mid Majority Pig Party.  I had a chance to have dinner there when I went to see Hofstra played Wright State in a nationally televised 2011 BracketBuster game.  The cheeseburger pizza is really good.

I wrote about Dayton in "The Road to Wright State", in which I talked about how the economy has hurt this proud city.  When I visited the absolutely awesome United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, I met a volunteer staff member there named Jeffery.  He talked about companies have moved out of the area and that GM had recently shut a truck plant down.  Jeffery was worried that Dayton would become "unpopulated".

I have never gone to a Dayton game or been in Dayton's arena.  But the nearby Wright State fans at the Nutter Center were very friendly to me that day, despite being a Hofstra fan.  You can see the people in Dayton take great pride in their college basketball and I can only imagine what it is like at a game at Dayton Arena.

Based on having watched the Flyers over the past seasons, as well as the musings of my friend and Dayton grad, Julia Prior, the Flyers have been known to break hearts the last few seasons.  Under former head coach Brian Gregory (now at Georgia Tech) and current coach Archie Miller, the Flyers would start out strong in the beginning of the season, then seemingly self destruct on its own, especially in the closing minutes of crucial games.

The past few seasons showed that.  The 2012-13 team started the season 10-4, but would go 7-10 the rest of the way.  The 2011-12 team started 14-5 overall, including 4-1 in the A-10.  The 2011-12 Flyers had won the Old Spice Classic and even knocked off nationally ranked Alabama.  But those Flyers would lose four straight games, finish only 9-7 in conference and then lose a heart-breaker 70-69 to arch-rival Xavier in the A-10 tournament. In that game, the Flyers were up ten at the half, only to lose on a jumper with 21 seconds left.

The Flyers started this season 12-3, including wins over nationally ranked #11 Gonzaga, California, Georgia Tech and Iona,  They also lost a tough one to Baylor in the Old Spice Classic by a point, but finished third in the Tournament when they beat the Bears.  You could see the team is talented with Jordan Siebert, Devin Oliver, Dyshawn Pierre and Bill Raferty's favorite, Scootchie Smith.  I saw several of their games on TV early in the season, including the entire Old Spice Tournament.  They went ten deep, pressed like anything and collectively, they can bury lots of three pointers.

But given their team's past history, Dayton fans must have been waiting for the other shoe to drop come A-10 conference season.

It did.

The Flyers started the A-10 conference season 1-5, with their lone win over lowly Fordham. It looked like once again, a talented Flyers team would come up short of their goals.

But not this time.

The Flyers would win nine of their final ten Atlantic 10 Conference games, including wins over George Washington, St Joseph's, UMass and St. Louis.  They would win their first round game over Fordham.  With twenty three wins overall and their solid non conference schedule wins, all they needed was to get to the A-10 Semifinals at the Barclays' Center and they were likely in the NCAA Tournament.

But Dayton would lose a heartbreaker to the eventual A-10 Tourney Champions, St Joseph's 70-67.

Come Selection Sunday, Flyers' fans were likely nervous, wondering if they would be the sixth A-10 team in the tournament.  St Joe's had the automatic bid.  St Louis, VCU and UMass were locks, given they were all nationally ranked for part of the season. George Washington, given their record and standing, was also a likely team in the Tournament (and they did make it as a #9 seed).

Dayton did make it, getting an eleven seed and a first round game against intrastate rival Ohio State, a team that has been "avoiding" the Flyers for a long time.  Don't ever say the Selection Committee doesn't have a twisted sense of humor or irony.

Still many pundits and coaches didn't think Dayton deserved to make it.  Coach K stated "I’ll get in trouble probably for saying it. Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference.  I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through."

Meat grinder would become a popular sarcastic Twitter reference for Duke's quick tournament exit at the hands of Mercer and the ACC's performance in the tournament overall.

I don't do brackets on my own anymore.  But I have a dear friend who asks me to do her bracket the past couple of years and I can't say no.   So in her bracket this season, I picked Dayton to go to the Sweet 16.

Yes, I picked them to beat Ohio State and then their likely next opponent Syracuse.

I just thought the Flyers were more than talented and quick enough to beat both teams.  Plus I thought Dayton could shoot over Syracuse's zone.

Sure enough, the Flyers beat the Buckeyes 60-59 in the first round on a last second layup by Vee Sanford (cue some Sanford and Son music).  Then despite a low scoring first half, Dayton held Syracuse without a three pointer for the entire contest.  Despite the vaunted, Orange Zone, the Flyers would go seven from sixteen from beyond the arc and defeat Syracuse 55-53.  Dayton had just beat one of Coach K's meat grinder ACC teams.

For the first time since 1984, the Flyers were in the Sweet 16.  They were the last Mid Major team in the field.  And all of the Mid Majority's fans, like Julia Prior, so proud of their accomplishment, put their hopes on them.

The Flyers now faced the Cardinal of Stanford, another double digit seed, at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.  The fact that the Flyers, the team that represents the very core of the Mid Majority and the PIG, was not lost on a certain someone.

Kyle has gone to Memphis and wrote a Mid Majority article about Dayton.

The Flyers received their nickname from the plane the Wright Brothers successfully built and flew in 1905.  Much like this team, the Wright Brothers didn't give up, the Flyer was third iteration of their prototype plane.

And sure enough, on Thursday night, many pundits thought Stanford's size, which had allowed the Cardinal to upset both New Mexico and Kansas, would be too much for the Flyers.  But the Flyers' didn't give up. It turned out to be Dayton's pressure, speed and depth that was too much for Stanford as the Flyers impressively handled the Cardinal 82-72.

So for the first time since 1984, the Dayton Flyers are in the Elite Eight.   And with the win, Julia Prior booked a trip to Memphis to see her beloved Flyers play for the chance to make the Final Four. Their task is now their most daunting one; defeat the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Florida Gators.   Nate Silver, he of the famous Five Thirty Eight site and his 2012 Presidential prognostications, gives Dayton a one percent chance of winning the NCAA Championship.

My guess is back in 1905, people observing the Wright Brothers probably gave them a one percent chance of getting a plane to fly.

We all know what happened.

Maybe it's poetic that the team that could possibly break the Mid Major National Championship glass ceiling is named the Flyers, a team that can fly through that glass ceiling.  It would be a fitting end to ten seasons of the Mid Majority.  The season ending without a loss, but a victory.

But the task, as noted, is a daunting one.  The Flyers must beat the Gators, then win two more games against equally as tough competition that Florida will provide later today.   But then again, very few thought that Dayton would beat Ohio State, Syracuse or even Stanford.  The Flyers have broke a lot of brackets.

The Wright Brothers broke a glass ceiling over hundred years ago. Maybe it's time another Flyer breaks another one.

Go Dayton Flyers!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Madness Hasn't Been Kind to the Regular Season Champ

Coastal Carolina Winning 2014 Big South Championship
One thing has become permanently clear in these two weeks coming up to Selection Sunday this season.  If you're the regular season conference champion, chances are you haven't likely fared too well in your conference tournament.    With Louisiana Tech losing to Tulsa last night in the Conference USA championship, that means now twelve mid major level conference regular season champions will have now have an automatic NIT bid because they lost in their conference tournament; Louisiana Tech, Florida Gulf Coast, Boston University, Vermont, Belmont, Robert Morris, UC Irvine, Iona, Green Bay, Utah Valley, High Point and Davidson.  If Georgia State loses in the Sun Belt Conference championship today, it will make it an even Baker's Dozen.

Robert-Morris-LIU 2011 NEC Championship
But it's not been just the mid major conference tournaments where the number #1 seed has gone down.  Villanova and St Louis, both #1 seeds, went down in the quarterfinals in the Big East and A-10 tournaments respectively.  Kansas lost in the semis to Iowa State in the Big 12.  Cincinnati lost in the AAC semifinals to UConn.   Yesterday, San Diego State lost to New Mexico in the Mountain West finals.  Arizona jeopardized a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by losing to UCLA in the Pac12 finals.

Now for all those regular season championship non mid major level teams that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the conference tournament didn't mean too much to them, since they were all guaranteed a bid to the NCAA Tournament.  Still, it likely affected several team's seedings in the NCAA Tournament, especially St Louis.

2012 CAA Tournament - George Mason v. VCU
As of this morning, only eight regular season championship teams won their conference tournament and got the automatic NCAA bid; Wichita State (Missouri Valley), Gonzaga (WCC), NC Central (MEAC), Weber State (Big Sky), Southern (SWAC), North Dakota State (Summit), Delaware (CAA) and Western Michigan (MAC).  A ninth team that won the regular season championship, Harvard in the Ivy League, got an automatic bid since the Ivy doesn't have a post conference tournament.

So why has it been so difficult for regular season champions across the board to win their postseason conference tournaments?   Well, there are several reasons.
  1. Complacency on the Non Mid Major Level - Let's be honest, it's hard for some Power Conference teams that have a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament to maintain their focus and level of play.   It's also difficult for those teams when playing similarly talented teams on that level.  Case in point, Villanova and St Louis.   Both teams played decent opponents in the quarterfinal rounds of their tournament;Seton Hall and St. Bonaventure. Both the Pirates and the Bonnies needed to run the table to win, so they went all out and caught the Wildcats and Billikens napping.  It happens.
  2. Quality of Opponent - On the power conference level, you have ranked teams playing each other in the semifinals, even sometimes in the quarterfinals in the conference tournament.  So there certainly is very little difference between Kansas and Iowa State, Cincinnati and UConn, San Diego State and New Mexico, and Arizona and UCLA.   Cincinnati only received the #1 seed, because they won a coin flip vs. Louisville, who ended up winning the AAC.

    This has also been true for some of the smaller conference tournaments.  Florida Gulf Coast, the #1 seed, lost the Atlantic Sun championship game on its home court to Mercer, the #2 seed.   The Bears were returning the favor from a year ago when the Eagles won on Mercer's home court in the A-Sun championship.  Boston U, the #1 seed, lost the Patriot Conference Championship on their home court to the #2 seed, American.  Finally, Iona lost to the #2 seed Manhattan in the MAAC Conference Tournament final, a team they split with during the regular season.
  3. "Neutral Site" Tournaments - This is where many of the mid major regular season champions got tripped up.  There are a good number of mid major level tournaments that are hosted on "neutral" sites for likely monetary reasons.   In one case in particular, the America East, the first two rounds conference tournament has been held on one of the conference member sites (the championship has been held on the higher seed's home court).  In this season and last season, it was hosted by Albany.  And in the last two seasons, Albany has knocked off the #1 seed in the semifinals (2013 - Stony Brook, 2014 - Vermont).  The Great Danes have used this momentum in both seasons to win the conference tournament, knocking off Vermont and Stony Brook on those school's respective home courts.

    The Big South also has a "neutral site" conference tournament that's hosted by one of its schools, Coastal Carolina, with a little help from the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.  High Point lost on a buzzer beater in the quarterfinals to Winthrop, which opened the door for the host Chanticleers to win the Big South Tournament.

    Once conference that used to be held in Albany and was moved to a true neutral site, due to concerns about Siena's home court advantage, is the MAAC.  The MAAC Tournament has been held in Springfield, "MAAChusetts" the last couple of seasons, which is where Iona lost to Manhattan in the championship this year.  However, attendance has been so bad in Springfield, the MAAC is considering other sites, including bring the tournament back to Albany.

    Other conference tournaments also use true neutral sites.  Asheville hosted the Southern Conference Tournament, where Davidson got knocked off by Western Carolina in the semifinals.  The WAC hosted their tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, which is where Utah Valley lost to Idaho in the conference semifinals.   Finally the Big West was held in Anaheim, California, where Cal Poly used the momentum from knocking off #1 seed UC Irvine to beat CS Northridge in the Big West Championship.

    Many people, including myself, don't think neutral site championships are fair on the mid major level. It's one thing where Power Six conferences or next level conferences like the Mountain West and A-10 can hold neutral site tournaments based on crowd attendance (it even works with the Missouri Valley to a lesser extent).  But at the Southern, WAC or Big West levels, a neutral site doesn't really draw a large crowd to justify a neutral site.  And in the case of the skewered America East host school "neutral site" tournament, it certainly doesn't justify that.

    To me and others, it doesn't reward all the work that regular season championship teams have done to finish in first and it also often doesn't put the best conference team in the tournament.   That's why I think the Ivy League has no post season tournament.  The regular season champion that was consistently best all season earns the automatic bid.

    It's my opinion that mid major conferences either go to an Atlantic Sun/NEC based tournament, where the higher seeds host the conference games throughout the various levels of the tournament or move to a Horizon League Tournament, where the #1 seed hosts the first two rounds of the tournament and the championship is held on the highest remaining seed's court.  Thus teams will be rewarding for a regular season accomplishment.  But...
     
  4. Even With Home Court Advantage, Some Schools Can't Stand Prosperity - Even with the home court advantage, four regular season champions fell by the wayside in their conference tournament.  Green Bay, the Horizon League Regular Season Champion, again lost to Milwaukee on its home court in the conference semifinals.  The Phoenix lost at home to the Panthers earlier in the season.   As noted, Florida Gulf Coast lost at home to Mercer in the A-Sun finals.  Finally, Robert Morris lost at home in the NEC finals to Mount St Mary's.
2011 CAA Tournament - VCU v. George Mason
It's been the craziest conference tournament season I can ever remember.  And as a result, a lot of NIT hopefuls will be now scrambling for bids to the CIT and CBI, Defiantly Dutch's favorite tournament.  This season has shown, now more than ever, with rare exceptions, the regular season doesn't mean a thing.

I love conference tournaments, especially considering all the years I have been to the CAA Tournament, let alone NEC and Big South championship games.  Some of my favorite memories have come from sitting in a usually cold Richmond Coliseum, especially the 2011 and 2012 #CAAHoops semifinals.  There's nothing better than a sold out, raucous crowd during a conference tournament.  I will always remember fondly sitting in the Blackbirds' student section during LIU's overtime win over Robert Morris in the 2011 NEC Tournament final.

But sometimes, on the fairness level of conference tournaments and regular season champions, I think the Ivy League knows best.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Coastal Carolina Wins the Big South (Recap of Winthrop v. CCU in Big South Championship Game)

The day after a very successful Trenholm Little League Opening Day Ceremony, I ventured out and made the 2 1/2 hour trip from Columbia to Conway to see a guaranteed state of South Carolina team in the NCAA Tournament as Conway's own Coastal Carolina "hosted" Rock Hill's Winthrop in the Big South Championship game on Sunday.

I have to give credit to my fellow Mid Majority 800 Games Played writer Matt Cayuela for getting me out to the gorgeous HTC Center on the stunning campus of CCU on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  He had tried to get me out to the Big South Championship last season, but as I noted in my previous article, I needed to coach my older son at baseball practice that day.  This season, both my teams practice on Saturdays, so Sundays are now free and I can't pass up an automatic bid championship to the NCAA Tournament.

As I parked my car in a spot marked "Visitor" in front of what might have been the Admissions building on campus near to the HTC Center, I was struck by the Palmetto trees, the water fountain in front of the HTC Center and the general newness of the campus.  As I got up to the entrance of the HTC Center, there was a battle of the pep bands going on with a nice crowd gathered to soak in the music.

After I went to will call and got to my seat in Section 107, Row I, seat 7, I was quickly greeted by Matt and Ian McCormick, "The OmniPresence of South Carolina Hoops".   Matt, Ian and I were the top three 800 Games Played writers as far as number of recaps and since I moved to Columbia in August 2012, all three of us are South Carolina residents.   We caught up for a few minutes and we posed together for a picture.  Matt, known as Myrtle Beach Happy Hour on Twitter (@MBHH), since he reviews Myrtle Beach restaurants and bars, went back to his seat on the other side of the arena.  Since I had an extra ticket due to my older son wanting to stay home, Ian joined me for the championship game.

The section we were sitting in was behind the Winthrop bench, near the side of their basket with the band, cheerleaders and mascot.  The person who took our picture happened to be Devin Prescott's father.  Prescott is a freshman forward that comes off the bench for the Eagles. Prescott's mom was also there and his parents were featured twice in the Kiss Cam segment feature during a media timeout.

Big South has an interesting way of player introductions.   Instead of announcing each team's starters, they announce a starter for each team, one for Winthrop, one for Coastal Carolina.  It makes it seem like a heavyweight match-up and it's pretty cool.

The Chanticleers came out pretty strong led by guard Warren Gillis, their second leading scorer on the season, who scored the first four points of the game.  Coastal Carolina would extend the lead to 12-6 on a three pointer by Josh Cameron, the team's third leading scorer on the season.

But Winthrop would respond with three pointers from "Keon Squared", as Keon Johnson and Keon Moore hit from beyond the arc to tie the game at twelve.  After Cameron hit two free throws to put the Chanticleers up two, 16-14, Andre Smith joined the Eagles long distance club, nailing his own three pointer to give Winthrop their first lead, 17-16.

After Joab Jerome hit one of two free throws to put the Eagles up 18-16, the Chanticleers responded with a 12-0 run over the next five minutes.  Cameron was responsible for seven of the twelve points, including a three pointer.  His two point jumper capped the spurt and put Coastal Carolina up 28-18.

By this time, the HTC Center was raucously loud.  So loud that when Winthrop Head Coach Pat Kelsey furiously tried to call timeout, none of his players, who were setting up a play on the other end of the court, nor the referees could hear him.  Finally, one referee turned around and notice Kelsey frantically giving the timeout signal and gave him the timeout.

Whatever Kelsey said in the timeout worked, as the Eagles scored the next six points.  Prescott capped the mini spurt with an emphatic dunk off an assist by Jerome.  The dunk brought a roar of approval from his parents, as well as the rest of the Winthrop fans and cut the Chanticleers lead to four, 28-24.

But again, Coastal Carolina would respond, scoring the last six points of the half, including four by Gillis.  His layup put the Chanticleers up ten at halftime, 34-24.  Gillis had ten points and four assists in the first twenty minutes of the game.

Halftime at the HTC Center is full of fun.  First, there was the Winthrop students vs. the Coastal Carolina students in a game of "Musical Chairs basketball".  The student contestants dribble a ball walking around the chairs while the music is playing.  When it stops, whatever basket they are facing, they must dribble to the basket and hit a layup, then dribble back to get an open chair. Two students are eliminated at a time. It came down to two CCU students and one just barely beat the other to win the game.



If that was just it, that would be pretty good halftime entertainment.  But the Coastal Carolina games are also known for "The Interlude", which is about a two minute dance segment towards the end of halftime, where the entire crowd goes through various dance routines while the PA plays the musical interlude.  It's fun, entertaining and inventive.

The second half started with Winthrop's Jerome hitting a three point play to cut the lead to seven, 34-27.  But Coastal Carolina's leading scorer, freshman Elijah Wilson, who sat most of the first half due to foul trouble, came alive and started another CCU run. Wilson first tipped in a miss of his own layup, then buried a three pointer off another Gillis assist.  After Gillis hit one of two free throws, Cameron hit a layup to finish an 8-0 spurt and give the Chanticleers a commanding 42-27 lead.

Pat Kelsey could not wait for the Under 16 media and called a timeout.  It seemed to work as "Keon Squared" went to work with Moore making a jumper, then Johnson burying a three pointer to cut the Chanticleers lead back to ten, 42-32.  But the Eagles could not break the lead into single digits, staying within eleven, 47-36 on a Prescott jumper.

Looking to put the game away, CCU outscored Winthrop 10-3 over the next three minutes.  Gillis, as he had been all game, was in the middle of the spurt with a layup and two assists.  Wilson's jumper made it 57-39 with 9:42 left.  The Chanticleers would basically hold serve over the next three and half plus minutes.  A Cameron layup put CCU up seventeen, 61-44 with about six minutes left.

I turned to Ian and said this is about over, Ian called a run for Winthrop.  Sure enough, the Eagles would score the next eight straight points.  Smith's three pointer cut the lead to ten, 61-51 which resulted in the Winthrop section's loudest ovation of the night.   After Johnson hit one of two free throws, the CCU lead was finally down to single digits again, 61-52 with 4:36 left, plenty of time to complete the comeback.

But the host team, or better yet, the home team would not allow that to happen. Cliff Ellis' team would score six straight points, capped by a Gillis dunk, and the Chanticleers were up fifteen, 67-52 with 2:45 left.  The CCU students started to swell closer to the basket in their section, knowing the end was near.  The Eagles would get only as close as thirteen the rest of the way.  After Brandon Vega hit two free throws for Winthrop to cut the lead back to fifteen, Gillis and company ran out the final thirty five seconds.  The buzzer sounded and the CCU students rushed the court as the Chanticleers won the Big South Tournament 67-52.

Gillis was the man for Coastal Carolina on Sunday.  The Tournament MVP scored twenty three points on nine of fifteen shooting and added seven assists. Cameron added nineteen points while Badou Diagne sneakily added seventeen points and Wilson had twelve points for the Chanticleers, who shot fifty eight percent from the field.   Moore led the Eagles with nineteen points and Jerome was the only other double figure scorer for Winthrop with thirteen points.  CCU held Winthrop to thirty two percent shooting from the field.

Coastal Carolina won their first league championship since 1993 and clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.  With their four top scorers on the day returning next season and the HTC Center hosting another Big South Tournament next year, its final year of a three year deal, the Chanticleers could very well be dancing again.

But as the students celebrated mid court, all they could think about is the now.  And that means a NCAA Tournament game in less than two weeks.  That's what March Madness is all about.