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.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Change in Life, A Change in Priorities

Two years ago this weekend, I was in Richmond, Virginia, sitting on press row as I was "covering" the 2012 CAA Tournament for my site as well as for the Mid Majority's 800 Games Played Project.  The CAA Tournament was responsible for ten of my fifty nine Division One games I covered that season.

To me, I wasn't "covering" the CAA Tournament, I was really more soaking in the CAA Tournament, a part of a sold out Richmond Coliseum crowd.  It was the year after three CAAHoops teams made the NCAA Tournament, fulfilling the hashtag dream of #3Bids4CAA. I was there among good friends, either super fans, bloggers or writers;Defiantly Dutch, aka my "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" partner in crime, my good friend Jerry Beach, Mike Brodsky, Joe Suhoski, Tom Block, GheorgetheBlog, Batogato,VCUPav, Mason Fanatic, Geoff Sorensen, Josh Verlin, Matt Cerilli, Rob Canady and Brian Mull.

It was one of the most awesome, fun, rewarding experiences of my life.

Two years later on a Friday night in Columbia, South Carolina, instead of watching my alma mater, Hofstra face UNCW on "Pillow Fight Friday" in the first round of the CAA Tournament, I spent five hours helping clean up a rain mired Little League Field for an Opening Day Ceremony that next day.  I ended up soaking in dirty rain water as several of my fellow Trenholm Little League board members, volunteers and I dried off the field to get it ready for over three hundred kids to parade around it on Saturday.

It was one of the most awesome, fun, rewarding experiences of my life.

So what changed?  Isn't this The College Hardwood?  Shouldn't I be in Baltimore, Maryland, among several of my CAAHoops friends to take in the first CAA Tournament outside of Richmond in like forever?

Life changed.

In August, 2012, as my loyal readers, aka "The Few, the Proud, the Followers of my site" know, I accepted a position at the University of South Carolina Law School.   The job has been terrific and I have never been happier than I am today in both my job and my life outside my job.

But I didn't fully comprehend that moving down south also results in seasons becoming longer and starting sooner.   Well, actually I sort of did know.  The main reason I am down here is because my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, signed off on coming down here.  Despite moving away from several dear school friends, all of them who I coached in Little League up in North Bellmore, Matthew was looking forward to playing baseball ten months of the year.

And that really is the baseball season here.  From February to November, you are practicing and playing baseball.  Spring Season starts here the first week of February with our baseball evaluations and draft.  And you are playing till fall ball till mid November.  Literally, my year of baseball ended on November 14 when we lost in the winner take all Minors Fall League Championship game.

Up in New York, Little League baseball season doesn't start until late April.  Thus, you can fully involve yourself in March Madness. You can spend your first weekend in March from 2003 to 2012 going to the CAA Tournament in Richmond, Virginia when you live in New York (I missed the 2010 CAA Tournament due to my younger son's kidney surgery).

The past two years, I have spent my first weekend in March being a part of Opening Day at Trenholm Park in Forest Acres, South Carolina.  And there's no other way I would rather spend it.

As much as I love college basketball, I love coaching Little League even more.  I was coaching Matthew in Little League in North Bellmore, New York for two years before I moved down here.  Now I am coaching both Matthew and his younger brother, Jonathan, and have been since spring of 2013.  I am the head coach of a Jonathan's tee ball team and the co head-coach of Matthew's minors team.  And when I am not coaching, I am umpiring, scorekeeping or announcing Little League games.

As much as I "experienced" live college basketball, I am experiencing baseball even more.  And it's not just me, it's also my wife Michelle.  Chelle is my bench coach on my tee ball team and has been for the past three seasons.  She keeps the kids organized and ready to bat in the dugout, she assists with practices, she even made the banners for both my teams for the parade on Saturday.  Chelle has even advised me on my tee ball practices this season.  And in her spare time, she even works the canteen at Trenholm Park when I am not coaching/umpiring etc.  Plus, she makes one hell of a baseball banner.

Baseball has very much become a family affair for us.   Just about all my friends down here are from Little League and it's a family affair for them too.  Little League baseball has now become my passion, above college basketball.  And it's something I truly share with my entire family

Last March, after Opening Day on Saturday, I still had a chance to go to the Sunday Semifinals of the 2013 CAA Tournament in Richmond, likely the last ever CAA tournament held in Richmond.  Matthew had Coach Pitch Baseball practice that next day on Sunday.  I was an assistant coach on his team, but I figured I could miss one practice and make the trip up to Richmond.  I asked Matthew if he would be OK if I went to the CAA Tournament and missed practice.

My college basketball loving son, who accompanied me on many games during the 2011-12 college basketball season, thought for a moment and said "Dad, I want you at practice there coaching me."  It's all he had to say.

And that was enough for me.

So I missed the 2013 CAA Tournament.  And Saturday, while my alma mater played gallantly but lost to Delaware in the second round of the CAA Tournament in Baltimore, I was at Trenholm Park, on a beautiful sunny day with 300 plus kids, their parents, local dignitaries and guests like University of South Carolina Hall of Famer and current Gamecock football announcer Todd Ellis.  Our Opening Day ceremony was fantastic and was even covered by local media.

That doesn't mean The College Hardwood is going away any time soon or that I no longer will cover college basketball in March.   I will be at the Big South Conference championship game today and I will be attending the second and third regional rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Raleigh on March 21 and 23.  You can be sure that I will be writing about both of those.

It's just there has been a change of priorities.  And often, that's a good thing.

Cheryl Crow was right.  "A Change Will Do You Good".

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gamecocks Find Their Place By Upsetting Wildcats

The SEC has long been known as a football conference.  Despite all the other sports that SEC teams play, football is king here with the fans and the media.  No matter what time of season, including as we happily near March Madness,  football dominates the Columbia, South Carolina all sports radio station airwaves on a daily basis. To most folks in SEC country, there are three certainties in life; death, taxes and a SEC Team in the BCS National Championship game.

But one SEC team has been, for as long as anyone alive can remember, a power in college basketball, not just in the conference, but on the national scene.  From Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, and Eddie Sutton, to Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, to John Calipari today,  the Kentucky Wildcats have been the king of the jungle in the SEC and often in college basketball.

Sure, current #1 Florida has won two national champions in a row under coach Billy Donovan.  But Big Blue is still the team by what all other teams measure up to in the SEC.   The large UK fan base extends across the country, including a certain women's basketball head coach's daughter in New Jersey (Hi, Sam Bozzella). 

Kentucky has the most all time wins in NCAA play.  The Wildcats have won eight national championships and have appeared in the NCAA Tournament fifty two times.  Big Blue Nation has countless number of players that are currently in the NBA or have played in the NBA.  And they also have one major celebrity alum, Ashley Judd, who looks incredible in a Kentucky Wildcat jersey.

At one time, the University of South Carolina was a ACC basketball power under Coach Frank McGuire.   McGuire's talented teams would fill up the Carolina Coliseum.  Under McGuire, USC had a stretch of four consecutive years of NCAA Tournament appearances and several Gamecock players went on to NBA careers.

Since McGuire has left, the Gamecocks basketball program has struggled to remain relevant.  Men's college basketball has taken a back seat to Steve Spurrier's successful football team,  the Gamecocks baseball team that won two national championships in a row and nearly a third under Ray Tanner and even now the #4 ranked women's basketball team of Dawn Staley.  

In this second season as head coach, Frank Martin has done his best to rejuvenate the basketball program.  This season, Martin brought in eight new players; seven freshman and one junior transfer.  He has also worked hard to reach out to South Carolina high school coaches to solidify keeping the best players in the state at USC.

However, despite some glimpses of hope in the Diamond Head Classic, that hard work has not resulted in a lot of wins so far, especially in the SEC.  Entering Saturday evening contest vs. Big Blue Nation, the Gamecocks had won only three wins in conference and were tied with Mississippi State for last in the SEC.

Given the facts that the Gamecocks are struggling and Big Blue Nation is only a six hour trip away, it stands to reason that there would be a lot of UK fans at Colonial Life Arena on Saturday.  Sure enough as I was about to make my turn onto Park Avenue from Gervais Street, a large contingent of Big Blue Nation fans were walking around the Vista.  They were no doubt taking in what all the fine establishments in the area had to offer surely hungry and thirsty customers from the Bluegrass state.

My indoctrination to the Kentucky fan base continued as I parked my car in the Discovery Garage directly across from Colonial Life Arena.   Most of the garage customers parking had Kentucky license plates.  And as I made my way to the front entrance of the arena, the plaza was full of royal blue.    

In my first tweet from my seat in Section 113, Row 21, seat 17, I noted "Greetings from Colonial Life Arena, or as I call it today, Rupp Arena Southeast..."  It was about an hour before game time and two things dominated the arena.   First, of course was Big Blue Nation in full force.  The upper deck sections, which rarely are occupied during basketball season, were full of UK supporters.  It definitely appeared to be a Kentucky home game. 

Second, the arena scoreboard was showing the end of the Clemson-USC baseball game.  It might be March Madness, but again, here was living proof that baseball is the favored son in March in Columbia.  The Gamecock baseball team won, pounding the Tigers 10-2.

As we got closer to game time, the South Carolina fans started filling in.  By game time, the announced attendance of 15,000 seemed about fifty-fifty as far as fans, though when the USC student section booed the Kentucky players coming onto the court, Big Blue Nation drowned them out with their cheers.

My friend Ian McCormick came over to say hi and once he found out I had an extra seat, since my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, wasn't there since he had a friend staying overnight at our house, Ian settled in to my other season ticket holder seat.

The game started with Kentucky jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead on a free throw by Andrew Harrison and a Dakari Johnson jumper.  But Michael Carrera responded with a three, then followed with a layup to put South Carolina up 5-3.  After the teams each traded the lead, Carrera tied the game at eight on a free throw.

The Wildcats outscored the Gamecocks 10-4 over the next six minutes to go up 18-12.  James Young capped the mini spurt with a jumper, which gave him seven points to lead the Cats at that point, But the pace actually favored South Carolina as the teams struggled to score and for a while, based on Ian's statistics (he keeps track of every possession), it was on a pace for a forty possession game.

Much of this was due to the cold shooting of both teams, but especially Kentucky.  The Wildcats only hit five of their first nineteen shots thanks to an intense defensive effort by South Carolina, their best defensive effort of the season.  What put Big Blue Nation in the early lead was their size and relentlessness on the offensive glass, which resulted in several second, third and even fourth chances as well as numerous fouls on the Gamecocks.  What also helped was that South Carolina was equally as cold on the court, shooting three of thirteen early on from the field.

Kentucky maintained their lead, as their next seven points all came at the line to put them up 25-21.  Meanwhile, Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams were directly or indirectly responsible for twelve of their next fourteen points scored after being down 18-12.  It was a Thornwell three, followed by Williams assisting on a Duane Notice jumper for for a 5-0 mini-spurt to give the lead back to South Carolina 26-25 and igniting the Gamecocks fans in the crowd.

After three Johnson free throws sandwiched a Williams jumper to tie the game at twenty eight, Thornwell buried another jumper to put South Carolina up three at the half 31-28.   The Colonial Life Arena was now rocking.  But it would pale in comparison to what would happen in the second half.

The Gamecocks defensive effort in the first twenty minutes resulted in Kentucky, the second highest scoring team in the conference, shooting five of twenty seven from the field.  However, the first half intensive effort combined with Kentucky's relentlessness on the boards resulted in a major foul problem for the Gamecocks, especially for the USC front court.  Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas and Desmond Ringer each picked up three fouls in the first twenty minutes. Demetrius Henry and Thornwell each had two fouls as the Gamecocks committed fourteen fouls in the first half.

The Wildcats had their own foul issues, as they committed twelve first half fouls.  Andrew Harrison had three fouls, Willie Cauley-Stein had two and Calipari even picked up a technical, which would be a big issue later in the game.

The second half continued the foul fest as Kacinas quickly picked up his fourth forty five seconds into the half.  But the Gamecocks, especially Williams, started feeling it from the field.  He hit a jumper to put South Carolina up five, which would start a 15-4 run over the span of a little less than six minutes.  Williams would cap that run with a three pointer to put the Gamecocks up 48-32 with 14:18 left and Colonial Life Arena became unglued.  Williams scored eleven of those fifteen points during that spurt.

One person in particular was not happy at all with the spurt and that was Calipari.  He was very upset at how the game was being officiated, as noted by his technical foul in the first half.   His bench picked up a second technical foul early in the second half run by South Carolina.

Finally four minutes later, after a Duane Notice steal, where he thought there should have been a foul called, Calipari had had enough.  He said something to the official running by, who stopped in his tracks and gave Calipari his second technical.    The South Carolina fans roared in approval as he exited the court.

It also energized the Gamecocks, who stretched their lead back to sixteen, 55-39, after Williams hit the two technical free throws and Notice buried a jumper. With ten minutes left in the game and South Carolina up sixteen, the Gamecocks' fans thought they were on the verge of something special.

But entering Saturday evening's game, Kentucky was nationally ranked for a reason.  Likewise, South Carolina was 3-12 in SEC play for a reason.  And both those factors came to a head, making for an exciting finish.

Kentucky started putting South Carolina's foul trouble to work, scoring the next six straight points from the line, while South Carolina went 0 for 5 from the field.  Then Aaron Harrison buried a three pointer and just like that, the Wildcats had a 9-0 run and the Gamecocks' lead was now only seven, 55-48 with 7:20 left.  There was plenty of time left for Kentucky to complete the rally and their Big Blue fans roared in support, forcing the South Carolina to counter in decibel levels.

After Notice hit a layup to temporarily stem the tide, the Wildcats continued to chip at the lead, scoring eight of the next ten points. After Williams and Carrera each missed a free throw, Andrew Harrison followed a three pointer by Young with his own shot from beyond the arc and the Cats had the lead down to three,59-56 with 3:19 left.  The Kentucky fans roared in approval while South Carolina fans grew tense, wishing the game clock would go at warp speed.  The Gamecock fans would get support from an unlikely hero.

With the return of Desmond Ringer from injury,
 Laimonas Chatkevicius had been relegated to third string power forward against Auburn, as he only played four minutes in the loss to the Tigers on Wednesday.  Again on Saturday, Chatkevicius was the third power forward off the bench. Even when he is on the court, Chatkevicius is not much of a scoring threat, averaging only four points per game.

But in the last three minutes of Saturday's game, the six foot eleven sophomore forward became ten feet tall in the eyes of his teammates, the Gamecock fans and most importantly, to the Wildcats.  First, Chatkevicius grabbed a huge offensive rebound off a wild Thornwell three point shot attempt and got fouled while shooting the putback.  Normally a fifty six percent free throw shooter, which made Ian very nervous, he calmly sank both free throws to put the Gamecocks up five.

Later after Aaron Harrison had cut the lead to four, Chatkevicius grabbed another offensive rebound and softly hit the put back to put the Gamecocks back up six.  Then after Young buried another three pointer to cut the South Carolina lead in half, again, the Gamecocks' Lithuanian hero hit a jumper to put South Carolina up five, 66-61.  In the span of two plus minutes, Chatkevicius had six points, two more than his season average.

Brenton Williams then stole the ball from Young, was fouled and hit both free throws to put Carolina up seven, 68-61 with thirty three seconds left.  The students sensing the upset, swelled to the edge of the court near the Carolina Girls seats.  The public address announcer sensed it too, asking the fans to not storm the court.

Kentucky would not go quietly into the court rush however.  Aaron Harrison was somehow left open and buried a three pointer. Then off a inbounds steal by Young, Julius Randle hit a layup and one.  He hit the free throw and in the span of seven seconds, Kentucky had scored six straight points and cut the deficit to one, 68-67.

After a difficult time of inbounding the ball, the Gamecocks finally got the pass into Thornwell, who was fouled immediately.   Thornwell calmly sank both free throws and Martin called timeout to setup the defense up three, 70-67.   Ian and I discussed the question whether with twenty seconds left, plenty of time in my book, Kentucky should just go for a two and then foul again or shoot the three.

Well we got our answer after the timeout.  Alex Poythress, a twenty eight percent three point shooter, who had attempted just twenty shots from beyond the arc all season, put up a three point attempt with twelve seconds left.  His shot missed, much to the chagrin of Associate Head Coach David Hobbs, who was now in charge with Calipari gone.  The Gamecocks grabbed the rebound and Williams was fouled by Aaron Harrison, who fouled out, just like Cauley-Stein did earlier.

Williams hit both free throws to put South Carolina up five, 72-67 with five seconds left.  After Kentucky's Jon Hood was called for an illegal screen foul, Hobbs told his team not to play defense for the final two seconds.  Carolina dribbled out the ball for the upset win.

Williams led all scorers with twenty four points. Thornwell added fourteen points, Carrera had eleven points and the hero of the day, Chatkevicius had eight points.  Aaron Harrison led the Wildcats with twenty one points, Young added nineteen and Randle had ten for Kentucky.  Kentucky only shot twenty seven percent from the field, though they had twenty one offensive rebounds, as they outrebounded South Carolina 46-28.

It was certainly a foul fest on Saturday night.  The teams combined for fifty five fouls and seventy five free throw attempts.  Kentucky was 33 of 42 from the line, while South Carolina shot a solid 25 of 33 from the line.

As the horn sounded, despite the PA warnings, the student section rushed the court, happy to partake in the spoilings of an upset.   Before long, there had to be hundreds, perhaps a thousand students on the floor of the arena. I took the picture of the rush and it doesn't do justice to the number of fans that were there a few seconds later.  I turned to ask Ian something and being a USC graduate student, he headed down to join in the court rush, a Mid Majority tradition, albeit in this case, USC is certainly not a mid major. 

To me, the court rush signaled two things about the program and college basketball.  First, if Martin's team becomes successful, this can be the kind of electricity that the basketball program will generate, because the fan support is there.  Baseball regularly sells out its eight thousand seat stadium and of course, Williams-Brice Stadium sells out to the tune of 80,000 strong. 

Second, the fans rushing the court reminded me why college basketball is my favorite sport to watch live.  I have now seen six court rushes in person in my life.  You don't see fans rush the field after baseball games.  Once in a while you do after huge football upsets, but those are rare.   College basketball is where you see the fan rush most often.

In fact, there are a lot of media pundits who think court rushes should be banned, especially after the New Mexico State - Utah Valley game where a fight occurred with the New Mexico State players after the Utah Valley fans stormed the court.   But that game in particular is the exception, especially since a New Mexico State player incited it by throwing a basketball at a Utah Valley player.  I have not heard of any other games where there has been a problem.   I, for one, think court rushes are fine.  It's a spontaneous celebration of achievement. And the home players generally love celebrating their achievement with the fans.

And Saturday night, a large group of South Carolina fans got to celebrate on the court an upset of large proportions.  The once last place SEC team knocked off mighty Big Blue Nation, the preseason #1 team in the country.  Finally Gamecocks basketball fans had their moment of achievement.   Mind you, it's not making the Final Four, let alone making the NCAA Tournament, which are both Frank Martin's goals.

But you have to start somewhere and Saturday night, Colonial Life was somewhere.  Somewhere special.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Iona/Manhattan, Siena, Wichita State, Duquesne and Fordham

If you're a college basketball fan and you didn't watch Iona/Manhattan on ESPN2 last night, you missed an absolutely terrific game between two long time MAAC rivals.  The Jaspers won in overtime 80-77.  It was exciting, action packed, end to end, three point drilling (on Iona's side), small gym, capacity, loud crowd fun.  You could hear the crowd loud and clear on your TV.

Having been at Draddy for Iona vs. Manhattan previously for a SRO crowd between these two rivals, I can tell you how intense the Gaels-Jaspers rivalry is from a spectator's standpoint. And if you don't think this is a hot ticket, two years ago, tickets for the Iona- Manhattan game were going for $100, which is usually unheard of in NYC mid major basketball.  Jaden Daly of Daly Dose of Hoops was there last night and here's his writeup.

It's quite possible that Iona and Manhattan will face each other again in the MAAC Tournament.  Despite the loss, Iona has clinched the MAAC regular season championship and the #1 seed for the MAAC Tournament.   Manhattan is tied for second with both Quinnipiac and Canisius.  The Jaspers host the Golden Griffiths on Sunday for at least third place. 

Oh, one last thing.  If Iona wins at home over Rider on Sunday, it will be the fourth time in the four seasons Tim Cluess has coached in New Rochelle that the Gaels have won twenty games.  Four years ago, I gave a New York metro college advice on who to take as their head coach.  Iona took the advice instead and two NCAA Tournament later, with a possible third on the horizon, the Gaels must be quite happy with the decision.

Speaking of MAAC coaches, how about the job Jimmy Patsos is doing with Siena.  The Saints are now over .500 in the MAAC at 10-9 and with a win over Monmouth, will be the fifth seed in the MAAC Tournament.   Siena has already won six more games than all of last season and six more games in conference from last season as well.  Not surprising, given Patsos' history of success with Loyola Maryland.

One last MAAC note.  With Cluess, Steve Masiello, Patsos and Jimmy Baron, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has become a premier coaching conference.  MAACTION!

Wichita State has been getting a lot of flack lately on whether they are a #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament .  Several basketball "pundits" have questioned their non conference schedule (Yes, Jeff Goodman of ESPN, I am talking about you in particular).   Mark Adams, ESPN analyst, put this into excellent perspective on Twitter by stating that the eight power conference teams ranked in the top ten played eighty six percent of their non-conference games at either neutral site or home.   As I pointed out to Mark in a reply, I noted Wichita State only played seven of its twelve non-conference games at home (two were neutral site).  Saint Louis, the other non power conference team in the top ten played only six of its eleven games at home (two were also neutral site).

Furthermore, compare Wichita State's team to the last Missouri Valley team that went so far into the season undefeated, the 1978-79 Indiana State team.  That team of course was led by Larry Bird and went to the NCAA Championship game undefeated vs. Michigan State before losing to Magic Johnson and the Spartans.  

That 78-79 Sycamores team only played one NCAA Tournament team during the regular season, New Mexico State, which Indiana State beat twice in that season in conference.  In fact, the Sycamores had to have a 50 foot shot by Bob Heaton to force overtime on the road vs. the Aggies.  New Mexico State ended up getting an at large bid, losing to Weber State in a first round game.  At that time, only forty teams made the NCAA Tournament.  

Despite their lack of a signature non-conference win, Indiana State received a #1 seed.   Perhaps having Bird helped their chances of getting a #1 seed.  Still, Indiana State justified their seeding by making the NCAA Championship game.

This season, Wichita State has played two definite NCAA Tournament teams in their non conference; BYU and currently #10 Saint Louis.  The neutral site win over the Cougars was the championship game of the CBE classic and the win over SLU came on the Billikens home court.  Until their loss at home to Duquesne this week, Saint Louis had been undefeated in Atlantic-10 play, which is quite impressive considering there is a very good chance that there will be five A-10 teams in the NCAA Tournament (SLU, VCU, UMass, George Washington and St Joseph's).

Wichita State has also won over bubble team Tennessee, along with wins over Davidson, the Southern Conference regular season champion, who knocked off the current #2 team in the SEC, Georgia and NC Central, who won at North Carolina State and who at 22-5 and 13-1 in the MEAC, is the likely MEAC regular season champion (the Eagles have a two game lead over Hampton).  Throw in the fact that with basically the same team from last year's Final Four team, if the Shockers can make it through the rest of the Valley regular season and the MVC Tournament undefeated, they should definitely be a #1 seed and have serious consideration as the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Gregg Marshall is my coach of the year (and Jaden Daly, I knew about Marshall for years even before his Winthrop team knocked off Notre Dame).

On Thursday night, I watched on TV two bottom A-10 teams play, Fordham and Duquesne.  Both teams played good first halves against their respective opponents, VCU and St Louis, as I noted, two definite NCAA Tournament teams.    In their respective second halves, only one team maintained their composure and heart.  The road team Dukes withstood the Billikens and gave St Louis their first loss in A-10 play.

Duquesne at one time was tied with Fordham in the A-10 standings.  Yet, Jim Ferry's 12-15 team has not given up and won two of its last four games.   Of their four conference wins, three of those are on the road, including a win over the Rams.  The Dukes have lost fifteen games on the season, nine of those fifteen losses have been by nine points or less, including six A-10 conference games.  Duquesne's scoring margin on the season is - 0.3.  You can certainly say the Dukes have been competitive for the most part this season.

I'm not surprised by Ferry's Dukes playing so hard.  His successful LIU teams were high scoring, yet very gutty.  I was there when the Blackbirds won over Wagner at a hostile, sold out Spiro Center two years ago in what was quite possibly, given the game was on ESPNU on a Saturday night, the biggest regular season game in the history of the NEC (see picture of the game on the left).

Ferry's LIU teams made the NCAA Tournament two years in a row before he took the Duquesne job. Already the Dukes have a four win improvement from last season.   Given his ability to recruit nationally (several of his LIU players came from Texas), Duquesne is in good hands.

Meanwhile, VCU went on an early second half run and Fordham looked like they got run over by a truck.  They looked clueless on defense, showed no fundamentals on boxing out as VCU got offensive rebound after offensive rebound (in fact VCU had twenty four offensive rebounds) and basically showed no heart the last twenty minutes of the game.  VCU scored FIFTY ONE second half points beating Fordham 85-66.   One team looked Ram Tough and another looked Rammed.

Then to top it, Fordham Coach Tom Pecora just torched his team's effort after the loss, as per another great Jaden Daly writeup.   Yet not anywhere in the post game press conference notes does Pecora accept any blame for his team's failures that night.  He even notes that "Teams that win find ways to win, teams that lose, they know how to lose".

Well who's responsibility is for that demeanor and play?  It's the coach. 

I have already written about Fordham's struggles this season, in fact, it's been my most read article of the season, and taken Pecora to task.  So yes, it's like beating a dead horse.  But after his VCU post game press conference comments, the dead horse needs to beaten some more.

Fordham has lost five straight games, all by double digit margins.  In their last nine A-10 conference losses on the season , the Rams have lost each game by double digits and by an average margin of NINETEEN POINTS.  In fact, in Fordham's seventeen losses on the season, thirteen have now come by double digit margins.    

Think about that.  In only four of their seventeen losses was Fordham even close to winning.  

And even the defensive intensity that Pecora's Hofstra teams used to have is now gone.  He now goes with a four guard lineup, yet laments that "You can't let them beat you up on the offensive glass".  The Rams are DEAD LAST in the A-10 in scoring defense, allowing seventy nine points per game.  They are also dead last in field goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot forty six percent from the field.  The Rams also allow teams to score fifty two percent of their two point field goal attempts.

I think this last quote about Pecora when there is a question about his team's effort sums it up best  
"Oh, without a doubt, and I think that's been an issue for us throughout the season. There's been two major issues in my mind: One is getting that kind of team effort for 40 minutes consistently..." 
That comes down to one person and one person only.  The coach.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Gamecocks' Length Too Much for Gators (Recap of Florida v. South Carolina Women's Basketball Game)

The South Carolina Women's Basketball team entered Sunday's "Think Pink" game vs. Florida on a major roll.  Ranked #4 in the country, Dawn Staley's Gamecocks had won eight straight games, six of those by thirteen or more points.  South Carolina leads the SEC in overall scoring margin, outscoring their opponents by a ridiculous twenty plus points per game.

Florida had literally a tall task on Sunday.  The Gamecocks lead the SEC in blocks, averaging over seven per game.  The Gators entered the game as the third leading scoring team in the SEC, averaging over seventy five points per game, shooting forty four percent per game, good for fourth in the conference.  It was offense vs. defense in a game where breast cancer victims were being recognized all throughout the game for their fight against breast cancer.

It was another warm day in Columbia, as my friend Dave, his son Morgan, my son Matthew and I took in the game.  And we were definitely not the only ones taking in the game at Colonial Life Arena.  A crowd of 10,547, the second largest crowd to ever see a women's basketball game in the arena, was there to watch the Gamecocks try for their ninth straight win.

Florida, who hold a season series sweep over #15 Kentucky, came out flying at the start, scoring the first seven points in the game in a little over two minutes.  Cassie Peoples had five of the first seven Gators' points.

But once freshman center Alaina Coates came into the game, the momentum swung.   The Gamecocks would score ten straight points with Coates giving them an 8-7 lead on a layup.  Aleigsha Welch's jumper capped the spurt and put the Gamecocks up three.

More importantly, South Carolina imposed its length on Florida.  In the first six minutes, the Gamecocks had five blocks, two by Coates and two by Elem Ibiam.  As a result, the Gators went nearly eight minutes without a field goal.

Florida finally broke the drought on a Jatera Bonds layup to cut the lead to one, 10-9.  The Gators would keep the game close over the next three and a half minutes.  Peoples would hit a three to keep Florida within two, 19-17 with a little under seven minutes left in the half.

But South Carolina would respond with a 11-1 run over the next five minutes.  The Gamecocks would block another two shots in the span.  Had it not been for three South Carolina turnovers, the spurt might have been larger.   Still, Coates hit one of two free throws to put the Gamecocks up 30-18.  Two Bonds' jumpers cut the lead to eight before Ibiam made two free throws before the end of the half to put South Carolina up 32-22 at halftime.

After a very nice halftime event that recognized fans that had survived breast cancer or had a family member who had breast cancer, the Gamecocks extended their lead to sixteen, 46-30 with a little under thirteen minutes left.  Tiffany Mitchell was responsible for five baskets in the first seven plus minutes of the second half, scoring on three layups and assisting on two other field goals.  It looked like the game was about over.

But Florida refused to quit, outscoring South Carolina 13-3 over the span of seven minutes.  The Gamecocks went ice cold from the field during that span, hitting on only one of ten shot attempts and turning the ball over three times as Florida did a pretty good job of trying to deny the entry pass to the Gamecock bigs.  A Kayla Lewis layup cut the deficit to six, 49-43 with 5:17 left.

But that's as close as Florida got the rest of the way as South Carolina outscored them 20-12 over the last four minutes and forty nine seconds.  Mitchell and Coates scored fourteen of the Gamecocks final twenty points as South Carolina won its ninth game in a row, a hard fought 69-55 contest.

The Gamecocks held the Gators to twenty points under their season scoring average and Florida only shot thirty two percent from the field.  This shouldn't come as a surprise given the Gamecocks lead the SEC in Field Goal Percentage Defense at thirty four percent. South Carolina had eleven blocks in the game and outrebounded Florida 44-29.  Mitchell led the Gamecocks with twenty points and added eight rebounds.  Coates got another double with sixteen points and twelve rebounds. Welsh added twelve points for the Gamecocks.  Bonds led Florida with twenty points and Lewis added fifteen for the Gators.

With the win, the Gamecocks moved to 25-2 and 13-1 in the SEC.  After Texas A&M lost to Kentucky, the Gamecocks clinched at least a tie for the SEC Regular Season Championship, the first in the history of the program. The Gamecocks can win the SEC Regular Season Championship outright with a win over Georgia at home on Thursday, February 27.

Sounds like a good night to watch a team clinch its first outright championship.