Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bracket Buster Saturday Review Part II

As I watched the Oscars, I couldn't help but think that they are going to announce the nominees for Best Mid Major Team and Anne Hathaway is going to say "And the winner is...Slumdog Millionaire". Don't worry. By the time this post is out, you'll see that Slumdog swept the Oscars last night.

Siena vs Northern Iowa - I watched the first half of this game Saturday before I left for Fairfield and then I watched the replay of it on ESPN 360 yesterday. I stated in my preview on Thursday that Siena had a good case for an at large bid and that " they will strengthen that case by dominating Northern Iowa."

Now looking at the final score of the game, won by Siena 81-75, it doesn't look all that dominating. But if you watched the entire game or even just the first half, you know that the Saints are a legitimate at large team as they did "dominate" the action. What struck me immediately was that Siena was able to dictate an up tempo style on a deliberate, Hickory Hoosiers type team like Northern Iowa. The Saints jumped on the Panthers quickly as the Panthers never had a lead for the entire game. It was 11-2, then 21-8, then 29-10 as Siena hit 12 of their first 22 shots. They were up 40-19 at the half and the game was basically over there.

What's so impressive is that the Saints aren't just Kenny Hasbrouck, their "star" player. Hasbrouck, the preseason pick for MAAC player of the year, had a good game with 16 points. But he has a lot of help in the scoring department as the Saints had seven players who had at least 8 points on Saturday. Clarence Jackson came off the bench and had 14 points. And its not just offense the Saints can play. They held Northern Iowa to 40 percent from the field, including 7 of 25 from beyond the arc and forced several turnovers early on the Panthers.

The Panthers came back to make it a respectable game in the second half as they exploited possibly Siena's one weakness a lack of size as Jordan Eglseder had 16 points on the game. Northern Iowa cut what was a thirteen point lead, 71-58 with 1:34 left, down to five, 80-75 before Edwin Ubiles hit one of two free throws to end the game.

Fran Fraschila who was covering the game for ESPN noted Siena was the perfect example of a "Bracketbuster team" by noting this was a veteran team with NCAA tournament experience (they knocked off Vandy) and that they have balanced scoring. In fact, as noted, its more than just Hasbrouck. The Saints have three players who average between 13.6 and 15 points per game and three other players who average more than 8 points per game. Siena has a 22-6 record, a strong RPI of 24 and a very strong non-conference SOS. Yes their best non conference win is a road win at St Joseph's and a home win over Buffalo, but the schedule they played - Kansas, Pitt, Tennessee, among others should count for something. If the Saints should somehow make their conference final and not win, they should get an at large bid. We'll see.

Utah State - St Mary's. I watched the replay of this on ESPN360 this morning. The announcers for the game were Bob Wischusen and Tim Welsh. It was probably weird for them doing this game because they tend to do all the games east of the Mississippi. After Wischusen noted that this game has "monumental proportions", here's what Welsh said;

Welsh – “The coaches won’t admit it, but this could be a play in game if they don’t win their conference tournaments. Both teams are on the proverbial bubble. ”

I was really struck by this comment and I will talk more about it later. But yes, this was the game with the most on the line. Butler vs. Davidson might have been the marquee game, but this was a close second and was more important. The majority of those who recently donated to Kyle Whelliston's Mid Majority site voted to have him cover this game over the Bulldogs vs. Curry matchup.

It was definitely a matchup of the Aggies' big men, Gary "The Blade" Wilkinson and "Mai" Tai Wesley vs. the Gaels' Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan and Diamon "In the Rough" Simpson (yes those are my nicknames) but two lesser known players stood out in this game; Utah State's Jared "Don't Call Me Dan" Quayle and St Mary's Mickey "Don't Call Me Mary" McConnell. Each of them had 22 points in this game won by St Mary's 75-64.

The game started off very close as the frontcourts battled. Utah State's last lead for the game was 8-6 and then the Gaels pulled ahead. But the Gaels lead for the most part wasn't more than five points. With about 2 minutes left, the score was only 31-28 until the Gaels outscored the Aggies 8-1 the rest of the way. It was very evident that Simpson and Samhan were causing fits for Wilkinson and Wesley.

The second half saw the lead expand for the Gaels to 45-31 with 16:45 left. In fact the lead was still 12, 57-45 with 6:55 left. Then the Aggies led by Quayle made a 17-5 run capped by his three with 2:09 left to cut the lead to three, 62-59. However Wayne Hunter's open corner three put the lead at 66-59. But again, Quayle answered with an old fashioned three point play to make it 66-62. However, the Gaels would end the game on a 9-2 spurt and treated the sold out crowd of 3500 in Moraga to a happy ride home.

Samhan and Simpson had the edge on Wilkinson and Wesley yesterday. Samhan was dominant with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks. Simpson was not far behind with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks. Also interestingly enough, Samhan and Simpson are the third best combined average rebound duo in the country at 19.8 per game. Though Wilkinson had 16 points, he had to work for them as he only shot 6 of 14 from the field. Simpson completely took out Wesley who coming in to the game was shooting 62 percent. He was held to seven points on 3 of 9 shooting.

It was very evident from seeing this game that I was watching two NCAA tournament teams. They have the guards, the big versatile frontcourt, the solid ball schemes, excellent defense and the intangibles necessary. Now some people would say well this was on St Mary's homecourt. Well Utah State is one of the nation's leaders in road victories with 10, so that doesn't hold water.

As for Welsh's comment, though I believe he may be right, I don't think its fair. Utah State has 25 wins. Their now three losses were to BYU (bubble team), Boise on the road (defending WAC champ) and St Mary's. Nothing to be ashamed of there and they have a win over Utah, who seems to be a proverbial lock for the tourney. As for St Mary's, they have wins over Providence and San Diego State on neutral courts (both bubble teams as well) and now the win over Utah State without Patty Mills. Both teams are worthy of being at large selections and if both are left home, there should be a criminal investigation.

Boise State vs. Portland State - I didn't get a chance to see this game and unfortunately the replay is not on ESPN360. However, I was not surprised that the game was high scoring, nor was I surprised that the Vikings won. In this battle of two NCAA teams from last season, Jeremiah Dominguez scored 22 points and 8 assists as the Vikings downed the Broncos 93-81. The Vikings scored FIFTY EIGHT points in the first half. The Vikings hit 12 of their first 17 three point attempts, shot 64 percent in the first half and 58 percent on the game. Imagine you shoot 54 percent from the field but yet lose by 12. Yup that's what the Broncos did. The Vikings had six players score in double figures while Boise State had all five starters score in double figures.

Hofstra vs. Fairfield - This is the game that I saw live. But before I write about the game, I must give a big shoutout to Frank Pepe's Brick Oven Pizzeria in Fairfield. Located off exit 25 on I95, Commerce Street, this might be the best pizza I ever had. Recommended to me by my friend Bob Sugar, the equipment manager at Post through Hofstra Sports Information Officer Jeremy Kniffin, this is a gem of a pizzeria. This is a place where if you want a table, expect a long, long wait as evidenced by the line out the door and down the front of the building. Yes it was that long after we got our takeout pie. And the large pie was chicken and pepperoni and damn it was good.

Now onto the game. The game was held at the Bridgeport Harbor Arena, where the Stags play all their home games. The one end of the court was roped off with a large black curtain. This is where also the AHL Bridegport Sound Tigers hockey affiliate of the Rangers plays. It's a very nice arena, relatively new, built in 2001 and seats about 10,000. Surprised that they have not held the MAAC tournament here.

Well, we got to the parking lot and safe to say we parked easily on the second level. It was a telltale sign that despite this being broadcast on ESPN360, there wasn't going to be much of a turnout. The announced crowd was 2,112, but it seemed like a lot less. Well there was a large and vocal Hofstra turnout. And during the pregame much of that vocal turnout was directed at the Stags' mascot with shouts of "Rudolph, Go Home" And "This isn't Christmas". Pretty funny actually and the Stag Mascot took it well, blowing kisses in the direction of the Hofstra student section.

As for the game, well, it featured a Fairfield team that was minus four of its starters, having lost three in a row against a CAA team in Hofstra that had won four in a row and eight of its last ten. So how did the game start. Well if you know Hofstra like I do, everything is a challenge. Everything. The Stags jumped out to a 13-6 lead as Fairfield's Herbie Allen hit three three pointers. If it wasn't for Zygis Sestokas hitting two of his, Hofstra would not have had any points as the rest of the Pride missed their first six attempts. It was also obvious that Fairfield's zone was designed to keep Charles Jenkins, the second leading scorer in the CAA from driving to the basket.

The lead swelled to nine points, 19-10 before Hofstra made a run as Jenkins finally hit some of the open jumpers he had and a Sestokas three put the Pride up one, 22-21. The run would eventually be 17-2 as the Pride went up 27-21 before Fairfield hit the last basket to make it 27-23. A Fairfield fan who I became friendly with told me that the final score margin was going to be 20. I turned to him and said, it's never that easy with the Pride. I was right.

The second half started out just like the first half as Fairfield went out and scored the first five points to take the lead. Hofstra would come back and go ahead 38-33 as two Jenkins free throws capped a 9-0 Pride run. But after the Pride missed several opportunities over a minute and a half to extend the lead, the Stags came back. The Stags. led by Yorel Hawkins, would outscore the Pride 18-7 over the next nine minutes to go up 51-45 with 4:19 left. Then the Pride would make another run, this time a 16-5 run to end the game. The unique thing about this run was that Charles Jenkins would only have two points during this time. It was Cornelius Vines, who came off the bench late in the second half who would spark the run. Vines would score 13 points over the last eight minutes of the game, including his third three pointer with 56 seconds left that broke a 51 all tie and the Pride never looked back.

Vines had 13 points and Sestokas had 12 points on seven combined three pointers. Jenkins scored 13 as well but shot only 4 of 17 from the field while the rest of his team shot 5o percent from the field (Hofstra shot 40 percent overall). Hawkins led the way with 18 points while Allen had 15 and Lyndon Jordan had 10 for the Stags. Hofstra is now 19-9 which includes an absolutely ridiculous 12-2 record in games decided by five points or less. Fairfield is now 15-13.

George Mason vs. Creighton - I got home for the second half of this game and I got to see the "Booker Woodfox Coming Out Party". Woodfox, who has one of the best names in college basketball, had eleven second half points as the Bluejays turned what was a very close three point halftime game into a rout as the Patriots won 76-63.

Again it was an example of a team exerting its will and forcing their tempo on another team. At the start of the second half, the Bluejays ran rings around the Patriots who missed eight of their first nine shots. As a result, Creighton went on a 21-7 run in the first eight minutes of the second half and the game was over there. Creighton blitzed the second best defensive field goal percentage team in the CAA for 49 percent from the field which included Woodfox shooting 5 of 6 from three. Woodfox had 22 points on 8 of 10 shooting.

The Patriots, which lost their ninth road game of the season, were led by Cam Long's 23 points. Darryl Monroe, who came in leading the CAA in FG percentage, was held to seven points on 3 of 10 shooting. The Patriots woes from the free throw line contiuned as they were only 10 of 17 from the charity stripe, including Monroe's 1 of 4. Monroe's free throw percentage 56.4 percent is less than his field goal percentage, 58.4 percent.

So here's some categories I came up with from the Bracketbuster weekend.

Teams that Helped Their Cases for an At Large Bid

1) Butler - They are a lock now after the win over Davidson.

2) St Mary's - They really helped themselves with a solid win over a ranked team. Did Patty Mills really help recruit three more Australians for the team next year? Yup.

3) Siena - Anyone on the NCAA tournament selection committee who watched that game had to be impressed with the Saints. I really think they can do damage come tournament time.

4) Creighton - With a solid performance over a veteran NCAA tournament team like George Mason, the Bluejays strengthened their at large credentials.

Teams that Hurt Their Cases for an At Large Bid

1) Davidson - Say it with me now. The Wildcats have to win the SoCon tournament. Again, the Wildcats have to win the SoCon tournament. Yes, they beat West Virginia and NC State on neutral courts but the more the committee watches the Wildcats, the more they must think Davidson is solely based on how Curry plays. That's how I am starting to feel now too.

2) Utah State - A loss to a very good St Mary's team shouldn't hurt, but the committee will consider that they lost to a Mills-less Gaels team and that won't be favorable.

Teams You Can Stick a Fork In

1) Northern Iowa - They have to win the Valley Tournament now and that looks really difficult considering their struggles lately and that Creighton looks sooooo good.

2) Illinois State - Talk about an elite player who had a bad bad game at the wrong time. Osiris Eldridge had a horrible game and the Redbirds have now zero hopes for an at large bid. See #1 in this category.

Teams that Need to Right Themselves Come Tournament Time

1) VCU - The Rams had a nine point lead with six minutes left and should have won their game which they dominated for a good part. But the game showed if Larry Sanders gets into foul trouble, there is no other scoring option for the Rams other than Eric Maynor. VCU needs to find more balance otherwise they will get knocked off in the CAA tournament, I can promise you that.

2) Illinois State - The Redbirds need to learn that they are much more effective when they work it inside than when they chuck the ball up from three. The game against Niagara proved that. The Redbirds need to realize that come Valley tournament time.

3) Northern Iowa - See above with the Redbirds. Get the ball more into Eglseder who is a beast. A more balanced offense will help the Panthers, who play very hard.

4) Davidson - The last few weeks have shown that the Wildcats are certainly beatable in the SoCon. Curry has to start shooting better (and I am starting to think he should stay in school for another year) and the Wildcats need players like Bryant Barr and Wil Archambault to step up.

5) George Mason - This team has to learn how to play on the road and they need to work on their free throw shooting otherwise they too could see a quick exit come CAA tournament time.

Players Who Really Showed Themselves For the First Time to a Televised Nation

1) Booker Woodfox - He's not just a great name but a damn good player too.

2) Gordon Heyward - He showed Saturday that he is one of the best freshman in the country and why Butler is so very good.

3) Tyrone Lewis - Calvin Murphy had to be impressed with his performance on Friday night. I certainly was.

4) Gerald Lee - Now everyone knows this soon to be first team All CAA player.

5) Seth Curry - Yup, the genes run in the family.

6) Cam Long - He went a little under the radar due to Woodfox's performance but he's very good. Mason is going to be fine for the next several seasons with this sophomore leading the way.

7) The St Mary's Team - Now everyone knows this is not just Patty Mills. Samhan and Simpson are a dynamic front court duo and Mickey McConnell looks to be a terrific find. They could be very dangerous if they get Mills back in time for the WCC tournament.

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