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Conference Tournament Update

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NCAA Conference Tournament Week

by Adam Glatczak

March 12th, 2003

MVC Finals: Gonzaga Loses: UWM Upsets Butler: IUPUI wins Mid-Con: Early SWAC & MEAC Results: AE Final Set: WKU's Dancin'
End of season blowouts are unsettling, but still only one game

Oh boy. We just knew it couldn’t possibly be as easy as it seemed, right?

Most bracket projectors, analysts and even those who don’t take optimistic views of the so-called “mid-majors”, pretty much all were in agreement of the at-large possibilities of teams like Southern Illinois, Gonzaga and Butler coming into this week.

The general opinion was that all were pretty safe to get into the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how they performed in their conference tournaments. Of course, it would be preferred if they win their conference tournaments so they didn’t have to sweat, but they seemed to be good bets regardless.

Then Championship Week became Bloodletting Week. Southern Illinois shot a pristine 16% in the first half en route to losing to Creighton by 24 in the Missouri Valley Conference final. Later that night, Gonzaga blew an early lead and was ambushed on the home floor of West Coast Conference #2 seed San Diego, throwing the Bulldogs’ NCAA chances into question.

Tuesday night was more of the same, as #2 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee used a raucous home crowd to its advantage to jump on Butler early and cruise to a 69-52 win in the Horizon League championship game. If one had exchanged uniforms and venues, they might not have known if they were watching Butler against UWM or Duke, because this game actually played out much worse for Butler than their much talked-about January game against the Blue Devils.

Not surprisingly, public opinion on the teams that lost is now wavering. Considering how few times many get to see them on TV, that is only fair, even if all three lost to very good teams and two lost to top 40 quality opponents.

Worse, now they’ll have to put their trust in an NCAA Tournament selection committee that has proven in recent years it can’t be trusted by all but six conferences. That’s not a comforting thought. Just ask Butler last year, or UC Irvine the year before.

Still, something needs to be remembered: every one of these games counts as just that, one game. It’s sometimes hard to think about right after seeing a lopsided loss, but when you’re several hours or even a few days removed from the initial surprise of the losses, it’s time for some perspective.

Yes, it is late in the season, no arguing that. Certainly these games were damaging to the hopes of the losers, in that sense. And they should be. However, looking at the overall resumes, every one of these teams has still done enough to deserve an at-large bid.

All three won their conference regular season titles. All three have RPI ratings considerably higher than teams they are competing against for bids, such as Oregon, N.C. State, Boston College and Tennessee. In fact, that’s the most important part-the major conference competition this year for final spots is particularly lame.

The pair of Bulldogs, Gonzaga and Butler, both lost conference tournament finals on the road facing a host school. Also, one thing many are forgetting is that both Southern Illinois and Butler lost to exceptionally good teams in their title games. Creighton hasn’t been in the top 20 all year for nothing, while Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been playing very close to a top 25 level for over a month now.

These arguments don’t even address the fact that Butler and Southern Illinois can’t get a non-conference game against a big name team to save their lives. The selectors have shown in recent years they could care less about this, but it’s still a valid point that has to be made in any argument for these teams.

There’s no doubt these losses are going to hurt, particularly Butler and SIU. Getting blown out late in the season should hurt a team. That’s just a fact of trying to select the right teams for the tournament.

The only thing one can ask is that the selection committee gives everyone the exact same treatment on this matter, because blowout losses aren’t something that has just happened to those two lately.

Boston College had a HOME loss by 37 points to Connecticut just five days ago. Michigan State had a loss a few weeks ago at Illinois by 30, and the game wasn’t that close. Both have had seasons that place them on or not far from the bubble, yet TV heads aren’t declaring B.C. out of the field based on that one game.

If the Salukis and Bulldogs (both of them) have their entire seasons ignored to be penalized for bad losses late in the year, that’s fine. However, that exact criteria should then be applied to any other team that has a bad late loss also. Odds are the committee is going to look more at a Michigan State’s entire season than one big loss, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect the same consideration for the others.

As for Gonzaga, well, if the committee isn’t going to reward a non-conference schedule like the Bulldogs’, then don’t tell me about how a tough schedule should overcome mediocre records for teams like Alabama and Indiana, either. If the committee doesn’t recognize the Zags’ schedule (or the fact several of their losses were affected by injuries), then perhaps it’s time to question whether the NCAA Tournament is really deciding a “true” national champion or if it’s nothing more than a BCS arrangement.

All that’s asked for is consistency. With the NCAA Selection Committee, we know, that’s a lot to ask, but it’s not an unfair request.

Creighton clearly MVC’s best; Toreros pull cape away from Gonzaga

THIS was the Creighton team we’ve been waiting to see for about six weeks now. For those who didn’t see it-or simply were turned off by the lack of competition in the game-Creighton blitzed Southern Illinois in the MVC title game Monday night, 80-56.

It’s hard to figure if this was a case of Creighton playing that well or the Salukis playing that poorly. We’ll say both. SIU did shoot a whole 16% in the first half, but the team also didn’t look like it brought the necessary guile to this game to win a conference tournament final.
Meanwhile, all of those questions about the Bluejays’ intensity and not sharing the ball were put to rest for the time being Monday night. Against the Egyptian Dogs, Creighton was back to playing the type of ball the Jays are becoming famous for. Kyle Korver wasn’t trying to do much, players made the extra pass, and CU was all over the place on defense. If Creighton sustains this play in the NCAA Tournament, there’s no reason why this team can’t stay alive for several rounds, no matter who the competition. Creighton can be that good.

Understandably, the game probably left many with a bad impression of Southern Illinois. Again, for once and for all, this was only one game. It will hurt, as ugly late season losses should hurt a team’s standing in the eyes of the selection committee. SIU’s seeding likely took a dive, but a MVC regular season title should still offset one bad loss in a conference tournament championship and SIU’s only lopsided loss of the year. You don’t win 17 games against Valley schools without doing something right.

Congratulations to the San Diego Toreros, who are in the NCAAs for the first time since 1987 after beating Gonzaga on their homecourt, 73-64, in the West Coast Conference final. The Toreros simply looked as if they wanted this game more than the Bulldogs, and Gonzaga’s occasional lapses into a very average team hit the Zags again Monday night.

Brad Holland has done a workman-like job at USD for years, always keeping the Toreros competitive, if seldom great. This year’s team had a different look much of the season, though, starting with an overtime win at UCLA back when no one knew just how bad the Bruins would be. It had its share of tough losses in the non-conference season, in part due to some awful foul shooting, but San Diego rebounded in the WCC and almost beat Gonzaga for the league title.
San Diego goes into the NCAAs with an 18-11 mark, but was very competitive against an extremely difficult schedule all year. It also has an absolute hoss inside in Jason Keep, and he and a well-balanced group of teammates will give a solid account of themselves next week. This NCAA bid is richly deserved, and you can’t help but wonder if the WCC isn’t jumping for joy. The league very well should have two teams in the field now; despite their inconsistencies, Gonzaga should be rewarded for its brutal non-conference schedule and should make the field.
Unlike the Zags or Southern Illinois, Manhattan and UNC-Wilmington played to their seeds Monday night, which is to say they won their conference finals. Manhattan kept a working margin all game to defeat a noticeably tired Fairfield team, 69-54. Unlike Siena the night before, the Jaspers were completely unfazed by the size of Deng Gai and the rest of the Fairfield frontline and actually out-rebounded the Stags, 37-32. Manhattan is a team that often plays much bigger than its size, and their MAAC “street smarts” is going to serve the Jaspers well in a first-round NCAA Tournament game. Don’t fret for the rest of the MAAC, though; the league could very well get more than one team in the NIT. The MAAC has a very healthy relationship with the older postseason tournament. Siena is always an attractive choice for the NIT committee because the Saints can sell out the Pepsi Arena for “name” opponents, while Fairfield also could very well get matched up with a team like Providence in the NIT.

North Carolina-Wilmington also will be an extremely tough first-round opponent in the NCAAs. The Seahawks thoroughly jumped on Drexel Monday night and then withstood a courageous Dragons comeback to take the CAA final. UNCW is just so tough and March-tested; its halfcourt style fits perfectly into tournament play, and like Manhattan, the Seahawks play much tougher and bigger than their size. In a year that is shaping up to present a boatload of smaller schools that look capable of winning in the postseason, UNCW is one of the best bets. As for Drexel, Bruiser Flint’s team gave an incredibly gutty effort Monday night, coming back from a huge deficit in the first half. The Dragons have had an excellent year and deserve the most consideration of any CAA team for the NIT.

IUPUI wins MCC over VU to reach NCAAs


If it doesn’t pick UNC-Asheville, get ready for Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis to be the nation’s choice as beloved underdog in this year’s NCAA Tournament. IUPUI (affectionately called “eewee-pewee”) is just the latest example of March madness dreams coming true, after the #2 seed Jaguars surprised top seed Valparaiso in the Mid-Continent Conference final Tuesday night.

IUPUI became the fourth school already this year to clinch its first NCAA Division I bid ever. In one way, the Jaguars are the most impressive of them all, though, because it only took the school five years in Division I to do it. This year’s team is a collection of transfers and other assorted misfits that blended into a cohesive unit as the year went on. IUPUI has won 12 of its final 14 games after being 8-11 at one point, and Wild Man Ron Hunter it probably going to start seeing higher-paying job offers trickle in. Hunter is easily one of the most animated coaches to watch in the country, reminiscent of Dick Fick, the former Morehead State coach, but his antics shouldn’t overshadow the building job he has done in taking this program from the NAIA ranks to NCAA Division I. Congratulations to the Jaguars; anyone who knows anything about the Mid-Continent at all knows it’s quite a feat to knock off the always-powerful Crusaders.

Western Kentucky was yet another top seed to win its tourney Tuesday, no surprise considering the Hilltoppers hosted the Sun Belt Tournament. WKU overcame some ridiculously cold shooting in the first half to run by Middle Tennessee State in the second half. Western is certainly one of the most intriguing teams when it comes to guessing how the Toppers will do in the NCAAs. They had loads of problems in non-conference play, but that was before the team found itself and romped through the Sun Belt. ESPN’s Ron Franklin and Larry Conley were right, Patrick Sparks could start for almost any team in the country, and the Hilltoppers have a bundle of similar 6-4 to 6-8 players who could give a first-round opponent trouble. Western Kentucky will absolutely have to shoot better than it did against MTSU, though. As for the Blue Raiders, this was more than likely just a sneak preview of things to come. Kermit Davis made some real strides with the Blue Raiders in his first year, and Middle Tennessee State could very well be a preseason favorite in the Sun Belt next year. Certainly a program to watch in the next couple years.

Other than Butler’s predicament now, there’s not much else to say about the Horizon League other than how about Wisconsin-Milwaukee? Hopefully the Panthers won’t be suffering from first-time jitters, because UWM is going to be a very dangerous first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament. This team can play with just about anyone right now, and the NCAAs will clearly be better for it next week. Remember, Tom Davis was undefeated at Iowa in first-round games, and Bruce Pearl’s team mirrors those old Hawkeye teams. (By the way, for those being impressed about these statistics touting this as UWM’s first NCAA Tournament in 107 years: those numbers are misleading. UWM only joined Division I in 1990, and on top of that, the NCAA Tournament has only been around since 1939…)

Also give a call to the fans that turned out for the Horizon League final in Milwaukee. More than 10,000 were on hand to see the Bulldogs and Panthers, and that’s impressive. UWM has never been able to catch much attention from the city of Milwaukee, so this was a big step for the program not just on the floor but also in city perception. The large gathering also reflected well on the Horizon League in general.

As much as Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee have deservedly received most of the headlines this year, a mention still needs to be made of Illinois-Chicago and Detroit. In case no one noticed, UIC did finish 21-8 this year after being edged out by UWM in the Horizon League semis. The Flames had a much better year than last year, when they made the NCAA Tournament, so it tells you something about the Horizon’s improvement this year. Illinois-Chicago never quite had a resume to argue for an NCAA at-large bid, but the Flames are very deserving of an NIT bid, and watch for a potential first-round game against DePaul. Hats off also to Perry Watson and Detroit, who finished 18-12 after being 7-8 at one point this year. The Titans almost beat Butler in the Horizon semis, and UDM has got a chance at the NIT, too. Detroit made the NIT semifinals two years ago.

Boston University, Vermont to tussle in America East final

Sure, there were games that had more on the line, but there was probably no conference tournament game more hotly contested Monday night than the America East semifinal between Boston University and Northeastern.

The two Boston area neighbors took part in what was correctly dubbed a “war of attrition” by the BU website. 52 personal fouls, five technicals and more than a few heated confrontations filled a contest that had seemingly more stoppages than a football game. Those statistics should only be a signal of the intensity of the game, and nothing else. The quality of play was there in this game, with two teams going at it in an environment that sounded much more raucous than just the 1,700 or so announced in attendance. And the fouls surely can’t take away from the fact that the Terriers came back from a 14-point deficit to finally finish off Northeastern, 71-61.
Great teams have many players that can step up, and on this night BU’s was Jason Grochowalski. The junior forward came off the bench to score 22 points on this night for the Terriers, displaying the depth that has made BU the conference’s standard for excellence.

Northeastern proved this year, though, that Ron Everhart has the Huskie program on the right track. With their Miami recruiting pipeline and Jose-Juan Barea on board for the next three years, NU is going to be a tough out in the America East for a while. If the Huskies stick around, that is.

If this game wasn’t a picture of why Northeastern should stay in the America East, nothing is. This was conference rivalry at its finest, and showed with just a little work this could once again become the flagship series for the A-East. Much like it was in the eighties when coaches like Rick Pitino, Mike Jarvis and Jim Calhoun led these schools, and players like Reggie Lewis, Andre LaFleur and Drederick Irving kept these teams atop the conference every year. Even playing the game at Walter Brown Arena conjured up images of the old ECAC North Atlantic days-all of Boston U.’s home games in that era were played at the place that usually serves as the school’s hockey arena. Northeastern would be losing what could become again one of the better rivalries in the Northeast, and wouldn’t be gaining much else.

Boston University will be facing the conference’s other top dog when it faces Vermont Saturday on ESPN, in a rematch of the 1990 then-ECAC North Atlantic Conference final. The Catamounts looked good in running over Hartford Monday night and will try again for their first NCAA bid ever. Last year UVM had a banner season, winning 21 games and earning the top seed before losing in the A-East semis to Maine. Even though it lost last year’s America East MVP T.J. Sorrentine to wrist injuries, this is still a talented team that is capable of beating the Terriers, even at Case Gymnasium, a.k.a. The Roof.

It’s possible a new trend is developing in the Mid-American Conference tournament. A trend called…sanity? Last year, the top two seeds actually made it to the championship game in this traditionally wacky tourney, and this year has started with the first round mostly going according to Hoyle. Only #11 seed Ohio U. was able to pull a big upset Monday night, beating #6 Akron, 79-77. Even that upset isn’t what it looks, since OU has been playing much better the past several weeks thanks to Steve Esterkamp finally finding his shooting stroke. The Bobcats next get slumping Miami (Ohio), and with “Esty” hitting shots, the Bobcats are going to be one tough out.

Other than Ohio, only #9 Bowling Green was able to win on the road as a lower seed Monday night. The BG’s eliminated #8 Ball State Monday night, in a game that probably registers as a bigger surprise than Ohio’s win. The Falcons have been ravaged by injuries this year, so even one win in the MAC tourney is an accomplishment for this team. Next up: top seed Central Michigan, which is strongly advised to win this tourney if it wants to make the NCAA Tournament. The Chippewas, as MAC regular season champions, have a fair case for an at-large bid, but probably not as strong as Gonzaga, Southern Illinois or Butler and maybe not even Weber State, should the Wildcats lose in the Big Sky Conference final.

Speaking of the Big Sky, Weber State is indeed in that final after beating #6 Sacramento State Tuesday night. As much as Weber State is on the proverbial bubble (more on that in a bit) Sac State is a good story in itself. This year was the first time in seven years of membership the Hornets have even made the Big Sky Tournament-the Big Sky only invites six of its eight teams to its postseason tournament. The Hornets came in as the #6 and final seed, but upset Pat Kennedy’s Montana team, 88-75, in the first round. Unfortunately for the Hornets, the league re-seeds after each round, meaning Sacramento State had to play #1 Weber State at Weber in the semis, but this is still considerable progress for a program that has been among the worst in Division I since joining the ranks in 1991.

Weber State took over after a close first half to knock the Hornets out Tuesday night, and now moves on to face Eastern Washington in the Big Sky final tonight. The Wildcats deserve to be in the NCAAs, win or lose, but even the biggest optimists have to wonder how many schools not affiliated with the BCS can really get at-large bids. Just to present some bad history, Davidson went 25-5 and 14-0 in the Southern Conference regular season in 1996 but lost in the league tourney (to the team that won the tourney) and was snubbed. Meanwhile, the #2 seed Eagles will be trying to become the sixth team this year to get their first NCAA bid ever (the Northeast Conference final tonight between Wagner and St. Francis NY is guaranteed to give us our fifth such team). Eastern has become sort of the Atlanta Braves of the Big Sky; this will be the school’s fourth trip to the conference final, and EWU is 0-3 thus far. Last year the Eagles had a particularly good chance and blew it, losing to #6 seed Montana in the final. Very appropriately, this year’s team theme is “If not now, when?” and you can expect Eastern Washington will be ready to go in the final.

Every game now could be the last for Alcorn State coach Davey Whitney. “The Wiz” extended his career at least one more game when the Braves defeated #4 seed Alabama State in the first round of the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament Tuesday night. Next up for Alcorn is top seed Prairie View (for anyone who knows anything about the SWAC, how unusual does that sound?). The Panthers escaped their quarterfinal game with Southern, beating the Jaguars, 56-55. Of all the terrific rebuilding jobs being done in college basketball right now, maybe none is better than what Jerry Francis has done with this perennially awful program.

Also in the SWAC, it took overcoming a 15-point second half deficit, but the #3 seed Texas Southern Tigers beat the #6 Jackson State Tigers in a quarterfinal. Next up for TSU is not the #7 Grambling Tigers but the #2 seed Mississippi Valley State…Delta Devils (gotcha!).

And in maybe the most exciting game of the day Tuesday, Bethune-Cookman defeated Morgan State, 104-103, in double overtime in a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first round game. The #9 seed Wildcats got 49 points in 49 minutes from Richard Touissant to get the right to face #1 South Carolina State. Both teams came into this game at 7-21. If this doesn’t prove action can happen anywhere in March, nothing will. Fantastic effort by two teams who have played a combined 37 GAMES on road or neutral sites this season.


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