It’s getting to be no-sleep time...the excitement
(and inevitable fury) of the NCAA Tournament selection is less than 36
For what it’s worth, Tennessee, Seton Hall, Boston
College, Alabama and Cincinnati should be out. The emphasis being
“should.” N.C. State is on standby; the Wolfpack should be out if they
can’t beat Wake Forest today. Ditto for Texas Tech if it loses to
Oklahoma. But forget about the RPI, if the NCAA committee REALLY wants
teams playing well RIGHT NOW now, UAB should be in.
That’s all we’ll say on that for now. Oh, and teams that should be
in: Colorado, LSU, Oregon, Arizona State, Butler, Southern Illinois,
Gonzaga, College of Charleston, and maybe Purdue. Maybe Auburn, too.
And Central Michigan if it can’t win the MAC tonight.
There. That’s really all we’re saying about that.
For a while there, it
looked like Steve Lavin was going to be doing the Rasputin thing to
Like Wayne Fontes, the former Detroit Lions coach who Chris Berman
always told us just wouldn’t go away, Lavin was all set to live
another day again, with UCLA holding a double-digit lead on Oregon in
a Pac-10 semifinal Friday night. All of those fanatics getting such
morbid satisfaction out of seeing his teams lose...well, they were
just going to have to celebrate some other time.
Then, the Oregon team many have been waiting all season to see
finally made an appearance. The quick-scoring (and terribly outfitted)
Ducks made a comeback few teams can make, going on a 16-2 run to
finish the game and end the #8 seed Bruins’ season, 75-74.
Most any other team in the country, and UCLA would’ve been home
free. The Bruins held complete control of the tempo throughout this
game, and really deserved to win. However, the Ducks can score points
in a hurry. They haven’t shown it as much this year as many expected,
but this is still as dangerous an offensive team as there is out
The untimely explosion for UCLA is the end of the Lavin era, and
maybe when people step back a bit they’ll see the guy wasn’t nearly as
bad as many want to think and was just done in by unfathomable
expectations. Though the Bruins were awful this year, this was the
only season UCLA was awful under Lavin.
Yes, there were some puzzling home losses to the likes of
Northridge State and Northern Arizona. Yes, some players didn’t
improve the way outsiders would’ve liked. All the Lavin-bashers should
admit, though, that they could’ve cared less if the team had won a
national title under Lavin.
Hopefully, he’ll find another job somewhere else, preferrably some
place that doesn’t mind his relaxed demeanor. One would’ve thought
that had been all right where he was at, but unfortunately, UCLA fans
only measure success in championships.
Even with UCLA gone, the wackiness hasn’t left the Pac-10
Tournament. #7 USC is still alive in the tourney, having knocked off
#2 Stanford and now #3 California to move to the championship game at
a whole 13-16. The Trojans are the same team that lost to Pennsylvania
by 38 AT HOME this year. However, if they win the final today, give
them their due, because they will have earned it. Whether the Pac-10
tourney is really worth that much is another question (more on that in
a bit) but don’t blame the Trojans or any other team pulling upsets in
conference tournaments, they’re just playing by the rules. Nice run by
the athletic Trojans, and they are absolutely capable of beating
Oregon in the final.
USC isn’t the only team that could play spoiler today. Temple,
Colorado State and Alabama-Birmingham are just some of the other teams
who will try to pull off stunning tournament wins today, but both have
tasks made doubly tough by playing teams on their home floors. Temple
is alive in the Atlantic 10 after staying just one step ahead of
Xavier the entire game to win, 63-57. Once again, we have just another
lesson why to never underestimate the Wise Old Owl, John Chaney. Give
all credit to Temple in this one, as the Owls led pretty much the
entire second half, and answered every time Xavier tried to take the
lead. This wasn’t like some of this week’s upsets, where underdogs
beat genuinely uninspired teams. Xavier has been playing with fire for
several weeks now, and it’s better to lose a close one here than to
have the odds even up on the Musketeers early in the NCAA Tournament.
Also, remember, Temple was right with Xavier for 18 minutes in their
game a week ago, before the Owls fell apart and the Musketeers won
going away. This game went the exact same way in the first half, but
this time the Owls remained composed. Good for Temple, as at 15-14,
now the Owls should at least be in the NIT, even if they can’t beat
Dayton on the Flyers’ home floor tonight. By the way, give some real
credit to the Flyers, who have had an incredible year in the A-10, and
are now a step from the league tournament title after edging St.
Joseph’s by three last night. Anyone watching the Flyers for the first
time might wonder how they’ve ever won 24 games this year, but there
aren’t many better clutch teams in the country than Dayton. Flyers
don’t operate with a lot of margin for error, though, and because of
that Temple certainly has a chance.
At least we don’t have to worry about whether or not a Mountain
West team will “steal” an automatic bid, because we already know one
will for sure. Hooray for Colorado State, which has earned its way to
the Mountain West finals by simply outplaying higher seeds in the
quarters and semis. The Rams came back from a double-digit deficit and
then made all the plays down the stretch and in overtime to beat #2
BYU, 86-80. Seven-footer Matt Nelson had 28 points for the Rams, and
senior big man Brian Greene was especially impressive, making big shot
after big shot, and also going 10-10 at the foul line for the game. In
fact, coaches who can’t get your team to understand the importance of
free throws, find this game tape and give it to all your players: the
Rams went 12-12 on free throws in the final minutes. Unfortunately for
Colorado State, next up is #4 UNLV on its homecourt, as the Rebels
blew away #1 Utah in the second half, 64-41, not surprising at all
given where the game was played.
Meanwhile, UAB has a chance to write a familiar but still amazing
chapter in Conference USA Tournament history. The Blazers are trying
to become the fourth C-USA team to win four games to take the tourney,
but will have an exceptionally tough time with Louisville today. UAB
will be playing on about 12 1/2 hours rest, after three games in three
days, and on the homecourt of its opponent, Louisville. The Blazers
looked to be tiring in the second half last night against Saint Louis,
but gutted it out with a 63-62 win. Eric Bush turned the table on
Marque Perry and the Billikens with a late slash to the hoop to
provide the final points. That was after UAB had blown a 22-point
second half lead to SLU, as the Billikens switched to a zone defense
in the second half to slow down and bother the Blazers. At least the
Blazers will be facing another team that should be tired as well.
Louisville and Memphis contested a classic, with the Cardinals pulling
it out on a Tejan Dean three with 11 seconds left. It will be
interesting to see how much these teams press and run around on
defense, considering how fatigue almost certainly will be a factor.
Upsets not coming from
where they supposedly have
Many media in the past week have ballyhooed this myth that non-BCS
conferences are “stealing” at-large bids with all their upsets. The
fact is that, other than College of Charleston and the well-documented
Three Dog Night of Butler, Gonzaga and Southern Illinois (they’re the
Bulldogs and Salukis...get it?) pretty much everyone else has taken
care of business the past week. Holy Cross was the latest team to do
so, winning the Patriot League Tournament Friday with a hard-fought
71-64 win over American. Even though they hosted, the Crusaders had
anything but an easy time. The undersized Eagles have cooked up the
recipe to holding down Holy Cross this year: play an aggressive zone
defense to slow down the Cross’s big guys, then shoot over them on the
offensive end. The Crusaders are going to have to overcome teams
trying to pack it in on them if they hope to pull an upset next week,
but you can bet Ralph Willard will have his team ready.
The upsets have really been happening in leagues like the Pac-10
and Big Ten, where #8 Ohio State and #6 Indiana are in the semifinals.
That makes it now every year but one that the Big Ten’s top seed has
been knocked off in the quarterfinals, and gives reasonable basis for
questioning the efforts of the top seeds in this tourney. Perhaps the
Big Ten and Pac-10 (where #1 Arizona lost in the quarterfinals) and
some other tourneys should just exclude their regular season champs,
because it’s very evident the losing teams had next to no motivation
to play these games. It’s an insult to fans when they see teams so
clearly disinterested, not to mention it hurts the integrity of
whether these tourneys are determining true champions or if they’re
just a case of the winning team being the least disinterested.
Same goes for Texas. The Longhorns played some of the finest
matador defense you’ll ever see en route to allowing Texas Tech to run
for 92 points in the Big 12 quarterfinals. Without taking anything
away from Ohio State, UCLA, Texas Tech or any other teams pulling
upsets in these tourneys, it really would be nice to see some of these
losing teams play as if they actually cared from the start, not just
when they get down 10-20 points.
Such as the Big East finalists. There was simply no doubt Friday
night that Connecticut and Pittsburgh were the better teams in their
semifinal games, and it was because the winners simply played better.
UConn keeps playing like it is and there’s no reason why the Huskies
can’t make a Final Four run. How Jim Calhoun’s team lost as many as it
did this year is one of the better mysteries any detective could work
on, though Taliek Brown’s injury is a good clue to start with. In the
first Big East semi, Pittsburgh proved it is a class above Boston
College. Craig Smith’s foul trouble didn’t help, but with or without
Smith, Pitt was still the better team. The Panthers are still shaky
offensively and at the free throw line, and Brandin Knight’s injury
won’t get any better. Pitt isn’t a slam dunk to go far in the NCAAs
for those reasons, but forget that for now, this should still be
another exciting Big East final.
We’re going to be seeing that lit-up backboard from the Big 12
Tournament in Dallas for a long time, and not just because of its
goofy glow-in-the-dark quality. Missouri posted the second
buzzer-beater of that tourney with its win over Oklahoma State Friday.
It was a fitting end to a game between two very, very evenly matched
teams. Also moving on in the Big 12 were Oklahoma and Kansas, who both
disposed of their opponents with relative ease Friday. Both should be
heavy favorites to make the league championship game Sunday.
Don’t count Kentucky among those top seeds falling on their sword.
The Wildcats are still at their same level, playing superb defense and
making shots they hadn’t in years past. UK beat Vandy in an SEC
quarterfinal Friday, and now gets Auburn, which beat Tennessee by 13
Friday night. The Volunteers shouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament-that
17-10 record isn’t helped by an average non-conference schedule. The
Tigers...well, the record is good, but Auburn still doesn’t really
have any big wins. A win over Kentucky would no doubt seal it,
otherwise the Tigers should be nervous. Also, give credit to
Mississippi State and LSU. The Bulldogs avoided a possible upset
against archrival Ole Miss, while LSU is just a better team right now
than Florida. The Gators are struggling at exactly the wrong time, and
this team could be set for an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State fans, you’ve been heard, we’re all resting
comfortably about the Spartans’ being an NCAA lock. Still not sure why
so many analysts love this team, considering all their losses and the
ugliness of that win over Purdue Friday, but any team that won it all
just a few years ago probably deserves some benefit of the doubt.
Also, with apologies to fellow Wisconsin fans, Illinois is clearly the
Big Ten’s best overall team this year, even if they don’t win the
league tourney. The Illini wasn’t ambushed by any upstarts Friday,
beating Northwestern by 29. Next up: Indiana, which beat Michigan in a
quarterfinal Friday. All those phony questions about if Indiana would
be in the tourney can stop now (was there really, truly any doubt?)
Interesting query: if eligible, would Michigan have gotten an at-large
bid to the NCAA Tournament? It’s legit to think they may not have.
Despite the Big Ten record, the Wolverines are still only 16-12. At
the least, it’s certainly not the sure thing many Go Blue fans think
it would’ve been. Michigan’s overall year certainly wasn’t any better
than, say, Central Michigan, which beat the Wolverines.
Southland final was March
basketball as it should be
The uninspired efforts of
top seeds in some conferences shouldn’t take away from why conference
tournaments are such fun. If you saw Sam Houston State and Stephen F.
Austin battle for the Southland Conference championship, you saw the
classic “Championship Week” game. It always seems like teams who are
never on TV make the best tournament finals, and in fact neither had
ever been on national television until Friday. The two best in the
Southland needed overtime before Sam Houston finally came away with a
69-66 win, thanks to SLC Player of the Year Donald Cole hitting a
three with 14 seconds left to give the Bearkats the lead. This was two
heavyweights (relatively speaking) at their finest; the Lumberjacks
controlling tempo the first 12 minutes, the home-standing Bearkats
controlling the next 12 minutes of the game, and then SFA coming back
and actually taking the lead late in regulation and in overtime.
Congrats to Sam Houston State on its first NCAA bid ever, while the
Lumberjacks will still have to wait for their first. If not too awed
by the surroundings, Sam Houston State should be able to hang with
whatever high seed it gets in the first round of the NCAAs next week.
Stephen F. Austin ought to receive much consideration for an NIT bid;
the Lumberjacks had an incredible turnaround year, and Danny Kaspar’s
team has earned some kind of postseason.
The Mid-American Conference championship today is going to be a
classic old vs. new matchup. The old-Kent State-appears to have
recovered some from its late-season stink job and has moved to the
final after finally eliminating pesky #11 seed Ohio University last
night, 73-69. The #2 Golden Flashes now get the new, #1 Central
Michigan, which is hitting on all cylinders and held control
throughout in beating Northern Illinois, 94-72, in the other semi last
night. Even with Kent State’s experience, CMU should still be a heavy
favorite tonight, as seven-footer Chris Kaman has been unstoppable all
year and now the Chippewa guards are shooting lights out from three.
If Central loses, the Chips deserve serious consideration for an
at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. CMU would finish 23-7 and with a
16-5 record in a conference that sent a team to the Elite Eight last
year. This team is also playing its best ball of the year now, and the
Chippewas are every bit capable of making a Sweet 16 run if they get
in. It’s impossible to say CMU would deserve it, bar nothing, because
of all the other possible upsets Saturday that could take automatic
bids, but Central Michigan still should be considered well ahead of a
Seton Hall or Tennessee.
Those of us who have followed the Utah State-UC Irvine rivalry
lately are feeling cheated because we didn’t get our customary final
seconds finish. The Aggies spoiled that, taking the lead with 35
seconds left and then finishing with five free throws to win, 62-55,
in a Big West semifinal. Utah State has another shot at an NCAA bid,
while once again the Anteaters will miss the tourney despite an
excellent year in the Big West. The Aggies’ opponent in the Big West
final will be upstart Cal Poly, which surprised #1 seed and defending
champ UC Santa Barbara, 67-52, in the other semifinal. The #4 seed
Mustangs will try to be still another team making their first NCAA
appearance, and Kevin Bromley’s team is equipped for the challenge.
Varnie Dennis is one of the better players you’ve never heard of, and
Cal Poly has come on strong late in the year. Utah State has a much
better chance of doing damage in the NCAAs if they win, but this will
be no cakewalk at all.
Ahhhh, Davey Whitney, you sly dog, making like John Chaney and
ruining everyone else’s fun. Whitney is the legendary coach from
Alcorn State who is retiring after whenever his next loss is. Just not
sure when that will be. The Braves moved to 14-18 by upsetting #1
Prairie View in the SWAC semis Friday. Unlike Jim Phelan at Mount St.
Mary’s, Whitney may get to go out with a final NCAA Tournament
appearance yet, even if it is in the absurd play-in game, which is
almost certainly where the Braves would be placed should they win the
SWAC. First, they have to beat Texas Southern, which squeaked by #2
Mississippi Valley State Friday night. The #3 seed Tigers are 17-12
and have had an incredible turnaround year in the SWAC. This would be
quite a capper on the year for coach Ronnie Courtney, who has done
admirable work rebuilding a program that once almost knocked defending
champion Arkansas out of the NCAAs in 1995. (By the way, if this game
is on TV, we’re not sure where. Apparently the SWAC was the only
smaller league to not move its final to fit ESPN’s schedule.)
The MEAC had some real blowouts Friday: winning teams won by six
and nine points in the semifinals, not the average two-point margin
from six of the previous seven tourney games. #1 South Carolina State
and #3 Hampton will meet in the final after posting hard-fought
semifinal wins. Top seed S.C. State defeated Florida A&M, 72-66 (the
opponent wasn’t Howard as first mentioned here; the MEAC no longer
re-seeds teams in the semis) while #3 Hampton kept its hopes alive for
a third straight NCAA bid with a win over #7 Howard. The Bulldogs, led
by Moses Malone, Jr., have a real chance to beat the Pirates, who
aren’t as good as the previous two teams that represented the league
well in the NCAAs. Hampton has been something of a disappointment in
MEAC play, losing five games in league and 10 overall. The Pirates
should’ve been better-they nearly won at Ohio State in December-but
they still will be a very difficult out for South Carolina State.
With Fresno State gone, the WAC just hasn’t had much to talk about
nationally with its tournament, but we’ve been watching (come on, city
of Tulsa, support the rest of the teams at least a LITTLE bit more,
those crowds are pitiful). #1 Tulsa is in the final on its home floor,
finally defeating the Hawaii ghost that has been so troublesome for
the Golden Hurricane in previous WAC tourneys. The Hurricane has
certainly righted the ship from its awful first half of the year.
Tulsa still looks shaky at times and isn’t near the team it was last
year, but TU will be a thorn next week if it makes the NCAAs. First,
Tulsa has to win the WAC final, where it gets #3 Nevada, which has
played very well in the quarters and semis and has the firepower to
beat the Hurricane. Nevada rolled by #2 SMU Friday, and with scorers
like Garry Hill-Thomas and Terrance Green (A.C. Green’s nephew) as
well as the dynamic Kirk Snyder, the Wolf Pack will be a real threat
to the Golden Hurricane. The WAC has to be secretly hoping for Tulsa
to win, though, given the school’s (relative) name recognition and its
recent history in the NCAA Tournament.