College Basketball: 5 Things We Learned This Week..

March 10th, 2009

Kevin McNeill's weekly 5 Things column breaks down what's important in the world of college basketball.


This week, we learned that...


1) It’s all about how you close


Every year this time of year, we succumb to one of the most pointless exercises in the sports world.  It is when, all across the country, countless devoted, hard-working, run of the mill college basketball fans, including yours truly, endeavor to read the minds of the 10 members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. 


The criteria, on paper at least, supposedly do not change even when the people on the Selection Committee do.  They are: Overall record, conference record, quality wins (read vs. the Top 50 or Top 100), strength of schedule, RPI, and one, often overlooked, factor: How teams perform in the waning days of the regular season.


While the latter criteria is usually downplayed by the NCAA, often invoking the same “overall body of work” rhetoric to the media, there is no denying its importance in deciding who ultimately goes to the Tournament and who plays another home game in the NIT.


Syracuse seemingly was going to the Tournament two years ago but lost its last game to Villanova and then endured a surprising early exit in the Big East Tournament.  Ditto Arizona State last season before losing three of their last five, including a first round exit from the Pac-10 Tournament.  On the flip side, Oregon surprisingly snuck in to the Tournament instead by virtue of winning their last three regular season games.


One could argue, that while all the aforementioned criteria are of course hugely important, it is how a team plays in the final games (or, often, in the final game), that seemingly is the clincher – especially for teams that can’t hang their hat on great RPI or Strength of Schedule ratings.


If that’s the case, then some teams are in deep trouble.


Miami has dropped six of their last ten, including a loss to lowly Georgia Tech.  Same with Providence, although most of those losses (outside of Notre Dame) were respectable.


Maryland, despite that thrilling comeback against North Carolina, has lost five of their last ten games including the last one to 10-17 Virginia.


Penn State won four of their last six, including a sweep of Illinois.  But a double overtime loss to Iowa to end the season probably means the NIT.  Traditionally, the NCAA Selection Committee has been loath to reward teams with lousy strength of schedules, and Penn State is one of the worst offenders of the bubble teams.   The Nittany Lions have a legitimate gripe should they not be included, but should this be the case, their inability to score more than 3 points in the second overtime in Iowa City will be the ultimate culprit.


Kansas State? Well, see above. The Wildcats awful strength of schedule rating will send the Selection Committee searching for reasons to omit them come Sunday.  Their tough loss to Oklahoma State a week ago may have provided it.


UNLV lost three of their final five, and the clincher was a dispiriting loss to at San Diego State to end the regular season, a game which, for the second game in a row, the Rebels only scored 46 points. 


Arizona lost four in a row, including an awful home loss to Cal on Lute Olson Night last Thursday but closed their regular season with a thumping of Stanford.  Just like last year, they need at least one Pac-10 Tourney win to get an at-large berth.


On the flip side, the Big Ten is looking much better.


Michigan has won four of their final six games, including a huge, huge victory on the road in Minnesota to close out the regular season.  Ohio State has won three of their last four, and Wisconsin has won seven of their last nine, making their six game losing streak a distant memory. Minnesota, however, has lost six of their last nine to close the season, and is probably NIT-bound without a couple of wins in the Big Ten Tournament.



2) The SEC could be a two bid Conference


Outside of Tennessee and LSU, the SEC doesn’t look to have much representation in the NCAA Tournament come Sunday.


South Carolina only avoided a three game losing streak to close the regular season by beating lowly Georgia.  Before beating Kentucky – who themselves have dropped five of their last six – Florida was riding a three game losing streak, including a defeat to Mississippi State.  It was just their third win since a February 3rd victory over South Carolina. 


Auburn on the other hand, closed out the regular season on a 4-0 run, and were 8-1 in their last nine, which included home wins over LSU and Tennessee.  Also, as the Tigers are quick to point out, no SEC team with 10 conference wins has ever been left out of the NCAA Tournament.  But they are still paying a price for their early season schedule in terms of their lack of signature opponents, and the weakness of the SEC, and probably need a win or two in the SEC Tournament.


Overall these three teams, the only ones outside of LSU and Tennessee with a shot at an at-large berth, are a combined 5-16 against the top 50 RPI this season, meaning that all of them need to advance in the SEC Tournament to have a real chance.  But the problem there is that the conference is so unpredictable that whether or not that happens is anyone’s guess. 


Heck, outside of Auburn, the hottest team in the SEC right now is Vanderbilt, who is 8-8 in the conference but won their final three games, including wins over LSU and South Carolina.



3) Memphis needs out of Conference USA


It hadn’t received much fanfare outside of Tennessee, but recently Alabama prep star big man DeMarcus Cousins committed to Memphis for next season, according to multiple news accounts.  Along with super recruits Nolan Dennis and Xavier Henry, this gives Memphis in all likelihood the top rated freshman class of 2009.  They are also very much in the running for the services of North Carolina product John Wall, considered by many to be the top guard prospect in the nation. 


Which means that, even with Tyreke Evans’ likely jump to the NBA (following in the footsteps of Derrick Rose last year), Memphis will stand a good chance of running the table in Conference USA for the fourth straight year. 


That’s right.  The Tigers have now gone undefeated in C-USA for three seasons running, and have 58 C-USA wins including the postseason in that time.  They have won 132 games in the last four years.


Suffice it to say, this is getting ridiculous.  Even Gonzaga stumbles in the WCC once in awhile.


Don’t be surprised if Memphis, which also has a FBS football team and went to a bowl game last season, finds its way to one of the Big 6 conferences in the near future, most likely the Big 10 (which is still searching for that 12th team for a conference football championship) or the Big East, which has already been rumored to be courting them. 



4) North Dakota State is simply a great story


The Bison are in their first full season in Division I, but the second in the Summit League, where they played last season in their final year of reclassification.  Last year, refusing to play the role of doormat that newcomers to Division I are accustomed to, they came in a surprising fourth in the conference with a 16-13 record.  This year, with all of their starters returning – including Summit League player of the year Ben Woodside, they won the Summit League regular season title going away, by a full two games. 


Now they are a game away from the NCAA Tournament.  Absolutely amazing for a team that was in Division II just a few short years ago.  Although for programs like Wisconsin and Marquette, who have both lost to the mighty Bison in recent years, maybe not as much.


Even if the Bison lose to Oakland in tonight’s championship, its still a incredible accomplishment for second year Coach Saul Phillips, a thirty-something prodigy who spent years under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin as Director of Basketball Operations.



5) Is Billy Gillispie officially a bust?


Combing over news articles this week, one in particular really jumped out.


It was a story by ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, entitled “Once-mighty Kentucky says it would accept an NIT bid.”  In it, O’Neil reports that Kentucky’s Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart had reluctantly agreed to participate in the Wildcats’ first NIT appearance in 30 years should they not be able to run the table in Tampa and secure the SEC’s automatic berth.


The article concluded with this little nugget: “If Kentucky ends up in the NIT and hosts a game, the first round will have to be played in Memorial Coliseum because of high school state playoffs scheduled for Rupp Arena.”


The indignity of that last line, for the winningest college basketball program in the history of the game, is simply remarkable.  Coach Billy Gillispie’s brief tenure in Lexington could be quickly coming to an end.


Keep in mind, this is the same coach that produced near miraculous turnarounds at not one, but two schools – UTEP and then Texas A&M before bolting for Kentucky.  He led the Aggies to two NCAA Tournament appearances in his last three years there, which equaled the number of appearances the team had posted in the previous 30.


In his first season in Lexington, he still appeared to be headed for great things, overcoming early season stumbles and multiple injuries to achieve a 12-4 conference record and an NCAA Tournament berth.  He was named Co-SEC Coach of the Year along with Bruce Pearl.


But this year has been a shocking disappointment.  Despite the star power of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, the Wildcats have endured home losses to VMI and Georgia (on senior night), and have dropped five of the last six regular season games to fall to eighth place in a very weak SEC.


The UK message boards of course have no shortage of reasons for this season’s debacle, and plenty of ire directed at their head coach.  As for me, I have no answers.  It is truly one of the more baffling seasons for such a traditional powerhouse, and previously successful coach, that I have witnessed in a long time.  If Coach Gillispie does somehow survive the season with his job intact, there will be no warmer seat in the country than his next year.