Big Dance Preview
March 13, 2012
By Bruce Marshall
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"If you're goin' dancin', you don't care where you bought the ticket."
-New Mexico State HC Marvin Menzies, after being asked if his Aggies team would have rather advanced to the NCAA Tourney by beating regular-season champion Nevada than winning vs. longshot La Tech in the WAC Tourney finale
Yes, Marvin Menzies and his New Mexico State Aggies were pretty excited after winning the WAC Tournament at the Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas last Saturday night. As they and the other 67 Big Dance qualifiers should be as well.
After all, if there's one thing March Mayhem has taught us lately, it's that almost anything is possible. Thank Butler (twice), Virginia Commonwealth, and George Mason for allowing the likes of New Mexico State and several others to dream that they, too, could get to the Final Four.
Now, be honest, do you prefer the March Magic in hoops, or the staid BCS and bowl system of college football? (Just asking.)
We'll get to some possible "new" Butlers and Virginia Commonwealths and George Masons. For the moment, however, a quick review of the weekend and our take of developments on Selection Sunday.
For the first time in a while, we had no serious beefs with the NCAA Tourney Selection Committee on either its choice of teams (with one exception, addressed below) or their seeding. Maybe it's because we're getting pretty good at this "bracketology" stuff ourselves. We only missed on two of our projected at-large selections, with one of those the result of St. Bonaventure's mild upset win over Xavier in the Atlantic 10 finale which came after our final bracket update late Saturday night. That put the Bonnies into the field, and since we figured the Musketeers were in win or lose, that result automatically knocked out of our at-large candidates.
As it was, our only misses were Miami-Florida and Drexel, which were replaced by Cal and, effectively, the Bonnies in the final field of 68. We had Iona into one of the last at-large play-in spots and thought that Jim Larranga's Hurricanes might also get a favorable call, along with Drexel. We knew those last few picks were going to be dicey, but the chips fell mostly where we expected. Including all of the protected (one thru four) seeds, which we correctly tabbed on Sunday morning.
Still, it wouldn't be a Selection Sunday without a few bones to pick with the Committee. Although we suspect it was simply the inability of Committee Chair and Big East consultant (and former UConn AD) Jeff Hathaway to properly explain procedures and decisions that left us a bit baffled.
1) Hathaway, like almost all past Committee chairs, dodges most questions relating to decision-making within the 10-member group. His roundabout non-answer to a very simple question from CBS's Jim Nantz regarding the Big Ten Tourney finale, and if Ohio State would have been on the top line instead of Michigan State had the Buckeyes instead won the game, would have made Mitt Romney proud. Hathaway also lost us when trying to explain Missouri's spot as the "eighth team" when seeded at the end of the second line, which shot holes in the supposed "S-curve" system in which the eighth-ranked team should have been matched up with the top tourney seed, which was Kentucky. With Hathaway admitting that Michigan State was the fourth seed and thus earning the final spot on the number one line, Mizzou was then likely the fifth overall seed, not the eighth. While going to great lengths to dodge a direct answer to one of the questions from the CBS panel regarding the Tigers, Hathaway instead botched the explanation.
Note to Committee chairs: why not simply tell the interviewers they are right once in a while with their theories, instead of acting as if information inside of the Committee room should be treated like national security directives?
2) Hathaway did a bit better when explaining the reasons behind selecting Iona instead of Drexel as one of the final at-large entries. But if what Hathaway said was true, we challenge the premise.
The reason? The Gaels were given credit for a much-tougher non-conference strength of schedule rating than the Dragons, but we are disappointed if the Committee members used that as the determining criteria, and didn't examine those slates a bit more closely. Drexel was apparently penalized heavily for scheduling games against Binghamton and St. Francis (PA), which turned out to be two of the nation's worst D-I squads, but also hit some bad luck when a potential matchup vs. Marquette in the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam in November never materialized. Meanwhile, Iona drew Big Ten Purdue and ACC Maryland in the Puerto Rico Tip-off Tourney. The Gaels did beat St. Joe's and Drexel lost to the same Hawks, but both games were in November.
And if we're talking about mid-majors "stepping up" their non-conference slates, don't show us a team that makes stops at Hofstra and William & Mary, and modestly challenges itself vs. Marshall, Richmond, Vermont, and Denver, as did Iona. Show us a team like Long Beach State, which went to Pitt, to San Diego State, to Louisville, to Kansas, to North Carolina, to Creighton, and tackled Xavier and Kansas State in the Hawaii Diamond Head Classic. Remember, Drexel has beaten the likes of Syracuse, Louisville, Temple, and Villanova in recent years, all on the road, and its giant-killer reputation has made it hard for Bruiser Flint to schedule higher-profile foes who want NO PART of the Dragons. Hardly Drexel's fault for not being able to schedule a couple of more higher-profile entries who wanted no part of the Philly bunch. That would include most of the local "Big Five" which has always viewed Drexel as a class below, with only Phil Martelli's St. Joe's brave enough to schedule Bruiser's boys this season.
Moreover, don't tell us Iona's Metro-Atlantic was anywhere near as tough as Drexel's Colonial this season. While the CAA had its weak links at the bottom of the loop, the upper and middle tier of the Colonial was much stronger and deeper than the Metro-Atlantic. Drexel's season-ending 19-game win streak ended in a narrow loss in the CAA finale vs. VCU, which advanced to the Final Four last season. Iona? Beaten soundly by Fairfield in the semifinals of the MAAC Tourney.
As we mentioned, we also had Iona in our field of 68, but we had Drexel on the safe side of the cut line, too. And if the Selection Committee used the argument of a stronger non-conference slate to make the decision between Iona and Drexel, it's a lot of hooey. The Committee was flat-out wrong if that was the criteria.
3) Elsewhere, the fascination with the Big East continues. Although we might be as guilty as the Selection Committee for granting the league such a wide berth; we had the same nine teams pegged into our field of 68 as did the Selection Committee. But it's about time we all ask ourselves if we aren't collectively overrating this loop. Only two of the record eleven entries into last year's NCAA field from the Big East advanced to the Sweet 16. And even though UConn stormed from the pack to eventually win last year's crown, few Big Dance entries were shaking at the prospect of facing Big East opposition. Don't be surprised if the Big East becomes the Big Least in March.
4) BYU? We had the Cougars into our field but in retrospect we overseeded Dave Rose's team, projecting the Cougars in the 10-11 range for the past few weeks. We suspect that the WCC connection helped BYU make the final cut this season, as the league rated highly with not only its top teams, but some other impressive wins by lesser entries in the loop (try Santa Clara, which went 0-17 in conference play, beating New Mexico and Villanova in pre-league play, and Loyola-Marymount notching several good wins, including non-conference successes vs. Saint Louis and UCLA).
5) Is there a Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, or George Mason in the house?
Maybe. Here are some stealth mid-major squads to keep an eye on this week. We exclude Murray State because everyone has been talking about the Racers since mid-January.
Virginia Commonweath...Why not the Rams again? Few teams were hotter down the stretch than VCU, which enters the Dance having won 17 of its last 18 games, with the only loss on a miracle 30-foot buzzer beater by George Mason's Sherrod Wright on Valentine's Day at Fairfax. VCU subsequently avenged that loss twice and then won a heart-stopper over aforementioned Drexel in the CAA final. Not as accomplished offensively as last year's Final Four team that could bomb from the perimeter with Joey Rodriguez or dump the ball on the blocks to Jamie Skeen, but even better on the stop end with relentless, full-court pressure "havoc" defense that unnerved Drexel in the CAA title game and is best exemplified by lightning-quick frosh G Briante Webber, one of the best pickpockets (2.2 steals pg, while averaging just 19 minutes on the floor) in the nation. The closest thing to a go-to scorer is sr. swingman Bradford Burgess (13.3 ppg), a holdover from the starting unit that caused such a stir last March, but it's the Ram pressure that can distort games. We guarantee that Wichita State HC Gregg Marshall, who drew VCU in the sub-regionals at Portland, was hoping he would see any other name than the Rams' on the 12 seed line against his team.
Belmont...Rick Byrd's Bruins have been dancing several times (this being their fifth trip), nearly knocking off Duke a few years ago, and in fact played the Blue Devils real tough in this season's opener at Durham, losing by only 1. Belmont likes to force the pace and shoot 3s (making almost nine of them pg while scoring 81.5 ppg), which gives the Bruins a puncher's chance vs. the right foe. Last year, Wisconsin proved to be the wrong foe in a 72-58 Badgers win, but let's see if Georgetown can handle the Belmont tempo led by Gs Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg), Ian Clark (12.7 ppg), and Drew Hanlen (48% triples) that helped the Bruins post some good non-conference wins over Middle Tennessee and Marshall, and fueled the current 14-game win streak and storm through the Atlantic Sun Tourney.
New Mexico State...We want to see the looks on the faces of the Indiana Hoosiers when they look across the court at New Mexico State during warm-ups in Thursday's sub-regional action at Portland. The internationally-flavored Aggies are arguably the most physically-imposing team in the tournament, a menacing collection of athletes with plenty of scary size (6-11, 6-10, and 6-8 types on the frontline), and a couple of unique weapons in bruising 6-6 sr. F Wendell McKines (18 ppg & 10 rpg), who is comfy on the blocks or creating shots from the perimeter, and highlight-reel 6-2 Canadian frosh Daniel Mullings, a high-wire act who made the midseason departure of shooting G Christian Kabongo much easier to digest. The Ags start three seniors and a junior and also have a heady PG in sr. Hernst Laroche, another Canadian (via Montreal, French accent and all), who steadies the troops. One of the best-rebounding teams in the country (+9 rebound margin pg) and almost impossible to keep off the glass, with McKines, 6-11 Hamidu Rahman, 6-10 Tshilidzi Nephawe (via Johannesburg, South Africa) and 6-8 Bandja Sy (via Cergy, France), all capable of frightening dunks as well. But it's their voracious rebounding that intimidates. "Missed shots are like assists for them," said Hawaii HC Gib Arnold at last week's WAC Tourney. "We tried every scheme in the book to keep them off the glass, and nothing worked," said La Tech HC Michael White after losing the tourney finale by an 82-57 score. "No team in the league could keep them off the boards." Indiana has been forewarned.
Montana...The last time HC Wayne Tinkle brought his Grizzlies to the Dance, they almost pulled a major upset over New Mexico two years ago. Now they're back and confident again, led by explosive G Will Cherry, who hails from legendary McClymonds High in Oakland, prep home to the likes of Bill Russell, Frank Robinson, Paul Silas, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Jumpin' Joe Ellis, and 1968 Olympic 100-meter champion Jimmy Hines. Cherry (16 ppg) and 6-5 swingman Kareem Jamar (14 ppg) are a potent and versatile combo on the perimeter, and Tinkle even has a post presence in 7-0 C Derek Selvig. Beat Long Beach State at Missoula in December and enters the Dance on a 14-game win streak and winner of 20 of its last 21.
Detroit...With enough athletes to match up with almost any team in the field, the Titans are not your usual 15th-seeded entry. UD struggled early in the season as its frontline was depleted by the suspension of 6-10 former Indiana transfer C Eli Holman and season-ending knee injury to PF Nick Minnerath. In the interim, HC Ray McCallum introduced a zone defense to the mix, and Holman would return in mid-December, still coming off the bench but playing starter's minutes most nights. A potent backcourt led by coach Ray's son, "Little Ray" McCallum (15.6 ppg; could have attended any school he wished but chose to play for Pop at UD) and Chase Simon (13.5 ppg), can cause problems for a variety of foes. Nice personnel mix that seemed to gel in the recent Horizon Tourney when beating host Valpo, 70-50, in the finale. Kansas, which has lost to less-accomplished lower seeds in the past, is forewarned against Dick Vitale's former team (the court at Calhian Hall, by the way, is named after Dickie V).
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