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By Adam Glatczak

March 6th, 2006

College Basketball: Weekend Recap


- Conference Championship Journal:


-The sentimental choice of conference tournament season has emerged, and it is St. Peter’s of the Metro Atlantic. There may not be many dry eyes in Albany’s Pepsi Arena Monday night if the Peacocks complete an unthinkable run and win the MAAC Tournament


We noted just over a week ago our admiration for the career of fabulous St. Peter’s star Keydren Clark, and the generously listed as 5-10 guard will be playing against Iona in the MAAC title game Monday night. The Peacocks got to that game by knocking off top seed Manhattan on Sunday night for their third MAAC tourney win in three days and one of the bigger upsets thus far in the conference tourneys. In winning those three games, St. Peter’s has developed into as good a story as you can find in this postseason.


One day earlier, Clark reached the 3,000-point mark in his fantastic career at St. Peter’s. As if this wasn’t enough-he was just the seventh player in Division I history to reach 3,000-the best part about the senior guard’s milestone is that it came in a winning effort. In grand fashion, Clark hit the game-winning shot in the Peacocks’ 63-62 win over Siena on Saturday, banking in a leaping leaner with 10 seconds left. In passing Oscar Robertson for career points, he also moved to seventh on the all-time Division I scoring list in this game.


Sunday night, the graduate student known as Kee Kee (he completed his undergraduate degree in three years) passed Hersey Hawkins for sixth on the all-time list. A day after hitting the 3K mark, Clark looked noticeably more relaxed and blew up for 18 points in the first half. In the second half, though, something surprising happened: his teammates stole the show. Although Keydren scored just 11 in the second half, fellow starters Raul Orta, Quentin Martin, Kevin Spann and Todd Sowell played big roles in beating the Jaspers, 84-74. All five scored in double figures for SPC, hardly the sign of a team that frequently in the past has looked like Keydren and the Kiddie Corps.

Future years will tell the real truth on this, but it’s possible we’re seeing a team start to grow up before our eyes, and that it’s happening with Clark still around is great to see, considering what he has meant to the program and with what the program has gone through of late. At halftime and after the game, Clark was wearing a T-Shirt with the words “Brothers Forever, 23 G-Jeff” in honor of best friend George Jefferson, who died this past summer. Whatever story one wants to write about Clark and team playing for Jefferson’s memory, there’s no doubt it makes an already terrific story even better and just adds to the drama that is building Monday.


Clark has been one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history and will go down with names like Lionel Simmons, Steve Burtt, Sr. and Luis Flores as one of the greats in MAAC history. One thing Clark, Coach Bob Leckie and the Peacocks haven’t done these past four years is make the NCAA Tournament, but that goal is now in sight. What an incredible career, and we’re pleased to see him and the Peacocks not finishing their season without a fight. The nation deserves a chance to see Clark make the NCAA Tournament once in his career, and though we will not object if Iona and its outstanding senior foursome of Ricky Soliver, Marvin McCullough, Steve Burtt and Kiril Wachsmann defeat St. Peter’s and win the MAAC automatic bid, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t pulling for the Peacocks.


-What a wild, wild last few days of basketball for anyone and everyone who has been living on the bubble, fence, or any other unstable object lately. Just a week after many were wondering if we’d have enough good teams to fill out the field, suddenly a number of fence-sitters have gotten hot and made flashy cases for themselves of late. (Which begs the question: why couldn’t these teams do this earlier?)


If there’s a serious message to be taken from that above sarcastic comment, it is this: when the dust settles and everything has been counted up after this frantic weekend, one win (or even two or three wins) STILL does not make an entire season. The selection committee has seldom in the past rewarded teams with just a handful of quality wins over more qualified candidates, and it shouldn’t start this year, no matter how impressive those wins are. What that should mean is that teams like Florida State, Texas A&M, Colorado and California should still be sweating out bids, at-large prospects from the Missouri Valley and Colonial still deserve very strong consideration, and teams like Cincinnati, Michigan, Seton Hall, Arizona and Alabama ought not be mortal locks at this point, either. Every team in that first group should need to make their conference final to even be discussed in the same breath as the MVC and CAA schools looking for bids, while teams in that last group may be in anyways but should need conference semifinal berths to feel safe. Sounds hard to believe after a Creighton lost on Friday and it seemed every other bubble team won, but that’s what the numbers say. If that sounds unfair, well, those teams still have time to make better cases. Whether what ‘should’ happen and what ‘will’ happen are reconciled is beyond us at this point, but based on the committee’s track record in previous years, we trust they will do the right thing.


-Perhaps as big a story as all of the bubble teams winning of late is all of the supposedly “in” teams struggling. From Duke to West Virginia, Michigan State and Texas all the way through Northern Iowa, many wins over highly ranked teams right now are probably going to be considered more impressive in the numbers than they really are relative to that losing team’s play. Anyone who saw Texas against Texas A&M knows exactly what that means; the Longhorns didn’t exactly put up a stellar showing in College Station, nor did they a week earlier at Oklahoma State or against Kansas State. It makes one wonder: of the ‘bubble’ teams, who’s really playing good right now, and who’s just beating teams that are playing average right now but were playing better earlier in the year? How exactly do you rate a quality win at this point? For instance, Indiana’s beating Michigan State a month ago would’ve been far more impressive than beating the Spartans now. That’s important because, even though IU has now won four in a row, it’s hard to know how much to make of those wins when two were over Big 10 non-factors Penn State and Purdue and the others were against a sliding MSU and an overrated Michigan. Ditto for Southern Illinois beating Northern Iowa a few times in the past week…although the Panthers still deserve an NCAA bid based on their overall resume, they have slipped and maybe it’s just a reflection of how tough and how equal the MVC is, but they don’t seem to be the same team now that beat LSU and Iowa earlier this year. Fortunately for the Salukis, they took all doubt out of their NCAA status by winning the Valley tournament. Other bubble teams, like Indiana, would be advised to do the same.


-Don’t be fooled by Winthrop barely getting by at home against a very tough Coastal Carolina team in the Big South final; this is a team capable of winning in the NCAA Tournament. Few remember that last year Wisconsin-Milwaukee was just a point from probably not even making the tourney, as the Panthers needed a free throw in the final seconds to beat 13-16 Detroit at home in the Horizon League title game. Like UWM, this Winthrop team is more than capable of rising to the occasion against a higher-profile foe, and may end up being a trendy pick for a first-round upset in the tournament. It is a team that all year has playing with one eye on the tourney, and although they had a few rough spots in the improving Big South, the Eagles are going to be a nightmare opponent for someone in the first round.


-Disappointed that Comcast SportsNet, ESPNU or whoever holds the rights to the CAA tourney did not televise the quarterfinal games this year. We can remember the CAA quarterfinals being televised for the longest time, dating back to when Comcast SportsNet used to be known as Home Team Sports and had an extensive TV package with the CAA, and we’re not sure why that recently changed. Very poor on all parts, and this needs to be corrected in future years; if it’s not, it will just make it harder and harder for the CAA to shed its ‘mid-major’ image. And the networks will be missing out on a great day of basketball to televise.


-Add Denver and Louisiana-Lafayette as two of the latest to win conference tourney games at the buzzer. The Pioneers beat Middle Tennessee State on its own homecourt on Sunday, 58-57, when star center Yemi Nicholson scored on a rebound basket with a second left. It was Denver’s second win at MTSU this year, ironic since the Pioneers are just 16-14 and were only 7-8 in the Sun Belt in the regular season. Also, Louisiana-Lafayette has finally put it together in recent weeks and shouldn’t be discounted as a factor in this tourney. The Ragin’ Cajuns have won 8 of 9 and get top seed Western Kentucky on Monday after taking out Troy in overtime in the quarterfinals when Ross Mouton hit a three with less than a second left in the extra session. With the two clear best teams in the league left (WKU and South Alabama) along with maybe the hottest team and the team with probably the league’s best star, the semis and finals in the Sun Belt should be fun to watch.


-The promotional advertisements for Cal State University at Long Beach - Long Beach State to most college sports fans - proclaim that “The Beach Is Hot.” Kind of funny because it’s not what you expect from a typically stuffy college P.R. announcement, but it is ever so accurate in describing the 49ers’ play of late on the basketball court. Long Beach finished off the regular season winning five in a row and got Coach Larry Reynolds his first winning season with a 16-11 record. Moreover, The Beach is absolutely sizzling offensively, averaging more than 93 points in the five wins and an equally impressive 92 points in its last seven on the road. Six of those seven road games were wins, and included in there was an improbable 108-94 win at Manhattan a few weeks ago, a score that speaks for itself. Believe it or not, the 93-73 win over Cal-Irvine on Saturday was crazier yet. The Anteaters jumped out to a 31-10 lead, but the 49ers came back and torched UCI for 83 points in the game’s final 30 minutes, repeatedly burning Irvine with drives to the basket while also committing just FIVE turnovers. Maybe the best measure yet of how bizarre this dissection was is that the game was over in just over 1 ½ hours…it’s almost as if LBSU combined the best aspects of John Chaney and Paul Westhead into one neat package. Playing unselfishly and creating-and making-shots off the dribble with stunning ease, perhaps no team in the country is getting up and down the floor better right now. If Long Beach State and UAB played, the over-under on points scored would have to be somewhere around 225…this is an exciting team to watch that is hitting on every cylinder right now and is a serious threat to win the Big West tourney if it stays in sync offensively. Good to see, too, for a school with some basketball history that has struggled the past few years.


-On the other hand, if Long Beach played a Missouri Valley team, the result would likely be a tornado. The elemental differences between the 49ers and almost any MVC team are not at all unlike the warm, muggy air and cool, dry atmosphere that come together to make Midwestern summers adventurous. In fact, while we love the Valley and we love the intensity and the way the teams play defense, we saw a little too much of it in Arch Madness. Most of that just goes on a number of players who have become increasingly timid on offense of late in the league. At some point, too, the officials needed to balance the desire to let them play with the need to ensure that offensive play is rewarded, instead of letting these things turn into free for alls with more loose ball pile-ups than an elementary school game. The product the nation saw was not a particularly appealing one, and while it doesn’t necessarily make it of less quality, the balance swayed a little too much to the defensive end in recent weeks in the Valley as the whistles were mostly for decoration of late.

All of this said, if the NCAA selection committee does its job correctly, there’s still no reason to panic about the league’s chances for as many as six bids. With all of the bubble teams wins the past few days seemingly diminishing the MVC’s chances for at-large bids with every second, again, it still needs to be remembered that, even after teams like Texas A&M, Florida State, Colorado, Air Force and Utah State won this weekend, Valley at-large contenders like Creighton, Bradley and Missouri State STILL have better overall resumes than all of those teams, especially the Bluejays and Braves. If the selection committee is doing its jobs correctly, the MVC will get at least five bids.


-By the way, just wondering if anyone’s seen media reports showing concern over Michigan, Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida State, Marquette, Boston College or Seton Hall having all of their quality (top 50) wins in conference play? Anybody? Or any worries that Indiana, Washington, Pittsburgh, Florida, Cincinnati, LSU, Tennessee and Oklahoma have just one quality non-conference win? Apparently this is something we should be concerned about this year, and if that were as important as some are leading us to believe in regards to certain conferences of late, then all of those teams listed above should be concerned about the legitimacy of their RPI figures or maybe even their leagues as a whole…


-One other thing, about that rhetoric about 8-8 or 9-7 conference records being golden for some teams to make the tourney? The meaning of some 9-7 and even 10-6 records is debatable because these are not round-robin schedules teams are playing. For instance, Texas A&M may be 10-6 in the Big 12, but of the other teams in the top half of that league, the Aggies played Texas and Oklahoma twice but Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska only once, and all three at home. A&M did, though, have two games each against Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Seton Hall also had nine of its 16 Big East games against bottom teams South Florida, Providence, Rutgers, DePaul and Notre Dame, so to imply that their 9-7 league record on the surface is impressive is wrong. Ditto for Florida State’s 9-7 ACC record, a mark likely inflated because the Seminoles only played Boston College, North Carolina and N.C. State once each, losing to all three. (It is scary how similar Florida State and Texas A&M look right now) In these cases and many others for teams from oversized leagues across the country, conference record should have next to nothing to do with the argument. Overall profile, on the other hand, should have everything to do with it.


-Haven’t thought about it much until lately, but will say it is a good thing that the ‘new’ NIT is making room for conference champions that don’t win their conference tourneys, meaning teams like Lipscomb and Manhattan have no doubt that they still have something to look forward to this year. This move has the potential to put some meaning back into the NIT and make it at least as relevant as minor bowl games in college football (which are more important to most teams than the average fans think). If it eventually takes at least a little of the emphasis back off of the idea that an NCAA Tournament bid is the only way to have a successful season, then we’re all for it. One reason why we can’t slap the NCAA on the back too much for making this decision about conference champions, though, is because it’s easy to think this may just be a way to leave these teams out of at-large bids to the NCAA tourney and then try to paint a sunny picture that ‘it’s not so bad, still have something to play for.’ The real reason why we haven’t thought of it being the humanitarian move that some have portrayed it as, though, is because we just can’t figure out why in the sam-heck this was never done before. This is a decision that was made only about 15 years late.


-While we’re still not sure if we think Cincinnati should be in the tourney (4-8 vs. top 50 + 5-5 in last 10 games + 5-7 road record = aiyeeee), it is undeniable that Coach Andy Kennedy has done a terrific job this season. Coaching a team that wanted their old coach in front of fans that wanted their old coach at a school that probably doesn’t want him, Kennedy has held things together beautifully and deserves at least a little consideration for national Coach of the Year. One more win anywhere this year and we’d give UC our full endorsement as an NCAA team; as it is, they’re likely still in but personally wouldn’t call it a lock. Perhaps the best compliment anyone can give the Bearcats is that their effort every game this year has not looked any different than the effort Bob Huggins teams always gave in the past.


-We noted that St. Peter’s knocked Manhattan out of the MAAC tourney, but we really like watching Jaspers guard Jeff Xavier. While C.J. Anderson (suspended late in the season) and Arturo Dubois may be better known, Xavier is developing into a terrific all-around player in a hurry. A good shooter who can take it to the basket and rebound, too, he just needs experience before he becomes one of the best guards in the East. He showed guts, too, going back into Sunday night’s game after getting some teeth knocked out in a loose ball scrum.


-Tom Brennan, Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine are gone, but Vermont’s presence in the America East lives on, huh? The Catamounts may be just the #6 seed in the A-East tourney, but they knocked off #3 seed Boston University and then #2 Binghamton this weekend to get a chance to defend their championship in the league title game this Saturday. The old guard, which is led by new players like guard Kyle Cieplicki, trailed Binghamton 20-5 on Sunday before storming back for a 66-59 win, and now they’ll take on the new guard in the America East. Top seed Albany will be hosting its first A-East final and is searching for its first NCAA Division I tourney bid ever.


-Congratulations to Davidson winning the Southern Conference championship with a blowout win over Tennessee-Chattanooga and gaining some form of redemption for last year, when the Wildcats went 16-0 in the SoCon but lost in the league tourney. Not sure of this team’s chances in the NCAAs, but Bob McKillop teams are always well-coached and well-prepared, and Brendan Winter and Ian Johnson are excellent players. With the right matchup, this team can cause some trouble.


-Fairleigh Dickinson and Monmouth advanced to the Northeast Conference final with semifinal wins on Sunday, and it sets up what could be the most anticipated NEC title game in a long time, maybe since the classic between Wagner and Rider in 1993 that was famously won on a shot at the buzzer by the Broncs’ Darrick Suber. The New Jersey rivals split a pair of games this year and have already played twice since Feb. 20, including a double-overtime classic at Monmouth. Both teams are seriously flying under the radar, but the winner is going to have a chance to catch somebody off guard in the NCAAs and give them a scare. FDU has excellent size and experience, while Monmouth plays a very patient clone of the Princeton offense and shoots the three a lot (and rebounds on the offensive end little).


-Finally, how about the performance by Royce Parran of Chicago State in the Cougars’ Mid-Continent quarterfinal? Parran scored 30 points, 24 in the final 8 ½ minutes of the game, and hit 19 of 23 free throws in leading Chicago State to a stunning 75-66 comeback win over #3 seed Missouri-Kansas City. The Cougars finished the game on a 36-15 run and, oddly enough, were the sixth straight #6 seed in Mid-Con tourneys to defeat the #3 seed in the first round.


Up next:

-What used to be a huge day of conference tourney games has lightened up with the MVC finals and America East semis moving to Sunday this year. However, three more automatic bids are settled Monday night, with the CAA, MAAC and WCC tourneys being completed.


-Semifinals in the Mid-Continent and Sun Belt. Yemi Nicholson and Denver are still alive, but top seeds Western Kentucky and South Alabama are the ones to beat in the Sun Belt. Chicago State has crashed a party in the Mid-Continent that also includes traditional league standbys IUPUI, Oral Roberts and Valparaiso.




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