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Conference Championship Notes

Onions Archive

NCAA Conference Tournament Week

by Adam Glatczak

March 15th, 2003

Who should be in: UCLA's run: C-USA intrigues: Texas falls: Big East finals set: Southalnd battle: Quiet WAC: Cal-Poly Surprises: More
 
It’s getting to be no-sleep time...the excitement (and inevitable fury) of the NCAA Tournament selection is less than 36 hours away!

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.

Rasputin dead?


 

For a while there, it looked like Steve Lavin was going to be doing the Rasputin thing to us.

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 there.

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.

Please Email Adam for any suggestions or comments

 

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