The “Curse” seems to have finally been eradicated…at least for a week. Davidson, Marquette, American and even Indiana had pretty good news last week. Does that mean that teams can stop worrying about the Seven Day Stretch or will it be a double-strength whammy this week?
Seven Day Savior (Team): Indiana Hoosiers
Considering what the players on this team went through over the course of the past ten days, the fact that they have gone 4-0 since the Kelvin Sampson/NCAA news broke is highly commendable. The Hoosiers defeated three of the top five teams in the Big 10 Conference, and even though those victories took place in the cozy environs of Assembly Hall in Bloomington, it was and is impressive, nonetheless. Indiana was able to beat both Purdue and Michigan State as the Sampson issue was front page news. That says a great deal about the character of the kids on that squad, many of whom Sampson recruited or had to talk into staying when Mike Davis was fired. Let’s remember that these are, at best, young men in their early 20’s, with many of the players on the squad under 20. It took a lot of maturity to get past the controversy swirling around the team and to focus on the business of actually playing the games. While it’s true that some of the players threatened to miss the game against Northwestern last Saturday, the bottom line is that they didn’t. Kudos to the Hoosiers.
Admittedly, there is a close second this week; the Kent State Golden Flashes. Their win over St. Mary’s in their BracketBuster game last Saturday night was a huge boost to Kent State’s at-large bid should they not win the Mid-American Conference Tournament. There are more than a few bubble teams from the “power” conferences that are hoping that Kent State wins the Mac Tourney.
Seven Day Savior (Player): Al Fisher, Kent State
If I don’t give the team award to Kent State, I can certainly give the player award to one of its players. Fisher, a junior guard, scored 28 points in the win over St. Mary’s and won the MAC Player of the Week award for the second week in a row. Fisher, who started his collegiate career at Siena, is a quick and smart point guard who plays a pass-first game, but knows how and when to score when the Golden Flashes need someone to step up. While he leads the team in both scoring and assists, Fisher’s biggest games have come in some of Kent State’s biggest wins, including St. Mary’s, George Mason and Illinois State. Fisher has all the qualities of a young man who will step up in the NCAA Tournament and break the heart of fans of a big school.
News of the Week: Northern Illinois Returns to Competition
The Huskies returned to game action this week for the first time since the disastrous shooting at the school that took place on Valentine’s Day. Six students died in the attack, including the shooter, and the campus has been struggling with the event ever since. Although the scope of the shooting was much less, in terms of numbers, than what happened at Virginia Tech, the strain on the school community was enormous and will be for some time to come. While athletics aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things, they can provide a necessary distraction in times of stress as well as a rallying point for a community in need of something to get its mind off of a tragedy. The Huskies lost their home game against Western Michigan, but chances are that many NIU supporters don’t care. For Northern Illinois and the people directly related to the school, it probably was more important that the team simply played the game. As with any difficult situation, a return to normalcy helps to get past it. This week, the lives of those people at NIU became a little bit more normal.
Game of the Week (The one you DON’T know about): Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Once again, Jim Boeheim’s Orange find themselves skirting dangerously close with the wrong side of the bubble. Unexpectedly, now Pittsburgh is getting to the point of having to worry about the bubble, albeit not very much. In Syracuse’s case, the struggles the Orange have endured were somewhat expected considering the injuries that Syracuse has had to deal with this season. Pittsburgh also suffered injuries, losing starter Mike Cook for the season and guard Levance Fields for a large portion of the season, however Pitt has lost their last two games with fields back in the line-up. The Big East will probably get up to eight bids come Selection Sunday and Syracuse, (definitely), and Pitt, (maybe), will be fighting for one of the final ones. The game at Syracuse on Saturday will go a long way towards either team feeling much more comfortable about which side of the bubble they will come down on. Pitt is looking for a decent victory, especially on the road, while Syracuse needs wins badly. In the case of the Orange, their profile is looking quite a bit like last year’s and last season they missed the NCAAs.
Seven Days Under the Radar: Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
This is a team that is truly under the radar. In the last twenty years, how many teams that have gone 22-3, including a win over Oklahoma, and have had an RPI of 47 or better been this inconspicuous? The Jacks aren’t in first place in their conference, but they have defeated the conference leader, (Lamar), in their only meeting this season. They have won at SMU and San Diego, the latter a pretty difficult victory for any team, as well as the win in Norman. They have two solid “go-to guys” in junior guard Josh Alexander and junior forward Matt Kingsley, both of whom average around 16 points per game. If you think the Jacks are good now, they lose only one senior of consequence and only three players overall. This team is going to be tough if they make the Big Dance, and they will be even tougher next season. Imagine the sleeplessness in Big East, Big 12 and Pac-10 countries if the Jacks go 24-4 and lose in the Southland Conference title game. That will make for a very interesting Sunday night.
Seven Days on the Hot Seat: Mark Few, Gonzaga Bulldogs
Alright, so Few isn’t really on the hot seat, but there is now a very real possibility that he will leave Gonzaga at the end of the season. Here’s the deal; right now the heat on Oregon’s Ernie Kent is enormous, especially after his Ducks blew both games on their L.A. road trip last week. Oregon had double-digit leads in the second half of both games. The likelihood of Kent’s dismissal after the season is quite high. Multiple big money donors have already made it clear to the Oregon athletic department that they want and expect Kent gone. The newspapers in Oregon are now openly talking about replacements for Kent. The name at the top of the list is Few’s. Few is obviously a good coach and recruiter. He knows the kind of players he needs for his system and he knows the recruiting scene in the Pacific Northwest. Few has stated in the past that Oregon would be one of the very few, (no pun intended), jobs that would get him to leave Gonzaga. The reason that this hasn’t garnered more attention yet is because Kent does have an opportunity to save his skin. If Oregon gets to the NCAA’s, then he will gain a reprieve. It doesn’t matter if he gets there as an at-large or by winning the Pac-10 Tournament, (which the Duck accomplished last season), just as long as he gets there. If he and the Ducks see their bubble burst, expect Gonzaga to be looking for a new coach in the spring.
Seven Days of Head Scratching: Officiating
It started long before the blown call by the Big East officials at the end of the Villanova/Georgetown game; a call that handed the Hoyas the victory. It started long before the inconsistency that was seen throughout many of the BracketBuster games last weekend. The officiating this season has been among the most inconsistent that I have seen in the last decade. There was a time not so long ago when I would watch a full week’s slate of games and be shocked to see one or two blatant screw-ups on the part of the zebras. Now it seems as if I see at least one per game. Even certain conferences seem to have more of an officiating issue than others. The Pac-10 is notorious for having the most inconsistent set of refs in any of the “power leagues”. The joke around the Pac-10 is that you’ll know what kind of game you’ll get from the refs if you know what “mood” they’re in before the game. Say what?!? These goofs on the part of the officials go beyond simple blown calls; calling a charge when it should be a block or missing a travel. Now officials are starting to make calls against the rule books of various conferences. That came to a head this past weekend when the officials in the Big Sky contest between Montana State and Idaho State refused to use video monitors to determine when a time-out had been called at the end of a key conference game. If the officials had gotten the rule right they would have awarded two technical foul shots to Idaho State. There would have been barely enough time for Montana State to have gotten a shot off to tie or win the game if ISU had made even one of the free throws. As it was, Montana State won in overtime. The Big Sky Conference noticed the blunder and called the officiating crew to the carpet, suspending each official for one game. This should be used more by conferences to be sure that the officials are at the top of their games. Nothing needs to be said about specifics when it happens, and I understand that conferences are reluctant to do this sort of thing because it admits error. However, as time has gone by, officials have become more and more emboldened to become part of the game focus rather than calling the game. Remember, the best officiated games are the ones when you don’t remember the refs.