It was a day filled with college basketball, both large and small, a perfect example of what makes the sport great and how wonderful sports can be when you are playing for the name on the front...ah forget it, I cant do that with a straight face. It was a highly entertaining day of hoops around the college game, although most of the big action occurred with the major powers. Syracuse was beaten by Louisville for the second time this year, closing down Freedom Hall with chants of a player who going into the contest was averaging three points a game ("You got Kuriced!"). Kansas State kissed their hopes for a #1 seed goodbye with an embarassing loss at home to Iowa State that will force the bars in Manhattan to close extra late (11:00 pm) in order for people to drown their sorrows. And Vanderbilt lost out on a chance at the SEC crown by losing at home to South Carolina and their coach with a 5th grader's haircut, Darrin Horn. If you were a fan of the big boys, today was a good day.
But we are here to focus on Conference Tournaments, and in that realm...well I was a bit disappointed. I had visions of tight matchups, crazy finishes and potential early-round upsets. Instead, I got something quite different, and I am not just talking about Laphonso Ellis's announcer hair. The usual suspects punched their tickets to the Big Dance and entertaining games were few and far between. Lets look at what might qualify as the day's highlights:
1. Three Tickets to the Big Dance Were Punched
--- We started with the biggest event in Conway, South Carolina since Ronnie Milsap came to town in 1982, as Winthrop defeated Coastal Carolina 64-53 to win the Big South Tournament, I will admit that I watched the entire game but couldnt tell you one thing that happened during it, as it was played in the most boring manner possible in front of the smallest crowd that I have ever seen watch a game that was for an NCAA berth. However that was exactly the scenario that Winthrop hoped to accomplish, attempting to slow the game down and believing that if it could hold Coastal Carolina under 60, it would win. Well the Eagles did, and the Chantacleers ended the dream of an NCAA Tournament team based upon Geoffrey Chaucer. For Winthrop, it is their 5th NCAA Tournament appearance in 6 years, and continues the trend of dominance over the league, even in years in which they didnt win the regular season title. Winthrop moves on and someone who only knows basketball in March will see their likely 2-15 game and say "they could pull off a shocker." I watched them today...they cant. (John Wilkinson on the win and the fire on Winthrop's Campus)
--- The wackiest early Championship Week tournament concluded in the Atlantic Sun Conference with #5 seed East Tennessee State taking down Mercer 72-66 on Mercer's home court to make its second straight NCAA Tournament. Again, it was another game that I watched from start to finish and struggled to find memorable moments. ETSU is however coached by Gene Bartow's kid Murray, who isnt really a kid I guess since he has bigger bags under his eyes than Jeff Van Gundy, but who continues his dad's coaching legacy with another tournament bid. ETSU is the early favorite to be the lowest ranked team in the field and could be headed for the play-in game in Dayton. However they are headed for the Big Dance, which is more than I can say for North Carolina, which just cut it to a 33 point second-half deficit against Duke. If UNC were a horse, they would put a curtain around it and start setting up the flower memorials for children who need to weep. (Thomas Beisner on why the NCAA Hates what the Atlantic Sun stands for)
--- The game of the night was supposed to be in the Ohio Valley Conference, as two heated rivals were going to produce a game that would justify me staying in on a Saturday night to watch OVC basketball. Instead, we got a Murray State 62-51 snoozer of a victory over Morehead State that even left the players' families on both teams asking why they had been subjected to it. The refereeing was atrocious, stopping the game of any real flow, and when Morehead's MVP, Kenneth Faried went down with an injury, well the game was more gone than Roy Williams' pride. Murray's Isaiah Cannan led the way with not only his biblical name, but 16 points as well, setting Murray up as one of the truly dangerous teams in March. If Murray ends up with a 13 or 14 seed, the team that draws them needs to be on major upset alert. This Murray State team, like so many in year's past from the program, is built to make March noise and absent drawing Michigan State, I am picking them in the their first NCAA game. (Here is CM Tomlin's take on the game)
2. Butler and Siena Hang On
There are three teams playing in conference tournaments right now that could still be in line for NCAA berths even if they lose. Northern Iowa and Butler are locks for the Big Dance and Siena still has dreams of making it, even if they lose the MAAC tournament. Thus for major conference bubble teams, these three squads are their new darlings, because any loss by them means ones less team for the big boys. Today Butler and Siena tried to make life interesting by falling down early in their tournament games. Butler was in the most surprising trouble, actually trailing at halftime at home to UM-Milwaukee in the Horizon Conference Semifinals before coming back and winning 68-59. In the MAAC, Siena had an even more difficult time, falling down ten late in the first half to Manhattan, before pouring it on late for a 78-61 win. Butler now faces Wright State in the finals next week and Siena moves on to play Rider in the Semifinals.
3. Form Held Everywhere
All across the land I awaited one upset that would leave me shaking in my boots and have my foundations crumbled. All I got however was news that Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons were fighting, likely for the title of "which formerly really fun sports guy has seen his sense of self-importance skyrocket the most in the last two years?" Even though opening rounds and quarterfinals took place all across the land, no #1 or #2 were knocked off and the closest thing to an upset occurred with #2 seed Northeastern held off Hofstra in the MAAC Tournament. March is still hopefully going to be mad, but it just wasnt today.
SUNDAY----WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This Sunday is the proverbial "day of rest" before Championship Week hits a fevered pitch beginning on Monday. But that doesnt mean that there arent storylines to follow and games to watch:
1. Missouri Valley Conference Finals
The fifth ticket to the NCAA Tournament will be punched when Northern Iowa plays Wichita State for the MVC Tournament title on Sunday afternoon on CBS. Stereotypically, "Arch Madness" provides us with the biggest games and at least one shocking upset every year, but this edition has been relatively tame. Northern Iowa is playing not only for the championship, but seeding, as a win could put them in the 6-7 range when the brackets are finally announced. Whereas Wichita State is playing for something much greater. The Shockers have not been to the conference tournament final since 1987, a shocking tidbit considering the history of the program. Their only chance to play in the NCAA is Sunday, and thus they will give the Panthers their best shot. I have picked against Wichita State in every game and it has proved unsuccessful, so why not again. Northern Iowa wins and the major conferences get another mediocre team in the Tournament.
2. Six Sets of Semifinals Are on Tap
Its Semifinal day across the Tournament landscape, as conferences get ready to set their final matchups for early next week. Most are relatively boring and can be skipped for your preparation for The Oscars, but two are worth watching:
#2 Western Carolina vs #1 Wofford
#2 College of Charleston vs #1 Appalachian State
#1 Old Dominion vs #4 VCU
#2 Northeastern vs #3 William and Mary
Both of these conferences have been setting up for monster battles for the title all year long, but each team needs one more victory to get to the much-anticipated game. In the Southern Conference, the possibility of Wofford vs Bobby Cremins and his white hair at College of Charleston has been the goal all year, and the two teams from the same division face stiff challenges in order to make it happen. As for the Colonial (which Mike Rutherford broke down extensively here), Northeastern and Old Dominon both at one time had visions of potential at-large bids to the Tournament, but now both need to win the title to go dancing. If they can take care of business on Sunday, their title matchup might be the best of all the smaller conference games during Championship Week.
3. The MAC Tournament Starts
Well ok that isnt all that exciting, especially since it is only the opening round, but I needed three things and couldnt think of anything else. But The Oscars are coming, so that counts for something right? I have "Hurt Locker" as my best picture ("Up in the Air" is second, "Inglorious Basterds" is third), Jeff Bridges as Best Actor (He is great in "Crazy Heart") and I guess Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side", although she was never as good as her performance in Speed 2. And if movies arent your thing, talk to your family...you wont get to much over this next month.