About 363 days ago, I wrote an article for the New York Times about Liberty earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament despite being the 282nd-ranked team in the nation. It included two incredibly dope Liberty puns:
But Liberty's berth apparently does not do justice for all.
Sanity, though, has no place in the madness of March. If smaller conferences choose to take a few liberties, or a Liberty, with how they select their representative, so be it.
Although those two sentences earned me billions of dollars in endorsement deals, eight Pulitzer Prizes and three Nobels (I thought the Chemistry one was over the top, tbh), and the undying, incredibly passionate love of my Swedish wife, Ulla, they did not change the problem/"problem" that was the article's subject. This is the situation created by what SI's Andy Glockner terms the "Small Conference Entertainment Complex," in which small leagues send a tournament winner rather than a regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament.
The problem is that a tournament doesn't necessarily reward "the best" team. It rewards the team that wins three to four games, which seems less substantive a sample than the 16-to-20 game conference season. Hypothetically, conferences should want their best squad in the NCAA Tournament, to bring recognition to the league. Equally hypothetically, fans should want the best squads in the tournament, because they'll have the best chance of pulling off an upset. Yet because conference tournaments are fun, we allow this sort to persist.
This year, the Small Conference Entertainment Complex is racking up victims. Three of the heaviest favorites to win their conferences were Vermont, Green Bay, and Davidson. The Catamounts went 15-1 in America East play; Kenpom had them 82 slots ahead of their closest competition in the league. The Phoenix were 14-2 in Horizon League play, 25 slots clear of their closest opponent. And the Wildcats were 15-1 in league play and 59 better than the next best team.
But after four combined losses all season, each team lost in their conference tournament: Vermont was screwed by a tournament held at semifinal opponent Albany and lost to the Great Danes; Green Bay and Davidson lost in overtime to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Western Carolina, respectively. None will get at-large bids. An unnecessary road game and two five-minute overtime sessions felled three teams that were strong all year, and three strong opportunities for small leagues to land big upsets likely went by the boards. This doesn't seem good.
My counter-argument, based on the 2013 tournament: we shouldn't give a crap. Recent years have brought us upsets by many didn't-win-a-regular-season-title-but-won-a-conference-tournament squads: Morehead State beat Louisville as a 13 seed in 2011; the next year, 15-seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State toppled Duke and Mizzou, and 13th-seeded Ohio beat Michigan. Last year brought us the most over-the-top low-league renegades of all, Florida Gulf Coast, who were second in their league, won the Atlantic Sun tournament, and ended up in the Sweet 16.
In that three-year span, we've had a grand total of zero teams that won both their conference's regular season crown and tournament go on to win a game as a 13 seed or lower. (Of course, we also had Harvard last year, which serves as an argument for letting regular season winners go to the tourney, but, uh, ignore that.)
Allowing tournament winners to go dancing over their more qualified peers isn't logically correct. It's a bummer that the NCAA Tournament won't feature Green Bay's Alec Brown or Davidson's De'Mon Brooks, or even Vermont's Clancy Rugg, who isn't as good as the other two but has the advantage of being named Clancy Rugg.
But, like I said last year, logic has no place in March. You can never take away a team's regular season title, but if they don't show up at the right time, they don't deserve their dancing shoes. There's something to be said for being hot at the right time, as the past few years of tourney upsets have shown. Shockingly, it turns out that teams of 17-to-22 years olds tend to wax and wane uncontrollably.
If we're going to have a tournament whose greatest virtue is maniacal random madcap crazy, it's best that the participants are teams that have already aced their certifications in lunacy. Here's to you, Albany and Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Western Carolina -- make it count.
They're going daaaaaancingggg YEAHHHHHH
THEY'RE GOOD, OKAY? THEY'RE REALLY REALLY GOOD. WE HAVE WRITTEN SO MUCH ABOUT HOW DAMN GOOD THEY ARE. CAN'T YOU REALIZE THAT THEY'RE REALLY REALLY GOOD? I hope they don't lose early, for the sake of every mid-major team ever.
Last year the Bears had to sit and watch. After winning the A-Sun regular season, FGCU beat them on their home court, then went on to become national darlings.
This year, they went down to FGCU and laid siege to Dunk City, knocking the top-seeded Eagles off in a 68-60 win. It was 33-17 at the break -- COMPLETE LACK OF OFFENSIVE EXECUTION CITY --- but the Eagles got dunky in the second half to make this competitive.
The Bears beat major conference opponents in Ole Miss and Seton Hall -- yes, Seton Hall counts, sorry -- but perhaps their most impressive game of the year came in the season-opener against Texas, when they were up nine late on a strong Longhorns squad before losing 76-73.
The player to get to know, here, is Langston Hall. In addition to being a dorm and/or school building on probably 125 campuses in America, Hall was Atlantic Sun Player of the Year. He averages 14.7 points and 5.6 assists per game, although he only had 15 and three against FGCU. He can stroke it, though, and he isn't alone: as a team, the Bears shoot 38.9 percent from deep, which is 26th in the nation.
This is Mercer's third trip to the dance, and first since 1985. The school, located in Macon, GA, has only produced one NBA player -- Sam Mitchell -- and is also responsible for Nancy Grace, so please show some respect and hashtag all Mercer-related thoughts with, like, #AtlanticSunTrashBaby, or #SpermTournamentTeam, or something.
The Atlantic Sun could learn a lesson from the WWF: NEVER LET SOMEBODY LEAVE THE PROMOTION WITH THE TITLE. Two years after Belmont won the league and headed for the OVC, Mercer will head to the Southern Conference next year, their A-Sun title belt draped over their shoulder.
The Chanticleers! Remember: SHAAAAAHN-ti-cleer. CCU's website spells out the name's relation to the Nun's Priest's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, explains that a Chanticleer is a rooster, and notes that it can be abbreviated to Chants, which should be pronounced SHONTS. (SHONTS SHONTS SHONTS-SHONTS-SHONTS SHONTS EVERYBOOOOODY) And here is the Chanticleer, a bird with a nutsack hanging off its face:
It is not these dudes:
Coastal Carolina was probably not the best team in the Big South. Even after winning the tourney and therefore increasing their rating game-after-game, they are the conference's third-best team per Ken Pomeroy's ratings. They were, however, the best Big South team at hosting the tournament. Coastal opened the brand-spankin' new $35 million HTC Center in 2012. Combine this with a location in beautiful Myrtle Beach, and Coastal Carolina had built the perfect place for a league tournament, and they inked a deal to host the Big South tourney for three years.
One fringe benefit: playing home games is kinda super-helpful to a college basketball team's chances of winning! Sure enough, the Chanticleers got their W's -- a double-OT win over Charleston Southern, a 66-62 win over VMI, and Sunday's convincing 76-61 win over Winthrop behind 22 points and seven assists from Warren Gillis. (MORE LIKE LOSETHROP AMIRITE AMIRITE AMIRITE.) Would Coastal have won at a neutral site? It's possible, but it would've been way more difficult. Either way, they're dancing for the first time since 1993, and we get to say "Chanticleers" -- correctly -- a bunch of times.
William and Mary went out and beat Towson in one of the semifinals behind 21 points from Marcus Thornton. Also, 38 points from William and a 15-13 points-assists double-double from Mary, the floor general. The Tribe are one away from their first NCAA Tournament -- wait for it -- ever. Top-seeded Delaware had all five scorers in double digits in the other semifinal to move on to the finals.
I TOLD YOU TO WATCH MAAC BASKETBALL. And sure enough, Canisius-Iona was a good one, with Billy Baron putting up 23 points and five assists in a losing effort for the Golden Griffins, with Iona getting the 75-72 W. The other game wasn't as good, as Manhattan crushed Quinnipiac 87-68 behind 25 points from George Beamon.
America East Tournament
As mentioned earlier: RIP, Vermont. The Catamounts found themselves down 10 against Albany and their hideous shorts after about ten minutes of game time and never recovered, with the Great Danes moving on thanks to 26 points from Peter Hooley. HOOLEY.
On the other side of the bracket, Corban Wroe went 7-for-9 from three for Hartford, but the Hawks couldn't beat Stony Brook in a battle of Never Made The Tourney bros, with Carson Puriefoy and Anthony Jackson combining to go 6-for-8 from deep.
Davidson had a 15-point lead on Western Carolina in the second half, but a 9-1 run by Brandon Boggs alone -- a three and two and-ones -- got the Catamounts back into the game. They trekked back to force OT, and in the extra session, Trey Sumler drew a foul with three seconds left to get the Catamounts the win. (One Catamount gets knocked out in tragic fashion, another knocks an opponent out in tragic fashion. The circle of life.) Wofford easily handled seventh-seeded Georgia Southern on the other side.
Severe chalk, with no top seed winning by less than 16 points. RIP to IUPUI, Western Illinois, and South Dakota.
Onions! Consumption guide
Three leagues wrap up today, and two more have semifinals, and two more get started! MARCH IS DOPE MARCH IS DOPE MARCH IS DOPE
MAAC Tournament: No. 2 Manhattan Jaspers vs. No. 1 Iona Gaels, 7 p.m., ESPN2
To reiterate: WATCH THE MAAC
This very matchup was a two-time Onions! Game of the Night of the Week, thanks to the MAAC's generous slate of Friday games often going up against nothing else, but also because of awesome. Both of these teams are Kenpom top 75, which is unheard of for a low-major conference final. One of these teams could very easily win an NCAA Tournament game. And both are top 40 in pace, so there will be buckets.
Tim Cluess has Iona running an offense that's seriously difficult to stop: They shoot 39.8 percent from deep, 56.0 percent from inside the arc, and only turn the ball over 14.8 percent of the time -- that's sixth, fourth, and 14th in the nation in those respective categories. This gives the Gaels the seventh-best offensive efficiency in the nation, which just doesn't happen with teams in leagues this size. They also kinda suck on defense, but that's okay.
Manhattan has a good defense and a mediocre offense with one strength: getting to the line, with a 56.6 FTA/FGA, second in the nation. Incidentally, the only good thing about Iona's defense is that they don't foul, with opponents boasting a 29.6 FTA/FGA, which you will note is about half as good as Manhattan's. So that's the thing to look for.
These are good teams and its an intriguing matchup of strengths vs. strengths and one of them will be in the NCAA Tournament. I'm done selling.
CAA Tournament: No. 3 William and Mary Tribe vs. No. 1 Delaware Blue Hens, 7 p.m., NBCSN
William and Mary! They're one game away from the NCAA Tournament!
As a Northwestern fan, I genuinely can't handle this. We've been in the club with these guys forever -- literally, forever -- and I'm either brimming with excitement for their imminent exit or furiously screaming DON'T LEEEAAAAAAVVVEEEEEE as they saunter towards the door.
The Tribe isn't particularly exceptional, except for one thing: they drain jimmies, shooting a blistering 40.2 percent from beyond the arc, fourth out of the 351 teams in college hoops. Fourth! As noted, they have Marcus Thornton -- not the one in the NBA -- who leads them with 18.6 points per game and shoots 40 percent from deep.
They'll have to keep up with Delaware, which has the eighth-fastest pace in the nation. That pace allows the Blue Hens to put up digits, with the backcourt scoring combo of Devon and Davon -- Saddler and Usher -- going for 19.8 and 19.7 points per game respectively. Jarvis Threatt isn't that far behind with 18.1 of his own. W&M haven't been able to stop the multifaceted scoring attack this year, allowing multiple 20-point scorers in two losses against the Blue Hens this year. History could happen. Check it out.
SoCon Tournament: No. 5 Western Carolina Catamounts vs. No. 3 Wofford Terriers, 9 p.m., ESPN2
DOGS VS. CATS, Y'ALL. I got dogs, but that's just a matter of personal preference/definite fact.
Neither team is great at anything -- remember, this is the No. 5 seed and No. 3 seed in a weak conference. Wofford is the favorite on account of being the 183rd-best team in the country. Whoever wins here is likely Dayton-bound.
Western Carolina is in serious Team of Destiny mode, winning their first two games by a combined four points -- the aforementioned OT win over Davidson, and a 66-64 squeaker over Elon. Each team has one player to watch for: WCU's Trey Sumler, leader in points and assists, and Karl Cochran, who pulls off the same feat but one-ups him by also being second in rebounds for the Woff. The main thing to watch for is Wofford having a player named Indiana Faithfull.
WCC Tournament (games on ESPN)
No. 4 St. Mary's Gaels vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs, 9 p.m. Both of these teams are weaker than they have been in recent years -- see, St. Mary's not having Matthew Dellavedova, and Gonzaga needing a buzzer-beater to beat damn Santa Clara. Gonzaga dominated St. Mary's in the two regular-season matchups, winning by a combined 50 points. The Zags are a complete team -- a huge frontcourt of Sam Dower and That Polish Guy With All The Letters, scorers in the backcourt -- and the only dude worth hollering about on Saint Mary's is Brad Waldow. The 6'9 Waldow is worth hollering about, though.
No. 3 San Francisco Dons vs. No. 2 BYU Cougars, 9:30 p.m.: BYU goes fast and scores, and that's worth watching: their average possession is 13.8 seconds, quickest in the country, and it shows, with Tyler Haws putting up 23.3 damn points per game. The amount of stuff Haws can do is impressive and fun to watch, but I won't act like I'm not rooting for the Dons, headed by former Northwestern star (who transferred to Kansas before going to the NBA) Rex Walters. This is just on account of us hearing about them less, okay? Cole Dickerson averages 14.6 points and 7.6 boards for the Dons, and there is also a player named Kruize Perkins.
Yesterday I lied and said these were on the Summit League website, but upon further checking, I'm not really sure they're available anywhere.
No. 4 Denver Pioneers vs. No. 1 North Dakota State Bison, 7 p.m. Both of these teams are best in the nation in something: NDSU gets blocked less than any other team and has the second-best two-point field goal percentage in the country, Denver assists on a higher percentage of its buckets than any team in the country. Stats stats stats! The Bison only lost twice in conference play, and one of those losses was to Denver, behind a 30-point performance by Chris Udofia.
No. 3 South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs. No. 2 IPFW Mastodons, 9:30 p.m. JACKRABBITS VS. MASTODONS. WHO CARES ABOUT BASKETBALL. I WANNA SEE THIS FIGHT.
The Jackrabbits are the No. 1 defensive rebounding team in the nation, IPFW is not No. 1 in the nation in ANYTHING. Slackers.
These kick off today, but we don't care because they're starting and everything else is super-far along.