This moment is either a calm before a storm, or a storm before some calm. Most power leagues start their tournaments on Wednesday or Thursday, with the idea of wrapping up by Selection Sunday, which leaves the national spotlight, at least for early days of this week, to shine on minor leagues playing their semis or finals. Not streaming-through-the-conference's-website either. This is real-ass TV.
Last night was a thriller, with the CAA, MAAC, and SoCon each coming down to the last possession -- the three games were decided by a combined seven points! Also a WCC semifinal went to OT.
We're blessed with four more -- FOUR MORE -- finals tonight. We'll obviously get to previewing those, but first let's do some wrapping up.
They're going daaaaaancingggg YEAHHHHHH
The Jaspers! Because you're probably asking what a Jasper is, well, it isn't really a thing. Brother Jasper was a priest in the early days of Manhattan's existence -- back when the school was actually still based on Manhattan, as opposed to its current (and confusing) home in the Bronx -- who founded the school's first baseball team and is widely credited with the invention of the "seventh-inning stretch." I can't find it for sure, but it seems likely Brother Jasper died before James Naismith invented basketball in the 1890's, so if you told him Manhattan was going dancing, he'd probably say something confused in an Irish accent.
Anyway: Manhattan! They lost to Iona in the conference championship game last year, and returned the favor by beating the top-ranked Gaels this time around. The Jaspers were up six at the half, and although the Gaels kept nipping, Shane Richards kept hitting threes to stymie their attempts of evening the score. A late 12-4 run from Iona cut a 10-point lead to two, but Manhattan held on for the W.
With the rash of top seeds getting knocked out early, if I had to pick one of the eight teams already qualified for the NCAA Tournament to pull an upset -- not counting Harvard, which I think is too good for true "upset" status -- I'd go with the Jaspers. The resume isn't great -- their only win over a top-75 team came against, um, Iona, although they did blow out South Carolina in their only game against a major opponent -- but they handled their business in a fun little league.
Manhattan's got a pair of really interesting players: George Beamon is as big a bully as a 6'4, 175-pound off-guard can be, and the Long Island native leads the team with 19.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. And while 6'7 Rhamel Brown is, for all intents and purposes, a forward, he leads the nation in block percentage, swatting 15.8 percent of opposing shots while he's on the floor. Manhattan has the second-best FTA/FGA in the nation -- they get to the line a whole ton -- which means that foul-prone first-round opponents could be in trouble.
You can put coach Steve Masiello into the Rick Pitino coaching tree -- he was a walk-on at Kentucky under Pitino and Tubby Smith, and won a title despite not playing much. First tourney bid since 2004 for the Jaspers!
I am going to make my joke about singing "Go Blue Hens" to the tune of "No New Friends" until the cows come home. They're dancing for the first time since 1999! They're the first No. 1 seed -- besides Wichita State, which would've gone dancing anyway -- to actually win their conference. That NIT bubble!
I was rather excited about the subversive nature of a team named "The Blue Hens," which by my count, would be the only explicitly female mascot in Division I sports. However, it turns out the Blue Hen is, in fact, a breed of chicken native to Delaware -- you can have a blue hen rooster and a blue hen hen. So, although there are several women's sports teams either a) playing with male team names or b) playing with awkwardly sexed team names, like the St. Peter's Peahens, there are no male teams playing with female mascots. My point is, HOW COME THERE'S NO MEN'S HISTORY MONTH?!?!?!?!
So, basketball! The CAA final against William & Mary was a heartbreaker for the Tribe, who actually seemed like they might make their first tournament in school history. Marcus Thornton put up 22 for W&M, and the Tribe were up six with 1:21 to go. But Delaware scored the last seven points, culminating with Carl Baptiste's battle at the rim, and Thornton's attempt at an answer clanged as the clock expired.
All five of their starters are in double-digits, including the Devon-and-Davon combo I mentioned yesterday of senior Devon Saddler (19.7 points per game) and Mississippi Valley State transfer Davon Usher (19.4 points per game and 34.8 Usher references by me per game) and junior Jarvis Threatt, who averages 18.1. The gaudy numbers are explained by Delaware's speed -- ninth-fastest pace in the nation -- and because the Blue Hens get a shot up nearly every time, only turning the ball over on 13.5 percent of their possessions, fourth best.
But they have no depth -- zero bench points in the championship game win -- which is a problem when you play super-fast. And their resume isn't impressive -- in six tries against Kenpom top 100 teams, the Blue Hens went 0-6. With their pace and dearth of reserves, they'll need some special performances to hang for 40 minutes with a bigger foe in the tourney and come out with a W.
Doggy dancing! Mike Young has done a spectacular job with the Terriers, who are going to the tourney for the first time since 2011.
They very well might have the easiest road of any team in the country: After finishing third in the SoCon, the Terriers were lucky enough to avoid the top two seeds, as No. 2 Chattanooga went down to No. 7 Georgia Southern and No. 1 Davidson fell to Western Carolina. Those two teams accounted for four of the Terriers' five conference losses, and, um, zero of their conference wins. So they might not be dancing had they had to play their conference's big boys.
As it was, they played the WCU Catamounts, who were down 11 with nine minutes left, but cut it to just one in the game's final minute. Despite shooting 7-for-15 from the free throw line, the Terriers held on, thanks to 23 points from Karl Cochran.
Cochran is very obviously the player to watch: after ranking second out of all players in college hoops in shot percentage (the amount of shots taken while on the floor) last year, he ratcheted that down to just 22nd this year. He led the Terriers with 15.7 points, 3.0 assists, and is second on the team in boards with 5.0 per game.
It's difficult to be too enthusiastic about Wofford's chances -- their best win was against Kenpom No. 197 Elon, and they went 0-7 against teams better than that -- and one has to imagine them headed to Dayton. But you can't take away the success they've had in the SoCon of late.
We'l leave you with this:
We've decided that our summary of four sets of conference semifinals would be better suited by our previews of tonight's four conference finals!
Onions! Consumption guide
WCC Tournament final: No. 2 BYU Cougars vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs, 9 p.m., ESPN
Here we have probably our first game between two teams that are going to be in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens. These were obviously the two best teams in the conference, and it's an intriguing matchup -- BYU's about pushing the tempo and scoring tons, and Gonzaga's huge frontline gives them a stonewall defense. Gonzaga's got a whole team of dudes, and BYU's kinda like YO TYLER HAWS.
But mainly, I'm just excited to see these two teams play for a conference championship. Gonzaga and St. Mary's have played seven of the last ten years.
Normally I'd be more convinced by a six-loss Gonzaga team that just blew out St. Mary's than a 10-loss BYU team that just needed OT to beat San Francisco, but the Zags have been awful shaky of late. They needed a David Stockton game-winner to beat a Santa Clara team that is not nearly as good as San Francisco, and lost three of their last seven in conference play -- including one against BYU where the Zags let Haws' running mates beat them, with the junior star finishing fourth in scoring. Meanwhile, BYU's won their last six and 10 of 11 since an earlier loss to Gonzaga. So.
Summit League final: No. 2 IPFW Mastodons vs. No. 1 North Dakota State Bison, ESPN2
We haven't talked much about the Summit, but allow us to take a moment to praise NDSU. (Funny, it seems we were just doing this same thing during football season. Still trying to get THE WOODCHIPPER to catch on as the name for the home of the three-time defending national champs.)
With all the talented No. 1 teams dying, North Dakota State is a hope. They're ranked No. 56 on Kenpom, 90 spots higher than IPFW. They have the second-best two-point field goal percentage in the nation -- 56.4 percent! -- thanks to their big-boy front line of Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorklund. (They're 6'7 and 6'8, but they are big boys.) They are bullies.
They lost two games in conference play. One was to Denver. They repaid the Pioneers by pasting them 83-48 in the semifinals last night. The other was to IPFW. The Bison shot 61 percent from two in the game, but the Mastodons won by forcing them to shoot an unnaturally high 18 threes -- they hit just five -- and by getting to the line 21 times and hitting 20.
We'll see if the Bison are equally vicious in dealing out vengeance, or if the Mastodons can score one for extinct animals and send the Bison to the NIT.
Horizon League final: No. 5 Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers vs. No. 3 Wright State Raiders, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Panthers are looking to try to be the first team with a sub-.500 record in this year's tourney. And to boot, they got a 68-64 W the last time they faced the Raiders.
I wouldn't count on that happening again: This one is at Wright State, not Milwaukee, like that last matchup. And Wright State's strength is forcing turnovers -- they do it on 24 percent of opposing possessions, sixth-best in the nation -- and Milwaukee generally obliges, turning the ball over on 20.9 percent of their possessions, which isn't good.
But I wouldn't have counted on, say, the way Jordan Aaron has been playing of late. The 5'10 point guard from the Bronx dropped 20 on Valparaiso and 28 in UWM's win over top-seeded Green Bay.
Northeast Conference final: No. 4 Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers vs. No. 1 Robert Morris Colonials, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Look: all we want in this world is for Robert Morris' Lucky Jones and Karvel Anderson to make the NCAA Tournament. Their names are Lucky and Karvel.
Mount St. Mary's does not have any such names. What they do have is Rashad Whack, the George Mason transfer who first daggered St. Francis, then put up 21 to knock off No. 2 Wagner. Whack averaged 24.5 against Robert Morris in the two regular season matchups, while the Mountaineers held Karvel and Lucky to a combined 44 points across the two games, well below their season averages.
Then again, Bobby Mo won those two games, by eight points. Seriously, the NIT bracket is getting packed. Bobby Mo better pull this out.