(IF YOU WANT IN-DEPTH BRACKET ANALYSIS: HERE. I have fun stories from the A-10, which hopefully you'll read if you like me.)
I went to see Chaz Williams and UMass Thursday night, and got the full experience, good, bad and awesome.
If you haven't read Onions! all year long, I'm in love with the Minutemen and their fittingly minute point guard, Williams, the Brooklyn native listed at 5'9 with a hoops Napoleon complex big enough to fill the Barclays Center. Williams is the sparkplug of a team destined for its first NCAA Tournament since 1998, slicing through defenses at 150 miles an hour, sticking crucial threes, slapping the floor on defense as if he wasn't the shortest guy on it.
Sixth-seeded UMass took on Rhode Island in the nightcap of the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and it was the rowdiest game of the day. Despite the "neutral" site, the PA guy let out a "FROM BISHOP FOOORD HIGH SCHOOL, IN BROOOOOOKLYYYN NEW YOOOORK," and it sounded like the whole borough had shown up to cheer him.
"Half of Brooklyn," coach Derek Kellogg said. Williams admitted he didn't know the full list in attendance, that his mom had dealt with the arrangements.
But once the tip came, things went awry for UMass. The Rams blocked everything inside and the Minutemen couldn't make an outside shot. With a three right after the halftime break, Rhody's lead grew as big as 11. Williams was hopeless, 2-for-11 and 0-for-5 from three-point range.
Like I said, it was the WHOLE UMass experience. Over and over again this season, the Minutemen have been down late -- in fact, they trailed Rhode Island with five minutes to go in both of their regular season matchups -- but over and over again, they've come back to get wins.
"That's not how I'm coaching you!" Kellogg joked, when asked about his team's habit of repeatedly falling behind. "I kind of like it when the game looks ugly. That's when it becomes a little bit of a street fight."
Xavier Munford hit a jumper for the Rams with 9:50 to go in the second half to make the score 55-46. They wouldn't score another point until the 2:45 mark of the period, at which point UMass led 57-55 after a 11-0 run.
"We were playing a little selfishly, just one dribble," Kellogg said of his team's first half play. "But these guys are older, they're more mature. We had a good halftime pop-off, if you can call it that."
And in a two-point game with under two minutes left, Williams brought the ball up court, hit his man with a crossover, and pulled up for a three. A swish, a turn to the crowd with arms extended, and the game was all but over.
"I was like 'finally, thank you.'" Williams said. "I felt like I hadn't done enough in the game. I felt like I needed to make a stance."
It was his only three of the night, and the only one he needed.
Is it a good sign that the Minutemen keep needing improbable performances to get wins? Of course not: improbable means "not probable." But they'll be a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament after a 16 year drought, and they've done it while managing to make every win seem like a miracle.
Die another day (specifically tomorrow)
The 8-9 game is a knife fight, and the winner's reward is standing in front of a firing squad.
"We really gotta talk about that?" St. Bonaventure's coach Mark Schmidt asked, jokingly, when asked to talk about his matchup with No. 1 St. Louis after winning a hard-fought game against La Salle. "I'd like to enjoy this one for a bit. 15-20 minutes."
In the last nine years of NCAA Tournament game, the team to emerge from the brackets' bellybutton has lost 34 of 36 games against the top seed in the second round. Throw in the 2004 tournament, when two 8-9 seeds won, and their chances of beating a No. 1 seed balloons to 10 percent.
And that's in tournament play, where everybody's qualified. In conference tourneys, the one-seed is usually head-and-shoulders above the competition, and the 8/9 seed is usually close to the bottom of the barrel. So far, only one one-seed has fallen to an eight or nine, that being Southern, who was already ineligible to win the NCAA auto-bid out of the SWAC.
So the 8-9 features, hypothetically, the two most evenly matched teams in any given bracket, and produces some of the most vicious games. But they're doomed.
St. Bonaventure's vs. La Salle was a battle between bigs who couldn't be stopped, by themselves or their opponents. La Salle's Jerrell Wright had a career-high 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting, the Bonnies' Youssou N'Doye had 19 points and 11 boards, La Salle's Steve Zack had 11 and 11, St. Bona's Marquise Simmons had 15 points on just seven shots.
Typically, when we say there's "back-and-forth" play, I picture guards one-upping each other off the dribble. Here, it was the dudes down low:
The showdown raised emotions. After allowing a Wright dunk on one possession, N'Doye was called for a foul on Wright the next time down the floor. The 7-footer from Senegal found the ball and slammed it as hard as he could, ricocheting 13 feet in the air. Whether he was disappointed in himself or the referees doesn't matter: it was an automatic technical foul, and in one possession, he'd gone from having two fouls to having four.
"I knew it was a big call. Youssou didn't do something that we wanted him to do, and he was playing really really well." coach Mark Schmidt said. "You could see in the kid's eyes: 'here we go.'"
N'Doye would have to come out of the game with foul trouble, time he spent sprinting up and down behind the Bonnies' bench.
"That's his way of staying loose," coach Mark Schmidt explained.
It helped boost an 8-0 run that allowed the Explorers to cut the Bonnies' lead to one. But with N'Doye out, they'd go on an 8-2 run of their own.
"We were pretty much fighting back the whole game," La Salle's Tyreek Duren said.
La Salle never actually got the opportunity to take the lead.
"We were chasing them around the whole 40 minutes," Wright said. "On offense, we were kind of tired."
The next sign of emotion came in the post-game press conference. Dr. John Giannini, the Explorers' coach, sat on a podium with his exhausted, beaten players, and gave Wright a pat on the back.
"We're very disappointed. What I told the guys after the game is that the basketball frustration speaks for itself," Giannini said. "But when you spend a year of your life with someone the way you do with college basketball, on a personal level, I'm really pleased I got to share a year of my life with them."
With St. Louis looming, its possible the Bonnies will only get to live another day. But you wonder what La Salle's players and coaches wouldn't have given for that extra day.
Fliers and flailers
For Dayton, a win Thursday is part of the start of a road. With nine wins in 10 games heading into the A-10 Tournament, the Flyers got themselves onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, and a win over Fordham ensured they won't slide off of it.
"Over the past month and a half, we've been able to be great every day. And I'm not talking about gameday." Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "I thought our Monday and Tuesday in Dayton before we took off were as good as any practices we've had. And I've been saying that for a month."
Road to the Title
Road to the Title
For Fordham, it was the end of one. Branden Frazier meant nearly everything to the Rams, and although he had 30 and tried to spark a comeback, Thursday's game would be his last.
The Rams ended conference play in last place, but made it into the top 12 teams with a win Wednesday night over George Mason in a 12-13 matchup. That earned them the right to play Thursday, but it was clear from early on they were outmatched. They trailed by 10 for the first time 4:18 into the game and led by 19 at the half.
Fordham wouldn't just let their season end.
"They came out and hit us hard early on, and that put us back on our heels." Fordham coach Tom Pecora said. "I talked to them about pride. If you go out and give the type of effort you're capable of, maybe we'll steal it.
Frazier, who went to high school at Bishop Loughlin about four blocks from Barclays, kept fighting. He had the first basket out of the halftime break, sparking a 17-5 run that saw Dayton's lead cut to seven.
It wouldn't hold. Dayton would win 87-74 behind a 9-for-9, 3-for-3 from downtown performance from Vee Sanford, who had a career-high 23 points.
Frazier's 30 is the most of any player in an A-10 tourney game thus far, but it wasn't enough for the Brooklyn kid, whose career is now over.
"It's good to have 30 points going out in your career," Frazier said."But to have a loss? I'd rather take one point and a win. It's bittersweet."
When Frazier came out of the game, most in attendance -- not just Fordham fans -- cheered as he hugged his teammates.
"He's grown as a player, he's grown as a person," Fordham coach Tom Pecora said. You should see the way people react to him. I have an 11-year-old kid. If he grows up to be like him, I'll be blessed."
Although Fordham is located in the Bronx, less than 15 miles away from Barclays, Rams fans were well outnumbered by Dayton fans, who had to come over 600 miles. There's a chance they might get a home game of their own, if the Selection Committee were to determine Dayton belongs in the First Four, held every year at UD Arena. But the way they're playing now, it seems they might enter the field of 64 proper.
The Appalling Spider/Man
I don't want to talk a lot about Richmond-Duquesne. Duquesne didn't lead after 2-0, Richmond won 84-72 behind a career-high 27 from Terry Allen and 23 on just 11 shots from Kendall Anthony. There.
I want to talk a little bit about being at a conference tournament. For whatever reason, sports developed with the prominent concept of home/away -- you play us here, we'll play you there. And it's impossible to think of sports without it: we build huge stadium to enhance home field advantage, we base our regional identities around teams.
Conference tournaments are, by nature, devoid of this. From Wednesday to Friday, 13 teams -- and coaches, and families, and fans, and bands, and cheerleaders -- roll through the Barclays Center. Unless it's a really important game, the stadium is never more than a third full: although some, like a group of St. Bonaventure's fans behind me who stay from their noon tip-off until midnight, soak in the whole thing, many are just there to see their team. The lower bowl is a chameleon, shifting colors by the hour.
On each side of the floor, each school has brought their band, and they trade performances. Fordham's is a sad group of 10 with some weird percussion instrument mixed in, and doesn't have the amount of instruments to play songs with harmony in them. For me, the showdown between Richmond-Duquesne is about as fun as the game: each band has a soloist trumpeter, and Richmond wins my heart by playing modern fare like "Royals" and "Bound 2."
But all this brings me to my point: the typical timeout fare is divided: instead of cheering a single fan in a contest, each fanbase has a participant in a shooting contest. And whereas breaks in play at home games typically feature cheerleaders and mascot storming the floor and hyping the crowd, breaks in play at conference tourneys feature the two sides alternating and hyping up primarily empty seats.
Which brings me to my real point: Thursday, I saw something no man should have to see: WebstUR, the University of Richmond Spiders mascot.
The most terrifying mascot in college sports, the Richmond Spider, has snagged a child victim. pic.twitter.com/CgCMMjFbot— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 13, 2014
"What's a good way to promote our school? Make it friendlier to fans? What's a mascot the people can get behind?"
"How about, like, I dunno, a horrifying 7-foot-tall arachnid monster?"
"GREAT IDEA, CHUCK!"
This thing makes me want to flee. He has the legs and arms of a human, which he uses to clap, menacingly point at people, and otherwise support Richmond's hoops team. But he also has four horrific spider limbs hanging out of a disturbing bustle in the back of his shirt, held together by webbing in case we didn't get the first time that he's a spindly monstrosity that can't wait to capture us in his netting and eat us alive.
Richmond is a fine team: I liked watching Anthony, the 5'8 point guard, get buckets. If it hadn't been for a stretch where the Spiders lost five of six at the end of the year, I'd try to argue they should be a bubble team.
But Thursday, I rooted wholeheartedly (albeit quietly, on press row) for the Dukes, for one reason. I knew I'd be back the next day, and I knew I was paralyzed by fear by the giant spider monster that would be present if Richmond won.
Richmond won. And once again, I will risk life and limb -- mainly limb, seeing as the Spider would like to rip my arms and legs off one by one and consume them in front of my still-writhing body -- to be in its presence.
Wish me luck.