Happy Bubbleween, big conference also-rans! Hope you did not find Monday's small-conference championships too terrifying.
Bubbleween is celebrated each year on the Monday and Tuesday before the NCAA tournament. It is the period when MAAC, SoCon, and other small-conference finalists don fright masks and trick-or-treat for automatic bids while the idle big schools watch on national television. It's a two-day festival when Manhattan and James Madison suddenly seem scarier than any opponent that Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Villanova, or Iowa State ever witnessed.
Small schools look super-scary on Bubbleween because when they upset small-conference favorites, they cause Final Destination-style bracket chain reactions that can kill a big bubble dweller's chances. The selection committee will ignore most 20-win mini-programs that lose their conference championships, but not all of them, and those bubbles can get awfully crowded. The more confusing the situation, the more likely a big school with a blah record is of getting crowded out.
Middle Tennessee State is already hanging around with a 28-5 record and some serious bona fides: they rank 29th in RPI, Ken Pomeroy ranks them 31st, while the UPS Team Performance Index by STATS, Inc, ranks them a lofty seventh. Those numbers will haunt the nightmares of bubble teams hoping for a deep pool of at-large opportunities. The last thing Baylor, Stanford, or Alabama needs is another scare.
Luckily for all of those big programs with smallish resumes, Monday night was PG-13 fare: a gasp here and there, but no buzzer beaters or overtime, and only one minor upset.
West Coast Conference Final: Orleans Arena in Las Vegas threatened to be the ultimate Haunted House for bubble teams. If St. Mary's could upset Gonzaga, the Gaels would pull themselves off the bubble and into an automatic bid, while top-ranked Gonzaga would only suffer the potential loss of a top seeding. But Gonzaga's 65-51 victory was hardly a thriller; the game was never really close.
Gonzaga dialed up a brilliant strategy for a St. Mary's team that gave them trouble in a January 10th meeting. Matthew Dellavedova and Brad Waldow drew double teams every time they touched the ball. The Zags overplayed every ball screen at the top of the key, gumming up the Gaels half-court offense. Other Gaels shooters were left open, but while Stephen Holt made the most of his looks with 19 points, Mitchell Young and others did little with their opportunities. Dellavedova scored two points on 1-of-8 shooting, Waldow had just nine points, and the St. Mary's bench players shot an ugly 6-of-21 despite the fact that they spent a lot of time by themselves along the three-point arc.
As for the offensive side, Gonzaga worked the paint with brutal efficiency. Kelly Olynyk (21 points, 12 rebounds) looked like Bill Walton by way of Leif Garrett circa 1978. Elias Harris chipped in 19 points, most of them in the paint. The Zags attempted just nine three-pointers all night, as they got the ball inside with ease.
Gonzaga probably sealed a well-earned top seeding with the win. St. Mary's remains on the bubble. Their 27-6 record and healthy RPI numbers will get them in the tourney, and under normal circumstances they would be an appealing first-round upset choice. But Monday's loss showed how thin they are in national-caliber contributors once you get past Dellavedova, Waldow and Holt. Despite their gaudy record, they played like a one-and-done tourney team.
A final note: Pat Riley, Danny Ainge, and John Stockton were among the dignitaries in attendance. Stockton's son David had three points, three assists and three steals in 21 minutes. The elder Stockton is just a few days from his 51st birthday; it is my sad duty to report that he now looks like Charlie Watts. The camera lingered on him a little too often, perhaps expecting him to start drumming "When the Whip Comes Down" on his knees, but he was not the worst "dad in the stands cam" offender of the night. Not even close.
Colonial Conference: James Madison's 70-57 upset of Northeastern won't put that popped-bubble fear into any of the big boys. Their 20-12 record includes little RPI zest; their lone pretty good win was against Belmont, which doesn't balance losses to La Salle and UMass or some ugly missteps against the likes of Maine. Poor Northeastern gets no respect; they have not reached the tournament since 1991, and when I clicked a link to their team site in the CBSSports.com recap, it sent me to Northwestern.
James Madison rolled out to a 40-18 lead on the strength of big games by forward Rayshawn Goins, who has a Baby Barkley body and an offensive game as rounded as his midsection, and guard A.J. Davis, a senior transfer from Wyoming who became the Dukes' top scoring threat in the final weeks of the regular season. Goins finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, Davis with 26 points and seven rebounds. The Huskies used a series of sloppy James Madison possessions in the second half to cut their deficit to eight points, but they could not sustain their momentum after senior leader Joel Smith fouled out.
The computers are unimpressed by James Madison: Pomeroy ranks them 188th, RPI 190th. The Colonial Conference was a weakling this year, with lots of Old Dominion (5-25) and Hofstra (7-25) in the scheduling stew. The Dukes are a better team now than they were before Davis elevated his game, and their commanding win on Monday answered questions about their worthiness after their controversial upset of Delaware in the semifinals. That said, the most they will do in the NCAA tournament is linger for a first half in the opening round. Then again, Northeastern would not have done much more.
Sun Belt Conference: Florida International already made their mischief by knocking off Middle Tennessee State on Sunday. Unable to throw a second scare into the bubble dwellers, they hung around and terrorized Western Kentucky all night instead. Western Kentucky held the Golden Panthers off for a messy 67-65 win marked by sloppy play -- unforced turnovers, traveling violations while undefended in the open court, three-pointers that missed the rim, NBA-threes by player who lacked the range, a general disinterest in boxing out - and by Rick Pitino sightings.
When not coaching Louisville, Pitino is the father of FIU coach Richard Pitino (he is also Richard's father while coaching Louisville, but you get the point). Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the elder Pitino appeared and upstaged everyone in the arena with his public display of nervous brooding. That's not Pitino's fault, mind you; he is allowed to sit and bite his nails, just as Stockton is allowed to purse his lips and look bored while his alma mater is kicking Gael butt. But television producers believe that fans watch college basketball to watch the coaches, unless the coach's more-famous father is in the stands, so Pitino got about as much screen time as George Fant of the Hilltoppers, who had 17 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocked shots. Fant is a smart post player who gets good position and knows when and where to pass out of trouble; he is also an assertive rebounder at both ends. He will be a troublesome big man in the tourney. The elder Pitino, meanwhile, will have to drydock his melancholy dad routine and do his own job.
Fant's heroics aside, the Hilltoppers reached the bonus with 10:19 to play and a two-point lead; after that, their free throw advantage kept FIU at arm's length. Guard Jamal Crook (17 points) was 9-of-13 from the line, including 3-of-4 in the final 24 seconds to help Western Kentucky maintain a two-possession lead.
The Hilltoppers now have 20 wins, but their record is mostly filler: they are 12-2 against teams with RPI rankings below 200. Fant, T.J. Price and an NCAA tournament pedigree (they have reached the tourney three times since 2008) will make them pesky, but don't look for Western Kentucky by the first weekend.
Southern Conference: College of Charleston tried to throw a scare into Davidson and the status quo, but Davidson led from tip to buzzer to clinch the SoCon championship with a 74-55 win.
The Wildcats offense was beautifully efficient all night. De'Mon Brooks had 24 points and eight rebounds, demonstrating his smooth slice 'n' dice game around the basket. JP Kuhlman scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, coming off screens to launch open jumpers. Jake Cohen fought off foul trouble for 12 points, five rebounds, three blocks, and tough interior defense against Cougars big men Adjehi Beru (11 points on 3-of-7) and Trent Wiedeman (seven points on 2-of-9).
Davidson uses motion and spacing exceptionally well on offense. They can spread the court to create room for Brooks or cutters. Their passing, screening, and away-from-the ball play is disciplined. They have active big men in Brooks and Cohen and five viable three-point shooters, including Kuhlman and --surprise -- the 6-foot-10 Cohen, who is 38.6% from beyond the arc on the season.
Davidson has the players and system to give a big-name program fits in the tournament. Of course, they are a well-known mid-major terror, so they will not surprise anyone. Better the devil you know, and all that.
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference: While the St. Mary's Gaels blew out of the WCC finals a little too easily, the Iona Gaels nearly blew an opportunity at the hands of the pesky Manhattan Jaspers. Manhattan was the final potential jolt for bubble teams: Iona's RPI qualifications would make them a longshot for an at large bid, but not an impossible one. Luckily, they held off Manhattan 60-57, using their transition game and Manhattan's turnover problems to compensate for an unimpressive game from superstar Lamont "MoMo" Jones (14 points on 4-of-13 shooting).
Manhattan coach Steve Masiello stole the show from his players with a vintage "look at me" coaching star turn. Masiello, acting like Vince Vaughn staring in The Jim Harbaugh Story, refused to remain in the coaching box in the second half. After two warnings, he drew a technical foul which gave Jones two free throws. The technical halted a 17-2 Iona run, so it could be argued that it got the Jaspers' attention. It is more likely that Manhattan got it all out of their system with six turnovers in five minutes, and Masiello was just being immature and counterproductive.
Jones is a six-foot tall penetrator and an 88.1-percent shooter at the line: He gets his share of and-ones, forces opponents into foul trouble, and generates points off free throws even when he cannot finish. On the other hand, he is tiny, and he looked gassed on Monday. David Laury (10 points, six rebounds on Monday) is a canny inside player who can distribute the ball from the high post or spin away from defenders on the blocks. Sean Armand and Tre Bowman are adequate snipers who can also score off the break. Iona is a scrappy MAAC team that plays MAAC-style basketball: loose, physical, and two obvious athletic notches below what goes on at the top conferences. Switching from the WCC to the MAAC, the physical difference was striking: MAAC basketball is a lot of fun and features some illustrious programs, but Jones was the only guy on the floor you could picture playing in a Sweet 16 game.
For the Gaels to pull an upset in the NCAA tournament, Jones will have to have a crazy game. They may get mopped up, depending on their draw, but at least we won't have to watch Masiello pose.
Looking Ahead: Bubbleween is a two-day scare-fest, with the Horizon League, Summit League and Northeast Conference taking center stage on Tuesday. At 25-7 in the solid Horizon League, Valparaiso is a likely at-large team, even if they lose to 21-11 Wright State. South Dakota State (24-9) does not quite have the strength-of-schedule goodies for an at-large bid if they lose to North Dakota State (24-8), but they do have Nate Wolters, a player good enough to scare anyone. Mount St. Mary's and Long Island are just happy to be in the conversation; Belmont made the dance yet again, and Long Island will feel left out if they don't join their fellow perennial feel-good stories.
The Big East tournament also kicks off Tuesday, and the return of big-program games marks the end of Bubbleween. There is no reason to worry about the Big East tournament yet, however; as it continues through August.