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TGS HOOPS COVER STORY...BIG DANCE PREVIEW AND TEAMS TO WATCH!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Another March, another Selection Sunday. By now we have stopped trying to analyze, at least too much, the machinations of the NCAA Selection Committee. In the end, irrespective of seeding arguments, as long as the proper 68 teams are in the field, complaints should be few. And, with the exception of some angry Colorado State and Temple fans, we suspect there were not many around the country who were too upset with the composition of the brackets when they were announced by Greg Gumbel this past Sunday on CBS.

(Seeding questions, however, were another matter; something we will discuss in a moment.)

If we have a problem, however, it's the slant once again back toward the power conferences, who not unexpectedly dominated the at-large contingent. While this did not seem a deep year for the mid-majors, that designation seems to be spreading further and further in the college ranks. It is a term used too loosely and now seems to even encompass the American, which produced last year's NCAA champion UConn, which up until two years ago campaigned in the Big East. The A-10, which appeared to have five potential invitees, instead got only three, with one of those (Dayton) forced into an at-large play-in game, albeit on its own court, vs. Boise State.

The American and Mountain West also had two of the teams that might feel most-aggrieved by the process, as aforementioned Temple and Colorado State had to feel as if their expected bids were stolen by the Selection Committee. It would appear as if the Owls were the last team bypassed, thanks to a rare bit of candor by Selection Committee chairman Scott Barnes, the Utah State AD who once upon a time was a star forward on some of Boyd Grant's better Fresno State teams in the early '80s. Barnes, breaking ranks with past committee chairs who would refrain from discussing committee specifics as if they were national security secrets, admitted that bubble-buster Wyoming, the Mountain West Tourney champ, had effectively bumped Temple from the field. Continuing on that path, Barnes also admitted that if UConn had beaten SMU in Sunday's American finale, it would have replaced Dayton in the field of 68. After listening to past committee chairs bob and weave like Floyd Mayweather in the face of pointed questions from the talking heads on CBS or ESPN, it was actually a bit refreshing to see Barnes not treat the process as if he were representing the CIA rather than the NCAA.

As for CSU, it would outwardly seem as if it got caught in a number crunch that would prevent the committee from inviting more than three Mountain West reps, though if Barnes is to be believed, CSU was probably finished after it lost in a Mountain West Tourney semifinal vs. San Diego State, as he said that Temple, not CSU, was the team bumped by Wyoming. In the bigger picture, the Mountain West ought to think twice about continuing to include weak link San Jose State, which rarely competed equally while in the lesser WAC, or even the much-lesser Big West in the '80s and '90s, and whose wretched 2-27 season would cost the Mountain West dearly in conference power ratings. Thanks in good part to the weak-link Spartans, the conference as a whole was downgraded, rated as only 12th best in the land. For other reasons we will discuss at a later time, San Jose's continuing inclusion in the Mountain West could continue to damage the league's power rating. And, as might have been the case on Selection Sunday, helped cost the league an extra spot in the field of 68.

The Committee's power-conference bias seemed to be reflected in granting straight passage to the likes of Texas, UCLA, and Indiana, all without having to even participate in one of the two at-large play-in games at Dayton. The SEC's Ole Miss is the only power conference rep that is among the four at-large play-in combatants. In the end, the next power conference team to miss the cut was probably Miami-Florida, which most conceded had little chance of securing an invitation. And after only seven mid-major at-large bids in 2014 after 11 each in the past two years, seven in 2011, and eight in 2010, there were just seven again this season, which counts former Big East member Cincinnati, from the American, Davidson and Dayton from the A-10, Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West, BYU from the WCC, and Wichita State (in the Final Four two years ago) from the Missouri Valley.

Speaking of the Missouri Valley, many "Bracketologists" (including ourselves) were a bit surprised to see both of its powerhouse reps, Northern Iowa and Wichita State, seeded outside of "protected territory" (1 thru 4 in the regions), especially UNI, which was 30-3 SU and won Arch Madness in St. Louis, but was only rewarded with a five seed in the East and a sub-regional trip out to Seattle to face a dangerous Wyoming. Wichita was placed as a 7 in the Midwest, though we are not too concerned about the seed, as the Shockers can finally get a chance to play in-state Kansas, which never wants to schedule Wichita in the regular season, if each advance beyond opening sub-regional action. Sometimes, there is devilish streak in the Committee that we rather enjoy, and this could be one of those instances.

The process, however, remains stacked for the power conference sides, whose teams eventually play one another in league games, which helps strengthen the computer numbers for all of conference members. All because the data, fed into the computers by people, rate the power conference teams as stronger. Those bases for comparison are thus always going to be slanted toward the power conference teams, justifying their dominance of the at-large bids.

The basis for all of those calculations is nothing more, however, than the old "eye test." It does not take a computer to figure out that the ACC is a stronger league than the Atlantic Sun. But for the computer programs to supposedly see through straight won-loss records and divine the better teams and conferences, and whether Indiana is better than Temple or Colorado State, the calculations had to begin with a human opinion, or assumption, built into the program.

Whatever, as within a couple of days no one will remember anything about Colorado State or Temple being bypassed and will instead sit down and enjoy the Big Dance. While many of the recent fields have been well-balanced, we suspect it might be even more so this season...at least beyond the top line or two. Once the regions got down to the three line, the teams all began to look rather similar, and we suggest that no result involving any teams seeded three thru sixteen is going to be much of an upset at all. With the exception of games involving 1 vs. 16 seeds, and 2 vs. 15 seeds (though we see a couple of potential scraps in those quartets of games), we would not base any handicap of the upcoming games on tourney seeding.

ANY SURPRISES IN THE HOUSE?


The unexpected runs of mid-majors such as George Mason, Butler, and Virginia Commonwealth into the Final Four in recent years, and surprise packages like Florida Gulf Coast storming the Sweet 16 two years ago, have prompted us to offer a "mid-major alert," highlighting teams to watch that could emerge and deliver a similar-like run in the Dance. Following are a handful of those sides that we would watch closely...

Eastern Washington (SUR 26-8; seeded 13th in South)...The Big Sky tourney champ Eagles have popped up on the national radar a few times this season, first when upsetting Indiana at Bloomington on November 24, and then with volume-shooting G Tyler Harvey (22.9 ppg) leading the nation in scoring at various times throughout the campaign. Harvey, who pumped in 42 points in last week's tourney quarterfinal win over Idaho, has been compared by some regional observers to another Eagle alum, Rodney Stuckey, currently scoring points in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers. Harvey, whose HS teammate from Bishop Montgomery in Torrance, CA is third-leading scorer, 6-7 F Ognjen Miljkovic (10 ppg), has also maintained a 43% clip from the beyond the arc for the past two seasons, but is not the only threat for EWU, which has a good inside-outside combo with rugged 6-8 PF Venky Jois (16.6 ppg) doing most of his scoring work around the bucket. The Eagles like to run, tallying 80.8 ppg (ranked 3rd nationally), hit 48% from the floor and slightly better than 40% beyond the arc for well-respected HC Jim Hayford, a disciple of legendary NAIA HC Bill Odell from Azusa-Pacific. The Eagles got a slight break from the selection committee, sent within the region to Portland to face Georgetown on Thursday in sub-regional action.

Stephen F. Austin (SUR 29-4; seeded 12th in South)...Last year we warned about the Lumberjacks, who proceeded to stun Virginia Commonwealth in the sub-regional at San Diego before getting KO'd by UCLA in the Round of 32. Three starters return from that team led by slashing 6-4 jr. G Thomas Walkup (15.7 ppg) and 6-6 sr. F Jacob Parker (14.1 ppg and 47% beyond the arc). Totally unselfish team coached by Brad Underwood, in his second year on the job in Nacogdoches after working as an assistant for Frank "The Bouncer" Martin at Kansas State and South Carolina following a decorated juco head coaching career. The Lumberjacks' only non-league losses came against Big Dance-bound teams (Northern Iowa in OT, and heavier losses to Xavier and Baylor), with a 12-point win at Memphis the best result.

North Dakota State (SUR 24-9, seeded 15th in South)...If these guys sound familiar, they should, after the Bison knocked off Oklahoma in the sub-regional before losing to San Diego State in the Round of 32 last March. But the team has a slightly different look from last year's senior-dominated group coached by Saul Phillips, who moved to Ohio U after last season. Former assistant David Richman was promoted to take Phillips' place and oversaw a bumpy beginning to the season, as three new starters were in place for early lopsided losses at Texas and Iowa and more road defeats a few weeks later at Southern Miss and Montana. But a mid-December win over Akron signaled a turnaround, and Richman was able to uncover a 6-6 frosh perimeter scoring force in shooting guard A.J. Jacobson (11.9 ppg), who had several big games as the season progressed and took some of the scoring burden from do-everything 6-3 sr. PG Lawrence Alexander (18.9 ppg), who shoots 44% from beyond the arc. The Bison, who prefer to control the pace, survived a bristling Summit race and tourney in Sioux Falls with a nervy 57-56 win over rival South Dakota State in the tourney finale. By the end of the season, NDSU looked a lot like last year's Big Dance entrant.

New Mexico State (SUR 23-10, seeded 15th in South)...The Aggies might look familiar on these pages, as we used to cover them regularly when WAC games were included on the "big board" until 2013. While the rest of the WAC splintered, NMSU remained in the fold and has continued as the dominant team in the far-flung loop, making its fourth straight Big Dance appearance for HC Marvin Menzies, who has been able to use his worldwide connections (through Ag outfitter Adidas) to put together another international squad featuring two players from France, another from Cameroon, another from South Africa, and five from Canada (all from Toronto). Among those imports are almost all of the Ags' key players, including smooth-stroking 6-8 Frenchy F Remi Barry (13.3 ppg), 6-9 Cameroonian frosh F Pascal Siakam (13 ppg; brother James plays at Vanderbilt), skywalking 6-2 Canadian Daniel Mullings, and imposing 6-10 C Chili Nephawe, a product of Johannesburg. With the exception of Siakam, the others have multiple NCAA games under their belts, and the team has great size and length, covering lots of ground on the defensive perimeter and being intimidating under the bucket. Took San Diego State into OT in the sub-regionals last season, and played another daunting non-league slate, part of which without key cogs Mullings and Nephawe, both injured for chunks of the season. They're both healthy now, and this intriguing blend of imposing athleticism could be a tough test for Kansas on Friday at Omaha.

Coastal Carolina (SUR 24-9, seeded 16th in West)...Most observers believe the Chanticleers are one of the better 16 seeds in recent memory...or at least since last season, when the same Chants were also a 16 and gave East top seed Virginia a big scare before finally succumbing in the final minutes by a 70-59 count. Last season marked a milestone for vet HC Cliff Ellis, who took his fourth different school (earlier South Alabama, Clemson, and Auburn) to the Dance. With much the same look as a year ago with four starters back in the mix, the Chants impressed in pre-league play, beating Ellis' former Auburn as well as ULM, coming close at Ole Miss, and losing honorably at UCLA, before dealing with a better-than-advertised Big South Conference and once again stealing the league tourney crown in Myrtle Beach. Most of the offense is generated from a veteran backcourt featured in last year's Dance and highlighted by Gs Warren Gillis (13.1 ppg), Josh Cameron (12.9 ppg), and Elijah Wilson (11.1 ppg). The Chants can spread the floor and attack from the wings, and after last year's upset big vs. Virginia, will have no fear of another 1 seed, Wisconsin, in sub-regional action at Omaha on Friday.

Wofford (SUR 28-6, seeded 12th in West)...Another one of the 12 seeds given a good chance by the TV pundits, who note an 8-4 SU record by the 12s against the 5s over the past three years. Wofford is also familiar to Big Dance fans for several tourney visits in recent seasons, including a year ago, for vet HC Mike Young, who has almost the same team from last season, including all five starters, that lost to Michigan, 57-40, in sub-regional action. The Terriers are still led by smooth and savvy G Karl Cochran, again the leading scorer at 14.6 ppg, and backcourt mate Spencer Collins, an explosive 6-4 jr. who scored 26 in a key late-season win at Mercer that helped wrap up the SoCon regular-season crown for Wofford. The Terriers, who took every team's best shot in league play, survived a tense conference tourney in Asheville for the second year in a row, and had earlier beaten the likes of NC State and Iona in non-league play, while losing to higher-profile Stanford, West Virginia, and Duke. In other words, the Terriers have played some people this season. Steady team, with ballhandlers at every position and able to control pace and tempo, Wofford is a hard to "speed up" and presents a fascinating sub-regional matchup vs. high-pressure Arkansas on Thursday at Jacksonville.

Let's hope we're still talking about one or more of these teams next week for the Sweet 16; the tourney is always a bit more memorable when at last one Cinderella side emerges! Start the music...let the Big Dance begin!


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