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TGS BIG DANCE PREVIEW...HANG ON FOR ANOTHER WILD RIDE!

                                       by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

As we are into the final stages of our 60th season of publishing at THE GOLD SHEET, we find ourselves reminiscing more and more about all of the decades we have been producing the publication. And never do our minds wander as much as they do when it comes to Selection Sunday, annually one of our highlight days/nights of any season. 

Now, however, Selection Sunday is not nearly as hectic or as high-strung as it was for us during the days when we had a hard print deadline to meet not long after midnight. Online publishing has given us more time, effectively an extra day, to produce the tourney preview edition, which has expanded significantly from the days when we only had enough room to fit what the old print version of TGS allowed. But that doesn't mean we don't miss the old days, when on Selection Sunday TGS would more resemble a newsroom as we would effectively have to start from scratch, at least with the expanded college version of the publication, once the tourney pairings were announced.

No other issue of the season came close to the pressure and excitement as a "Hell Night" on Selection Sunday, because, as the tournament progressed, we would have more time to analyze each of the matchups. The brackets and the regions were already known. But on the Selection Sunday "Hell Night," we really were starting from scratch at about 4 PM Pacific time, with roughly nine hours to do all of the writeups, proofreading, and layout. In the days before we would electronically transmit the publication to a printer, paste boards were used, and we had to physically get the boards to our printer. To help meet the deadline, we would arrange a pickup of one side of the publication earlier in the evening, with the other side still to be completed later. How many times, on my drives from the TGS offices in Los Angeles (before the move to Sherman Oaks) to our printer in the South Bay, near the Hawthorne Airport, I made that trek in the early morning hours after a Selection Sunday, with hardly anyone on the freeways. By 2 AM, I would drop off the other half of TGS, the side with all of the tourney writeups, just in time to make our print deadline, so we could have the publication ready for shipping on Monday morning. Those days, living far away in Orange County, I often didn't trudge home on such nights until around 3 AM, but it was a feeling of exultation every year when we would successfully complete the "Hell Night" ordeal. Which, in truth, wasn't very hellish at all. The adrenaline rush, and excitement of producing that issue, have been hard to replicate, even though we produce a far more substantial tourney issue these days for the newer, expanded, and online versions of TGS.

Reminiscing aside, we've got a new Big Dance to worry about, and a new Selection Sunday has just passed. Aside from Syracuse being left out (a bit surprisingly, we thought) of the field of 68, there was not quite the same sense of drama as we have often had in years past at the cut line. About the only questions still to be answered by the time CBS got around to announcing the parings on late Sunday afternoon were which one or two teams among Southern Cal, Illinois State, and Syracuse would miss the cut, especially after Rhode Island took itself off of the "bubble" earlier on Sunday with its win in the A-10 Tourney final against VCU. Though, judging from the Rams' eventual 11th seed in the Midwest, we suspect Rhody was probably into the field as an at-large even if it didn't win in Pittsburgh vs. the Richmond version of the Rams.

That's not to say we are pleased with the direction the selection committee seems to have gone in recent years. There is now an undeniable bias toward the power conferences, summed up no better than by Colorado State HC Larry Eustachy, in the immediate aftermath of his Rams being eliminated in the Mountain West Tourney final at Las Vegas by Nevada. Though acknowledging that he accepted that his conference was going to be a one-bid league this year, and that his team was likely headed to the NIT, Eustachy still made a larger point with which we totally agree.

"We found that out my third year here when they're trying like heck to find reasons to get the Georgia Techs in the tournament. It's all about money," said Eustachy. "We all know it is. And they're trying to slip seven or eight out of the Power 5's. And it's sad what's happening. They're trying to figure out a way not to let Middle Tennessee in, when really, that's the true story of the NCAA."

Coverage of the Dance itself is also becoming a bit harder to digest. Especially the analysis shows right after the selection announcements. While we acknowledge that ESPN has ACC alums like Jay Bilas and Jay Williams (both ex-Dookies) as part of its studio team, and both Bilas and Williams are pretty good, ESPN, as it is often guilty of doing with the SEC in football (understable perhaps, as it is a partner in the SEC Network), risks becoming an organ of the ACC with its incessant promotion of the loop by its pundits. (Bilas and Williams, by the way, were convinced that both North Carolina and Duke were deserving of No.1 regional seeds.) Among the many ESPN talking heads, about the only one we can rely upon to speak up for the mid-majors to which Larry Eustachy referred is none other than Dick Vitale, who despite his bluster, has remained as one of the few remaining spokesmen for the "little guys" in college hoops. We find the "Brackets" show on the CBS Sports Network to be a little less-biased and a little more easy to watch than the ESPN version these days.

Credit the Selection Committee, however, for resisting a similar, ESPN-like blanket ACC bias by keeping Syracuse out of the field of 68. Which actually surprised us a bit; we thought the Orange might have had a better profile this season (when they finished 10-8 in ACC regular-season play) than a year ago, when most believed Jim Boeheim was going to miss the field before Syracuse provided most of the discussion on last year's Selection Sunday when sneaking into the field in one of the last at-large spots. (Boeheim would get the last laugh on his critics a year ago when the Orange made it all the way to the Final Four.) This season, however, bad pre-league losses (and thumpers to boot) vs. St. John's and Boston College, other losses to what turned out to be subpar Georgetown and UConn editions, and a quick exit at the ACC Tourney proved too much to overcome. At 18-14, Boeheim's argument to make the field was still a bit hollow; he could have used a few of the ESPN pundits to be on the Selection Committee.

A few other random thoughts from Selection Sunday...

1) Wichita State appears to be underseeded at a 10 in the South Regional. Which was semi-confirmed by the Las Vegas sports books installing the Shockers as early 6 1/2-point favorites over Dayton in the first round at Indianapolis on Friday. The spot on the 10-line also suggested to us that it was a good thing for Wichita that it won "Arch Madness" in St. Louis the previous week; considering its spot as a 10, and the fact Missouri Valley counterpart Illinois State didn't make the field at all, we can assume Wichita would have met the same fate as the Redbirds and would have been bound for the NIT without that win on March 5 at the Scottrade Center.

2) Purdue was slotted into the 4 line long before Selection Sunday. Many pundits were convinced the Big Ten didn't deserve a "protected" (1 thru 4) seed, especially after the regular-season champ Boilermakers were dumped by Michigan in their first game at the conference tourney in Washington, D.C. We suspect the Selection Committee felt obligated to give one Big Ten team a protected seed and simply decided to keep Purdue on the 4 line, though it sent the Boilermakers to the Milwaukee sub-regional, which was Purdue's second choice behind nearby Indianapolis, which instead will host also-nearby Louisville and Kentucky as protected seeds in its sub-regional.

3) Florida was a bit fortunate to stay a protected seed. A couple of losses to Vanderbilt in the past week (which solidified the Commodores, who moved up all of the way to the 9 line, into the Dance) seemed like it could cost the Gators a protected seed and a spot in their much-preferred Orlando sub-regional. But Florida squeezed into a four seed and thus becomes part of a sort of Sunshine State festival Thursday at the Amway Center, where Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast (facing one another in the first round) are also part of the festivities.

4) Power conference bias. This is no longer a secret, but as final confirmation, the 8-9 seeds all come from power conferences this season, with the eight entries having combined for 90 losses. Somewhere, we're sure Larry Eustachy was nodding on Selection Sunday.

Otherwise, there wasn't much controversy in what was one of the more predictable Selection Sundays in recent memory. And the Selection Committee deserves some kudos for providing some rather interesting storylines in the sub-regionals. Such as aforementioned Florida State-Florida Gulf Coast in Orlando, as well as giving Big Dance newbie Northern Kentucky a rare shot at in-state Kentucky in Indianapolis. We remember when the Selection Committee began to go out of its way in the early '80s to pit Louisville and Kentucky against one another before they were mandated by state politicians to play one another in subsequent years; their 1983 Elite Eight showdown remains one of our fondest memories of past Big Dances. There is some possible intrigue in the second round with a handful of potential matchups, including Marquette and HC Steve Wojciechowski perhaps getting a shot at Wojo's alma mater Duke and former teacher Mike Krzyzewski, while Oregon could be facing HC Dana Altman's former employer Creighton in the second round (though the Bluejays might have a hard time getting by hot Rhode Island first).

Our final thoughts? It looks like one of the most wide-open Big Dances in many years, as we have thought over the past month that it would not surprise us to say as many as 18-20 different teams make a run to the Final Four. With no overly-dominant teams this season, more schools than usual will think they have a chance. Though, as a reminder, the last truly dominant team in college hoops was Kentucky two years ago...and the Wildcats got dumped in the Final Four by Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, though the mid-major ranks are not very well-represented this March, don't sleep on the teams that qualified, such as Middle Tennessee, NC-Wilmington, Wichita State, and Nevada, and a few others all capable of making runs to the second weekend...if not a bit further. What the mid-majors might lack in quantity this season, they make up for in quality. Don't be surprised if one of those makes a run.

ANY SURPRISES IN THE HOUSE?

The unexpected runs of mid-majors such as George Mason, Butler, and Virginia Commonwealth into the Final Four since 2006, and surprise packages like Florida Gulf Coast that stormed the Sweet 16 four years ago, have prompted us to offer a "low-major alert" each of the past few seasons, 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...

East Tennessee State (SUR 27-7, seeded 13th in East)...The SoCon was a vibrant league this season with no fewer than seven teams believing they had a real shot in the recent conference tourney at Asheville. Emerging from that traffic was ETSU, which tied NC-Greensboro and Furman for the top spot in the regular season, then survived three stiff challenges from dangerous Mercer, Sanford, and then UNCG in a tense finale to win the SoCon Tourney. Lots of offense (80 ppg), shooting nearly 50% from the floor and 39% beyond the arc, with explosive sr. G T.J. Cromer (19.1 ppg; scored 41 in the tourney semifinal win over Samford) as the main catalyst. The Bucs lost by 9 at NC-Wilmington and by 14 at Dayton in pre-league play, and split with SEC foes Mississippi State (which ETSU beat by 2 at Starkville) and Tennessee (with the Bucs losing a narrow one by 4 at home) in December. Note HC Steve Forbes is being mentioned prominently for openings at NC State, LSU, Missouri, and Illinois.

Winthrop (SUR 26-6, seeded 13th in South)...Looking for the potential darling of the tournament? It could be the Eagles' 5-7 dynamo G Keon Johnson, who lit up the Big South with almost 23 ppg this season and capped things in the conference tourney by scoring nearly 30 ppg in the three wins that got Winthrop back to the Dance for the 8th time since 2001, many of those under former HC Gregg Marshall before he moved to Wichita State. The electric Johnson also hits better than 40% beyond the arc and is part of a lethal one-two combo with slinky 6-8 wing Xavier Cooks (16.3 ppg). Winthrop can score (80 ppg) and kept things respectable vs. Dance qualifiers Dayton (losing by 16) and Florida State (losing a 100-86 shootout) in pre-league play, while also going into Champaign-Urbana and knocking off Big Ten Illinois by 4.

Vermont (SUR 29-5, seeded 13th in Midwest)...Can it be 12 years since the Catamounts made some real noise in the 2005 Dance under colorful HC Tom Brennan and cult idol PF Taylor Coppenrath (who would go on to a decorated career in Europe)? Vermont has made the Dance a few other times in subsequent years, but this might be the best Catamount team since the 2005 masterpiece authored by Brennan, when UVM beat Syracuse in the first round. (Brennan retired to a career as a TV and radio host afterward.) Though pushed hard by Albany in the America East finale, Vermont enters the Dance with the nation's longest SU win streak (21). The Catamounts hit better than 50% from the floor and almost 38% beyond the arc, with a balanced attack led by versatile 6-6 frosh F Anthony Lamb (13 ppg). Vermont did lose by 22 at Providence in pre-league action, but played Butler a bit tougher (lost by only 12) and took American contender Houston down to the wire, losing by only 72-71.

Florida Gulf Coast (SUR 26-7, seeded 14th in West)....The Eagles make their third trip since 2013 to the Dance out of the Atlantic Sun and have won games in their last two visits, crashing the Sweet 16 with HC Andy Enfield's "Dunk City" phenomenon four years ago and returning last season under Enfield successor Joe Dooley, whipping Fairleigh Dickinson in the 16 vs. 16 play-in game before losing honorably to No. 1 seed North Carolina. FGCU went wire-to-wire in the A-Sun, and, like usual, is fun to watch, scoring almost 80 ppg and shooting better than 50% from the floor, and Dooley has four double-digit scorers led by UCF transfer G Brandon Goodwin (18 ppg). The Eagles were not too embarrassed in pre-league losses vs. Florida (80-59) and Baylor (81-72), and put a scare into Michigan State before losing by only 1 at East Lansing. FGCU also whipped a good UT-Arlington by 13 and won by 1 at La Tech.

North Dakota (SUR 22-9, seeded 15th in West)...The Fighting Hawks (nee Fighting Sioux) make their first-ever Dance appearance out of the Big Sky, where ND will roost for only one more year before moving to the Summit in 2018. Finally making a breakthrough for 11th-year HC Brian Jones, the Fighting Hawks emerged as the Sky's best team, mostly on the strength of a crackling backcourt led by Gs Quinton Hooker (19.1 ppg) & Geno Crandall (15.6 ppg) and a rugged, functional frontline. UND had mixed results with a variety of capable mid-majors in pre-league play (lost close to Wright State and Northern Iowa, beat CS Bakersfield and North Dakota State), but impressed onlookers most by sticking with Big Ten Iowa and forcing the Hawkeyes to work for an 84-73 win at Iowa City on Dec. 20.

South Dakota State (SUR 18-16, seeded 16th in West)...The Jackrabbits might be a lot more dangerous than the normal 16 seed. SDSU is familiar with these surroundings, making its third Dance trip out of the Summit in the past five seasons, though it is a much different team than LY's accomplished 26-8 edition that almost knocked off Maryland in the first round. Successful, long-serving HC Scott Nagy moved to Wright State after last season, and key Gs George Marshall and Deondre Parks graduated, contributing to an adjustment period under new HC T.J. Otzelberger, who arrived from Steve Prohm's Iowa State staff. Fortunately, 6-9 soph sensation F Scott Daum returned to the fold and emerged as one of the nation's top scorers (25.3 ppg) and was unstoppable down the stretch, scoring 30 or more in four of the last five games, including laying 51 on Fort Wayne Feb. 18 and 37 in the Summit final win over Omaha. Though the Rabbits were only 8-8 in Summit play, the league was highly-competitive this season, and SDSU closed hot with six straight wins. SDSU did take some lumps in pre-league play (lost by 29 at Cal, 15 at UC Irvine, 10 at Wyoming, and 28 at Northern Iowa), but all of those games were played by early December during the adjustment phase. Regional sources say this is a much better team in March than it was in November.


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