PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- First of all, a great big thank you to every single person who got in on the Team Ballz promotion yesterday. They sold out in just under eight hours, and there are going to be some awesome new Ballz births in Hoops Nation in April. There were some folks who ended up late and heartbroken too. We will try to scour the landscape for more raw materials with which to repeat the deal, and we're dedicated to distributing chances equitably. If you send your e-mail address into The Form™ and ask to be added to the BallzAlert list, you will be the first to know when more are available.
Also, please enjoy the new home page for Championship Fortnight, which complements the annual Tourney Central coverage this year. It is completely run by Robots, and we're proud of it. The grid updates every five minutes, and teams will light up when they are playing games in progress. The idea is simple: when a team is eliminated from the path to the National Championship, its star flickers out. Because independents and Great West teams are not on that path, they are not included. Ivy teams are, as long as they are in contention for the regular season championship. For the time being, most of the lights are still on. That will change. Now then. We'll talk more about things like next season's 800 Games Project when the proper time comes, and we'll put up conference tournament and postseason game reports as we get them, but I didn't want too much time to pass before posting this. We traveled to Evansville's Roberts Stadium for the final time in mid-December, but last weekend was the final game in a building that launched five college division national championships before the NCAA's subdivision reorganization in the 1970s. The Aces hosted Illinois State in the Valley regular season finale for both teams.
History and tradition are unique to every program and are a source of great pride for every fanbase across the nation. Today it was on full display as Evansville took on visiting Illinois State in the final game at the 55 year old Roberts Stadium. Although the game meant nothing for Arch Madness seeding purposes this particular game carried much more than just a simple W or L for future media guides. It's hard to quantify or explain that buzz that surrounds big events. As difficult as it is to put into words, wandering the corridors 30 minutes before tip, that feeling was undeniable. The stadium serves as a living history to basketball in the southern Indiana, showcasing the highest of highs and sadly the lowest of lows. From the cases displaying the area Indiana high school All-State team members, the All-Americans, to the Hall of Fame Coach Arad McCutchan, the tradition speaks for itself. Also in those hallowed halls is a reminder summed up beautifully in a newspaper headline. It simply read "The Night It Rained Tears" as Evansville in its D-I infancy, lost its entire basketball team and coaching staff in a plane crash on December 13, 1977, tragically ending so many young lives way too soon. Once in the seating bowl itself, the near sell out crowd saw an Aces squad who has surprised the Valley a bit take on Illinois State. A back and forth affair put the Redbirds ahead of the hometown Aces by 5 at the break on the strength of a number of kick out 3's. Prior to the game a poem was read about the sleeves and what they represented as Evansville broke out sleeved jerseys that are a storied part of that history. Colt Ryan's hot hand put Evansville in front with a quick burst early in the 2nd half and every time the Aces tried to pull away, the Redbirds seemed to bury another 3 to stay right there. It was then, at around the 3:30 mark of the 2nd half that Colt Ryan showed why he is currently the face as well as the future of Evansville basketball. The sophomore guard got an open jumper from about 17 off a set play to push the lead to 7. With the crowd on its feet, Ryan poked the ball away, threw it ahead for a Kenneth Harris slam and the old building showed it had one more roar left in it. Ryan's career high 32 along with 13 off the bench from Lewis Jones sent Roberts out with its 604th victory in 55 seasons of Aces basketball, yet the story doesn't simply end there.
The stadium is a local landmark, a pillar of the community. It was where the Aces won 5 College Division (now D-II) National Championships on its home floor in 1959, 60, 64, 65, and 71 under Naismith Hall of Famer Arad McCutchan who pioneered those same sleeved jerseys Evansville wore today. It's where the community gathered to mourn those who lost their lives in 1977 and a place to run into old friends and reminisce about that March afternoon in 1989 where Scott Haffner put on a shooting clinic, hitting 11 3's, going 23-29 from the field and putting up 65 points in a win over Dayton. These are just a sample of many stories you can and would hear among those halls. A simple drive home safely won't suffice. Over 100 former players and coaches lined the floor and after the senior day speeches by Pieter van Tongeren, Clint Hopf, and Kavon Lacey, the send off was well underway. Former coaches Dick Walters who led Evansville to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1982, just 5 years after that tragic plane crash and Jim Crews who took UE to 4 NCAA Tournaments talked about what it meant to coach at the school. Former players representing the McCutchan era as well as the D-I days also spoke to the near capacity crowd about their experiences. As the farewell concluded, a golf cart containing those 5 national championship trophies as well as those won during the D-I days paraded around the floor one final time before heading to their new home downtown in a state of the art arena. We learned that although it was merely a building, it's those experiences that made it so special and those things will live on forever.
I believe the son of the late Coach MuCutchan said it best, when he spoke about how the new arena can do exactly what Roberts Stadium did. It brought in a championship era -- 12,000 screaming fans that supported a small private school with an unabashed passion that was on full display this day. Roberts Stadium went out in the only way it knew how; with a bang, adding one more victory and countless memories from reliving those 55 eventful years of hoops with all our legends and past heroes.
- Stephen S.
So Roberts Stadium's last game was an Evansville win, as it should have been. But it will end in a loss there too, as it always does. The wrecking ball will have the final say.
SWAC: Two games left to go in the Swickity, where success can mean simply surviving November and December's guarantee grind and finishing with a winning overall record. The "20-win season" still means something here, because there have only been six of them across the conference since the turn of the century. Texas Southern might yet meet that mark with a tourney title, but the Tigers were drummed by Alabama State last night at the Acadome, 60-48. TSU had an eight-game win streak going, and all of a sudden the Hornets are the hottest team in the league with a seven-game run of their own, and they could still go into Shreveport as a dangerous two-seed if things go right. They'll wrap up at Jackson State and Grambling. A moment of respect for ASU's old championship-winning coach, Rob Spivery, who left in 2005 for supposedly greener pastures at Southern (before they cut athletics back considerably) but is now about to be put out to one. The Jaguars are a combined 6-53 over the past two seasons.
Big Sky: Montana's in the gate at 12-4, but otherwise there's a final slate of games tomorrow in advance of the six-team elimination battle to come. As of now, only one seed is set in stone: Northern Arizona is locked in at the No. 4. Portland State is ineligible for the postseason due to a low APR score, Sacramento State is long gone (extending a no-playoffs streak of five seasons), and Idaho State was eliminated last night in a tight 77-74 battle with NoCo -- the Bengals battled hard, but fell. The name of the game for Weber State and the Bears on Wednesday is don't slip up -- against Eastern Washington and Sac State, respectively. The prize on the line is the No. 1 seed, which also carries with it free hosting. And I'm not talking about the kind with unlimited bandwidth.
Akron at Ohio (Mid-American) Convocation Center - Athens, OH 7:00 EST
There are two games left in the MAC regular season, and plenty of seeding uncertainty. There are ties at the tops of both divisions, and a chance that the third-place team in the East could vault both Kent State and Miami and possibly even claim the top overall seed in the Cleveland-based tourney next week. Akron (19-10, 9-5) certainly has the momentum to do it. After losing three of their first four conference games and sitting below .500 as recently as a month ago, the Zips have won seven straight and eight of nine. When we last saw them, it was December and they were jacking up a lot of dumb threes. Now, they've developed into a strong defensive team that takes care of the ball well too; Serbian 6-foot-8 junior Nikola Cvetinovic, as Euro-style as they come, has stepped to the forefront with his team-leading 12.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg. But they're also out of home games. To earn their first-ever No. 1 MAC seed, Keith Dambrot's squad would have to win out against last year's round-robin and tourney champions on the road. Not so easy.
Ohio is on a bit of a well-timed hot streak as well. The Bobcats (16-13, 8-6) have won four straight, including a thrilling 88-87 overtime squeaker over Kent State on Saturday. It was their first victory there in a decade, and it was sealed with a winning basket by the original #omgdunx artist, 6-foot-8 senior DeVaughn Washington. He's one of four double-figure scorers for Ohio, but they sure do miss their early-exit March hero of the improbable No. 9 seed run of 2010, Armon Bassett. (Where is he now? He's an American professional basketball free agent.) In the first meeting with Akron, Ohio won 79-70 on 53 percent shooting. For all the offense that the Fightin' Groces have been putting up, they allow a whole bunch as well. The Bobcat defense yields 1.03 points per possession, 10th in the MAC, and a league-worst 39.6 percent of opponents' three-pointers fall through nets. But it all balances out, and they win when they force turnovers. If they do so tonight, they can sweep the season series and take a clear tiebreaker advantage between the two schools -- which could come in very handy for something like a No. 4 seed. Basketball State Preview/Box