Coming into the Big South tournament, VMI was 8-10 in the conference and 14-15 overall. The Keydets finished seventh out of 11 teams in the Big South. But VMI still had something to play for. If VMI could start an 11-game winning streak Monday night against Radford, they would be the national champions of college basketball.
And that is the magic of this time a year. If your conference tournament accepts all teams to its tournament, you can still theoretically win a national championship. You could lose every game you play in the regular season, but come Championship Fortnight, a national championship is still in play. Some do not like this, and feel the regular season should mean more. Opponents of a playoff system in college football say that the regular season means more in football. And yet, college football crowned a national champion this year that lost its division title on its home field fairly late in the season. The real difference between football and Our Game is that there is a path to a national title (unless you are Presbyterian) for all teams. Some conferences do add safeguards to enhance the regular season. The Ivy League doesn't have a tournament, although that is more because of academic and traditional reasons. Some conferences cut the bottom teams from making it. The Big South gives the regular season champion homecourt advantage. But regardless, each team enters the season with a chance to win. And that is why Division I basketball is special. It is a meaningful championship that allows for many teams to have a chance.
Of course, VMI or any other Big South team winning a national championship is only a theoretical possibility. At some point, you run into insurmountable obstacles. You will have to at some point face your conference's best team. If you are a low-seed who wins your tourney, you will have to win again in Dayton. And if you do that, you will have to be the first 16 seed to ever beat a 1. The odds of most teams making the Final 32 are very slim. And even if you do get that historic upset, you aren't likely going to pull five more to get that elusive national title. But it's still theoretically possible. And that provides hope and inspiration for every team until the death of the season.
VMI's opponent today was Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have had a recent history of success in regular season conference play, but could not close the deal in the conference tournament. And the last two seasons, they have played at home in the conference tournament. Now, Coastal would have to take their chances away from tiny Kimbel Arena and face VMI on a neutral court in Asheville. Coastal this year did not have the same distractions like with the mid-season turmoil last year, and they had come off a win over the Keydets last weekend on the road. Like VMI was after beating Radford on Monday, Coastal was 10 wins from becoming national champions. And it seemed the Chants were likely to get closer.
But VMI has a past of taking teams by surprise in the tournament. The Keydets five years ago upset Liberty and High Point to reach the final, where they pushed a Winthrop team to the brink that had won all its conference games and would make the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Most of the Big South is accustomed to the Keydets racing down the court to attempt a #superhoop and trying to force turnovers while risking giving up easy baskets. But come the postseason, VMI plays a more orthodox style of basketball. They were able to squeak out a defensive game against Radford Monday. But Coastal Carolina would figure to be a tougher test.
The game tipped off, and Coastal got a dunk by Sam McLaurin on its first possession. But VMI then took the lead, and raced off with it. VMI's style of play may be a bit frantic during the regular season, but when slowed down it can produce fantastic results. The Keydets have gotten plenty of practicing the #superhoop, and the #superhoop would be big today for them as well. A high percentage of their shots were from behind the arc, and when half of those shots go in it will be hard to catch up. Yet Coastal was able to barely keep up by using their size advantage down low. But up high, they could not match the offensive shooting numbers of VMI. The Chants trailed by as much as 11 late in the first half before coming within six at halftime.
One Coastal fan I recognized at the game was Matt Cayuela. Matt got his ticket when they went on sale, on the front row behind the scorers' table. In the first half Matt sat next to a couple VMI fans, which can be difficult for an opposing fan when they are yelling for your players to be called for three seconds. So at halftime, Matt got a break and attempted a layup, free throw, and 3-pointer to win up to $50 worth of gift cards at Advance Auto Parts. Matt made the layup, but badly missed the free throws and #superhoop tries. The layup was still good for $10 at Advance Auto Parts, useful for somebody traveling a lot for this project. I was in a similar promotion at High Point last year for the women's tournament, where I missed a halfcourt shot that had the distance but missed wide to the right by about 10 to 20 feet.
Afterwards, Matt came by to the other side of the court where I was sitting, and no VMI fans were. We talked and both rooted for Coastal to come back in the second half. I wanted Coastal to win for a few reasons. One was that I had bad memories when HPU played VMI, although not quite as negative as those associated with Winthrop. There was one game where the officiating was completely one-sided in favor of VMI my sophomore year at the Millis Center, although we managed to win on a buzzer-beater. Then, of course, there was the aforementioned semifinal loss with our best team in the Division I era in 2007. VMI would also certainly get a play-in, while Coastal only likely would and would probably have a better chance of winning in Dayton than the Keydets. In addition, I like to root for schools that I feel like I might have attended even if I did not. Coastal was my second choice to High Point among the three schools I applied to for undergrad. And on the flipside, I could not picture myself attending a military school like VMI. So I rooted for Coastal, even though they were the favorite and a Coastal win left open the possibility of an undersized facility hosting the tournament final.
But things would not turn out so well for Matt and the Chanticleers (or my very slight rooting interest for this game only). Coastal would continue to chip away at VMI's lead, and nearly took it five minutes into the second half. It seemed that maybe Cliff Ellis had made the right adjustments to beating the changed style of VMI. But no amount of coaching could help Coastal overcome the next VMI run. Coastal had to rely too heavily on feeding their forwards the ball, and VMI's pressure created turnovers. Coastal began to stop leaving Keydets open on the perimeter, but Keith Gabriel and his VMI teammates kept making #superhoops, going 14-for-28 on the game. VMI pulled away again midway through the second half, this time for good. The final score was 85-68, and VMI could have won by even more than that. It what is to be expected for the game involving the #2 seed, but the reverse outcome.
With the win, VMI is one step closer to a national championship. The Keydets after this game moved to within nine wins of a national title. In the middle of typing this recap, VMI would win again and are presently eight wins from a national championship. Can VMI keep going, and get that national championship? The answer is obviously no. But they might come closer than one would have expected if they keep shooting the ball well. And they can still hope to get a national championship, if only theoretically possible. That is the beauty of Our Game.
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 85, at COASTAL CAROLINA 68 02/29/2012
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 16-15 (8-10) -- R. Burks 3-6 5-6 13; S. Okoye 5-11 4-8 15; K. Gabriel 7-12 3-4 20; D. Covington 2-2 1-2 5; Q. Upshur 3-5 0-0 7; R. Glasgow 2-4 2-2 7; M. Sparks 1-3 0-0 3; J. Weethee 5-6 0-0 15; J. Watson 0-0 0-0 0; B. Brown 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-49 15-22 85. COASTAL CAROLINA 19-11 (12-6) -- K. Greenwood 5-10 1-2 11; S. McLaurin 7-9 0-0 14; W. Gillis 2-5 2-2 6; A. Raffa 5-8 0-1 12; C. Gradnigo 1-9 6-6 9; D. Nieman 1-4 2-4 5; J. Pack 3-4 0-0 6; J. Griffin 2-2 0-0 5; D. Moore 0-0 0-0 0; B. Addey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-51 11-15 68.
Three-point goals: VMI 14-28 (R. Burks 2-4; K. Gabriel 3-7; M. Sparks 1-3; S. Okoye 1-2; R. Glasgow 1-3; Q. Upshur 1-3; J. Weethee 5-6), CCU 5-12 (C. Gradnigo 1-4; A. Raffa 2-3; D. Nieman 1-3; J. Griffin 1-1; K. Greenwood 0-1); Rebounds: VMI 22 (S. Okoye 5), CCU 27 (S. McLaurin 10); Assists: VMI 20 (S. Okoye 5), CCU 15 (K. Greenwood 8); Total Fouls -- VMI 13, CCU 16; Fouled Out: VMI-None; CCU-None.