The Horizon League first semifinal contest marks the end of neutral court basketball this weekend. The most-talented team (#3 Detroit) takes on the most physical team (#2 Cleveland State). The issue for the Titans has been playing with discipline, but other than a late season loss at Cleveland State (where they blew about a 9 point lead down the stretch), they've been on a hot streak. The issue for Cleveland State has been injuries, but D'Aundray Brown finally returned to action tonight, though he didn't start. Whoever wins will either be back here looking for their first win of the 2011-2012 season against Valpo or hosting Butler at their home court. The last 2 seed to lose in the semifinals was Green Bay in 2009 - to Cleveland State, who went on to win the tourney by upsetting Butler.
At the start I thought CSU was going to assert themselves and wear Detroit down. Before the game was 20 seconds old, Doug Anderson, Detroit's dunker extraordinaire, was down and motionless under the Detroit basket and a hush fell over the place. Cleveland State was playing their trademark physical, bruising defense. Viewing the replay later, it was clear to me that Anderson probably just lost his balance and hit the floor in an awkward way, but I can never be too sure where the Vikings are involved. Anderson returned briefly, but didn't play much in the game.
It took a while for Detroit to get untracked, but a wide open 3 by Jason Calliste seemed to open things up. Gary Waters opened up on his team for leaving him so open. For CSU, Brown entered the game and immediately made his presence felt, scoring a layup and drawing a charge in short order. I also thought the Vikings might be able to contain Ray McCallum, Jr. It seemed to go that way in the early going, but before too long he showed that he couldn't be contained, offensively OR defensively, as one of CSU's younger post players found when he thought he had an uncontested layup, only to be swatted by the much smaller McCallum. With much bobbing and weaving, McCallum made his presence felt in the game and created nightmares for the Vikings.
Over the course of the game, the Titans built a nice lead and the Vikings were the ones that looked outmatched, but the Vikings have one of the most oppressive full court presses in the Horizon League and they applied it in the second half to erase most, if not all, of that nice lead. In his postgame comments, Coach McCallum said he was very glad they built up that lead because he knew the Viking run was coming. The Titans prevailed by the skin of their teeth.
This was the first game so far to be nip and tuck the entire way. Milwaukee-Butler was tight for one half, but Butler pulled away decisively in the 2nd half. The Butler and Valpo fans who came only for the second game were treated to a barnburner, though they likely missed the most exciting and most entertaining moment of the entire game. With about 10 seconds to go, the game suddenly resembled a rugby match. The Vikings rebounded a missed put-back by Detroit and Charlie Lee (a freshman) launched a half court shot even though there were still 7 seconds to go. The rebound bounced out to the side and everybody sacrificed their bodies on the floor to try to come up with it. A Titan may have even gotten his hands on it at one point, but like a fumble in football, the ball refused to be corralled until either Harmon or Montgomery, laying on the floor, grabbed it and scooped it to Tim Kamcyzc who suddenly had the whole lane and the entire right half of the front court all to himself. Without hesitation, he drove for a layup, just beating the horn, to cut the Detroit lead to 31-25. CSU continued that momentum into the second half, but ultimately could not sustain it. They needed a late run to give themselves one more chance, but they just couldn't quite pull it off.
Detroit looked a bit gassed, and almost let this one slip away. This is what can happen even to a 3 seed in this tournament when you have to win a first round game on Tuesday, then a second round game on a neutral court, and come right back the next night to take on a team that has had a week to rest and recuperate. This is why finishing in first or second place is so crucial in the Horizon League. They will get 3 days to rest up before the title game, but then so will Valpo, and Valpo has more in the tank after tonight than Detroit does.
For all the arguments I can make - and have made on message boards - there is no denying that competition during the regular season is incredibly fierce in this conference, and for all the right reasons: desire to finish first. We do have geographic rivalries, and perhaps one or more of them even have an emotional component to them, like the Big 12's border war or the ACC's battle of Tobacco Road. However, in those conferences, mutual hatred is arguably the primary component because there is every reason to believe both teams will make it to the NCAA tournament. When Northern Iowa knocked off Kansas a couple of years ago, with all the "Onions!" Ali Farokhmanesh could muster, I asked friends of mine who were fans of the University of Missouri if they were rooting for Kansas, and most of them said, "Are you kidding??? I LOVED that game!"
But in the Horizon League, mutual hatred is secondary. Rivalries are fierce because the Horizon League is still largely a 1-bid league. Rational Horizon League fans have been rooting for Butler the past 5 years in the NCAA tournament, in spite of the fact that in January and February, we pretty much despise them. The reason has a lot to do with the fact that our hatred of Butler is secondary to our hatred of being excluded from the NCAA tournament. Ask any rational Horizon League fan (there are a few irrational ones, believe me) if they would trade losing to Butler for making it to the Big Dance, and they will tell you, "You bet I would." If fans feel this way, imagine how much more so the players they root for feel that way. When Selection Sunday is over with, our hatred of Butler (or any other team who seems to be dominating the conference) disappears because the die has been cast, and the pursuit of participation in the premiere postseason tournament is over, and nothing pleases us more than to see our conference kick as much crap out of as many teams (especially power conference teams) as possible. In the Summit League - a neutral site tourney with no byes - finishing in first place is not nearly the perk that it is in the Horizon League. There's no reason why it has to be (can't simple love of the sport motivate players to go all out against each other?), but because most teams aren't possessed of such purity of motives, giving them something truly significant to play for (more significant than playing the eighth place team and an extra day off before the semifinals) truly makes a difference. And those teams who are lavishly rewarded are simultaneously put on the spot to present themselves as worthy of that reward by not embarrassing themselves once their turn to play finally comes.
The official justification is to protect the top seeds and ensure that the best team(s) advance to the NCAA tournament. I have a problem with that justification. But I can see different justification and benefits for doing it the way they do it. I may object to the motives, and I still am not a proponent, but I have come to appreciate the results.
DETROIT 63, CLEVELAND STATE 58 03/03/2012
DETROIT 21-13 (11-7) -- R. McCallum 7-10 11-13 26; C. Simon 3-11 2-2 8; J. Calliste 3-7 4-4 13; E. Holman 2-6 2-4 6; D. Foster 3-10 0-0 6; L. Lowe 2-4 0-0 4; E. Bruinsma 0-1 0-0 0; D. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; P. Boutte 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 19-23 63. CLEVELAND STATE 22-10 (12-6) -- T. Kamczyc 5-8 0-0 11; D. Brown 5-7 6-7 17; J. Montgomery 5-11 0-0 11; T. Harmon 3-9 2-2 8; A. Grady 0-7 2-2 2; A. Pogue 2-6 1-2 5; C. Lee 0-5 2-2 2; M. Mason 0-2 0-0 0; L. Ndaye 0-1 0-0 0; I. Nwamu 0-0 2-3 2. Totals 20-56 15-18 58.
Three-point goals: UDM 4-16 (C. Simon 0-5; D. Foster 0-1; J. Calliste 3-6; E. Bruinsma 0-1; R. McCallum 1-3), CLST 3-13 (D. Brown 1-1; T. Harmon 0-3; J. Montgomery 1-5; T. Kamczyc 1-1; C. Lee 0-2; M. Mason 0-1); Rebounds: UDM 31 (C. Simon 8), CLST 28 (D. Brown 7); Assists: UDM 12 (R. McCallum 5), CLST 8 (J. Montgomery 3); Total Fouls -- UDM 18, CLST 24; Fouled Out: UDM-None; CLST-J. Montgomery.