CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- Before we get too wrapped up in Championship Week this and NCAA Tournament that, in seeding whichever and Billy Packer whatever, I'd like to take time out to offer a small tribute to some special people.
This is a tribute to the 508 fans who attended last night's Division I game in Durham, N.H.. These 508 hardy souls took time out of their lives, skipped or Tivo'ed American Idol
, and spent money on gas and tickets to watch the host New Hampshire Wildcats get torched by the visiting Binghamton Bearcats by a 66-37
score. And it wasn't even Senior Night, that's coming up Sunday.
And yes, I know that the attendance figure was most likely gerry-rigged, that 508 is a tribute to the western Massachusetts area code, or maybe the SID was carrying $508 in his pocket, or perhaps it was the New Hampshire Pick 3 number the night before. I know about these things. But the fact remains that people showed up for an utterly meaningless America East game between two 5-10 teams, the only thing at stake being an escape from the league's "Pillowfight Friday" matchup on Mar. 2 of the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. My point is that these people are heroes, vanguards, true basketball junkies.
This is a tribute to the 618 announced fans at Army-Lafayette last night who watched two teams with seven combined Patriot League wins between them and stayed for the whole thing as their beloved Leopards were pounded 83-65. This is for the 3,015 who came to ring out the home portion of Delaware's 5-24 (3-14 CAA) lost season, a 70-61 dropped decision to Northeastern played with only six healthy bodies.
All of you, each and every one of you, is what I believe college basketball is truly about. You show up win or lose, and you don't turn your back on the team in a down year, preferring to come-lately when . If your team does come out of this stronger and better for the experience, you will have been there for the entire ascension. And when sweet victory comes, it will be sweetest and most succulent to you, the real fan, the true believer, the never-say-die supporter. Because that's what your fellow fans currently disguised as empty seats are doing, they're saying "die."
You choose to say "live." This is a tribute to you.
East Tennessee State, 14-2 and two games clear, can clinch the Atlantic Sun title outright this evening at home against 6-10 Stetson. But watch out for the hard charging No. 2 and No. 3 seeds from here in the Nashville area. Belmont is 12-4 and Lipscomb is 11-5, and if the Bisons can manage to catch their crosstown rivals in the standings, they'd get the two on the basis of a season sweep... Winthrop has big NCAA dreams, but it's assured of at least an NIT bid (and home-court advantage throughout the campus-site tourney... again) as it wrapped up the Big South regular season against High Point the other night in a 72-60 roar-from-behind win. The Eagles are now 13-0 in the league, and can finish off a perfect season with a win at Coastal Carolina on Saturday. Think Coach Buzz is lying in wait, ready to spoil the party? You betcha...
In the CAA, a/k/a the "Atlantic Valley," Virginia Commonwealth still leads at 15-2 (they won vs. James Madison 83-72 on VCU Senior Night), but they're also still feeling the meaty heat of Old Dominion, winners of 10 in a row and a single game back at 14-3 going into the final weekend of the regular season. Hofstra (12-4) and Drexel (12-5) are fighting over the No. 3 seed... In the MAC, Kent State has moved into a tie for first in the East division at 10-3 after beating Buffalo 68-64. Akron, caught in the standings at last, lost at Miami (Oh.) 64-62 in overtime; Tim Pollitz with 17, and Michael Bramos was the oh-tee hero. Four games to go for both, but that Zips Mar. 4 season finale at Kent looks mighty intriguing heading into Cleveland...
Salute the Salukis; Southern Illinois (24-5, 14-3) has won the hardest league to win, that being the Missouri Valley. SIU's 58-50 win over Indiana State had a rough start, but there's no denying that the team's pack-it-in defense and sacrifice of perimeter D allows it an extra gear that it can kick into at the end of games. Seriously, this team is an Elite Eight threat, or beyond, a feat that would shut all the nay-sayers who think the Valley is worse off in 2006-07 than it was in 2005-06. But all that nice stuff that was said about Bradley coming out of its Buster win at VCU? Put it on ice at the moment, as the Braves lost 79-70 at home to Northern Iowa to move to a precarious 9-8. You see disappointment? I see a great and balanced league that's even more entertaining than last year's version...
In my game the other night, Tennessee Tech (13-6) outlasted first-place Austin Peay (15-3) 73-72, and the Golden Eagles can now finish no worse than third. Tonight, Peay will see if it has what it takes against hard-charging Eastern Kentucky, the current No. 3 with a 12-6 record. Wouldn't be a very promising scenario for the Govs if they go into next week's tourney having lost to both of the two teams on its tail... Florida ended Al Gore's American Dream six years ago, and a Florida trip took the luster off Team USA's 2006-07 Sun Belt record. The South Alabama Jaguars dropped both games of its Sunshine State roadie to Florida International and Florida Atlantic. USA limps home with a still-stellar and Belt-best 13-4 record, but it's glad there's not a Florida Pacific or Florida Universal down there to add to the road woes... Davidson (23-4, 14-1) can clinch the SoCon regular season tonight against Furman; the Wildcats are 15-1, two games up on North Division leaders Appalachian State.
K-Dub's Krazy Fact of the Day!
We had to ask: is there anything that our NIT-clinching conference champs (Winthrop, Central Connecticut State, Vermont, Oral Roberts, Delaware State, Southern Illinois) have in common, one stat in which they all excel? Hmmm, let's see.
Obviously, every team is different and each makes its own path to a championship, but four of the six schools lead their respective leagues in defensive efficiency, measured by points per possession defense. Even the two that don't -- Vermont and Delaware State -- allow less than a point per possession. So that's pretty important.
But here's something interesting: in a year in which Butler has made a national name for itself with superior ball control, many of our chosen six are relatively reckless with the basketball. Vermont sports an America East-worst 21% turnover rate. Central coughs it up 20.4% of the time, Winthrop's 20% puts the Eagles third in the Big South. ORU is seventh and second-to-last in the Mid-Con at 23%, and SIU is eighth in the Valley with a 21.8%. Delaware State, gives it up 20% of the time too, but they play at such a slow pace that it comes out to a national 18th-best 11.7 turnovers per contest.
On the other hand, each of these six teams has a signature stat that helps it win ballgames. For Vermont, it's rebounds; Chris Holm isn't getting the love Taylor Coppenrath used to get, but his staggering 12.1 boards a game have helped the Ultra-Violence Mechanism become the fourth-best rebounding team in the nation at 37.4 a game. CCSU's 1.104 points on the offensive side have earned it a quick wrap-up of the NEC, and Winthrop's 11th-best national mark in 2-point field goal percentage in all games (54.7%) has shown it can get the ball inside almost at will, and Oral Roberts defends the perimeter so well that its 31.1% 3FG against mark puts it 31st in the country. Southern Illinois will get its rebounds - 75% of available boards on opposition shots. That stellar rebounding rate puts it 7th in D1.
So defense wins championships, and giving the ball up is occasionally forgivable... but which of these other attributes will propel these teams even further, past their conference tourneys and into the NCAA brackets? Stay tuned.
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