February 14, 2008 10:19 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- If you're an eagle-eyed reader, or just someone who can see things that are orange against a tan background, you have likely noticed the new Welmer-Whelliston Widget™ on the right side of the page.
I can't believe the response to this since I announced it a couple weeks ago, everybody was asking me about it in the Midwest last week. In an attempt to show that there are actually people who go to more games than I do, I'm racing America's most proficient referee to see if I can cover more games than he calls.
And the best part of this? It's all for charity.
OK, so it's not. I'm keeping all the money.
But the widget is updated in real time, every night. Welmer leads by 14 now (just wait until my 25 games in seven days during Championship Week, though), and he was at Northwestern calling a Big Ten game while I was sick at home on the couch watching hoops on TV, The Official Wife of the Mid-Majority™ feeding me cocktails of NyQuil and Dasani. I don't know how he does it, stays on his feet all season. I need him to refer me to his general practitioner.
Drake. For all the improbable last-minute wins the Bulldogs have pulled off the skillet this season, it was a matter of time before one went the other way. And after rallying from a late seven-point deficit to tie last night's game at Southern Illinois, on a Josh Young 3 with a minute and half left. But two possessions came up empty -- with SIU up by two with 10 ticks left, Adam Emmenecker couldn't convert a layup. After a foul and a free-throw split the other way, Leonard Houston missed on his Hail Mary triple try. The final score: Southern Illinois 65, Drake 62... ballgame over, 21-game win streak over, 18-game home win streak against Valley teams intact.
The incredible part of all of this is that Drake is still three games up on the field, and the Bulldogs' RPI is still in the Top 10. (They didn't lose much juice in The State index either, thanks for asking.) There's still a little bit of wiggle room left before this team stops feeling NCAA-safe going into St. Louis next month. But if they drop the game in Northern Iowa this weekend, there will likely be an increased level of hackling from the naysayers.
A-14 Excitement! CAA 2005, Missouri Valley 2006, Atlantic 10 2008. These are the conference races that make our lives worth living, that make us feel sorry for people who think that February is some kind of sports-free wasteland that needs to be filled with half-naked girls. Seriously, come on.
What makes these races great is that all the teams are running from something... the creeping black storm-cloud of non-NCAA obscurity that envelops more and more of the league standings as the year progresses, and finally swallows certain contenders alive on the afternoon of Selection Sunday. And no league feels that urgency like our Overgenerous Baker's Dozen, the seventh-rated conference which features eight teams with .500 records or better. Dayton (4-6) and UMass (4-5) have RPI's in the 20's but have losing league marks. Seriously, this is fun stuff.
I made the ridiculous claim in my ESPN chat yesterday that Xavier would torch Charlotte for 90, but the X (21-4, 9-1) ended up behind in the first half and finally barely surviving 62-60 to win its ninth straight. The Musketeers are still a couple games clear and NCAA-safe by all counts, but there's a teeming mass of basketball humanity below. Saint Joe's (7-3) broke a two-game road slide by trashing St. Bona at home, and Temple (6-3) outran Rhode Island (6-4) 92-89 in the third-place battle (told you free throws would hurt this team... 67 percent last night). URI has the best player in the conference in Will Daniels and seven more wins overall than the Owls, but that's the way the A-14 goes these days.
The lower part of the second tier is getting very crowded indeed. Look at Saint Louis, a punching-bag of the national media for scoring 20 points against George Washington last month... they avenged that by holding GW to 38 last night. The Billikens are 5-5, and in the hunt, baby! And aside from the X, you could say that Duquesne is the conference's second-hottest team with three straight wins, including last night's two-point win at Dayton, in which they turned the ball over just eight times.
But here's what I haven't heard people talk about yet. Remember Missouri State from 2006? Had an RPI of 21 out of the sixth-rated conference, with a non-losing 12-6 record in league games. Lost in the Valley quarters, and they were left out, becoming the team with the best RPI to not make the NCAA Tournament. The scenario we're likely to see play out is that of the four teams left standing in Atlantic City, three will go and the one closest to .500 in conference play will be sent to the NIT. And unless you're Xavier, any loss in the quarterfinals means it's over.
Basically, what I'm trying to say is that we could have multiple teams with RPI's in the 20's out in the cold, their bids going to undeserving SEC or Big East teams. Would that be enough for the NCAA to dump the RPI for good? Please?
MASN. We haven't mentioned this enough, but we have mad love for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. Or rather, the Mid-Major Awesomeness Sports Network, what with all the fantastic work they do presenting games at this level. They've broadcast a bunch of CAA, SoCon and Big South games this season, and done so with lots of camera angles, knowledgeable announcers, and a lot of respect for the teams and coaches. After seeing some of these local broadcasts piped in by ESPN Full Court, MASN's high production values really stand out.
And there have been great games on too. Like the Davidson-UNCG tilt from the Southern Conference that started off last night's mid-bleheader. The homestanding Spartans looked poised to score a huge upset of the league-undefeated Wildcats, shooting 70 percent in the first half and leading by as much as 20. But at the halftime buzzer, Stephen Curry nailed a halfcourt 3 (he does things like that) and went absolutely insane in the second half, scoring a career-high 41 points and leading Davidson (18-6, 16-0) to an 83-79 come-from-behind win. We've said it before, and we'll say it again, but Stephen Curry is good at playing basketball.
Then, in the 9:00 p.m. game, George Mason plowed Towson by 12 on the road, while the Patriots got every rebound they wanted. We were asleep by halftime.
New Jersey Tech. Today marks the two-monthiversary of this segment, lovingly titled NJIT: On The Cliff of History. But this school can expect plenty more Valentines from the media in the days to come, because the eventuality we predicted in mid-December is coming true. After a 22-point loss at LaSalle, independent D-I NJIT is now 0-26 and within two games of the NCAA record set by the 2004-05 Savannah State Tigers. And the Highlanders have three games to go.
Despite the loss, it was a great game for NJIT's leading scorer, the pride of Montenegro, 6-8 junior Nesho Milosevic. He shot 9-for-19 and double-doubled with 21 points and 11 rebounds. And while we're looking for bright spots, the defense has actually improved over the course of the season. They're forcing enough turnovers to put them in mid-table nationally, and they're out of the bottom 25 in a lot of field-goal defense type of categories. Will it help them beat Chicago State in the home finale on Saturday, or Longwood (Feb. 18) or Utah Valley State (Feb. 23) on the road to avoid becoming Hoops Nation's first-ever 0-29 team? We're holding our breath.
And we didn't forget, although you thought we did...
How 'Bout™ the MAC? Not to be outdone by the A-10, the Midwestern 12 is holding its own annual war of attrition. Since getting a juicy BracketBuster with George Mason, Ohio has lost two of three, including last night's 54-52 sloppy drop at Toledo. The Bobcats have these offensive blackouts that strike at any moment, like the one in the final minutes that erased a second-half double-digit lead. And did they give leading scorer and all-around post-pounder Leon Williams 10 shots? No. They've only lost once in eight games when that happens, and that was Saint Mary's.
How 'Bout™ High Point? The preseason picks in the Big South avenged an earlier bad loss to then-undefeated UNC Asheville 80-71. All of a sudden, the Bulldogs (7-2) have lost two in a row and have been pulled back to the pack. Winthrop at 7-3 is just a half-game back, and HPU is well within one-seed striking distance, in third at 6-4.
How 'Bout™ Northwestern State? Went on the road and gave index darlings Sam Houston State the worst loss of the year by far, 78-69, and became the first team all year to shoot 50 percent against the Bearkats (32-for-59). It was the final straw for our computer, which promptly dropped SHSU out of the top 10. Those feisty Demons? They're 7-3 and two games back in the loss column in the East Division, and they have a home shot against the red-hot West leaders from Stephen F. Austin (20-3, 8-2) on Saturday. The Lumberjacks, for their part, turned the screws on Central Arkansas last night, holding the Bears to 23 percent shooting.
And finally, How 'Bout™ Evansville? Beat Creighton at home by four to claim their third Valley win of the year, despite shooting 30 percent from the floor. It was the other 30, the number of free throws they made (93.8 percent), that iced the win. This isn't the first time this has happened -- they beat Wichita last week with a 30 percent shooting performance, but survived 64-56 with 26 made freebies (81.3 percent). The really weird part? These were out-of-their-minds unconscious performances by the Aces, the second-worst free-throw shooting team in the conference at 62.8 percent.
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