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NEW TGS HOOPS...ANOTHER LOYOLA-CHICAGO IN THE HOUSE?

                                     by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

    We’ve been quick to criticize far and wide on Selection Sundays past.  From the mechanics of the Committee to the coverage (especially the “Selection Show” itself), we have often found a lot to complain about in past years.  But not 2019.  For once we can say that we at TGS were pleasantly surprised at the entire operation on Selection Sunday, with few complaints about the field, the seeds, or, in particular, the coverage. More on all of that in a moment.

    Selection Sunday is a special time for us at TGS, and as we begin to wind down our 62nd season of publishing, we can’t help but look back at past years and smile.  These days, Selection Sunday is not nearly as hectic or as high-strung as it was for us during the days when we had a hard print deadline not long after midnight.  Online publishing has given us more time, effectively an extra day, to produce the tourney preview edition, which has expanded significantly from the days when we only had enough room to fit what the old print version of TGS allowed.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss the old days, when, on Selection Sunday,TGS would more resemble a newsroom, as we would effectively have to start from scratch, at least with the expanded college version of the publication, once the tourney pairings were announced. 

    No other issue of the season came close to the sort of pressure and excitement as a “Hell Night” on Selection Sunday with its just-announced pairings.  As each year’s tournament progressed, we would have more time to analyze each of the matchups.  The brackets and the regions were already known.  But on the Selection Sunday “Hell Night,” we really were starting from scratch at about 4 PM Pacific time, with roughly nine hours to do all of the writeups, proofreading, and layout.  In the days before we could electronically transmit the publication to a printer, paste boards were used, and we also had to then physically transport the boards to our printer.  To help meet the deadline, we would arrange a pickup of one side of the publication earlier in the evening, with the other side still to be completed.  How many times, on my drives from the TGS offices in Los Angeles (before the move to Sherman Oaks) to our printer in the South Bay, near the Hawthorne Airport, I made that trek in the early morning hours after a Selection Sunday, with hardly anyone on the freeways.  By 2 AM, I would drop off the other half of TGS, the side with all of the tourney writeups, just in time to make our print deadline, so we could have the publication ready for shipping on Monday morning. Those days, living far away in Orange County, I often didn’t trudge home on such nights until around 3 AM, but it was a feeling of exultation every year when we would successfully complete the “Hell Night” ordeal. Which, in truth, wasn’t very hellish at all.

  The adrenaline rush, and excitement of producing that issue, have been hard to replicate, even though we produce a far more substantial tourney issue these days for the newer, expanded, and online versions of TGS.

     But it’s been 12 years (2007) since we produced the big tourney edition in such a fashion.  Beginning in 2008, our online publishing allowed us, a) a little more time to produce the tourney edition, and b) with fewer space constraints, we could preview upcoming action to our heart’s content.  Which included writeups on all first-round action of the other “alphabet” tournaments (NIT, CBI, and CIT).  Moreover, the following year I moved to Las Vegas, so I didn’t have to make a special trip to Nevada to watch the opening round of the tourney.

    As you progress through this most special of issues, you’ll notice that we have given a platform to those non-Big Dance games as well.  After all, it’s just as easy to wager upon a CBI or CIT game at one of the many legal sports books in Nevada and elsewhere as it is to place money on an NCAA Tournament game.

    We have to admit that we were a bit concerned about the selection process this year and the introduction of the new “NET” calculation at the expense of the old RPI.  We believed our concerns were well-founded; it seemed as if the “NET” might even be more predisposed to favor the power conference teams with the emphasis on “Quad 1" wins...especially as there didn’t seem to be any commensurate penalty for Quad 1 losses. It seemed a perfect vehicle for the power conferences to further get a grip on the selection process and shut out any mid-major at-large candidates, who, by the design of the NET, simply wouldn’t have as many chances to record those valued “Quad 1" wins.  Moreover, there were basketball analytics added to the new NET calculation, specifically, points per possession.

   This can be a valuable analytic tool, but even the “PPP” must be viewed in context.  More specifically, PPP can be impacted by various factors, such as strength of the opposition (after all, there are wide disparities in defensive acumen of many teams), and, importantly, how the PPP could become distorted by “garbage time” developments.  We chafed when we heard many so-called experts refer to the PPP as an identifier of “better basketball,” as even that is subjective.  Is it “better basketball” to hoist a contested, low-percentage three-point shot that happens to connect, or a well-conceived offense that springs a player for a high-percentage shot at the rim?  Which could also result in a foul, and thus rely upon free-throw shooting to complete the scoring. 

    Moreover, the calculations of PPP are based upon 100 possessions, even though it might take two games or more for teams to get that many possessions.  Even then, one might be talking about differences of a couple hundredths of a point (say a 1.10 PPP vs. a 1.08 PPP; it would take 100 possessions, often more than two-games worth of possessions, for that to reflect just a 1-point difference).  Given the aforementioned contexts of the PPP, we would maintain that is statistically insignificant.  Yet to hear some experts talk about the PPP, it’s next to the holy grail.

    Fortunately, the Selection Committee appeared to use the NET properly; not as the final arbiter, but as one of many calculations.  We say so because the composition of the field suggests that the Committee took a look at various factors before awarding the at-large bids.  For once, we have no problem with developments at the cut line, where power conference sides like TCU, Clemson, Indiana, Alabama, and Texas were not included after being projected by many bracketologists into the field of 68. 

    Hooray, then, for the Committtee
, rewarding a quality mid-major like the Ohio Valley’s Belmont with an at-large spot.  The Bruins will be forced to compete in the at-large play-in game at Dayton vs. Temple, another side we were glad to see make the final cut (nostalgically so, with future HOF HC Fran Dunphy, long one of our favorites, retiring–we think–at the end of the season).  As an aside, by us, it would be delicious for the Owls to make a run in the Dance to show the Temple bureaucrats, who effectively forced Dunphy’s retirement, to get egg on their collective faces...but we digress.

    The “Selection Show” itself also proceeded at a much more convenient and effective pace than a year ago, when someone, either at TNT (which hosted the show last year), or NCAA offices, thought it would be a good idea to list the teams alphabetically by qualification before getting to the matchups.  Bad!  It generated some loud cries of protest from the viewing public, which let it be known that this was not the way to go about a presentation that doesn’t need to be altered in such inane fashion as a year ago.

    On Sunday, however, the Selection Show, back to CBS this year,  got down to business right away, quickly moving through the regions with the matchups, then leaving plenty of time for the inevitable discussions afterward.  Let’s hope they stick to this format in the future.
 
 
ANY LOYOLA-CHICAGOS IN THE HOUSE?
   
    About the time of our last print publication for our NCAA tourney issue, we provided a “Cinderella watch” in response to George Mason’s unexpected run to the Final Four the previous March.  We co-opted the Patriots’ surprise advance into our “Any George Masons in the house?” headline in subsequent years.  It’s been 13 years since Jim Larranaga waved that magic wand for GMU, and now there’s a new flag-bearer forCinderellas everywhere after Loyola-Chicago wrote the enduring storyline for last year’s Dance with a breathtaking run to the Final Four, the Ramblers’ first such advance since they won the whole thing in 1963 (chronicled on these pages in some detail in the past).  So, until the next “Cinderella” makes a run to the Final Four, this becomes an “Any Loyola-Chicagos in the house?” presentation.

    As usual, we think there are some intriguing low and mid-majors that might be able to make some noise in the Dance.  Whether any become the “next George Mason” or the “next Loyola-Chicago” remains to be seen.  But it’s always fun to speculate those entries that have the capacity to create upset alerts.  And who knows?  Maybe one of the following will make a George Mason or Loyola-Chicago-like run to the Final Four!
 
   Wofford (SU record 29-4; seeded 7th in Midwest, facing Seton Hall in the first round))...We hesitate to even put the Terriers in this group; the secret is out on the SoCon champs, who earned a 7-seed in the Midwest, heady stuff for a mid or low-major entry.  But it seems deserved.  No shame in non-league losses to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Mississippi State (Big Dance entries all), and SEC South Carolina was hammered by 20 at Columbia, no less.  Vet HC Mike Young has taken several Wofford editions to the Dance in the past, and the Terriers have never been humiliated; now this appears the best of many very good Wofford squads in the Young era.  The Terriers enter the Dance on a nation’s-best 20-game win streak (and the SoCon was not an easy touch this season), with a squadron of bombers led by dagger-throwing sr. G Fletcher Magee (20.5 ppg).  Wofford has four weapons who shoot better than 40% beyond the arc, and the Terriers’ 41.6% from tripleville ranks second nationally.  For good reason, nobody is overlooking these guys.
 
   Utah State (28-6; seeded 8th in Midwest, facing Washington in first round)...Nobody saw this coming at Logan under first-year HC Craig Smith, who was a winner at previous stop South Dakota.  But few expected the Utags, picked ninth in the Mountain West preseason poll, storming thru the loop and likely having sewed up an at-large even before winning the MW Tourney last Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas against San Diego State.  Strengths are ball movement and a variety of deadly spot shooters, including bombs-away G Sam Merrill (21.2 ppg), who is also quite a resource at the end of the game when USU is protecting a lead, as his 90.7% FT shooting ranks nationally in the top ten.  But the real Utah buzz is being created by 6-11 Portuguese frosh C Neemias Queta, who physically reminds of Deandre Ayton and has been coming on like gangbusters as the season progressed.  In fact, some observers believe Queta could even be a lottery pick should he declare for the NBA Draft, especially in a year that might be more than a bit diluted.  What we do know is that Queta shuts off the defensive interior like no Utag we can remember, and his shot-altering presence unnerved Fresno State and San Diego State last weekend in Vegas, as USU earned the auto bid from the Mountain.

    Belmont (26-5; seeded 11th in East, facing Temple in at-large play-in game)...As noted earlier, we think the Committee definitely got it right by inviting the Bruins, who are a familiar March entity in the era of HC Rick Byrd, a possible future HOFer.  The recipe is basically the same as it has been for a variety of Belmont teams that have danced over the past decade, with adept ball-spacing and plenty of shooters.  One of the nation’s highest-scoring teams at 87.4 ppg, the Bruins shoot plenty of 3s, led by sr. G Dylan Windler (21.4 ppg), who has connected on an eye-opening 43% of his triples the past two seasons.  Though we’ll have to see about the status of 6-11 frosh C Nick Muszynski (14.9 ppg), a legit post scoring threat (unique to Byrd’s Belmont teams) but nursing an ankle injury that kept him out of the OVC title game vs. Murray State. Belmont has an early tip date in the Dance (Tuesday in the First Four at Dayton vs. Temple), so monitor the situation closely.

    New Mexico State (30-4, seeded 12th in Midwest, facing Auburn in first round)...The Ags dominated the WAC, arguably the most forgiving loop in the nation, but still recorded a 30-4 mark this season.  No matter the opponents, 30-4 is still 30-4. Regional observers believe this NMSU edition might be better than recent Dance qualifiers out of Las Cruces, now coached by former Wichita State aide Chris Jans, who like predecessors Marvin Menzies and Paul Wier, might not be sticking around the Pan Am Center much longer.  The Ags are not big, but they have plenty of shooters and go 10-11 deep, with a variety of components capable of stepping into featured roles.  An impressive stat worth noting in this era of the 3-point shot, however, is that the Ags lead the nation in FG% inside the arc (56.5%), though 3-balls account for almost half of their shots (NMSU 34% beyond the arc).  Very efficient team; the leading scorer, G Terrell Brown, only tallies 11.3 ppg.  But the Aggies’ strength is in their balance (indeed, thirteen players average double-digit minutes!).

    Liberty (28-6; seeded 12th in East, facing Mississippi State in first round)...Emerging from the Atlantic Sun was a nice accomplishment this season, especially beating a dangerous Lipscomb side twice in Nashville, including the conference title game.  Unlike his long-ago days at Portland State and Colorado State, Flames HC Ritchie McKay is preaching defense with his current bunch.  Beyond those two road wins over Lipscomb, Liberty won at Kent State and UCLA (not the accomplishment it once was to beat the Bruins, we know, but ask Steve Alford, dismissed shortly thereafter by the Bruins, if that result wasn’t meaningful).  Plus a highly-impressive 26-point blowout of eventual Sun Belt champ Georgia State.   McKay’s team has decent balance, often running the offense thru bullish 6-8 post threat and Bradley transfer, Scottie James (13.1 ppg; 67% FGs!), and is among the nation’s shooting leaders, converting 49% of its FG attempts.

    Murray State (27-4; seeded 12th in West, facing Marquette in first round)...The hype has preceded electric soph G Ja (pronounced like ya-ya) Morant, considered by some to be a potential top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft if he so chooses to declare, which most regional observers believe will happen right after the Racers finish their season, which might last a bit longer if Morant (24.6 ppg) is as good as he was in the OVC finale vs. Belmont, when exploding for 36.  Though Morant (who also averages 10 apg) is the ultimate highlight reel, Murray State is not a one-man team.  It hasn’t lost since Jan. 31, and connects on nearly 57% of its shots inside the arc.  Marquette, fading down the stretch, is well-advised to be on alert for the first-round matchup at Hartford.


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