ATB: An NIT Marvel, Gaels Cruise and a Fitting Conclusion For Florida State…Posted by Chris Johnson on March 20th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. NIT Invades National Spotlight. For months we’ve awaited the commencement of college basketball’s premier postseason event. Countless sentences were typed in this space praising teams for their pre-tournament momentum or berating them for their postseason urgency, or lack thereof, and all of it comes to a head this week. The ceremonial opening – the one fans across the country yearn for every year around this time – is Thursday. Employees call in sick for work; online game streams become a fixture on desktops and PCs around the country; brackets are ripped and flicked into nearby garbage cans. None of this stuff begins in earnest until Thursday. Tuesday night was the technical commencement of the NCAA Tournament – the first half of the First Four. It is called the “first round,” but that moniker serves more to frustrate and annoy fans and writers like yours truly than actually signify an additional round of games. In what universe does four games constitute a “round” in the same way that the second “round” includes 32? Ugh. Minor complaints. The point is, the tournament we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, and guess what? The biggest college basketball story of Tuesday night had nothing to do with the bracket sitting on your work desk. Don’t worry, a bracket was involved, alright – just not the one you’re thinking of.
Your Watercooler Moment. Down Goes UK.
Around this time a year ago, Kentucky was relaxing in Lexington, maybe playing a casual game of ping-pong or two in UK’s famed lockerroom-turned-sports-mancave, occasionally turning around to check up on eventual first-round opponent Western Kentucky’s First Four game and cracking jokes about all the doubters who believed the Wildcats’ SEC Tournament championship game loss to Vanderbilt had revealed some sort of exploitable flaw that would lead to an early-round upset. Number one seeds that good don’t lose, and Kentucky didn’t. Things couldn’t be more different one year later. Thanks to one of the NCAA hosting sites being placed in Lexington, Kentucky was forced to travel to Moon, Pennsylvania, for a #1/#8 match-up with Robert Morris. Before we dive in, it’s important to preface the conversation with one important fact: the Colonials are good. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament in two of the past five seasons, force turnovers at a top-20 rate and have not registered anything worse than a third-place NEC regular season finish since 2006-07. Being good within the NEC and making a few trips to the NCAAs every now and then is admirable for any small-league program. Knocking off Kentucky is a whole ‘nother level of “good” – and not even in the sense that the Wildcats are some national juggernaut. Because they aren’t, not this season. For RMU this win was as symbolic as it was impressive: Kentucky has dropped its share of games badly this season, and RMU can and did pick them off in its biggest game of the season. But it’s the spectacle of not only hosting, but knocking off, court rushing, and showing up John Calipari and his NBA-loaded Wildcats in Cal’s hometown, that makes this an unforgettable experience for the Robert Morris players, coaches and fans. The Colonials didn’t just win an NIT game. They beat Kentucky in their own 3,000-arena gym to add insult (and finality) to a painful UK season. Divorce the competition label from the singular feat. This was as massive (or close to it) as any NCAA Tournament triumph could ever be for RM.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
- Saint Mary’s Moves On. A frequent motif in the pre-Selection Sunday discussion was the idea that Saint Mary’s was one of the threshold outfits likely to get left out of the field, that the Gaels hadn’t accomplished much outside of a BracketBusters home win over Creighton, that they missed on all three opportunities to take out WCC king Gonzaga, along with all the usual power conference disdain that comes hand in hand with small-conference at-large discussion. St. Mary’s didn’t have one of the better at-large resumes in the field, and the Tourney rightfully slotted it into a First Four game with Middle Tennessee, another controversial non-Power-Six at-large inclusion. The Gaels proved Tuesday they very much belong in the field, and that if you were ever opposed to seeing Matthew Dellavedova spread the floor and slice into the lane off a high screen to dish to an open man or float a teardrop over two frontcourt defenders– well, you’re just no fun. Delly’s here, at least for one more game, and you should savor every last moment of his brilliant career.
- No Liberty, No Tournament. This was my first time watching North Carolina A&T or Liberty play this season. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Neither of these teams did anything particularly noteworthy outside their respective conferences, and when I first laid eyes on this year’s bracket and saw the Aggies and Flames matched up in Dayton, I didn’t think much at all about it. Besides, it’s not like Louisville’s losing its first game, anyway. The Cardinals will advance, and to do so they’ll have to get past A&T, who held on for a one-point win Tuesday night against the Big South Cinderella Flames. Something tells me we won’t be hearing about the Aggies much after Thursday.
- A Sad Season for Florida State. There are always a few teams the national hoops consensus, for whatever reason, can’t quite get a grip on in the preseason evaluation process. Kentucky is a perfect example – a team most expected would pick up right where last season’s super freshmen left off and romp to another deep March run. How very wrong we all turned out to be. Florida State is another. With shooting guard Michael Snaer back and a solid frontcourt complement in Okaro White adding a serviceable inside presence, most expected the Seminoles would at the very least make the NCAA Tournament, with a possible surprise run into the top tier of an uncertain ACC not totally out of the question. Florida State did none of those things. It finished sixth in the ACC, won just two more games than it lost (18-16) and on Tuesday night bowed out in a first-round home NIT matchup with Louisiana Tech. That is a bad way to end a bad season.
Delly. I couldn’t watch tonight’s game and not wander back to Matthew Dellavedova’s famous Dellavedagger at BYU, a shot that, in hindsight, SMU probably couldn’t have gone without and still made it into the Big Dance.
Tonight’s All Americans.
- Tyler Haws, BYU (NPOY) – The shot that preceded Dellavedova’s game-winner in the above video was a magical moment – temporarily – for Haws. He dropped 37 points to help down Washington in a first-round NIT matchup.
- Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s – Josh Pastner is already having nightmares about figuring out ways to defend Dellavedova’s cunning point guard play, and for good reason: Dellavedova lit up MTSU with 22 points and six assists Tuesday night.
- Jeremy Underwood, NC A&T – The last time Underwood outstripped Tuesday night’s total, 19 points, was in November. Underwood picked a good night to revive his high-scoring ways.
- Raheem Appleby, Louisiana Tech – A lot of folks expected the Bulldogs to make the NCAA Tournament this season. That dream was lost against UTSA in the opening round of the WAC Tournament, but the Bulldogs are off to a nice start in the NIT thanks to Appleby’s 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting against Florida State.
- Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State – From the dark depths of the College Insider Tournament (CIT), Perry rattled off 31 points in a first-round game against Oakland.
Tweet of the night. Now that the 2012-13 flameout Wildcats have been brushed into the past, Kentucky fans are very excited about the prospects for next season. As they should be. If you aren’t privy to recruiting knowledge, if you could really care less where these players come from or how they make their way to certain schools, that’s fine. Just don’t act stunned or dumbfounded when Kentucky rolls out five of the nation’s top 20 freshmen on the same court next season. The Wildcats’ 2013 class is already being compared to some of the greatest classes of all time.