In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level

Posted by rtmsf on September 21st, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.

Part One: RECRUITING

Over the summer, we’ve spent time hearing about some of the next big-name recruits on their way to college basketball: Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. We’ve heard the big-time schools announce their high profile games on their upcoming schedules: Kentucky going to the Maui Invitational and visiting North Carolina, Michigan State hosting Texas and going to Duke. But for the vast majority of Division I programs, they’ve been flying under the radar. There are at present 73 teams that participate in basketball in the six BCS conferences, but there are 347 total programs in Division I. Of those other 274 programs, there are certainly quite a few big-name programs: last year’s national runner-up Butler comes to mind immediately, as does Gonzaga, Memphis and a handful of other schools in conferences like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. But, we were also interested in how the other half (or really, how the other three-quarters) lives, so we spent some time talking to coaches, athletic directors and other people around the country affiliated with some of those other schools — those non-BCS schools, those “mid-majors” — and we asked them about how they recruit, how they create a schedule, how they market their programs, and quite a few other things. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll let them tell you their story, in their own words.

To begin, let me introduce and thank this week’s cast of characters:

  • Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State – Bartow is entering his eighth season as the Buccaneers head coach, after having previously succeeded his father Gene Bartow as the head coach at UAB. Bartow has posted a 118-72 record in his years at ETSU and has racked up 241 total wins and four NCAA appearances in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
  • George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff – Ivory enters his third season in Pine Bluff, where he has turned the Golden Lions into winners. UAPB turned around an 0-11 start last season by finishing 18-5 over their last 23 games, winning UAPB’s first SWAC tournament title in 43 years and advancing to the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national-champion Duke.
  • Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason – Caputo is entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Patriots after spending the previous three seasons as an administrative assistant and video coordinator under head coach Jim Larranaga.
  • Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider – Dempsey enters his fifth season as the head man at Rider, following two seasons as an assistant. He has compiled an 83-75 record over that time and coached NBA lottery pick Jason Thompson during his time there.
  • Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland – Reveno heads into his fifth season at Portland having turned around a program from a team that was 18-45 in his first two seasons to a team on the rise with a 40-24 record over the last two seasons. Reveno spent his previous nine seasons as an assistant at Stanford, his alma mater where he was a Pac-10 Conference All-Academic Team selection as a senior.
  • Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State – Brown enters his fifth year as an assistant on head coach Dan Monson’s staff, after previously having spent time on coaching staffs at Cal-State Northridge, USC and Iowa State.
  • Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin – James enters his second season as the head coach at UT-Martin following eight seasons as an assistant coach there. His first season was rough, to the tune of 4-25, after he was appointed head coach in the wake of scandal with the previous head coach. But James, the recruiter who brought Lester Hudson to UT-Martin, has plans to begin to turn things around this season.
  • Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty – Layer enters his second season at Liberty after having spent a season as an assistant at the university in 2007-08. In between, he spent a year at Marquette and previously he spent seven seasons as the head coach at Colorado State. He has compiled a 118-122 record in his eight seasons as a Division I head coach.
  • Gregg Bach, Assistant Athletics Director for Communications, Akron – Bach was named to his current position this past summer after having spent the previous eight years on the media relations staff in the Akron athletic department. His new job makes him the spokesperson of the athletic department.

First up: recruiting. This is the biggest, most pressure-packed area in college athletics. No matter how good coaches are at the X’s-and-O’s, they need players to execute their plans. At the mid-major level, the likelihood of a coach winding up with a ready-made pro is minuscule, so coaches have to find diamonds-in-the-rough, and, perhaps more importantly, develop their players over the course of their careers. Not only do schools at this level have to compete with other schools of similar size, if they find themselves competing with  a higher-level school for the same prospect, they may have to make a decision as to whether or not continuing to recruit the player is a worthwhile use of time. And the schools have to make the most of every advantage they can find in order to land the best student-athletes for their institution.

Recruiting Players Takes on Many Forms

Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State: Obviously, if you’re a college basketball coach, the most important part of your job is making sure that you’ve got good players.

George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff: There are a lot of things that go into recruiting. It comes down to what that kid is really looking for and what that kid wants out of college.

Bartow: There are so many things that go into it. There is no question that the relationship is critical, whether that’s with the head coach or an assistant coach. But that is very pivotal in the decision, building the relationship with not only the prospect, but a mom or a dad or whoever is going to be helping them make that decision. And certainly the product you’re trying to show them is important. Fortunately, I think I’m in a situation where I think we’ve got a good product, but there are a lot of things that are important: the school, the community, the housing, the fan’s support of your program, how many times you’re potentially going to be on TV and what conference you’re in, your history, the success you’ve had and how many times you’ve been to the NCAA tournament recently. So there are a lot of things and certainly different things are important to different players. For instance, we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament the last two years, and for some prospects that is very, very critical and important, and for others that might not be so important. So there are different things for different prospects.

When George Mason broke through to the Final Four in 2006, they were the first big mid-major success story in the NCAA Tournament since, arguably, Larry Bird’s Indiana State team made it there in 1979. Sure, there have been other non-BCS schools to get to the Final Four (Memphis ’08, Louisville ’05 and Marquette ’03 all came out of Conference USA, and Utah ’98 out of the WAC are all examples of non-BCS teams advancing to the Final Four, but none of those teams can really be considered a mid-major given their substantial basketball budgets), but Mason, an 11-seed and one of the last teams into the tournament that season, is clearly the first “modern” mid-major Cinderella story. While their success opened some doors recruiting-wise, new challenges arose as well.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: I don’t think anything has gotten easier since the Final Four, but it has been different for sure. I think we’ve gotten some good players, but you’ve got to caution yourself against those with superficial interest, people who will put you on their list because it sounds good, but they’re really not considering you because they are too far from home or whatever. You still want to make sure you’re getting guys that really want to be there and they’re hungry. Sometimes when you have success there are certain kids who are really attracted to the success and maybe not as attracted to working, almost like they’re feeling, “hey, if I get a scholarship over at George Mason, that’s it, I don’t have to work anymore.” But the guys that helped us get there, they signed with George Mason when it wasn’t as fashionable and they were driven to succeed. The one thing that the Final Four appearance has done for us is that it has helped us get involved with guys who maybe we previously couldn’t have gotten involved with. It helps us get into homes in different areas. You know, our school is much more of a household name nationally, and we’ve become a stronger name in our area as well. I think it has been good, but you also have to be careful with it too.

For mid-majors, a lot of the big-name recruits (McDonald’s All-Americans), are out of the question in all but the rarest of circumstances. This season, point guard Ray McCallum, Jr. chose Detroit over BCS schools like Arizona, Florida and UCLA, a decision which would have been startling were it not for the fact that his dad is the head coach there. For most mid-major programs, these players aren’t even in consideration. To make up for that, mid-majors have to find players that fly under the radar of some of the bigger schools and guys who are willing to put in the hard work to improve.

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The RTC Big Four State Tournament: Championship Game

Posted by rtmsf on September 16th, 2010

We’re down to the final two of the RTC Big Four State Tournament, and this is pretty much where we all expected to be when the brackets were released, right?  #1 Indiana will take on #2 North Carolina in a classic battle of roundball states chock full of schools who take their hoops very seriously.  There are several interesting storylines here, not least of which is the unusual circumstance that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Butler’s Brad Stevens will once again face off with a national title on the line and several of the same players in tow (Duke’s Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler; Butler’s Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard).  Look at these lineups!  There are potentially five to seven 2010-11 all-america candidates on these rosters — wouldn’t you pay top dollar to see this game?  Our current bracket is below, so let’s tip this one off…

Championship Game (Semifinal fan vote pct. listed)

#1 Indiana (76%) vs. #2 North Carolina (78%)

These two teams come into the final having not really been tested much throughout this tournament.  #2 North Carolina has won its three games by an average of 18.7 points, while #1 Indiana sports a 13.7 point scoring margin, although the Hoosier State had a tough semifinal game against an athletic and scrappy #4 Texas squad.  Nevertheless, no one will argue that these two teams shouldn’t be here — it’s fitting that the two most talented teams have generally bulldozed their way to the championship game.  As for venue, both coaches eschewed the sellout crowd of 75,000 fans in a football stadium they could have filled for this game, instead agreeing to meet in a seedy high school gym on the south side of Chicago with three refs and a couple of television cameras. 

Stevens’ team draws first blood, as Mack and Robbie Hummel work the two-man game to perfection for a couple of early threes, and for the first time in the tournament, future NBA lottery picks Harrison Barnes and Kyrie Irving appear a little rattled by the pressure of the situation.  Coach K, always tuned into his players’ emotions, senses their nervousness and decides to go primarily with his experienced guys for the remainder of the half.  That helps stem the tide somewhat as Smith, CJ Harris and Singler start finding their spots, but Indiana has figured out that the interior defense of Tracy Smith and Tyler Zeller is not fleet-footed enough to deal with several quick catch-and-shoots by Matt Howard and JaJuan Johnson in the post.  The rest of the half falls into a back-and-forth affair where both teams have trouble consistently scoring, but Indiana heads into halftime with an eight-point lead.

Stevens & K Meet Again, This Time in an Empty Gym (AP/A. Sancetta)

The second half opens in a reversal of the first, with North Carolina’s Barnes and Irving showing that missing confidence and exploding to the rim on drives for several easy buckets off turnovers.  Before you know it, when Tracy Smith corrals an offensive rebound and powers back up through a sea of arms for a basket and-one, NC has tied the game and has all of the momentum.  The problem for Coach K’s team is that his big men simply cannot stop Howard and Johnson in the post.  Every time it appears that North Carolina is putting together a big run, Stevens smartly calls for the ball to go inside to one of his post players and good things continue to happen.  As a result of this strategy, Smith and Zeller find themselves in serious foul trouble with four each heading into the last ten minutes of the game. 

The game tilts back and forth throughout the remainder of the second half until Indiana has the ball in Shelvin Mack’s hands with just under a minute to play, down two.  Working the high-screen and roll with Tim Abromaitis, Mack finds a seam in the lane and floats a runner through the net as the shot clock expires to tie the ballgame.  Coach K has been here a million times, so he calls timeout and sets up his final possession.  He looks at his offensive options and his first inclination is to go with one of his own tried-and-true stars in Singler; but he also remembers his experiences with USA Basketball and, recognizing that Barnes has come on strong in the second half, he gives the ball to rival Roy Williams’ player (and the most talented on his team).  Smith will run the play — the first option will be Barnes on the wing, looking to create, with Singler ready for the kickout and everyone else crashing the boards. 

The plan to kill clock until around six seconds remaining works perfectly, although Stevens surprises K by throwing a matchup zone at North Carolina, perhaps hoping and anticipating an overpenetration mistake by the still-wet-behind-the-ears Barnes.  The UNC freshman receives the ball on the right wing and wastes no time in using his explosive first step to get into the lane.  As the Indiana defense predictably collapses, Barnes elevates and somehow twists his body in the air to avoid slamming into Howard and Hummel, who had created a wall of long arms, pasty skin and hair to stop the soaring Barnes.  He adjusts his shooting arm to recover from the mid-air change of direction, and gently lofts a lefty layup over the outstretched arms of Abromaitis coming over to help.  Bodies hit the floor in unison as the ball falls through the net, and everyone across America watching the game on television waits for the inevitable block/charge call.  But there is no call to be had today — the refs let them play, and North Carolina takes a two-point lead with a mere 1.2 seconds remaining.

Brad Stevens is no dummy.  He knows that 1.2 seconds is an eternity if executed correctly.  After Indiana’s timeout, Hummel throws a strike to his teammate E’Twaun Moore just beyond halfcourt on the right side, who immediately calls timeout again.  With 0.8 seconds remaining, Indiana has a reasonable attempt to put up a good last shot.  Who do they go to?  Stevens draws up a clever play that nobody, not even Coach K, seems to have ever seen used before.  He runs Mack off of a triple-screen to get him open for the final shot, but when the ball is entered into play, he is only the decoy — as everyone for North Carolina rushes to stay with Mack and Hummel as the secondary option on the perimeter, the ball sails over everyone’s head into a camped-out Howard (the original screener who had leaked away in the maelstrom) who has a wide-open twelve-footer from the left baseline.  The shot looks pure in the air, but maybe he was a little shocked to be so open at that juncture, because it ultimately rattles out, giving North Carolina the two-point win and the championship.

What a game, and what a tournament.  How do you see it turning out? 

Ed. Note: thanks to everyone who participated in this feature.  We had a blast putting it together and playing it out.  Maybe we’ll bring it back next year, although we suspect that Indiana and North Carolina will be two of the top several seeds just about every year. 

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The RTC Big Four State Tournament: Final Four

Posted by rtmsf on September 14th, 2010

We’re now down to the Final Four of the RTC Big Four State Tournament.  Last week was the quarterfinal round, and we saw as three of the favorites (#1 Indiana, #2 North Carolina, #4 Texas) advanced to the Final Four while #3 Pennsylvania was downed at the buzzer by upstart #6 Florida.  There was a very strong public consensus among the top two seeds advancing (85% and 90%, respectively), while the fan vote was a little less confident in Pennsylvania (70%) and Texas (72%).  Of course, we here at RTC had the Sunshine State (with afternoon rain) squad coached by Billy Donovan springing the upset over PA, so it’ll be interesting to see how far we think they can continue to their run.  Here’s our current bracket, with the F4 breakdowns below. 

Final Four Matchups (Quarterfinal fan vote pct. listed)

#1 Indiana (85%) vs. #4 Texas (72%)

Nitpicking is the only way to find weaknesses on the rosters of Indiana and Texas, two hoops-loaded states with a great deal of pride on the line in this anticipated semifinal matchup. The raw talent level of Texas should prove Indiana’s stiffest challenge thus far in the tournament. From the Nate Robinson-style leaping ability of UTEP’s Randy Culpepper to the physicality and shooting prowess of Texas’ Jordan Hamilton to the Kevin Garnett comparisons that Baylor’s Perry Jones is receiving before he makes his Bears debut, Indiana’s status as tournament champion favorite is in serious jeopardy. This especially rings true when Texas comes out of the gates sprinting up and down the floor, boosted by the red-hot shooting of LaceDarius Dunn, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year candidate and the school’s all-time leader in threes made. Gary Johnson takes Robbie Hummel to the hole on a spin move and the foul. Dunn throws an alley-oop to Jones that gets the crowd on their feet and forces Indiana to use a timeout. Culpepper races from end to end for the flush. A ten-point halftime lead gives the top seed a moment of pause in the locker room.

Here’s the point where Indiana’s senior-laden roster and big-game experience becomes a factor. The collected demeanor of Brad Stevens in the locker room calms his troops, the gameplan is slightly tweaked to force Texas into a halfcourt game, the physicality of Indiana’s Shelvin Mack and Hummel is asserted, and Indiana slowly but surely drains the deficit. The steady and levelheaded Mack leads the force, hitting clutch mid-range jumpers as the shot clock winds down. Just when Texas is about to corral the momentum once again, a JaJuan Johnson rejection of Jones effectively punks the youngster. As the score inches closer and the pressure mounts on such a monumental stage, it’s Texas taking their fair share of poor shots while Indiana lives at the free throw line, led by Hummel at 90%. His four consecutive makes seals the deal and Indiana escapes by a slim margin for a spot in the finals.

RTC Choice: Indiana 68, Texas 65

#2 North Carolina (90%) vs. #6 Florida (30%)

In an all-too-familiar situation when a Cinderella makes a run to the national semifinals, they usually come up against a seasoned, experienced and talented team who expected to be there all season long.  The result is not often pleasant for the underdog, who quickly realizes that it’s in over its head and needs to make hasty plans for a return flight later that evening.  This is what Billy Donovan’s team faced in matching up against the boatload of NBA lottery pick-level talent that North Carolina threw at them.  Predictably, the game was over in the first ten minutes.  The offensive firepower of Kyle Singler, Harrison Barnes and Tracy Smith got off early inside the paint, but it was a quick whistle (actually, series of whistles) on Florida’s Chris Singleton that set the tone early.  Three quick fouls meant that the inside defensive presence that Florida was relying upon to slow down the North Carolina bigs was no longer available.  Gus Gilchrist and Chandler Parsons, while capable offensive players, are not known for their ability to stop people, especially players the caliber that NC brings to bear. 

By halftime, Florida was already down 22 points and not only looked demoralized but also emotionally and mentally exhausted from their previous nailbiters in this tournament.  From that point on, Coach K put his guys into a cruise control situation, running clock but finding their spots, as Florida tried desperately to cut into the lead.  A couple of times Donovan’s team had cut the margin down to a 12-point game, only to watch helplessly as Nolan Smith or CJ Harris drained a three or Barnes slashed his way to another dunk.  There was no confusion as to who the better team was in this particular game, and North Carolina moved on to the tournament finals to play the top overall seed Indiana in an upcoming battle of epic proportions.  Coach K vs. Brad Stevens; Nolan Smith vs. Shelvin Mack — where have we seen that before? 

RTC Choice: North Carolina 77, Florida 62.

RTC State Tournament Championship: Thursday 9/16

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The RTC Big Four State Tournament: Quarterfinals

Posted by rtmsf on September 9th, 2010

We’re back with the next round of the RTC Big Four State Tournament.  As you likely recall, last week we broke down eight first round matchups between the top sixteen states containing at least four NCAA D1 programs, utilizing star players from each of those programs to come up with the bracket that appears below.  We didn’t always agree with the fan vote, picking a couple of true upsets (#9 Illinois over #8 Michigan, and #12 Virginia over #5 Ohio), and disagreeing with the fans on another (#6 Florida over #11 Kentucky).  Regardless, we endeavor to carry on.

We’ll break down the semifinals and finals next week.  Be sure to get your votes in on these matchups below.

Quarterfinal Matchups (1st Round fan vote pct. listed)

#1 Indiana (92%) vs. #9 Illinois (24%)

The plucky underdog Illinois meets another Midwestern foe after downing Michigan in the opening round. This time around, the challenge will be even stiffer — the top seeded and tournament favorite Hoosier State representatives. The primary reason for Illinois’ first round win was the perimeter trio of  Demetri McCamey, Michael Thompson and John Shurna. Different story against Indiana; the hard-nosed play of Shelvin Mack, the scoring ability of E’Twaun Moore,  the all-around game of Tim Abromaitis and even Robbie Hummel’s propensity to step out to the perimeter — his first half performance against Ohio State one that sticks out — provides the Hoosiers more than enough firepower out of their guards to counteract Illinois. Southern Illinois’ Carlton Fay attempting to guard potential first team All-America Hummel is also a key factor. Since it’s doubtful Fay can hang with the multifaceted Boilermaker, we suspect that the Purdue senior explodes for a big shooting night and a near triple-double. There’s simply way too much firepower with JaJuan Johnson coming off the bench in this one. Indiana cruises again.

RTC Choice: Indiana 83, Illinois 67.

#4 Texas (67%) vs. #12 Virginia (22%)

Virginia was the Cinderella story of the first round, continuing the ever-popular 5/12 upset trend and knocking off favored Ohio on the heels of their backcourt consisting of Malcolm Delaney and Kevin Anderson. Those two won’t have it as easy against the twosome that gives a whole new meaning to Don’t Mess with Texas. High-flying Randy Culpepper of UTEP could be one of the best non-BCS players in the land this season. He’ll team with Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn and Texas’ Jordan Hamilton on the wing, meaning scoring can come often and in bunches for this Texas squad. There’s too much athleticism across the board for the Virginia frontline of Mike Scott, Jeff Allen and Justin Harper to contain. Look for Texas to pound the ball inside early to Perry Jones and Gary Johnson to utilize these extreme mismatches and lure the Virginia bigs into foul trouble. If this happens, let the dunkfest ensue. Culpepper and Dunn provide the scoring punch outside to complement the forwards, making this even more of a foregone conclusion, especially since Delaney can’t hang with the crafty Dunn defensively. Texas advances to the semifinals in relatively easy fashion.

RTC Choice: Texas 78, Virginia 65.

#2 North Carolina (89%) vs. #7 Washington (58%)

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The RTC Big Four State Tournament: First Round (day 2)

Posted by rtmsf on September 2nd, 2010

Yesterday we introduced our 2010 RTC Big Four State Tournament, and it was great to see some of the responses and feedback on it.  We’re convinced this is going to be a fun series.  Today we’re back for the second day of First Round games (the right side of the below bracket), including our analysis and projected winner, but we encourage you guys to make your picks for each game in the accompanying polls.

In case you missed yesterday’s post explaining what we’re talking about, here’s our selection criteria:

  1. Similar to the Fanhouse post, we picked the top four programs in each of the 33 states (including DC) with at least that many D1 universities.
  2. We then chose the top sixteen states based on the current status and power of those four programs within each state.
  3. Next, we chose a starting lineup ”dream team” of players from those programs in each state, thinking about how to best integrate them by position (three guards & two bigs; or vice versa).
  4. We also chose two subs — one guard and one big man — as well as a head coach.
  5. We limited each school to two starters and one bench player for a maximum of three per team (sorry, Duke).  We also made sure to include at least one player from each of the four chosen programs (hi, Seattle).
  6. Finally, we seeded the sixteen teams into our bracket and analyzed the matchups.  We encourage you to use the polls below to do likewise.

#2 North Carolina vs. #15 California

The first thought we had when analyzing this matchup is… that’s all you got, Cali?  Good grief — the nation’s most populous state by far can only muster a lineup of players that includes Jorge Gutierrez as a starter?   No offense to the ponytailed energizer bunny from Cal, but this game is a mismatch from start to finish.  Sadly, even if we had included every single one of California’s 24 D1 schools and added some studs like Stanford’s Jeremy Green, LMU’s Drew Viney and Vernon Teel, Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster, San Jose State’s Adrian Oliver and the St. Mary’s backcourt of Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavadova, the Tar Heel Staters still wipe the floor with this team.  Maybe California could draft Kobe Bryant, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry to their squad?  There’s simply too much talent on Coach K’s team from top to bottom (sound familiar?) for his team to sweat this one too terribly much.  The only area that North Carolina has a problem with California is in the post, where SDSU’s Kawhi Leonard can take advantage of the slighter frames of the NC bigs to put in some work.  But the speed, athleticism and scoring punch of the #2 seed is far too powerful here.  North Carolina rolls in a blowout.

RTC Choice: North Carolina 82, California 59.

#7 Washington vs. #10 Tennessee

 

The matchups at the two guard spots and the wing are tantalizing in this game. The fatal flaw with the boys from the Volunteer State is their lack of a true point guard. Adding Melvin Goins or Brad Tinsley to the roster would have meant sacrificing one of Wesley Witherspoon, Scotty Hopson, Jeffery Taylor or bench ace John Jenkins, and it’s hard to blame coach Pearl for not making that move. Luckily for him, his team is loaded with intriguing first round talent, albeit at times inconsistent and frustrating talent. It also helps that Washington’s point man, Isaiah Thomas, isn’t much of a distributor either. Although Elias Harris may be limited by the length of Taylor, it’s his Zag teammate Robert Sacre that’s primed for a monster performance being guarded by Brian Williams at 2-3 inches shorter and the inexperienced Tobias Harris. Plus, we haven’t even mentioned Klay Thompson, a popular choice for Pac-10 Player of the Year.  It’ll be a well-played back-and-forth game, but we have the Washingtonians moving on.

RTC Choice: Washington 81, Tennessee 77.

#3 Pennsylvania vs. #14 Wisconsin

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The RTC Big Four State Tournament: First Round

Posted by rtmsf on September 1st, 2010

A few weeks ago, the four major college basketball programs in the great state of Indiana announced that they would be starting an annual event called the Crossroads Classic, pitting each school against one of its other state rivals (Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler) in an annual basketball orgy of Hoosierness.  We here at RTC loved this idea, and immediately started thinking of other states in the union who could put on a similarly extravagant annual show of hoops.  We were about 99.7% finished with our research when Matt Snyder of Fanhouse published this piece listing the top twenty states that could hold similar in-state classics, causing us to scramble to check the integrity of our passwords (“RTC” doesn’t cut it?) and servers throughout the network.

Indiana's New Crossroads Classic Inspired Us

Seriously, though, Snyder did a great job with the idea; he just beat us to the punch with it.  So we went back to the drawing board and thought about ways to use our research in a constructive way that didn’t rip off the Fanhouse post.  What we came up with is what we’re calling the 2010 RTC Big Four State Tournament.  Here’s how it works.

  1. Similar to the Fanhouse post, we picked the top four programs in each of the 33 states (including DC) with at least that many D1 universities.
  2. We then chose the top sixteen states based on the current status and power of those four programs within each state.
  3. Next, we chose a starting lineup “dream team” of players from those programs in each state, thinking about how to best integrate them by position (three guards & two bigs; or vice versa).
  4. We also chose two subs — one guard and one big man — as well as a head coach.
  5. We limited each school to two starters and one bench player for a maximum of three per team (sorry, Duke).  We also made sure to include at least one player from each of the four chosen programs (hi, Seattle).
  6. Finally, we seeded the sixteen teams into our bracket and analyzed the matchups.  We encourage you to use the polls below to do likewise.

Which state do you think has the strongest cadre of players from among its Big Four programs?  Here’s our bracket:

We’ll analyze the left side of our bracket today, and the right side tomorrow.  Make sure to put your choices in the appropriate poll box.

#1 Indiana vs. #16 Utah

The most lopsided first round battle pits top seeded Indiana against a Utah squad filled with mid-major flavor. For Utah to avoid embarrassing themselves, they’ll need a heroic effort from elite scorer and potential first team All-American Jimmer Fredette. Much like BYU was vulnerable on the rare occasion when Fredette didn’t deliver, this Utah team void of talent from top-shelf Division I programs will need their do-everything point guard to put on his Superman cape. We suspect Fredette will keep Utah competitive for most of the first half. Tai Wesley is crafty enough to lure Matt Howard into foul trouble and, given the season Weber State just concluded, their representatives are far from slouches. In a near carbon copy of BYU’s second round contest with Kansas State, though, it would be a surprise if Fredette didn’t wear down under the intense man-to-man defense of Shelvin Mack and the common double team. Because of our conditions for picking these teams, sure, but an Indiana team loaded enough to bring a talent like JaJuan Johnson off the bench isn’t going to lose to a primarily one-man squad. The Hoosier State representatives pull away and win by 20+.

RTC Choice: Indiana 84, Utah 62.

#4 Texas vs. #13 New York

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March Moment: Lest We Forget, Sometimes It’s Good Just To Be Invited

Posted by jstevrtc on March 31st, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment?

Our final installment for this year has a pair of remembrances that remind us how just being part of the magic of the NCAA Tournament is something for which to be thankful. RTC correspondents Kraig Williams and Russell Burnett recount being in the crowd (and eventually on the floor) to see their teams earn automatic invites to the NCAA Tournament.  Butler may be a 5-seed but they’re still a so-called “mid-major,” and this is obviously the biggest storyline of this year’s Final Four.  These stories from Messrs. Williams and Burnett amplify how great Butler’s achievement is, and goes to show that if you think every single mid-major program in the nation doesn’t take pride in and hope from the Bulldogs’ presence in Indy this weekend, you’d better think again:

KW: I’ve always been a big college basketball fan, and fondly remember the days of filling out a bracket before I even knew how to pronounce some of the schools’ names. Growing up in Utah, I remember watching Keith Van Horn carry Utah to a championship game; I jumped on the band wagons of Duke in ’01 and Syracuse in ’03 to win bracket pools among my friends and slowly college basketball seeped into my blood. It wasn’t until last season that I had my ultimate March Moment.

As a student at Utah State University, we survived the adjustment from the Big West to the WAC only to surfer heartbreaks in the conference tournament year after year. Last season though, things were different. It was clear the Aggies were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference. Utah State steamrolled through Fresno State, somehow survived New Mexico State in the semi finals, and then came the dream matchup with Nevada on their home floor. Sitting outside the arena a couple hours before they would even let us in, it became apparent that this would be our night. Utah State students had the Nevada crowd nearly outnumbered, and when we got into the stadium it became clear that we would have the better team. Utah State jumped out to a 21-4 lead and the party began in the student section. After years of following the Aggies, and watching them come oh-so-close so many times, we were finally going to have a conference tournament banner to hang in The Spectrum. The clock ticked down, we shouted the “winning team, losing team” chant, and then we rushed the court in Reno like our lives depended on it. We spent the next hour or so just standing on the court, talking to the players, taking photos with the trophy, and watching our guys cut down the nets. That’s a feeling I’ll never forget, knowing that we weren’t going to be sweating bullets at home waiting to see if the selection committee would be nice enough to send us to the dance.

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March Moment: The Cinderella That Refused To See Midnight

Posted by jstevrtc on March 28th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, correspondent Steve Coulter tells a tale of a very rare occasion on which he changed allegiances from the team he loved to a team that went on a tournament run that we’ll still all be talking about decades from now:

In my short lifetime there have been many memories from to the three glorious weeks referred to as March Madness.

There was Valparaiso’s miracle run to the Sweet 16 when I was only seven. I can still remember watching highlights of the Bryce Drew game with my dad later that day. There was #15 Hampton’s huge upset of #2 Iowa State when I was only ten. I stayed up that night with my brother, but as the game wore on into the night we both found ourselves sound asleep and kicking ourselves the next morning while watching ESPN. More recently there was Davidson’s Elite 8 run in 2008. Stephen Curry proved to be the littlest giant ever to step onto the hardwood in March, destroying the title hopes of teams such as Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin. They almost conquered Kansas, the team that eventually won the tournament, losing 59-57 in a game for the ages.

All of these have been great and there have been many more excellent games, moments, and stories in my 19 years, but I am a sucker for the underdog and March Madness is where David always has a chance to conquer Goliath. And no true underdog team has ever pushed against all odds and had so much success in the NCAA tournament in my lifetime or anybody else’s than No. 11 seeded George Mason, who in 2006 shocked the entire basketball world by becoming the most unlikely Final Four team in all of history.

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March Moment: A Standing Ovation, A Life Changed

Posted by jstevrtc on March 26th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this installment, Back Door Cuts contributor Mike Walsh describes how his March Moment changed his life and put him on a path from which he’s yet to stray:

Without a doubt, my defining March moment is from the 2001 NCAA tournament. It was my sophomore year at Saint Joseph’s University and as the assistant sports editor at the student paper, I was lucky enough to travel to San Diego to cover our boys as the No. 9 seed in the West bracket.

In the first round, the Hawks topped eighth-seeded Georgia Tech. It was the first tournament game I ever saw in person and watching my team win from press row was icing on the cake. In the second round, St. Joe’s drew No. 1 seed Stanford. On paper, it shouldn’t have been close. In the first half, it didn’t look like it was going to be.

But then, I and everyone else in the arena witnessed an unforgettable performance.

You know those games where the whole arena is buzzing with the prospect of an upset in the making? This turned out to be one of those games. You know those players who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight after a stellar showing on the NCAA’s biggest stage? St. Joe’s junior guard Marvin O’Connor was that player.

O'Connor (in red) in a Big 5 game against Penn

On the shoulders of the scorching hot shooting guard, who tied a career high with 37 points on 15-of-20 shooting, the Hawks wiped out a 14-point first half deficit and gave the top-seeded Cardinal all they could handle in the second half. For a while, it felt like it could be one of those rare instances where a No. 1 seed was sent packing on the first weekend.

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March Moment: The Spark(s) Of Spring

Posted by jstevrtc on March 25th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, a Kentucky fan’s love for college hoops is cemented by, of all things, a game they ended up losing — but specifically a few seconds that were burned into his memory, thanks to a kind roll:

March has a funny way of changing things.  The NCAA tournament kicks off, and 65 teams get a shot to extend their seasons and for three weeks David and Goliath find themselves in the same shoes…win or go home.

It has a unique way of bringing out the best and even the worst in people, and sets a stage for Cinderella to flex her muscles. Simply put, March Madness is without a doubt the best three weeks in sports.

Most people have their favorite March memory, whether it be “The Shot” by Christian Laettner (which somehow find its way into every CBS broadcast), watching Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma square off against the Doctors of Dunk (Louisville and Darryl Griffith), or any moment in between.

As a Kentucky fan, I feel I have my own unique perspective of The Big Dance. Although the Cats have won two titles in my lifetime, the moment that stands out the most came in a loss.

In 2005, Kentucky was on a roll. After sweeping through the regular season with a 23-4 record, the Cats were poised to make some waves in the tournament. After a couple of close wins in the opening three rounds, the only thing standing in the way of UK and a Final Four berth was a pesky overachiever from East Lansing…Michigan State.

After playing the Spartans close for the entire game, Kentucky found itself down three points with just 19 seconds left in regulation. That’s when something spectacular happened. After a couple of misfires from behind the arc, Patrick Sparks chased down a long rebound with just two seconds left and let loose a prayer that would decide if the season would be extended. The prayer was answered. Overtime.

Although the Cats would fall just two periods later, that shot would change my life.

That’s the moment that I realized how much Kentucky basketball meant to me. I had been a UK fan since before I can remember but in the seconds surrounding that play it took on such a new meaning. As Sparks’ three-pointer bounced around the rim, time stood still. Although just an instant, it felt like it lasted forever and my heart didn’t resume beating until after the ball had found its way safely through the net.

The emotions that exploded after that one shot changed the way I looked at the game. Basketball wasn’t just a sport anymore; it couldn’t be. It was something so much bigger.

While jumping around the living room with my dad and little brother, hugging and high fiving, I realized how important it was. The way it felt to share that with them is something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. As I get older I’ll always look back on that day and smile. That day, that moment, is when everything changed. Isn’t it funny how March can do that to you?

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March Moment: The Garden in ’71

Posted by jstevrtc on March 24th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this edition, RTC correspondent Ray Floriani remembers a New York City night in 1971 that altered his perception of winning and losing, how he was affected by both, and how it all cemented his love for our game:

NEW YORK CITY – The intensity, excitement and general myraid of emotions packed into that March evening will probably never be duplicated. It was the ultimate heartbreaker. At the same time, this was the one. The game and experience that certifiably had yours truly hooked on basketball, notably college basketball, as the favorite sport. One that transformed a casual observer into a devout follower.

Mention “the Georgia Tech game in the NIT” and any St. Bonaventure fan who can remember gas being under a buck a gallon will recall the year (1971) , the date (March 25), the circumstance and how it played out.  A little background…

The 1970-71 season was my freshman year at St. Bonaventure. The previous March the Bonnies made it to the Final Four and if Bob Lanier hadn’t been injured late in the East Regional final against Villanova, who knows? UCLA’s national championship run might have been interrupted.

Larry Weise, St. Bonaventure coach from 1961-73

The team lost Lanier and a top notch lead guard in Billy Kalbaugh. There was optimism though as the returnees had experienced winning and approached the season with a positive mindset. Among the veterans returning for coach Larry Weise were Greg Gary, Matt Gantt, Dale Tepas, and Paul Hoffman. Gantt, at 6-5, was the big man.  An incredible leaper, Gantt was the prototype “frequent flyer” who could make life miserable for opponents five (or more) inches taller. Sophomore Carl Jackson was up from the freshman team (they had them back then). Overall, there was talent.

I had the good fortune to get into the program as one of the team managers.  It was a job I did four years in high school and would do four years at Bonaventure. The season went extremely well with the Bonnies, ranked high as 11th at one point, finishing 18-5.  Back then 25 teams made the NCAA tournament and with the East basically a group of independents, as Bonaventure was, you needed a great record to get in.  The Bonnies accepted an NIT bid. Again, in that day it was a 16 team field with all games contested at Madison Square Garden.

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March Moment: Three Reminiscences

Posted by jstevrtc on March 23rd, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this edition, we have submissions from three friends.  In the first, RTC utility man Tom Hager remembers a time he had to improvise a way to celebrate after two buzzer-beaters; the second has RTC correspondent Jason Prizoborowski barely escaping extended hoops deprivation; the third has Friend of the Program Mike Kiffney — he of the patented “Kiffney three” — showing his age by recalling how he met a legend from his high school, and making a prediction that will please fans of the Orange:

TH: My March moment came when I was 11 years old. It was Friday night of the first round of the NCAA tournament, and I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. He had no interest in basketball, but fortunately for me, he had fallen asleep by 9:00 that night. I spent the rest of the night watching some of the most exciting basketball I had ever seen in my life. I was sitting in the lower bunk trying to keep quiet as I watched Georgetown defeat Arkansas 63-61 on a buzzer-beater. I remember watching Nat Burton drive to the lane and sink a shot just before time expired. When head coach Craig Esherick was asked for his thoughts on the game winner, he actually looked a little upset. “The play was not designed to go to him…” was how Esherick began the interview, but stated that Burton was a senior, and had the experience to take the shot.

That same night, I watched what I still think might be the best upset in the history of college basketball, when a team I had never heard of (Hampton) with a bunch of players I had never heard of (yeah, Tarvis Williams) defeat highly touted Iowa State. After Williams sank a hook shot with a few seconds left, and Jamaal Tinsley missed his shot at the buzzer, I saw Hampton’s cheerleaders, players, and even coach Steve Merfeld jump in the air. I was doing the exact same. I ran outside my friend’s room and into his kitchen, where I could jump and scream (internally) over what had just happened without waking him up. By the time I was done celebrating, I had done more fist pumps than Tiger Woods and I was out of breath. I remember trying to go to bed that night but I was too excited to fall asleep right away, as that play ran over and over in my head. To this day, it is still my lasting image of the NCAA Tournament.

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