Looking back at Thursday’s games in the Albuquerque regional from a Friday night perspective, my thoughts turn more to Montana, Harvard, South Dakota State, and UNLV than the teams that advanced from those first round games. We will have plenty of time to enjoy Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Baylor, and Colorado on Saturday afternoon and evening, but for right now, let’s talk about the good things that these four teams, whose seasons ended on Friday, did on Thursday and throughout the year.
- After struggling through a non-conference schedule, everything came together for Montana in conference play, where they ripped off 15 wins in 16 games and then swept to the Big Sky’s automatic bid in relatively easy fashion. And on Thursday, for roughly 18 minutes, they gave Wisconsin a battle. They came out hot early, scored 18 points on the first 13 possession against a stingy Badger defense and had the numerous Grizzly fans who made the trip down to support their team dreaming of big things. There were forced turnovers, acrobatic finishes and lots of excitement created early for an undermanned team. However, once the Wisconsin defense locked down, the Grizzlies went cold and headed home early. Still, this is a program that has made three straight postseasons (including two NCAA bids) under head coach Wayne Tinkle and returns 66.3% of its scoring from this year, including talented backcourt combo Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar. And clearly, Tinkle’s got the community buying into the team and is well on the way to making Montana as much a basketball school as it is a football power.
- What can you say about this Harvard team? First NCAA Tournament appearance in more than 60 years, a sparkling 26-4 record and at least a piece of the regular season Ivy League title for two years running. Better still, this is a program that shows all the signs of being in it for the long haul. Head coach Tommy Amaker is building for the future here, not just taking advantage of a flash in the pan. And, perhaps best of all, this has been a truly entertaining team to watch. I saw them in person twice this season and came away feeling good about the Crimson on both occasions. Amaker loses big man Keith Wright and hyper-efficient guard Oliver McNally, but they return plenty of experienced players for a team that should be the favorite in the Ivy again next year. Sophomore Laurent Rivard is an absurdly entertaining and confident shot-maker who earned the respect of Vandy’s players and fans by knocking down three after ridiculous three in the face of excellent defense. Junior forward Kyle Casey may be a bit undersized, but he cleans the glass for Amaker and just seems to be around the ball to make plays on a regular basis. Junior point guard Brandyn Curry is one of the best assist men in the nation and a scrappy defensive playmaker, while freshman Wesley Saunders is an athletic ball of energy with loads of upside. Add in the fact that Amaker has made Harvard a legitimate destination for recruits and it appears that the Crimson are on the verge of being an every-year type of team.
- South Dakota State may have been the darling of the Albuquerque Thursday. Not only did the scrappy Jackrabbits battle a clearly athletically superior Baylor team tooth and nail for 40 minutes, but their fans, supporting a team from the state of South Dakota in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, were an asset to the entire atmosphere in The Pit. Just as Baylor’s team showed up expecting to advance to the next round on the basis of their talent alone, the Bear fans strolled in from the parking lot at a leisurely rate, not even filling up their section until SDSU had run out to an early 12 point lead. Meanwhile, Jackrabbit fans made their way into the arena as early as the possibly could (the doors weren’t opened for the second session until 30 minutes before tip-off), loaded up their section and then some, and were loud and supportive throughout the game. They had plenty to cheer for as junior guard Nate Wolters led an inspired effort against one of the biggest, most athletic squads in Division I. Even after they booted away that 12-point first-half lead in a flurry of first half turnovers and seemed destined for a blowout, the Jackrabbits, fans and team alike, responded strong in the second half and at least put a good scare into the Bears. While Wolters gets most of the press, guys like sophomore reserve wing Chad White (15 points, five threes in 30 minutes), senior forward Griffan Callahan (seven points, two steals in a full 40 minutes of action), sophomore forward Jordan Dykstra (five points, three boards), junior forward Tony Fiegen (two points, five boards, five assists) and sophomore guard Brayden Carlson (nine points, five assists) deserve at least a mention, with Callahan, Fiegen and Dykstra all deserving extra props for contending with, and generally containing, the imposing Baylor frontline. In the end, it was a 27-8 record on the year for the Jackrabbits, the best in the history of the school. And with everyone but Callahan expected to return next year, South Dakota State could again claim a spot on the national stage.
- Lastly, there’s UNLV, the most celebrated of the four losers on Thursday night. While Montana, Harvard and South Dakota State can all come away from their NCAA Tournament experience feeling okay about their seasons, for the Runnin’ Rebels, this is a disappointment, not solely because they were upended by a lower seed. This marks the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament loss for the proud program and sends seniors Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback, and Brice Massamba off to graduation without a tournament win on their resume (fellow senior Kendall Wallace redshirted last season and was a small part of the 2008 team that beat Kent State in the first round). And, for the third consecutive year, this was a Rebel team that played its best basketball of the season in November and December and never improved as much as the other teams around them. And, perhaps most galling of all for a proud fanbase, the UNLV supporters were out-traveled and out-voiced throughout the game by Colorado fans, relative upstarts. Things need to change in Vegas next season. And the good news is, all the parts are there for the change to be made. Head coach Dave Rice will be heading into his second season as a head coach and should be able to build upon his experience this year. Mike Moser and Anthony Marshall, the first and third leading scorers on this team should return (provided Moser doesn’t do anything stupid and declare for the NBA Draft), along with plenty of other strong parts, including Division I transfers Bryce Jones and Khem Birch. Marshall will take over the leadership role for this team once and for all (a role he battled with Bellfield and Stanback over this year), and the team should be better for that. And, there is a buzz about the program that has been largely missing since the days of Jerry Tarkanian. In short, the future is bright in Las Vegas, even if the present is full of regrets over missed opportunities on Thursday.