Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Survive and advance begins now
By Eamonn Brennan
For a vast majority of the possessions they played during the 2012-13 season, the Virginia Cavaliers were a solid college basketball team. Virginia held opponents to the 16th-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the country last season; they finished 24th in defensive efficiency; they ranked 40th overall; they beat Duke and North Carolina and nearly toppled the ACC champs (Miami) on the road; and their best player, guard Joe Harris, was an all-conference first-teamer.
If you repeated the above information to the uninitiated -- and yes, I will take credit for not shoehorning a Bane joke in here -- you would assume Virginia ended the 2012-13 season in the NCAA tournament.
Nope: UVa spent March in the NIT. There were a few reasons for this: a soft schedule, missed opportunities, a few untimely ACC flops. But more than anything, Virginia missed out because by Christmas it had already lost to George Mason (RPI: 123), Delaware (RPI: 141) and -- worst of all -- Old Dominion (RPI: 318!). The Cavaliers never did enough to recover.
Charles Mitchell scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Maryland's win over Abilene Christian.
Since 2009, when the men's basketball committee stripped the "last 12 games" barometer from its tourney resumés and gave equal weight to early results, more than a few teams have learned Virginia's lesson. It is a simple one: Be ready to play on Day 1. What happens in November could come back to haunt you in March.
On Wednesday night, Providence, Maryland and Illinois -- 2014 tourney hopefuls all -- avoided precisely that fate.
Providence's win over Brown was the most harrowing of the bunch. The Friars, a promising and talented group under impressive third-year coach Ed Cooley, handled the lion's share of their home matchup with Brown with expected ease. Kadeem Batts, Bryce Cotton and Co. opened an early 20-4 lead over the Bears, and stretched it to 42-27 in the closing minutes of the first half. The rout appeared to be on.
But Brown, believe it or not, came roaring back in the second half. Providence went cold. Brown's Cedric Kuakumensah got hot. By the 9-minute mark, it was 58-58. With five minutes to play, Brown led 63-60. But if not for two late 3-pointers by LaDontae Henton and Josh Fortune, Providence may well have lost to a team that finished 12-20 and ranked 240 in the RPI last season. Is it possible the Bears are much better this season? Sure. It is almost certain a home loss to Brown would have destroyed Providence's RPI? Yes.
That damage would have paled in comparison what would have happened to Maryland had the Terps fallen to -- gulp -- Abilene Christian. Mark Turgeon's team pulled away in the second half, and eventually cruised to a 67-44 win that will look fine three months from now. But Maryland actually entered halftime trailing -- yes, trailing -- the Wildcats 30-29. Heck, Abilene's lead lasted during a disconcertingly large chunk of into the second half; they were up 44-38 with 14 minutes to play. If you think a loss to Brown would be bad, try on a home loss to a team that wasn't even in Division I last season. Thanks to Maryland's bonkers 29-0 game-ending run, it didn't have to come to that. But still, what a nervy 25 minutes.
Illinois' win over Valparaiso may have been a bit less drastic. Valpo, after all, won the Horizon League last season. It is a name mid-major program. It is no Brown, to say nothing of Abilene. But still, the Cavaliers lost six seniors, including stars Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff, from last season and are in full-on rebuilding mode in Bryce Drew's second season, which made their mere two-point deficit at the six-minute mark of the second half in Champaign all the more troubling.
Throw Indiana into this mix, too. The Hoosiers narrowly survived LIU-Brooklyn at home Tuesday night. Don't get it twisted: The Blackbirds have made the last three tournaments for a reason. That's a good program. They schemed IU well and baited the Hoosiers into too many outside shots. But no matter. IU is supposed to beat LIU-Brooklyn at home, and a loss would have veered the young Hoosiers in an RPI ditch in the first week of the season.
Instead, all of these teams survived résumé calamity. Wednesday night hardly offered the most inspiring slate of games. It was a harsh comedown after Tuesday night's Champions Classic high. But for Illinois, Providence and Maryland, Wednesday was a season-changing night.
You know the NCAA tournament cliché, survive and advance? It's a good one. Just remember: You have to survive November first.