The 2016 FCS Playoffs — a review of the bracket

The Bracket

Links of interest:

The Citadel’s playoff path: a bye, then a familiar foe

– Lehigh football snubbed of home playoff game

New Hampshire makes field for 13th straight year

Albany left out of playoffs; coach calls exclusion “a sham”

Wofford earns playoff bid

Charleston Southern disappointed not to host playoff game

After being disappointed in the seeding, Sam Houston State coach: “It is what it is”

South Dakota State gets seed

Youngstown State in playoffs after a ten-year absence

“Samford shouldn’t even be in the tournament, let’s just get it straight”

North Carolina A&T makes playoff, but coach says “we’re still pretty down around here”

Chattanooga makes playoff field

Cal Poly gets bid, will host San Diego

Preview article on NCAA.com

First, let’s correct an error in that last article I linked above, the one posted on the NCAA’s own website:

Some other teams that will miss out on postseason action as a whole include Montana, Western Illinois and North Carolina Central, who all lost steam down the stretch and were defeated in Week 12.

North Carolina Central won on Week 12, defeating North Carolina A&T 42-21. The Eagles aren’t missing out on postseason action, either — North Carolina Central is going to the Celebration Bowl instead of the FCS playoffs, while the team that lost to the Eagles (North Carolina A&T) got a bid as an at-large team.

I also linked a “handicapping the field” article from the Bison Media Zone. Media members in North Dakota do not think Samford should have made the field.

Of course, being a resident of the Flickertail State isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to FCS expertise. In this particular preview, the writer referred to Charleston Southern as the “Mocs”.

I also think he has his guns pointed in the wrong direction when it comes to the exclusion of Albany. I tend to agree that Albany should have been in the tournament, but he failed to identify the most obvious beneficiary of the Great Danes’ absence — New Hampshire.

The two teams played in the same league (the CAA) and finished with the same overall record (7-4). Albany beat FBS Buffalo (admittedly, not the best FBS squad in world history). More to the point, the Great Danes won at New Hampshire.

The Wildcats also managed to lose to Ivy League cellar-dweller Dartmouth, and had no real standout victory. Albany’s worst loss was to Delaware, which strikes me as considerably more acceptable than losing to Dartmouth.

Albany head coach Greg Gattuso called the snub of his team “a sham” on Twitter. He had other comments:

I guess, if I had a question for the (selection) committee, it would be, what in (New Hampshire’s) body of work would be better than ours?

I just think the resume was better. Oh, by the way, we beat them head-to-head at their field. Remember us beating them at their field two weeks ago?

 

One criteria they might say is conference record. But to me, it’s a skewed point when (New Hampshire) didn’t play the second- and third-place teams. They didn’t play Richmond, they didn’t play Villanova. To me, conference schedule when you don’t play everybody should be thrown out (in picking the tournament).

I think Gattuso has a very legitimate argument.

New Hampshire had been in the playoffs in each of the previous 12 seasons; perhaps the committee just felt comfortable sticking them in the field. Maybe there is an unwritten rule that UNH has to be in the tournament.

Once New Hampshire was picked, the committee then got the chance to pair the Wildcats with Lehigh, and gave New Hampshire a home game in the first round. UNH’s average home attendance is 11,108, so it could be assumed its host bid (in terms of a cash guarantee) was quite good.

Albany’s average home attendance this season was 5,928. Could the committee have been thinking about the potential monetary difference if it came down to Lehigh-Albany or Lehigh-UNH? I’m sure the official answer is “No”, but cynics may have some doubts.

In related news, during an interview on a North Dakota radio show, selection committee chairman Brian Hutchinson referenced North Carolina A&T’s “bid offer” as a point in its favor.

I think he probably misspoke — after all, North Carolina A&T isn’t even hosting a first-round game — but what his comment really illustrates is that money is never far from the mind of the committee when selecting, bracketing, and seeding teams. That is unfortunate.

The committee apparently had no choice but to pair San Diego and Cal Poly against each other in the first round, despite the fact the two schools have already played this season. From the NCAA’s “Pre-Championship Manual“:

5. Regular season non-conference match-ups in the first round of the championship should be avoided, provided it does not create an additional flight(s).

6. Teams from the same conference will not be paired for first-round games (except for teams from the same conference that did not play against each other during the regular season; such teams may play each other in the first round);

7. Once the first-round pairings have been determined, there will be no adjustments to the bracket (e.g., a seeded team may play a conference opponent that advanced out of the first round).

If Cal Poly and USD had been in the same league, the rematch would have been avoided — but since they’re not, they had to be matched up, because not doing so would have created two extra flights.

That is because Poly and USD were less than 400 miles from each other, but more than 400 miles away from every other unseeded team. Here is the rule on busing/flights:

During the championship, institutions that are playing within 400 miles (one way) of their campus will be required to travel to that site via bus. Institutions traveling more than 400 miles (one way) to their game will be approved for air travel to that site.

I think it’s absurd that the “allow one more flight” stipulation only applies if teams are in the same conference, but that’s the rule, and the committee had no other option. The rule needs to be changed.

Of course, when it comes to bracketing, the committee tends to take the path of least resistance anyway. This is the second year in a row there has been a regular-season rematch in the first round.

Last year, the Patriot League champion (Colgate) played at New Hampshire, with the winner facing James Madison. Colgate and UNH had already met during the 2015 regular season.

Naturally, this year the Patriot League champion (Lehigh) will again play at New Hampshire, with the winner again facing James Madison…

The manual has this to say about awarding host sites:

3. If the minimum financial guarantees are met, the committee will award the playoff sites to the higher seeded teams.

4. When determining host institutions for playoff games when both teams are unseeded, criteria shall apply as follows: (1) quality of facility, (2) revenue potential plus estimated net receipts, (3) attendance history and potential, (4) team’s performance (i.e., conference place finish, head-to-head results and number of Division I opponents), and (5) student-athlete well-being (e.g., travel and missed class time).

This is not exactly breaking news, but it does explain one aspect of hosting that apparently bothered Charleston Southern coach Jamey Chadwell:

…Chadwell expressed disappointment about having to go on the road, but said getting a playoff opportunity was the ultimate goal.

“It’s disappointing. I don’t know all of the details, but you would think a conference champion would get more favor in the bidding process,” Chadwell said.

As it happens, conference champions don’t get more favor in the bidding process — unless they are matched up against teams in their own league in the first round (which would only occur if the two teams had not met during the regular season).

Charleston Southern hosted last year, but that was because it was a seed and met a minimum financial guarantee. This season, the Buccaneers were unseeded and paired with Wofford.

The decision to hold the game in Spartanburg probably came down to Wofford offering a better financial package, but Charleston Southern fans should be concerned about “quality of facility” being a more significant criterion for hosting than “revenue potential”.

Attendance history is also a factor. Below is the average home attendance for the 16 unseeded teams in the field:

  • North Carolina A&T: 14,472
  • Youngstown State: 14,353
  • New Hampshire: 11,108
  • Illinois State: 10,156
  • Chattanooga: 9,494
  • Central Arkansas: 8,767
  • Weber State: 8,734
  • Richmond: 8,700
  • Cal Poly: 8,413
  • Wofford: 7,625
  • Lehigh: 6,527
  • Villanova: 6,153
  • Samford: 5,897
  • Charleston Southern: 2,712
  • San Diego: 2,405
  • St. Francis (PA): 1,617

Attendance affects both a potential bid by a school, and the committee’s evaluation of its revenue potential.

Only two of the eight first-round matchups are hosted by teams that had lower average home attendance than their opponents. Richmond is hosting North Carolina A&T, and Central Arkansas is hosting Illinois State.

The second of those involves two schools with fairly close numbers in terms of attendance, but the other matchup has a much wider differential. Either North Carolina A&T wasn’t particularly interested in hosting, or Richmond put in a major league bid.

I’m disappointed that for the FCS playoffs, there is yet again a mini-South Carolina bracket in what is supposed to be a national tournament.

This is the second year in a row The Citadel and Charleston Southern have both been bracketed in this fashion, and it is a lame, lame move by Brian Hutchinson and his committee for the second year in a row.

Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen:

It’d be nice to face somebody else, somebody besides teams we play all the time.

Linebacker Tevin Floyd of The Citadel:

We have histories with both [Wofford and Charleston Southern], so I think we just wanted to experience something new.

Head coach Brent Thompson of The Citadel:

When it’s the playoffs, you look for some different opponents. You want to get some people to travel in and maybe work outside (the norm) a little bit. But it is what it is, and we have to win the state of South Carolina at this point.

Floyd also said he was happy to be playing at Johnson Hagood Stadium, and Allen referenced a “fun” matchup with either potential opponent, but the point is clear.

I also don’t understand why the committee couldn’t have swapped the Charleston Southern-Wofford pairing and the North Carolina A&T-Richmond pairing in order to avoid a potential second-round rematch.

In other words, the CSU-Wofford winner could have been matched up against North Dakota, while the survivor of N.C. A&T-Richmond played The Citadel (instead of the other way around, as the committee arranged things).

If the committee seeded all the teams, 1 through 24, it would be possible to have a balanced, fair tournament. Instead, bracketing decisions are made explicitly for geographic reasons, and they lead to inequities.

Weber State and Cal Poly both were 7-4 overall; Weber State was 6-2 in the Big Sky, while the Mustangs were 5-3. Now, due to unbalanced league schedules, Cal Poly played a slightly tougher slate than the Wildcats (and it also had a good non-conference win over South Dakota State). On the other hand, Weber State beat Cal Poly during the season.

You could argue that if every team in the tournament were seeded, Cal Poly might deserve a slightly higher seed than Weber State. If so, both teams would probably be seeded in the 17-20 range.

If that happened, each would play first-round road games against similarly-rated opponents. Instead, we have the current geographical setup and the “400 miles” bus/flight cutoff point.

Thus, Cal Poly plays a home game against San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, a team the Mustangs already defeated earlier this season 38-16. Meanwhile, Weber State travels almost 1,800 miles to play at Chattanooga, a solid SoCon squad that acquitted itself well last week against Alabama.

The decision to make Lehigh travel to New Hampshire also seems problematic to me; if anything, it should be the other way around. Again, however, cash is king in this tournament — though a few folks in Las Vegas are apparently putting their hard-earned money on Lehigh (which is a 4 1/2 point favorite despite having to go on the road).

Final “toughest schedule” numbers from the NCAA for Jacksonville State, James Madison, Sam Houston State, and The Citadel:

  • The Citadel: 19th
  • James Madison: 57th
  • Jacksonville State: 80th
  • Sam Houston State: 102nd

All four finished undefeated against non-FBS competition. SHSU, which was 11-0, did not play an FBS opponent, while the other three schools were all 10-1, with each losing to an FBS team from a power conference.

The committee decided to give Jacksonville State the highest seed out of this group. Did it help Jacksonville State that it made the finals last year? Probably. Did it help Jacksonville State that its director of athletics was on the committee? It couldn’t have hurt.

What it means is that if The Citadel is fortunate enough to advance to the quarterfinals, and its opponent is Jacksonville State, the Bulldogs will be the road team. It is not evident why that should be the case.

Another seeding oddity, in my opinion, was North Dakota being the #7 seed and South Dakota State being the #8. I’m not sure why the Jackrabbits would have been behind UND.

Because the committee seeded those teams in that way, SDSU has a potential rematch with North Dakota State in the quarterfinals. I don’t have a problem with regular-season rematches once teams advance to the quarterfinals, but it seems to me the committee had an easy opportunity to avoid that situation, and in a perfectly justifiable way.

Per at least one source that deals in such matters, here are the lines for the eight first-round games, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • Wofford is a 1.5-point favorite over Charleston Southern, over/under of 51.5
  • Chattanooga is a 15-point favorite over Weber State, over/under of 51.5
  • Lehigh is a 4.5-point favorite at New Hampshire, over/under of 63.5
  • Richmond is a 13-point favorite over North Carolina A&T, over/under of 53.5
  • Illinois State is a 1.5-point favorite at Central Arkansas, over/under of 49.5
  • Youngstown State is an 8.5-point favorite over Samford, over/under of 50.5
  • Cal Poly is a 12.5-point favorite over San Diego, over/under of 65.5
  • Villanova is a 14.5-point favorite over St. Francis (PA), over/under of 37.5

As you can see, there are two road favorites (Lehigh and Illinois State).

Massey Ratings predicted scores for this Saturday:

  • Wofford 26, Charleston Southern 24
  • Chattanooga 31, Weber State 19
  • Lehigh 33, New Hampshire 28
  • Richmond 36, North Carolina A&T 24
  • Central Arkansas 23, Illinois State 21
  • Youngstown State 28, Samford 20
  • Cal Poly 35, San Diego 29
  • Villanova 21, St. Francis (PA) 7

I’m not pleased with how the tournament was constructed. However, there is nothing that can be done about it, at least not for this season. All eyes will now be following the action on the gridiron.

If you’re in the field, you have a chance. That’s the bottom line.

The FCS playoffs — a primer

The purpose of this post is to explain some of the ins and outs of the FCS playoffs, particularly for people who may not be familiar with the basics of postseason play. I’m also going to delve into a few other aspects of the playoffs (including the way the teams are selected, seeded, and bracketed), some of which I believe are problematic.

The tournament has expanded over the years, from a four-team setup in 1978 to today’s 24-team field. The current format has been in place since 2013.

Of the 24 teams that make the field, 10 will be conference champions that automatically qualify for the tournament. As of November 7, two teams have already qualified for the 2016 tourney — Lehigh (from the Patriot League) and The Citadel (from the Southern Conference).

While there are 10 automatic qualifiers, there are actually 13 FCS conferences. Three of those leagues do not have auto-bids to the FCS playoffs.

The Ivy League does not participate in the playoffs, so none of its schools will send a team to the tournament.

The other two conferences without automatic bids are the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). Those two leagues send their respective champions to the “Celebration Bowl”, a separate post-season event.

However, SWAC and MEAC schools are eligible to receive at-large bids. In other words, if a team that does not win one of those leagues is deemed by the selection committee to be one of the 14 best at-large candidates, it may compete in the FCS playoffs. While that scenario would normally be unlikely, this season might provide just such a situation, thanks to two teams in the MEAC that are each having fine seasons.

North Carolina A&T is currently ranked 9th in the FCS Coaches’ Poll, with a record of 8-1 that includes a victory over an FBS opponent (Kent State). The Aggies’ only loss so far this season was to Tulsa.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Central is 7-2, with both losses to FBS schools. The two schools will play in two weeks for the MEAC title. I don’t believe North Carolina Central would receive an at-large bid at 8-3, but if North Carolina A&T were to lose to the Eagles, a 9-2 Aggies squad could be a viable at-large candidate.

The leagues that send automatic qualifiers to the playoffs:

  • Big Sky Conference
  • Big South Conference
  • Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
  • Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC)
  • Northeast Conference (NEC)
  • Ohio Valley Conference (OVC)
  • Patriot League
  • Pioneer Football League
  • Southern Conference (SoCon)
  • Southland Conference

Here is this year’s tournament schedule:

  • Bracket announcement: Sunday, November 20, 2016 at 11:00 am (televised on ESPNU)
  • First round: Saturday, November 26, 2016 — eight games at campus sites (this is the Saturday after Thanksgiving)
  • Second round: Saturday, December 3, 2016 — eight games at campus sites (seeded teams will host in this round after getting a bye in the first round)
  • Quarterfinals: Friday, December 9, 2016 or Saturday, December 10, 2016 — four games at campus sites (higher-seeded team hosts)
  • Semifinals: Friday, December 16, 2016 or Saturday, December 17, 2016 — two games at campus sites (higher-seeded team hosts)
  • National Championship: Saturday, January 7, 2017 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas (kickoff at noon EST)

The FCS selection committee selects the 14 best at-large teams to join the 10 automatic qualifiers, and then ranks the top 8 teams.

The teams ranked in the top 8 are seeded, and also receive first-round byes. The remaining 16 teams are then bracketed and play first-round games.

It is important to understand that, unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, not every team is seeded. In fact, two-thirds of the field is not seeded. That is done on purpose, in order to allow the committee to make pairings “according to geographical proximity“.

Historically, that has resulted in the committee putting together what might be called a bracket of convenience, routinely pairing teams in first- and second-round matchups that have already played each other during the regular season, and/or in recent tourneys. This has been a source of frustration for many fans over the years, because the event is supposed to be a national tournament; after all, it is referred to by the NCAA as the Division I “National Championship”. However, it is rarely treated like one by the powers that be.

A good example of the “regionalization” of the FCS playoffs came last year. For the 2015 tournament, the selection committee set up multiple potential second-round regular-season rematches. When the dust had cleared from the first-round games, five of the eight second-round matchups wound up being regular-season rematches (two of those were matchups between teams in the same league).

Most inexcusably, the committee set up a first-round regular-season rematch between Colgate and New Hampshire.

Five teams from the MVFC made the field last season (four at-large picks and the automatic qualifier, North Dakota State). All five were slotted on one side of the bracket. That did not sit well with the MVFC league commissioner:

Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito said she believes the Football Championship Subdivision playoff committee made “a conscious decision” to put five Valley teams in the same bracket…

Viverito said: “It seems to me the committee has enough latitude in how they break the quadrants up that they’d be able to put teams on opposite sides of the bracket fairly easily. I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know what challenges the committee faced when they came up with this. I can’t imagine it was just a horrible oversight and they didn’t realize they’d done it until the bracket was announced. I think it was a conscious decision. I just don’t know what went into the decision-making process.”

…Viverito called the committee’s pairings “the good, the bad and the ugly.” She said her league getting five teams in the playoff field “good.” She said the formulating of the bracket and the regionalization of it “bad.” And she [called] placing five Valley teams in the same bracket “ugly.”

The complaints from the MVFC led to a change for this year:

…the NCAA approved two FCS bracketing policies that should help spread out teams from the same conferences and also avoid rematches in the early rounds. The playoff committee will now be allowed to add a flight in the first or second rounds to avoid placing four or more teams from one conference in the same side of the bracket. The committee also has the license to avoid matchups in the first round for teams that played during the regular season in a non-conference game, providing that change doesn’t result in an additional charter flight.

That won’t change a lot, but it’s better than nothing. It primarily benefits larger leagues that regularly have three or more teams make the tournament (like the MVFC, CAA, and Big Sky).

For the SoCon and Big South, however, there is no mechanism to prevent the committee from doing what it seems to like doing most — namely, pairing two teams from each conference in a first-round matchup, with the winner playing a seeded team from one of the two leagues.

This year, the FCS selection committee decided to do something that I’m guessing a few of the committee members will wind up regretting.

The NCAA Division I Football Championship Committee will reveal the top-10 teams in rank order three times during the month of November.

The committee will be releasing the top-10 teams for the first time in history. The rankings will be announced as part of College Football Daily on ESPNU Nov. 3 and 10 at 4 p.m. (ET).

The final release will take place Nov. 15 at 10 p.m. (ET) on the ESPNU Championship Drive: Power Hour.

This move was officially made for reasons of transparency. However, if part of the idea for releasing a preliminary list was also to help promote the FCS playoffs, the first reveal (November 3) on “College Football Daily” was not a success.

Show anchor Brendan Fitzgerald and analyst Jason Sehorn knew next to nothing about the FCS (including how many teams actually make the playoffs). The entire segment lasted less than two minutes; the producer did not even bother to use recent video clips for a highlights package that accompanied the release of the rankings.

Clearly, the committee is taking a page from the College Football Playoff (CFP) and its weekly rankings. When it comes to the CFP, though, the weekly rankings release may not be the best thing to emulate.

Ten people make up the FCS selection committee. All are directors of athletics, representing schools from each of the ten leagues with automatic bids:

  • Brian Hutchinson, Morehead State — Pioneer League [chairman]
  • Chuck Burch, Gardner-Webb — Big South
  • Richard Johnson, Wofford — SoCon
  • Kyle Moats, Missouri State — MVFC
  • Nathan Pine, Holy Cross — Patriot League
  • Marty Scarano, New Hampshire — CAA
  • Paul Schlickmann, Central Connecticut State — NEC
  • Greg Seitz, Jacksonville State — OVC
  • Brad Teague, Central Arkansas — Southland
  • Jeff Tingey, Idaho State — Big Sky

One of the things I noticed about the committee is the dual-league nature of its chairman, Brian Hutchinson. Morehead State competes in football in the Pioneer League, which is the league he represents on this committee. However, in other sports Morehead State is a member of the OVC.

To me, that leads to a potential “optics” issue, namely the possible impression (almost certainly unfair, but still) that the OVC has two representatives on the committee — Hutchinson and Greg Seitz, the director of athletics at Jacksonville State.

When the first set of preliminary playoff rankings were released last week, the top-ranked team was, somewhat controversially…Jacksonville State.

Week 1 rankings:

Rank School
1 Jacksonville State
2 Sam Houston State
3 Eastern Washington
4 North Dakota State
5 James Madison
6 The Citadel
7 Richmond
8 Chattanooga
9 Charleston Southern
10 Central Arkansas

This will look a little different in Week 2. Charleston Southern will fall out of the top 10 after losing at home to Gardner-Webb, and so could Richmond (which lost at home to James Madison). However, how much change in the rankings is really possible? Is the committee already hamstringing itself on that front?

Brian Hutchinson gave two radio interviews after the rankings were released last week, both to stations in North Dakota. He should get some credit for agreeing to the interviews, because he is in the difficult position of having to speak for a committee. He may not even agree with all of the committee’s decisions, but he has to defend them anyway.

A few thoughts on his comments:

  • I got the distinct impression that the committee members weren’t prepared for a public rankings release
  • It’s conceivable that the rankings will wind up being close to valueless when it comes to the actual selection and seeding
  • Somewhat surprisingly, there is no established order of criteria when evaluating teams

Hutchinson was asked about the difference in seeding between two currently undefeated teams, Sam Houston State and The Citadel. One of the interviewers compared the two squads and noted that The Citadel had a better strength of schedule, including a win over another top-10 team (Chattanooga).

When asked about the “value of Sam Houston State to the committee”, Hutchinson said:

The value of Sam Houston State is that they are an 8-0 team right now [that] is averaging close to 60 points per game and close to 600 yards of [total] offense. That’s the value that people see.

I really hope that members of the selection committee aren’t using total offense as a criterion (particularly as a stand-alone benchmark) when comparing teams.

However, Hutchinson also added this:

The question about The Citadel as it relates [to Sam Houston State] is absolutely fair, though. They have a really good win over a conference opponent in Chattanooga. They’ve been undefeated. They have not yet played an FBS game, though I believe they have one the last week of the season.

So for all intents and purposes, the criteria the committee will get to evaluate them on will be done prior to the [game versus North Carolina]. Now should they win that game, obviously that would be a big feather in their cap. Should they lose it, I think most people if you look at it on paper would say they were supposed to [lose the game] — and so, that’s just how you evaluate those kinds of things.

The selection committee chairman was also asked if “there had been a lot of reaction around the country [to the preliminary rankings], or has it been isolated pockets like Cheney [Washington] or Fargo [North Dakota]?”

“It has been very isolated,” replied Hutchinson.

Those “isolated pockets” referenced in the interviewer’s query are the cities in which Eastern Washington and North Dakota State are located, of course. Fans of those schools are (justifiably, in my opinion) miffed that they were ranked 3-4 in the initial rankings, rather than 1-2. The committee seemed to ignore schedule strength and quality victories when ranking the teams.

The issue in question relates to potential seeding. The difference in being a 1 or 2 seed versus a 3 or 4 seed, for example, is this: if a seeded team keeps winning, it will host every game until it plays a higher-seeded team. Therefore, if a team is a 1 or 2 seed, it will host every game until the national title game (assuming that it continues to win). A 3 or 4 seed, however, might have to go on the road in the semifinals.

Obviously, that can be significant.

Each seeding “break” matters when it comes to hosting. For teams like James Madison and The Citadel, receiving a 1 or 2 seed may not be possible — but a 3 or 4 seed might be a realistic placement. The difference between being a 4 seed or a 5 seed could be the difference between playing a home game in the quarterfinals or going on the road. That matters.

There are two weeks left in the FCS regular season. A lot of things can (and will) change over the next two weeks.

One thing that won’t change, though, is the level of interest in the FCS playoffs from those who support teams still in the running for a spot in the field. That interest is intense, and will remain so until the bracket is revealed on November 20; it will then continue for fans of the 24 schools in the tournament.

It’s not often that people dream about making a trip to Frisco, Texas, but here we are…

Schools that have never made the NCAA Tournament — the 2016 edition

Updated: The 2017 Edition

Previous entries on this subject:  The 2015 edition The 2014 edition The 2013 edition The 2012 edition  The 2011 edition  The 2010 edition

All season records are through February 28

League tourney time is right around the corner, with the regular season drawing to a close for most of the nation’s conferences. That means it’s time for March Madness, with schools across the country striving to making the promised land, the NCAA Tournament.

Most of them will not succeed. After all, there are 351 institutions that play men’s basketball at the Division I level, and only 68 of them will make the NCAAs. For some of those schools, though, the failure to make the tourney is not just a brief blip in their respective hardwood histories.

There are 33 schools that have been members of D-1 for at least a decade, but have never appeared in the NCAAs. Now, there are other schools in the division that have also never made the Big Dance, but there is a distinction to be made between schools that are recent arrivals in D-1 (like Central Arkansas or Bryant) and longtime no-nos (such as Hartford or UMKC).

Of those schools with 10+ years in Division I but no bids to show for it, 17 of them have been in D-1 for 30 years or more and are still waiting. For fans of schools like Denver, Maryland-Eastern Shore, or Stetson, the annual tradition of watching Selection Sunday with no vested interest has become a numbing experience, if not a depressing one.

History shows that it is hard for these schools to break through. When I started writing about this topic in 2010, I listed the twenty schools with the longest waits for an NCAA tourney bid. Of those twenty, seventeen of them are still waiting. One of the three no longer on the list, Centenary, simply dropped to Division III after 50 years of frustration.

However, there is hope, as the other two schools dropped off the list because they finally made the tournament last season. For UC Irvine, which had been in D-1 since 1978, the dream was realized when it won the Big West tourney title. The program had lost in the conference championship game on four previous occasions.

Meanwhile, Buffalo (a D-1 member for 26 years, and continuously since 1992) won the MAC tourney and earned its first trip to the NCAAs in the process, having come very close several times before but never quite getting over the hump. Both UCI and Buffalo lost close games in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but at least they got there.

Before starting this year’s report on the longtime no-timers, however, there is another list of schools worthy of mention. There are numerous institutions that have made at least one NCAA appearance, but haven’t been back to the tournament in at least 20 years. A few of them have been waiting longer for a return to the NCAAs than the majority of the never-beens.

First (last?) among this group of schools is Dartmouth. The Big Green was the national finalist twice (in 1942 and 1944), and has made five other appearances in the tournament. However, Dartmouth last made the NCAAs in 1959. That streak will continue for at least one more season, as the Big Green has already been eliminated from the Ivy League title race (and that conference has no postseason tournament).

Next up (down?) is another member of the Ivies, Yale, which has not appeared in the NCAAs since 1962, the last of three trips for that program. However, the Elis are currently in first place in the Ivy League, and stand a decent chance to get that long-awaited return trip (after narrowly missing out last season).

Other schools that have made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but haven’t been back since 1996 (or earlier) while continuously in D-1:

Tennessee Tech (last made the NCAAs in 1963), Columbia (1968), Bowling Green (1968), Rice (1970), VMI (1977), Duquesne (1977), Furman (1980), Toledo (1980), Loyola of Chicago (1985), Brown (1986), Jacksonville (1986), Marshall (1987), Idaho State (1987), Marist (1987), Oregon State (1990), Loyola Marymount (1990), Idaho (1990), Louisiana Tech (1991), Towson (1991), St. Francis-PA (1991), Rutgers (1991), Howard (1992), Georgia Southern (1992), Campbell (1992), Fordham (1992), East Carolina (1993), Rider (1994), Tennessee State (1994), Tulane (1995), Canisius (1996), Colgate (1996), Drexel (1996), Green Bay (1996), Montana State (1996), New Orleans (1996), Northern Illinois (1996), Portland (1996), San Jose State (1996), Santa Clara (1996), ULM (1996), and Western Carolina (1996).

Yes, twelve schools that appeared in the 1996 tournament have not been back since, which is more than a little flukish.

Note: Seattle (a finalist in 1958, but with no NCAA appearances since 1969) and Houston Baptist (made the tourney in 1984) both left D-1 and then later returned, so they haven’t continuously been in the division after making their most recent NCAA tourney appearances.

Last year, Northeastern and SMU both made the NCAAs after long absences. They had last made the field in 1991 and 1993, respectively.

Besides Yale, teams on the above list with a reasonable chance to make it back to the NCAAs this season include Furman, Toledo, Jacksonville, Marshall (still trying to overcome the Curse of Randy Nesbit), Oregon State, Louisiana Tech, Towson, Tennessee State, Green Bay, and Northern Illinois.

Of course, it’s possible none of the above-mentioned schools return to the tournament. Most of them would have to win their conference tourneys to get a bid. An exception to that might be Oregon State, which holds the dubious distinction of suffering from the longest current tournament appearance drought of any power 5 school save Northwestern.

Speaking of the Wildcats, it is time to begin the rundown of the schools that have never made the NCAAs in at least a decade of trying. As always, we start with the Forgotten Five.

The NCAA Tournament began in 1939, with the final that year held in Evanston, Illinois (which must really annoy Northwestern fans). In 1948, the NCAA reorganized into separate divisions (university and college) for its member institutions. Of the schools that since 1948 have continuously been in what is now Division I, there are five which have never made the tournament field.

All five of those schools theoretically could have been in the tournament beginning in 1939, so for them the wait is actually longer than their history as official members of Division I. (This is just one of many crushing items/statistics about these institutions’ basketball histories.)

The five schools are known as “The Forgotten Five”. The class of 1948 (or 1939, if you want to get overly technical):

——-

Northwestern: It is hard to believe a school in a power conference could fail to get an at-large bid in all this time, especially with the expansion of the tournament, but Northwestern has made believers of us all.

Of the 65 schools in the top five leagues (counting Notre Dame as an ACC member), 52 have made at least one appearance in the NCAA tournament over the past five years. That’s 80% of all power-conference schools.

Of the thirteen that haven’t, only six haven’t made the tourney over the past seven years: South Carolina (last made the NCAAs in 2004), Auburn (2003), TCU (1998), Rutgers (1991), Oregon State (1990), and Northwestern. (It should be noted that TCU and Rutgers haven’t continuously been members of a power conference during that seven-year stretch.)

If you’re wondering how a major-conference school could somehow manage to miss out on the tournament for so long, it’s fairly simple: Northwestern hasn’t had a winning record in Big 10 play since 1968. That may be a more amazing mark of futility than the failure to make the NCAAs.

Northwestern’s struggles in conference action is a tidbit mentioned in John Feinstein’s recent article in The Washington Post on the Wildcats’ hoops program, one of a series of stories on the Forgotten Five over the past few weeks in that newspaper (all authored by Feinstein).

This season, Northwestern is 18-11 overall, but only 6-10 in league play. The Wildcats’ only chance at an NCAA bid this season is to win the Big 10 tourney, and they won’t be able to play Rutgers in every game.

Army: Not only was 1968 the last time Northwestern finished with a winning record in the Big 10, it was also the year Army turned down an NCAA bid and played in the NIT instead. It wasn’t a bizarre decision by any means (as Feinstein relates in his piece on Army hoops).

[Tangent: the last school to turn down an NCAA bid was Marquette, in 1970, a move made by the remarkable Al McGuire, who should be the subject of a major motion picture sooner rather than later. Schools are no longer allowed to decline NCAA bids to play in the NIT, a tournament which is now owned by the NCAA.]

Army went undefeated in 1944 (15-0), but didn’t play in any postseason tourneys; wartime travel restrictions played a role in that. Would the Black Knights have received an NCAA invite in an era in which the tournament only included eight teams? We’ll never know.

As for this year, Army is 18-12 overall, 9-9 in the Patriot League. A run through the league tourney may not be probable, but it is possible.

The Citadel: The Bulldogs have now lost 20+ games in five of the last six seasons, though this year’s campaign (10-21 overall, 3-15 SoCon) has been a little different, given it was the first season in Charleston for Duggar Baucom and the frenetic style of play he employs (as detailed in John Feinstein’s school profile). Regardless, The Citadel will have to wait for at least one more year.

William and Mary: In my opinion, the Tribe is the Forgotten Five program that most deserves to break through and make the NCAAs. The past two seasons have been tortuous, as excellent William and Mary squads have fallen one game short of the Big Dance.

This year, the Tribe is 19-10 overall, 11-7 in the CAA. I wouldn’t be surprised to see William and Mary in the league final for a third consecutive year. The problem is that the Tribe is 0-9 all-time in conference championship games (in three different leagues).

St. Francis College: John Feinstein’s story on the Terriers includes a memorable quote from the school chaplain prior to last season’s NEC title game, which was hosted by St. Francis:

We’ve been in the desert longer than Moses. The end is near.

Moses eventually got out of the desert. St. Francis College, not so much.

There isn’t likely to be any relief for SFC this year, either. After being just one game away from the oasis last season, in 2015-2016 the Terriers are 15-16 overall, 11-7 in the conference.

Perhaps St. Francis can make another tournament run. One gets the sense, though, that the window of opportunity (at least for right now) may have closed.

Next up on the list of the dance-averse are two New England universities still in search of an initial NCAA bid despite being members of D-1 since 1962. As a hardwood tandem, they are known as “The Dour Duo”. Both are members of the America East conference.

New Hampshire: The Wildcats are 18-11 overall, 11-5 in conference play, and have clinched a second consecutive winning season (after not having any winning campaigns in the previous 20 years).

Stony Brook is the league leader (more on the Seawolves later) and will be favored in the conference tourney. However, UNH cannot be completely dismissed. New Hampshire probably has one more opportunity next season to break through with its current group of players, but sometimes it’s easier to arrive a year early. This could be that year.

Maine: On the other hand, it has been another tough season in Orono, as the Black Bears are 8-21 (4-12 in league play). That is better than last season (3-27), to be fair.

Maine will have to wait at least one more year (a sentence that will be repeated, with minor variations, several times in this post).

The rest of the rundown:

– Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): The Pioneers are 15-14 overall, 7-9 in the Summit League. This season has been better than last year for slow-slower-slowest Denver (only two other Division I teams average fewer possessions per contest), but a surprise run through the league tournament seems unlikely.

– UT-Rio Grande Valley (class of 1969): If you’ve never heard of UT-Rio Grande Valley, don’t feel too badly about it. The school formerly known as UT-Pan American merged with UT-Brownsville to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, and also changed nicknames (from Broncs to Vaqueros).

Recently, the school announced that former Texas head football coach Mack Brown will lead a feasibility study for potentially establishing a new football program. Brown is expected to recommend that UTRGV add the sport, as there are a large number of high school quarterbacks in the region who could be offered scholarships to play free safety.

On the hardwood, the school hasn’t had much success over the years, regardless of its name, and this year is no exception. UTRGV is 8-20 overall, 4-9 in the WAC.

– Stetson (class of 1972): The Hatters are 10-21 overall, 4-10 in the Atlantic Sun, and ineligible for the NCAAs because of a sub-par APR score. Thus, the school’s most notable hoops player will remain the late Ted Cassidy. You rang?

– Grambling State (class of 1978): The bad news is that Grambling State has only won six games this season. The good news is that the Tigers have won more games this season than they did in any of their four previous campaigns (4, 0, 5, and 2 wins).

This isn’t going to be the year.

– Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-75, then back to the division for good in 1982): UMES had suffered 12 consecutive 20+ loss seasons until last year’s mini-miracle, which resulted in 18 wins.

Alas, this year the Hawks are 9-21 overall (6-9 in the MEAC). Eight of UMES’ nine conference losses have been by single digits. The magic has left the shore, at least for the moment.

– Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, then returning to the division in 1982): The Penguins are 11-20, 6-12 in the Horizon League. It’s basically a repeat of last year’s 11-21 season. In other words, time to get ready for spring football practice.

– Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): The Wildcats are only 13-16 overall, but 9-5 in the MEAC. Could they sneak through the league tourney and grab that elusive NCAA tourney bid?

It’s not out of the question. After all, this is the MEAC Tournament, which always has something for everyone, on and off the court. See pages 40-41 of this document for the men’s and women’s tourney brackets (the two tournaments take place over a six-day period at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, VA).

This year’s entertainment at the MEAC tourney includes a tipoff concert by the “Legends of Soul” (featuring Freddie Jackson) and a pair of official after-party events, one of which is hosted by Kid ‘n Play.

– Western Illinois (class of 1982): During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, the Leathernecks won a combined 40 games. However, WIU followed up those fine seasons with 10- and 8-win campaigns, and was 10-17 this year. Western Illinois finished in last place in the Summit League and did not qualify for the conference tournament.

– Chicago State (class of 1985): The Cougars won only eight games last season. This year, Chicago State is 4-26 and has only one Division I victory, which came against…Western Illinois.

Unfortunately, right now Chicago State has much bigger problems than its basketball team’s record.

– Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are 9-22, 4-12 in the America East. It looks like this will be another season of torment for WCSC-TV sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau and the rest of Hartford’s faithful fans.

– UMKC (class of 1988): Six of the eight schools in the WAC have never been to the NCAAs. Of the six, the one having the best season (Grand Canyon) is ineligible to participate because it hasn’t completed its probationary period in D-1.

We’ve already seen Chicago State and UT-Rio Grande Valley on this list. As for UMKC, the Kangaroos are 10-18 overall, 3-10 in the WAC. UMKC does have a win over a power conference team this season (Mississippi State), but that’s probably going to be the highlight of its season.

– Sacramento State (class of 1992): Last year was a very good one for the Hornets, which won 21 games. One of those was a CIT triumph over Portland, the first postseason tournament victory in the program’s history.

This year, things haven’t gone nearly as well. Sacramento State is 11-16, 4-12 in the Big Sky. In past years, that would have eliminated the Hornets from league tournament qualification, but this year the conference has expanded its tourney to include all 12 teams.

– UT Martin (class of 1993): The Skyhawks are tied for first place in the OVC West, with a 10-6 conference mark (18-13 overall). It’s the second consecutive solid season for UT Martin, which won’t be the favorite at the OVC tourney (that will be Belmont), but would seem to have at least a puncher’s chance.

– Jacksonville State (class of 1996): The Gamecocks are 8-23, 4-12 in the OVC. For the third season in a row, Jacksonville State will not qualify for the league tournament. It’s kind of hard to make the NCAAs in a one-bid league if you can’t make your conference tourney.

– Quinnipiac (class of 1999): At 9-20, 6-14 in the MAAC, Quinnipiac is going backwards. The Bobcats won twenty games in 2013-14 and fifteen games last season.

Perhaps in an election year, it is a bit much to expect Quinnipiac to fully concentrate on hoops when there is so much polling to do.

– Elon (class of 2000): The Phoenix are 16-15 overall, but just 7-11 in CAA play. The league tournament should be one of the nation’s most competitive this year, but it’s difficult to envision Elon winning four games in four days.

– High Point (class of 2000): High Point is due. This is the fourth straight season the Panthers (20-9, 13-5) have won or shared the regular-season title in the Big South. High Point also has the league’s best player in John Brown.

However, Brown missed the regular-season finale with a foot injury. If he is limited (or simply unable to play) in the conference tournament, it could be crushing for HPU.

– Sacred Heart (class of 2000): The Pioneers lost 10 of their first 11 games, but things improved once conference action began. Sacred Heart is 12-17 overall, with a winning record in the NEC (11-7).

The league tourney could be a brawl. Sacred Heart is a potential sleeper.

– Stony Brook (class of 2000): Over the last six seasons, the Seawolves have won 22, 15, 22, 25, 23, and 23 games. Last year, Stony Brook was very close to an NCAA tournament bid. How close? This close.

That had to hurt.

This year, the Seawolves are 23-6 overall, 14-2 in conference play — but with losses in two of their last three games.

Stony Brook will host every game it plays in the league tournament. Will this finally be the year?

UC Riverside (class of 2002): The Highlanders won 14 games last season and are 14-16 this year. UC Riverside is a respectable middle-of-the-pack Big West squad, but winning the conference tournament might be a bit of a stretch.

– IPFW (class of 2002): The Mastodons are 23-8 overall and tied for first place in the Summit League with a 12-4 mark. The conference tournament is in Sioux Falls, which could be an issue (nearby South Dakota State being the other team that tied for first). Still, this should be a good opportunity for IPFW to make the NCAA tourney.

Mastodons may be extinct, but you still can’t count them out.

Gardner-Webb (class of 2003): The Runnin’ Bulldogs are 15-15 overall, 10-8 in the Big South. It wouldn’t be a total shock for Gardner-Webb to be playing for the league tournament title on March 6.

Savannah State (class of 2003): The Tigers are 13-13 overall, 8-6 in the MEAC. Savannah State needs a few breaks to go its way in the MEAC tournament. Hey, it could happen.

– Lipscomb (class of 2004): The Bisons are 11-20, 7-7 in the Atlantic Sun. If North Florida were to be upset in the league tournament, then just about any other team in the top six could win it, including Lipscomb. I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it.

UC Davis (class of 2005): The Aggies won 25 games last season and the Big West regular-season title. This season, UC Davis is 10-17, 5-9 in the league.

Last year could have been the year. This year almost certainly won’t be.

Utah Valley (class of 2005): Utah Valley is 12-16, 6-7 in the WAC. That isn’t great, but it’s better than the three other WAC teams on this list.

Indeed, the Wolverines are 6-0 against UMKC, Chicago State, and UTRGV (the three worst teams in the league). However, they are winless against the three schools expected to compete for the conference tourney title (including the favorite, New Mexico State).

Well, that’s the roll call for this season. Will any of those teams finally get their moment in the sun?

Surprisingly enough, I think so. Last year it was UC Irvine and Buffalo. This year could be the time to shine for Stony Brook, or IPFW, or High Point, or maybe (after all these years) William and Mary.

One other potential first-timer not on the list is Cal State Bakersfield, which has been a full-fledged D-1 member for only six years. The Roadrunners (20-8, 10-3) are having a nice season in the WAC and could definitely challenge for the league tourney title.

As I’ve said many times before, if any of the aforementioned schools qualify for the NCAAs, they better not be dropped into one of the play-in games. The “First Four” chiefly serves to limit the tournament experience of the automatic qualifiers, which is unfair and asinine. If the NCAA has to have play-in games (it doesn’t), make at-large teams play in all of them.

A team that handles the pressure of a one-bid league tournament and survives to garner an NCAA bid should always be in the real tournament — the main draw. Always.

Good luck to all the dreamers out there.

Verdict on the non-conference results: Not bad

After Saturday’s come-from-behind-then-almost-blowing-it-at-the-end 58-57 victory over Bethune-Cookman, The Citadel is 6-7 overall, with a 5-6 record in non-SoCon matchups.  For the rest of the year, the Bulldogs will only play Southern Conference foes, unless The Citadel receives an unprecedented bid to either the NCAAs or the NIT.  (Unprecedented doesn’t begin to describe that possibility, of course.)

Let’s compare this season’s non-conference results to non-conference games from the 2007-08 campaign…

Last season:

— Four home wins over non-D1 competition, including a near loss to Webber International (66-63); a 61-point loss at South Carolina; a televised beatdown at the hands of Washington State (67-45, and it was a lot worse than that); a 27-point home loss to Southern California (O.J. Mayo’s first college road game!); a 16-point loss in The Palestra to Penn; and a narrow home victory over Charleston Southern.  Nine non-conference games, a 5-4 record, but only 1-4 against Division I competition.

This season:

— Two home wins over non-D1 competition; a 14-point loss at South Carolina; a televised 14-point loss to Michigan State in which The Citadel held its own; a 22-point home loss to Iowa; a 23-point loss at Virginia Commonwealth; a split of two neutral site games in Cancun (loss to Central Arkansas, win over Grambling State); a dismal home loss to UC Davis; a road victory over Charleston Southern; and a one-point home win over Bethune-Cookman.  Eleven non-conference games, a 5-6 record (3-6 against Division I competition).

Not that it’s the resume of a Final Four team or anything, but this season’s non-conference results were much better than those from last year.  Only two of the games could be considered true disappointments (the home losses to Iowa and UC Davis).  Winning a road game of any kind would have bettered last season’s 0-fer away from home, and the Bulldogs already have two (one in conference play) plus a neutral-site win.  I think only having only two non-D1 games (instead of four) is also a plus.

So while last year’s team was 5-7 on this date in 2008, and this year’s team is 6-7, the improvement is obvious.  Last year’s 5-7 start included an 0-3 mark in SoCon play, while this year’s team is currently 1-1 in the league, with a win and a narrow loss, both on the road.  The Citadel is actually safely out of the 300s in the RPI right now (269).  Last year’s team, of course, would only win one more game the rest of the way and finished 6-24 (1-19), with an RPI of 334.

Total wins for The Citadel, last six seasons:  8, 6, 12, 10, 7, 6

This year the Bulldogs already have 6 wins with 18 games remaining (yes, SoCon teams are again playing 20 conference games, which is ridiculous).   According to Ken Pomeroy’s projection system, The Citadel is projected to win 7 of those 18 games.  That would result in 13 wins on the season for the Bulldogs, the most in seven years.  I wouldn’t mind if the team got a little greedier, though.

The next step in the pursuit of respectability comes Thursday at McAlister Field House, when the Bulldogs face a Georgia Southern squad that is already 2-0 in the conference, and which also has a neutral-site victory over Houston.

SoCon hoops is upon us; hide the women and children

I long for a simpler time, when life’s problems were all solved in half-hour increments (allowing for an occasional one-hour special) and conference play in basketball didn’t start until January.  Those days are gone, however, and so it’s time for some SoCon hoops.  Last night Appalachian State kicked off the conference season by beating Furman.  There are two games tonight, College of Charleston-Elon and the game everyone in the nation is awaiting, The Citadel-UNC Greensboro.

This will be the seventeenth time these two non-rivals have faced off.  Sixteen of those appearances have come since UNCG attained Division I status in 1992.  The Citadel won the first four games of the series, but the Spartans have won 11 of the last 12, all of which have come since UNCG entered the Southern Conference (the Spartans began Division I existence in the Big South).  UNCG has had some good teams during that stretch, and The Citadel…has not.  The Citadel has only won at Fleming Gym in Greensboro one time, on its first visit in 1992, losing six straight at UNCG since then.  Overall the Spartans have beaten the Bulldogs eight straight times.

This season UNC-Greensboro must replace Kyle Hines, a 6’8″ bruiser who used The Citadel to enhance his All-Conference credentials, and it’s off to a tough start in doing so.  The Spartans are 1-3, with the one victory over non-Division I opponent Webber International.  UNCG has also lost non-competitive games at UNC Charlotte and North Carolina State, while also losing on the road to Central Arkansas (which beat The Citadel in Cancun last weekend, of course).

UNCG has some ugly offensive numbers so far this season.  It is shooting 39.7% from the field (44.8% eFG) and only 58.2% from the foul line.  Its turnover rate per possession is among the nation’s worst.  Its assist/turnover ratio is abysmal. 

Defensively, it is allowing opponents to shoot 2-pt. shots at a 56.9% clip, which is alarming.  Demetrius Nelson, take heed.  UNCG does appear to rebound the ball fairly well.  Again, with only three games played, warnings about small sample sizes need apply.

Individually, the Spartans are led by Mikko Koivisto, a 6’4″ guard from Finland averaging 15.8 points per game with solid stats across the board.  They employ a nine-man rotation (UNCG has only 10 scholarship players this season).  Ben Stywall, a 6’5″ forward, is the leading rebounder, pulling down 8 boards per game, but he’s not making shots, either from the field or the foul line (10-23 from the stripe). 

I don’t have a sense for how this game may turn out.  Considering how dominant UNCG has been in this series over the past decade, it would be hard to bet against them winning again tonight, but perhaps The Citadel can take advantage of some early-season struggles by the Spartans.  I like The Citadel’s recent trend of low-possession games, and I think that should continue (the Spartans’ games have mostly been played at an average tempo).  Offensively, the Bulldogs need to keep holding onto the ball, waiting for good shot opportunities, get some inside scoring, and take (and make) free throws.  Defensively, The Citadel needs to do a good job guarding the perimeter (especially against Koivisto) and hold its own on the boards.

Ballin’ in the Ballroom

The Citadel went 1-1 over the weekend in the Cancun Challenge, losing on Saturday to Central Arkansas 58-53, but then defeating Grambling State 55-41 on Sunday.  The Bulldogs are now 4-3 on the season, which is pretty good for The Citadel.  Of course, three years ago the Bulldogs started off 6-3, and then lost thirteen consecutive games…

The Citadel lost to UCA because, to put it mildly, the Bulldogs couldn’t shoot straight.  The offensive stats were brutal.  15 for 52 from the field (5-27 from beyond the arc).  18-31 from the line (4-11 in the first half), and that after having such a strong start to the season shooting free throws.  The Bulldogs only scored 19 points in the first half and never could quite catch up.  It’s hard to complete a comeback (The Citadel managed to get within two late, but UCA got it back to four almost immediately on a breakaway slam) when you’re down 10 at the break and there are only 56 possessions in the entire game.

The Citadel only committed three turnovers, and had a good rebounding effort (with lots of offensive boards; of course, you ought to get a lot of offensive rebounds when you miss that many shots).  The defensive stats weren’t great, although they weren’t terrible either.  The Citadel just couldn’t put the ball in the basket, from anywhere on the court.  Maybe the chandeliers distracted the players.

That’s right, chandeliers.  The tournament games were played in a second-floor ballroom with seats for 400 spectators (not that the place was full).  Neither of The Citadel’s games was televised, but I did watch part of another Cancun Challenge game, Drake-New Mexico, which on Sunday night was broadcast on CBS College Sports TV.  It was a rather unusual venue for a basketball game, although not quite at the level of claustrophobic hilarity that defined Deas Hall (the east coast “Thunderdome” is probably my favorite place to have witnessed college hoops, even if it was just a one-season wonder).  While watching the Drake-UNM matchup on TV, I felt strangely disappointed that there weren’t a bunch of different-colored painted lines snaking around and through the court.

The Citadel would rebound from the tough loss to Central Arkansas the next day, beating Grambling in a solid performance.  The game was close until late in the first half, when the Bulldogs went on a 14-3 run over the final 3:23 to take a 10-point lead into the break.  Grambling would not get within nine points for the remainder of the game.  Fans watching this game could have been justified in taking a nap during the second half once the Bulldogs had established their lead, considering the contest’s glacial pace (54 possessions for each team).  The Citadel had its best statistical performance of the season to date defensively, as the Tigers only shot 37% from the field, collected only two offensive rebounds, and turned the ball over 12 times.

Grambling had beaten Morehead State the night before by one point on a last-second tip-in; you have to wonder how much the Tigers had left in the tank for this game.  Of course, The Citadel had played a hard-fought game of its own on Saturday as well.

The Bulldogs got solid contributions from Zach Urbanus (15 points to lead all scorers) and Cameron Wells (the 6’1″ guard grabbed 14 of The Citadel’s 27 total rebounds, and added 10 points of his own).  The offensive efficiency wasn’t bad at all, although The Citadel only shot four free throws in the entire game.  The Bulldogs more than compensated for that by going 12-26 from 3-land, with Urbanus making five from long range and Austin Dahn adding three more.

The other interesting thing about this game from The Citadel’s perspective was that freshman Matt Roberts started instead of Demetrius Nelson.  Roberts only played eight minutes, though, while Nelson played 20, slighly under his average.  That might be something to watch, or it may have just been an experiment.  Maybe Nelson started gazing too intently at the chandeliers before the game started and got dizzy.

All in all, I think Ed Conroy and company are probably satisfied with what they got out of the Cancun Challenge — namely, a nice Thanksgiving weekend trip to a resort, and a chance to play two extra non-conference games, both of which were competitive (instead of one-sided affairs on the winning or losing side) before starting the conference season.  The Bulldogs start that conference season on Thursday night against UNC-Greensboro, the first of two road games in three days (The Citadel travels to Elon on Saturday).  The Bulldogs now have as many victories against Division I opposition as they did all of last season.  Now it’s time to see if this week they can match or exceed their number of conference wins from all of last year (one).

Cancun Challenge matchups (that are actually in Cancun!)

It’s time for the Cancun Challenge to reach its highly anticipated climax.  All the excitement moves to Mexico, where The Citadel will play two games in two days this weekend in pre-determined, non-televised matchups.  On Saturday the Bulldogs play Central Arkansas.  On Sunday, the opponent will be Grambling State.  The games will be played at the Moon Palace Resort in Cancun.  Incidentally, this tournament is run by Triple Crown Sports, the same outfit responsible for the women’s NIT (pre-season and post-season).

Central Arkansas is a school with an enrollment of about 13,000 students.  It’s located in Conway, a city with a population of around 55,000, about 25 miles north of Little Rock.  UCA was an NAIA school for many years, then moved to NCAA Division II, and four years ago began its transition to NCAA Division I.  It’s in year three of that transition, and has a year to go before becoming a full-fledged D-1 member.  Thus, it isn’t eligible for its conference tournament until next season.

That conference would be the Southland.  UCA just completed a football season in which it went 10-2, 7-1 in the league, but it wasn’t recognized as conference champion because the league feared it would lose its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs if its champion was ineligible to compete in the postseason.

There are two other facts about Central Arkansas worth mentioning.  One is that Scottie Pippen went to UCA, where he was a two-time NAIA All-American before winning six NBA titles with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  Pippen actually started his career at UCA as a 6’1″ walk-on (with team manager responsibilities), but then he grew to 6’7″ and the rest is history.  The other thing you need to know about Central Arkansas is that while its men’s teams are called the Bears, the women’s teams are known as the Sugar Bears.

The Citadel and Central Arkansas have never met in hoops.  So far this season UCA is 2-2, with home wins over Bacone (an NAIA school in Muskogee, Oklahoma) and UNC-Greensboro, and road losses to Northwestern and Vanderbilt.  The loss to Northwestern was just horrendous (81-39).  On the other hand, beating UNCG should be more than enough to impress The Citadel, which was swept by the Spartans last season.

UCA returns three starters from last year’s 14-16 squad (which went 4-12 in the Southland) and adds a couple of key players to that mix.  6’6″ Mitch Reuter missed most of last season for the Bears with an injury.  He’s off to a nice start this season, as is Chris Brown, a 6’8″ transfer from Wichita State.  Other players of note for UCA include Marcus Pillow, a 6’0″ guard who leads the team in scoring and minutes played, and Mike Pouncy, a 6’1″ guard who exploded for 26 points against UNC-Greensboro.  Also part of the Bears eight-man regular rotation are a pair of centers, 6’9″, 260 lb. Brian Marks (leading the team in rebounding) and 6’8″ Landrell Brewer.

There is one player from South Carolina on UCA’s roster, the wonderfully named King Cannon, a 6’5″ forward and graduate of York High School who is averaging 13 minutes per game.  Not seeing much action but worth mentioning is 6’1″ sophomore guard Imad Qahwash, who went to high school in Canada but played this summer for the Jordanian national team.  That’s not Michael Jordan’s house team, by the way.

So far this year UCA has not shot the ball particularly well, a carryover from last season when the Bears were among the poorer shooting teams in the country.  Central Arkansas is currently shooting less than 40% from the field and less than 30% from beyond the arc.  UCA shoots only 65.3% from the foul line.  So far this season, UCA’s defensive FG% stats are rather hideous in four games (opponents are shooting better than 50% from the field), but that’s obviously a small sample size.  Last year the Bears were okay defensively.

After its game against The Citadel, the Bears will play on Sunday against South Dakota State.

Grambling State is famous for its football.  Basketball, not so much (although the school does have one famous hoops alum, Willis Reed).  Grambling has been in Division I since 1978 and has never qualified for the NCAA tournament.  Only eleven schools can claim a longer (continuous) drought without an initial tourney appearance.  One of those schools, of course, is The Citadel.  The game on Sunday will be the first between the Tigers and Bulldogs.

In the last 15 years, Grambling has only enjoyed two winning seasons (14-12 in 2005 and 16-12 in 1998).  The Tigers followed up that 1997-98 season with a six-win season and a three-win campaign.  Maybe even more disappointing for a Grambling fan is that over that same time period, only three times have the Tigers had a winning conference record.  Considering that the SWAC annually ranks near or at the bottom of conference RPI ratings, that doesn’t say much for GSU.  Last year Grambling finished with a 7-19 record and an RPI of 328.  In other words, when it comes to hoops, Grambling State and The Citadel are peers.

Grambling’s new coach is Rick Duckett, who has been around.  He’s a UNC grad who had successful stretches as a head coach at the Division II level, and was most recently an assistant to Dave Odom at South Carolina.  He’s probably a good get for the school, but he has his work cut out for him.  In three games so far this season Grambling has lost a close home game to Louisiana Tech and has been blown out in two road games against New Mexico (96-50) and Oklahoma State (91-60).  Duckett wants to employ an up-tempo style, but he may not have the players to do that yet (in the three games the Tigers are averaging a slightly-above-average 72.5 possessions).

Grambling lost three starters from last season and two other key contributors.  Duckett does have Andrew Prestley, a 6’5″ forward who in three games so far this season is putting up a 17-8 line, and JC transfer Ibrahim Kpaka, a 6’4″ guard who is averaging 13 points per game.  Grambling has very little size; the biggest player in its seven-man rotation is 6’7″, 240 lb. Jamal Breaux.  Breaux is the SWAC’s leading returning rebounder and came into this season averaging 52% from the field for his career, but in three games so far this season he is shooting 36% and only collecting 4.3 boards per game.  Grambling as a team is shooting just 33% from the field and an abysmal 55% from the foul line.  Conversely, its opponents are shooting 50% from the field (43% from 3-land).

The day before playing The Citadel, Grambling State takes on Morehead State, another winless team (0-5).

It will be interesting to see how the Bulldogs fare in neutral-site games against teams with at least similar talent levels.  Playing two games in two days will be a good warmup for the Southern Conference tournament (although assuming the Bulldogs might play more than one game in that tourney is always dangerous).  I will be disappointed if The Citadel doesn’t win at least one of these two games.  Central Arkansas is probably a slight favorite, but the Bulldogs likely would get the edge over Grambling.