Highlights from five games at McAlister

I’m going to discuss the actual basketball played by The Citadel over the past week and a half, including some statistics.  Before I do that, though, I’m going to mention some other statistics…about officials.

On Monday night The Citadel hosted Michigan State at McAlister Field House.  It was good of Tom Izzo to honor a commitment to play the game in Charleston (West Virginia decided to buy its way out of a trip), but I’m guessing he did ask for some big-time officials to work the game, just to make sure that the lead referee wasn’t General Rosa’s brother or something.  That’s fine, and as a result the game was officiated by Karl Hess, Jamie Luckie, and Mike Wood.

If you follow college basketball at all, you probably recognize those names, because they are on television all the time, working games from coast to coast.  They’re certainly on TV more than The Citadel (the MSU game will be the only nationally televised game this season to feature the Bulldogs). 

Mike Wood has actually worked five games in Charleston so far this season, a bit of an oddity.  He called three games at the Charleston Classic, and then worked the Thursday night game between Davidson and The Citadel.  Wood has called two games involving Davidson and two involving Penn State, and all four games were played in Charleston.  He probably did a lot of Christmas shopping on King Street, but he didn’t do any the weekend between the Davidson and MSU games. 

No, on the Saturday after the Davidson game Wood worked the Arkansas Pine Bluff-Michigan game in Ann Arbor; he then flew to Tallahassee to call the Florida International-Florida State game on Sunday before venturing back to Charleston.  The game between the Spartans and Bulldogs was Wood’s 19th of the season.

Wood actually hasn’t worked as many games as either of his Monday night colleagues.  Both Karl Hess and Jamie Luckie were working their 21st game of the season that night.  Hess had been in Washington, DC, on Sunday, calling Villanova-Maryland; the game in Charleston was his fourth in four days and his seventh in eight days.  However, Luckie had actually been a touch busier, as he was calling his tenth game in eleven days.  Luckie had been in Blacksburg on Sunday to call Georgia-Virginia Tech.

In terms of number of games officiated, the contrast between those three officials and the trio who worked the game on Saturday between Georgia Southern and The Citadel is stark.  Bill Cheek, John Corio, and Robert Robinson combined have worked only eleven games, just more than half of the total worked by Luckie (and Hess) alone.

This leads me to mention the difference in officiating in lower-echelon conferences between games played on weekdays and those on weekends.  During the week, there aren’t as many games played every night, because there are five days in which most schools will play just once.  However, on weekends there are obviously just two days, and most schools play on either Saturday or Sunday.  

The big-time officials follow the money, naturally, and the BCS leagues have the most money, so guys like Hess and Wood will work ACC or Big East games during the weekend, leaving lower-profile officials for leagues like the SoCon or the Big South.  On weeknights, it’s different; you might see one of those guys or some other TV-star ref working in the smaller conferences, because there aren’t as many games in the larger conferences on that particular night.

The quality of officiating in leagues like the Southern Conference is thus wildly variable, depending on what day a game is played.  I think this is a problem.  I don’t believe it’s a good idea for some of these guys to work so many games, either, although I can’t really fault them for doing so — they’re independent contractors, trying to make a living. 

What I would like to see is a system where a league like the SoCon can count on at least one quality veteran ref for all of its games.  This would probably mean the NCAA would have to get involved, which I realize wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, but ultimately I think there needs to be an adjustment made in the way officials are assigned to contests. 

The first game in the recent five-game homestand for The Citadel was a 69-37 pummeling of UVA-Wise, an NAIA school that was no match for the Bulldogs.  The game didn’t really do much for The Citadel, although it’s a win, and every win counts.  The defense was excellent throughout; the offense was okay but not great.  Not much else to say about that game, really.

The next night, The Citadel defeated Central Connecticut State 67-53, pulling away late in the contest.  This was a slowly-paced game (CCSU had only 53 possessions) in which the Blue Devils played zone and dared the Bulldogs to beat them from outside.  CCSU actually led at halftime, but the strategy couldn’t hold up for 40 minutes. 

Zach Urbanus was 7-13 from beyond the arc, and Cosmo Morabbi added four three-pointers of his own.  Cameron Wells had nine assists against only one turnover.  Statistically, the defense for the Bulldogs was average; perhaps playing the second game of a back-to-backer was an issue.  The Citadel also got lucky (or rather, CCSU was unlucky) in that Devil starting guard Shemik Thompson was injured and unable to play.

On Saturday, The Citadel got blitzed by a barrage of three-pointers by Davidson and lost, 74-61.  The Wildcats scored 74 points in only 61 possessions, which isn’t easy to do, but then again converting 15 three-pointers during a game isn’t easy to do either.  Six of those shots from beyond the arc came from William Archambault, who two nights later against the College of Charleston would go 0-5 from three-point land.  Against The Citadel, Davidson shot 56% from outside the line; against the Cougars the Wildcats were 4-24. 

I thought The Citadel didn’t defend that badly along the perimeter, but Davidson made its shots anyway.  That kind of thing happens sometimes, and you just hope that if it happens to your team, that the squad is good enough to hang on against the onslaught and survive.  Michigan State faced something similar in the early going against the Bulldogs (when five different players hit three-pointers before the first TV timeout), but MSU’s clear physical superiority eventually won out.  The Citadel doesn’t have the luxury of a margin for error, though.

Georgia Southern is rebuilding under new coach Charlton Young, and he’s got a bit of a job to do.  GSU has little size (at least, among its regulars in the rotation) and doesn’t shoot well from outside.  Thus, Young and the Eagles try to scramble the game.  However, against The Citadel all that scrambling resulted in only eight turnovers by the Bulldogs.  The Citadel ran its offense well, got plenty of open looks from outside and was 10-22 from three-land.  The Eagles, on the other hand, committed twenty turnovers and made only three shots from beyond the arc.

None of those made three-pointers for The Citadel came from Joe Wolfinger, as the 7-footer seemed out of place in the game and only played eleven minutes.  Another interesting move in the game was to bring Austin Dahn and Bryan Streeter off the bench.  This decision seemed to work, particularly for Dahn, who played fewer minutes than his norm but was more effective offensively.  Both players against came off the bench against Michigan State, too (with Cosmo Morabbi and Matt Clark starting).

As a starter, Dahn is 5-32 from 3-point land.  In two games as a sub, he is 4-9.  Sample size and all that, but if Dahn comes out of long shooting slump, The Citadel is a much better team, one that will be very hard for SoCon opponents to handle from an offensive perspective.

The final game of the homestand (not counting the exhibition game against Allen on Dec. 16) was the much-anticipated clash with Michigan State, live and in color on ESPNU (and in HD, unless you have DirecTV).  I was glad to see the crowd in full voice for the game, with a healthy contingent of the corps present and creating havoc.  I think most of the MSU players got a kick out of the atmosphere (Izzo certainly did).  The TV announcers seemed to enjoy working the game, too (Mark Gottfried referred to people “hanging from the rafters” at least three times).

Tangent:  I wish that type of atmosphere was the norm, or at least close to the norm, at McAlister.  The key to it being so, of course, is the corps of cadets.  There is always a hardy group of cadets at home games, often patrolling one of the baselines, but there aren’t enough of them.  As someone who regularly attended basketball games while a cadet, I find this somewhat frustrating. 

When I was in school, the cadets usually at the games were either A) football/baseball players, B) all-around sports fans (not many of those at The Citadel), and C) native New Yorkers.   Okay, that last one is a semi-exaggeration, but there were several guys from points north who had grown up on college basketball (rooting for the likes of Iona or Seton Hall) and enjoyed getting a “fix” at McAlister.  They were world-class hecklers, too.  No opponent was ever safe at a shootaround, that’s for sure.

One cool thing that happened at the Davidson game was that one of the trainers gave away some old warmups to the cadets assembled along the baseline.  I thought that was a nice gesture. 

I would like for someone (administration, leadership within the corps, whoever) to come up with a way to ensure that at least one-fourth of the cadets attend every home game.  Really, it should be more than that, but I’ll settle for one-fourth right now.

The Citadel got off to the aforementioned hot start against the Spartans and finished 12-20 from beyond the arc.  Unfortunately, the Bulldogs were only 7-29 inside the arc, which tells you which team dominated the paint (and the glass; MSU outrebounded The Citadel 35-16).  The Spartans also took 19 more free throws than the Bulldogs (two of those were by Derrick Nix, who went 0-2 and is now an almost impossible 1-19 from the free throw line for the season).

A few odds and ends, observations, etc.:

— Number of possessions for the five games, in order:  67, 55, 66, 61, 57.  Considering that the UVA-Wise game (67 possessions) was a blowout, and that the Davidson game (66) was one in which The Citadel had to increase the number of possessions because it was trailing, I think the team’s pace of play is just about where it needs to be.  Fewer than ten teams nationally play at a slower tempo. 

— After 11 games, The Citadel is 6-5.  After 11 games last season, The Citadel was 5-6.  Incidentally, Michigan State was the eleventh game in both seasons.

— I think it’s fairly clear after eleven games that Joe Wolfinger isn’t going to be a “like for like” substitute for Demetrius Nelson.  Just some raw stats from the first nine games against Division I opponents:  Wolfinger has 84 shot attempts, with 33 coming from beyond the arc, and 18 free throw attempts, while Nelson had 62 shot attempts, none of them from 3-land, and 33 free throw attempts.  Wolfinger has 52 rebounds (15 offensive) and 13 turnovers, while Nelson had 42 rebounds (16 offensive) and 19 turnovers.

Nelson got better as the season progressed (and also started taking more shots), and Wolfinger certainly has the potential to do so as well.  I think the above stats show that he needs to do a slightly better job grabbing offensive boards, and part of that has to do with shot selection — namely, his. 

When Wolfinger is shooting the three, The Citadel’s tallest player isn’t under the basket to grab an offensive rebound.  He’s obviously an excellent shooter for his size, but he probably needs to be a bit more judicious about when to shoot.  He also is going to have lots of chances to pass out of the post and pick up assists as the season goes on; he only has two assists so far. 

There is definitely something to be said, however, about having a big man who is capable of having a big night from three-land.  It’s disorienting (and sometimes disheartening) for an opponent when he converts those jumpers, and also opens up a lot of things for the other offensive players. 

— Twelve different players have seen significant time in at least one game this season.  Bo Holston followed up a DNP against Davidson with 20+ minute performances against both Georgia Southern and Michigan State.  Mike Groselle has looked very good in spot duty, but is currently struggling with a bad ankle, which just means he could play quarterback for The Citadel.  Ben Cherry and Daniel Eykyn have both had their moments, as has the Midwest City Masked Man, Harrison Dupont.

Basically, if you’re in uniform, be ready for action, because you never know when Ed Conroy is going to wave you into the game.  I guess there is a reason the Bulldogs have so many players on the roster…

— The Citadel is shooting 37.9% from 3-point land, currently second-best in the conference and in the top 70 nationally.  The Bulldogs average only 10.8 turnovers per game, 11th-best in the country, although part of that is due to a lack of possessions.  However, The Citadel’s turnover rate is still solid, as is its assist-to-turnover ratio and assist-to-made-basket ratio (top 75 overall in all three statistics). 

The Citadel commits just 14.4 fouls per game, which is in the top 10 nationally (and was even better before being called for 18 fouls against Michigan State; in that game Cosmo Morabbi was a very unlucky foul magnet).

What are things that need improvement?  Three point defense, for one.  Davidson wasn’t the only team to make more than its fair share of three-pointers against the Bulldogs; at 39.5% against, The Citadel is in the bottom 50 nationally in that category.  The Bulldogs also need to improve their rebounding (particularly on the offensive glass) and force a few more turnovers, as opponents are averaging only 12.1 per game (although part of that, again, is a function of tempo).

Now it’s time for the players to win the game called Exam Week.

The NCAA attacks its own (again)

On Thursday afternoon the NCAA issued a press release entitled “Executive Committee adopts wagering policy”.  Included was the following statement:

“No predetermined or non-predetermined session of an NCAA championship may be conducted in a state with legal wagering that is based upon single-game betting (high school, college or professional) in a sport in which the NCAA conducts a championship.”

Single-game betting is defined as wagering that involves either a money line or point-spread wager. The recommended policy would not apply to those states that may offer parlay betting, lottery tickets or sports pools/pull tabs.

What this apparently means is that effective immediately, schools in Delaware and Nevada will no longer be able to host any postseason NCAA events.  This includes even those events for which they would have qualified to host by merit.

The policy change will result in the University of Delaware not being able to host an FCS playoff game.  Also affected in that state is Wesley College, which has an excellent football program at the Division III level.  Delaware is a perennial FCS power that has hosted 22 postseason football games, while Wesley has hosted eight Division III playoff games.  The Blue Hens and Wolverines have each hosted playoff games as recently as 2007. 

The University of Nevada-Reno hosted a skiing regional in March and has the capability of hosting other regionals in sports like volleyball, basketball, and baseball.  The opportunity to host those regionals is now off the table for that school (as it is for UNLV). 

Faring a little better than Nevada and Delaware were the state schools in Montana.  There was a fear that the NCAA’s stance would also prohibit events from being held in that state, but the new policy allows sports pools (as opposed to single-game betting), so Montana avoided getting the Nevada/Delaware “treatment”.  This led to a predictably mealy-mouthed response from the Montana state attorney general:

“I applaud the NCAA for coming to a commonsense conclusion that preserves Montana’s right to host playoff and tournament games,” Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said in a prepared statement. “Montana wholeheartedly supports its student athletes. Along with the NCAA, we remain committed to protecting the integrity of collegiate sports.”

What he is really applauding, of course, is that part about Montana (or Montana State) still getting to host playoff games.  He surely can’t serious in supporting the NCAA’s “commonsense conclusion”, since there isn’t anything sensible about it.

Look, I understand the NCAA’s concern about this issue.  There are two points, though, that need to be made.

1)  It isn’t the fault of the schools.  The colleges and universities in Nevada and Delaware have nothing to do with the gambling laws in those states, and can’t do anything about those laws anyway.  Why punish the student-athletes and institutions for something over which they have no control?

The NCAA presumably is hoping that this new policy will cause the politicians in the state of Delaware to reverse themselves (I can’t imagine even the NCAA thinks things will change in Nevada), but the organization has to know that losing an occasional playoff game is not going to be enough to stop the state from instituting single-game betting.  The legislation passed easily in both houses of the Delaware state legislature.  The state is hoping to generate more than $50 million in revenue from sports betting in the first year of implementation alone.  I’m afraid a playoff game against Southern Illinois or Northern Iowa isn’t going to make that kind of cash.

A cynic might think that the NCAA is punishing its member schools in the states because, well, they are the only entities that the NCAA can punish.  It’s like a version of the old Jerry Tarkanian line, “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky it gave Cleveland State two more years of probation.”

2)  There have been plenty of schools with gambling scandals from states with no state-sponsored gambling.  Toledo, Northwestern, Florida, Maryland, Rhode Island, Maine, and Arizona State  (just to name a few) all had serious gambling incidents involving student-athletes just in the last two decades.  What Delaware is going to do won’t matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.

That is what really upset Nevada-Reno director of athletics Cary Groth.  As she put it:

“It’s outrageous,” Groth said. “Having worked in a non-betting state, in Illinois, it was more of an issue for us to monitor betting for our student-athletes than it is here at Nevada because there’s so much more awareness (here)…All anybody has to do is get on the Internet, or pick up the phone, to place a bet (anywhere in the U.S.).”

Groth added something else, just to stir the pot a little more:

“The NCAA has become such a monopoly on so many things, it’s not right,” Groth said, adding all states affected by the ban are home to non-Bowl Championship Series schools.

You knew that would come up, didn’t you?  Again, cynicism rears its ugly (but often intelligent) head.

I think another hot-button issue (at least, hot-button to the NCAA) is going to be affected by this policy, too.  The “non-predetermined” aspect of the ban will surely come to the attention of (among others) the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP.  As Tom Yeager, commissioner of the CAA, put it in an article written three weeks ago about the Delaware situation:

[Yeager compared] the wagering policy to the NCAA’s stance on South Carolina and Mississippi still flying the Confederate flag.The NCAA allows schools in those states to earn the right to host an NCAA championship event. Clemson, in South Carolina, hosted a recent baseball playoff. But the state would not be awarded a predetermined host role for a larger event, such as an NCAA basketball tournament regional.

Yeager argued that the wagering policy should not be any more stern.

“We continue to support the stand the NCAA has taken but also recognize that member institutions really aren’t part of a fight and shouldn’t be disadvantaged when having earned the right to host [NCAA] games on their campuses,” Yeager said.

It’s hard to argue with Yeager’s last point in particular (member institutions are just bystanders when it comes to these issues).  It’s also not unreasonable to suggest that if the NCAA is going to ban hosting even when merited for the likes of Delaware State or UNLV, the same principle presumably should apply to Mississippi State or Clemson.  The fact that there are four BCS schools in those two states may or may not be a factor.

You can bet there will be more to come on that front.

There are other aspects of this issue that need to be addressed (will the NCAA continue to sanction the Las Vegas Bowl?), but the bottom line is that here again we have an NCAA policy that will mostly, if not entirely, only affect its member institutions and its student-athletes in a negative manner.  I’m not sure who in the organization thought it was a good idea.  I only hope that, like the Andy Oliver case, it comes back to bite the NCAA in a major way.

Thinking big can be small-minded

Georgia Southern University recently published a commissioned report entitled “Football Reclassification Analysis” (although dated June 12, 2009, it wasn’t released to the public until July 30).  You can download the full report and appendices here.  Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the specific issue of reclassification from FCS to FBS, there is still a lot of interesting information in the report.  (The report, incidentally, is 113 pages long.)

I’m going to make a few observations and comments based on some of the issues raised in this report and in other places, but first I’m going to give a brief history of Georgia Southern football, trying to show at least in part why reclassification is such a burning issue for that school.   I’m also going to do some comparing and contrasting with other schools, including The Citadel, but also larger FBS institutions from the ACC and SEC.

Georgia Southern was a sleepy little teacher’s college for most of its history (the school was founded in 1907).  Its football program had been established as a varsity sport in 1924, but was suspended during World War II.  By the early 1980s, the school had increased in size and there was a groundswell of local and institutional support for reinstating football.  To re-start the program, the school hired longtime Georgia assistant coach Erk Russell.  He was, to say the least, a great hire.

Russell took the football program from club status to I-AA, fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1, with three national titles, the last of which came during his final season as coach, when the Eagles were 15-0.  Those numbers, while very impressive, don’t begin to describe his impact on the school.  Stories abound about him (how ‘Beautiful Eagle Creek’ became so beautiful is my personal favorite).  He was already something of a legend before he even took the job, as this 1981 article from Sports Illustrated suggests.  Tony Barnhart put it best when he wrote that “with the possible exception of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro.”

Tangent:  amazingly and unjustifiably, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was only a head coach for eight seasons, and that organization requires a minimum of ten years for eligibility.  What makes his absence worse is that just this year, former Marshall coach Jim Donnan was inducted into the Hall.

Donnan only coached six seasons at Marshall (winning one title), but was also the head coach of Georgia for five years, and was thus deemed eligible to be enshrined as a member of the Hall’s “divisional” class, for non I-A schools.  I’m not going to rip Donnan; he also was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in the late 1980s, and deserves credit for that, but he isn’t close to being in Russell’s league as a coach, either on or off the field.  The Hall really needs to make an exception in Russell’s case, not as much for the benefit of his memory, but for its own relevance.

The program that Russell built had staying power, too, despite a revolving door of coaches since his retirement.  GSU has won three additional titles post-Erk, including two under the leadership of the estimable Paul Johnson, the only one of the succeeding coaches to measure up to Russell in the eyes of the Eagle faithful.

Now, 20 years after Russell retired and almost 30 years after he christened a drainage ditch “Beautiful Eagle Creek”, which would become the symbol of the program’s rise, there is a significant group of fans/boosters at the school who want to leave FCS and go “bigtime”, with all the risks involved in that jump.  It’s not like the pot of gold at the end of the FBS rainbow is full, either.  Appendix 1 of the study is a report on reclassification published by the NCAA in 2007.  Included in the report is the following paragraph summing up the benefit of “moving up the ladder” in college football:

Though [there is] evidence of some increase in enrollment diversity, it is far from overwhelming. We conclude that the primary benefit of reclassifying is an unquantifiable perceived increase in prestige.

There you have it.   Prestige.  Moving up is unlikely to provide a monetary benefit (it’s much, much more likely to result in just the opposite).  Increased enrollment, or a change in the type of student enrolling, could result from the move, but there are many different (and better) ways to skin that cat, if you want to skin it.  No, moving up to the FBS ranks is about something else, something almost primal.

I should add that while the push to move to FBS has come with more urgency from some quarters in recent years, the possibility was always in the back of the minds of at least a few individuals from the beginning of the program’s resurrection. Part 6 of the report, a study of facilities, references that the current football stadium (in use since the 1984 season) could eventually be enlarged to seat 75,000 spectators.  That didn’t surprise me, because in 1993 a GSU administrator told me that Paulson Stadium had been designed with that potential level of expansion in mind.

However, the desire of a certain number of supporters to move the program to FBS status has grown in recent years, and it’s not too hard to figure out why.  There are three schools in particular that Eagle fans would probably like the program to emulate — South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall.

The University of South Florida has only existed since 1956, and its football program didn’t start until 1997.  In its first game, USF defeated Kentucky Wesleyan 80-3 before a home crowd of 49,212.  I guess the folks in Tampa were really ready to watch some local college football.  The following week USF played its first road game and suffered its first loss, falling 10-7 to none other than The Citadel.  (The Bulldogs would lose to the Bulls in Tampa the next season, 45-6.)  USF would spend four years at the I-AA level before moving up to I-A, joining Conference USA in 2003 and then the Big East in 2005.  In eight years the program went from non-existent to membership in a BCS conference.

Boise State University was a junior college until 1968, with a very successful football program at that level.  It joined the Big Sky Conference in 1970 and competed in that league until 1996, winning the I-AA national title in 1980.  In 1996 the Broncos moved up to I-A and joined the Big West Conference.  Since 2001, Boise State has been a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).  Of course, the Broncos are best known for their undefeated (13-0) 2006 season, which included a famous overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

In contrast to South Florida and Boise State, Marshall University has actually fielded football teams since the 19th century.  In 1953, the school joined the Mid-American Conference (MAC), only to be later be suspended from that league in 1969 following allegations of 144 recruiting violations in football and basketball.  Then, in 1970, tragedy struck in the form of an airplane crash that killed 75 people, including 45 football players and coaches.

The program began anew, struggling (understandably) even after joining the Southern Conference in 1976.  However, Marshall football began a long stretch of on-field success in the mid-1980s, culminating in two I-AA national titles in the 1990s before moving back to I-A in 1997, where it continued to win consistently for some time (initially as a member of the MAC; it later joined Conference USA), participating in eight bowl games.

You can see why each of these schools might make Georgia Southern fans envious.  South Florida didn’t even have a team until 1997, and it’s in a BCS league!  Boise State moved to I-A in 1996, and it’s on TV all the time, playing home games on that crazy smurf turf, and played (and beat) Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl!  Marshall was in the Southern Conference, just like Georgia Southern, and went big time and won!  Given all that (plus the fact GSU is located in an area rich with football talent, unlike Boise State and Marshall), why can’t Georgia Southern be like those schools?

The short answer is that it can’t be like those schools because, well, it just isn’t quite enough like them — at least in some critical facets needed for success in moving up to I-A.  Let’s look at some of the things discussed in the report:

— Student enrollment at Georgia Southern (undergraduate and graduate) is listed at 17,764.  This would be on the lower end in the FBS ranks, although not overly so.  In the Sun Belt Conference (the league the report uses most often for program comparisons), Georgia Southern’s enrollment would rank 7th out of 10 schools.

Around the region, the schools in the state of Florida lead the way in student enrollment.  The University of Florida has 51,913 students.  Central Florida has 50,254, while South Florida, Florida State, and Florida International all have 38,000+.  No other school in the southeast has as many students.

— Georgia Southern’s alumni base would be a potential problem.  While second in the Southern Conference, with an estimated 75,000 living alumni, GSU would rank at or near the bottom of almost every FBS conference in this aspect.  This is important because alums are where most of your donors come from, and it is exacerbated in GSU’s case because of the school’s history of being primarily a teacher’s college until the last 25 years or so.  Basically, a lot of those 75,000 alums don’t have that much money.  Another thing Georgia Southern doesn’t have going for it in this regard is a law school or medical school that would presumably put out some well-heeled grads.

Maryland has an estimated 480,000 living alumni, easily the most among the schools in the conferences evaluated in the report.  Florida, with 330,000, is second, ahead of Florida State (285,551).  Three other schools (North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina) are in the 250,000-265,000 range, almost 50,000 ahead of the school with the next largest alumni base.

Tangent:  in part to check the accuracy of the report, I asked The Citadel’s External Affairs Office for its best estimate of the military college’s number of living alumni.  As of July 30, the number was 32,961.  GSU’s report had The Citadel listed as having 32,000 living alums, good enough.  The representative from External Affairs pointed out to me that “wiggle room” was needed with these types of estimates, since it is hard to keep track of all alumni, living and dead.

She was quite correct about that, as the latest edition of The Citadel’s Alumni News magazine demonstrated.  Each edition lists the oldest living alums of the school, but the spring publication noted that the two oldest living alumni, as listed in the previous issue, were actually both deceased — one of them having died in 1988.  The actual oldest living alumnus of The Citadel is a doctor in Augusta who reportedly still practices medicine at the age of 99, having delivered over 15,000 babies during his career.  Yowza.  Okay, back to football.

— Georgia Southern’s budget for athletics in FY2008 was just over $9 million, and was actually one of the smallest budgets in the Southern Conference.  Furman had the largest budget in the league, at $15 million (just ahead of Appalachian State).  The Citadel actually had a larger budget than GSU.  Obviously a move to FBS would require a significant increase.  According to the report, to achieve a budget that would be average in the Sun Belt, Georgia Southern would have to increase its budget by $5.1 million per year (56%).  Those figures rise to an additional $15.2 million (167%) for an average C-USA budget.

There were seven schools in the SEC with FY2008 budgets in excess of $70 million, led by Florida ($106 million).  No ACC school had an athletic budget that large; Duke (at just under $68 million) came closest.  The only FBS school in the region with a smaller athletic budget than Georgia Southern is Louisiana-Monroe, a school with an identity crisis if there ever was one, having in recent times changed its school name (from Northeast Louisiana to Louisiana-Monroe) and nickname (from Indians to Warhawks).  ULM, with an athletic budget of under $8 million, has never had a winning season at the FBS level since moving up in 1994, which made its 21-14 victory in 2007 over Alabama that much more embarassing for the Crimson Tide.

— To increase its budget, GSU is going to need to expand its base of athletic donors.  We’ve already seen that’s a problem due in part to its relatively small alumni base.  Georgia Southern had 2,110 members of its booster club, and raised around $1 million, in FY2008.  How does that compare to other schools?

Well, on the bright side, GSU has more booster club members than any school in the Sun Belt.  That doesn’t say much for the Sun Belt, though, because GSU would rank last in the ACC and SEC, and close to last in C-USA.  There are two schools in the SoCon with more donors.  Appalachian State is one of them, and the other is…The Citadel.  As of 2008 there were approximately 3,000 members of The Citadel Brigadier Foundation.  Wofford and Elon have almost as many boosters as GSU.  If you combined the total number of living alumni from The Citadel, Wofford, and Elon, that number would still not equal the total living alumni from Georgia Southern.  You see the problem.

The number of athletic donors by school varies widely across the region, even at the ACC/SEC level, in part because some schools require joining a booster club as a prerequisite to buying season tickets.  That said, Clemson’s 23,000+ strong donor list is very impressive.  North Carolina State (20,256) also has a sizeable booster club.  On the SEC side of things, only the Mississippi schools and Vanderbilt have fewer than 10,000 booster club members.  None of the non-BCS schools in the region can compare, with the exception of East Carolina (13,483).  Florida Atlantic has 500 athletic donors.

— The report compared home attendance for the 2007 season, which I found puzzling (it should have been a five-year average or something of that nature).  Also, I am referring to these figures as 2007 attendance numbers because that is what they are, not from 2008 as stated in the report.  The review of attendance figures is one of the weakest sections in the document.

Based on these 2007 numbers, however, GSU would have work to do, ranking in the middle of a listing that includes Sun Belt schools and behind every institution in the ACC, SEC, and C-USA (even Duke and UAB).  It’s actually worse than that, though.

From the report:  “It is important to note that reported attendance is not paid attendance…average paid admission for Georgia Southern home football games was approximately 9,500…”

Um, wow.  Students don’t have to pay to attend GSU football games, and so when you take them out of the mix, along with gameday personnel and comps, basically only half of the people at Paulson on a given Saturday actually paid to go to the game.

— The population base around Statesboro is not a natural for revenue generation, for several reasons.  One is that there simply isn’t that big a base.  GSU has fewer people living within a 50-mile radius of its campus than any school in the Southern Conference, and would rank near the bottom of most other leagues.  That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, though.  Many of the SEC schools, for example, are located in less-dense population areas.

A bigger problem, however, is that GSU’s market is demonstrably younger than most areas.  According to the report, the median age of the area around Georgia Southern is 31.7, which is the lowest such figure among every school surveyed for the report except UT-El Paso.  The Citadel has the second-youngest demographic area in the SoCon, but that market’s median age is 36.5, markedly higher than GSU’s.  This age differential has a lot to do with another comparison outlined in the report, Household Effective Buying Income.  Georgia Southern’s market ranks last in the SoCon in HEBI (at $32,272), and would be near the bottom of FBS conferences in the region.

In looking at the figures for this category, I noticed that the schools in the regions with the highest median age (in other words, those that skewed older) were either located in Florida or were within 50 miles of at least part of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Marshall, and Clemson).

— The corporate base around Georgia Southern is also small, ranking last in the SoCon (488 corporations within a 50-mile radius).  The Citadel, somewhat surprisingly, ranks next-to-last in the league (747) despite its Charleston location.  GSU would rank near the bottom of FBS in this category.  The lack of corporate entities hinders GSU’s (and The Citadel’s, for that matter) ability to sell advertising, sponsorships, PSLs and suites, naming rights, etc.

— Earlier I mentioned that Georgia Southern would have to increase its athletic budget if it moved to FBS.  One of the considerations there is that to comply with Title IX, GSU would have to add women’s scholarships to match the extra 22 scholarships allocated to football (as FCS squads can only have 63 schollies, not the 85-scholarship limit of FBS schools).  So whatever monies are spent for football essentially would have to be doubled for gender equity purposes (Georgia Southern is not in a position to cut another men’s sport).  GSU would add a women’s golf team, and increase expenditures for women’s sports across the board (presumably including the women’s swim team, which just eyeballing the numbers appears woefully underfunded).

The report concluded that the minimum yearly operating costs for Georgia Southern to operate an FBS program would be a little over $14 million, about a 40% increase over the current budget, but that’s not even taking into account the necessary capital improvements that would have to be made.  From the executive summary:

…a total capital expenditure of $84,374,391 is estimated, and, if all bonded, would represent an annual facilities cost of $5,484,154 plus $812,500 in additional annual maintenance costs.

That’s a whole lot of money that would need to be raised by a school with a relatively undersized booster club and a small alumni base, located in a region without a lot of people (and where the people that are there don’t have on average a great deal of disposable income), and with few corporations around to provide a quick influx of serious cash.

Let’s go back to South Florida, Boise State, and Marshall, and compare them to Georgia Southern.

— South Florida has a student enrollment of 42,785, and an alumni base of 180,000.  Over 40,000 people showed up to watch the football team play its first game ever (its 2007 average attendance:  53,170).  It doesn’t have that big a booster club (3,260 donors), but has a significant corporate base (3,896).  USF could probably sell most of its sponsor packages even if it were limited to the local strip clubs in Tampa.  The Bulls had an FY2008 athletic budget of over $32 million.

Georgia Southern shares a time zone with South Florida, but quite honestly there is little else the two schools have in common.

— Boise State is a school of a similar size to GSU, both in student enrollment (slightly larger) and alumni base (slightly smaller).  Boise State’s athletic budget of $26.55 million (FY2009) dwarfs Georgia Southern’s; it spends about the same amount of money on its football program as GSU spends on its entire athletic budget.  Boise has a huge advantage in its corporate base, with lots of tech, agricultural, mining, and timber companies (including Simplot, Micron, Boise Cascade, and Albertsons).  This probably helps account for its ability to spend that kind of money for athletics and its ability to raise money  for its athletic facilities.  BSU has a waiting list for football season tickets and over 4,000 members in its booster club.

It’s hard to compare a school in a part of the country so different than that of GSU, but I think it would be safe to say that Boise State has had an advantage over Georgia Southern as far as having money to spend on its program is concerned (including key capital projects).  BSU also had about a 20-year head start on GSU in terms of trying to move up to Division I-A.  The Broncos also got a little lucky, in my opinion — particularly with the expansion, and then contraction, of the original WAC.  The timing was just right for Boise State to move into the decimated WAC after the split.

The other thing going for Boise State is that, as far as FBS football is concerned, it’s the only game in town for miles around.  There is no FBS school within 300 miles of Boise State (and there is no major professional sports franchise in the area, either).  Boise, particularly with its corporate presence, is just large enough of a metro area to provide the resources needed for the school to successfully compete at the FBS level, especially given the lack of local (or even regional) competition.  In contrast, there are numerous college football programs in a 300-mile radius around Georgia Southern, including Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Florida State, and Auburn, plus NFL franchises in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Jacksonville.

— Marshall’s student enrollment is a bit larger than Georgia Southern’s.  Its football attendance is larger (the Thundering Herd averaged over 24,000 fans in 2007).  Its population base is larger and notably older (by about eight years in median age).  Marshall has an athletic budget of over $21 million.  MU has 2,900 booster club members; in 2008, its booster club raised $1.65 million (as compared to GSU’s $950,000).

I’ll say this, too.  Marshall had an enormous amount of success in the period in which it transitioned from I-AA to I-A, with multiple conference titles in both the Southern Conference and the MAC (although someone needs to tell the sports information department that the Thundering Herd did not win the SoCon in 1992, as stated in its media guide; Marshall won the national title that year, but The Citadel won the league crown).

My perception of Marshall is that at least at one time it had one of the more passionate fan bases around, one that “traveled well”, as the saying goes.  I often wondered, though, how sustainable its success would be as it moved further up the football ladder.  There are limitations to a football program from a non-flagship school based in Huntington, West Virginia.  Since moving to C-USA, Marshall has endured four consecutive losing seasons, and perhaps more ominously has not had a winning record to date in conference play.

This recent lack of success may have been covered up just a bit by a movie, but the school administration has to be concerned.  Marshall’s booster club donations dropped by 22% this past year.  The economy undoubtedly played a large role in that, but once things start going downhill, it can be hard to stop the rush down the tubes.  Marshall may have won a lot of games in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that won’t prevent it from ultimately becoming another who-cares FBS program with no notice on a national level if it doesn’t get back to winning, and soon.

When you digest all that information, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than Georgia Southern should stay right where it is, at the FCS level.  I can understand why some GSU fans would be less than satisfied with the program’s current status, though.    There are several things that feed this frustration:

— One factor is the “small time” perception of FCS football, exemplified by this rather silly piece of commentary by New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy, who is upset that his alma mater, Wisconsin, is playing Wofford this season.  Bondy is apparently unaware that Wisconsin could have (and should have) lost last season to an FCS school (Cal Poly) and was tied at halftime two years ago with one of Wofford’s fellow SoCon brethren (The Citadel).  It’s usually hard to take seriously a writer for a New York City tabloid when college football is the subject (or perhaps when anything is the subject), but that’s the kind of thing that’s out there.  (Bondy also seems annoyed at having to pay $41 for a ticket, but that isn’t too surprising a price for a BCS home game.  I tend to share his annoyance on that front, however.  North Carolina is charging $50 for single-game tickets for contests against The Citadel and Georgia Southern this season.)

— Then there is the disparity in schools within the Southern Conference itself, a historic problem for a league that has always been a grab-bag of regional colleges and universities, some of which have very little in common with each other.  If you are a Georgia Southern fan, it may be hard to get enthused about regularly playing small schools like The Citadel or Wofford as opposed to “like” institutions such as Appalachian State (or Marshall, back when it was still in the league).  There is also the complaint (groundless, in my view) that the conference has drifted more into the small and/or private school arena, particularly with the recent admission of Samford (at the expense of, say, Coastal Carolina).

I can understand some of that angst.  GSU fans want the conference to go in the direction that GSU wants to go.  The thing is, though, that the reverse is also true.  It can be very frustrating to be a supporter of a school like The Citadel and have to compete on a yearly basis in the conference with much larger schools with very different missions, and it has been that way for decades.  This is a league that as recently as the 1960s still had schools like West Virginia and Virginia Tech as members.  East Carolina was in the SoCon until 1976 (not to mention all the ACC/SEC schools that were in the league in the first half of the 20th century).

The Southern Conference was the ideal spot for Georgia Southern when it needed a place to land.  The conference hasn’t really changed.  Whether Georgia Southern’s priorities and expectations have changed or not is another matter.

— Another thing that may be causing frustration (or perhaps concern) is that in 2010 there will be another GSU playing FCS football, namely Georgia State, which has received a surprising amount of publicity for its entry into the football world (thanks to hiring Bill Curry, I believe).  Again, you have the “prestige” issue in play.  Georgia Southern fans want to be in the same galaxy with Georgia and Georgia Tech, not Georgia State.

What’s amazing (at least to me) is that Georgia State isn’t alone in starting a football program right now.  It won’t even be the only new program in the Colonial Athletic Association, as Old Dominion will begin play this fall.  Also soon to be lacing up the ol’ pigskin:  South Alabama (which plans on playing in the Sun Belt as an FBS program), UT-San Antonio (which has hired Larry Coker and also plans to eventually play at the FBS level), and UNC Charlotte.

South Alabama has already lined up games against Tennessee, Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Kent State, and Navy, according to this article by ESPN writer Ivan Maisel.

Tangent:  one part of the reclassification report I am dubious about is its estimate of how much money “guarantee” games would bring to the program.  Page 5-44 of the report outlines potential guarantees ranging between $150,000 and $500,000, but as Maisel’s article notes, much larger sums of money are being thrown around for a lot of these types of games (Tennessee will pay South Alabama $850,000 to come to Knoxville in 2013).  I think the report was a little too conservative in that section.

Given the current state of the economy, I was expecting less expansion of athletic programs and more news along the lines of Centenary dropping to Division III (the linked article comes complete with a couple of semi-nasty quotes from Tim Brando, of all people).

— You also have various conspiracy theories floating around that the current Georgia Southern administration adamantly opposes any move to FBS, and may even prefer to “dial down” athletics in general at the school.  There are some particularly strident fans who suggest that the current administrators have been less than competent.  These sentiments seep out in various ways, including message boards and, somewhat amusingly, Wikipedia.  The current wiki entry for Paulson Stadium includes the following paragraph:

Constructed at a cost of $4.7 million, the stadium was designed with two expansion phases in mind. The first would increase the capacity to approximately 35,000, while the final phase would expand seating to 50,000. However, because of the lack of effort on the part of school leadership, neither of these additions have been implemented. Permanent light fixtures were added prior to the 1994 season.

Of course, the report commissioned by GSU isn’t for these types of fans, because they wouldn’t believe anything in it anyway unless it said “GSU MUST MOVE UP TO FBS NOW!!” on the cover page.

Incidentally, The Citadel also studied whether or not it should move up to the FBS level  — in 1995.  At that time, a new rule had been enacted by the NCAA that required major-college teams to win six games against I-A competition in order to qualify for a bowl bid.  The rule meant that playing I-AA schools was counterproductive for the bigger schools.  The Citadel lost potential guarantee games against LSU and Clemson as a result, games the military college needed to balance its budget.

However, the school didn’t really want to leave I-AA, and when the NCAA changed the bowl-qualification rules to allow one victory against a I-AA school to count towards six bowl-worthy wins, The Citadel elected to stay right where it was.

So, to sum up…Georgia Southern has a winning tradition and a loyal fanbase.  That’s not enough to make a move to FBS, though.  You need to have the right resources to build and maintain an FBS program (that’s a polite way of saying you need a lot of cash, both on hand and in the future).  In 2009, Georgia Southern simply doesn’t have enough going for it to develop those resources, no matter how hard it squeezes the proverbial turnip.  Maybe down the road it will have the ability to successfully move up to that level, but for right now its fans should enjoy what they already have.

Bubbling Basketball, 3/14

There is a lot more uncertainty than usual on the Saturday morning before Selection Sunday.  Part of that is due to several surprise conference tournament finalists, and part of it is due to a more-mediocre-than-normal bubble.  Combine that with the traditional difficulty of evaluating mid-majors against middle-of-the-road majors and you have a bit of a mess.

Locks by conference:

ACC (6):  North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Florida State, Clemson, Boston College
Pac-10 (4):  Washington, UCLA, Arizona State, California
Big East (7):  Pittsburgh, Louisville, Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse, Marquette, West Virginia
SEC (2):  LSU, Tennessee
Big 10 (4):  Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State
Big XII (5)  Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma State
Mountain West (2):  Utah, Brigham Young
Other conferences (3):  Memphis, Xavier, Butler

How things shape up going into Saturday’s action…

  • The Atlantic-10 is likely a three-bid league, with today’s Temple-Duquesne winner joining Xavier and (probably) Dayton in the field.  Dayton is not quite a lock, but a lot of things would have to happen for the Flyers not to make the NCAAs.  Temple does not have enough to get an at-large bid, despite last night’s win over Xavier.  It’s a win-and-you’re-in situation for the Owls and Dukes.
  • Utah State survived New Mexico State last night and now must beat Nevada in Reno to grab the WAC’s automatic bid.  I don’t think an at-large will be available for the Aggies, although it would be tough for the committee to leave out a team with 29 wins.
  • Tulsa must beat Memphis and garner the automatic bid for C-USA if it hopes to make the NCAAs.  An at-large bid is not a realistic option for the Golden Hurricane.
  • Likewise, Baylor must beat Missouri in the Big XII final to grab a spot and steal a bid from an at-large contender.
  • Southern California will have a shot at an at-large bid if it loses the Pac-10 final to Arizona State, but I think the Trojans have to win that game.  The run to the final has probably moved Southern Cal ahead of Arizona on the committee’s S-curve, but that isn’t going to be enough.  The Pac-10 may wind up with just four bids.
  • San Diego State can guarantee a bid by winning the Mountain West tourney today, but the Aztecs are in fairly good shape now even if they don’t beat Utah.  SDSU’s chances of making the field absent a victory on Saturday are probably in the 80% range.  New Mexico tied for the MWC regular-season title but has nothing else to offer to the committee, and I don’t see four teams getting bids in the MWC.  UNLV is out after wasting a solid non-conference effort by going only 9-7 in the league and losing at home in the first round of the conference tournament to SDSU, which beat the Rebels three times this season.
  • I still think the SEC will get three bids no matter what, but the worst-case scenario for the league has unfolded.  Auburn can get that third bid with a win today over Tennessee, but a loss to the Vols leaves the Tigers in a precarious position, with several other bubble teams having better resumes.  I suppose it’s possible the SEC will just be a two-bid league, but I find it hard to believe.  Florida is almost certainly out, and so if Auburn loses the choice for a potential third SEC team in the field comes down to Auburn and South Carolina.
  • Maryland’s victory over Wake Forest in the ACC quarterfinals gives it three wins this season over teams ranked in the top 10 of the RPI, with two of those on neutral sites, plus a handy win over Michigan.  The Terps still don’t have a true road win over a top 100 team, but no other bubble team has as many high-end victories.  Barring another embarrassing loss to Duke in the ACC semis, Maryland looks to be in good shape for an at-large bid.  Beating Duke would make a trip to the dance a lock, of course.
  • The Big 10 is still hoping to get eight bids, but I think it’s going to be seven, with Penn State being left out after getting blown out by Purdue in the conference quarterfinals.  Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan all have better resumes, and none of them are locks, either.

How I see the bubble as of Saturday morning:

Texas A&M
Dayton
Minnesota
San Diego State
Wisconsin
Maryland
Michigan
Auburn
Creighton
—-
St. Mary’s
Southern California
Penn State
Arizona
South Carolina
New Mexico
Providence
Tulsa
Florida

Utah State, if it were to lose tonight, would probably be slotted behind St. Mary’s but ahead of Southern Cal (assuming the Trojans don’t beat Arizona State on Saturday).  Temple would be in the New Mexico-Providence range with a loss.  Baylor is a pure bid thief, Southern Cal could be a bid thief, and Tulsa is a de facto bid thief as well.

Bubble Watch, 3/9/09

I’m posting this prior to the Portland-St. Mary’s game, for the record…

This is my first projection to include seeding and placement, and it’s possible there is an error or two mixed in, because the first go-round is always the toughest.  At any rate, here is how I see the NCAA tournament as of right now (projected automatic bids in all-caps):

South (Memphis, IN)

Greensboro sub-regional
1 North Carolina
16 Radford
8 West Virginia
9 Dayton
Boise sub-regional
4 Missouri
13 AMERICAN
5 Gonzaga
12 Michigan
Minneapolis sub-regional
2 Michigan State
15 ROBERT MORRIS
7 California
10 Oklahoma State
Philadelphia sub-regional
3 Villanova
14 BUFFALO
6 Tennessee
11 UTAH STATE

West (Glendale, AZ)

Kansas City sub-regional
1 Oklahoma
16 CAL STATE-NORTHRIDGE
8 Brigham Young
9 Wisconsin
Miami sub-regional
4 Louisiana State
13 WESTERN KENTUCKY
5 Florida State
12 Providence
Dayton sub-regional
2 Louisville
15 East Tennessee State
7 Purdue
10 St. Mary’s
Portland sub-regional
3 Washington
14 WEBER STATE
6 Butler
11 SIENA

East (Boston, MA)

Philadelphia sub-regional
1 Connecticut
16 MORGAN STATE
8 Texas
9 Ohio State
Portland sub-regional
4 Xavier
13 Northern Iowa
5 Clemson
12 VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH
Kansas City sub-regional
2 Memphis
15 Cornell
7 Arizona State
10 Minnesota
Miami sub-regional
3 Wake Forest
14 NORTH DAKOTA STATE
6 Marquette
11 New Mexico

Midwest (Indianapolis, IN)

Dayton sub-regional
1 Pittsburgh
16 Morehead State/ALABAMA STATE (play-in game; also in Dayton)
8 Boston College
9 Texas A&M
Boise sub-regional
4 Ucla
13 STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
5 Utah
12 Penn State
Greensboro sub-regional
2 Duke
15 UT-CHATTANOOGA
7 Syracuse
10 Arizona
Minneapolis sub-regional
3 Kansas
14 BINGHAMTON
6 Illinois
11 South Carolina

Notes:

  • As of now, North Carolina has the top overall seed in my projection, based on finishing first in the ACC, while none of the other three #1 seeds won their respective conference titles.  Louisville will be probably be battling Pitt and UConn for two available #1 seeds in the Big East tournament.  I think Memphis has a shot at a #1 if it wins the C-USA tournament and Oklahoma bows out early in the Big XII tourney.
  • The brackets are set up as follows:  South vs. West, East vs. Midwest
  • I had a lot of trouble deciding how the committee would place teams.  I think they are going to want to have at least one “draw” in the Portland and Boise sub-regionals, so putting Washington/UCLA in those sites seemed logical, and Gonzaga will probably be in one of them as well.  It’s a bit of a tough draw for Missouri in particular, but after the first round nobody is protected.  I don’t like putting Villanova in Philly — that struck me as not being in the spirit of things — but if the Wildcats get a 3 seed or better I can see it happening.
  • Every team on seed lines 8 and up is safe for the tournament, and the 9 seeds are all in decent shape.  The bubble action starts on line 10 and goes through line 12, with some automatic bids interspersed here and there.
  • Last six in:  South Carolina (last in), Penn State, Providence, New Mexico, Michigan, St. Mary’s
  • Last six out:  UNLV (last out), Creighton, Florida, Miami (FL), Maryland, Auburn
  • Also considered:  San Diego State, Virginia Tech, Davidson, Rhode Island, Kansas State, Southern California

South Carolina, to be perfectly honest, is a bit of a placeholder; I have the Gamecocks in the field based on my belief that at least three SEC teams will be in the tournament, no matter what happens.  As of right now, I give South Carolina the edge over Florida and Auburn for the third bid from that decidedly mediocre league.  It is possible for the SEC to get four bids, depending on how things shake out in that league’s tourney, as well as tournaments across the country.

At this point Siena and Utah State would be advised to win their respective conference tournaments.  I don’t see either grabbing an at-large bid if it needs one.

St. Mary’s is the toughest call in terms of evaluation/figuring out what the committee will do.  If the Gaels lose to Gonzaga in the WCC final, then I think they will get an at-large bid. Otherwise, I don’t see it happening.

Trying to rise above a history of misery

Yes, it’s Southern Conference tourney time.  If you’re a fan of The Citadel, you may want to cover your eyes while reading some of this.  If you’re not, you may want to cover them anyway…

First, the good news.  The Bulldogs rebounded nicely (literally and figuratively) from their loss to Wofford by beating a ragtag Georgia Southern squad 74-53 on Monday night.  The Eagles hung around a little too long for my liking, making two good runs in each half, and were down by just six points with over 13 minutes left in regulation.  In the next seven minutes of the game, however, Georgia Southern had more technical fouls (2) than made field goals (1).  It’s hard to complete a comeback when that happens.

The Citadel thus got a much-needed bye into the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament.  Besides not having to play four games in four days in order to win the tourney, the extra day may also help the Bulldogs in their preparation for the event, as there are some on-court adjustments that need to be made.  Among other things, The Citadel committed 18 turnovers on Monday night, many of them unforced.

Demetrius Nelson and Cameron Wells each had five turnovers, which is too many, but they also combined for 42 points (Nelson had 11 rebounds as well).  John Brown had four, and that’s a bit more worrisome, as he isn’t in a position to handle the ball nearly as often in a scoring or closely guarded position (and thus shouldn’t have as many turnovers).  Brown forced things a bit on offense, particularly in the first half, which was a carryover from the Wofford game on Saturday.

In the Southern Conference tournament, teams are almost certainly going to employ Wofford’s strategy of doubling Nelson repeatedly while giving Brown space on the wing, because Brown is not yet an offensive threat unless he’s making layups or dunks.  How Ed Conroy and company adjust to this will go a long way to determining The Citadel’s tournament fate.

Having said that, it should be noted that despite those 18 turnovers and decent-but-not-great outside shooting, the Bulldogs went on the road and under a good deal of pressure (given the importance of winning the game) defeated a conference opponent by 21 points.  The fact it’s actually possible to be disappointed in some aspects of The Citadel’s play after a result like that speaks volumes about how good this team has been, and the expectations it now has.

Those expectations include making a serious bid at a first-ever Southern Conference tournament title.  Before casting a forward glance towards Chattanooga, however, perhaps it’s best to realize just how arduous a task the Bulldogs face.  When it comes to The Citadel and its history in the Southern Conference tourney, a few paragraphs are in order, because just a few words cannot begin to adequately describe the horror…

One of the more curious things about The Citadel’s wretched history in the SoCon tourney is that there is no firm answer to just how many times the school has lost in the event.  That’s because the league has mutated so many times there is a dispute as to what year the first “official” conference tournament was held.

Before 1920, The Citadel was one of many schools in a rather loose confederation known as the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.  (The Citadel initially joined in 1909.)  There were about 30 colleges in the SIAA by 1920, including almost every member of the current SEC and about half of the current ACC, along with schools such as Centre, Sewanee (somewhat amusingly, later a member of the SEC), Chattanooga, Wofford, Howard (now called Samford, of course), and Millsaps, just to name a few.  As you might imagine, the large and disparate membership had some disagreements, and was just plain hard to manage, so a number of the schools left to form the Southern Conference in late 1920.

In the spring of 1921, the SIAA sponsored a basketball tournament, which would be the forerunner to all the conference hoops tourneys to follow.  Any southern college or university could travel to Atlanta to play, and fifteen schools did just that.  Kentucky beat Georgia in the final.  The Citadel did not enter the event, but several other small colleges did, including Newberry.  The tournament featured teams from the new Southern Conference, the old SIAA, and squads like Newberry, which wasn’t in either league (it would join the SIAA in 1923).

In 1922 the SIAA held another tournament in Atlanta, this one won by North Carolina, which beat Mercer in the final.  The Citadel entered this time, losing in the first round to Vanderbilt.  The SIAA tournament remained all-comers until 1924, when it was restricted to Southern Conference members.

Some sources suggest that the 1921 tournament is the first “official” Southern Conference tournament, some go with the 1922 event, and others argue for 1924.  From what I can tell, the league itself is a bit wishy-washy on the issue.  On the conference website, it states:

The first Southern Conference Championship was the league basketball tournament held in Atlanta in 1922. The North Carolina Tar Heels won the tournament to become the first recognized league champion in any sport. The Southern Conference Tournament remains the oldest of its kind in college basketball.

That’s great, but the conference’s own record book lists Kentucky as having won the first tournament title in 1921 (on page 113; oddly, that year is excluded from the game-by-game tournament results that begin on page 114).  Of course, the edition of the record book on the conference website is three years old and lists The Citadel as having once lost 37 straight games, which is incorrect, so take it for what you will.

Personally, I think that the idea of having a conference tournament is to determine a league champion, and it stands to reason that such a tournament would only include league members.  So the first “real” Southern Conference tournament, in my opinion, was held in 1924.

There is a point to this, trust me.  The difference between counting the Vanderbilt loss as a SoCon tourney loss and not counting it is the difference between The Citadel’s alltime record in the event being 10-55 or 10-56.  Not that they both aren’t hideous totals, but as of now The Citadel shares the NCAA record for “most consecutive conference tournament appearances without a title” with Clemson, which is 0-for-55 in trying to win the ACC tournament.  Counting the Vanderbilt game would mean The Citadel is alone in its conference tourney infamy.  No offense to the Tigers, but I don’t believe the 1922 game should count, because it wasn’t really a Southern Conference tournament game.

By the way, you read that right.  The Citadel is 10-55 alltime in the SoCon tournament.  That’s just unbelievably bad.  It comes out to a 14% winning percentage, which is more than twice as bad as even The Citadel’s lousy alltime conference regular season winning percentage (35%).  The Citadel lost 17 straight tourney games from 1961-78, and then from 1985-97 lost 13 more in a row.  Incidentally, the single-game scoring record in the tournament is held by Marshall’s Skip Henderson, who put up 55 on The Citadel in 1988 (in a game Marshall won by 43 points; karma is a you-know-what, as the next night the Thundering Herd, which had won the regular season title that year, lost to UT-Chattanooga by one point).

Those losses aren’t all in consecutive years, as The Citadel didn’t always qualify for the tournament, particularly in the years before 1953, when there were up to 17 teams in the league at any given time, and only the top squads played in the tourney.  The Citadel’s first “real” appearance, in 1938, resulted in a 42-38 loss to Maryland.  The Citadel would lose two more tourney openers before winning its first game in 1943, against South Carolina.  That would be the only time the Bulldogs and Gamecocks faced each other in the tournament, and so South Carolina is one of two teams The Citadel has a winning record against in SoCon tourney play (the Bulldogs are 2-0 against VMI).

The next time The Citadel would win a game in the tournament?  1959, when the Bulldogs actually won two games, against Furman and George Washington, and found themselves in the tourney final.  Unfortunately, the opponent in the title game was West Virginia, led by Jerry West.  West scored 27 points and the Mountaineers pulled away late for an 85-66 victory.  This would be the only time The Citadel ever made the championship game; it’s also the only time the Bulldogs won two games in the tournament.

After a 1961 quarterfinal victory over Richmond, The Citadel would not win another tournament game until 1979, when the Bulldogs defeated Davidson before losing to Furman.  The game against Davidson was played at McAlister Field House, and was the 20th victory of the season, which until Monday was the most games ever won by a Bulldog squad (now tied, of course, by the current edition of the Bulldogs).

The Citadel would win single games in 1982 and 1985 before going winless until 1998, when it finally broke a 13-game tourney losing streak by beating VMI.  The Keydets would be the next victim as well, in 2002, and were apparently so embarrassed they left the league.  The Citadel’s latest win in conference tournament action came in 2006 against Furman.

Twenty different schools have defeated The Citadel in tournament play, with Davidson’s eight victories leading the way (against one loss to the Bulldogs).  East Tennessee State went 6-0 against The Citadel while in the league.

At least ETSU won’t be around this season.  The Citadel’s first game in this year’s tournament will come against either first-year league member Samford or Furman.  The Paladins are 5-2 alltime in tourney play against The Citadel, with the Bulldogs having won the first and most recent meetings.  Records against other tourney teams:  Chattanooga 0-1, Elon 0-1, College of Charleston 0-1, Georgia Southern 0-2, Western Carolina 1-1, Appalachian State 1-6, and Davidson 1-8.  (The Citadel has never played Wofford or UNC-Greensboro in the tournament.)

The very first game worries me.  If it’s Samford, don’t look for another 25-point win.  The Citadel caught that team on a bad night.  Samford is well-coached and its slow-slower-slowest offense can give even a patient team like The Citadel fits.  I am concerned about how the team will react when the bright lights come on for the first time and suddenly everything is on the line, especially when in the unfamiliar role of favorite.  If the opponent is Furman, it would be a much more confident Paladin squad (after coming off a victory) than the one which recently lost to The Citadel, and one that would be more than happy to end a rival’s dream season.

If The Citadel survives the opener and moves to the semifinals for only the second time in 24 years, the opponent could be one of three teams, a trio against which the Bulldogs had a combined regular season record of 1-4, with the one win coming at home by two points.  Of course, one of those potential opponents, Chattanooga, is also the host school for the tournament.

It has been fifty years since The Citadel made its first and only trip to the title game, and if the Bulldogs somehow win two games (for only the second time ever), the opponent will likely either be Davidson, with a healthy Stephen Curry in tow, or a red-hot College of Charleston squad ready to avenge two regular-season defeats at the hands of the Bulldogs.

It’s easy to see that winning the tournament will be a very tall order.  Combine that difficulty with the sordid history of The Citadel in the SoCon tournament, and it’s really hard to imagine the Bulldogs cutting down the nets on Monday night.  That’s a scenario that seems unlikely to unfold.

However, there is another way to look at things.  This isn’t your typical Bulldog squad.  This is a team that has the league’s second-best record, that has won 12 of its last 13 games, that has proven it can win away from home, and has demonstrated it can win even on nights when its key players aren’t at their best.  It has won close games and blowouts, is led by the newly minted coach of the year in the conference, and features an all-conference post player along with an outstanding, versatile group of guards.  If there ever was a team from The Citadel capable of overcoming all that negative history, and making some positive history of its own, this is the one.

Saturday night can’t get here soon enough…

Bubbling Basketball, 3/2/09

With two weeks to go until Selection Sunday, there is still a fairly large group of bubble teams, but the potential at-large pool has become more defined.  My current groups of eight:

Group 1:  Connecticut, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Memphis, Michigan State, Duke

I have three Big East teams in the top five of my S-curve, but it is unlikely that conference winds up with three #1 seeds.  UConn and Pitt still have to play again in the regular season (at Pitt), and then the Big East tournament will have a culling effect of sorts.  Memphis is also a strong candidate for a #1 seed.  Oklahoma may not win the Big XII regular season after losing two games due to Blake Griffin’s concussion, but I don’t think that is going to cost the Sooners much, if anything, in terms of grabbing a #1.

Group 2:  Kansas, Wake Forest, Washington, Missouri, Villanova, LSU, Purdue, Marquette

Kansas and Missouri both being on the 3 line after this weekend’s blowout win for the Jayhawks gave me pause, but that’s just the way it is.  Washington has made a strong push, with nine wins in its last twelve games (six of its last seven).  LSU is going to run away with the SEC regular season title, and even in a bad year for that league, it’s hard to see the Bayou Bengals not being rewarded with a top 16 seed.  If LSU chokes in the SEC tourney, though, that could change.

Marquette stays where it is, and will continue to do so, until it is demonstrated that Marquette is significantly affected by the season-ending injury to Dominic James.  I think it’s almost certain that his injury will have a negative effect on the team’s performance over time, but losing a competitive game to Louisville doesn’t really make it obvious.

Group 3:  Xavier, Florida State, UCLA, Clemson, Illinois, Butler, Gonzaga, Utah

I think you have to rate Florida State ahead of Clemson at this point.  The Tigers are only 6-6 in their last 12 games, which includes a loss at Virginia and a home loss to Virginia Tech, in addition to the sweep at the hands of the Seminoles.  Butler has eleven “true” road wins, including a victory at Xavier.  In other respects its profile does not really scream “6 seed”, though.

Gonzaga is going to play USC Upstate and its 290 RPI before beginning play in the WCC tournament.  It will be the sixth time Mark Few’s men have played a team with a current RPI of 276 or worse.  Four of those are conference games against Loyola-Marymount and Pepperdine.  Two other teams in the WCC also have RPIs below 200.  Keep that in mind, but not to hold against Gonzaga.   Just wait until we get to the bubble teams and one league in particular…

Group 4:  Arizona State, Syracuse, West Virginia, California, Dayton, Boston College, Tennessee, Texas

Most of these teams can just about book their tournament reservations at this point.  Syracuse is essentially a lock, and the rest probably need just one more win.  You could make a good argument that ASU and the ‘Cuse should be rated ahead of Utah.  Tennessee separated itself from the other SEC bubblers with its win on Sunday against Florida (completing a sweep of the Gators), thanks in large part to separating itself from its league brethren before the season started with its strong non-conference schedule.

Group 5:  Wisconsin, Brigham Young, Ohio State, UNLV, Creighton, Minnesota, Texas A&M, South Carolina

Ah, here is where the fun really starts…

Wisconsin played a very good schedule (currently rated sixth nationally).  Its biggest non-conference scalp came at Virginia Tech, which will come in handy, along with sweeps of Michigan and Penn State and a victory over Ohio State.  The Badgers next play Minnesota, and need to win to avoid being swept by the Gophers.  A win in Minneapolis won’t be easy, but if Wisconsin gets it and beats Indiana in its home finale, it should be set.  Even a loss to Minnesota won’t be fatal, although the Badgers may want to win a game or two in the Big 10 tourney just to be safe.  The average RPI of the teams Wisconsin has defeated is 104, which is a very impressive number.

BYU is 8-3 on the road this season, and also has a neutral-site victory over Utah State.  None of the road victories was a really good one, but on the other hand, BYU played a representative schedule and only has one serious flaw on its resume, a sweep at the hands of UNLV.  There are worse teams to have been swept by, though.  I’m not overly enthused by the Cougars’ profile, but they’ve done what they needed to do, which is why the RPI is 22, and BYU will make the NCAAs unless it badly stumbles down the stretch.  I will give BYU credit for not scheduling a lot of games against 200+ RPI teams.

Ohio State beat Butler at home, Notre Dame in Indianapolis, and Miami (FL) on the road (where it got lucky, frankly).  Those results and no bad losses will go a long way to getting an at-large bid, but the Buckeyes are only 8-8 in the Big 10 (including getting thumped over the weekend by Purdue) and probably need two more wins.  As it happens, they close with games at Iowa and home to Northwestern.

UNLV has the aforementioned sweep of BYU, a win over Utah, and most importantly, a win at Louisville.  The Rebels have also lost at Colorado State and at TCU, and as a result find themselves in fifth place in the Mountain West.  I think UNLV has the profile to get an at-large bid and become team #3 ouf of the MWC, but it needs to win its last two (including at San Diego State, which would get the Rebels at least a tie for 4th in the league), and then not fall apart at the Mountain West tournament, particularly since that tournament is in Vegas this year.

Creighton has won ten straight games and heads into the Missouri Valley tournament with the #2 seed (losing a tiebreaker after tying for the regular season title).  The Blue Jays don’t have a win on their resume that will make you stand up and take notice, but one thing Creighton apparently did was try to figure out what other mid-majors might be good this season, and then proceeded to schedule them.  In addition to the Bracketbusters game against George Mason, Creighton has also played Dayton, New Mexico, Arkansas-Little Rock, Oral Roberts, and St. Joseph’s, winning all of those games with the exception of a last-second lost to UALR.  I would like the profile a little better without the losses to Wichita State and Drake, but 25 wins while playing in the nation’s ninth-rated conference is worth serious consideration when doling out at-large bids.

Minnesota has a neutral-site win over Louisville, a win at Wisconsin, and a win over Illinois in one of the Big 10’s notorious “first to 40 wins” contests.  The Gophers are only 5-7 in their last twelve and really need a couple of wins down the stretch to feel secure.  They have two home games remaining, both of serious bubble interest, as they play Wisconsin and Michigan.  The Gophers are the quintessential major-conference bubble team.

Texas A&M has excellent computer numbers (RPI of 35).  The Aggies have a neutral-site win over LSU and home wins over Texas and Arizona.  The problem for A&M is that it is only 7-7 in a Big XII that no one is favorably comparing to the ACC or Big East.  Texas A&M is building momentum, though, with four straight wins, and it figures to be five after a game at Colorado on Wednesday.  The Aggies finish the regular season with a home game against Missouri and a chance to play its way into the NCAAs.

Before getting to South Carolina, let’s review Group 6, which has six teams, and then the rest of the hopefuls which as of right now aren’t in my tournament projections:

Group 6:  Oklahoma State, Miami (FL), Arizona, Maryland, Florida, Michigan

Also hoping:  Virginia Tech, St. Mary’s, Providence, Rhode Island, Utah State, Georgetown, Penn State, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Davidson, Siena, New Mexico, UAB, San Diego State

Oklahoma State is a lot like Texas A&M; I have a hard time separating them.  They split two meetings.  Oklahoma State has a one-game lead over A&M in the conference standings.  The Aggies beat LSU and Arizona; the Cowboys have neutral-site wins over Siena and Rhode Island.  Both beat Texas.  Okie State has won five straight and finishes with Kansas State at home and Oklahoma in Norman.

Miami (FL) and Arizona are similar in that they need to take care of business.  The Hurricanes have two very winnable games to get to 8-8 in the ACC; then Miami probably needs to win a game in the ACC tournament.  Arizona is 8-8 in the Pac-10 and is poised to get the fifth bid from that league, but needs to beat Stanford and either Cal or its first-round opponent in the Pac-10 tournament (which may in fact be Cal).

Maryland and Michigan have some similarities as well.  Both have played difficult schedules.  Both have major out of conference victories (North Carolina and Michigan State for the Terps; Duke and UCLA for the Wolverines).  Of course, Maryland beat Michigan earlier in the season, which is another solid OOC victory for the  Terps.  Maryland is 7-7 in ACC play; Michigan is 8-9 in the Big 10, with a game at Minnesota left to conclude its regular season.  I think Maryland needs to finish 8-8 in conference, and possibly (but not necessarily) win an ACC tourney game.  Michigan might be good to go if it can get that win against Minnesota (which would have the added benefit of hurting the chances of another bubble team).  Otherwise, the Wolverines may have to do some damage in the Big 10 tournament.

South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky — let’s look at the SEC bubblers, shall we?

Earlier I noted that Gonzaga had played six teams with RPIs of 276 or worse.  Four of them are in the Bulldogs’ league, which means Gonzaga had no control over the scheduling of those games.  Because of these games, the average RPI of the teams Gonzaga has beaten this season is 160.

The average RPI of the teams Florida has defeated is 179.  Kentucky?  173.  South Carolina?  172.

Florida has actually played seven teams with RPIs worse than 276, all as part of its non-conference slate.  The Gators have 21 wins, but has beaten only two teams in the top 75 of the RPI — Washington (in Kansas City) and South Carolina.

The Gamecocks have not much more heft to their resume, with a sweep of Kentucky to go with a win over Florida and a victory at Baylor, all as part of a schedule not much stronger than that of the Gators.

Kentucky has swept Tennessee and beaten the Gators, and has a neutral-site win over West Virginia.  Kentucky also has six wins against teams with RPIs of 299 or worse, dragging down its computer numbers, which are also affected by home losses to Mississippi State and (especially) VMI.

Just to give you an idea of how the SEC teams compare with other teams in terms of scheduling wins, the average RPI of the teams defeated by some of their fellow major conference bubblers:

Michigan – 133, Arizona – 139, Miami (FL) – 139, Oklahoma State – 148, Texas A&M – 143, Minnesota – 142, Maryland – 146, Virginia Tech – 150, Cincinnati – 152, Georgetown – 110, Notre Dame – 167, Providence – 165, Penn State – 170

It’s rather striking when looked at that way.  It shows why Georgetown is still a bubbler despite all its losses, why Penn State has work to do (despite road wins over Michigan State and Illinois), and why Notre Dame is essentially done, especially after losing at home by 17 to Villanova.  Georgetown got its win over Villanova, and Providence still has a game to play against the Wildcats.

It also shows why the SEC resumes are less than the sum of their parts.  Florida and Kentucky face each other in what some are calling a “play-in” game; I would suggest it should be called a “play-out” game, with the winner still having work to do in the SEC tourney.

Rhode Island has played a lot of “close but no cigar” games, including a three-point loss at Duke, a one-point loss at Providence, and a two-point loss to Xavier.  The Rams have won 10 of their last 11 games and will get a look from the committee if they go deep in the A-10 tournament.  If you don’t take into account the close losses, though, URI’s profile isn’t quite good enough, and I’m not sure you should take into account close losses.

As to what the committee will do if St. Mary’s makes the WCC final and loses to Gonzaga, I really don’t know.  I suspect the Gaels, with a healthy Patty Mills, are at-large quality.  The resume doesn’t really bear that out, however.

I don’t think the remaining non-BCS candidates have much of a shot at an at-large bid.  Of the group, I like Davidson the best, but I don’t think Stephen Curry and crew can absorb another loss, even if it would be to one of the better SoCon teams, like The Citadel or the College of Charleston.  UAB had a chance to make a statement against Memphis; instead, Memphis made the statement.  The Blazers do have a win over Arizona, but have not really been dominant against the non-Memphis C-USA teams.

Siena’s loss on Friday to Niagara probably torpedoed any at-large hopes.  New Mexico, San Diego State, and Utah State all have less-than-imposing resumes with little to offer in the way of significant non-conference wins.  Utah State does have a win over Utah, and probably has the best shot of an at-large among the western non-BCS schools.

There is still a lot of action remaining in the regular season.  Not unlike the weather, if there is something you don’t like concerning the bubble picture, just wait — things will change.