In an ultra-competitive league where four teams finished tied for fourth place, third through eighth were separated by three games and no less than six teams had winning streaks of at least five games in conference play, it’s the team that went 0-9 on the road in conference play and finished ninth overall that is the tournament champion.
Sounds like college basketball 2015-16 in a nutshell.
At no point this season was Holy Cross considered an NCAA Tournament threat. The Crusaders finished 10-19 in the regular season, 5-13 in the Patriot League and were a decisive ninth-place finisher, three games out of eighth place.
And yet, the Crusaders figured it out when it mattered. Somehow a team that came into the postseason on a five-game losing streak, whose longest winning streak all season was three and that won two road games all year-has won four straight road games in the Patriot tourney, culminating with a 59-56 wire-to-wire win at Lehigh to clinch an NCAA bid for the first time in nine years.
Holy Cross knocked off the 1, 2, 4 and 8 seeds in the tourney, teams that it was a combined 1-7 against in the conference loop and lost those seven games by an average of 17.7 points per game. As far as improbable NCAA qualifiers go of all-time, the Crusaders are instantly near the top of the list.
All that said, Bill Carmody’s team is not to be ignored. Holy Cross gave Patriot tourney opponents fits with a 1-3-1 zone defense anchored by some serious length and better athleticism than many might think. The Crusaders also executed Carmody’s Princeton offense to a T, with 11 of their 21 field goals coming from three-point range, led by Malachi Alexander scoring 26 points and hitting 6 of 7 from deep to outduel Patriot player of the year Tim Kempton (20 points). Every time Lehigh made a run, it seemed like another big man for Holy Cross would step out to drain a timely triple.
Given that any Patriot champion likely was going to struggle to get a seed better than a 16, there’s no reason to look at this as anything other than another tourney champion adding a little more color to March. The league chose to award its champion this way, and Holy Cross earned it in a tourney that awards higher seeds home court in every single game. The Crusaders took about as difficult of a path to the title as could’ve been cooked up and earned their spot in the Big Dance.
- Wednesday was otherwise dominated mostly by conference tournaments in their early rounds. Among the most notable results was No. 8 Pittsburgh tipping 9 seed Syracuse 72-71 in the second round of the ACC tourney. The Panthers stay alive for an NCAA bid-even while holding a very weak 2-6 mark vs. the RPI top 50-while the Orange, frankly, should very likely be out. Certainly, the team will not be “punished” for Jim Boeheim’s absence if it doesn’t make the tourney-in fact, if the committee somehow does give them a pass for performing poorer when he was out, then it will be essentially rewarding the school for NCAA sanctions.
- TCU pulled a surprise in the Big 12 tourney, as the 10th-seeded Horned Frogs upended 7 seed Texas Tech 67-62. Love Tubby Smith’s turnaround at Tech and his team absolutely deserves an NCAA bid. In a way, though, the Red Raiders are the epitome of the middling major, and it’s hard to see any possibility of a deep run in the tourney.
- A big surprise in the SWAC, where 7 seed Mississippi Valley State pulled off a 64-61 win over second-seeded Alcorn State. The Braves were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament anyway due to APR sanctions, but there are still few who would’ve expected a loss to the 8-26 Delta Devils.
- Southern Illinois announced on Wednesday that it will not be playing in any postseason tournaments despite posting a 22-10 record while playing in the tough Missouri Valley. According to coach Barry Hinson in the school’s press release, reasons include “the health and welfare of our players, as well as the budgetary implications of hosting games on our campus during spring break.” Hinson also was very candid after SIU’s loss to Northern Iowa in the MVC tourney that the school would not play in the postseason if it cost significant money, indicating he was sensitive to possible upcoming budget and job cuts at the school. Indeed, the school announced on Wednesday 180 potential layoffs, as well as cuts to programs. The Salukis had an excellent season, posting a winning record for the first time since 2007-08 and the most wins since the 2006-07 team won 26 games and advanced to the NCAA tourney Sweet 16.
- Coaching news: Rex Walters has been let go as coach at San Francisco after eight years and compiling a career 126-125 record. His teams at USF were always competitive but never made the NCAA Tournament, peaking in 2013-14 with a 21-win season and an NIT berth. (Hoopville is keeping track of all the coaching changes here)
- The second wave of conference championship waves really kicks into high gear. Significant games take place in the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC, Southland, SWAC and WAC. Breathe. If looking for a good, quality under-the-radar tourney, the Big West has fit the bill splendidly in recent years and should be again.
Have a good Thursday.