Coaches such as Jim Valvano, Rollie Massimino and Tom Izzo are among those to make the month of March their personal playground over the years, regularly leading teams on extended runs, regardless of the strength of their teams in the regular season.
Few would include Ray Harper on that list, but it has become time that they should. As the excellent ESPN and American Sports Network analyst Mark Adams prophetically pointed out Wednesday, you can’t bet against Harper’s teams in March, and boy, was that shown again yesterday.
Harper’s eighth-seeded Western Kentucky team stunned Alabama-Birmingham 88-77 in the Conference USA tourney quarterfinals, making the Blazers the latest top seed to get knocked out of its tournament and in almost all certainty sent to the NIT. The Hilltoppers defeated the overwhelming tournament favorite in its home city, pummeling UAB on the glass (a 50-28 margin) and snapping its 28-game winning streak in its home city.
Western Kentucky finished 8-10 in C-USA in the regular season and even with two tourney wins now is a modest 18-15 overall. The Hilltoppers, though, are now just two wins from their third NCAA Tournament appearance in five years under Harper, despite not having won a single regular season conference title in that span.
His success at Western is only a part of the Harper story-in fact, it’s a relatively small portion. He won a pair of NCAA Division II national titles at Kentucky Wesleyan, leading the small-college power to championships in 19999 and 2001 and to six consecutive national championship games from 1998-2003. Harper later moved on to NAIA Division I Oklahoma City, where he led the Stars to three consecutive national title game appearances, including consecutive championships in 2007 and 2008. It’s safe to say that wherever he’s been in charge, excellence in the postseason has followed.
For UAB, there’s really no other way to say it: this is an inexcusable loss. The Blazers were at home, had the top seed, and had the experience of taking the tourney title a year earlier and winning an NCAA Tournament game as a 14 seed. Despite a poor strength of schedule in large part due to Conference USA’s No. 22 ranking among leagues, UAB appeared primed to be among the best 14 or 15 seeds perhaps in the history of the 64+ team tournament. Sometimes teams just don’t play well, and that happens, but this is unequivocally an opportunity lost.
- With no conference title games against now until Saturday, we’re smack in the middle of most tourneys. The day was marked by more “bubble” teams losing, mostly in games they were expected to, but one bad loss was fifth-seeded Vanderbilt falling to No. 12 seed Tennessee 67-65 in the SEC Tournament second round. We thought the Commodores had turned it around late, but a look at their resume shows a team that is 2-7 vs. the RPI top 50 (with both wins at home) and just 5-11 in road neutral games. The selection committee will likely see it otherwise, but from here it’s hard to see how Vandy has proven to be a better team than, say, Saint Mary’s or Valparaiso. Like so many major conference teams like them, the Commodores have the look of a one-and-done or two-and-out team.
- A similar team to Vanderbilt is Oregon State, which was very competitive in a 76-68 loss to California in the Pac-12 quarterfinals despite being without Tres Tinkle. The Beavers would be a great story in the NCAA Tournament and haven’t been to the Big Dance since 1990, though their overall record of 19-12 (actually 18-12 against D-I competition) doesn’t really pass the smell test of an at-large team. We’re fine with OSU getting in…as long as Valparaiso is in too. If one poses a theoretical question of who the better team is between the Beavers and Crusaders, it’s a question that was already answered-Valpo won on the road at Oregon State this year, a 63-57 final that was not as close as the final score, for the Crusaders held a 17-point lead with 12 minutes left. The selection committee always tells us it’s about finding the “best teams”: if that’s true, then if Oregon State is going in the tourney, Valparaiso must too.
- The best game of the night was-again-in the Big 12, where 3 seed Oklahoma outlasted No. 6 Iowa State 79-76, with Buddy Hield (39 points) out-dueling Georges Niang (31 points).
- More coaching changes announced on Thursday included Rutgers releasing Eddie Jordan and Saint Louis firing Jim Crews just a few minutes after the Billikens’ 73-65 loss to George Washington in the Atlantic 10 first round. Both of these are disappointing, though perhaps the call on Jordan in particular is not surprising given just how much the school’s entire athletic program has been overmatched in Big Ten. The Crews decision is frustrating as it shows once again just how weak schools and administration can be in supporting people that they chose to hire (in addition to, obviously, the complete regard for character in coaches if they aren’t winning huge). Crews was made the head coach after doing a masterful job on an interim basis in place of the late Rick Majerus in 2012-13. He paced the team to a 26-6 mark and second-round NCAA tourney appearance the next year, but anyone who saw the program knew it was in for some rebuilding with such a senior-heavy team that year. It was silly to expect SLU to somehow keep that same level of success in the short term with such an obvious drop-off coming. Crews deserved at least one more year to see through his rebuilding program.
- Action all over, including the ACC, Big East, Big West, Conference USA, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southland, SWAC and WAC. Also, we have quarterfinals in the American, Atlantic 10, Big Ten, SEC, and Sun Belt. We have three huge days of action before Selection Sunday.
Enjoy your Friday and have a great weekend.