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The Morning Dish – Tuesday, March 21, 2017

March 21, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

You can collect the votes right now, and probably don’t even need to count them, the choice is so obvious. In a stunning upset, the winner for the breakout performance by a conference (non-NCAA Tournament edition) goes to…the Western Athletic Conference?

You bet.

The good ol’ WAC, 55 years old and thought to be on its last breaths at various times in recent years, has been the story of the tourneys outside the NCAA’s biggie, pulling off one surprising win after another. It continued Monday night in the NIT, where Cal State Bakersfield continued its run as an 8 seed by blowing out Colorado State 81-63 on the road to move to the quarterfinals.

The Roadrunners jumped on the Rams from the start and never trailed, leading by as many as 26 points in a remarkable display of dominance. Making 10 of 13 three-pointers in the first half helped, but Bakersfield also shut down CSU’s Emmanuel Omogbo and was clearly the tougher team.

The latter shouldn’t be a surprise, as the Roadrunners have shown guile the last two years in the postseason now. Cal State Bakersfield gave eventual Final Four participant Oklahoma all it could handle in the first round of the NCAAs last year, and it took down California in the first round of the NIT before this whupping. It’s a team that also pushed Arizona earlier this season; it’s safe to say Rod Barnes has built a program that fears no one, and you can’t say enough about how Bakersfield has grown from a former NCAA Division II power to struggling D-I program to now a legitimate threat to compete against anyone it plays.

The Roadrunners are the first team ever to advance to the quarterfinals as an 8 seed since the NIT started seeding teams in 2006, and they’ll now face Texas-Arlington on Wednesday after the Mavericks’ eliminated Akron 85-69 Monday night. You can probably count on zero fingers the number of people who expected a matchup of these 6 and 8 seeds with a trip to New York City on the line.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was Utah Valley knocking out perhaps the odds-on favorite in the College Basketball Invitational. The Wolverines won at Rice 85-79 for their second straight CBI victory and now are just one win away from the event’s three-game championship series. Utah Valley-coached by former Kentucky and NBA player Mark Pope-finished fifth in the WAC this year, but did record a memorable win over BYU back in November and is a sign of the surprising depth in this league.

WAC member Missouri-Kansas City also defeated Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first round of the CBI before falling last night, and the league’s third-best team (Grand Canyon) didn’t even participate in the postseason as it rests up getting ready for its first run at the NCAA Tournament next year. Even as results in the NIT, CBI and CIT always have to be taken with a grain of salt, it doesn’t diminish that the WAC is having a very good March, one that it should certainly feel good about.

Side Dishes

  • All four No. 1 seeds are now out of the NIT after Illinois State lost to Central Florida 63-62 when B.J. Taylor was awarded two free throws on a controversial call with 1.3 seconds left. Taylor drew a foul on ISU’s MiKyle McIntosh, who was backpedaling and trying to cut off the sideline 40 feet from the basket on a last ditch full-court effort, a call that easily could’ve been let go, though McIntosh should’ve just given up the sideline with so little time left. UCF, though, advances to face No. 2 Illinois in the quarterfinals after the Fighting Illini and interim coach Jamall Walker pulled away from Boise State late for a 71-56 win, and the Knights will host the game against Illinois due to the Illini’s facility being unavailable. (Side note: how awkward it must be for this Illinois team to still be playing after its coach was fired, and when its new coach has already been hired and is watching)
  • In addition to Utah Valley’s win, the CBI semifinals are now set, and it’s not going out on a limb to say Wyoming has emerged as a heavy favorite. The Cowboys defeated UMKC 72-61, and at 20-14 are easily the most successful team left this season. The other three semifinalists have a combined record of one game over .500, though 17-18 Illinois-Chicago picked up a solid home win over George Washington 80-71, while Coastal Carolina knocked out Loyola (Md.) 72-63.
  • Three more teams moved on in the CIT. The most surprising is Campbell, which continues its Chris Clemons-led postseason surge with a surprisingly easy 73-56 win over Tennessee-Martin. Clemons scored 26 in this one. Another Big South team winning was Liberty, a 66-58 victor over Samford, while Texas A&M-Corpus Christi scored one for the Southland with an 82-73 win at home over Weber State.
  • Off the court news came Monday night as LSU announced Will Wade as its new head coach. Wade spent the past two seasons at VCU and two years before that at Tennessee-Chattanooga. The quickness of his departure is concerning in that he was paid handsomely at VCU, and it’s easy to argue he had the better basketball job there (in fact, the Rams defeated LSU just this past season). VCU has a terrific facility that it has filled every game for years now, and is clearly one of the top jobs in the basketball-first Atlantic 10. Ultimately, this shows just how much TV money for football matters, and how so many throughout college sports have bought into the idea that five conferences are at a different level than the rest, no matter how much results on the courts/fields show otherwise. That it’s also an idea that also has been bought and reinforced by lazy NCAA tourney selection committees the past three years certainly does not help, either.

Tonight’s Menu:

  • The only games on tap are a pair of NIT quarterfinals, with two teams punching their ticket to Madison Square Garden. TCU has earned a home game by being the highest-seeded team left in its group of eight, and the Horned Frogs welcome Richmond and T.J. Cline (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). Both schools are looking for their first-ever semifinal appearances, coming in a combined 0-5 in NIT quarterfinal games.
  • The second game features Georgia Tech on the road at Mississippi (9 p.m., ESPN2). The Rebels, like TCU, have earned this home game, in their case winning at Monmouth and Syracuse. Ole Miss searches for its third NIT semifinal appearance since 2008, while the Yellow Jackets are aiming for just their second ever and first since 1971.

Do enjoy your Tuesday.

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