by Michael Vernetti
There are some sinister forces lurking within the NCAA Selection Committee. Consider the committee’s deliberations on this year’s field of 68 for the NCAA National Tournament.
For a 6-11 match-up in Sacramento, the committee could have chosen Saint Mary’s, with its 17 RPI ranking and 14 KenPom ranking and its year-long top 25 ranking in both the AP and USA Today polls as the 6th seed. The opportunity to play in Sacramento would have been a nice bonus for a team that has been sent hither and yon in past years — from Providence to Omaha to Little Rock.
But no, the committee handed Creighton that plum 6th seed in Sacramento, even though Creighton (25-9) is ranked 27th by KenPom and 26th in the RPI, and is not ranked in the top 25 by either AP or USA Today. This is because the selection committee awarded Creighton the no. 24 overall seeding for the NCAA tourney. The other three 6-seeds are SMU, Cincinnati and Maryland, ranked 21-24 by the selection committee.
Saint Mary’s was ranked no. 25, just outside the possibility of receiving a 6-seed. Of the four teams rated higher by the committee, SMU and Cincinnati had RPI and/or KenPom rankings comparable to Saint Mary’s. Creighton and Maryland fell way below the Gaels in both the rating services, with Maryland a distant 45 in KenPom and 24 in the RPI.
In other words, despite all the talk coming from the selection committee or those close to it about the stringent objective criteria used in choosing and seeding tournament teams, some of them just liked Creighton and Maryland better than Saint Mary’s, no matter what the record showed. Thus, the Gaels are a 7th seed, headed toward a Thursday match-up against the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams in Salt Lake City.
The good and the bad
So be it. The Gaels are in good shape to make the 7th seed work for them just as they would have with that 6-seed in Sacramento. Their opponent, in fact, is from the same conference as would have been their foe in Sacramento –the Atlantic 10 — and will be of comparable difficulty as the Sacramento team, Rhode Island. Both VCU and Rhode Island competed with Atlantic 10 regular-season champion Dayton, whom the Gaels defeated back in November.
VCU, which is associated in the minds of most college hoops fans with the Shaka Smart-coached squad which became the darling of he 2011 NCAA tourney by advancing to the Final Four before losing to Butler, finished one game behind Dayton, splitting with the Flyers in the regular season. They finished 26-8 and 14-4 in the conference.
VCU is a veteran team, starting four seniors and one junior. They are not particularly big, with two forwards, Mo Alie Cox and Justin Tillman, at 6-7, but also have two guards, Jordan Burgess and Doug Brooks, at 6-4/6-5. They like to press and trap, and their top scorer is the smallest guard, 6-1 Je Quan Lewis, who averages 14.7 PPG, followed by Tillman at 12.4 PPG.
If you happened to catch any VCU action on television this season you probably noticed the most hirsute player in college hoops, VCU reserve Jonathan Williams. Williams is a 6-1 guard who boasts dreads and a full beard, so he is hard to miss.
Handicapping the game, one would give the Gaels a good chance to break down VCU’s press and wreak havoc on the back line. Jock Landale has certainly faced bigger opponents than either Cox or Tillman, but his teammates must get him the ball. Dead-eye shooters Calvin Hermanson and Evan Fitzner may also have an opportunity to shine if the Gaels execute their half-court offense effectively.
If the Gaels get past VCU, they most likely would face number-2 seed Arizona on Saturday. The best thing Saint Mary’s has going for it in taking on the deep and talented Wildcats is familiarity, as they have scrimmaged against Arizona in two recent pre-seasons. The current pre-season, however, wasn’t one of them, so the Gaels will be facing Arizona’s freshman phenom, Lauri Markkanen, for the first time. It will likely be memorable.
Markkanen is a 7-foot, 230-lb. forward who shoots from three-point range when he isn’t dominating underneath. He is averaging 15.6 PPG, and has launched 155 three-pointers, making 43% of them (for reference, the Gaels’ most prolific three-point shooter is Hermanson, who has attempted 190, sinking 44%).
Listing all Arizona’s depth might be frightening, but they do have a spare 7-footer, Dusan Ristic, to back up Markkanen, and a 6-11 sophomore, Chance Comanche, in case they want to go small. The Wildcats’ most dangerous scorer is guard Alonzo Trier, a 6-5 sophomore who is averaging 17.3 PPG, but they have plenty of other guards as well. Trier was under team suspension and not playing in Arizona’s two pre-conference losses, 69-65 to Butler, and 69-62 to Gonzaga.
As proof of the malevolent intent of the selection committee, note that the Gaels were placed in the same West bracket as Gonzaga. Simply to avoid pitting two teams who faced each other during the regular season in another game during the tournament, the NCAA tries to avoid this kind of thing. For the Gaels, who have already lost to Gonzaga three times this year, they made an exception. Thus, if Saint Mary’s gets past VCU and Arizona to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in San Jose, Gonzaga will stand between them and the Final Four.
One does not like to envisage the sight of Zags’ Coach Mark Few opening a vein at center court should Saint Mary’s, indeed, play Gonzaga in the Elite Eight game and defeat them, but one can’t rule it out. Of all Gonzaga’s manifest accomplishments over the years, one triumph has evaded them — advancing to the Final Four.
If it were Saint Mary’s standing in the way, and if the Gaels were to prevail, there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth in Spokane. All thanks to those good folks on the NCAA Selection Committee.
It’s all hands on deck this Thursday for the Saint Mary’s Gaels, pictured above, embarking on the NCAA Tournament chase for the first time in three years. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.