NCAA Tournament Expansion: MAAC Coaches Weigh In

Jim Boeheim wants his Syracuse Orange to make the NCAA Tournament every year, whether they really deserve it or not. He’s never said that, of course, but that’s the impression I get every time the ‘Cuse coach opens his mouth and petitions for Tournament expansion.

Supporters of expanding the field from 65 to 68, 96, or whatever feel that too many “quality” teams are being left out of the field. Boeheim says this all the time. However, as was discussed in my interview with ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, the real purpose of the Tournament is to crown a national champion. For smaller schools, simply making the Big Dance is a great thrill and accomplishment, which is why I am in favor of automatic bids going to all conference tournament champions. But adding more teams and more games will make it harder for the best team to win it all.

As Bilas told me, if you expand the Tourney, “you devalue the regular season even more and you devalue the results of conference tournaments. Making the NCAA Tournament is no longer as special as it was.” Boeheim and others feel too many “deserving” teams are left out. Guess what? In a field with 34 at-large bids, if you didn’t make it in you’re not all that deserving.

My hunch regarding the BCS conference coaches who favor expansion is that they are looking out for themselves. How many more mid-majors would get bids if the field was expanded? My guess is only a few, while the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, and other powers regularly snatched up 8-10 bids per league.

To investigate this further, I contacted all 10 head coaches in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a one-bid league that is currently 15th in the conference RPI rankings. Would a 96-team field mean two or three MAAC schools got in? Does it even matter to the MAAC coaches? Some responses were mixed, but overall the feedback shows a slight preference for keeping the Tournament the way it is: five coaches voted against expansion; three were in favor of it; and two, Siena’s Fran McCaffery and Marist’s Chuck Martin, did not provide a comment.

Iona head coach Kevin Willard believes that if there was expansion, the committee would pit the mid-majors against each other in the opening round play-in games. “You would lose a lot of the luster of the tournament that way, you lose the Cinderella stories. You would have little chance of those great tournament upsets,” he said. He added that if the Tourney expanded without a play-in round, then it would be much fairer and could be a good thing for mid-majors.

Saint Peter’s John Dunne and Rider’s Tommy Dempsey had nearly identical responses, each referring to the Tournament as one of the best sporting events in the country and believing that expansion would mean more BCS schools, not MAAC schools, make the field.

“If it gets us in the tournament, I’d like to see them expand it to 196 if need be,” joked Tom Parrotta of Canisius, before revealing his true feelings: the Tournament has the right amount of teams as is. “I think adding more teams would potentially water down the event.”

Manhattan’s Barry Rohrssen rounds out the group against expansion. While he can see some benefits of including more participants, he feels “the present format seems to really provide the most excitement. It has been a success in the way it is currently structured.”

On the other side of the fence are Ed Cooley of Fairfield and Jimmy Patsos of Loyola (MD), both in favor of expansion. “With the growth of Division I basketball,” said Cooley, “I think expansion would give more young men (the opportunity) to play on that national stage.” Hard to argue with that, though if the field expands too much, the stage for those early-round games but might not be all that important.

Niagara’s Joe Mihalich would be OK with expansion, but just a little. He made it very clear that he is against anything past 68 teams. Here’s how it would play out: “This would mean a play-in game in each of the four regions,” Mihalich explained. “The play-in games should involve the final eight at-large teams.” He suggested these play-in winners be seeded 11 or 12 and was adamant that no conference tournament champions were forced to participate in these play-in games.

While a few MAAC coaches are in favor of expansion, more prefer to adhere to the well-known saying: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As Bilas, some of the coaches, and I have alluded to, the significance of simply making the Tournament would be reduced if the field were expanded. Coaches right now are sometimes fired for not making the Big Dance. In a 96-team field, they’d instead be fired for not making it to the second weekend.

As it stands — and hopefully as it willstand — those final bubble teams left out of the field, whether they hail from the Big East, MAAC, or Mountain West, will have to accept their bid to another postseason tournament and hope to improve their resumes the following season.

ESPN BracketBuster Preview: MAAC Outlook

Siena vs. Butler. Old Dominion vs. Northern Iowa. Marist vs. Cal Irvine? OK, so the name of ESPN’s event — BracketBusters — might be misleading. After all, Marist and Cal Irvine are both last place teams and won’t be appearing in, yet alone busting, any brackets this postseason. But the purpose of the event — to match up schools from outside the power conferences — is fun and meaningful.

Mid-major schools like Siena and Butler that have proven they can beat power conference teams have trouble scheduling home games. The BracketBuster event allows these schools to get an extra home game to boost their resumes. Plus, 22 lucky schools get to play on national television. As I alluded to before, most of the 38 non-televised match-ups won’t live up to the event’s name, but it’s still fun to see the conference compete against each other.

All 10 MAAC schools will be competing in this year’s event; five at home and five on the road. It’s very difficult to project how these games will shake out since these conferences don’t often face each other. But after my success predicting the outcome of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, I will attempt to do just that for the MAAC’s BracketBuster games.

Friday, Feb.19
9:00 pm, ESPNU: William & Mary at Iona
This is clearly the second-best match-up involving a MAAC team and probably the third best of the entire event. William & Mary has already made noise in their non-conferenceschedule, beating top-tier ACC schools Wake Forest and Maryland on the road. The Tribe sit at third in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Iona, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise in the MAAC. The Gaels are also 11-5 in conference and will also be looking for their 20th win. Iona and W&M have three common opponents this season. Both beat Hampton. Both lost at Connecticut — W&M by nine and Iona by 19. The Tribe won by five at Manhattan, a team Iona beat by three on the road but lost to at home.

These results of those games don’t tell us much. One thing is for sure: W&M has proven it can win on the road, even in tough environments. The Hynes Athletic Center should be just that, as fans from smaller schools always get rowdy for televised games.

This is a tough one, and I’m admittedly biased, but playing at home gives the Gaels the slight edge in my book. Also, it’s Senior Night, and although I don’t have any numbers to back this up, I imagine teams have a pretty good winning percentage on Senior Night. Iona wins.

Saturday, Feb. 20
11:00 am, ESPN2: Siena at No. 13 Butler
This is the marquee match-up of the event. When the pairings were announced, it looked like we might have the two longest winning streaks in the nation going head-to-head. Siena’s 15-game winning streak was snapped last week, however. The Saints bounced back against Canisius though, and now head to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse to face Butler and its nation’s best 16-game win streak.

Both of these teams are dominating their respective conference. The Bulldogs are a perfect 17-0 in the Horizon and have lost only four games all season. While the Saints have stars in Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore, and Edwin Ubiles, Butler counters with Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, and Gordon Hayward. The latter Bulldogs are sophomores, while the aforementioned Saints are all seniors. Siena has the edge in experience, but Butler is no stranger to big games.

Butler has lost its last two home BracketBuster games, but is 12-0 at Hinkle this season and is 41-3 at home over the past three seasons. The Bulldogs haven’t been seriously challenged in a while, but you could say the same thing about Siena. This is a great measuring-stick game for both teams. Once again, I’ll give the edge to the home team. Butler wins a very close game.

1:00 pm: New Hampshire at Loyola (MD)
These teams have some common opponents but that’s not going to help us here, as they both beat Vermont, Marist, and UMBC, all by similar amounts. Their records, both in conference and overall, are also very similar. Both have lost two in a row. So…who knows? I’m going with the home team. Loyola wins a low-scoring affair.

2:00 pm: Fairfield at Vermont
Another MAAC vs. America East match-up. Vermont lost by 13 at Loyola (MD), a team Fairfield beat twice. Vermont won at Marist by 10, while Fairfield won there by 20. So this is a small sample size of a formula that doesn’t tell you much to begin with, but the Stags have a slight edge here. The MAAC and the America East are similar, so I’m tempted to give the edge to the home team, but I like this Fairfield team. The Stags have overcome adversity this year, and I expect them to pull off the small upset in this one.

2:00 pm: Towson at Manhattan
Both teams are struggling, each winning only four games in conference so far and sitting well below .500. Towon was blown out by fellow CAA member Hofstra twice, while Manhattan only lost by five in a really ugly game. The Jaspers also hung with William & Mary; although the Tigers haven’t faced the Tribe yet, I imagine they’ll lose handily. Manhattan’s record is a bit misleading because of all the tough, close losses. I don’t think this will be that close. Manhattan wins by at least eight.

2:00 pm: Buffalo at Saint Peter’s
MAC vs. MAAC. Buffalo took on two MAAC schools this year, dropping a close game to Canisius and winning at Niagara. But Saint Peter’s has beaten both those teams twice. Again, it’s so hard to compare these seemingly equal teams from different conferences, but I saw St. Pete’s in person and liked what I saw. The Peacocks will prevail.

4:00 pm: Rider at Hofstra
Rider has been disappointing this season. I keep waiting for the Broncs to break out, and although Ryan Thompson is on fire in his last six games, Rider is only 8-8 in the MAAC. Thompson is handful, but Hofstra already beat a better MAAC team in Fairfield. I can’t pick every MAAC team. I’m going with Hofstra.

7:00 pm: James Madison at Canisius
Another CAA vs. MAAC contest, and like Manhattan, I’m going with the MAAC in this one. James Madison is 4-12 in conference and 2-12 overall on the road. Canisius, with its strong guard play, should win fairly easily.

7:00 pm: Marist at Cal Irvine
I’m sorry, Marist fans, but I won’t spend much time on this one. Both teams are pretty bad, so I’ll go with the home team — the one that doesn’t have to travel across the country. Cal Irvine wins.

7:00 pm: Niagara at Milwaukee
I don’t want to give excuses before the games are even played, but it’s hard to compare these teams. Like the Siena-Butler match-up, this is MAAC vs. Horizon. Niagara has been impressive lately, winning four of its last five, including a victory over Siena. Milwaukee played earlier tonight, which doesn’t help their chances on Saturday. However, I smell a minor upset here. When in doubt, go with the home team. Milwaukee wins a very close game.

To recap, I predict the MAAC to post an impressive 6-4 record in its BracketBuster games. I like Iona, Loyola, Fairfield, Manhattan, Saint Peter’s, and Canisius to earn victories for the MAAC, though I’m more confident in my overall record prediction being correct than in my game-by-game picks. We’ll find out how I did by the end of Saturday. Please feel free to post your predictions in the comments section.

Winter Olympics vs Summer Olympics

I recently posted a simple question on my Facebook profile: Which is better — Winter or Summer Olympics? Those who voted were very confident in their choice, making claims like “summer by a lot” and “winter for sure,” while others added colorful comments such as “figure skating is horrible” and “without the winter olympics we would never have been blessed with Cool Runnings.”

I figured summer would win in a landslide, but when the votes were tallied it was much closer than I thought. Summer had the edge, but barely. I didn’t scoff at those who voted for winter. I’m just jealous of them. I want to like the Winter Games more, I just find the Summer Olympics to be so much better. Here are four reasons why.

1. He won…I guess
For the most part, people like competitions in which there are clear-cut winners. Team A scored more points than Team B. Athlete X reached the finish line before Athlete Y. We don’t like our sports to include judges. Let them decide American Idol.

Unfortunately, a large number of Winter Olympic sports have judges, such as figure skating, snowboarding, and freestyle skiing. Subjectivity takes away from the viewing experience, because fans have to delay their excitement until the judges’ scores are posted. Unless a competitor does something that is obviously bad — i.e. fall — it’s hard for the average viewer to distinguish between two good performances.

2. You’ve never luged
Most everyone has ran, swam, played basketball, ridden a bike, and lifted weights. Perhaps not competitively, but you’ve done these activities. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a bobsled. Or if you’ve soared through the air, on skies, the length of a football field. Or if you’ve even thought about taking a broom with you to the ice rink to push around a chunk of granite. Yeah, didn’t think so.

Now, I’m not suggesting bobsledding, ski jumping, and curling aren’t worthy of being Olympic events, nor am I saying the athletes who compete aren’t incredibly skilled. But an overwhelming majority of people have no frame of reference for these events. What is a good score? A good time? A good distance? Even in the objective events, it’s hard to make much sense of what you’re watching.

3. Everyone can play
You don’t need wealth, or a particular climate, to compete in many of the summer events. All you need are shoes to train for track and field, water for swimming, fists for boxing. There’s a reason that 10 countries have more than 100 summer medals but fewer than 10 winter medals. If your country doesn’t get any snow, it’s sort of hard to train for most of the winter events.

The winter sports are also, generally speaking, more expensive. Renting ice time is very costly, and this likely prevents some of the poorer countries from participating in many events. The Olympic Games are supposed to be for all, right? The Summer Games promote this ideal; the Winter Games do not.

4. Big names left out in the cold
Make a list of your top five greatest Olympic champions of all time, using whatever criteria you choose. I’m only 23, but here are mine: Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Jesse Owens, and Usain Bolt. Of course I’m biased towards more recent competitors as well as American athletes, but I can’t imagine any list that includes a majority of winter athletes.

I’d be shocked if Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, or Apolo Ohno generate the buzz that Phelps, Bolt, and Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh provided in the 2008 Summer Games. Simply put, the Winter Games lack the star power that the summer Games have.

I didn’t go with the more conventional five reasons because I’m leaving it up to you to either provide an additional reason why the Summer Games are better or to give a reason why I’ve got it all wrong, and that the Winter games are superior. Let me know in the comments.

Michigan Womens Basketball: Kevin Borseth Builds the Program

Late in a close game against an in-state rival, Kevin Borseth looked out on the court and saw he was putting the game in the hands of Dayeesha Hollins, Jenny Ryan, Nya Jordan, Rachel Sheffer, and Carmen Reynolds. The significance? These players don’t exactly have much big game experience. In fact, they don’t have much experience at all; four are freshmen and one is a sophomore.

But this young team is showing a great deal of promise and should capture more and more attention on a campus hungry for a winning program.

Of the “big four” sports at the University of Michigan, three of them feature head coaches in or entering their third season. The casual college sports fan is likely familiar with two, men’s basketball coach John Beilein and football coach Rich Rodriguez (who begins his third season in the fall), both from West Virginia University.

However, the recently hired Michigan coach who has made the greatest strides is Borseth, the women’s basketball head coach in the midst of his third season in Ann Arbor after nine seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Borseth is in his 23rd year as a head coach at the Division I and II levels, and he’s been a winner throughout his career. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he led Michigan Tech to four conference titles in 11 seasons, earning the league’s coach of the year award five times. Borseth’s UW-Green Bay teams won the league title all nine of his seasons, reaching 20 wins in all but his first year.

Winning has not come as easily to Borseth in Ann Arbor. Inheriting a program that had won only 21 games the previous three seasons, he took over the Wolverines and immediately returned them to respectability by going .500 in the Big Ten and 19-14 overall, winning two games in the NIT. But Michigan regressed last season, at least in the winning column, going 10-20 and a dismal 3-15 in conference.

Last year was especially disappointing because Michigan started 7-4 in the nonconference, beating No. 12 Vanderbilt and No. 8 Notre Dame. But two long losing streaks in the Big Ten, including dropping the last eight, doomed the Wolverines.

There were worries that this year’s squad might follow a similar script. Michigan had another impressive early season resume, knocking off two ACC schools and No. 8 Xavier, all on the road. The Wolverines won an early December game at Iowa as well, but then went 2-6 in their next eight Big Ten games, the last of which was a heart-breaking two-point home loss to Ohio State, and many fans had to be thinking, “here we go again.”

But entering Thursday night’s game with Michigan State, Michigan had won four of its last five and was 6-7 in conference and 14-9 overall. The young players Borseth put his faith in performed admirably (Hollins, a freshman, scored a game-high 19 points), but Michigan lost, 50-45. Even so, the Wolverines are only two games back of third place in a conference that, even with only four games left, could see the standings shift dramatically. Other than Ohio State, which is 13-2, the remaining seeds are up for grabs.

Michigan’s remaining schedule is difficult, with road games at Penn State and Minnesota and home contests against Wisconsin and Purdue. If the Wolverines were to go, say, 2-2, then win a game in the Big Ten Tournament, it would probably get them an NIT bid, but no more. To look at this as a disappointment, though, would be far too critical given the youth of this team. Michigan’s 13-player roster consists of six freshmen and three sophomores. Of the eight players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, five of them are underclassmen.

In Year Three under Borseth, it’s clear the program is making strides. Michigan has proven it can win on the road, notching seven victories away from Crisler. It has proven it can beat top-ranked teams (Xavier). And it has proven it can hang with the best in conference (the two losses to Ohio State were by a combined five points). The next step is not just hanging tough in those games, but winning them.

There’s still plenty of basketball to be played this season, but it’s hard not to get excited thinking about the future of Michigan women’s basketball.

Podcast: Michigan Basketball and Football Conversation

Last Wednesday I spoke with Chris Gaerig, a college friend of mine and author of Burgeoning Wolverine Star, about Michigan athletics. Michigan had lost a heartbreaker the previous night to Michigan State, making it very unlikely that the Wolverines will make the NCAA Tournament. We discuss the game, as well as the future of Michigan basketball under John Beilein. Chris argues that DeShawn Sims is a better college player (and a better pro prospect) than Manny Harris.

Later in the discussion, we talk about the struggles of Michigan football. This podcast isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, but then again, Michigan sports hasn’t exactly given its fans reasons to smile lately. If you love Manny, or think the Wolverines are really going to miss cornerback Donovan Warren, let us know in the comments. And be sure to check out Chris’ blog, too.

http://www.divshare.com/flash/playlist?myId=10429069-9d8

Iona vs. Siena: MAAC Game of the Year

The Iona Gaels (17-6, 8-3) travel to Albany’s Times Union Center to face the Siena Saints (19-4, 12-0) tomorrow night in a showdown of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s top two teams. Iona has won eight straight games, and Siena holds the nation’s longest streak at 13 games. The Saints won the first match-up on Dec. 7, 73-60.

Iona, like every other MAAC team this season, will be a big underdog against Siena. This is a different Iona team from when these two teams last met, however, so in anticipation of the game (which I’ll be covering) I’ll break down five keys for the Gaels to pull off the upset.

1. The Awe Factor
The Saints are the two-time MAAC champions and haven’t lost a conference game yet this season. They’ve won eight in a row against Iona, last losing in January of 2006. The Gaels can’t be intimidated by the Saints or their sold-out arena — a building, by the way, where Siena has won 32 straight. In fact, Iona, a full-court pressing team, can use the crowd energy to its advantage.

Jonathan Huffman, one of only two seniors on this Iona team, told me after the Gaels’ latest loss to Siena that, coming from the Big East (Huffman followed head coach Kevin Willard from Louisville), he looks at Siena like any other team. It’s reasonable to think that cool confidence has rubbed off on his teammates. After all, Iona won at Providence this year and took Florida State and Baylor down to the wire in Orlando.

2. Keep A-Rod on the Court
Willard said it himself after Iona’s most recent game: “He really is the backbone of our team.” He was speaking of junior Alejo Rodriguez. At 6’8,” 235 lbs., Rodriguez provides muscle for the Gaels’ thin frontcourt. Huffman is a seven footer, but he prefers to play on the perimeter, leaving freshman Mike McFadden as the only other Iona forward who logs substantial minutes.

Rodriguez enters the contest with Siena coming off two straight double-doubles. He leads the MAAC in field goal percentage by a fairly wide margin, but it’s on the defensive end that Rodriguez makes his mark, blocking and changing shots and pulling down boards. He can’t do any of these things, of course, if he’s not on the court. A-Rod fouled out of five of his first 14 games this season, but hasn’t fouled out in nine straight. He’ll go up against a Siena front line that includes three preseason first and second team All-Conference players.

3. Something’s Gotta Give
Siena is the highest-scoring team in the MAAC, averaging 75 points in conference games. Iona is the best defensive team, allowing only 56 points per game. After Monday’s game, Willard and his players spoke about how this Gaels squad is finally grasping the concept that defense wins games. But Siena’s starting five poses an entirely different challenge. Four starters score in double-digits, and the one who doesn’t, point guard Ronald Moore, leads the country in assists by a wide margin at a whopping 8.3 per game.

Edwin Ubiles is Siena’s most talented player, but “Ronald Moore is the key to that basketball team,” Willard said after Moore played 40 minutes against Iona in their last match-up. “If there’s a better point guard in the country, I’d like to find him. He makes everything go. He handles the ball, handles it against pressure, gets in the lane when he needs to, and makes all the right decisions…he is just terrific.”

Pretty high praise, huh? Well, Iona can counter with some great defensive guards, and if they can slow Moore down or force him into some turnovers, Iona’s chances at winning improve greatly.

4. Contain Ubiles
Easier said than done. The versatile small forward hit nine-of-16 shots for a game-high 19 points in the first match-up. When the game was still in single digits midway through the second half, he scored 10 points in a six-minute span to put the game away.

Ubiles is a match-up nightmare. At 6’6″ the senior can shoot over smaller guards, but he’s too quick for bigger forwards. He’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and, although he doesn’t take many threes, he’s over 40 percent from downtown. Ubiles has been hampered by a bad shoulder and has missed three of Siena’s past five games. But he played 23 minutes in Saturday’s win over Marist, scoring 15. He is expected to start tomorrow.

Not sure which player will draw Ubiles — whoever it is, he will have his hands full at the defensive end. Forcing Ubiles into some tough shots will help Iona limit the high-powered Saints offense.

5. Dig Deep
It’s often a key ingredient in any upset recipe: knock down some threes. Fortunately for the Gaels, they’re tops in the MAAC, shooting 37 percent from deep. They make an average of 7.6 threes per game, and I think 10 will be needed to beat Siena. Iona can spread the floor with as many as four shooters — Scott Machado, Kyle Smyth, Jermel Jenkins, Rashard McGill, Rashon Dwight, Milan Prodanovic, and Huffman can all hit from deep.

Stretching the defense by hitting outside shots will open the lane for Machado and others to penetrate. Deep bombs also tend to have the effect of quieting the crowd.

So there you have it. Pretty simple right? Five easy steps to victory. In all seriousness, Siena is going to be favored for a reason. This program has earned its position as the MAAC’s elite. But the Saints hear the footsteps of some of the other MAAC programs, with Iona’s likely being the loudest.

Willard has taken this team from a laughingstock (2-28 the year before he took over) to a legitimate conference force. Just hanging tough with the Saints would an improvement from years past, but a win would be perhaps Iona’s biggest in several seasons.

First Podcast: Marist vs. Iona, Halftime Radio Show

At TheSportsJournalists.com, today marks the inauguration of us podcasting from this blog. All of our podcasts can be found at podcasts.thesportsjournalists.com

Our first podcast was recorded by ICGAELS.COM during halftime of Iona’s 61-42 win over Marist on Thursday, January 28th. It includes Andrew Kahn fielding questions from Ed Ingles. This is Andrew’s first appearance on live radio so we’d love to hear your feedback regarding his performance. We would like to thank everyone at ICGAELS.COM for giving Andrew this opportunity.

Listen below.

http://www.divshare.com/flash/playlist?myId=12000349-314

One man's writing in one place.