I’m glad this game was televised, because there really is a lot to say about the play of both teams in this game, which wasn’t as close as the 93-89 final score might indicate. CBU led almost the entire way, by 14 at the half, and by as many as 23 in the second half, before a furious late run by Harding kept them just barely in the game over the closing minutes.
First, let me address the CSS TV broadcast, which was slightly worse than average from my totally biased HU fanboy perspective. I’m not sure who the play-by-play announcer was, but former Delta State coach Steve Rives provided analysis, and the team paled in comparison to the crew that broadcast the game for CSTV a few weeks ago in Searcy. While maintaining the pretense of objectivity and knowledge, they fudged a fair number of their facts, and for a GSC coaching legend, Rives’ analysis was on-and-off, as he and his cohort repeatedly tried to call the game a win for Christian Brothers when the Bisons clearly had at least a chance to make a run.
The CSS team focused their analysis almost entirely on Christian Brothers. Granted, CBU led the game for the most part, the tournament was held just outside Memphis, and it was a significant story that they have been shooting so consistently well. It was also partly a result of their placement in front of the CBU students, but my experience leads me to believe that Harding almost certainly would have had at enough support to rival CBU’s, and there was no focus on the Harding crowd beyond a few fly-by camera shots. CSS also performed a halftime interview with CBU’s president, and made no attempt to cover Harding in depth at all, doing a disservice to those watching around the Southeast, who (aside from the handful of readers of this blog who are not connected with HU) turned off the TV knowing nothing about Harding except that it located in Searcy (not pronounced SEE-rcy, by the way), Arkansas.
Back to the game broadcast, the CSS team made no mention of the seasons both schools were having prior to the tournament, either of the teams’ previous two matchups, or the fan support for either program. In other words, they failed to mention any of the possible interesting storylines other than CBU’s hot shooting. There was no mention of the Rhodes Field House or the conference attendance records that have been shattered by HU in recent years, which could have been good publicity for D-II and CSS both. Harding’s support would seem to be validation that Division-II basketball is actually relevant (at least regionally or on a team-specific basis). Instead, they wore out the one talking point they had about CBU, which was Coach Mike Nienaber’s Ohio recruiting connection. They were effectively promoting one of the most poorly-supported GSC programs, since CBU averaged just 408 in home attendance this season (HU drew 1931 after a very slow start to the year). You wouldn’t have known from the broadcast that such a difference existed between the schools. In fact, CBU was portrayed as having the “clever” fanbase, and Steve Rives repeatedly let this oversight slide, despite having made yearly trips to Searcy for the last 10 or so years of his career.
None of this rant, by the way, is intended to take away from the Coach Nienaber’s great accomplishments at Christian Brothers. I’ve mentioned before that I think he has the best program of any GSC West school, including HU, because he knows how to run an efficient offense and builds his team by recruiting freshmen. He gets players who know their roles and play them well. Still, there were more interesting storylines to this game than his Ohio connections.
Anyway, on to the game itself…
Christian Brothers 93, Harding 89
The GSC Championship was ultimately won by the team that got hot at exactly the right time. Midway through the conference season, the Buccaneers found their stroke, and they rode it all the way to a GSC title. Luckily for the Bisons, they probably made it far enough in the tournament to feel good about their positioning for an NCAA Tournament berth.
[I’ll have a stat summary here later, but neither team has released them in a format my Excel files can read.]
The Bucs had 22 fewer shot attempts than the Bisons, but when you make 59% of them, it almost doesn’t matter. In the first half, the story was simply that CBU’s shots were falling, while Harding’s were not. In the second half, CBU extended their lead, only to fall totally flat over the final minutes of the game, giving Harding a chance to stay in it until the clock ran out.
Kevin Brown was the story for the Bisons, and I’m not sure he could have made a better case for a starting spot than this coming out party. The freshman had 33 points and was purely dominant around the rim, making the GSC’s best post man in Nick Kohs look harmless in comparison on the other end of the floor. Kohs had 28 points and 18 boards to lead the GSC champs.
Matt Hall found it difficult to get open as usual, but he did finish as the Bisons’ second-leading scorer with an efficient 17 points on 10 shot attempts. Steven Barnett and Trent Morgan also scored at least 10 for the Bisons, although Morgan shot just 2-of-10 from the field. The whole team (other than Brown) seemed to struggle around the basket, repeatedly missing layups and put-back attempts.
The Bisons wait and see what seed they get for the NCAA Tournament. They are presumably in, but they’ll have to wait until 11 Eastern to find out. All of the automatic bids were won by the favorites (at least as I saw them), with Benedict winning the SIAC and Florida Southern winning the SSC this afternoon. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Harding doesn’t make the field in some way, but I suppose it’s possible.
If I were to rank the top 8 teams in the region based on the season as a whole, I would have to do it this way (including the 3 automatic bids, denoted parenthetically by conference):
- North Alabama
- Florida Southern (SSC)
- Christian Brothers (GSC)
- Florida Tech
- Benedict (SIAC)
This is the most parity I’ve seen in the South Region in my six years following it. There is no clearly dominant team, although the top four teams are all playing quite well right now. CBU and Florida Southern are conference champs, but UNA and Tampa have solid enough records to be ranked with them. Eckerd and Florida Tech are a notch below the top teams in the SSC, but both have played well enough throughout the season to be in the top 8 in my view.
The problem, as always, is rating the SIAC in comparison to the other conferences. With a 22-game conference schedule, they don’t play many non-conference games, and it’s tough to figure out how good they actually are. Regardless of how many conference wins they have, I don’t see how you make a case for ranking them above the #8 seed.
Here’s how I think it should work out, if the selection committee remains consistent with the way they’ve ranked the teams so far this year:
- Florida Southern
- Christian Brothers
- North Alabama
- Ouachita Baptist
I think Rollins is the first team left out, with Florida Tech, Valdosta State, and West Georgia also having a chance. Whether you go by my real rankings or the way I think it may actually work out, it’s a difficult matchup against one of the top four teams for Harding. To me, Tampa is their most likely opponent, but Florida Southern, Christian Brothers, and North Alabama are also possibilities, depending on how strongly the committee weights conference tournament performance. Perhaps the Bisons will even luck out and get Benedict in the first round.
The Selection Show is just a few hours away, and you can watch it live from the NCAA/CSTV website. My commentary might have to wait until tomorrow, depending on how late I decide to stay up tonight. I have to travel an hour away for work tomorrow, so I’ll need to be getting an early start.