Saturday, March 14, 2015

Atlantic 10 Tournament , Second Round - March 12, 2015

The past year I have become a big fan of college basketball, a sport I once disdained for its lack of pace and oversaturation of the sports calendar in March. With 351 Division I teams throughout the country, college hoops provides more road trip destinations than any other meaningful sport (I don't count Division II or III or high school sports in this category). Most of these schools are known as mid-majors as they don't play in one of the power conferences (ACC, SEC, Big 10, Pac 12, Big 12). In basketball, the Big East and American are not really mid-majors either, but that still leaves 25 conferences that are, including the Atlantic 10. What is best about the smaller mid-major schools is that their games are played in small venues, usually on campus, with a raucous atmosphere that is hard to replicate in the pros. The game itself still suffers from too many stoppages, but when you are at the venue, the atmosphere makes up for it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to conference tournaments, too many of these mid-majors succumb to the cynicism that plagues the NCAA as a whole and play the entire competition at a neutral site. Students who supported the team all season are forced to fork over travel money if they want to cheer them on any further.

Even more cynical is the fact that all teams in the conference make the tournament, thus necessitating even more games. The A10 is one of the mid-majors that allows every squad into its playoff, which is now held over five consecutive days at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. There are 14 teams in the A10 (yet another misnamed conference), which means 13 games are required to crown a champion. With nothing else to do on Thursday night, I headed over to watch a couple of games in the night session of the second round.

The first round was played on Wednesday and featured #11 Duquesne (6-12) defeating #14 St. Louis (3-13). If that wasn't enticing enough, your second game was between two 4-14 teams (Fordham beat George Mason). The Thursday morning session saw La Salle (8-10) "upset" Massachusetts (10-8) while VCU disposed of Fordham.

I arrived a few minutes before the 6:30 tip for the evening session (when four games are played on a single day, you have to buy two session tickets naturally) and paid $20 to get in, about $19.95 too much.  The first match featured St. Bonaventure (10-8) taking on St. Joseph's (7-11). If you recall, St. Joes took eventual national champion Connecticut to overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, but they lost three seniors (including current Knick Langston Galloway) and are back to also-rans. The Bonnies (a relatively new nickname as the team used to be called the Brown Indians until 1992) lost to Florida State in the first round of the 2012 tournament. Their mascot is the Bona Wolf as seen on the cheerleaders above.

The game was a slog, especially in the first half when neither team could do much. The Hawks went into the break with a 28-23 lead, much to the chagrin of the Bonnie fans who had travelled from western New York. They were loud and obnoxious, standing for much of the game and annoying the fans around behind them who realized that an early round A10 tournament game is not really a good excuse to get drunk and stand up for 2 hours.

DeAndre Bembry misses another shot above while Denzell Gregg drives the lane below

Fortunately for them, their long trip was not a complete waste as St. Bonaventure started the second half on a 14-6 run to take a 3-point lead which they never relinquished, using strong free throw shooting down the stretch to pull away 60-49. Like it mattered, they were eliminated the next day by #2 seed Dayton, but hey 1-0 is better than 0-1.

This was unpleasant from start to finish, with St. Joseph's shooting just over 25% while both teams were horrible from three point land (5/30). This would have been fun to watch on St. Bonaventure's home court, but in an empty arena, it was just depressing.

After a half-hour break, George Washington (10-8) took on Duquesne and I was glad I stayed around as this game was much more entertaining. Both teams played hard and the pace was quick although it was clear that the Colonials were a superior squad. It was 40-27 for GWU at halftime so I headed home as it was well past 10:00 and I had to work the next day. GWU went on to win 73-55 but were dismissed by Rhode Island the next evening.

The highlight of this game was watching Yuta Watanabe (below), the first Japanese-born player to receive a scholarship for Division I basketball. He is only a freshman and worth following as he displayed a good outside touch for a big man.


VCU was the eventual tournament champion, beating Davidson and Dayton in the final. All three teams made the NCAA tournament, while George Washington, Rhode Island, and Richmond are in the NIT.

This was the second season in a row that I've seen a conference tournament at a neutral venue and I am not a fan. What makes college basketball exciting is having games played in a small gym surrounded by fans of the team, mostly students and locals. These contests were mostly meaningless - was it really necessary to take the bottom six teams here? The NCAA argues that student-athletes are students first, but having a 3-13 team make the post season so the conference can charge their New York-based alumni a few bucks proves otherwise. The NCAA is about one thing and that is money, as we all found out on Selection Sunday. But more about that in a later post.



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