The big leagues get the big ink and the prime TV slots because, duh, they’re big. For impact, though, this is the time of the season when small means all. For case studies, we turn to Music City U.S.A.
The SEC tournament will be staged there, which seems almost fitting, seeing as how Nashville-based Vanderbilt just made SEC history. It became the first team ever to go 0-18 in conference play. (The only previous SEC team to emerge winless from a conference season had been Georgia Tech, 0-14 in 1954.) Now forget about Vandy. Focus instead on Belmont and Lipscomb, two other Nashville institutions of higher learning separated by 1.9 miles.
Belmont went 26-5 and tied for first place in the Ohio Valley Conference. Lipscomb went 25-7 and tied for first in the Atlantic Sun. Belmont was No. 4 in last week’s mid-major poll; Lipscomb was No. 11. Both are sweating bullets.
On Saturday, Belmont lost 77-65 to Murray State – and Ja Morant, who might be the second-best collegian in the land – in the OVC final. On Sunday, Lipscomb lost 74-68 to Liberty in the A-Sun final. As of Monday, neither Belmont nor Lipscomb merited inclusion in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology field of 68. The former was among the “first four out,” the latter among the “next four out.” The key word – “out.”
There will be much discussion in Nashville this week over the NCAA cases of Florida and Alabama, both of which are 17-14. The same will hold at the ACC tournament in Charlotte, where N.C. State is a rousingly unimpressive 21-10 and Clemson is 19-12. (Lunardi includes all but Bama in his 68, though none appears secure.) And yet: None of those SEC/ACC schools was better than .500 in league play.
Belmont went 16-2 in the OVC, Lipscomb 14-2 in the ASUN. No, there are no Zions or Virginias or Kentuckys or in the OVC/A-Sun, but the margin of error in a major conference is so forgiving as to be laughable. (You’re handed more than half-dozen chances to score a Quality Win.) A mid-major’s margin of error is zero. Lose in your league tournament, even if it’s by one point in overtime in the final, and you’re reduced – cue Dusty Springfield – to wishin’ and hopin’.
This is relevant locally because of Georgia State, again the bellwether of Atlanta-area hoops. The Panthers beat Georgia Southern in Statesboro on Saturday to clinch first place in the Sun Belt. That’s a nice achievement that will be rendered cold comfort if Ron Hunter’s men don’t prevail in the league tournament, which will be staged in New Orleans.
Winning Saturday did have one perk. Had the Panthers lost, they could have been relegated to single-bye status. As is, they receive a double bye. Both Texas State, which led the Sun Belt for much of the past month, and Georgia Southern, which won six in a row to forge a first-place tie, will begin play in Friday’s quarterfinals. By winning its final four games, UT-Arlington snatched the No. 2 seed and nosed above .500 on the season. (Another thing about mid-majors: They’re weird.)
Hunter’s men have had some good luck in the Sun Belt tournament: In 2015, they beat Georgia Southern 38-36 (!) in OT, whereupon Hunter tore his Achilles in celebration and loosed the famous rolling chair on March Madness; last year they fended off the other GSU in a semifinal clinched by Devin Mitchell’s 3-pointer, which was hoisted with the Panthers leading by three and, unbeknownst to Mitchell, the shot clock off. They’ve also known abject disappointment: In 2014, a team that had gone 17-1 over the Sun Belt regular season wasted an 11-point lead and lost to Louisiana-Lafayette by, ahem, one point in overtime in the final; in 2017, they blew a 15-point lead as the No. 2 seed against No. 6 Troy in the semis.
That’s life in a mid-major. Absolutely everything comes down to one week in March. If you prevail, you advance to the part of March that people notice, and maybe you can make a memory that will last forever. (Such as a coach’s son hitting a 3-pointer against No. 3 seed Baylor to cap a 12-point comeback in the final 2:40, inducing his dad to fall off that rolling chair.) If not, the masses won’t know you existed.
Georgia State is ranked 125th in the new NET (stands for “NCAA Evaluation Tool”) ratings, a supposed improvement over RPI. The NET has the Panthers four spots behind Georgia Southern, which they swept; 13 spots behind 11-20 Georgia, which they beat by 24 points on a neutral floor, and eight spots behind Georgia Tech, which lost at home to Georgia by 11. The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets have spent four months proving they aren’t very good. The Panthers are 22-9 and winners of their league, but they have as many Quad 1 wins (one, at Alabama) as Quad 4 losses (at Troy), which means there’ll be no at-large Dance invite for them.
Is it fair? Nope. Does the NCAA tournament really need the ACC’s ninth-best team or the SEC’s eighth-best? Nah. But that’s the way of March. If you’re a mid-major and you’re not Gonzaga, there’s no safety net. Even if you’ve been winning all year, you can’t lose now. Gardner-Webb beat Georgia Tech and Wake Forest over 12 December days, but it had to win the Big South Tournament, which it did, to be sure. Furman beat Villanova, the reigning champ, but its loss to UNC Greensboro in the Southern semis could deal the Paladins out.
That word again – “out.” For a worthy mid-major, it’s the cruelest word in the English language.
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