Monday, April 4, 2011

Ride That Darkhorse

By Jonathan Lowe

I gotta admit, I'm flying high right now. My Sports Christmas came and went with fantastic basketball, and the start to my favorite week of the year included an unusually tight pair of semifinals in Houston. But with everybody focused on the Final Four and, to a smaller extent, the NIT Finals in New York, there was other college basketball out there.

To be frank, I try to bypass the other "speedbump" tournaments in the world of the NCAA postseason. However, the CBI finished its fourth year of existence this past week, and the newest playoff bracket, the CIT, got done with year number three. In the CIT championship, the West Coast stood strong as Santa Clara took down Iona from the Metro Atlantic Conference.

Meanwhile, the CBI Finals series could have easily been dubbed the "Dana Altman Classic." The coach's current team, the Oregon Ducks, defeated his former squad, the Creighton Blue Jays, on a last-second shot in the final game of the best-of-three tilt.

First of all, bully for you, Ducks and Broncos. The Pac-10 member had the chance to hold up a trophy at the end of a big transition in Altman's first season in Eugene. The WCC school best-known as Steve Nash's alma mater actually did play longer than conference behemoths Gonzaga and Saint Mary's.

However, there may be more to this story. When people look at indicators for future participants and sleepers in any NCAA tournament, we usually turn our eyes to Madison Square Garden and the NIT. But that's the easy way out. As useless as I believe the CBI and CIT have been in March, we may have to put more focus on those final rounds of the Invitationals to find that lump of coal that might turn into a diamond come the following March.

When referring to the CIT, the champs have really gained from the experience of being in some kind of postseason bracket. 2010 champ Missouri State won the 2011 Missouri Valley regular season title, battled for an NCAA spot, and ended up with a win in this year's NIT. The winner in 2009, Old Dominion, went a step further. The Monarchs found their way into the 2010 Big Dance after sweeping the Colonial regular and tournament titles. They pulled an upset over Notre Dame before falling to Baylor in the second round.

The CBI has a similar path of success, but not just for the champions. Each year following a CBI run, one of the finalists has advanced at least one notch in the tournament hierarchy.

After taking the inaugural championship in 2008, the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes scored a first-round win over Northwestern in the '09 NIT. Conference USA got another boost in 2010. UTEP finished as the 2009 CBI runner-up, but found enough success to sneak in as one of the final at-large teams for the 2010 NCAAs. The Miners ended up as the first casualty in the first Butler run. The last casualty in Butler's repeat journey to the national title game was VCU ... a.k.a. the 2010 CBI champion.

So how will these four finalists take their run of success and make it blossom in 2011-2012? One thing that lends well to all these programs is that they don't lose significant senior minutes.

Iona Gaels

Returning — There are two seniors that guided Iona to the CIT Final. However, they averaged the fifth and sixth-most minutes on the squad. This means that not only a ton of experience is coming back, but there shouldn't be huge holes to fill in finding that fifth starter.

Conference Obstacles — Rider will need to reload. The Broncs lose their top two contributors from this year's team. Conference tournament winner St. Peter's will get cut even deeper. Opposite Iona, the Peacocks' will go into the 2011-2012 campaign without their top four contributors from this season. Regular season champ Fairfield will keep most of their stock, though, providing another tough test for the Gaels to maneuver.

Where Will They Be Next March? — The Gaels will be on the road in the NIT after winning the regular season title, but losing out in the conference tourney.

Santa Clara Broncos

Returning — Backcourt mates Kevin Foster (leading scorer) and Evan Roquemore (tied for assists lead with Foster). Add them to the tallest player on the team, 6-9 forward Marc Trasolini, and that makes the three leading scorers (and 44.7 ppg) coming back to the Bay Area.

Conference Obstacles — Just like in other years, Gonzaga will come back strong. Saint Mary's should do the same. But some key pieces will be missing. The Bulldogs lose shooter Stephen Gray, while the Gaels will see point guard Mickey McConnell walk across the stage. But with Mark Few and Randy Bennett at the helm of their respective programs, expect more talent to flow in.

The bigger threat might be what Rex Walters is building at San Francisco. Although the Broncos actually beat this conference rival in the CIT quarterfinals. But the Dons only featured one senior and four juniors this season. So expect more improvement from their surprising third-place conference finish.

Sidenote: the conference season won't be any easier with BYU joining the fray next year.

Where Will They Be Next March? — I think the Broncos will join Iona in the NIT. (Can anyone say rematch?) They'll finish second in the WCC and fall just short of the NCAAs by losing to Gonzaga in the WCC tourney final.

Creighton Blue Jays

Returning — The Missouri Valley stalwart returns their top four scorers and two best rebounders from this season. Even though the program loses five seniors, the core of this team was made up of freshmen and sophomores. With a year of Valley experience under their belts, it should only put them as one of the favorites to win the conference next season.

Conference Obstacles — Wichita State was the favorite to win the regular season crown this time around and should be again, despite moving on without J.T. Durley and Gabe Blair (among others). Thing is ... the Shockers shared the time on-court. Ten players averaged double-digit minutes, which means a ton of experienced talent returns. Missouri State will likely return MVC Player of the Year Kyle Weems. Plus, NCAA tourney participant Indiana State gets a lot of their top talent back. But this might lead the Valley to get back to the days when they were the most-feared mid-major, with multiple Big Dance bids in tow.

Where Will They Be Next March? — They'll survive a tough run through the Valley to a second-place finish and wind up in the Arch Madness final in St. Louis. This will be enough to get the Blue Jays into the NCAAs as a dangerous 11-seed, where they'll pull off an unexpected Sweet 16 surge.

Oregon Ducks

Returning — If the rebuilding effort is to stay on the fast track, it starts with E.J. Singler. The younger brother of former Duke star Kyle, he led the team in minutes, while placing second in points and boards. Obviously, this will be his team next season. Malcolm Armstead and Garrett Slim may want to add some assistance, though.

Conference Obstacles — Arizona may be losing stud forward Derrick Williams, but many thought this team was a year ahead of schedule. Washington may take a hit if Isaiah Thomas follows through with his intent of entering the NBA draft (along with losing Venoy Overton, Matthew Bryan-Amaning, and Justin Holiday to graduation).

UCLA was also said to be a year away from getting back to prominence. However, that could stall a bit if Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt go pro (and Honeycutt intends to sign with an agent). Washington State might also get a bump if prolific scorer Klay Thompson stays in Pullman. The room for improvement is there, but it's there for the top half of the conference.

Where Will They Be Next March? — The Ducks will complete the Pac-10 season 11-7, in fourth place, and just above the bubble. They enter the main tourney as a 10-seed, but can't pull off a win in their first game. Then again, they could go on the "West Coast Sleeper" run nobody expects because the team's on too late for East Coast eyes.

It may not be the most glorious of circumstances to gain experience, but it's available for the taking. Why not use it? And for all us onlookers, why not pay attention? It could lend us insight we need to scope out the next sleeper semifinalist.

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