Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Of the three likely number twos, who works best for the Dutchmen?

"Hey pardner, just relax, don't force it! Use some creative visualization in trying to project the number two seed and potential quarterfinal opponent for the Flying Dutchmen!"

The Flying Dutchmen are a picture of calm surrounded by chaos as the final lap of the CAA season begins. Whether the Dutchmen crane their heads northward or take a glance downward, they see teams scrambling for seeding in the upcoming CAA Tournament.

The six teams ahead of the Dutchmen are separated by three games and battling for the ever-so-valuable four first-round byes. Their current perches are so precarious—Northeastern, for example, would be the top seed if the season ended today but could still finish as low as fifth—that any misstep could deliver a lethal blow to their CAA Tournament hopes.

Expending any energy pondering potential tourney matchups is foolish, since the landscape will likely look much different Thursday morning than it does today—and much different again next Thursday morning and next Sunday morning. There could be a two-, three-, four-, five- or even six-way tie for first place, or a three-way tie for second place, or a four-way tie for third place, or…you know what, just trust me, it’s complicated. Best for Northeastern, Old Dominion, George Mason, William & Mary, Drexel and VCU to just concentrate on the next game on the schedule.

The five teams below the Dutchmen, meanwhile, are separated by just a game and are not vying for the prestige of a bye but merely to save some face and gain some momentum for a slightly better matchup as an eighth, ninth or 10th seed. The same sentiments apply: There may be a simply magnificent three-, four- or five-way tiebreaker to be untangled after the final conference game is played, so all the teams involved can do is focus on trying to make things as uncomplicated as possible.

And then there’s our beloved Dutchmen, who are so comfortably ensconced in seventh place that there is a better chance of the Powerball six-team tie for first at 12-6 happening than Hofstra moving up or down. One more win by VCU eliminates the Dutchmen from the race for sixth. And one more win by the Dutchmen (winners of five of their last six) or one more loss by Georgia State (losers of three in a row, six of seven and nine of 11) clinches the seventh seed.

And even if the Dutchmen lose out and Georgia State wins out, the Dutchmen would finish no lower than eighth thanks to their tiebreaker advantages over James Madison, Towson and UNC Wilmington.

So while everyone else lives by the boring-ass philosophy of one game at a time, we have the luxury here of looking ahead 17 and 18 days to the opening and quarterfinal rounds of the CAA Tournament and to the possible opponents for the Dutchmen.

This project actually began with me pondering the Dutchmen’s quarterfinal opponent, but nothing would be more embarrassing than to have all this work go for naught because I screwed with the karma by assuming an opening round win. So for the sake of keeping the basketball gods at bay, the 10th-place team if the season were to end today would likely be UNC Wilmington.

I say likely because there is currently a wild four-way tie for eighth. James Madison would fall to 11th because of its 1-3 record against the other 4-11 teams. Towson would be the eighth seed by virtue of its 2-1 record against Georgia State and UNC Wilmington, the latter two of whom split the season series. But I believe Georgia State would get the ninth seed because it beat George Mason (I think the next tiebreaker, after head-to-head, is performance of the two teams against the first-place team, then the second, and so on, until someone has an advantage). Hence, another opening round Hofstra-UNC Wilmington matchup.

Of the four most likely opening round opponents, James Madison—fresh off an upset of VCU and with the 6-foot-10 behemoth Denzel Bowles patrolling the paint—is one I’d like to see least. The Dutchmen won their four games against Towson and UNC Wilmington by a combined 92 points, so a third game with either team—despite urban legends to the contrary—shouldn’t make us fret too much. Of course, we will anyway.

Anyway, regardless of opponent, the Dutchmen—who are 6-0 against teams below them in the standings with tonight’s game against Delaware and the season finale against Georgia State still on the docket—should win that first game. So let’s look ahead to the quarterfinals. Who, among the six teams vying for the top four seeds, would the Dutchmen most likely to be face on Saturday?

For all intents and purposes, let’s eliminate William & Mary, Drexel and VCU from the discussion. It’s certainly possible one of those teams would finish second, but William & Mary and Drexel are two games back of Northeastern and Old Dominion and VCU is three back with three to play.

So the overwhelming likelihood is that either Northeastern, Old Dominion or George Mason will finish second. Alas, unfortunately for the Dutchmen, the team that presents the best—and most delicious—matchup is George Mason, which is also the one least likely to finish second.

The Dutchmen had Mason down seven more than midway through the second half in Fairfax Jan. 3 and would certainly be revved up for a rematch following the embarrassing loss at the Arena Jan. 19. Northeastern, meanwhile, outscored the Dutchmen by 33 after falling behind 15-2 Feb. 6 while Old Dominion never trailed in a 57-46 win Jan. 9.

The Patriots are also far more immature than either of the senior-dominated squads at Northeastern and Old Dominion, both of whom have a last-time-around feel to them and won’t be lacking for focus or motivation in the tournament. I’m sure that negative characterization of Mason will once again fail to endear me to the less likable segment of Mason Nation, but don’t shoot the messenger. It’s not my fault you’ve had four players suspended this season.

And if you want some knee-slapping laughs, check out Jim Larranaga’s comments about Mike Morrison’s suspension as well as the spin doctoring by the most sycophantic of Mason fans at the CAA Zone and elsewhere. Nothing I write here can put it any better or in any more entertaining fashion.

Now, that said, Mason under my good friend Larranaga has played some of its best ball in the CAA Tournament, reaching the final the last three seasons and four of the past six overall. So it’s entirely possible that the knuckleheadness would stop and Mason would run the Dutchmen all the way back to Hempstead.

Anyway, the simplest way for Mason to finish second is to end up in a three-way tie for first with Northeastern and Old Dominion at 14-4. Northeastern would be the one seed based on its 2-1 record against the other two teams while Mason (2-2) would be second and ODU (1-2) third.

But Mason has to sweep its final three games to finish 14-4—a bit of a challenge, considering the Patriots will be without the hot-headed Morrison tonight against William & Mary, play Northeastern in the season finale, have lost three of their last four and recorded the only win in that span following an epic comeback over VCU.

In addition, the toughest game left on Old Dominion’s schedule is the regular season finale in which it hosts VCU. So it’s fair to project 15-3 for the Monarchs. And Mason would lose the tiebreaker for second place with Northeastern by virtue, again, of the unbalanced schedule (the Huskies went 1-0 against Old Dominion while Mason went 1-1).

Another possibility: ODU and Mason win out and Northeastern goes 1-2, falling to the Dutchmen as well as Mason. Given how easily the Huskies handled the Dutchmen at Hofstra this year and in Boston last year, I’m not exactly counting on that one. But if this were to happen, the Patriots would finish second and the Huskies third.

There is also a wild scenario in which a four-way tie for second place would be created when William & Mary and Drexel win their final three, Mason goes 2-1 and Northeastern goes 1-2. In that case, William & Mary would be the two seed by virtue of its 4-0 record against the other 13-5 teams. The Fighting Bill Lawrences swept the Dutchmen and are another mature, veteran team, but the Dutchmen led for the first 39 minutes in the first game at Hofstra and led by seven in the second half of the rematch in Virginia, so the matchup is another potentially appealing one.

The most likely scenario is that ODU runs the table and wins the top seed outright when Northeastern drops its finale at Mason. That would present the Dutchmen with a quarterfinal game against the Huskies, which is a doubly tough assignment given Northeastern’s skill level and the inherent likability of your Twitter friend and mine Matt Janning and crew. Of course, the good news is that I’ve got 18 days to come up with reasons why Northeastern is a far better quarterfinal opponent than Mason.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

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