Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just The Facts 2012: So you’re telling me there’s a chance!

Words to live by!

Welcome to one of my favorite times of the year: CAA Tournament week and the unveiling of my annual Just The Facts, in which I waste little time penning my usual pensive prose (gack) in favor of presenting meat-and-potatoes facts about topics relevant to the Flying Dutchmen.

With the Dutchmen mired in 11th place and well below .500, the focus is a bit different this year, so we’ll start Just The Facts with a look at the teams that give us hope this week—those who have overcome a rough season to win their conference tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record. Seventeen teams have gone dancing despite a sub-.500 record, which means that while I didn’t major in math I can tell you the odds of joining this select group are very, very, very long. But these 17 teams allow us to keep saying there’s a chance!

2008 COPPIN STATE (won MEAC with a 16-20 record): Hope for the Dutchmen? The Eagles were a staggering 4-19 on Feb. 2 thanks to the school’s rigorous non-conference schedule (which included losses at Xavier and Marquette in which Coppin State was doubled up as well as 30-point losses at Dayton, Indiana and Missouri) as well as an 0-8 start in MEAC play. But five of those losses were by six points or less and the Eagles won seven of their final eight conference games to finish 7-9 and earn the seventh seed. They then won four in a row in a five-day span in the conference tournament, the last on a buzzer-beating tip-in to knock off top-seeded Morgan State, to become the first NCAA Tournament team ever with 20 losses.

2005 OAKLAND (won Mid-Continent with a 12-18 overall record): The Golden Grizzlies lost their first seven games, six of which were guarantee games on the road, and didn’t win consecutive conference games until the final two games of the season. But Oakland (7-9 in conference play), the seventh seed in the eight-team tournament, won three games in as many days in the conference tournament by a grand total of eight points, including a last-second win over top-seeded Oral Roberts in the title game.

2004 FLORIDA A&M (won MEAC with a 14-16 overall record): The Rattlers opened with six straight losses and 10 losses in their first 11 games, which included at least four guarantee games as well as two MEAC losses. Florida A&M then won five in a row and 10 of its final 16 games to finish fifth in the MEAC at 10-8 before winning three games in as many days against higher-seeded teams to win the automatic bid.

2003 NC-ASHEVILLE (won Big South with a 14-16 overall record): The Bulldogs started out 3-3, lost eight of their next 10 (including guarantee games at UConn, Oklahoma and Kansas in which they lost by a combined 138 points, YIKES) and then won five Big South games in a row and six of seven before finishing the season with four straight conference losses, all but one by eight points or more. All hell broke loose in the tournament, when fifth-seeded NC-Asheville (8-8 in league play) won its first two games by a total of three points—including a one-point win over top-seeded Winthrop in the semifinals—before routing sixth-seeded Radford in the title game.

2002 SIENA (won MAAC with a 16-18 record): Here’s a relevant tale for the Flying Dutchmen, and not just because the Saints visited Hempstead this month. Siena didn’t reach .500 after its second game of the year and endured three three-game losing streaks in non-conference play before winning four in a row to start January and improve to 5-1 in MAAC play. But the Saints were inconsistent the rest of the way and ended the season with three straight losses—all by six points or less—to fall to seventh (at 9-9) and into the MAAC’s version of Pillow Fight Friday. Fortunately for the Saints, who beat 10th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the opener, this tournament REALLY went haywire as the top three seeds were all beaten in the quarterfinals. Siena endured its biggest scare in the quarters against second-seeded Marist and routed Fairfield and Niagara by a combined 35 points in the final two games to cap its four-wins-in-four-days march to the title.

1999 FLORIDA A&M (won MEAC with 12-18 record): The only program to twice reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record. The Rattlers lost their first 10 games and 13 of their first 14, including five of their first six MEAC games, before winning six of their next eight. Florida A&M (8-11 MEAC) endured a three-game losing streak in late February before winning its season finale by two points to enter the MEAC tournament as the seventh seed, where the Rattlers won four games in a six-day span, the final three over the top three seeds.

1998 PRAIRIE VIEW A&M (won SWAC with 13-16 record): The Panthers played their first 10 games on the road, during which they went 1-9, and continued losing once SWAC play began in earnest in January. Prairie View A&M opened conference play with a 1-8 mark, then won three in a row before losing another three in a row. The Panthers (6-10 SWAC) won their final two regular season games to eke out the seventh seed in an eight-team league and then won three games in three days by a total of eight points.

1997 FAIRFIELD (won MAAC with 11-18 record): Perhaps the longest of "so you're telling me there's a chance..." squad ever. After dropping their season opener, the Stags won three straight. They wouldn't win three in a row again until the MAAC Tournament from March 1-3. In between Fairfield went 5-17, including 2-12 in conference. The Stags finished eighth and last in the MAAC by two games but stunned top-seeded Iona 80-71 in the quarterfinals and routed fourth-seeded Saint Peter's in the semifinals before edging Canisius in the title game. Ten days later, Fairfield nearly penned the greatest story in NCAA Tournament history when it took a seven-point halftime lead against no. 1 seed North Carolina and were still tied withi the Tar Heels with less than eight minutes to go before falling, 82-74.

1997 JACKSON STATE (won SWAC with 14-15 record): The front end of the second pair of back-to-back conference champions with sub-.500 records, the Tigers went 1-10 in the non-conference schedule, during which they played just three home games and visited the likes of Arkansas, Memphis, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and lost their first two SWAC games before 10 of their final 13 games to finish second in the conference. Jackson State (9-5 SWAC) won its first two tournament games by a total of nine points before upending top-seeded Mississippi Valley State in the final.

1996 CENTRAL FLORIDA (won TAAC with 11-16 record): The Knights had a seven-game losing streak and a five-game losing streak in their first 14 games, opened Atlantic Sun play with a win and promptly lost their next four league games. Central Florida finished the season with four losses in its final five games and backed into the tournament as the sixth seed in an eight-team tournament. (Tangentially related to the CAA alert: The Knights were one of four teams to finish 6-10 in league play. The only one to miss the tournament was Georgia State) But the Knights benefited from a chaotic first round in which the first, third and fourth seeds were all beaten before they knocked off second-seeded Campbell in the semifinals and fifth-seeded Mercer in the title game by nine points apiece over the next two days.

1995 FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (won TAAC with 11-18 record): The first of the Atlantic Sun’s back-to-back sub-.500 titlists and the patron saint of long-shot sub-.500 teams everywhere. The Golden Panthers began the season 2-6, won their Atlantic Sun opener and lost their next six conference games. Florida International won consecutive conference games just once and snuck into the tournament as the eighth and final seed, by virtue of a tiebreaker over fellow 4-12 squad Campbell, after winning three of its final four league games. The Golden Knights stunned top-seeded Stetson in the quarterfinals and edged fourth-seeded Southwestern Louisiana by a point in overtime in the semifinals before beating third-seeded Mercer for their third win in as many days. All this happened under a head coach, Bob Weltlich, who had already announced his “resignation” effective at the end of the season.

1993 EAST CAROLINA (won CAA with 13-16 record): The patron saint of sub-.500 CAA teams for 19 seasons now! The Pirates (4-10 in CAA play during the regular season) emerged as the seventh seed and won three games in three days to become the only team (so far!) to win the CAA with a losing record. Check out my story from two years ago this weekend in which ex-East Carolina coach Eddie Payne reminisced about his squad’s accomplishment. Spoilers: These Dutchmen have some similarities to those Pirates.

1986 MONTANA STATE (won Big Sky with 14-16 record): The Bobcats began the season 1-6 and won as many as two straight conference games just twice during the regular season on their way to a 6-8 finish. But as the fifth seed in a seven-team tournament, Montana State knocked off the fourth, first and second seeds in a three-day span by a combined 12 points to earn the automatic bid. The Bobcats then went on to throw a scare into top-seeded St. John’s in the first round of the West Regional, a game the Redmen won by just nine.

1985 LEHIGH (won ECC with 12-18 record): Hey Litos I’m not making this up! Nor am I making up this bit of serendipity: In winning three games in three days and becoming the first team to win a conference tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament with a sub-.500 record, the Engineers beat our beloved Flying Dutchmen and cost them a chance to get waxed by Georgetown. Lehigh (6-8 in ECC play) and Hofstra were the sixth and seventh seeds, respectively, but scored first round upsets before the Engineers edged the Dutchmen by four points to advance to the final against top-seeded Bucknell, whom Lehigh knocked off in overtime. The Engineers’ three wins in as many days equaled the number of wins they had in the preceding 36 days during which they went 2-8 and lost six straight league games.

1978 MISSOURI (won Big 8 with 14-15 record): What the hell is a major conference school doing here? I thought the Tigers as well as the first two squads to reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record did so by winning the regular season crown with a losing overall record, but who knew, they played conference tournaments long before ESPN needed programming. Go figure. Anyway, the Tigers (4-10 Big 8) opened the season with three straight wins and then didn’t win three straight games again until they swept through the Big 8 Conference tournament as the seventh seed. (This was so long ago that the number of teams in a conference actually matched the name!) Missouri beat Iowa State, Nebraska and Kansas State (in double overtime) by a combined eight points to win the title.

1974 TEXAS (won SWC with 12-14 record): The only sub-.500 team to reach the NCAA Tournament without having to win a conference tournament, the Longhorns opened the season with nine straight losses and 11 defeats in their first 12 games. But they flipped the switch as Southwest Conference play began and went 11-3 the rest of the way—including five straight wins to finish the regular season—to win the championship by two games.

1961 GEORGE WASHINGTON (won Southern Conference with 9-16 record): The first team to reach the NCAA Tournament with a losing record remains the inspiration for every team that endured a forgettable regular season. The Colonials had the worst regular season winning percentage (.273) of any NCAA Tournament team, lost nine of 10 games late in the campaign and enjoyed just one “winning streak” as long as two games before they won three straight tournament games—the last over, I kid you not, William & Mary—in, I kid you not, RICHMOND to advance to the NCAA Tournament. OH MY GOD IT’S ALL MEANT TO BE!

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