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Mid-Major Morning Mashups: March 10, 2011

One of the simultaneous thrills and frustrations of college basketball is the sometimes unnerving manner in which experience can so easily be tossed aside in the tournament format. 

In the NBA where the postseason format calls for seven-game series, the savvy of veteran teams that have experienced the pressures of the stage plays a significant role due to the sheer number of games. Over the course of a series, there is greater wiggle room for factors to impact the ultimate outcome. Stating experience doesn't play  a role in success at the college level would be foolish, but it is equally foolish to deny that in a one-game loser-out format the opposition doesn't care what you did during the season, let alone the previous game.

Perhaps then we shouldn't be surprised by the outcomes of the Big Sky and Northeast Conference championship games. Montana and Robert Morris may have been the reigning champions (two-time champs for the Colonials), but Northern Colorado and Long Island were the better teams in 2011. So what if the Blackbirds hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament in 14 years or that as little as five years ago the Bears weren't even affiliated with a Division 1 conference. This is March where every game is the game.

Read on after the jump for more on yesterday's action.

John Henderson of the Denver Post: "From worst in the nation to dancing in the NCAA Tournament and in the streets of Greeley, Northern Colorado completed its miraculous climb here Wednesday night. The Bears, with the worst RPI in the country four years ago, rode a late spurt from Big Sky player of the year Devon Beitzel to beat Montana, 65-60, for the league tournament title and an NCAA berth. It's the first NCAA Tournament bid for the Bears, who didn't rise to Division I until 2003. Four years later they went 4-24. The win made UNC (21-10) 14-0 and unbeaten at home for the first time since 1949."

Michael Senserino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "What sweet irony it would have been. Nearly one year after Robert Morris blew an eight-point lead late in an overtime loss to Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Colonials crawled back from an eight-point deficit to push a postseason game into overtime. But, in the end, that same crushing feeling crept in. Russell Johnson missed a 3-point attempt with 0.8 seconds remaining in overtime as Long Island beat Robert Morris, 85-82, Wednesday night in the Northeast Conference championship game. "Disbelief," sophomore guard Velton Jones said. "That's all I can say is disbelief." Jones said the feeling is worse than after the Colonials' three-point loss to the Wildcats last season. "This was our game," he said. "We came out and did what we wanted to do. We should have won this game. It's for the conference championship, we just came up short." The NEC's best defensive team couldn't defend its two-year NEC title streak, failing to become the first NEC team to win three consecutive championships."

The Mikan Drill with a nice breakdown of Robert Morris's final shot: "With just under one second left, Robert Morris needed a 3 to tie the game and send it into a second overtime. With the officials at the monitor to determine the amount of time left on the clock, coach Andrew Toole quickly drew up a play that got them an open look, yet fell short. With this much time on the clock, fouling is a dicey strategy because the offense is going to catch and shoot and a foul could result in 3 free throws. The offense has to be cognizant of the fact that the defense might foul and design a play to work around this."

Jason Groves of the Las Cruces Sun-News: "Tournament history means little when the players are all new. But New Mexico State also has recent history working in its favor entering today's Western Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinal against Nevada. The third-seeded Aggies play host to the No. 6 Wolf Pack today at 3:30 p.m. at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. The teams met five days ago with the Aggies picking up a 77-68 victory at the Pan American Center. "It's kind of a good thing because we know their offense," Aggies' senior guard Gordo Castillo said. "It was just last Saturday when we played them so we know them pretty good. The bad part is they know us pretty good too." NMSU outrebounded Nevada 35-25 and forced 15 Wolf Pack turnovers. Nevada led by one at the half after shooting 15-for-16 from the free-throw line in the first 20 minutes. "It was good, but our transition defense, our turnovers and our fouling was bad," said Aggies coach Marvin Menzies, whose team finished the regular season with 15-16 overall record. "They had several points off turnovers and got to the free-throw line too much so those are things we need to shore up and hopefully that will give us an advantage." The Aggies have also enjoyed recent WAC Tournament success against the Wolf Pack. NMSU has won the last two meetings between the schools - in the 2008 and 2010 semifinals."

Daniel Lyght of the Fresno Bee: "Sixth-year Bulldogs coach Steve Cleveland said after the game that he would like to return to coach this team and said regardless of who coaches it next season, it will be a successful group. Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh said he would wait until he returns to Fresno to evaluate Cleveland's future as Bulldogs coach. He won't return to Fresno until the women's team finishes its appearance in the WAC tournament. Cleveland's record at Fresno State is 92-98."

Jordan Conn of "Belmont coach Rick Byrd can't remember the moment he realized his team could be special, that it could win 30 games and blaze through its conference, emerging as a bracketbuster in March.
He is pretty sure, however, that the moment came sometime in the first week of fall practice. Before then he'd seen only flashes, impressive individual workouts that pointed to future success. But once he got all of his players on the court together, with backups interchangeable with starters and presumed benchwarmers ready to contribute -- that's when all sorts of possibilities opened up. Go 11 players deep? Yeah, they could go 11 players deep. Flood the court with three-point shooters? They definitely had the personnel for that. The Bruins, Byrd realized, could go big or they could go small; they could suffocate you with the press or wear you down in the half-court; and on offense, they had grinders and bombers and to-the-rack slashers, an abundance of players who could change the course of a game.

Chuck McGill of the Charleston Daily Mail: "Dago Pena flashed three fingers in the air after his third consecutive 3-pointer fell through the hoop. Marshall's Dominican-born, Spanish-speaking 3-point specialist was ... en fuego. "The guys know if he's open we want him to tee it up," Herd Coach Tom Herrion said. "If his feet are set, he shoots it. He's a game-changer, as you saw tonight." Pena, a 6-6 junior forward, ignited Marshall with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 8:09 left in the second half that propelled the sixth-seeded Herd to a 97-87 Conference USA basketball tournament first-round win over 11th-seeded Houston here Wednesday night. Pena added two more threes - at 7:29 and 6:15 left in the game - to help spur a 17-2 run that put Marshall (22-10) in control just when the thought of a first-round exit began to creep into Pena's noggin. "I had Tirrell Baines on my mind," Pena said of the Herd's only fourth-year senior. "I didn't want him to go his Marshall University career without winning one game (in the conference tournament).'"

Keith Whitmire of the Dallas Morning News: "Top-seeded Texas Southern needed clutch free throws at the end to hold off an upset bid by Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 50-45, in Wednesday's opening round of the Farmers Insurance SWAC Tournament at the Special Events Center. SWAC Player of the Year Travele Jones scored 19 for Texas Southern, but the win wasn't secure until teammate Justin Ray hit two free throws with 2.5 seconds left. Arkansas Pine Bluff (7-24), the No. 8 seed, had lost both regular-season meetings with Texas Southern."

Michael Litos of CAAHoops: "Blaine Taylor as only Blaine Taylor can be, saying of some major conference teams "all hat, no horse." Now I honestly don't believe VCU will get an at large bid (no matter what stories I conjure), but me ‘n Blaine agree: teams like Va Tech are phonies. We saw it four years ago when Drexel was left out in favor of an 18-13 Stanford team-the Cardinal lost in the first round in a game they trailed by more than 20 points in the first half."

Kellen Carpenter of Rush The Court (not directly related to mid-majors, but just smart writing): "This surprise, however, illuminates the paradox of depth. If you have a team that has three very good players, and seven lousy ones, your team will likely start the Big Three and two lousy players. The cost to substitute a lousy player for one of the Big Three is worse overall performance for the team, while the benefits are smaller (rest, a quick coaching adjustment, etc.). Due to the cost of subbing out one of the Big Three, the coach has a strong incentive to keep them on the court as much as possible. Now consider the other two starters. In this simplistic scenario, there is no cost of subbing either of these players out for any other player on the bench. Their talents are fairly replaceable, and if the coach thinks he can gain an advantage by keeping legs fresh (maybe maximizing their usage-efficiency curve) or throwing out confusing match-ups, the team won't play worse and might in fact play better. Consider the case of a team with one superstar and nine lousy players. In this case, the bench is likely to play more, because there are four replaceable starters. Weirdly, bench minutes percentage actually seems more likely to indicate having a lot of mediocre players than having a lot of really good players. Surely, there is such a thing as a legitimately deep team where the guys coming off the bench are just as good as any of the starters, but when that's the case, it's much more often because the starters are pretty mediocre than because the bench players are really good."