The time has come for one reigning mascot to, in the spirit of partnership, relinquish its title and give reign to another for the coming year. And no, we’re not talking about the NCAA basketball tournament.
We of course are talking about Lunar New Year, which for the billions who celebrate it, couldn’t have come quickly enough. The disease-ridden Year of the Rat was, well, fittingly such, and it’s time to turn the page into a Year of the Ox that hopefully brings much repair and rejuvenation into our lives. (Garrett would like to apologize on behalf of himself and all of the other Rat readers out there. Tristan, as a Year of the Ox kid, doesn’t have great hopes for 2021, but supposes it could be worse.)
Segueing to the hardwood, there are of course, a number of NMTC members trying to reverse years (and in some cases, several rotations of the zodiac) of misfortune and hear their names called on Selection Sunday for the first time. If you were wondering, there do not appear to be any bovine mascots in this year’s edition of the Club (the closest might be the Vaqueros of UTRGV, who purportedly wrangle them for a living). But that may be a good thing, as many Asian cultures observe the suspicion that one’s own zodiac year brings bad luck. So perhaps this year sees an unprecedented breakthrough? Let’s take a look.
Opened the red envelope and are getting PAID:
Grand Canyon, South Dakota
GL: The red envelope or “pocket” is a staple of most variations of New Year’s celebration, and is in my humble opinion, pretty much the best reason to celebrate. If you were given a fancy red envelope several years ago by your Asian friend and kindly filed it away because you didn’t want to offend them, go find that sucker pronto because IT HAS MONEY INSIDE. (In case you needed an excuse to start celebrating, the red envelope tradition would be it.)
TJ: Finally, the WAC is in the “pocket” of the NMTC, even if it took a pandemic to do it. Evacuated New Mexico State is 2-5 in conference play and looks nothing like their usual dominant selves. Grand Canyon, in Bryce Drew’s first year, has established itself as the team to beat in the WAC this year. They are 7-0 in conference and are significantly ahead in all the ratings systems. We all somewhat expected this to happen someday with their passionate fanbase and huge resources, but it’s still odd for this column to be celebrating a ‘Lopes team that is the best in the conference by a mile. Can they seal the deal in the conference tournament? Even if they don’t, we still have other candidates in the conference, as you’ll see.
South Dakota, on the other hand, has been knocking on the door for years. Once again, the Coyotes are looking like the main challenger for South Dakota State in the Summit League. I feel like I’ve jinxed this team every time I’ve written about them (the absence of writing since the last column has seen them go 9-3 to start conference play). Although they are currently on a three-game losing streak, I think South Dakota will have a legitimate shot heading into the Summit League Tournament. That’s all I’m going to say about it.
Did all the New Year’s cleaning the right way and are hoping for a year of good luck:
The WAC Club members, UC Riverside
GL: Floors have been swept. Hair has been cut. Books have been bought. Everyone knows to get these done ahead of time, of course, because doing these things during the two-week New Year’s celebration is all but cursing your family to a year of bad luck and financial ruin (at least in Chinese tradition). These teams have been rubbing the golden Buddha’s belly and are looking for a big haul this year.
TJ: UC Riverside is still chugging along in what’s shaping up to be a historically good year for the Big West. They aren’t in the top tier because UC Santa Barbara has emerged as a tough contender, but the Highlanders are still one of the best three teams in the conference. Plus, their head coach RT’d this column last time, so they’re sure to win now, right?
Utah Valley, UT-Rio Grande Valley, and Cal Baptist (ineligible) are the other three NMTC WAC teams leading the conference right now. It’s impossible to tell whether some of the teams are actually good or not (UT Rio Grande Valley has only played two conference games), but with New Mexico State in a down year and Cal State Bakersfield out of the conference entirely, there’s a pretty good chance that the WAC ends up having an all NMTC final.
Eating lots of [insert traditional food here]:
The AEC and NEC Club members, Grambling State
TJ: The traditional Korean New Year’s dish is 떡국 (tteokguk), a word that is basically incomprehensible in English but describes a soup with rice cake discs, vegetables, and meat. If you don’t eat it, you’ll have bad luck. Unfortunately, I truly think this is one of those superstitions that doesn’t work because tteokguk hasn’t prevented several disastrous years for me, but it’s really tasty, so I’ll gladly eat like six bowls of it.
Similarly, these teams are chilling with their traditional meals and hoping they have more luck than I usually do.
GL: The America East has a number of members in quite a pileup in the tteokguk line. Hartford, UMass Lowell, and New Hampshire will more than likely take up the third, fourth and fifth spots in the conference tournament, meaning two of those teams will play host to the “playoff pods” in this year’s modified tournament (no shame if you haven’t kept up with COVID-influence tournament structures this year, but they’re kinda wacky). Vermont (barf) and UMBC are a step above the pack, but neither one is as dominant as some past AEC champs have been.
The Northeast Conference also does not have a runaway winner, and with a reduced four-team conference tournament this year, anything could happen. At the moment, Wagner sits tied for the lead with Merrimack (more on them in a moment) but Bryant is in position to secure the two-seed and home game against current three-seed Sacred Heart, which would guarantee a Club member in the final. The teams are bunched together quite tightly with other teams in the mix as well, so we’ll be keeping our eyes on these matchups as the season winds down. Oh and there’s St. Francis Brooklyn, who has an outside shot at sneaking into the top four, but if I say any more I will invite more heartbreak into my life. Sorry, SFBK. not getting my hopes up.
Finally I want to serve a bit of love to Grambling State, who is gunning for their fifth straight conference winning season. It looks like the bid will fall to Jackson State, Prairie View or Texas Southern (who have a combined two conference losses) but Grambling is in the mix and deserves recognition.
Opened the envelope and got paid even though they’re too young and can’t do anything with the money:
Bellarmine, Merrimack, Cal Baptist, North Alabama
GL: Ever been at a family Christmas gathering and saw a young relative open up an excessive gift for someone their age? Naturally that feeling exists in the Asian-American community as well. As teenagers, some of you have likely side-eyed your parents hard after pulling out that crisp 10 while your five-year-old cousin shoves two Benjamins between the dog’s teeth. Does she even know what “100” means?
TJ: My parents used to seize all New Year’s cash I got under some kind of eminent domain law and say they put it in my “college savings”. This even happened when I got cash for seeing my grand-grandfather in South Korea. This is totally irrelevant to college basketball.
GL: It seems about par for the course that of Club members with a legitimate shot at the tourney this year, four fell to teams ineligible due to a pretty dumb reclassification rule, and not to teams like William and Mary or the Citadel. Teams like Bellarmine, who a year out of D-II leads (!) an ASUN conference that has sent some strong teams to the tournament of late (Lipscomb, FGCU, Liberty). And Merrimack, who is nearing their second straight NEC conference title in as many D-I seasons. Let ‘em play NCAA! Making late season adjustments on the fly is routine for you now!
TJ: Right now, we could get a cursed situation where an NMTC team wins the conference tournament, but is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament across three different conferences. If that happens three times in a row in 2021, Tristan will commit seppuku live on air.
Likely to honor the elders for yet another year:
Nebraska-Omaha, Maine, Stetson, Kennesaw State, and many others
TJ: We don’t like to dwell on the total catastrophes much at NMTC HQ, but we do have to mope about some total flameouts. Nebraska-Omaha started the season ranked 220 at BartTorvik, and they are now 310th with a 2-18 record (0-10 in conference). Ouch. Unless they can leapfrog fellow NMTC member Denver at 1-9 in the conference, they aren’t even going to make the conference tournament.
Maine is similarly nowhere to be found during this abbreviated America East season, and they opted out after a season filled with COVID and losses. At least they’re getting a huge new investment in facilities?! Yes, Maine is spending the BIG BUCKS, they got their New Year’s cash.
GL: Stetson is my personal L. The veteran team with decent expectations hasn’t quite gotten it going like we thought they would this season.
TJ: Lastly, Kennesaw State is 1-11 and going to be stuck playing in the extra ASUN game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. I’m not very optimistic.
Gung hei faat choi (恭喜發財) and 새해 복 많이 받으세요 from NMTC HQ! Stay tuned for our updates once conference tournament season kicks off in earnest (well, barring any pandemic issues) in early March!