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Never Made the Tournament Club 3/2/23: A Night with the Founders, plus more

Amidst a roller coaster of a few days, Garrett journeyed to watch St. Francis Brooklyn in person to put it all in perspective. Also, the Big Boys stepped up.

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Garrett Lash: $100 is quite a bit for someone to spend on Ubers to and from a sporting event that a) said person is not getting paid to cover and b) nor is it essential for said person to do so. Is it worth it? All to see St. Francis, the team we all so desperately want to see make it to the tournament, likely get run out of the gym?

But as my Uber driver reminisced to me about his past, working what had to be a low-paying job at a local hockey rink that the New Jersey Devils used to practice at when they first moved to the area – and loved every second of it – I realized that he worked that job because he truly loved it, no matter what the finances looked like.

Just because you love it, huh? Hmm. Maybe that’s why I’m doing this.

Not that I’m good at “it” yet, of course. I arrived about one minute after tip-off instead of 30 minutes before, and there were no seats for me in press row. So despite my media pass, I had to sit in a somewhat obstructed spot in the front row of general admission, and began live tweeting away. People with real tickets came and pushed me around a couple of times until I was sandwiched between two older couples, who definitely thought it was weird that I never cheered for an FDU basket and that I was on my phone virtually the whole game.

I kept my focus on the game as much as I could, but it was fun to take in the surroundings as I sat. The gym was home to an indoor track, and the court was laid right in the middle, leaving a lot of weird empty space behind the temporary seating. The building was showing its age a bit, the scoreboard was straight out of Hoosiers, and there were temporary snack bars like you might see at your local little league.

And yet, the basketball did not disappoint. I was once again reminded how difficult the sport basketball is from a ground level vantage point. Watching a broadcast makes everything look so easy. You can see the open man, the craziest athletic moves are diminished a bit by the wide lens of the camera. Up close to the action, everything’s bigger, better, more impressive, and looks way more difficult, whether it’s the NEC or the ACC.

Saint Francis was already down two possessions as I sat down, and they never got within one possession the entire game. But that’s not for a lack of effort. They pushed the pace the entire game. When they got down by 16 points early, they started to force turnovers and trim the deficit. When they got down by nearly that same margin again in the second half, they began to hit their 3s. Even when they looked like they would fade away in the second half at several points, they fought back to cut it within four points.

But missed opportunities – specifically layups – plagued them. Three times during the second half, a layup that could have brought the game to two or one possession was missed, including one at the end, with FDU holding a six-point lead. Once Josiah Harris missed his layup, which was a tougher contested layup in his defense, he knew that it was over. You could see the disappointment as he put his hands on his head, then on his knees and look down at the ground.

Eighty-five seasons, no tournaments, I thought. That’s a lot of weight.

But that’s not a fair weight to put on anyone in the program today, especially the players. They don’t hold an iota of responsibility to the eight decades of coming up short that came before them. Most of them were born after the year 2000, were stars in high school and picked a college that made sense for them; it’s not fair to them to bear a burden that another kid who grew up exactly the same way doesn’t have by going to a different school down the road.

And it’s not a burden anyone in the program chooses to bear either. In the press conference after the game, coach Glenn Braica was as pleased as you could be after such a result and such a trying season.

Much has been made on our Twitter page of late about how the school recently moved from their original campus and now occupies three floors of a Macy’s. But things aren’t always as they seem. Saint Francis’s SID (an old friend of mine from college whom I met on a complete chance encounter after having not seen him for at least five years) reminded me that land is expensive in New York, and the buildings the campus occupied previously were not exactly premium grade. The new space is much nicer – even though it’s true that it’s on top of a Macy’s – and fits the school’s academic needs much better. The opportunity to move there came on short notice, so they had to move quickly, hence the mid-year move.

Of course, the new location has no athletic facilities, so the team has been using those of Division III Pratt Institute, a few city blocks away, to get by. It’s been a lot, according to Wagoner, but they recognize that their new space largely suits their needs for now and they’re appreciative.

I asked Braica about that after the game as well.

“You know, people outside see that and say that. That was the easiest thing, I think,” he said, chuckling. “We Ubered to practice every day. Ubers are late, you sit around the gym 20 minutes, sit around the gym for an hour – the hard part was not knowing who we had to practice, we had so many things happen [with injuries] ... I know for a lot of teams [the move] would have been difficult, but for us it was the easiest thing, don’t you think?”

He looked over to Zion Bethea, who himself had a recent personal tragedy that was briefly mentioned in the presser. Bethea, who had 17 points off the bench, nodded.

The real challenge for the Terriers this year, as Braica said, came in the form of injuries. At points during the year, they couldn’t play five-on-five scrimmages in practice. They went into the last few games of the regular season with just eight scholarship players out of 13 max, putting them at a significant disadvantage. They got Rob Higgins, their leading scorer, back just for the tournament game. They also got Syrus Grisby back, but he only played four minutes. They still pushed the second-seed to the max.

“If we get some of our guys back,” Braica, in his 11th year at the helm, said, “we can really be good next year.”

NEC college basketball is not glorious. The eyes aren’t on you all the time. The facilities can be strange, and a bit run down. Your team isn’t necessarily deep to begin with, and you have to fight through injuries like anyone else. Your team might move facilities mid-year and you can’t bat an eye.

But it’s not about the glory, it’s about playing for the love of the game.

*end tear-jerking session, back to the cynicism*

Tuesday Recap: A night of self-destruction

Tuesday was baaaaaad. Partially because of the bad results, but partially because of the concentration of bad results in one two-hour stretch.

Tristan Jung: I’ll quickly discuss this.

The ASUN was not kind to us. Bellarmine had a golden opportunity to take down Liberty and help Kennesaw State secure a bid, but things did not go to plan. Liberty was ahead for most of the game and didn’t look particularly troubled. At the same time, Kennesaw State nearly bungled their opening game against Queens. Although it was hard not to feel bad for the ineligible Queens Royals (redundant much?), we really needed Kennesaw State to win. Thankfully, the Royals missed their last-second heave and came up just short. Lastly, everyone’s favorite team, the Stetson Hatters calmly proceeded to get stomped at home by Lipscomb. Not great.

Elsewhere, Fort Wayne got trounced by Antoine Davis and Detroit Mercy, which was rather disappointing.

GL: North Alabama also lost by like 1,000 points in their first eligible season to wrap up a nearly immaculately bad day. Only KSU’s tight win saved that.

Wednesday: Not much better

TJ: In addition to the Terriers debacle chronicled above, we also lost High Point and Presbyterian in the Big South on Wednesday. This was not remotely surprising, but what can you say. The Blue Hose made a good effort for being one of the worst teams in the country, but still lost by five. High Point blew a 10-point halftime lead. Ouchies.

Merrimack continued its futile quest to win the NEC and not exit the club. SIU-Edwardsville picked up its requisite win over the newbies Southern Indiana, which was helpful. We also lost Incarnate Word, who ended their season with another regular season loss and another conference tournament miss. Incarnate Word has only made the Southland Tournament twice since they become eligible in 2017-18, which is rather depressing.

GL: Ay though, my preseason pick Sacred Heart stayed alive by beating Wagner!

Thursday: Euphoric as fuck

GL: We earned it after Tuesday and Wednesday. With the potential of Thursday to send the NMTC in what could have been its worst three-day stretch in recent memory, The Big Boys stepped up to the plate and made sure our hope prevailed one more night.

Kennesaw State, after looking wholly unimpressive in its survival of Queens, was in cruise control most of the night over Lipscomb before missing several key free throws, just like against Queens, while Lipscomb got hot to stay in it. But each time Lipscomb drew within one possession at the end of the game, Kennesaw State hit a clutch, even ridiculous, shot at their end. They host on L*b*rty on Sunday, who unfortunately was able to overcome an early lead against Eastern Kentucky. (Editor Lance here: barf.)

Youngstown State was behind most of the way to scoring-record hopeful Antoine Davis and Detroit Mercy, but went on a quick 9-1 spurt late to go from down three to up five – and they held Davis under the record, who was cold all night. Good news for Maravich Stans (Lance again: Do these really exist?). Up next: Northern Kentucky in the semis, in Indy.

Hell even Army came back from a late seven-point deficit to force overtime and win against Boston U at home. The real challenge comes next, at Colgate. Not expecting much. (Lance: TROOPS).

Finally, UT Martin and longtime pushover SIUE battled it out (literally), with UT Marin advancing to the next rung of the ladder with a second half comeback. Tennessee Tech awaits in the semifinals.

Regular Season Developments

GL: While many club members have embarked on their conference tournament journeys already, there are still those jockeying for position in leagues beginning their tournaments a bit later. Grambling continues to be red hot, picking up its eighth straight win and still somehow not breaking free of its tie with Alcorn State atop the SWAC, who also (frustratingly for us) continues to roll. They have one more game left before the SWAC tournament starts.

UC Riverside and UC Irvine, two teams in a three-team tie for the top spot in the Big West, did battle to give one of them supreme position heading into next week. Alas, UCI held off several UCR rallies throughout the night and came away with a 10-point win. UC Riverside – still a team to watch, regardless of seeding – will most likely occupy the third seed coming into next week.

UMES, another darkhorse, wrapped up its regular season with a win, tying for third at 9-5 in league play. They take the fourth spot in the MEAC tournament.

Chicago State appreciation post

GL: Yeah, they’re out now. But goddamnit did they play a hell of a season, given the circumstances. Seven D-I wins, which is as much as they had over a six year stretch not so long ago, undefeated at home too. Horizon League, it’s time to bring them home.

Quick Preview

The Big South’s best hope, 4-seed USC Upstate, goes today. UT Martin continues its slow climb up the ladder with a date against Tennessee Tech for a spot in the final. There’s also The Citadel, who’s been historically bad in the SoCon tournament. The tournament semis would be a landmark accomplishment for them.

Last but not least, *gulp*, the cursed Summit League house of horrors begins anew. This year it was expanded from eight to 10 teams, but the six NMTC members all fall between fourth and 10th. There is never a good time to get your hopes up about this league, but this is absolutely not the year if you were thinking about trying it. (Lance: Mad Mike Daum Noises).

Friday’s Schedule, all on ESPN+ except where noted:

NMTC teams are in bold

Big South Quarterfinals

(5) Gardner-Webb vs. (4) USC Upstate, 2 PM

SoCon First Round

(9) The Citadel vs. (8) Mercer, 5 PM

Summit First Round

(9) North Dakota vs. (8) Denver, 7 PM

(10) Omaha vs. (7) Kansas City, 9:30 PM

OVC Semifinals

(3) UT Martin vs. (2) Tennessee Tech, 10:30 PM (ESPNU/ESPN+)