Drexel, St. Joe's rsums both underwhelming

Drexel, St. Joe's rsums both underwhelming
March 2, 2012, 11:58 pm
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Philadelphia is a football town. It's also a pro-sports town. College basketball fans of the area and proponents of its rich heritage don't want to hear that. But they know it's true.

The only evidence you need is the city's buzzing sports talk market. Break down the callers' chosen subject matter during an average hour and it goes something like this:

Eagles, Eagles, Eagles, Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, Eagles, Sixers, Eagles, Eagles, Phillies and Eagles.

And that's at a time when the city's NFL franchise is not exactly flush with success.

If you want to make any money in this town, you'd better know your pro football. And so the talk hosts make it their business to do so.

But when March rolls around, a few callers force the topic into a realm with which many of the hosts are unfamiliar. And so misinformation gets spread around.

The topic is the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The specific debate often centers on whether a specific team will make the tournament. And nobody has a clue. That doesn't stop anyone from having an opinion.

The latest discussion centers on two local teams -- Drexel and Saint Joseph's. Hope is being held out for the Hawks and a virtual crusade is beginning to germinate for the Dragons.

Both are long-shots for at-large bids. You wouldn't know that from a lot of the talk. But from someone who specializes in major college sports and the NCAA's hoops selection criteria in particular, I'd like to clear up some things.

First, Drexel. Five years ago, the Dragons got screwed by an unknowledgeable committee. They had a cluster of impressive non-conference wins, many of them on the road -- an established criterium for a desirable at-large team -- and a sparkling 39 RPI. But I feel that 2007 committee did not appreciate exactly how strong the Colonial Athletic Association was that year. It might have been the best mid-major conference ever during that season.

Though Bruiser Flint's Dragons compiled a tremendous non-con resume including wins at Villanova (19 RPI), at Creighton (20), at Syracuse (50), and at St. Joe's (94), they also went a mere 13-5 in the CAA, including a loss at William & Mary (196). The other four league losses were to Virginia Commonwealth (44) twice and Old Dominion (40) twice. When Drexel lost a third time to VCU in the second round of the league tournament -- played in VCU's hometown of Richmond -- the committee couldn't handle it. The Dragons were snubbed.

That was robbery. Drexel was without question one of the 34 best at-large candidates in 2007 and had played the schedule that proved it. Oh, VCU? That was the Eric Maynor team that upset Duke in the first round and took 3-seed Pitt into overtime in the second.
So, committees make mistakes. That was one.

But this year? It's much harder to make a case for the Dragons if they again lose in the CAA tournament.

Now, you may say, especially if you're a regular visitor to the DAC, "This team has won 16 straight games. They are 25-5! How can you say they don't belong?"

Well, I'm not saying they don't belong. I'm saying their resume is not littered with evidence that they do.

The CAA is very down this year. In contrast with 2007 and many other recent seasons, nobody in the league other than Drexel (65) and VCU (58) is very good. Only they and George Mason (83) have double-digit RPI ranks among the conference's dozen teams.

So, how do you prove Drexel belongs? The 10-person selection committee will examine their non-conference record. And again, unlike 2007, nothing much impresses there. Not only do the Dragons have no non-con wins over anyone of real significance -- a BracketBuster road win at Cleveland State (77) is the best -- nobody in the entire league has much in the way of scalps. VCU and Old Dominion (111) each beat South Florida (36). Other than Hofstra's upset of backyard rival Iona (39), that's it for top-50 scalps. That's a really subpar year in this league.

Maybe worst of all, Drexel's schedule doesn't indicate even much of an attempt to go on the road as mid- and low-major teams often must do to play some heavyweights. The only home-run cut Flint provided his Dragons was way back in November against Virginia (47) at the Paradise Jam. They lost and, by all accounts, looked awful doing it (49-35). Then, there was another November date with St. Joe's (55) in which the Dragons also lost in ugly fashion (62-49).

Toss in three losses to >100s, including Norfolk State (133) of the MEAC -- actually a pretty good team but will anyone on the committee have even seen them? -- and all those 25 wins really look pretty empty.

Said CBSSports.com bracket guru Jerry Palm on Thursday: They just have too many bad losses to overcome when they don't have a win over anyone who's a sure thing to make the bracket.

I honestly think VCU is a better at-large candidate than Drexel, despite Drexel winning the league. VCU beat South Florida which is probably making the field. They won at Akron (71). They beat Northern Iowa (62). Those are all better out-of-conference wins than anything Drexel has.

I can tell you one thing from having my eyes glazed over in the interminable list-and-rank sector of the selection process we churned through at the NCAA seminar (This is where you're given a cluster of teams and asked to either list the best or rank them.): You need something from any candidate that catches your attention, something you can hang a hat on. A big win over a highly-ranked opponent, especially if it's on the road, will do that. You can forgive a lot of unsightly losses if there's just one smidgen of proof that a team is tough on the road andor against primo competition.

Other legit at-large candidates will have such evidence. Drexel just doesn't.

And in case you've heard that a finishing kick enters into the committee's decision, well, that's no longer true. It used to be that a team's record in its last 12 games was provided as key info on the committee's computer screens. It isn't anymore. It was decided that some of those FebruaryMarch records were really as much a function of the competitiveness of the schedule as whether a team was really playing well. That factor was drummed out of the process a couple of years ago.

So, in sum, you have a team with a great-looking 25-5 record, but a sketchy 65 RPI and a really awful non-con schedule strength of 228. Historically, how has such a team fared when it loses in its league tournament? Not well.

Mid- and low-major teams with resumes better than Drexel's have recently been cast aside. In 2009, the committee spurned two such candidates: Creighton (26-7, 40 RPI, two top-50 scalps) when the Blue Jays lost in the Missouri Valley tournament; and Niagara (26-8, 49 RPI, one top-20 scalp) whose transgression was losing to MAAC champ Siena in the league tournament on the Saints' home floor.

Drexel has no such attributes and no prospects to acquire them. Considering the weakness of the CAA this year, Drexel's RPI can only dip from winning its second-round league tournament game on Saturday in Richmond against the winner of skeezies UNCW (227) and James Madison (251). And if the Dragons lose in the semis or the final, they can likely count on a finishing RPI in the 70s.

How many at-large candidates with RPIs in the 70s have been chosen? Under the current formula since it was tweaked in 2005, not a single one. Among all at-large candidates in the 18 seasons that Palm's RPI ranks have been recorded, only New Mexico (74 in 1999) and Air Force (70 in 2004) have made it in.

Conclusion: The Dragons almost certainly need to win the CAA tournament -- which may very well mean beating VCU in its hometown again. If they don't, Palm gives them a 10-percent chance for an at-large bid.

Now, Saint Joseph's. The Hawks have a muddied conference tournament picture until the conclusion of Saturday's final regular-season games. St. Joe's is finished but other teams clustered around the desired fourth-place spot must finish up before the A-10 bracket is finalized. The Hawks have already clinched no worse than a home game on Tuesday against a league bottom-feeder. If certain dominoes fall and the Hawks end up tied for fourth with Xavier, Dayton and LaSalle, they will gain a bye directly to Atlantic City -- which is preferable. Nothing can be gained with an extra game against an opponent with a lousy RPI.

Overall, the Hawks actually are in a better situation at current than Drexel. Their 55 RPI is better. Their non-con schedule strength is an infinitely better 39. And they have two very nice scalps, one non-con. The first was at home over Creighton (25) by 80-71 in a rollicking good game back in December. The second was just last week over A-10 regular season champion Temple (14), also at Hagan Arena.

Those are two impressive wins even if both are at home. SJU's three losses to >100s aren't horrible as much as puzzling. American (148) is a good 20-win Patriot League team that Phil Martelli chose to play once in DC. This was the wrong year. The other two were at home against Charlotte (170) and Richmond (123). Not good but forgivable if the Hawks perform in the A-10 tournament starting Tuesday.

St. Joe's problem arises when their road record against anyone of worth is analyzed. The Hawks are 0-8 away from home against opponents in the RPI top 99. Good road wins, even just one or two, really help a resume stand out. SJU doesn't have any.

They're a better at-large candidate than Drexel, said Palm. But not much. And I think they're going to have to beat somebody good in Atlantic City to have any hope.

Palm gives Saint Joe's a 20-percent shot, given its present resume, to make the NCAAs as an at-large.

If that's a pretty grim assessment for both teams, at least it's realistic. The one hole card for both is that the NCAA added three at-large spots last year to make 68 teams overall up from 65.

And, as for La Salle (84), fuhgetabahtit. Though the Explorers also have a shot at a first-round A-10 bye if they tie for fourth with Xavier, Saint Joe's and UMass none of that matters in their NCAA scenario. They have zero shot at an at-large bid. They must win it all in AC.

E-mail Dave Jones at djones8681@verizon.net and follow him on Twitter @djoneshoop

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