Men’s basketball: The playoff picture

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February 17, 2010

8:48 PM

It’s been quite an up-and-down ride, but with two games remaining, some clarity can finally be injected into the CAA playoff picture. Two huge wins have vaulted William and Mary into third place in the conference and — coupled with key tiebreaking advantages over George Mason, Drexel and possibly VCU — the Tribe looks in prime position to clinch a top-four finish and an all-important first-round tournament bye.

To recap, Kendrix Brown’s fadeaway jumper with 3.7 seconds left took down Northeastern at Kaplan Arena Saturday, keeping the College in a tie with Drexel for fourth-place. Tuesday night, it was Danny Sumner skying to swat down Cam Long’s final attempt for George Mason that allowed the Tribe to escape with a 63-60 win. After VCU easily took care of Drexel at the Siegel Center, the College moves a game clear of that pair, while pulling even with George Mason at 11-5 in conference.

With two CAA games remaining, the top half of the conference currently sits:

Northeastern – 13-3
Old Dominion – 13-3
TRIBE – 11-5
George Mason – 11-5
Drexel– 10-6
VCU – 10-6

So what does this mean for the Tribe? Several things.

1) Winning one out of its final two should be good enough for the College to wrap up its first-ever CAA tournament bye.

The significance of that bye can’t be understated. No team has won the CAA tournament without one, a fact the Tribe acutely discovered in 2008 upon tiring sharply down the stretch during the CAA championship game against George Mason.

But this year, win one out of Towson at home and UNC-Wilmington on the road and the College should be resting on Friday in Richmond. The squad holds head-to-head tiebreakers against George Mason and Drexel due to its undefeated record against those two schools. Additionally, the College will hold the tiebreaker over VCU, with which it split a pair of games, if Northeastern holds on to win the conference. The second tiebreaker is record against first-place team on down until the tie is broken. Therefore, by virtue of the Tribe’s 1-0 mark against the Huskies and VCU’s 0-2 record, the College would own the tie. If Old Dominion were to finish first, VCU’s win over the Monarchs at Siegel would trump the Tribe’s 0-2 mark.

Therefore, Drexel would have to win out and have the College lose out to finish ahead of the Tribe in the standings. VCU would either have to win out and hope the College loses its final two, or finish a game better over the last two. If the two squads finish in a tie, Old Dominion would have to win the conference for VCU to prevail. However, the Monarchs and Rams play each other in the season’s final game. Since — assuming the College wins one of its final two — VCU would have to win out and beat Old Dominion to finish tied, it seems unlikely that the Monarchs would win the conference with a loss in its final two, seeing as Northeastern owns the tiebreaker over ODU.

In short, if you’re still following, one win should be enough for the Tribe to finish the regular season in the top four.

2) Would finishing fourth actually be better than finishing third?

This will be an interesting question to watch over the final week. Firstly, there is no chance whatsoever that Tony Shaver would tank a final game to drop a spot and I do not wish to remotely suggest that he should do so. Not in the slightest.

But it is very likely that falling to fourth place could possibly drop the College into a stronger set of matchups in the CAA tournament.

If the season ended today, Northeastern would finish first, followed by Old Dominion based on the head-to-head result between the two squads. The Tribe would end up third ahead of George Mason in fourth, while Drexel would trump VCU for the fifth spot. In that ending, hypothetically assuming all higher seeds held in the tournament, the Tribe would be forced to play VCU on Saturday in a 3 vs. 6 matchup, before taking on ODU in the semifinals in a 2 vs. 3. The Tribe is 1-2 against those two schools. The squad’s record against the other three programs in the top six? 4-0.

Alternately, if we were to switch the positioning of George Mason and the College, an ostensibly easier path to the CAA final would present itself. The Tribe would face Drexel, which it swept, in the second round on Saturday, before facing Northeastern on Sunday.

With a pair of wins against Towson and UNC-Wilmington — probably more likely than not to occur — the College will clinch third place. If that were to happen, it should root hard for Old Dominion to win out and Northeastern to drop its final game at George Mason. That would deliver ODU the CAA regular season title, and set the Tribe up against the Huskies in the semifinals. That scenario would require ODU to beat VCU, meaning that if Drexel were to drop one of its final two, it would finish sixth, losing the tiebreaker to the Rams. This would also prevent the College from facing VCU or ODU until the final.

3) At-large hopes revived?

After falling to Old Dominion Feb. 3, the Tribe was all but written off in its quest for an at-large bid. But after winning its last four since that date, including victories over Northeastern and George Mason, the squad’s hopes are not completely finished.

I emailed Washington Post bracketologist Eric Prisbell for his take:

“The selection committee values nothing more than top 50 victories on the road, and the Tribe has two that are very impressive. When you add in the Richmond victory, you could not ask for anything more during nonconference play from a CAA team with at-large aspirations. I am partial to the Tribe because I saw how convincingly they beat Maryland at Comcast Center. But the Tribe has a major problem. If there was a way to offset those two ACC victories, the Tribe found it. They lost two games against Wilmington and James Madison, teams rated 231 or worse in the latest RPI. One could be excused. But two almost certainly represent fatal flaws on the resume. Now, if the Tribe wins out and loses in the CAA final to ODU, a legit case could be made for the Tribe, and I would certainly talk them up and may very well include them in my bracket. But I still would not be crazy about their chances and a lot would depend on what other craziness occurs across the country. For that reason, ODU is the only CAA team with strong at-large hopes, and the Tribe most likely needs to win the CAA tourney, which they could do.”

In short, far from likely, but not outside the realm of possibility. However a lot of things would have to fall the right way.

Regardless, the very fact that the College harbors any sort of chance for an at-large NCAA bid, the first in its history, just one year removed after a 10-20 season represents an incredible accomplishment for this entire team. No matter how things play out, the 2009-2010 squad will go down as the greatest in school history and, with the CAA’s top-ranked recruiting class entering in the fall, this could only be the beginning.

Many thanks to Eric Prisbell for his thoughts. Please visit his excellent blog, the 65, at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the65.

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