Sun Belt Finals Set – From the Bird’s Nest
Instead of spending the day in Hot Springs preparing for a semifinal game last night in the Sun Belt Tournament, I was watching the semifinals at home.
After a long bus ride back to Lafayette (all bus rides are long when you don't win) I got home just in time for the first game between Arkansas State and North Texas.
If you like teams that can shoot, this game was for you.
Between them, there were 17 triples made in 36 attempts. North Texas was the most efficient, going 8-13.
At the end of the day, Arkansas State had more field goals, more made threes, nine more rebounds and just one more turnover than the victors.
But Jacob Holmen had a career high 21 points including five three-balls and North Texas shot nearly 59 percent for the game. Five were in double figures, including Tony Mitchell, who only had one field goal, but went 8-8 from the free throw line.
Trey Finn, who should have been on the All-Conference team, had 21 for ASU.
The lack of depth may have caught up with John Brady's squad, which could at least partially explain UNT's field goal percentage. ASU played only seven players last night.
In the nightcap (had to watch this one on espn3.com because of the Hornets) Western Kentucky continued their improbable run to the title game by knocking off #3 Denver 67-63. Sometimes college basketball is just about stepping up. And, Khalil McDonald has done that. He had three more triples last night. He's been money from the outside for new coach Ray Harper. And, George Fant, who is undersized for a post guy at 6-5, outmuscled the Pioneers on his way to 19 points on 6-8 shooting.
After shooting a miserable 21-41 from the free throw line in the quarterfinals, the Hilltoppers were 24-34, good for 70%. They outscored DU by 12 from the line. And, although they aren't just a three point/backdoor cut team any more. Denver has to score from the outside to win most nights. They had only five makes and only 13 attempts, a tribute to WKU's perimeter defense. It all came down to the final shot, and Brian Stafford, who was 3-6 from beyond the arc, missed what could have been the game winner. DU got the rebound and there was a lot of contact in the putback attempt, but you'll rarely see officials call a foul in that situation.
WKU's bench outscored Denver 24-5.
This is the second straight year that a five seed or lower will win the tournament. Last year, UALR was the #5 seed IN THEIR DIVISION, making them the defacto 9 or 10 seed. And, as a result, UALR had to play in Dayton, Ohio in an opening round game.
The same will happen this year.
Both of these teams have bad RPIs. UNT is 192. WKU is 197. The lowest RPI team to get into the tournament so far is UNC-Asheville at 106, according to collegerpi.com.
So, it's the dreaded "play-in" game for the league again this year.
For North Texas, Tony Mitchell has done some good things on the defensive end with 16 rebounds and ten blocked shots. But, he's got three field goals in the tournament. If this guy is so much better than the rest of the league, he needs to show it tonight. Meanwhile, Derrick Gordon, who scored 25 points and had fifteen rebounds against UALR, did not have a field goal last night and only six boards. He needs to step up for WKU.
North Texas is in the finals for the third straight year and fourth time in the last six. Meanwhile, there's not a single player for WKU who has played for the title.
And, that could be the difference.
I like North Texas' experience. I like North Texas' depth. I like North Texas' athleticism. And, I like North Texas to win this game.
But WKU has bought into Ray Harper. They've played, frankly, a little above their heads in this tournament.
And, they just might do it again.
(information from collegerpi.com and sunbeltsports.org contributed to this story)