Stephen F. Austin. Sam Houston State. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Northwestern State. Remember those schools. Come late tomorrow night, one of these four teams will have earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament starting next Tuesday. The odds of one of these teams winning it all are large, but that's why it's called March Madness.
The action started Wednesday night out in Katy's Merrell Center, which is hosting the Southland Conference Basketball Tournament. At stake's that much desired automatic invite to the NCAA tourney. And odds are the only team making that trip is the one winning tomorrow night.
The Merrell Center's a good spot for these games. Sure, Katy's a bit out of the way. But the fans are on top of the action, and even on a night like Wednesday when attendance barely topped 1000 for McNeese State versus Southeastern Louisiana and for Nicholls versus New Orleans, the building didn't feel like a huge cavern swallowing up the fans a void of nothingness as a place like Toyota Center would. Sure there's no fancy video board or huge scoreboard. But it feels like the place for teams in one of the minor of the mid-major conferences to play its tournament games.
There have been cheerleaders, of course. And pep bands, fans, and dreams of going on an incredible winning streak and winning it all. The mid-major Cinderella dream. Only the Southland Conference's not yet even a mid-major, and the action so far seen on the court isn't really the type of play worthy of the national attention span that the NCAA Tournament brings upon the game of college basketball.
It's felt, instead, much like the types of games that would be played by the most minor of teams in a mid-major conference. Four of the six teams to have played so far have losing records -- three of the teams only being in the tourney because teams with better records were ineligible for postseason play. And those teams with losing records played like teams with losing records. Sloppy passing, bad shot selection, too much hero ball, questionable defensive decisions.
But while attendance was slight, and while the Wednesday night games were poorly played, those fans who did make the trek from Louisiana were loud and boisterous, cheering as McNeese State (15-16) defeated Southeastern Louisiana (9-23) in overtime and as New Orleans (11-18) put away Nicholls (10-19) late. Attendance was a bit better last night, as was the play, as Northwestern State (19-11) put away McNeese State. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (19-12) struggled throughout the night and needed New Orleans to miss two game tying three point attempts in the final eight seconds to nail down the win.
But tonight the true fun starts, as the real Southland Conference tournament, so to speak, gets going. Stephen F. Austin (27-4) looks to win the tournament for the second year in the hopes of making the return trip to the tourney. The Lumberjacks surprised most fans by knocking out mid-major darling VCU in the second round before losing to UCLA two days later, and this year Stephen F. Austin would really like to go on a true Cinderella run. It needs to get past Northwestern State tonight, which shouldn't actually be much of a problem -- the Lumberjacks won both meetings this season, including a 26-point drumming last week.
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"We got to to go play a game," Northwestern State head coach Mike McConathy said last night. "We can't dwell on the past, we've got to dwell on the future and go out and play....We'll respond and come in and compete and do the best that we possibly can against an extremely well-coached and well-disciplined team that's extremely offensive efficient, and we'll just do the best we possibly can because we plan on coming in here and showing up and putting our britches on and playing."
Sam Houston State (24-7) hopes to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010, and to do so it'll first need to get past Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, a team that defeated Sam Houston State by two points several weeks ago. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is also the only team to defeat Stephen F. Austin in conference play this season, and it visited the NCAA Tourney back in 2007.
"We're a good basketball team," Texas A&M-Corpus Christi head coach Willis Wilson said. "I've said this many times. I feel like we have a chance to improve a lot. There are no more practice opportunities. It's kind of learning and growing on the job for us. I'd like to see this team make a run, but to do that, it's an uphill fight. There's some good teams ahead us. I think it's going to really test our resolve, test our discipline, and our toughness, and I'm really curious and anxious to see how we respond."
So the pretenders are finished. Now it's the big boys of the conference going at, like it was intended to be. Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and Northwestern State. And by the time it's all over on Saturday night, one of these teams will be left standing and heading to the NCAA Tournament, thoughts of Cinderella in its head.