Hoop Time Notebook (pre selection show edition)

Does Holy Cross belong in the NCAA Tournament?

After the championship final Friday, Crusaders coach Ralph Willard would not make that claim.

"That’s not for me to say," said Willard. "These kids have done everything they could have done. They won 16 games in a row. We did lose this one, but we won the regular season championship. The four games we lost non-conference we lost by a total of 21 points. We’ve had a great year. But that is out of our hands right now."

Willard might also have mentioned that five of the six Crusaders losses came against teams headed to the tournament.

Bucknell coach Pat Flannery, though, said the answer was obvious to him.

"I certainly think Holy Cross deserves to go to the tournament," Flannery said.

While the consensus opinion now seems to be the NIT for Holy Cross, not all prognosticators are ready to relegate the Crusaders to the consolation tournament.

In his bracketology piece in today's Grand Rapids Press, David Mayo writes:
Last five in: 61. Iowa State; 62. North Carolina State; 63. Iowa; 64. UAB; 65. Holy Cross.
Of course Mayo's is a minority opinion. Even folks in his own newspaper chain don't agree with im.

John Walker, of the Saginaw News writes:
The interesting question is whether the committee will take the big boys or the mid-majors in the No. 38-76 range. You can probably guess the answer to that.

So, tonight expect to hear some mid-major crying from teams like No. 38 Northern Iowa, No. 50 Wichita State, No. 51 Holy Cross, No. 57 Southwest Missouri State, and the MAC teams, of course. No. 44 Northeastern will tumble and is out of the discussion after getting destroyed by Vermont in the America East championship.
Actually, I would not expect a lot of crying from Holy Cross if they are not selected. I'd be surprised if we even hear a whimper. Ralph Willard made it clear before the league tournament even got underway. As many bracketeers were pondering the chances of a second bid for the Patriot League, Willard made it clear he wasn't going to count on that possibility.

The Patriot League, he pointed out to anyone who would answer, has never gotten a second bid.

One of the reporters in the postgame brought that fact up to Willard, prompting this reply: "Everybody knows that. That is a fact of life. We know that. We knew that six months ago and we know that now."

Almost nobody talks of the Patriot League as a two-bid league. Even when Holy Cross was getting a lot of attention from bracketeers predicting high seeds for the Crusaders, many hedged, saying that was if they could win the tournament to get in.

Given the improved play in the Patriot League, Flannery said, "Maybe it is time to start talking about it a little bit."

"It’s a dynamite league. If you get people who will schedule our league, let us know who they are because I know coach (Willard) is always looking for them and I am always looking for them. It’s an outstanding league," Flannery said.

SENIOR LEADER: Much of the talk before the final was about the leadership of Holy Cross' five seniors. In fact, in a matchup that looked every bit as close on paper as it did when it finally was played on the court, the fact that HC had three seniors in the lineup was one factor folks favoring the Crusaders pointed to.

Bucknell has only one senior on the entire roster, Chris Niesz. Niesz is a bench player who was a starter at the beginning of last season before being injured in the Penn State game. By the time his broken hand healed, Bucknell's freshmen and sophomores were on a roll in league play. Niesz's starting job was gone. So were most of the 24 minutes a game he had been playing before getting hurt.

This year, the team's lone senior was really never in the starting lineup mix. Donald Brown won the starting four spot in the preseason. Darren Mastropaolo got a look there , too, before Flannery settled on John Clark and the Bison began to roll.

When Clark's chronic bad feet finally forced him to the bench, Flannery went back to Mastropaolo as the starter. Even though Niesz had been playing more minutes than the freshman off the bench when Clark went down.

Flannery's reasoning was straight-forward. Neisz, though 6-8, is reed-thin. Fallnery wanted the bigger Mastropaolo on the floor to help protect 6-11 center Chris McNaughton from foul problems.

Mastropaolo has gotten better down the stretch, especially defensively and on the glass. But a bigger factor in Bucknell's emergence from the funk it fell into about the same time as Clark broke down has been Niesz's play late in the season.

In the last four games, Niesz has averaged over 20 minutes per game. Strong, productive minutes, too. His ability to step out on the perimeter to hit the jumper has stretched defenses and opened things up in the paint for McNaughton.

On Senior Night, with his team on the verge of entering the postseason on a skid, Niesz drained a three-pointer at the end to give Bucknell the win and a huge emotional lift entering tournament play. In the semifinals against American, he scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out two key assist to spark the run that gave the Bison the win (he also scored 5 of the points in that 14-3 spurt).

Everybody thought senior leadership might be the one thing this Bucknell team lacked. All of a sudden it was there in spades.

In the final, Niesz was the X factor. Niesz's 8 points, including a pair of threes, pretty much cancelled out the 11 John Hurley scored for HC.

Hurley, an oft overlooked element of the Holy Cross team, was justly rewarded with a spot on the all-tournament team. But Niesz also received some votes, and had he been called on to do more in the romp over Lafayette, might well have joined Hurley at the postgame awards ceremony.

When you add in the contributions of Mastropaolo (2 reb., 3 points, 1 assist, 1 block) and Brown (5 rebounds, 2 points, 1 block in 16 minutes), the three-headed monster's combined line totals 13 points, 9 rebounds, stacking up almost even against the combination of Hurley and Kevin Hyland, who had 15 points and 9 rebounds between them. Thanks to Neisz's offensive contribution, the Bison ended up with a draw in a matchup that had been expected to be a Holy Cross advantage.

Neisz didn't just help get a stalemate at the four, he also helped tip the scaled way to the Bucknell side at the five by forcing Holy Cross to try to stop Chris McNaughton with one defender.

"When you play Chris Niesz as many minutes as we did, it’s tough to double there," said Flannery. "When we were playing Darren and Tarik (Viaer-McClymont) they were doubling hard. When we had a perimeter presence it was a lot harder."

Niesz was 2-for-2 from three-point range in the first half. As a team, Bucknell was 5-for-8, with Kevin Bettencourt making a pair early and John Griffin also dialing in. The result: there simply was nobody HC could leave alone to go give help on McNaughton.

We have already detailed the damage McNaughton did when he got isolated on a single Holy Cross defender (7-for-8 from the field, 3-for-4 at the line, 17 points and 7 rebounds).

LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Amidst all the talk about Bucknell's early lead and Kevin Hamilton's end game heroics, a missed box score line that says a lot. Keith Simmons: 2-for-9, 1-for-6 on threes, 6 points, 1 assist 5 turnovers.

A first team all league pick in recognition of his tremendous season as HC's sixth-man, Simmons had shot the ball better than 51 percent from the field nd his 43 percent effort from the three-point arc was fourth-best in the league. Simmons had averaged over 12 points a game in the regular season and 11 per in two tournament games.

What happened to Simmons in the final happened to every guard not names Hamilton that Bucknell faced in the tournament. Take a look at some of the other lines posted by opposing backcourt players in the Bison's three games:
  • Andre Ingram (1st team all-league, 15.2 ppg ave.): 2-12, 1-5 on threes, 5 points
  • Jason Thomas (2nd team all-league, 12.4 ppg): 0-7, 0-6 1 point
  • Take your pick of Lafayette guards, the three starters were a combined 4-for-14 from the field, 2-8 from the arc. The Betley cousins had a combined line of 0-for-6.

    In a guard dominated league, where 11 of the top 12 scorers in the conference are backcourt players, Hamilton was the only guard to reach double figures against Bucknell. Even he was bottled up most of the game, scoring just 5 points on 2-for-7 shooting in the first half.

    PRESSURE POINTS: That Holy Cross pulled out the full court press was no surprise. What was surprising was that Ralph Willard waited so long to go to the pressure.

    Ever since last year's first-round matchup, when Holy Cross forced 28 Bucknell turnovers with the press, it has been obvious the Crusaders have the personnel to give Bucknell fits full court.

    Maybe the reason Willard was hesitant was because of what happened when HC did not get the turnover in that first round game. Bucknell shot over 61 percent from the field, winning by six despite taking 24 fewer shots than the 'Saders.

    That was the result of all the odd-man advantage situations Bucknell greated when they broke the press. By attacking the basket in those situations, the Bison got enough easy buckets to stay in front.

    This time around, Bucknell seemed to take a different approach and it almost cost them. Several times during the last 10 minutes, as HC was making its final push, Bucknell broke the pressure and had a three-on-two or an open look early in the possession. But instead of continuing to attack, time and again Bucknell passed the quick opportunity, cautiously pulling the ball out to try to keep the pace of the game in control.

    "We tried to attack them, get easy baskets if we could. If we couldn’t, then we were going to run some clock and then we were going to run our halfcourt sets," Flannery said. "We did what we wanted to do. We did what we did all year, and we haven’t lost many leads."

    Matter of fact, Bucknell was 18-1 this season when leading at halftime.

    POINT EXPERIENCE: With the season on the line, both coaches opted for experience at the point. Willard went with Torey Thomas over freshman Pat Doherty to start for HC and Thomas played the lions share of the minutes.

    For Bucknell, a slight wrinkle was the return of Kevin Bettencourt to his role from last year running the point when Abe Badmus too breathers on the bench. Freshman John Griffin, who has been the relief guy up top all season, played 10 minutes, scoring 6 points on a pair of threes. But much of his 10 minutes came at the two, with Bettencourt or Badmus handling the ball.

    "It was something we felt we had to do a little bit of coming in here with the amount of pressure they put on. I love John (Griffin) to death and you saw the moxie that kid has," Flannery said. "But he is really going to have to get stronger and spend some time in the weight room, which he will, because he is that kind of kid.

    We thought that Kevin has had this experience. He has been here before so we decided to run him more at the point. Then when Abe got in foul trouble, we had to do more with Kevin. Kevin did it all last year. It was nothing new to him. Plus it moves him around. It changes their matchups. They do such a great job of scouting and playing that match. Any time you can move one piece, it really can help you."

    THIS AND THAT: Bucknell is the only team in the league with a better than .500 all-time record against Holy Cross in League play. The Bison led the series 21-18 . . . Holy Cross and Bucknell have met nine times in tournament play, making it the most played tournament matchup . . . The Bison now hold a 5-4 edge in tournament games . . . The two teams are among four schools with all-time winning records in league tournament play. The other two are Navy and American . . . Bucknell is the fifth No. 2 seed to win the tournament . . . when reaching the final, two-seeded teams have gone 5-5.

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