By Andy Glockner
Most mid-majors already live below the nation's basketball conscience. If they're from the West Coast? Double that lack of attention. If they've also been overshadowed by a league rival? Forget about it.
That's why tonight is so huge for both Utah State and Saint Mary's, two programs that have had 20-win seasons and NCAA at-large berths in the past half-decade but haven't broken through for solo league titles. Both the Aggies, who host WAC nemesis Nevada, and the Gaels, who are at WCC kingpin Gonzaga, have their best shots yet at establishing new league orders.
While both clubs are nearly perfect (a combined 37-2 record) and have significant talent, weak nonconference schedules leave both needing victories like this to also establish more NCAA tournament profile credibility. Without trying to put too much importance on one game, it's clear that the head coaches understand what's at stake.
"We've got a really good rivalry with Nevada, so that alone makes it a big game," said Utah State coach Stew Morrill. "I think when you're in our shoes or St. Mary's shoes ... if you lose one game, the pressure mounts [as far as NCAA tournament positioning]."
Said Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett: "Everyone knows the Gonzaga game, whether we were both ranked or both 5-0, will be a big game for our program. Playing up there, there's a little mystique about that place. It's a tough place to play. It's exciting, so I never have to worry about [my players] knowing it will be a tough game."
Perceptions of both of these teams are slanted by their offense prowess. Utah State, annually one of the nation's best shooting teams, currently is fourth in the nation in effective field goal percentage (accounting for three-pointers). Saint Mary's can shoot, too, but the Gaels are even better when they miss, clearing the offensive glass at the 11th highest rate in the land.
Both clubs' hidden strength, though, lies on the defensive end. The Aggies are extremely good at defending inside the arc and use collective boarding prowess to be the second-best defensive rebounding team in the nation. The Gaels are fourth in the nation in three-point field goal defense.
"You don't get to be in the position we are unless you're balanced in most of the areas of basketball," Bennett said of his 22nd-ranked Gaels.
Making the parallelism even more notable, there's a good chance these two teams will be paired in a BracketBusters showdown in Moraga, Calif., in February. If it happens, that result could go a long way toward establishing which team would be the better NCAA at-large candidate.
True to mid-major form, Morrill said he would be excited to land a solid opponent for a home-and-home series, but noted that his team would be a "big underdog" on the road in this season's game. When informed of that, Bennett immediately laughed and called Morrill a "sandbagger."
If both clubs take care of business tonight, no one else will be buying that schtick, either.
* * *
Judging by the ol' inbox and some entertaining message board threads, it's pretty clear that Kentucky cyberfans are irked that the first two editions of Bubble Watch and the Seed Report deigned to place Tennessee ahead of their Wildcats.
This is worth a quick discussion, because it reinforces important parts of these analyses.
1) Head-to-head results usually mean very little when comparing overall profiles. As impressive as Jodie Meeks' destruction of the Vols in Knoxville was, it's one game in both teams' profiles, or roughly five percent of their season to this point.
2) As of Sunday, both teams had won the rest of their league games against very similar schedules, so stating that UK was "unbeaten in the SEC" wasn't a huge plus when compared to Tennessee's 3-1. You don't get double-credit for the same win or loss.
Here are some more relevant comparisons of the profiles through this past Sunday, when the stories were filed:
-- Tennessee had three wins over the RPI Top 25 (although Siena shouldn't be that high). Kentucky had three wins over the RPI Top 100 (although the Cats' 3-4 mark in that category basically matches the Vols' 4-6.)
-- Tennessee's nonconference SOS was 6. Kentucky's was 177.
-- Tennessee had played three bad teams (200+ RPI) all season, and one was SEC foe Georgia. Including Georgia, Kentucky had played eight. Kentucky's December featured a six-game stretch that included five foes with RPIs of 250 or worse (and possibly the worst Indiana team ever).
-- Tennessee's worst loss is probably at Temple (49th in the RPI). Kentucky's worst loss is home to VMI (118th).
-- Kentucky was 6-2 road/neutral. Tennessee was 6-3.
So yes, Kentucky fans, your team won in Knoxville. The other 17 or 19 games the teams had played to that point made Tennessee's profile slightly better, and it has nothing to do with RPI slotting. The more reasonable question might have been why Florida has been just ahead of both teams, but this week has created more separation there ... for now.