On Tuesday night, Coastal Carolina lost at home to Gardner-Webb, 66-63. The Chanticleers had won their first 15 Big South games, and are the regular season champions-elect of the conference. They were riding a national-best 22-game win streak, were outscoring league opponents by .17 points per possession (1.07 to .9). The Runnin’ Bulldogs, on the other hand, had lost 14 of their last 16. Unless you pray at the altar of Grayson Flittner, this was a loss of the unforgivable variety.
Teams like Coastal, clearly superior to the rest of their one-bid conferences, walk a thinner line than most. CCU wasn’t going to make the NCAA Tournament anyway without surviving the Big South tourney (a 256 SOS guarantees that), but the selection committee will likely go ahead and find some way to punish them for getting run by the Runnin’ Bulldogs. At the very least, it could end up as the difference between a 14 and a 15.
Coastal’s loss left a single league-undefeated among the one-bid conferences: 7-0 Princeton, halfway through their Ivy League schedule. Over the past three weeks, all the rest have gone down: Belmont in the Atlantic Sun, the Patriot League’s Bucknell, Oakland of the Summit, and Saint Mary’s (WCC) and Utah State (WAC) out west. There may indeed be an eventual Sweet 16 team (or three) contained in this paragraph, and these are the names everyone should know for March, but clean and dominant runs through their leagues would have helped a lot. As a service to these teams, here are the excuses why those single losses represent true exceptions and not potential seed-line adjustments.
Coastal Carolina (24-3, 15-1 Big South)
That loss: February 15, Gardner-Webb (H), 59-57
Throughout the Chanticleers’ unbeaten run, which dated back to the Charleston Classic in November, this mid-sized squad had always been able to rely on a jumper barrage. They’re the eighth-best field-goal shooting team in the country at 48.7 percent, despite slumping on threes at 32 percent (they make 51 percent of twos). Most specific to their attack are the efforts of 6-foot-3 junior guard Desmond Holloway, who converts 54 percent inside the arc. He was a season-worst 2-for-10 on Tuesday, and the team put in its worst group effort of the year, scoring .87 points per possession and being more useless than usual from three (1-for-9). It’s not that G-Webb stepped up their game or anything (.92 points per trip), it just turned into an off-night slog.
Belmont (23-4, 15-1 Atlantic Sun)
That loss: January 25, Lipscomb (A), 73-64
The Bruins are a year ahead of schedule yet very much possible, winning with sophomores and juniors brought on after the three-bid dynasty class. They’ve crushed Atlantic Sun opposition this season in a manner similar to CCU’s Big South romp (1.12 points per trip, .85 against), and have forced turnovers at a rate of 27 percent — only Duquesne (28 percent) does it better. But at Lipscomb — whom Belmont had beaten 88-52 in the first meeting — Rick Byrd’s team took a 15-point first-half lead but suffered a total offensive collapse in the second. The committee’s system doesn’t have room for rivalry considerations (except in discussion). But Lipscomb is six miles away from Belmont, and the Bisons have only lost to the Bruins twice in the six home meetings since both schools became Division I members, and there’s lingering resentment from 1989, when Belmont knocked Don Meyer’s 38-1 team out of national NAIA tournament consideration. Byrd coached that game too.
Oakland (18-9, 13-1 Summit League)
That loss: February 5, IUPUI (A), 100-88
You may remember Oakland from their December 9 shocker at Thompson-Boling Arena. That looked better then than it does now, and so does the 77-76 close call against Michigan State three days later. The Golden Grizzlies knew what they had to do all along however, and were stomping through the Summit — playing at a hyper-efficient 75-possession pace yet still holding opponents under a point per trip — until IUPUI rudely interrupted. At Conseco Fieldhouse, Oakland ran into the double-risk of an 85-possession game: the chance that the other team might make more shots and that the offensive rebounds from long shots might not end up in the right hands. The Jaguars shot 56 percent and pulled away late with free throws to jump into triple digits; it was a five-point game in the 80s with five minutes to go.
Bucknell (18-8, 9-1 Patriot)
That loss: January 29, Army (A), 90-70
The Bison, dormant for several years, are evoking memories of mid-decade excellence. This 6-10 sophomore named Mike Muscala even has a little Chris McNaughton in him. But the real key to the Bucknell resurgence has been spectacularly stingy backcourt play, and low turnovers (15.1 percent) have helped Muscala get lots of extra shots (22.7 points per 40 minutes, 54 percent on twos). That all fell through one January Saturday in West Point, where Dave Paulsen’s team turned the ball over 17 times in a 71-possession game (24 percent). The Black Knights edged out in front at the end of the first half, then added to it slowly and surely until it was insurmountable.
Saint Mary’s (22-4, 10-1 WCC)
That loss: January 29, Portland (A), 85-70
Emotional highs and lows can’t be measured by any tempo-free system, only their effects can. Saint Mary’s was coming off their first win at Gonzaga since 1995, sealed by a Mickey McConnell three in the closing seconds. Randy Bennett teams always makes the extra pass (or four) and get back quickly, but both offense and defense collapsed in Portland. That’s where they gave up 1.24 points per possession, and shot under 40 percent for the first time since a loss to San Diego State on Dec. 1. They didn’t have an answer for a 16-0 Pilot run out of halftime, and that was pretty much the final margin. Plus, the Gaels were playing against negative travel history: only three California-based WCC teams have swept the Northwest trip in those 15 years since they last won in Zagland.
Utah State (23-3, 12-1 WAC)
That loss: February 9, Idaho (A), 64-56
No team on this list was hurt more by its single loss so far than the Blue Aggies. Utah State always seems to put up eye-popping statistics, but Stew Morrill’s charges are an NCAA perennial in what’s been a CIT-level league this year. Running the table was not only preferable, it was necessary for any at-large chance. The wound was administered at Idaho on national television, as the Vandals dragged Utah State into a murky mess of a game. Aggie star and leading scorer Tai Wesley fouled out after double-doubling with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and the Vandals were able to something that only Georgetown had managed to do: hold an offense that scores 1.1 points per trip a full quarter-point below its average. Idaho, currently in fourth-place in the league and hovering around the .500 mark, is not Georgetown, so it’s safe to assume that this isn’t going to happen again until March.