I’ve got a case of March Madness. I’ll treat it with a load of boiled crawfish and total immersion in the NCAA Tournament. That’s worked every year (except when I rode Mike McConathy’s Northwestern State bus into the Big Dance in 2001, 2006 and 2013, along with the time four years ago when my gall bladder entered the transfer portal.
That Friday night, I was on Oxycodone hours after surgery and so it had to be a hallucination when Maryland-Baltimore County blasted No. 1 Virginia 74-54. Just like later in the evening when my bed was vertical and I could see Paul McCartney’s guitar and jacket below my feet, laid out neatly on the floor.
Four years to the day, I found myself grumbling for Grambling.
Wednesday night as I watched Texas Southern getting cracked in the First Four, I was sick for the Grambling Tigers, who would have been a much more accomplished Southwestern Athletic Conference representative.
Our Tigers were not only a SWAC regular-season co-champion, with a 24-9 record that included wins over a bad Colorado team and a Vanderbilt squad that finished tied for fourth in the SEC, but they were good enough to not be relegated to Dayton. Plus, their brand would have added luster to the NCAA Tournament field – a bracket that has never included Grambling.
For that matter, the Tigers would have added luster to the NCAA-run NIT and they should have been included there. That was discretionary and that was a bad blunder by that selection committee.
Grambling had every chance to be in the Big Dance. But the Tigers stumbled at the worst time, in the SWAC Tournament finals, losing for the first time in 12 games, 61-58 to Texas Southern. Coach Donte’ Jackson’s G-Men hit a painful 25 percent of their first-half shots, falling behind 22-5 in the first 10 minutes. Although they rallied back to a 43-all tie, they just couldn’t get control over a TSU squad they had beaten by 19 in Grambling on Feb. 11 and by 13 in Houston on Jan. 4.
Texas Southern entered the SWAC Tournament on a three-game skid. The Texas Tigers stunned regular-season co-champ Alcorn State to start a three-game winning streak – equalling two others during the SWAC slate as their best this season under coach Johnny Jones (yes, the former LSU point guard and head coach).
By getting hot at the right time, TSU gave Jones his sixth NCAA Tournament berth as a coach, and his third straight in five seasons in the SWAC. That should make the DeRidder native upwardly mobile in the job market in the coming days, if he wants a big raise and a step up on the mid-major pecking order.
Grambling was beaten fair and square. But it didn’t help that the SWAC’s postseason tournament format, with the eight qualifiers paired in four quarterfinal games, doesn’t reward the top teams over nine weeks of conference play.
For a one-bid league, the Southland Conference is superior with its bracket, which protects the top two teams until the semifinals. The four lowest seeds meet in an opening round, then the survivors meet the Nos. 3-4 seeds in the quarterfinals, with the winners moving on to the semis.
Two more one-bid leagues of local interest, Conference USA and the Sun Belt, along with the SEC and the Big XII, also use tournament formats that place a premium on regular-season conference performance. Why doesn’t the SWAC?
Instead, an eighth-place team got equal SWAC Tournament status with the co-champions, beat both, and surged into March Madness – where it got drubbed 84-61.
Meanwhile, the SWAC’s best representative watched and winced Wednesday night in Lincoln Parish. I hope they had some crawfish.
Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org