A prelude to madness [UPDATED]

Whether you’re ready for it or not, March Madness is here. This week will feature the conference tournaments (some of which got underway last week) that will help determine the field for the 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s College Basketball tournament.

Tonight, I’ll be watching the final of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament between William & Mary and Northeastern. And I’ll be pulling for William & Mary, my older daughter’s alma mater.

W&M’s men’s basketball team is one of only five charter NCAA programs that has never reached the tournament. The others are Army, Northwestern, The Citadel, and St. Francis of Brooklyn. Taylor Reveley, the College’s inimitable president, describes this as “a very elegant group, and one that we would love to leave.”

William & Mary nearly left it last year. In the CAA final against Delaware, the Tribe held a a six-point lead with 1:20 to play. Somehow, the team squandered the lead. With time running out and Delaware ahead 75-74, W&M superstar Marcus Thornton (about whom more in a moment) launched a potential game-winner. The shot seemed to be on the money, but it didn’t fall.

This year, with much of Thornton’s supporting cast gone, the Tribe struggled at times (losing four of its first five games in December), but managed to tie three other CAA teams for first place. Yesterday, it faced fifth-place Hofstra in the tournament semi-finals.

The contest turned out to be one of the most exciting college basketball games of the year. In a near reverse image of W&M’s loss to Delaware, the Tribe trailed 68-59 with five minutes left in regulation and by 73-68 with 40 seconds remaining. Thornton then scored five points (an old-fashioned three point play and two free throws) to tie the score.

The first overtime period featured more of the same. William & Mary went ahead early, but Hofstra rallied and took a three-point lead with less than a minute left. Thornton tied the game with a three-point shot, but Hofstra had a chance to regain the lead with 10 seconds left. Fortunately, its freshman center missed two free throws. When Thornton missed an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer, it was time for double-overtime.

A word here about Marcus Thornton, a native of Upper Marlboro, Maryland and a favorite of those who watch summer basketball in Washington, DC. Lightly recruited early in his high school career, Thornton accepted a scholarship at William & Mary. As I understand it, he eventually came to the attention of more prestigious basketball programs, but decided to adhere to his commitment.

By his sophomore season in Williamsburg, Thornton was an all-conference caliber player. Now, as a senior, he is, in my view, the CAA’s best. He averages 20 points a game and shoots three-pointers, frequently contested ones, at a .405 clip.

To fully appreciate Thornton, one should watch him the summer leagues, where he scores at will against former college stars who now play in Europe. His trademarks are shimmying moves to create daylight and an acrobatic ability to finish drives.

Naturally, one sees less of this against the “stop Thornton” defenses CAA coaches devise (in the summer league, man-to-man defense is required). However, if you watch tonight you should see some shimmying and some acrobatics to go along with the three-point shooting.

But sometimes, even for superstars — even for Michael Jordan — the best clutch shots are the ones you pass up. So it was yesterday with time running out in double overtime.

Hofstra had taken a two-point with eight second left. With time running out and the ball in Thornton’s hands, the Hofstra defense swarmed. Instead of forcing a shot, Thornton found teammate Daniel Dixon in the corner.

Dixon had scored only 4 points all game and his season was marred by injury. But the sophomore guard has hit nearly 46 percent of his three-pointers on the year. Thus, whether Dixon had hit this shot or not, Thornton made the correct play.

Dixon did hit the shot. William & Mary thus came away with a 92-91 victory. Thornton ended up with 37 points, tied for a career high and a CAA tournament record.

The Tribe shouldn’t expect an easy time of it tonight against Northeastern. In fact, the two teams are evenly matched, having finished with identical conference records and having split their two regular season games. Moreover, Northwestern will not be coming off of a draining double-overtime contest.

I expect a close game. If it’s anywhere near as exciting as the Tribe’s semifinal win, or last year’s loss in the final, it will be a fine prelude to the Madness to come.

You can watch highlights of William & Mary vs. Hofstra below.

UDPATE: William & Mary stormed back from 22 points down with three and a half minutes to go, cutting the margin to 6 with 30 minutes remaining. But after that, Northeastern made its free throws and hung on to defeat the Tribe.

Thornton was outstanding again. He scored 20 points on 8-17 shooting (4-8 on three pointers) and dished out 5 assists. However, Northeastern did a good job of limiting his scoring opportunities until late in the game.

William & Mary will have to wait at least one more year to crack the NCAA tournament. And with Thornton departing, the wait may be considerably longer.

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