Central Missouri rallied past Atlantic Region champ West Liberty this afternoon, 84-77, in the DII championship game which was televised live on CBS. After watching tons of Gannon games this year plus several Atlantic Region NCAA tournament contests and many minutes of the Elite 8, I can say that the distance between teams like our Golden Knights and best in Division II is slim. Very slim.
Not only do I think my claim passes the eyeball test but I think the stats also back up my assertion. I know comparative scores can be misleading, but when you stack these four data points together, there's a trend that's hard to deny:
1. WLU vs. the World: West Liberty was victorious in its first two Elite 8 games and very well could have won today's championship tilt had they not misfired on some key threes in the closing minutes. That would prove the Atlantic is a strong region, competitive with Division II's best teams.
2. GU/UC/WLU: On March 9, Charleston (W.V) defeated West Liberty 63-60 in the Mountain East championship on a neutral floor. Six days later, also on a neutral floor, Charleston lost to Gannon, 66-64. And it wasn't like either team played out of its minds to win those games.
3. WLU's Closest Call: Until their loss in the finals, West Liberty's toughest test of the NCAAs was an epic 86-85 triple overtime loss to Indiana (Pa.). IUP missed a free throw to extend the game to a fourth OT, so flip a coin who is the better team.
4. GU > IUP: When comparing Gannon and IUP, you can keep the quarter in your pocket. The Knights were 2-0 against the Crimson Hawks this season and looked better for the vast majority of the 85 minutes those two clubs tangled this year. IUP finished with a better record, but in February and March, Gannon was the better team.
I'm not saying Gannon is the best team in the country, but they are less than a full step behind the elite. I recall past seasons watching the DII finals and thinking, "Sheesh! Gannon couldn't compete with those guys. They're too quick. They fly all over the place. We'd get killed." That thought never crossed my mind today. In fact, as the teams exchanged easy baskets at times, I'd say to myself, "A John Reilly team would never give up that play. Go over the screen or hedge on it! Put a body on somebody!"
Does it seem to you that the Knights are one player -- just one player -- away from having a great chance to play on national TV a year from now? The Knights should have four starters returning (guards Adam Blazek and Girbran Smith, forwards A'Darius Porter and Raphell Thomas-Edwards), Matthew Dogan a year older and wiser, plus proven Division II performer Rich Austin eligible and in the rotation.
If even just one of Gannon's redshirt guards proves to be a solid ballhandler/defender and the Knights can sign an immediate impact juco or Division I transfer small forward, they'd have to be preseason PSAC West favorites and top 3 in the region behind annual power West Liberty and East Stroudsburg, who was loaded with underclassmen this year. To bring this post full circle, we saw today that if you're among the best in the Atlantic, you're among the best in the nation.