It was quite a whirlwind few days for the Augustana men's basketball team.
On Wednesday (Feb. 29), Augie dropped a 91-83 decision at MSU Moorhead in the NSIC quarterfinals. At the time, it appeared the loss would mark the end to a disappointing season for the talent-laden Vikings, who had been tabbed as the preseason favorite in the conference.
The team struggled to live up to those expectations all season, and entered the tournament ranked No.9 in the Central Region. The scenario, as we understood it then, was that they needed at least one conference tournament win to have any shot at earning a berth in the Region Tournament.
However, as we prepared for our coverage of the NSIC semifinals in Rochester, Minn., it became increasingly apparent that the Vikings were still very much alive.
This is where things start to get crazy.
Commissioner Butch Raymond indicated to me on Friday (Mar. 2) that Winona State, which entered the tournament ranked No. 2 in the region, could only qualify for a regional berth by way of a tournament championship and the automatic bid that goes with it.
The Warriors had their first 13 NSIC wins nullified due to the use of an ineligible player. Their penalty--determined through the NCAA's nullification formula--was announced by the NSIC on Feb. 14 and, ultimately, caused the Warriors to fall from first place to sixth in the league standings. It also dropped their winning percentage below .500, making them ineligible for regional play without the aid of an automatic bid.
While the Warriors were, technically, the No. 6 seed for the conference tournament, they were a heavy favorite in Rochester. WSU was coming off an impressive win at St. Cloud State in quarterfinals, and had plenty of support from purple-clad fans who were more than willing to make the 50-mile trip from Winona. But Southwest Minnesota State spoiled the party, overcoming a five-point halftime deficit to defeat the Warriors, 69-64, in the semifinals.
By Sunday morning, I was able to confirm that Augustana would, in fact, replace Winona State in the regional tournament. It was made official that night when regional brackets were announced during the NCAA selection show. Augustana would face No. 1 Colorado Mines on Saturday, Mar. 10 in Golden, Colo.
It's certainly one of the more improbable ways to qualify for a national tournament. Some may even call it undeserved. But Tom Billeter and the Vikings can shut those people up with a win Saturday on the host team's home floor.
The matchup is nowhere near as uneven as the seeds indicate. In fact, a couple of coaches I've talked to have gone as far as predicting an upset. I'm sure expectations are the last thing Augie wants, so I'll just say this...I expect them to take advantage of this second chance.