Photo by Heather Middleton
When Clayton State men's basketball coach Gordon Gibbons learned his team was left out of the NCAA Division II tournament, he was at a loss for words.
Disappointment wasn't really accurate.
Either was anger.
Devastated was the best way to describe his emotions.
The all-time winningest men's coach at Clayton State couldn't believe his team failed to receive an at-large bid from the tournament committee, who instead decided to fill the eighth and final spot at the Southeast Regional with UNC-Pembroke.
"We deserved to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament," Gibbons said.
Getting into the NCAA Division II tournament involves a formula where three teams from each region get automatic bids for winning their conference tournaments.
From there, five squads earn at-large invitations.
Gibbons says the criteria is similar to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in major college football, with some formulas being used that even the coaches don't have access to.
The Lakers, who play in the Southeast Regional made up of their own Peach Belt Conference, the South Atlantic and Conference Carolinas, had been ranked either fifth or sixth in the regional polls during the first seven votes.
That left the Lakers pretty confident about playing into the postseason.
The crippling blow might have been when the they lost their first-round Peach Belt Conference tournament game at Georgia Southwestern 87-68.
Still, Clayton State thought it was going to hold on to its No. 7-ranking and make the tournament.
"Everything stayed pretty much as expected," Gibbons said. "When we got beat, we knew we were on the bubble, but we felt like if there were no upsets in the three leagues at the conference tournaments, we would be in."
Last Sunday when the official bracket came out, CSU was out of the Top 10 regional rankings, and out of the tournament.
Gibbons has other reasons why he thinks his team should have been invited to play.
The Lakers were 19-9 overall and 10-7 in the league.
But his two biggest arguments might be the fact that CSU beat UNC Pembroke on the road during the regular season, and even though the Lakers lost to Georgia Southwestern in the conference tournament, they had a win against them in the regular season.
UNC Pembroke got into the tournament with a 16-10 overall record and 9-9 mark in league play.
"All of a sudden we look up at the screen on Sunday, and that team has jumped us," Gibbons said. "We had the third best overall record and the third best conference record, and we didn't get in, so we are extremly disappointed."
Gibbons also points out only Augusta State in the Peach Belt Conference won 20 games. CSU won 19.
The Lakers' coach puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the selection committee.
"Some are saying maybe it was somebody who didn't like you," he said. "I'm saying the committee just didn't do its job in preparation for the last poll. I am not sure the committee even factored in some things."
The hardest part of staying home for Gibbons was watching reality set in for seniors Timmy Downs and Brandon Robinson.
Both CSU starters ended their careers being named to the First-Team All Peach Belt squad.
In the two years the junior college transfers played at CSU, they were offensive catalysts for their teams.
This past season, they both averaged nearly 20 points a game.
"When they arrived on campus two years ago, they wanted to put Clayton State back where Clayton State had become accustomed to being—at the top of the Peach Belt Conference and an NCAA Team," Gibbons said. "They were disappointed that we didn't win the league, but those guys felt like they certainly deserved a bid, and to have them knocked out a team that they had beaten on their own court is pretty hard to take , and hard for the head coach to explain to them."
Gibbons stacks the Downs and Robinson duo up among the best players to ever come through the program even though they lost out on a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
"They became scorers for us, but they would have done anything we asked of them in order to win," Gibbons said.