ATB: February Parity Turns to March Mayhem

Posted by rtmsf on February 28th, 2011

The Lede.  It was the last weekend in February, and as we come out of it, we’re less clear about who the favorites are to cut down the nets in early April than we have been at any point this season.  RTCs went down in Blacksburg, Boulder, Springfield and more, befitting the stress, pressure and expectations of a season reaching its regular season terminus.  As usual, after a weekend like this, there’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in with some of the major moments…

 

An RTC Kinda Weekend

Your Watercooler MomentParity is This Year’s Dominance. It was another weekend where many of the top teams came away with losses.  #2 Duke (#1 AP/#1 ESPN) went to Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Saturday night and left with a lighter load. #3 Pittsburgh (#4 AP/#6 ESPN) dropped a tough Big East road battle at Louisville for the second straight weekend.  #4 Texas (#5 AP/#5 ESPN) suffered a ridiculously bad second half at Colorado and headed back to Austin with two Ls in its last three outings.  #5 San Diego State (#6 AP/#4 ESPN) suffered the ignoble embarrassment of getting Jimmered in its own building by the only team to have proven it can beat the Aztecs this season.  Shuffle the deck for another week and repeat.  The only top teams to come out unscathed this weekend were #1 Ohio State (#2 AP/#3 ESPN), #6 Kansas (#3 AP/#2 ESPN) and #7 BYU (#7 AP/#7 ESPN) — and both the Buckeyes and Jayhawks were part of last week’s poll carnage.  The point we’re making is a simple one: the field is completely wide open this year.  It wouldn’t surprise us nor should it surprise you if none of the eventual #1 seeds make it to the Final Four — the difference between the top seven named above and the next tier of teams is not large.  The four teams we would put on our top line as of tonight — Ohio State, Pitt, BYU and Kansas — are all strong candidates to lose at least one more game between now and Selection Sunday, now only fourteen days out.  This kind of parity among the top teams makes for an exciting NCAA Tournament, but it shouldn’t shock anybody if the seeds that make it to Houston in April add up to a total well into the teens (e.g., 2, 3, 6, 8).

Your Watercooler Moment, Pt. IIThat Stupid Louisville Cheerleader.  If Rick Pitino were a little younger and brasher (say, the Knicks or early Kentucky eras), the Louisville cheerleader who grabbed the ball and tossed it up into the air after what appeared to be Kyle Kuric’s game-sealing dunk would already be encased in concrete in the Ohio River locks.  Instead, the older and somewhat more forgiving head coach will likely only have a horse’s head delivered to the cheerleader’s bed for making his gaffe with 0.5 seconds remaining on the clock.  The sophomoric ball-toss resulted in two technical FTs for Pitt taking a five-point lead down to three, and the Panthers put up a decent half-court heave at the buzzer that would have tied the game.  We can understand a little confusion with respect to the last half-second of time running off the clock, but why touch the ball at all?  That should be the province of the players and game officials, nobody else, and the cheer people should understand that better than most.  Here’s the question on everyone’s mind, though: will Cheer Dufus be back in action or will Pitino have him removed (we’re not sure what “The male cheerleader is coming to an end” means exactly)?

Your Watercooler Moment, Pt. IIITyler Trapani Shuts Down Pauley With an Assist From the Ghost of John Wooden.  It was the last game in Pauley Pavilion, the House That Wooden Built, before it undergoes massive renovations over the next year-plus to bring the building seemingly mired in the 1960s into the modern era.  UCLA was throttling league-leading Arizona and the Bruin partisans were rocking out with every Reeves Nelson dunk, Josh Smith twirl and each  long-range brick from Arizona.  With just a few seconds remaining in garbage time, UCLA’s Jack Haley, Jr., missed a corner three badly short; standing directly under the basket to catch it and lay it in as the final points scored in the “old” Pauley was walk-on Tyler Trapani, The Wizard of Westwood’s great-grandson.  The bucket represented his only two points of the entire season, and it seemed a fitting tribute to finishing off the old barn in its current state.  Pauley Pavilion is one of the temples of the sport, so we’re glad to hear that UCLA is finally updating it — it’s our opinion that modernizing a terrific old venue is much preferred to building an austere and lifeless new one.

This Weekend’s Quick Hits

  • Virginia Tech and Colorado’s RTCs.  Coverage of the court was quick, complete and rowdy, befitting how you should RTC when you take down a top five team in your building.  Virginia Tech’s crowd was fantastic the entire evening, as the below video clearly illustrates (move ahead for the RTC, and here’s a bird’s eye view if you’re into that).  As the second video shows, Colorado’s was also quite good (here’s another from within the maelstrom at center court).  Perhaps more importantly, the huge wins keep both teams’ hopes alive for an at-large NCAA bid in two weeks.  Much was expected from both of these schools prior to season tipoff, but they’ve had myriad ups and downs along the way.  These two huge wins will go a long way toward finding the right side of the bubble in fourteen days.

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BGTD: Late Afternoon/Evening Games Analysis

Posted by rtmsf on February 26th, 2011

It’s been a great late February Saturday of college basketball, with some high-quality action that you’d hope and expect to see this time of year.  Let’s take a look at a few of the key storylines from the second half of today’s coverage.

  • Colorado Second Half Bombards Texas Defense.  It was one of those games where we were barely keeping an eye on the gametracker because it appeared quite early on that this would become another UT blowout led by their defensive mastery.  As it turned out, a 48-33 halftime lead in Boulder didn’t mean much, because the Buffs shredded the vaunted Longhorn D in a way that nobody else in the Big 12 (or America) has been able to this season.  Consider this: in fourteen conference games, the Longhorns had not given up more than 58 points in eight of them — today, Colorado put up that number in the second half in coming from as many as 22 down to win, 91-89.  CU’s Alec Burks had a monstrous 33/10 game, and it appears that the Colorado team that many suspected was in Boulder before the season began is finally hitting its stride.  Having now won three of four, with two more winnable games (@ Iowa State; vs. Nebraska), the Buffs could be in position to finish at 9-7 in the conference and even make a run at a first round bye in the Big 12 Championship.
  • So, About Texas? It’s cliched to point out that Rick Barnes’ teams at Texas have by and large not finished up strong, but with road wins in consecutive weekends at places not named Lawrence, Columbia or even College Station, there need to be some alarm bells going off in Austin.  With the loss today, the Longhorns’ fifth of the season, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where UT has a reasonable shot at a #1 seed — and they certainly would need some help regardless.  The question is whether this is just a blip or if teams have started to figure them out — two of the Horns worst four defensive showings this season (as measured by points per possession) occurred today and against NU.  In order to prove to us (and the nation) that this UT team is in fact different than some of the others in recent vintage, they really need to clobber surging K-State and Baylor in their last two regular season games.
  • Kentucky’s Home vs. Away Quandary.  After today’s 76-68 win over Florida, one of the nation’s most schizophrenic teams has moved to 7-0 in the SEC at home and 1-6 on the road.  How and why is this happenening?  It’s pretty simple, actually.  The two legitimate NBA talents that John Calipari has at his disposal — guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones — are almost equally effective no matter where they play.  The problem is that their less-talented teammates such as DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb, drop off considerably away from Rupp Arena.  Lamb, for example, averages 15.8 PPG on 57% shooting in Lexington (today: 14 pts on 6-9 FG); away from home he’s at 12.4 PPG and 47%.  DeAndre Liggins is even more volatile: 11.0 PPG on 47% shooting at home, and  6.0 PPG on 32% away.  A general tenet of March basketball is to never trust teams who can’t win away from home — something to remember when filling out brackets in just two short weeks.
  • Miserable SoCal Trip For Arizona. After last weekend’s big win over Washington in Tucson, the last thing Sean Miller wanted to see was a two-loss trip to Southern California.  That’s what he got, though, as his team dropped a close one to USC on Thursday night before getting run out of the closing-for-renovations Pauley Pavilion today.  A 22-2 run blew the thing open, rendering the second half a showcase for the ever-improving Reeves Nelson (27/16) and ending in a fitting way, with John Wooden’s great-grandson, Tyler Trapani, scoring the final points in the old barn before it becomes closes to become modernized.  We’re still not sure if Ben Howland’s team is any kind of postseason threat, but we thought Arizona was; it’ll be interesting to watch how the Wildcats recover from a lost opportunity this weekend next week at home in addition to seeing if UCLA can steal one or two on the road at the Washingtons.  
  • Did Virginia Tech Finally Get Over the NCAA Hump? Of course, it’s hard to say for certain with these guys.  After vanquishing #1 Duke for its most important win in years, the Hokies will probably turn around and lose to Boston College at home on Tuesday.  Let’s hope not.  When he’s not whining about being left out of the Tournament in March, Seth Greenberg strikes us as a nice fellow, and for a school that has had a number of ups and downs in its basketball program this year, we’re hoping that the Hokies don’t blow the good will and RPI boost that this win engenders.  As for Duke, this loss may have cost the Devils a #1 seed.  They still have to travel to Chapel Hill (a team that gave them all kinds of hell in Durham) and win the ACC Tournament.  One more slip-up and we’re not sure they’ll have the overall profile needed to earn it outright.  Their profile honestly doesn’t look significantly different than BYU’s, for example.
  • Bubbling Up: Colorado, Baylor and Kansas State in the Big 12; Butler in the Horizon; Clemson and Virginia Tech in the ACC; Michigan in the Big Ten; UAB in CUSA.
  • Bubbling Down: Wichita State in the Valley; Alabama in the SEC; Memphis and Southern Miss in CUSA; Minnesota in the Big Ten; Colorado State in the Mountain West.
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RTC Live: Seton Hall @ Notre Dame

Posted by rtmsf on February 26th, 2011

Game #154.  Notre Dame has put together a fantastic regular season, and they seek to finish up strong with a home game today against Seton Hall.

After a close call victory over Providence on Wednesday evening, Notre Dame returns home after a three game road trip that featured stops at South Florida, West Virginia, and Providence. The Irish are undefeated at home this season, as the Seton Hall Pirates enter the Purcell Pavilion on Saturday evening. Kevin Willard’s squad has struggled mightily in his first year, as the Pirates are just 11-16 and have faced a myriad of personnel problems. The Irish led by seniors Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis, and Carleton Scott will look to defeat Seton Hall to continue their quest of ensuring the possession of the number two seed in what will be an ultra-competitive Big East tournament. Seton Hall will attempt to play spoiler, as well as getting a win to highlight the illustrious career of their senior guard Jeremy Hazell. Irish coach Mike Brey will look to lead his team to a victory on a night where Notre Dame will honor one of its legends- Austin Carr- by inducting him into the Irish Ring of Honor- currently only occupied by former ND great Luke Harangody and Irish women’s legend Ruth Riley. If the Irish march out to an early lead then it is reasonable to conclude that the Irish will provide its fans with a stirring home victory.

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BGTD: Early Afternoon Games Analysis

Posted by jstevrtc on February 26th, 2011

The only question on a day like today after the early flight of games is…how’s the bubble? The biggest worry for bubble teams is not necessarily racking up good wins late in the year, because the schedule is, of course, already set. What you don’t want to do is give the selection committee something negative on which to hang their hat so they can leave you out. In other words, don’t play yourself out of the Tournament. So far today…

  • Let there be no doubt about Kansas State. They’ve already done enough to get in, but if you’re a bubble team you still don’t want to trip up late and drop games at home. The Wildcats, knowing that they’re in, could have come out complacent in an early game today against Missouri and  just gone through the motions. No, sir. The raves will pile up for Jacob Pullen (24 points on 6-10 and 4-4 from three) and Curtis Kelly (15/6 on 7-9), and with good reason. Pullen’s vocal leadership late in the season has been a revelation for KSU, but let’s give some juice to the Kansas State bench today, chipping in 29 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists. And look at the unselfishness on display. The Wildcats hit 28 shots…off of 23 assists!
  • For a team playing themselves out of The Dance, look no further than VCU. A few weeks ago all the talk was about how the CAA might get two or three teams in, with VCU an obvious choice. Over the past two weeks, all the Rams have done is drop four of five, including today’s senior day game against Colonial sixth-placers James Madison (72-69). No disrespect to the Dukes, because you don’t win 21 games (so far) without being a solid squad, especially in a rapidly improving conference. But despite NCAA selectors confirming that the “last 10 games” criteria isn’t considered, bubble teams that run into late losing streaks tend to wind up on the outside looking in on post-selection Monday. Barring a CAA Tournament title, you’ve got to figure that VCU is done.
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RTC Live: Texas @ Colorado

Posted by rtmsf on February 26th, 2011

Game #155.  Texas travels to Boulder to take on a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life — will it be another road nightmare for the Horns like last week?

Colorado enters Saturday’s contest against No. 5 Texas with a lot to prove, considering they 1-4 against the conference’s top four teams this season. With the win, the Buffs can improve to 7-7 in conference play and earn its second big victory in Big 12 play. As for the Longhorns, they can improve to 25-4 with a win, but must contain the Buffs star, guard Alec Burks. The sophomore has been was dominant as any player in the conference from Jan. 8 to Feb. 9. Although he has cooled off, UT cannot afford to let him get comfortable at home. Playing at a higher elevation could hurt the Longhorns, who should be looking to use their bench more than usual. The team’s best players are apparent, but they will need to win with a solid team effort today as the Buffs want to play the upset card against the top team in conference. The match-up today boils down to the Longhorns defense, No. 14 in the nation, versus the fast-paced Buffalo offense, No. 15 in the nation with 79 points per game.

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RTC Live: Wichita State @ Missouri State

Posted by rtmsf on February 26th, 2011

Game #153.  It’s all come down to this single game for the MVC regular season championship for 2010-11.

Since joining the Missouri Valley Conference in 1990, there’s one thing Missouri State has never done: win a regular season title. That’s why Saturday’s contest with Wichita State, a six-time MVC champion, at the sparkling JQH Arena is one of the most important games in program history. The two teams are tied at the top of the standings at 14-3, so the city of Springfield is effectively hosting the Missouri Valley regular season championship game this weekend. MSU won at Koch Arena in January, a stunning result at the time because the Shockers are traditionally so dominant in that building. Wichita State has since lost three more home games, but it’s looked more comfortable on the road– the Shockers’ only road loss this season came at San Diego State. Saturday’s game is all about toughness. Wichita State thinks it’s tougher than you, and it wins by crashing the offensive glass and feeding the paint. That doesn’t intimidate Missouri State, because former Purdue assistant Cuonzo Martin takes a tough-nosed approach with his program, too. As far as individual match-ups go, WSU’s J.T. Durley may be the Valley’s best back-to-the-basket scorer. He’ll have his hands full with the Bears’ frontcourt tandem, which consists of POY candidate Kyle Weems and the fiery Will Creekmore. Gregg Marshall has a deeper roster with more athleticism, and he has the ability to pressure teams full court whenever he likes. Without consistent point guard play, though, his team’s been prone to offensive droughts in the half-court, and he’ll need more out of guard Toure’ Murry, who made just one shot in that January meeting. The two teams are long shots for at-large bids, so Arch Madness next week is the more important event, but a conference championship is on the line Saturday. How’s that for some drama?

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The Other 26: Week 15

Posted by KDoyle on February 26th, 2011

Kevin Doyle is an RTC contributor.

Introduction

And down the stretch they come! Just like a commentator of a competitive horse race fervently belches when the horses make the final turn, college basketball commentators, analysts, and enthusiasts alike all speak of the game with greater eagerness and zeal at this time of the year. Judgment Week—still am not sure what ESPN is trying to do with this—has passed us, Championship Week is nearly upon us, and we all know what comes after that: the Madness!

While the majority of Other 26 teams around the country still have one or two remaining games left in the regular season, there are a handful of teams out there who have completed the second part of their season. Many coaches, especially those coaching in perennial single bid leagues, break down their year into three seasons: 1) the non-conference, 2) conference play, 3) the postseason. The opportunity is presented for many teams that have struggled during much of the season to get hot at the right time and advance onto the greatest postseason tournament in all of sports.

At the beginning of conference play, I wrote in a previous article the concept of “three games in March” which is often the mentality of teams from smaller conferences who have to win three games, or four in some cases, to advance to the Dance—it is their only way in. Well, here is that opportunity.

The conference tournaments will officially begin in the middle of next week with a few of the smaller conferences going at it. If one really wants to get technical though, the argument can be made that the Ivy League has a season-long conference tournament that commences at the beginning of league play.

The Other 26 Rankings

Tidbits from the Rankings

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RTC Live: Syracuse @ Georgetown

Posted by rtmsf on February 26th, 2011

Game #152.  A timeless classic reconvenes in the District on a Saturday afternoon.  We’re pleased to be there.

This game changed quite a bit on Wednesday when Chris Wright, Georgetown’s starting point guard, second leading scorer and best creator, broke his hand against Cincinnati. Simply put, Georgetown is a much different team without Wright. We can argue about his talent and his consistency, but the bottom line is that he is a competitor, he’s capable of going for 30 on any given night, and, frankly, he is just that much better than Georgetown’s next best option at the point, Markel Starks.  There are two scenarios that can play out tomorrow. Starks can start, or JT III can slide Jason Clark to the point and start Hollis Thompson. Neither option is ideal, as Starks is a freshman and Clark is not a point guard. The good news for Georgetown is that their base offense, the Princeton hybrid that JT III loves, is essentially position-less. You don’t need a point guard or a playmaker like you would in a ball-screen offense. It will be interesting to see what the Hoyas can do against the Syracuse zone in their first game without Wright.  As for Syracuse, they are coming off of a nice win at Villanova and generally seem to be a better team on the road this season. Their biggest issue is that Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph, the Orange’s two best playmakers, are not the best decision-makers. Both teams still have a chance at earning one of the Big East’s top four seeds and a spot in the double bye in the Big East tournament.
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Set Your Tivo: 02.26-02.27

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 25th, 2011

***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game

Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.

We are now only about two weeks away from Selection Sunday. Teams are locking up bids and others are hurting their chances down the stretch. It’s another big weekend in the college hoops world, headlined by a top ten battle in the Mountain West. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.

#20 Syracuse @ #11 Georgetown – 12 pm Saturday on CBS (****)

Coach Thompson and the Hoyas Will Likely Be Without Their Most Important Player on Saturday

The Orange will look to avenge another home defeat by winning on the road, this time in Washington, D.C. Here’s a quirky fact for you: Syracuse has lost to all three of its repeat opponents (Georgetown, Villanova and Seton Hall) at the Carrier Dome but a win on Saturday would give them wins in the home buildings of all three teams. That has become more likely in this one, after Chris Wright broke his hand in Wednesday’s loss to Cincinnati. As a talented senior point guard, Wright is Georgetown’s most indispensible player. He doesn’t wow you with his shooting but he passes the ball well and does an excellent job of running John Thompson III’s complex offensive sets.

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Checking in on… the Summit League

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 25th, 2011

Eli Linton is the RTC correspondent for the Summit League.

A Look Back

The Summit League standings were shaken up one final time as the regular season comes to an end. All eight teams clinched a spot this week in the tournament, and Oakland became the first conference regular season champion of 2011. The win guarantees them a spot in the NIT should they falter in the conference tournament. The Golden Grizzlies were also bumped all the way up to #6 on the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 poll, just one spot behind Gonzaga and six spots ahead of last year’s NCAA runner-up, Butler. But perhaps the biggest winner in the weekend drama was ORU. Thanks to a dominant 18 point drubbing of IUPUI, the Golden Eagles locked down the coveted #2 seed—which quite frankly—almost gives them an easier road to the Conference Championship game than top-seeded Oakland. It was the final big momentum swing that has now aligned us for a fantastic Championship weekend.

Power Rankings

1. Oakland (21-9, 16-1)—There have been grumblings among Summit fans who think Oakland has lost a little of their edge— they have been involved in some close games against conference foes, including a loss to IUPUI—but I don’t think there is really anything for this team to be concerned about until the conference championship game. The only team Oakland could have trouble with would be ORU.  Simply because ORU is the only team that could match their size and depth. However, Oakland won’t face them again until the championship game—so until then, rest easy Golden Grizzly fans. Oakland is nearly unstoppable on offense—they are third in the country in scoring and eighth in field goal percentage.  Even in their one conference loss to IUPUI, they scored 88 points. To beat Oakland, you have to get their big men in foul trouble, and hope you can outlast them in a shootout.

2. Oral Roberts (16-14, 12-5)—They are on a seven-game win streak and are playing better than any team in the conference, including Oakland. They have dominated their opponents by an average of 13 points per game during the win streak. They have been brought back to life by the vastly improved guard play, and a renewed team focus.  Veteran guard Kyron Stokes was also cleared to play basketball by his neurologist after suffering what seemed to be career-ending concussions earlier in the year. But He is back, head gear and all, not a moment too soon. Not only is he the best perimeter defender and most experienced player Scott Sutton has, but he is also one of the vocal leaders on the team.  Adding guys like that only make you better. We will see how it pans out next week as they push for the championship.

3. IUPUI (17-13, 11-6)—They had a great chance to clinch the #2 seed, and it looked like they would after defeating Oakland  by  12 on February 5, but a blowout loss to Oral Roberts gave them their third loss in five games. It is nothing short of a monumental collapse that will haunt the Jags. They have an NBA-material forward in Alex Young, but he can’t carry a team alone. This team really struggles to play defense, and their point guard play is less than impressive. Two elements they must have to make it to Championship weekend.

4. South Dakota State (18-10, 10-7)—They salvaged the season a bit down the stretch, winning five of their last seven with losses to the two best teams in the conference. They will likely get the four-seed, which will match them against IPFW in the first round, a team they dominated twice in the regular season.

5. IPFW (10-7, 17-11) — IPFW finally collapsed down the stretch like I predicted. There were too many times during the year when you looked at their roster and said “how are they winning?” They were too small and too streaky to stay on top forever. Looking back, the best team the Mastodons beat all year was ORU. The last month they struggled in the Conference, going 3-4 in the month of February, and they failed to score 80 points against any conference opponent in that span.

6. UMKC (16-12, 9-8)—The Roos, like IPFW, have somehow competed hard despite having no size to work with. There was a stretch in January where no one really wanted to play UMKC—taking ORU, IUPUI, and NDSU to five overtime periods combined. But recently they have been getting demolished by the top teams, and have slowly faded into the pack. They are still a dangerous team when they shoot well, but it won’t be enough to win three days in a row next week.

7. North Dakota State (13-14, 7-10)—Despite the record, I am sure Oral Roberts would rather play Southern Utah in the first round than North Dakota State. No matter what their seeding, NDSU is going to be a tough out. They still have Michael Tveidt, who was a key member of their Cinderella run from a couple years ago, so if anyone has an upset left in them it is NDSU. They are limping into the tournament, but sometimes the most dangerous animal is a wounded animal—and they have nothing to lose.

8. Southern Utah (11-17, 7-10)—Southern Utah will have an interesting next couple of week. On Saturday, they play Oakland in the final regular season game, and then face them again in the first round of the Conference tournament. Is that an upset I see on the Horizon? (Nah).

9. Centenary (1-28, 1-16) — No one deserves to lose them all, and Centenary avoided infamy by defeating Western Illinois 73-60—ending a 33-game losing streak.  This team might be the worst team in NCAA history, but tonight, they are winners. That convincing win is good enough to bring them out of the cellar for the first time all season, at least in my poll.

10. Western Illinois (2-15, 7-21)—they will always be remembered as the only team to lose to the worst team of all-time…by 13.

A Look Ahead

The Summit League conference championship starts Saturday March 5, for the men and women, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s all high-stakes basketball from here on out. Win, you advance with dreams of making the Big Dance; lose, and you go home with nothing to show for it.  Don’t you love mid-major basketball?  A Conference Championship preview is coming up next week.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 25th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.

A Look Back

With the battle for the conference title just a day away, the conference race has taken its shape. Up top, of course, are national top-ten teams BYU and San Diego State, tied at 12-1 and ready to battle on Montezuma Mesa on Saturday morning. Next, UNLV has moved backed into third and seems a lock to be asked to the Big Dance, while Colorado State is still waiting in the wings, hoping to secure its own invitation in its remaining schedule after having just booted one of its last big chances. Down the ladder another rung, Utah has suddenly turned on the juice and bolted to three straight wins (although it may not be enough to save Jim Boylen’s job), while New Mexico has been the biggest disappointment in conference play, still three positive outcomes away from a .500 MWC record. At the bottom of the conference, Air Force has now lost four straight and fallen back to .500 overall for the first time since their second game, and suddenly they’ve got Wyoming nipping at their heels for the right to avoid the 8/9 game in the MWC Tournament. And finally, there’s TCU all alone at the bottom with a 1-13 record, an 11-game losing streak and a program in shambles in advance of an upcoming move to the Big East in 2012-13.

Team of the Week: UNLV – Since we last talked, the Rebels have bounced back from their disappointing result against the Aztecs and reeled off three straights wins to pop their bubble and plant themselves firmly in the NCAA field. While there has been very little pretty about their wins over Air Force (just a horribly brutal game to watch), New Mexico and Colorado State, the Rebels have gotten back to playing the type of defense they were playing in November. Against the Falcons, UNLV turned on the pressure and held Air Force scoreless for over 13 minutes in the second half, while grabbing a staggering 96.7% of all defensive rebound opportunities in securing a come-from-behind win there. Then the Rebels paired a revenge victory over Colorado State in Fort Collins with a squeaker over New Mexico in Albuquerque, two mighty impressive road wins. While offense continues to be a struggle most nights, this Running Rebel team figures to be an awful tough out in the MWC Tournament on their own home floor.

Player of the Week: Malcolm Thomas, Senior, San Diego State – On the hyper-talented Aztec frontcourt, Kawhi Leonard is the star, the go-to guy, the All-American candidate. But this guy is pretty good too, and a vital cog in what Steve Fisher wants to do. While Leonard is flashier with the ball in his hands, Thomas is nearly as good on the glass, and arguably a better interior defender. Thomas leads the Aztecs with more than two blocked shots per game (and blocks on about 8% of all opponents’ two-point field goals – good for 66th in the nation), and he racked up seven more blocks this week, to go with 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing. Given that he had been in a bit of a slump on the offensive end, averaging just over seven points per game in the prior eight games, his offensive awakening is a welcome piece of good news heading into Saturday’s big game.

Newcomer of the Week: Drew Gordon, Junior, New Mexico – Despite three losses this week, part of a four-game slide for the Lobos, Gordon has to take down the honor on the basis of his 17 points and a MWC-record 23 rebounds against Utah on Saturday. Throw in 13 points and nine rebounds against SDSU and 15 points and 14 rebounds against UNLV, Gordon has become a dominant low-post force in the conference. There are still some holes in his game, but if those can get patched (or at least temporarily hidden), he could help the Lobos make some noise in the MWC Tourney.

Game of the Week: Utah 62, New Mexico 60 – This game just epitomizes the type of season the Lobos are having. New Mexico controlled just about every facet of this game, except for the small little fact that they couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean from the beach, post a sub-40% effective field goal percentage. And yet, they still found themselves up one with time running down and with the Utah offense in disarray. And then Chris Hines did this. With the Lobos having lost to UNLV in overtime on Wednesday night after having a good look at the buzzer in regulation, and lost at SDSU last Wednesday after fighting back from a 14-point deficit to be right there at the end, this was just another annoyance. But couple with all the other missed opportunities in the Lobo year (a one-point loss at UNLV in which they had multiple chances to put that one away, a double-overtime loss at Dayton, and this heartbreaking loss at Wyoming), this must be just the basketball gods getting back at New Mexico for all their fortunate bounces last year.

Game of the Upcoming Week: New Mexico (17-11, 5-8) at TCU (10-19, 1-13), 2/26, 5PM PST, CBS College Sports – Yes, this epic battle between the Horned Frogs and the…. Okay, just wanted to see if you all were paying attention. Clearly the game of the week (which will be played Saturday morning at 11AM PST on CBS – the first ever national non-cable television broadcast of a MWC regular season basketball game – between San Diego State (27-1, 12-1) and BYU (26-2, 12-1). And CBS knocked the ball out of the park in choosing this game to televise way back in August. When these two teams played in late January, Jimmer Fredette took the nation by storm, knocking down 43 points in increasingly improbable fashion and slowly breaking the will of the Aztec defenders. What was a close game for 30-plus minutes or so turned into a game that was not particularly in doubt after the final TV timeout. The Aztecs controlled the glass as expected, but struggled to score. In particular senior point guard D.J. Gay, who started off guarding Fredette, seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility of both guarding Fredette and being the Aztec offensive rock. I’m guessing that won’t happen again. While the Aztecs are rightly afraid of getting into a wide-open transition game with the Cougars and Fredette, they’ll need to be able to turn some of their rebounds into transition opportunities in order to get some easy offense, but most importantly, they’ll need to control Fredette. Gay was ineffective against him last time, and Steve Fisher can’t risk losing his offense this time around, so expect Chase Tapley to get the first crack at Jimmer, while Billy White and even Kawhi Leonard may get some face-time with the National Player of the Year candidate.

Power Rankings

1. San Diego State (27-1, 12-1): The Aztecs posted wins over Air Force and New Mexico, got Tapley and Tim Shelton back from injury, and then got to rest up in the middle of the week in preparation for Saturday’s game. This week couldn’t have gone any better. While his running mate Thomas took down the POTW award, Leonard continued his great play, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds this week. Apropos of little, you could actually piece together a pretty strong All-American team with just players from the MWC and Pac-10 this season, and only have to reach once. Gimme Leonard and Fredette paired with Arizona’s Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas (Fredette and Williams are dead-solid locks to be first-team All-Americans, while Leonard and Thomas should be second-team, but may lose out to players who play primarily on ESPN), and throw in Klay Thompson for good measure and I’d guess that team could probably take any other team put together out of any other two conferences around the country.

A look ahead: The Aztecs host the Cougars in the biggest game in the history of the Mountain West Conference on Saturday, after which they’ll wrap up the season with a trip to Wyoming and a visit from Colorado State.

2. BYU (26-2, 12-1): A ho-hum week for the Cougars: two more wins (a 23-point blowout at TCU and a never-particularly-close eight-point win at home against Colorado State) and 57 more points from Fredette (although in an increasingly inefficient manner – just 15 of 42 from the field in the two games). Other highlights included Kyle Collinsworth contributing eight rebounds per game off the bench and sophomore Stephen Rogers having his best game since New Year’s Day with 15 points and three threes against TCU.

A look ahead: I’m only reminding you one more time: 11AM PST Saturday morning, your local CBS affiliate. BYU at San Diego State. Watch it.

3. UNLV (21-7, 9-5): We detailed the fact that the Rebels have now won three straight games in our Team of the Week section, but it’s interesting that they’ve done it with different players leading the way in each instance. In the Air Force game, Tre’Von Willis took over and led the team with 13 points and four assists (those numbers may not sound impressive, but it is all relative in a game where the winning team scored 49 points). He continued his strong play in the other two games (eight assists against Colorado State and 25 points, five three, four assists and four steals against New Mexico), but in each case had plenty of help. In the CSU game, Oscar Bellfield led the way with 18 points, including 16 in the second half, to secure the Rebel victory, while it was Quintrell Thomas taking over the game against the Lobos with 19 points and 13 rebounds in place of the fouled-out Chace Stanback. The Rebels still don’t have a single go-to guy (although Willis has begun to look willing to take that role back over, despite his nagging knee injury that is not getting any better), and there are plenty of maddeningly inconsistent performers here (with Stanback’s yo-yo act the most egregious example), but the good news for Lon Kruger is that he is at least getting somebody to step up every night, even if it is somebody different every time out.

A look ahead: UNLV hosts Air Force on Tuesday, then travels to Colorado State on Saturday with revenge on their minds.

4. Colorado State (18-9, 8-5): The good news for the Rams is that they took care of business against TCU. The bad news is that they struck out in their chances against UNLV and BYU, falling by seven at home to the surging Rebels and by eight at Provo. With the season-ending game at San Diego State the sole remaining “up” game on their schedule, the Rams are faced with the prospect of going into Selection Sunday with a neutral-site win over Southern Miss and a win at UNLV as their sole wins against teams in the top-50 RPI. This year, that could be good enough, but a win over the Aztecs on the final day of the season or a MWC Tournament semifinal win over either BYU or SDSU would go a long ways towards helping Tim Miles sleep well on March 12.

A look ahead: The Rams travel to Air Force, then host Utah, and while a win in either of those games is not going to put them in the NCAA Tournament, a loss might keep them out. Then, on March 5, they travel to San Diego to face the Aztecs on a day when the raucous crowd at Viejas Arena will be saying goodbye to D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and likely Kawhi Leonard. Yikes. Good luck with that.

5. New Mexico (17-11, 5-8): So, three straight losses have effectively killed any prayer this Lobo team had of getting an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. And yet, I still think this team is a threat in the MWC Tournament. Why? Well, Dairese Gary is every bit the bulldog that Gay is at SDSU, the type of player who is capable of willing his team to victories down the stretch (although, admittedly, you maybe wouldn’t know that following these guys this year). Gordon has turned into a dominant rebounder and athletic presence up front (although he’s the consummate black-hole on offense – the ball goes in to the post and never comes back out). Tony Snell, Kendall Williams and Philip McDonald are athletic and skilled wing players who are each capable of catching fire from deep (although (1) Snell is a freshman who has only recently started producing, and inconsistently at that, (2) Williams, also a freshman, has tailed off some since a lightning fast start and (3) McDonald is a complete mystery who is shooting 10 percentage points lower than last year’s average from three just 33% from the field in MWC play). And then there’s a ton of tough big guys up front to pair with Gordon (none of whom have displayed any hint of desperation in grabbing a rebound, playing solid post defense or setting solid screens). See. They’re brilliant!

A look ahead: At TCU, at BYU and home against Air Force as the Lobos play out the string. None of those games mean a thing to the Lobos tournament hopes – they’ll need to win three straight games on March 10th, 11th and 12th, or they’re NIT bound.

6. Utah (13-15, 6-8): When last we checked in with the Utes, they had lost five straight games and the last two of those by an average of more than 22 points. Jim Boylen’s job was in serious jeopardy and they looked to be already in the offseason mentally. Since then, they’ve strung together three solid wins, albeit against the three teams currently below them in the standings, and by a combined total of 14 points, but you’ve got to give credit to Boylen for keeping this team playing hard. While circumstances may conspire against him in Utah, he’s given the administration some good reasons to consider giving him another chance.

A look ahead: The Utes are down their final two games in their MWC regular season history: at Colorado State next Wednesday and at home against UNLV next Saturday. An NCAA Tournament bid is extremely unlikely (they’d need to win the conference tourney), but if they can extend their momentum a bit longer, perhaps they’ll get back on the NIT’s radar.

7. Air Force (13-13, 4-9): Four straight losses (and an average of just over 50 points per game in those losses) and all of a sudden, what was looking like a surprisingly strong Falcon season has turned into a fight to hold on to the first-round bye in the MWC title. While Air Force got destroyed on the glass by BYU, UNLV and San Diego State in the first three of those losses, Wednesday’s night loss at Wyoming was bizarre basketball. Out of the blue, suddenly the Falcon outrebounded somebody, and at the hands of a Cowboy team that killed them on the glass in their first meeting. Just as surprising, the Falcons turned the ball over 19 times, a stunning number for a team that takes care of the ball well. And, for a third surprise, Wyoming, a team in the bottom quarter of Division I teams in effective field goal percentage, outshot the Falcons, the 22nd best team in the nation in that category. And, through all that, Wyoming snuck out a one-point win.

A look ahead: Tough games at home against Colorado State and at New Mexico surround a very winnable home game against the cellar-dwelling Horned Frogs. Win two of those three games and the Falcons are guaranteed a .500-or-better regular season record.

8. Wyoming (10-17, 3-10): Four games in and Fred Langley’s got a 2-2 record as a head coach. Given that Heath Schroyer was 1-8 when he was fired, you’d have to say that it looks like the timing to fire him was right. The biggest boost from the coaching change has undoubtedly been given to sophomore forward Amath M’Baye, who has averaged 20.3 points and 6.5 rebounds under Langley.

A look ahead: Wyoming travels Salt Lake City for a matchup with Utah, where a win could put the Cowboys in seventh place in the conference.

9. TCU (10-19, 1-13): Three more losses, and the assumption is that Jim Christian is a dead man walking; this has turned into a total collapse. With two of the four leading scorers on this team having been kicked off the team, the back-half of this conference season has been little more than tryouts for next year’s scholarships. Point guard Hank Thorns has been tough, handing out assists all over the place (he’s easily the conference’s leading assist man, with nearly seven per game), junior wing J.R. Cadot has come on strong of late (he’s had double figure scoring in four straight games and has shown a penchant for rebounding above and beyond his 6’5 frame) and Garlon Green has been a consistently solid performer all season long, but beyond that, this roster is in need of an overhaul.

A look ahead: The Horned Frogs host New Mexico, then travel to Air Force next Wednesday in a game that gives them a solid chance at their second conference win.

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Checking in on… the MAC

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 25th, 2011

Alex Varone is the RTC correspondent for the Mid-American Conference.

A Look Back

Overall, Mid-American Conference teams went 5-7 in last weekend’s BracketBusters. Not great, but not bad either. Akron, Western Michigan, Buffalo, Ohio and Eastern Michigan picked up confidence boosting non-conference wins. Amongst the weekend’s losers, Kent State’s seven-point loss at Drexel, and Miami (Ohio)’s one-point loss at James Madison were of the most importance, but likely won’t hurt either team too much in terms of potential NCAA Tournament seeding.

Turning to conference action, Kent State was the first team to reach ten league wins after Thursday’s victory over Buffalo. But every team in the East Division currently has a winning league record, including Miami, who sits one game behind the Golden Flashes, and Akron, the MAC’s hottest team at 8-5. Defending conference champion Ohio also seems to be turning the corner at the right time of year and is a team to watch the rest of the way.

Out in the West Division, the two-team race between Western Michigan and Ball State is headed down to the stretch. Both teams currently sit at 8-5, but don’t forget about Central Michigan, which is still two games back at 6-7, but riding a three-game conference win streak into the season’s final games.

Star Watch

One of the key questions surrounding Ohio’s bid to repeat as Mid-American Conference champions was whether the Bobcats had enough scoring punch around Player of the Year candidate D.J. Cooper. Early in the season, it appeared that Ohio would only go as far as Cooper could take it, but lately, senior forward DeVaughn Washington has emerged as a viable offensive threat and one of the conference’s best front line players.  After a slow start to the season, Washington has now reached double-figures in sixteen of Ohio’s last seventeen games. But over the last nine games, in which Ohio is 7-2, Washington has upped his play even further, averaging 15.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per contest.

Power Rankings (last week’s ranking in parentheses)

1. Kent State (1)
19-9 (10-3), RPI: 77, SOS: 152

Kent State emerged from a rough four-game road trip in the middle of February with a 2-2 record, the losses being an overtime affair at Miami and the aforementioned BracketBuster at Drexel. After Thursday’s home victory over Buffalo, the Golden Flashes have the inside track on the East Division title and the MAC’s best overall record. The rest of the schedule isn’t easy, with all three remaining games serving as possible slip-ups, but expect to see Kent State as the MAC Tournament’s number one seed in a couple of weeks.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 vs. Ohio, 3/1 at Bowling Green, 3/4 vs. Akron

2. Akron (6)
18-10 (8-5), RPI: 131, SOS: 207

That’s six straight wins and counting for the MAC’s hottest team. Most impressively, all six of the Zips’ wins have been by at least nine points, including Wednesday’s 72-55 pounding of Miami (Ohio). Forward Nikola Cvetinovic has been one of the biggest reasons for Akron’s late-season surge, as the junior is averaging 13.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest over the past month. Akron closes the regular season with a pair of tough road games at Ohio and conference-leader Kent State, but the way this team is playing, no one should want to face the Zips in the MAC Tournament.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 vs. Buffalo, 3/1 at Ohio, 3/4 at Kent State

3. Miami (Ohio) (2)
14-14 (9-4), RPI: 101, SOS: 45

Even with two straight defeats, including a hard-fought one-point BracketBuster loss at James Madison, Miami is right on Kent State’s heels to take the MAC East crown. The RedHawks seem to be at their best when senior forward Nick Winbush is playing well. Winbush, who was named East Division Player of the Week on February 21, had an impressive stretch of games which culminated in a 26 point, 12 rebound performance in a six-point home win over Kent State. But in the aforementioned 17-point loss against Akron, Winbush only hit one-of-seven field goals for just 2 points.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 vs. Bowling Green, 3/2 at Buffalo, 3/4 vs. Ohio

4. Western Michigan (7)
16-11 (8-5), RPI: 195, SOS: 268

The Broncos are in prime position to capture the West Division regular season title thanks to five wins in their last seven league games. Western Michigan will be favored to win its last three games, but must avoid letdowns in road games at Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. But the game that will decide the West title is the March 2nd clash with struggling Ball State. Junior guard Demetrius Ward continues to impress down the stretch, having scored in double figures in twelve consecutive games.

A Look Ahead: 2/27 at Eastern Michigan, 3/2 vs. Ball State, 3/5 at Central Michigan

5. Buffalo (3)
16-10 (7-6), RPI: 159, SOS: 261

Four losses in six games is a red flag for any team at this time of year, as Buffalo now finds itself in a three-way tie for last place in the highly-competitive East Division. But as I wrote in the last Power Rankings, the Bulls are still one of the most efficient teams in the MAC, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Where the Bulls have hurt themselves is with turnovers, as they rank a dreadful 314th in the nation in turnover percentage. If Buffalo can shore that up over the last few weeks of the season, this team will be a tough out in March.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 at Akron, 3/2 vs. Miami (Ohio), 3/5 at Bowling Green

6. Ohio (8)
15-13 (7-6), RPI: 182, SOS: 171

Don’t look now, but Ohio is quietly playing its best basketball of the season. The Bobcats looked doomed after a 1-4 start to conference play, but have recovered to win six of eight to vault back into relevance, the most notable win being a seven-point road win at Buffalo. The MAC Tournament essentially starts now for Ohio, which finishes its season with a contest against each of the top three teams in these Power Rankings.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 at Kent State, 3/1 vs. Akron, 3/4 at Miami (Ohio)

7. Ball State (5)
16-11 (8-5), RPI: 186, SOS: 282

The more Ball State has descended down these Power Rankings, the more obvious it seems that this team’s hot start had a lot to do with a very easy schedule. The Cardinals’ only win this season over an East Division opponent was a one-point home victory over Buffalo earlier this month. Good news for Ball State fans, all three remaining games are against West Division competition. But the MAC Tournament in a couple of weeks won’t be as easy.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 at Central Michigan, 3/2 at Western Michigan, 3/5 vs. Northern Illinois

8. Bowling Green (4)
12-16 (7-6), RPI: 252, SOS: 257

Just one win in their last six games, combined with the improved play of the rest of the East Division, has Bowling Green staring at a last-place division finish. The remaining schedule won’t do the Falcons any favors, but in many ways, this team has already exceeded expectations. Bowling Green still has a chance to make some noise in the MAC Tournament, but next season should be even better with nearly every key contributor slated to return.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 at Miami (Ohio), 3/1 vs. Kent State, 3/5 vs. Buffalo

9. Central Michigan (10)
9-18 (6-7), RPI: 304, SOS: 288

As disappointing as Central Michigan has been this season, the Chippewas still have a conceivable shot to win the West Division. Three straight conference wins have the Chippewas only two games back of co-leaders Ball State and Western Michigan, with a home date upcoming against each of them. Sandwiched between those games is a very winnable road game against Toledo, the worst team in the conference.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 vs. Ball State, 3/1 at Toledo, 3/5 vs. Western Michigan

10. Eastern Michigan (11)
8-19 (4-9), RPI: 321, SOS: 248

Eastern Michigan is anything but a quality basketball team, but something does need to be said for the Eagles defensive efficiency, which has won this team some games this season. In nearly every one of Ken Pomeroy’s advanced defensive metrics (most notably adjusted defensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage), Eastern Michigan ranks in at least the top half of the entire nation, and near the very top of the conference.

A Look Ahead: 2/27 vs. Western Michigan, 3/2 at Northern Illinois, 3/5 vs. Toledo

11. Northern Illinois (9)
7-19 (3-10), RPI: 319, SOS: 258

A once-promising 2-1 start to conference play feels like a long time ago for Northern Illinois, which has not won a conference game in a month and is just 1-10 in its last eleven games. Even the seemingly unstoppable Xavier Silas has tailed off of late, only scoring 23 points combined in the team’s last three games.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 at Toledo, 3/2 vs. Eastern Michigan, 3/5 at Ball State

12. Toledo (12)
4-24 (1-12), RPI: 328, SOS: 187

In a way, Wednesday’s 68-56 loss at Western Michigan was a microcosm of Toledo’s poor season. Looking to avenge an early loss to Toledo, Western Michigan jumped out to a 43-5 first-half lead over the Rockets (no, that is not a misprint). Toledo rallied to cut the final deficit to only twelve, but Malcolm Griffin, the Rockets’ best playmaker, scored only three points and committed ten turnovers in the contest.

A Look Ahead: 2/26 vs. Northern Illinois, 3/1 vs. Central Michigan, 3/5 at Eastern Michigan

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