SMU Seeks to Build in Sudden Return to Relevance

Posted by CD Bradley on April 4th, 2014

SMU fell just short of the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, then fell just short of an NIT title in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. And yet the Mustangs exceeded everybody’s expectations for this season and suddenly have a bright future, an unusual place to be for a squad with no discernible success in decades. All of that, of course, is thanks to the surprising decision of Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown accepting the top job two years ago. The Mustangs had one winning record in the nine years before he arrived, and his 15-17 record last season suggested more of the same. That all changed this time around, when the Mustangs became a national story with the type of success that merited stories in the ;New York Times. It was probably the biggest story involving SMU athletics in the national paper of record since the program received the death penalty for Porsches, polos and ponies in the mid-1980s.

Associated Press Larry Brown coached SMU to the NIT Final at MSG, where he used to coach the Knicks. He hopes to get to another place he's coached: the Final Four.

Larry Brown coached SMU to the NIT Final at MSG, where he used to coach the Knicks. He hopes to get to another place he’s coached: the Final Four. (AP)

A late season swoon (and a weak non-conference schedule) cost SMU its first NCAA Tournament trip since 1993 – the Mustangs were the last team left out this year – but the turned right around and made the most of their #1 seed in the NIT. That earned them the chance at three more home games at the newly renovated Moody Coliseum, where they had suffered only one loss all year, and they won all three. They then mounted a huge rally to knock off Clemson in the NIT semifinals before falling to Minnesota in a close loss in the championship game. Even though it ended in a defeat, the season was a landmark campaign for the school. SMU finished 27-10 overall and 12-6 in the AAC; those 27 wins were the second-most in SMU history, and the 12 conference wins tied for the most in any conference it has played in. They unveiled the “new” Moody to rave reviews and sellout crowds, and they played their first season in the AAC, which offers plenty of future TV opportunities and marquee match-ups with the likes of Final Four entrant UConn (who SMU swept this year), Memphis and Cincinnati.

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USF Lures Orlando Antigua in Hopes of Bringing In Florida Talent

Posted by CD Bradley on April 2nd, 2014

USF has its man, again. The school on Tuesday announced the hiring of Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua as its new head coach, less than a week after it nearly hired Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello. “I think I was my wife’s second choice too, but that’s worked out; we’ve been together for 20 years,” Antigua said during an introductory news conference held during his brief stay in Tampa. Just hours after landing, he took off again, returning to Lexington for a practice ahead of this weekend’s Final Four. He will return to Tampa for good once the Wildcats’ season ends.

Orlando Antigua will try to bring a bit of his UK success to the top job at USF.

Orlando Antigua will try to bring a bit of his UK success to the top job at USF.

When he gets back to Florida, he will have something to work with despite USF’s back-to-back 3-15 conference records. Returning are two freshmen bigs – 6’10” John Egbunu and 6’8″ Chris Perry – and junior point guard Anthony Collins, who helped lead the team to two NCAA Tournament wins as a freshman but missed most of this season with a knee injury. The biggest reason Antigua got the job, though, is not because of what he’ll do with the players already in Tampa, but with the players he will be expected to bring to Tampa. Antigua has been a key recruiter for John Calipari over the last six years, one at Memphis and five at Kentucky (those stints follow five years on the staff at his alma mater, Pittsburgh, and some previous run as a Harlem Globetrotter). Some of those massive recruiting hauls included Floridian Brandon Knight, who led the Wildcats to the 2011 Final Four before being drafted by the Pistons. The Bulls’ talent deficit has been a major reason for it recent woes, and Antigua’s first job will be to close that particular gap with his AAC foes.

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Coaching Carousel a Thrill Ride for AAC Programs

Posted by CD Bradley on March 25th, 2014

While 16 teams remain alive in the chase for a championship – including AAC members UConn and Louisville – several other teams are chasing the new coaches that they hope might get them to the Sweet Sixteen some day. USF and Houston have now found their way onto this year’s coaching carousel, and their candidate pools say a lot about where the conference stands and where it’s going. USF fired Stan Heath after the AAC Tournament, and Houston announced Monday that James Dickey had stepped down to deal with a family matter. Reports on Tuesday morning indicate that Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello, fresh off a competitive round of 64 loss to Louisville and his mentor, Rick Pitino, has accepted the South Florida position.

Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello has emerged as a leading candidate for the USF job. (NY Daily News)

Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello has taken the USF job. (NY Daily News)

The USF job quickly was initially linked to some major names, including Buzz Williams (more on him in a moment), but Masiello appears to be the guy. The loss to Louisville was a particularly emotional one for Masiello, who was once a 12-year-old ballboy for Pitino with the Knicks, played for him as a walk-on at Kentucky, and served as an assistant at Louisville for six years before taking the Manhattan job. After the game, his old boss recommended he take the USF job, as he told the Tampa Tribune: “For you, it’s a grand slam.”

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AAC M5: 03.19.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on March 19th, 2014

AAC_morning5_header

  1. Louisville has become a trendy pick to repeat as national champions, including by renowned political prognosticator, Nate Silver. Silver’s revamped FiveThirtyEight.com launched Monday with a bracket projection model giving the Cardinals a 15 percent chance to cut down the nets again — the highest percentage of any team — and a 38 percent chance of reaching the Final Four, good for third. Silver’s model gives no other AAC team even a one percent chance of winning a title; it likes UConn the most, giving the Huskies a six percent chance of reaching the final weekend. Cincinnati gets a three percent chance and Memphis a two percent chance to play into April.
  2. Fran Dunphy struggled through his worst year ever at Temple, but he expects to see better results next year. The Owls’ season ended with a double-overtime loss to UCF that featured sophomore Quenton DeCosey and junior Will Cummings combining for 53 points. They’ll both be back on campus next season and will be joined by three transfers who sat out this season — Jaylen Bond from Texas, Jesse Morgan from UMass, and Devin Coleman from Clemson – along with sophomore Daniel Dingle, due back from knee surgery, and four-star recruit Obi Enechionyia. Dunphy has had a great deal of coaching success, both at Temple and across town at Penn before that, and it seems much more likely that the Owls’ bad season was a one-year aberration rather than an indication of things to come.
  3. Whatever Temple does next year, it will have to do it without Anthony Lee. The redshirt junior big man, who averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this year, graduates in May and will be able to transfer with one year of eligibility under the NCAA’s fifth-year transfer rule. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman tweeted that a dozen schools are interested in acquiring Lee’s services, including fellow AAC member Louisville, which of course is leaving the conference for the ACC next season.
  4. Kevin Ollie has done a pretty good job since becoming the head coach at UConn, but he first made his name on the court, not the sidelines. He played on three NCAA Tournament teams at UConn before a journeyman career in the NBA that included stints with 11 teams. His longevity helped him lead the AAC coaches in CBS Sports‘ ranking of the playing careers of NCAA Tournament coaches, landing at #3 in the list. The next AAC coach was Rick Pitino at #23 for his three years and and 329 assists as point guard at UMass in the early 1970s. Josh Pastner, a four-year walk-on who got a ring with the 1997 Arizona national champions, checked in at #44, and the diminutive Mick Cronin was #62 for his high school career (cut short by bum knees) under coach (and father) Hep.
  5. USF is looking for a new coach, and although some pretty big names are rumored to have interest, there’s still a certain amount of despair in Tampa. Ben Howland and Buzz Williams, among others, have already had their names attached to the job, Howland most prominently because he worked with new athletic director Mark Harlan when they were both at UCLA. Also apparently in the running is Florida assistant John Pelphrey, the former head coach at both South Alabama and Arkansas, but there remain doubts whether any coach who would take the job can get get the program where it want to be. Of course, recently fired head coach Stan Heath gave them their only two NCAA Tournament wins in school history, but he followed that up with a 6-30 conference mark over the past two years. That’s a lot closer to what USF has been historically than the little bit of fleeting March success.
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Should SMU Have Been Left Out of the Dance?

Posted by CD Bradley on March 18th, 2014

One of the biggest stories of Selection Sunday was SMU missing the field. The Mustangs, which hadn’t made the Tournament in two long decades, were widely considered a lock for the field in the closing weeks of the regular season, particularly since winning at UConn on February 23. And yet they’ll be hosting an NIT game versus UC Irvine on Wednesday night. Did Larry Browns’ team deserve its unkind bracket fate?

As one could imagine, Larry Brown (center) and his SMU squad didn't have the best Sunday afternoon. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

As one could imagine, Larry Brown (center) and his SMU squad didn’t have the best Sunday afternoon. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

Selection committee Chairman Ron Wellman said that SMU was the last team out of the tournament. “As we looked at SMU, they certainly passed the eye test,” he told a conference call of reporters on Sunday night. “They’re a very good team, had a very good year.” Wellman continued:

When you’re making these selections, you’re looking for differentiators. Is there anything that stands out, on the positive side or negative side of the ledger, that will cause you to absolutely take that team or really look at prioritizing and selecting other teams? In SMU’s case their downfall, their weakness, was their schedule. Their non-conference strength of schedule was ranked number 302 out of 350 teams eligible for the tournament. It’s one of the worst non-conference strengths of schedule. Their overall strength of schedule was ranked 129. One-twenty-nine would have been by far the worst at large strength of schedule going into the tournament. The next worst at large strength of schedule was 91. Really the glaring weakness about SMU was their schedule.

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AAC M5: 03.17.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on March 17th, 2014

  1. AAC_morning5_headerThe AAC is at ground zero of the biggest storylines coming out of Selection Sunday. The first is that league regular season co-champion and tournament champion (and defending NCAA Champion) Louisville was rewarded with a #4 seed. Given that they had been discussed as a potential #1 seed, this came as a bit of a surprise. Basically everyone thinks this was a terrible job by the Selection Committee, and ESPN’s Andy Katz went at committee chairman Ron Wellman over the treatment of the Cardinals. Silver lining? They’ll be huge favorites to waltz into the Sweet 16, and probably favored over anyone they would meet there.
  2. The other big story was SMU being left out of the field in particular, and the lack of respect the Selection Committee had for the AAC in general. The Mustangs’ resurgence had been one of the biggest stories of the college basketball season, and they had been considered a lock for most of the past month. But in the last few days, and particularly after they lost to Houston in the AAC quarterfinals, their name kept getting mentioned as a possible snub. The committee chairman, Ron Wellman, said SMU was the first team left out. The school held a party at its shiny renovated Moody Coliseum on Sunday to watch the brackets be unveiled, and it turned out to be a pretty pitiful party. “I feel bad for our team and you fans,” Brown told the crowd after the brackets were announced. “I feel like we let you all down.” Silver lining? Everybody on the team should return next year, and Brown is adding the #1 point guard in next year’s freshman class, Emmanuel Mudiay.
  3. All of the Selection Sunday drama aside, the real drama starts on Thursday when the ball goes up. Cincinnati is the first AAC team to play, squaring off against Harvard at 2:10 p.m. Thursday on TNT. Then Connecticut plays St. Joseph’s at 6:55 p.m. in Buffalo on TBS. Louisville plays Manhattan in Orlando in the last game Thursday night on TNT. And finally, Memphis tips off against George Washington at 6:55 p.m. Friday in Raleigh on TBS.
  4. In non-NCAA postseason news, SMU will host UC Irvine in the first round of the NIT at 9 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2. Interestingly, they are in a quadrant with Arkansas, a team the Mustangs lost to in the non-conference portion of their season that cost them a NCAA bid. SMU is the only AAC team to make a postseason tournament other than the NCAAs; none were selected for either the CBI or CIT.
  5. Obviously, not all of the AAC teams will be playing more games this season. South Florida finished last in the AAC, and on Friday coach Stan Heath was fired. Heath won two games in the 2012 NCAA tournament, but went 6-30 in conference play in the two seasons since. USF’s new AD, Mark Harland, said there has been considerable interest in the job. Among the rumored candidates: Ben Howland, unemployed since he was fired from UCLA last year, and with Harland worked at UCLA; Andy Kennedy, who has had limited success at Ole Miss; and most curiously Buzz Williams, who had a down year at Marquette but has done an exceptional job there. We find it hard to believe Buzz takes any job with Rick Barnes’ hold on Texas so tenuous, but USF should have good options.
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Rushed Reactions: #1 Florida 61, Kentucky 60

Posted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014

C.D. Bradley will be reporting from the SEC Tournament semifinals and finals.

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

Three key takeaways:

  1. Kentucky’s tweak might not have taken: The Wildcats very nearly made it out of the hole they dug themselves on Sunday. Down 16 early in the second half, and by 14 with less than 11 minutes left, they had the ball with a chance to win. They didn’t get a shot off, and it wasn’t their first failure on offense. Kentucky shot only 35.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three, which was bad enough. But the Wildcats came into the game as the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 42.5 percent of their own misses. Florida held them to 32.4 percent (12 of 37).
  2. Florida slowed down too early: The Gators are #1 for a reason. They have everything: experience, athleticism, size, shooters and one of the best coaches in the country. In the first half, they ran UK ragged. In the second half, they looked like they were trying to run out the clock. Scottie Wilbekin, in particular, looked like he was running on fumes. The Wildcats went on their furious run, but the Florida D clamped down and held UK off. Barely.
  3. “We have five freshmen out there”: That’s what John Calipari said after Saturday’s win, and it was again apparent on Sunday. I would love to play poker against UK’s players, who wear every emotion on their faces. As Eric Crawford noted, “They go from bad body language to great faster than any team I’ve ever seen. And, of course, back again.” By contrast, Florida maintained a business-like demeanor in the face of Kentucky’s furious run. The pressure will only grow next week, and how the young Wildcats handle it will be key in determining how long they hang around.

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SEC Championship Preview: Kentucky vs. #1 Florida

Posted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014

After four-plus months of basketball, we got the matchup we expected in the SEC Tournament final: Florida versus Kentucky. That’s about all that went as expected. It was supposed to be Kentucky as the favorite, the team whose coach publicly discussed the possibility of going 40-0, the team with the best recruiting class in history. Florida had the Wildcats on experience, but it was a group that couldn’t quite make it over the hump, having lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons. Fast forward to now, and the narratives have flipped. It’s Florida who’s #1 in the polls, the team that has won 25 straight games and become the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC, and which, for the first time ever, has a shot at beating Kentucky three times in a season. It’s Kentucky that has struggled, that has lost when it shouldn’t, that has the coach (the one who talked 40-0, recall) who now explains that his is a team relying on freshmen. Just eight days ago, Florida smashed Kentucky in Gainesville. Now they meet again.

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Can Kentucky change the result? Well, they have played better in Atlanta this week than they have perhaps all season, thanks in no small part to the emergence of the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. The hugely anticipated duo struggled throughout their freshman year, showing flashes of talent along with a lot of pouting and inconsisten play. Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats’ primary ball-handler, totaled 23 points and 17 assists in his first two tournament games, while Aaron scored 36 points and hit more than half his three-point tries. John Calipari famously “tweaked” the offense, and whatever he did, the Cats have played two great games.

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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 70, Georgia 58

Posted by CD Bradley on March 15th, 2014

rushedreactions

C.D. Bradley will be reporting from the SEC Tournament semifinals and finals.

The Wildcats Were All Smiles Heading to Sunday's Showdown (Vicky Graff)

The Wildcats Were All Smiles Heading to Sunday’s Showdown (Vicky Graff)

Three key takeaways.

  1. Kentucky’s spurtability key to their success. Georgia hung around and hung around, cutting the UK lead to three at 46-43 with 13 minutes to go in the game. The Wildcats, whose offense had sputtered for much of the game, then showed a bit of that talent we’ve heard so much about all season. First Dakari Johnson hit a shot and drew a foul after getting an offensive rebound. He missed the free throw, but Willie Cauley-Stein corraled the rebound and found Aaron Harrison for a three. UK then got a stop, and Harrison launched another three. He missed it, and Georgia looked to have the rebound, but James Young swooped in for the tip-in. Seven points in 51 seconds, all off of offensive rebounds, pushed the lead to 10, and the Wildcats never looked back.
  2. Georgia was crushed on the boards. The Bulldogs reached 12 SEC wins mostly with smoke and mirrors, but the one thing they did decently was grab offensive rebounds. And while Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in America, they rank a middling #119 in defensive rebounding percentage. None of that mattered Saturday, when the Wildcats dominated the defensive glass, outrebounding Georgia at that end 25-3, with two of those Georgia offensive rebounds coming too late to matter much.
  3. The Twins might finally have arrived. Aaron and Andrew Harrison came to UK with enormous expectations, but both have struggled this year along with their team. So Wildcat fans have to be thrilled with the duo’s play in Atlanta, particularly Saturday when Aaron led all scorers with 22 and Andrew had 12 points, nine assists and five rebounds. If Kentucky is to challenge Florida on Sunday and advance very far in the NCAA Tournament, they will need more of such play from their backcourt.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Florida 56, Tennessee 49

Posted by CD Bradley on March 15th, 2014

rushedreactions

C.D. Bradley will be reporting from the SEC Tournament semifinals and finals this weekend.

Three key takeaways.

The Gators Are All Smiles After 25 Wins in a Row (AP)

The Gators Are All Smiles After 25 Wins in a Row (AP)

  1. Pat Adams made a name for himself, and not in a good way. The official’s name was trending on Twitter after calling a ticky-tack fourth foul on Jeronne Maymon (Maymon was at the top of the key, and Adams on the baseline). Adams then eyeballed Maymon as he made his way to the scorer’s table and hit him with a technical foul, his fifth, with 4:39 to go in the game. Florida hit all four free throws to take a four-point lead, one which they never relinquished.
  2. Tennessee took a seven-point lead into halftime largely because they were able to get to the basket with relative ease in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, whose 49.2 percent shooting on two-point field goals this year ranks #145 nationally, made 13 of 20 inside the arc in the first half for 65 percent. That all stopped after halftime; Tennessee scored only 14 points in the second half, hitting only 4-of-13 two-point tries, and none in the last 12 minutes. Florida has now won 20 straight SEC games this year, largely thanks to a defense that ranks #8 in adjusted efficiency nationally.
  3. Florida continues its glide path toward a one seed, and maybe the overall top seed, but Tennessee has at least a bit to be worried about. They thrashed three straight teams to end the season, but none of those squads are going dancing. They beat down Virginia by 35 in December, split with Xavier, and not much else. They also lost three games to teams outside the RPI top 100. They should be in, but it’s gonna be a bit nervous in Knoxville.

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AAC Tournament: Friday Recap/Saturday Preview

Posted by CD Bradley on March 15th, 2014

With the semifinals of the AAC Tournament in the books, we take a look at a few of the big takeaways from Friday, as well as storylines to keep in mind on Saturday.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey Sean Kilpatrick came tantalizingly close to hitting this shot, but it fell off the rim and UConn advanced to the AAC title game.

Sean Kilpatrick came tantalizingly close to hitting this shot, but it fell off the rim and UConn advanced to the AAC title game. (AP/M. Humphrey)

What went down on Friday

  • Russ Smith came out on fire and never really let up, dropping a career-high 42 points (on 14-22 shooting, including 5-7 from three) on Houston in another impressive Louisville victory, 94-65. While the scoring outburst was impressive, it’s on the defensive end that Rick Pitino’s team is separating itself; in its four-game winning streak, they have forced more than 20 turnovers and held their foes under 40 percent shooting three times each. The Cardinals have now won their past three games by an average of 41 points and have people talking about the potential of the Cards grabbing a #1 seed. While that remains unlikely, with the way they are playing right now, no one wants to see them in their bracket on Sunday.
  • For about 10 minutes of game time in the second half, UConn exposed Cincinnati’s Achilles heel: The Bearcats can’t shoot. They rank outside the top 200 in both two-point field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage this season. From 14:00 to 4:00 on the game clock, the Bearcats shot 1-of-14 from the field with two turnovers, scoring two points and turning a four-point lead into an eight-point deficit. They then almost crawled out of the hole they had dug, scoring 13 points in the last 3:30 on three three-pointers, a dunk, and two free throws. Down two with 11 seconds left, they got the ball where they wanted, into the hands of star guard Sean Kilpatrick. He got to the basket and had a great look, putting up a layup that touched every part of the rim before rolling off. And so UConn was able to hold on to a valuable win, while Cincinnati goes in search of a jump shot before the big tournament starts next week.

What’s on tap for Saturday

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AAC Bracket Watch: 03.12.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on March 12th, 2014

Last week we declared that all five of the AAC contenders were locks to make the NCAA tournament. We still believe that to be the case, but there have been whispers that maybe, just maybe, SMU’s spot isn’t completely safe. The Mustangs have been one of college basketball’s best stories, but it would surely ruin the ending if their name isn’t called on Sunday.

Could Larry Brown's Mustangs really find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble? (AP Photo/N. Raymond)

Could Larry Brown’s Mustangs really find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble? (AP Photo/N. Raymond)

Otherwise, barring a massive upset (Ken Pomeroy projects the bottom five AAC teams have, collectively, less than a 1% chance of winning the AAC title), the only drama this weekend in Memphis as it relates to the tournament is seeding. Can Louisville, which swooped into the #1 overall seed in both 2009 and 2013 after everybody in front of them lost, grab the last #1 seed with similar carnage this year? Could Cincinnati? Does Connecticut have a chance to earn a protected top 4 seed? Let’s peruse these resumes one last time.

Cincinnati: 26-5 (15-3), 7-5 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #15, KenPom #18, Bracket Matrix #4 (3.86). The Bearcats won a coin flip for the top seed in the first American tournament after they equaled the Cardinals in every single tiebreaker. Their prize is a possible semifinal matchup with hometown Memphis. Adding another road win against a top 50 team plus a neutral court finals victory over, say, Louisville would put them squarely in the mix for a 2 seed.

Louisville: 26-5 (15-3), 6-5 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #23, KenPom #2, BracketMatrix #4 (3.89). They trial Cincinnati in the bracket projections by little more than the coin-toss margin that dropped them to a #2 seed in the conference tournament. Could they (or Cincinnati) really get a #1 seed? It’s hard to imagine. It would probably require a non-top 4 ACC team winning that league, Wisconsin losing in the Big Ten, Villanova losing in the Big East, and San Diego State losing in the Mountain West. As noted above, similar wackiness got them there in 2009 and 2013, but it’s a big ask. Rick Pitino said if they win the AAC, they’ll get a #2 seed, and that seems like the right answer.

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