O26 Game of the Week: Hawkeye State Showdown, Harvard-Virginia & SDSU-Cincy…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 17th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Northern Iowa (9-1) vs. Iowa (8-3) – 7:30 PM ET, Big Ten Network, Saturday.

Northern Iowa has a knack for playing in really good basketball games this season. The Panthers upended Stephen F. Austin by two in overtime during last month’s Tip-Off Marathon, ending the Lumberjacks’ 33-game home winning streak; they squandered a big second-half lead against George Mason earlier this month before escaping in overtime; and on Saturday, Ben Jacobson’s group lost its first game in one of the best games of the season, a double-overtime thriller at VCU. So what does UNI have in store this week, bumping up against intrastate foe Iowa in Des Moines? Probably another barnburner.

Seth Tuttle and the Panthers look to take down Iowa on Saturday. (UNI Athletics Communications)

Seth Tuttle and the Panthers look to take down Iowa on Saturday. (UNI Athletics Communications)

KenPom currently ranks the Hawkeyes and Panthers 29th and 31st overall, respectively, which – on a neutral floor – results in a virtual coin-flip projection. Iowa is one of the nation’s top-30 fastest teams offensively (15.9 seconds per possession), while Northern Iowa is among the 30 slowest (20.4 seconds), yet the Hawkeyes’ strong suit has been its defense thus far this season, while the latter unit has been more offensively proficient. The Panthers, despite their preferred snail’s pace of play, demonstrated an ability to get out and run against VCU, so they should have no problem adjusting if Iowa’s uptempo pace wins out. The Hawkeyes’ most notable strength is its frontcourt, which provides much of the team’s scoring and prevents easy looks on the interior – which might actually suit Northern Iowa just fine, considering the majority of its points come from behind the arc and at the free throw line. This match-up may come down to Jacobson’s guys hitting perimeter shots – they went just 3-of-16 from distance in the game two years ago – and whether Fran McCaffery can get quality production from his backcourt. This should be a really good, really close contest either way.

More to Watch

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O26 Weekly Awards: SMC, D.J. Balentine, Kyle Smith, Incarnate Word…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 16th, 2014

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.

O26 Team of the Week

Saint Mary’s. It’s a full month into the season and we still didn’t know much about the Gaels before last weekend. They were transfer-laden, proficient on offense and led by Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) down low – that much we understood – but Randy Bennett’s club had yet to play a road contest (or even leave Moraga) through its first six games. And aside from a pair of solid wins over New Mexico State and UC Irvine, Saint Mary’s most noteworthy performance prior to Saturday was a 83-71 loss to Boise State on December 6. Was this team good? Mediocre? An at-large contender? Even if the Gaels’ 71-67 victory at Creighton over the weekend doesn’t fully answer all of those questions, it does make one thing clear: These guys are going to be competitive in the WCC.

Saint Mary's pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Saint Mary’s pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Creighton entered Saturday on a 24-game home winning streak, an impressive run that coach Greg McDermott probably would have assumed safe if you had told him Waldow would end up with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. “Obviously, our game plan was to slow down Waldow, because he’s such a big part of their offense,” McDermott said afterwards. Unfortunately for the Bluejays, the Saint Mary’s backcourt more than picked up the slack, as Stanford-transplant Aaron Bright scored 22 points and Kerry Carter dropped in 19. Equally as important was sophomore forward Dane Pineau, who – having never reached double figures in his career – stepped up enormously in wake of Waldow’s off night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and ripping down 10 boards. The Gaels withstood an early-second half Creighton surge by responding with a 12-0 run of their own, ultimately forcing an extra period – where Bright and Pineau sealed the deal. Now at 6-1 and with a marquee road victory under its belt, Saint Mary’s looks capable of challenging BYU for second-best in the WCC and putting itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This weekend’s victory at the CenturyLink Center could go a long way.

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Dan Monson’s ‘Buy Game’ Compensation Raises Eyebrows, But Isn’t Unique

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 12th, 2014

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson has assembled one of the 10 most difficult non-conference schedules in college basketball for each of the past six seasons, a tactic he’s on record as claiming helps with recruiting and toughens his players, among other benefits. The fact that The Beach also receives sizable paychecks from many of those contests – road trips to schools like North Carolina, Arizona and Ohio State – is also an understood reality, if less frequently discussed. What has not been known until this week, however, is that Monson himself reaps personal financial benefits as a result. San Diego Union Tribune’s Mark Zeigler reported on Tuesday that the eighth-year head coach in fact keeps a significant portion of the school’s payout for these ‘guarantee’ or ‘buy games’, having “been eligible to receive nearly $1 million of the $1.46 million paid to Long Beach State from 16 buy games he scheduled” since 2011-12. The notion that Monson directly profits from scheduling what often amounts to certain losses calls into question his motive for such tough scheduling – is putting his players through the gauntlet ultimately just for the money? – and sheds new light on a crafty method of compensation. But is it really unique; and, more importantly, is there a problem with it? Evidence suggests the answer to both is probably ‘no,’ even if feels a little deceitful.

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson receives a large chunk of 'buy' game revenue. (Lenny Ignelzi, AP / AP)

Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson receives a large chunk of ‘buy’ game revenue. (Lenny Ignelzi, AP / AP)

Perhaps the only thing unique about Monson’s deal (at least to our knowledge) is the sheer dollar amount he earns from scheduling these ‘buy’ games. Using last season as an example, the report claims LBSU yielded a total of $365,000 on trips to Arizona, Washington, North Carolina State and Missouri, of which Monson was eligible for $265,000. While that’s an eye-popping figure, to be sure, the practice of sending large sums of ‘buy’ game money directly to a coach’s bank account is not exactly new. According to a USA Today article from 2007, then-Winthrop head coach Gregg Marshall made $85,869 from guarantee contests, in addition to his $118,588 base salary and other bonuses. “We don’t have available to us the big market contracts from apparel and shoe people that you can use to siphon money off to coaches,” Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman said at the time. Likewise, NJIT head man Jim Engles – whose program received $92,000 for playing (and beating) Michigan in Ann Arbor last weekend – also takes home guarantee revenue, his contract stipulating that the school keeps the first $50,000, at which point the “coach shall be entitled to additional income received in game guarantees from Men’s Basketball thereafter, but not to exceed fifty thousand dollars ($50,000).” While these are just a few examples (and wide-ranging ones, at that), it’s clear that this method is regularly used as a self-sustaining source of remuneration – the school profits from guarantee games that the coach schedules, and is then able to directly use those profits to pay for part of the coach’s salary. It’s a win-win.

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O26 Games of the Week: Utah-BYU, Northern Iowa-VCU, Gonzaga-UCLA…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 10th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on. 

Utah (6-1) at Brigham Young (7-2) – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Wednesday.

Perhaps a look-ahead spot for Utah, with Kansas looming on Saturday? Not a chance. Basketball matters in the Beehive State, and these intrastate rivals – who have continued playing each other annually, despite both leaving the Mountain West in 2011 – might be its top two programs. The Cougars boast the 11th-most efficient offense in America, led by arguably the nation’s premier scorer, Tyler Haws, who comes in having scored 30-plus points in three of his past four outings. Joining him is versatile point guard Kyle Collinsworth (13.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.8 APG) and a cast of shooters capable of lighting up the scoreboard in bunches. Guard Anson Winder (50% 3FG) has been a perimeter-shooting X-factor in the early-going, reaching double-figures in eight of the team’s first nine games. Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for Dave Rose’s uptempo bunch.

Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Stopping Utah, however, might be cause for concern. Everyone knows that Delon Wright, the Utes’ 6’5’’ point guard, is really good – he might be more versatile than Collinsworth – but the bigger match-up issue could be seven-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl. The Aussie has been a revelation for Larry Krystkowiak, flashing an advanced offensive skill set (10-of-10 FG against North Dakota), muscle on the glass (leads the nation in OReb%) and strong interior defense (15th in block percentage). If he plays like he did against Wichita State (12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks), the big man will be tough for BYU’s foul-prone frontcourt to handle. Utah is the more balanced team – a top 50 squad in both offensive and defensive efficiency – and might be the better team, but the Marriott Center should be louder than ever with the rival Utes coming to town. You’ll want to flip over to ESPNU tonight.

More to Watch

  1. Northern Iowa (8-0) at VCU (5-3) – 7:00 PM ET, NBCSN, Saturday.  Will VCU lose twice in a row at the Siegel Center? The Rams’ 22-game home winning streak was broken last Saturday in a loss to Virginia, and they will certainly have their hands full against a Northern Iowa unit that just cracked the Top 25. Believe it or not, these teams are very familiar with each other – this will be their third meeting in the last four years – and the Panthers upset VCU in Cedar Falls last December. The Rams forced 16 turnovers in that game and nailed 10 three-pointers, but their interior defense was lackluster (UNI shot 67% 2FG) and they allowed Northern Iowa too many trips to the free throw line. Similar problems have plagued Shaka Smart’s bunch so far in 2014-15, which could be a problem against a team with lots of shooters and a newfound attack-first mentality (Panthers rank 22nd in FTA/FGA). Of course, VCU has capable shooters of its own and will amp up HAVOC in front of its always-raucous home crowd. Read the rest of this entry »
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O26 Weekly Awards: SFA, John Brown, Marvin Menzies & NJIT…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 9th, 2014

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.

O26 Team of the Week

Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks’ season began (in earnest) with a home loss to Northern Iowa – the team’s first defeat in its own building since February 15, 2012 – and a pair of road losses to Xavier and Baylor. All respectable games to drop, sure, but the latter two weren’t even close, as SFA was bludgeoned by margins of 18 and 16 points, respectively. They certainly weren’t the types of outcomes people expected after last season’s 32-3, Round of 32 campaign – especially with Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker back in the fold. But after a pair of easy victories in the Las Vegas Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend, the Southland favorite had a chance to get its swagger back – and climb above .500 – with two tough-but-winnable games last week at Memphis and home against Long Beach State.

The result? Swagger has been restored.

Stephen F. Austin is our O26 Team of the Week. (Getty Images)

Stephen F. Austin is our O26 Team of the Week. (Getty Images)

Not only did the Lumberjacks beat Memphis on Tuesday, they held the Tigers to their lowest point total in FedEx Forum since the 2009 Conference USA Tournament. Not that SFA was necessarily scorching the nets either, but midway through the second half its ball movement picked up dramatically and the perimeter shots started falling, prompting a 23-6 run over the game’s final 10 minutes. It was as if Underwood’s group found another gear – one that it has yet to shift down from. Following Memphis, SFA returned home on Friday to face a Long Beach State unit coming off wins over Xavier (who beat the Lumberjacks, if you remember) and Nevada in its previous two contests. KenPom predicted a single-digit outcome; the Lumberjacks had other plans, beating the 49ers down by 29 points in a wire-to-wire victory, a performance made even more impressive by the fact that Parker scored only four of those. They crushed LBSU on the offensive glass, took away the three-point line and forced a bunch of turnovers, all key ingredients in the recipe for a blowout. Now, SFA (which also popped Ouachita Baptist by 24 on Sunday) is looking almost as good as it did last year. And without another difficult non-conference test remaining on the schedule, could it achieve similar success, too… another 29-game winning streak, anyone?

Honorable Mentions: Harvard (3-0: vs. Northeastern, at Vermont, vs. Boston U.); Yale (2-1: at Bryant, at Connecticut, at Florida); New Mexico (vs. New Mexico State, at Valparaiso); Idaho (2-0: at Washington State, vs. UC-Davis); Fairfield (vs. Manhattan, at Quinnipiac)

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Revisiting the Wildly Upsetting Weekend: Yale, Green Bay, NJIT, USC Upstate & North Florida

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 8th, 2014

It looked like the upset of the weekend on Friday night: 3.5 seconds on the clock, Yale down two to Connecticut; junior guard Jack Montague slipped to the far corner in front of his own bench, caught the baseline inbounds-pass and drilled a game-winning three-pointer to knock off the defending champions in their own building. The loss was the Huskies’ first in 68 games against intrastate opponents, and the shot – complete with frenzied, ecstatic hugging and hands-on-head dejection – was something of an iconic early season moment: six-foot-nothing Ivy League guard with a Shakespearean last name hits clutch shot to upend a dynastic blue-blood program.

Yale beat UConn on Friday night, but that was only the beginning. (Fred Beckham / AP)

Yale beat UConn on Friday night, but that was only the beginning. (Fred Beckham / AP)

Little did we know, the best was yet to come. From noon ET to a little after 4:00 PM ET on Saturday, four more substantial, O26-over-Power-Five upsets would take place, including one truly for the ages. Let’s revisit and lends some perspective to each of them.

Yale over Connecticut, 45-44 – KenPom win probability: 81.1% UConn; Spread: UConn (-8.5). Yale coach James Jones said afterwards: “I told the guys in the locker room, no matter how old they get, if they get Alzheimer’s or dementia, they’ll remember this for the rest of their lives.” However hilarious and slightly morbid a thought, the 16th-year head man is right – the finish was spectacular, and the outcome awfully impressive considering that Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright played nearly the entire game. There had been a growing consensus that Yale could beat the Huskies if Boatright didn’t play – he injured his ankle against Texas and his status was questionable on Friday night – but when the point guard suited up (and was throwing down pre-game dunks beforehand), expectations for the Bulldogs were diminished. Still, Yale had already established itself as the second-best team in the Ivy League; a tough, well-balanced, top-100 KenPom unit capable of hanging with Tournament-caliber opponents. And it showed as much in taking it to the Huskies from opening tip, exploiting defensive lapses, outmuscling Connecticut on the glass (Yale collected an incredible 95.8 percent of its defensive rebound opportunities) and making smart decisions in the game’s waning moments. Big man Justin Sears led the charge with 12 points and 15 rebounds (eight offensive) and Montague sealed the deal in the memorable final seconds.

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O26 Game of the Week: Gonzaga in Tucson, UTEP-Colorado State, More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 3rd, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Gonzaga (7-0) at Arizona (6-0) – 5:15 PM ET, ESPN, Saturday

Following the Wildcats defeat of San Diego State in the Maui Invitational, this weekend’s Gonzaga-Arizona matchup might now be the unofficial showdown for ‘Best in the West’ – the outcome of which could go a long way in determining the region’s top-seed come Selection Sunday.

Gonzaga-Arizona should be one of the best non-conference matchups in 2014-15. (thesportspost.com)

Gonzaga-Arizona should be one of the best non-conference matchups in 2014-15. (thesportspost.com)

Both teams have notched impressive early-season victories – SMU and St. John’s for the Bulldogs, Kansas State and SDSU for the Wildcats – both possess seven-plus-foot frontcourt players, athletic wings and veteran point guards, and each squad is led by a coach who’s won a bunch of games over the past decade. Sean Miller’s group pounded Gonzaga in last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs are a much different, much deeper unit in 2014-15; Kevin Pangos is back to full-health and Mark Few added transfers Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer in the offseason, along with impact-freshman Domantas Sabonis (12.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG). As a result, it seems doubtful the Zags will turn the ball over 21 times like they did in March, nor are they likely to be as overwhelmed athletically. Then again, this year’s iteration does take place in Tuscon, against a Wildcat team thanks to the return of 6’8’’ forward Brandon Ashley (Arizona has not lost with him in the lineup since 2012-13) and the addition of an eventual lottery pick, freshman wing Stanley Johnson (13.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG). Considering the individual talent on both rosters, it’s hard to say exactly who or what will dictate the outcome – does the frontcourt battle between Przemek Karnowski and Kaleb Tarczewski decide things? Or will it be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s energy, or Pangos’ hot-shooting? – but regardless, the game is sure to be among the biggest and most impactful non-conference tilts this season.

More to Watch

  1. Wichita State (4-0) at Utah (5-1) – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Wednesday. Does Wichita State’s 35-game regular season winning streak end in Salt Lake City? The Shockers have not looked prone to defeat so far in 2014-15, having drubbed New Mexico State, Memphis and Tulsa by an average of 17 points per game, but knocking off Utah on its home floor should prove much more difficult. The Utes boast one of the best all-around guards in America, 6’5’’ junior Delon Wright, and are markedly tougher in the Huntsman Center – they were a couple of two-point, overtime losses against Oregon and Arizona from going undefeated at home in 2013-14. Luckily, Gregg Marshall has a pair of experienced, All-America type guards in his own right – Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker – who should hold their own in the hostile environment. KenPom has this one pegged as one a near-coin flip (54% in the Wichita State’s favor), and if the Shockers can emerge victorious, their impressive streak might persist well into the New Year.
  2. UTEP (5-1) at Colorado State (6-0) – 9:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Colorado State won the Great Alaska Shootout and UTEP nearly won the Wooden Legacy over the holiday weekend, punctuating a very good month of November for both units. Even with the Miners falling to Washington on Sunday night, each group appears talented and capable enough to be in the at-large discussion by season’s end – making Wednesday’s game in Fort Collins an important opportunity for both. The Rams, led by senior point guard Daniel Bejarano (13.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and forward J.J. Avila (14.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG), have been very proficient from deep so far in 2014-15 (40.5% 3PT) and are the fifth-most experienced team in the country, while UTEP – paced by athletic, versatile forward Vince Hunter (five straight double-doubles to begin 2014-15) – boasts one of college basketball’s largest front lines.
  3. Wyoming (7-0) at SMU (4-3) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPNews, Friday. This is an important bellweather game for Wyoming, which has gotten off to an excellent start in 2014-15 – including a dominant victory over Colorado – but has yet to play a game outside of Laramie. The Mustangs, despite a rocky start without their best player, Markus Kennedy, are a good, well-rounded team that’s always tough inside Moody Coliseum. The Cowboys have found great looks near the basket this season (66.2% 2PT; second-best in NCAA) and SMU’s interior defense has been less dominant without Kennedy, so Wyoming’s ability to patiently run its sets in a road environment might be the key to success.
  4. Virginia (7-0) at Virginia Commonwealth (5-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday. VCU edged Illinois State on Tuesday night, but the Rams still seek a marquee victory after two disappointing losses last week. This home contest against newfound in-state rival Virginia provides that opportunity. In what should be an exercise in contrasting styles – VCU plays frenzied, uptempo basketball, whereas the Cavaliers like to grind on both ends of the court – the outcome may depend on whether Shaka Smart’s group can force Virginia into turnovers with any kind of regularity. If not, the preseason Atlantic 10 favorites – who already struggle to score in the half-court – could be in for a long night against Tony Bennett’s defense [See: Rutgers game].
  5. San Diego State (5-1) at Washington (6-0) – 9:00 PM ET, Pac-12 Network, Sunday. In another very good west coast showdown, the Aztecs will have to play without guard Aqeel Quinn (9.7 PPG), who broke his finger against Arizona last week. The Huskies have the advantage at point guard with Nigel Williams-Goss (14.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG) – important against an aggressive defensive unit like SDSU – but the Aztecs have more athletic wings, and both squads possess plenty of size underneath. Should be close.

Other Notables

  •  Northeastern (5-1) at Harvard (4-1) – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday.
  •  Long Beach State (4-4) at Stephen F. Austin (4-3) – 8:00PM, Friday.
  •  Boise State (4-2) at Saint Mary’s (5-0) – 11:30 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday.
  •  Florida Gulf Coast (6-1) *at Massachusetts (5-3) – 2:00 PM ET, Sunday (*Springfield, MA).

Upset Special

Can Yale hang around with Connecticut on Friday night? (The Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson)

Can Yale hang around with Connecticut on Friday night? (The Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson)

Yale (6-2) at Connecticut (3-2) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Friday. There are plenty of reasons why this upset can’t happen – I mean, we are talking about the defending National Champions…playing at home – so how about one reason why it can: Huskies guard Ryan Boatright might miss the contest with a sprained ankle. If he does sit out, Connecticut will be without the guy who leads it in scoring (20.8 PPG), assists (4 APG) and steals (1.6 SPG), who  plays virtually every minute of every game, who shoots almost one-third of the team’s shots while on the floor, and who racks up fouls in bunches. Yale, which looked good in a hard-fought loss to Providence last weekend, has bodies to bang with Connecticut on the glass and should do a better job taking care of the ball (turnovers have been a problem) against the Boatright-less Huskies. If Javier Duren, Jack Montague and Armani Cotton get hot from behind the arc and Justin Sears (15.1 PPG, 9.1 RPG) stays out of foul trouble, the Bulldogs have a chance.

Stars Aligned: Great Individual Match-Ups

  • Green Bay’s Kiefer Sykes at Georgia State’s Ryan Harrow – 7:00 PM ET, Thursday. Both Sykes (18.5 PPG) and Harrow (20.3 PPG) are small, explosive point guards who thrive on their quickness and ability to penetrate. They also happen to be two of college basketball’s best players, on two of the better teams at the mid-major level. You won’t want to miss this battle.
  • William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton at Richmond’s Kendall Anthony – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Another pair of talented scoring guards go at it tonight, as Thornton (17 PPG) and Anthony (15.3 PPG) square off in Richmond. At just 5’8’’, Anthony gives up a full eight inches to his William & Mary counterpart, so it seems doubtful they will actually wind up guarding each other. Either way, expect a bevy of points from these two guys and a hard-fought game between quality intra-state foes.
  • Valparaiso’s Alec Peters vs. someone(s) on Eastern Kentucky – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. This game is projected to be a toss-up, but I’m not sure who on the Colonels is going to stop Peters. The 6’9’’ forward has been nothing short of exceptional so far this season, averaging 19.3 PPG and shooting 55% 3PT. With that combination of size and shooting ability, Eastern Kentucky’s best hope might be to exploit Valpo’s weakness at point guard, turn the Crusaders over and limit Peters’ touches as much as possible.
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O26 Weekly Awards: Northern Iowa, Craig Bradshaw, Pat Duquette & Eastern Washington

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 1st, 2014

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition. 

O26 Team of the Week

Northern Iowa began the week in Cancun and ended it with a home victory over Richmond. (unipanthers.com)

Northern Iowa began the week in Cancun and ended it with a home victory over Richmond. (unipanthers.com)

Northern Iowa. With all of the marquee tournaments and showdowns taking place over the holiday weekend, it’s understandable if Northern Iowa’s trip to Mexico for the ‘Cancun Challenge’ was lost in the shuffle to some extent, especially considering the fellow competition: Virginia Tech, Northwestern and Miami (OH). If you did miss it, here’s a quick synopsis: after hammering Virginia Tech by 19 points, the Panthers held Northwestern to a paltry 0.76 points per possession and pounded the Wildcats by 21 to claim the championship. But although a tournament title is certainly a nice preseason prize, it’s not even the hardware that made Northern Iowa’s week so impressive. No, the reason Ben Jacobson’s club is our Team of the Week is because after delivering those back-to-back drubbings against high-major (if subpar) opponents, thousands of miles away from Cedar Falls, the Panthers flew back to the United States and kept the train rolling against an even better Richmond team. All signs pointed to a post-Thanksgiving, post-showcase letdown, especially against a tough, well-rounded Spiders unit ranked 54th in KenPom and boasting one of the Atlantic 10’s best guards in Kendall Anthony. But instead of coming out emotionally lethargic or physically fatigued or preoccupied with thoughts of warm resort towns, Northern Iowa took control of the game – just as it had in Cancun – and completely outclassed Richmond from start-to-finish, never once relinquishing the lead and defeating the Spiders, 55-50. In all, the Panthers maintained a lead for roughly 110 of 120 minutes this week against Virginia Tech, Northwestern and Richmond combined, a trio of dominant victories that has both propelled Jacobson’s unit to an impressive 7-0 start and further improved its at-large prospects.

Honorable Mentions: Gonzaga (2-0: N-Georgia, N-St. John’s); Green Bay (3-0: N-East Carolina, N-Evansville, N-Florida Gulf Coast); Colorado State (3-0: N-Missouri State, N-Pacific, N-UC Santa Barbara); Valparaiso (3-0: N-Drake, N-Murray State, N-Portland).

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Georgia State Still a Work in Progress Despite High Expectations

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 27th, 2014

Georgia State entered 2014-15 with unusually high expectations and national attention, especially for a Sun Belt program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 14 years. Guards R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow landed on several Top 100 lists, Louisville transfer Kevin Ware was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, and numerous publications tabbed the Panthers as an eventual Cinderella threat. After being blown out by Iowa State in the Tip-Off Marathon and losing to Colorado State, though, those expectations – or at least that attention – may have cooled a bit, replaced instead by slight concerns about what might be missing. While the team’s 83-78 victory over Oakland on Wednesday probably won’t allay those concerns, it did make one thing clear heading into December: the Panthers can win games on talent alone against mid-major competition, but they are still far from a finished product.

Georgia State is still finding itself in 2014-15. (Courtesy: Georgia State Sports Communications)

Georgia State is still finding itself in 2014-15. (Courtesy: Georgia State Sports Communications)

There seemed to be a tacit assumption entering the season that Georgia State’s backcourt would automatically improve with Ware entering the fold, despite the loss of senior point guard Devonta White. The problem with that assumption – though understandable, considering his name recognition and high-major cachet – is that Ware is not a point guard, nor is he ready to be a consistent, impact player. In the loss to Iowa State, the junior scored just four points in 32 minutes and never really asserted himself in any noticeable way on either end of the floor. Wednesday was a much different story, as he poured in a season-high 15 points (13 in the second half) and made several big plays late, but he still had several very quiet, very tentative stretches. White, on the other hand, was a relied-upon playmaker who finished his career ranked third in school history in points, assists and steals; he facilitated, scored and was a major reason Ron Hunter’s club was 23rd most efficient offense in basketball last season. Although Harrow (21.4 PPG, 5.2 APG) has been very successful playing on the ball in White’s stead, the departing guard’s sure-handed production has been missed, and will continue to be missed, until Ware finds his place.

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Michigan State Frontcourt Finding Itself Ahead of Crucial Stretch

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 25th, 2014

Michigan State’s narrow victory against Navy in its season opener raised a few serious concerns for Spartans fans, not the least of which was the team’s frontcourt play outside of Branden Dawson. Not only did forwards Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling combine for just 10 points in that win, but the Midshipmen found surprising offensive success near the basket, unearthing countless easy looks on their way to 56 percent shooting inside the arc. After showing some positive flashes in a loss to Duke, however, and playing markedly better against Loyola (Chicago) in its home opener, the Michigan State big men seem to be taking incremental steps in the right direction. On Monday night, in a 79-52 victory over Santa Clara – an evening in which Dawson was sidelined with the flu – those small steps turned into even bigger strides, as Schilling, Costello and Dawson-fill-in Marvin Clark Jr. demonstrated a level of assertiveness and production that was largely missing 10 days ago. With the Spartans’ most crucial week of non-conference play looming just ahead, it’s a sign of improvement that may have come in the nick of time.

Michigan State's Gavin Schilling had a big night against Santa Clara on Monday. (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan State’s Gavin Schilling had a big night against Santa Clara on Monday. (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Izzo mentioned the 6’9’’ Schilling as a possible breakout player before the season began, and he fully looked the part – in terms of production, aggression and physique. After playing somewhat tentatively against Navy, Schilling was at times dominant against the smaller Broncos, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and securing 11 rebounds in just 18 minutes on the court – his first career double-double. “He’s so strong and athletic… he’s got a nice jump-hook, he can use both hands,” Izzo said of the big man afterwards. Interestingly, Schilling’s outing was statistically similar to Costello’s night against Loyola, wherein the junior scored a career-high 13 points and notched 11 boards. While he didn’t near that scoring production against Santa Clara, tallying just two points, Costello did log nine rebounds and a pair of blocks, at times demonstrating the same ball-commanding assertiveness he did against the Ramblers (and subsequently earning three trips to the free throw line). More importantly, both he and Schilling were defensive enforcers in the paint, helping limit Santa Clara to a 32 percent two-point shooting mark that would have been even lower if not for a few late buckets. Likewise, the pair combined for 13 of the team’s 21 offensive rebounds, keeping possessions alive and enabling Michigan State to put the game away early. “Costello and Schilling have been bright spots,” Izzo put simply after the game.

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For Hawaii, An Unexpected Triumph During Unpleasant Times

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 24th, 2014

Although the Warriors’ 74-70 victory over Pittsburgh on Friday was not the biggest upset of the weekend – that distinction went elsewhere – it was certainly among the most surprising, even if virtually no one could watch it. Few programs have had the rug pulled out from under it quite like Hawaii has to start 2014-15, with an ongoing NCAA investigation leading to the firing of its head coach and the departure of its best player, each within three weeks of the team’s season opener. To make matters worse, would-be contributor Sammis Reyes – a Chilean freshman who initially left the program amid coach Gib Arnold’s firing – was forced to redshirt after breaking his hand last Tuesday. And yet, despite all the attrition and adversity and general weirdness, interim head man Benjy Taylor and his guard-heavy lineup managed to gash the Panthers for 1.3 points per possession on Friday night and topple an ACC opponent for the first time since 2012. Could it be the prelude to a season-long rally? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, considering everything Hawaii has been through over the past month, it is one impressive victory.

Hawaii pulled off a surprising victory over Pittsburgh on Friday. (UH Athletics)

Hawaii pulled off a surprising victory over Pittsburgh on Friday night. (UH Athletics)

On October 23, Hawaii was picked fifth in the Big West preseason poll and forward Isaac Fotu (14.9 PPG and 6.1 RPG in 2013-14) was made an All-Conference selection; five days later, the university announced that Arnold and assistant coach Brandyn Akana had been relieved of their coaching duties. Expectations were not necessarily high coming into the season – top scorer Christian Standhardinger had graduated and point guard Keith Shamburger had transferred to Missouri – but the Warriors were supposed to at least be competitive in the nine-team conference. Without their head coach, though, the outlook became more suspect – especially considering the timing. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaii has been under NCAA investigation since March stemming from a self-reported incident in which “a men’s basketball coach submitted an altered document that was essential for admissions purposes.” The abrupt nature of the firing – just as the team was set to embark on its 2014-15 campaign – came as a surprise to many, including Arnold himself, who gave an emotional press conference from his home a few days after the fact:

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Harvard’s Wake-Up Call Might Not Be So Bad

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 20th, 2014

Let’s make a few things clear about Harvard and its probably-gone at-large hopes. For one, if the team is worrying about an at-large selection come March, it probably means it lost two or three games in Ivy League play – which would be problematic on its own. For another, Tommy Amaker’s group is no stranger to faltering unexpectedly in the non-conference: in 2012, the Crimson lost to Atlantic 10 bottom-feeder Fordham; in 2013, it fell at home to Vermont; and last season, it suffered a 15-point defeat to sub-.500 Florida Atlantic. Each year, Harvard’s at-large aspirations took a severe hit before conference games even began, and each year the team responded by winning the outright Ivy League title. Sunday’s turnover-filled loss to Holy Cross is only different in that it happened just three days into the season, before anyone could even blink. With everything still left to play for – a league title, a Tourney birth, seeding implications – the much-hyped Crimson may have received the wake-up call it needed and was eventually going to get anyway. Now it must figure things out on the court before the schedule ramps up in coming weeks.

Harvard needs to bounce back after falling to Holy Cross on Sunday. (Robert F Worley/The Harvard Crimson)

Harvard needs to bounce back after falling to Holy Cross on Sunday. (Robert F Worley/The Harvard Crimson)

Siyani Chambers is probably the best point guard in the Ivy League yet the Crusaders’ pressure defense completely got the best of him on Sunday, turning him over a career-high nine times and holding the junior to just one point. As poorly as Chambers played, though, his track record suggests that he’ll be just fine going forward; the bigger problem might be his backcourt running mates, or lack thereof. Both he and Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders (24 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday) are going to play a lot and produce a lot, but nearly every other guard is an unproven commodity. Program mainstays Laurent Rivard and Brandyn Curry graduated in the offseason, stripping the team of its best perimeter shooter (Rivard shot 43% 3FG as a senior and holds the school’s all-time three-point record) and a solid all-around guard who could spell Chambers at the point (Curry was the team’s floor general before Chambers arrived in 2012). Corbin Miller (45% 3FG in 2011-12) – who missed the past two years due to an LDS mission – should fill some of the void left by Rivard, but true freshman Andre Chatfield looks like the only other guard receiving rotational minutes early on. As a result, not only is Harvard very thin in the backcourt from an injury-risk standpoint – losing Chambers, Saunders or Miller would be devastating – it also seems less-equipped to handle opponents that necessitate a guard-heavy lineup like Holy Cross. Too much pressure was placed on the pair in that game. Amaker has a ton of options when it comes to mixing and matching frontcourt guys, but far fewer when it comes to the backcourt, so the continued development and emergence of players like Miller and Chatfield will be crucial as the season progresses.

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