Hey Look, Stephen F. Austin is on Another Winning Streak

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2015

Stephen F. Austin lost to East Tennessee State last season on November 23 — falling to 3-2 overall — then proceeded to win 29 straight games on its way to the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. Not only did the program record its first-ever victory in the Big Dance – an improbable comeback win over VCU – but Brad Underwood took home the Joe B. Hall National Coach of the Year honors as the top first-year head man in college hoops. As for this season? Things are looking awfully familiar. The Lumberjacks were blown out by Baylor on November 24 — falling to 1-3 overall — and, you guessed it, haven’t lost a game since. With tremendous team balance, a pair of match-up nightmares and 14 straight wins already in hand, the question must be asked: Can Underwood’s bunch again streak into March? Considering SFA’s track record and the overall dearth of legitimate Southland competition, it’s becoming a stronger and stronger possibility – one that may ultimately come down to Saturday’s trip to Sam Houston State.

Is Stephen F. Austin bound for another long streak? Sam Houston State could stand in the way. (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

Is SFA bound for another long streak? Sam Houston State could stand in the way. (Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite losing their top scorer from last season (Desmond Haymon), the Lumberjacks’ excellent balance and spread-motion attack – predicated on finding the highest percentage shot via heavy ball-movement – means they haven’t missed a beat offensively. Upwards of 10 guys play 10 or more minutes per game and six different players average between 6.7 PPG and 13.9 PPG, including four newcomers. Those new faces – two JuCo transfers, Samford transplant Clide Geffrard, Jr., and freshman Ty Charles – have adapted well to Underwood’s offensive approach, each capable shooters willing to swing the ball around and work for the best look. In fact, the defending conference champs have recorded assists on a whopping 64 percent of their made field goals so far this season. Still, the biggest problem for opposing defenses is trying to handle Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup, the team’s versatile leading scorers. At 6’6’’, Parker (the reigning Southland Player of the Year) technically plays the four or five in most games, but possesses guard-like quickness off the bounce and exceptional accuracy from behind the arc, currently shooting an absurd 46 percent from three. Likewise, Walkup is an undersized forward who serves as the Lumberjacks’ grittiest banger in the paint (6.1 RPG) and one of its best passers (3.2 APG) while leading the team in scoring. Both players are multi-faceted ‘tweeners who present unique match-up problems on a nightly basis, enabling SFA to become an even more efficient offense this season.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Boise State, Mikh McKinney, Jay Spoonhour & Appalachian State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 21st, 2015

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

Boise State. When senior leader and preseason all-conference guard Anthony Drmic was ruled out for the season in late December, it looked as if the wheels might come off at Boise State. The Broncos, which were picked fourth in the preseason in the Mountain West, lost four straight games to begin the New Year – including its first three conference contests – and only once managed to score over a point per possession without their 6’6’’ wing. “The margin for error is really slim without Anthony,” head coach Leon Rice said before his team welcomed UNLV to town on Tuesday. With the talented Runnin’ Rebels on deck before a tricky road trip to The Pit on Saturday, it looked as if things might get worse for Rice’s club before they get better. Luckily, Derrick Marks and James Webb III had other plans.

Star guard Derrick Marks helped lead Boise State to a stellar week. (Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports)

Star guard Derrick Marks helped lead Boise State to a stellar week. (Brian Losness/USA TODAY Sports)

In a game broadcast remotely by ESPN, Marks gave Boise State offensive life against UNLV, scoring 28 points (on a whopping 26 attempts) and responding to any would-be Rebels’ runs with big shots of his own. After the visitors grabbed a late two-point lead, the senior calmly attacked the lane, stopped on a dime and hit a turnaround jumper with 13 seconds left to send the game into overtime. In the extra period, the Broncos – which had dropped their last three contests that were decided by six points or less – came up with enough winning plays, including a flurry of steals at around the two-minute mark, to eke out an 82-73 victory. “That monkey has been flipped off our backs and thrown to the ground, no question,” Rice said of his teams relieving victory. Webb, an athletic forward whose minutes have picked up dramatically in Drmic’s absence, added 12 points and 15 rebounds in the win, including a high-flying breakaway dunk in overtime. Read the rest of this entry »

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Atlantic Sun Race Interesting Even Without Cinderella

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 16th, 2015

Dunk City’s Sweet Sixteen run, Mercer’s post-victory Nae Nae dance… I don’t have to explain – you already know the Atlantic Sun’s recent March achievements. The conference has produced arguably the NCAA Tournament’s most iconic moments for each of the past two seasons, enormous upsets featuring even larger personalities. Yet it’s also endured some serious change since the Bears knocked off Duke last spring, and almost none of it has been good. Both Mercer and East Tennessee State, traditionally two of the league’s best programs, bolted for the Southern Conference and no other team has stepped in to fill the void. With just eight teams remaining – one of which (Northern Kentucky) remains NCAA Tournament-ineligible until 2016 – the question now becomes whether the depleted conference has a team even remotely capable of crashing the Dance. The answer to that probably lies somewhere between “unlikely” and “maybe,” although the A-Sun showed moments of promise during non-conference play. As for the race to get there? With Florida Gulf Coast looking vulnerable and a pair of challengers on the rise, the next two months should be better than expected.

The Atlantic Sun race will be better than expected this season. (Naples Daily News)

The Atlantic Sun race will be better than expected this season. (Naples Daily News)

North Florida made something of a statement on Wednesday night. After switching to zone and overcoming an early deficit against Florida Gulf Coast, the Ospreys turned a flurry of threes and several key steals into a 16-2 second half run that put the Eagles away for good – the team’s first victory over its avian foe since 2012. “We talked before the game there would be obstacles and adversity and all those kinds of things, and you’ve just got to fight your way through it,” head coach Matthew Driscoll said afterward. “And they did.” Not only was it a blowout victory over the league’s overwhelming favorite, but the result propelled North Florida ahead of its rival in KenPom for the first time all season. While that may seem insignificant – sure, odd results and blowout wins/losses can skew rankings – it’s important to keep in mind that the Ospreys have climbed almost 100 spots since the season began. Driscoll’s three-point heavy attack, led by reigning Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year, Dallas Moore (27 points on Wednesday), has been reliably explosive through the first couple months and very difficult to beat when shots are falling. In fact, UNF has a chance to become the most efficient offensive unit the conference has seen since Belmont left in 2012. Yet the Ospreys aren’t alone in their emergence as a legitimate challenger to FGCU. USC Upstate – which lost two of its top three scorers and rebounders, including all-conference forward Torrey Craig – has also managed to drastically improve on its preseason metrics. Despite their offensive production taking a dip, the combination of guard-heavy lineups and Eddie Payne’s match-up zone has enabled the Spartans to force turnovers in bunches (12th highest rate in America) and markedly improve their defense from a year ago. That improvement has manifested itself in 13-5 record and the conference’s highest overall ranking (#148) – also nearly 100 spots higher than where it began the year. What does that mean for Dunk City? Even with Brett Comer (11.2 PPG, 7.0 APG) and Bernard Thompson (14.4 PPG) in tow – one of college basketball’s most productive backcourts – the Eagles’ run at the league title will be much more difficult than figured.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Pepperdine, Keifer Sykes, James Whitford & Miami (OH)…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 13th, 2015

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

Pepperdine. Entering last week, you know how many WCC teams had beaten BYU in the Marriott Center since it joined the conference in 2012? Four, and Pepperdine wasn’t one of them. In fact, the Waves had lost their previous three contests there by an average of 25 points per game. So when Marty Wilson’s team went to Provo and beat the Cougars in wire-to-wire fashion on Thursday night, yeah, it was kind of a big deal. The six-point win turned heads and garnered Pepperdine some positive national attention for the first time in a long while (the game was on ESPNU). And as for the Waves’ encore victory at San Diego on Saturday? That win may have propelled Wilson’s club into the upper echelon of the conference.

Pepperdine stunned BYU in the Marriott Center on Thursday. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Ian Maule)

Pepperdine stunned BYU in the Marriott Center on Thursday. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Ian Maule)

Defense has been Pepperdine’s M.O. this season and it put that stinginess on full display against BYU. The Waves, which entered the contest tops in the country at taking away the three-point line, held the oft-scorching Cougars (15-of-28 threes in their previous game) to just 23 percent (6-of-26) from behind the arc. BYU’s high-scoring, hyper-efficient attack had trouble finding consistent offense all night long, ultimately winding up tied for its lowest point total of the season (61 points). “We talked about our discipline and our toughness and we showed that from the tip,” Wilson said afterwards. Yet, his best coaching move of the night had nothing to do with an instilled mindset or strong defensive principles. Instead, it was probably his decision to bring top scorer and rebounder Stacy Davis (15.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG) off the bench for the first time. The 6’6’’ junior responded with a 23-point, eight-rebound performance that included a couple big free throws to ice the game. “They got us a little bit out of rhythm and they got us to take tougher shots out of our sets,” BYU guard Anson Winder said after the game, summing it up perfectly. “They scored on the other end and it’s hard to beat a team when you can’t stop them from scoring.”

But Pepperdine wasn’t done. Despite having not won back-to-back WCC road games since 2007, the Waves promptly travelled to San Diego two days later, put forth another excellent defensive effort and beat the Toreros by 12. No San Diego player – not even Johnny Dee, the conference’s fourth-leading scorer – ended up with double figures, as Bill Grier’s crew mustered only 0.75 points per possession. In a matter of three days, the team that had been picked seventh in the preseason outdid the second and fifth-place picks in their own gymnasiums. Now at 4-1 in WCC play and cracking the top-100 in KenPom, Pepperdine appears to have staying power among the top half of the WCC.

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Imbalanced America East Makes for Crucial Battles at the Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 13th, 2015

Vermont and Stony Brook have finished first and second in the America East for three straight seasons and neither has beaten the other at home (in the regular season) since 2011, so it goes without saying that the Catamounts’ 71-57 victory in Burlington on Saturday was fairly important. For John Becker’s club, it was a key win against this year’s preseason favorite and validation of the program’s resiliency after graduating the bulk of last year’s starting five. For the Seawolves, the loss was a missed opportunity and fifth-straight defeat in Patrick Gymnasium, but the outcome might end up carrying even more importance than it would have in previous years. Not only do the conference’s top four seeds host preliminary games in its postseason tournament for the first time since the mid-1990s, but there are few leagues in the country with a more substantial dropoff in quality between its top and bottom than the America East. With Vermont, Stony Brook and a few others jockeying for position — and the rest of the league offering minimal competition on a nightly basis — regular season battles among its handful of contenders are more important than ever.

Vermont bested Stony Brook on Saturday in a crucial America East tilt. (Photo: BRIAN JENKINS/For the Free Press)

Vermont bested Stony Brook on Saturday in a crucial America East tilt. (Photo: BRIAN JENKINS/For the Free Press)

First, the top. Three America East teams – Stony Brook, Vermont and Albany – currently rank in the KenPom top-200, with the Seawolves standing above the rest at 113th. Boasting the league’s best player in Jameel Warney (16.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG), and wins over Washington, Western Kentucky and Columbia (x2), Steve Pikiell’s crew certainly looks like the class of the conference. Still, Vermont reaffirmed its contender status over the weekend, and Albany – the league’s NCAA Tournament representative in each of the last two seasons – has enough talent and experience to challenge anyone, especially at home. At the bottom, on the other hand, it’s a far different story. UMass-Lowell, Binghamton, UMBC and Maine, the league’s four worst teams, are each currently ranked 290th or below, and although Pat Duquette’s River Hawks have had their moments this season, the latter three squads are especially bad, coming in at 337th, 342nd and 343rd, respectively – ranking among the 15 worst teams in college basketball. To date, they’ve combined for just five total wins on the year, and as a result, the chasm between the top three teams and the bottom four teams is so large that Stony Brook, Vermont and Albany are each favored – in many cases heavily – to win the vast majority of their league contests (outside of each other) for the remainder of the season. And while that does not mean there won’t be the occasional slip-up, the fact that the Seawolves (43%) and Catamounts (38%) each have a very real chance of going undefeated against the bottom four from here on out speaks volumes about the significant imbalance.

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O26 Midseason Awards: Jeff Jones, Kyle Collinsworth, 10 All-Americans…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 8th, 2015

With conference play having begun in most leagues across the country, it‘s time now to pass out some midseason superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next couple months.

O26 Midseason Coach of the Year

Jeff Jones has done a masterful job at Old Dominion. (Courtesy: Rick Voight)

Jeff Jones has done a masterful job at Old Dominion. (Courtesy: Rick Voight)

Jeff Jones – Old Dominion. The Old Dominion basketball program took a sharp turn in 2013 when – after more than a decade of sustained success – the school fired its longtime coach, Blaine Taylor, during a 5-25 campaign in which the coach’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. In came Jones after spending 13 seasons at American, and immediately things turned around as the Monarchs went 18-18 last season and reached the CBI semifinals. But perhaps even the most optimistic Old Dominion fan couldn’t have envisioned how quickly the team would go from the dregs of the CAA to the cream of Conference USA; at 12-1 with wins over LSU, VCU, Georgia State and Richmond, the Monarchs have cracked the Top 25 and should be in the at-large discussion by season’s end. How has Jones orchestrated such a sharp turnaround? Campbell transfer Trey Freeman has helped. The 6’2’’ point guard paces the team with 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per contest, with Jones calling him “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached” after the team’s victory over LSU in November. The success has been the result of more than just Freeman, though, as the Monarchs have thoroughly bought into Jones’ system, predicated on patient offense and tough man-to-man defense – the latter of which has held opponents to 0.91 points per possession so far, the best mark in C-USA. Likewise, Jones deserves credit for his ability to seamlessly integrate both Freeman and George Mason transfer Jonathan Arledge into a deep cohort of returnees. The head man said in an interview recently (regarding his first year at the program), “We just needed to make people understand it would take some hard work [and] it would take some time, but we were going to just try to be as patient as we could moving forward.” “Time” and “patience,” sure, but it’s taken not even two full seasons for Jones to completely revamp and re-energize things in Norfolk; and for that, he earns our Midseason Coach of the Year honors.

Honorable Mentions: Ben Jacobson – Northern Iowa; Bob McKillop – Davidson; Porter Moser – Loyola (IL); Keno Davis – Central Michigan; Mark Few – Gonzaga; Eddie Payne – USC Upstate

O26 Midseason Player of the Year

BYU's versatile point guard is our O26 Mid-Season POY. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

BYU’s versatile point guard is our O26 Mid-Season POY. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Kyle Collinsworth – BYU. It feels a little weird deeming Collinsworth O26 Midseason Player of the Year when his teammate, Tyler Haws, is college basketball’s third-leading scorer. But remember how BYU looked last March without Collinsworth after he went down with a torn ACL? The Cougars were crushed by Oregon in what should have been a competitive #7/#10 NCAA Tournament match-up. The point guard’s versatility, defense and toughness – not to mention eye-popping numbers, which we’ll get to in a moment – make Collinsworth the glue that holds BYU together and the player worthy of our midseason honor. “He is a really effective player in so many different areas of the game,” head coach Dave Rose said recently. At 6’6’’, there are few players (perhaps no player) who do what Collinsworth does: Not only is he the facilitator for the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense, but he also serves as BYU’s best rebounder and defender, leading the team in assists, rebounds and steals. At this point, the junior’s impressive across-the-board averages (13.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG) are overshadowed only by his record-setting triple-double pace. With three already under his belt, Collinsworth needs just one to tie and two more to break the single-season NCAA mark. That all-around ability has allowed Rose to utilize a four-guard lineup in recent weeks, a move that’s enabled BYU to hit its stride just as WCC play heats up – evidenced by the team’s 99-68 drubbing of San Francisco on Saturday. “Kyle’s a big reason because he can rebound as well as any guard in the country. To have him on the floor, you have a guard that’s a great rebounder,” Rose noted. With Collinsworth healthy and playing at an incredibly high level, the Cougars should return to the Big Dance this March.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Sycamores, Kyle Collinsworth, Bob McKillop & Fresno State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 6th, 2015

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

Indiana State. The Sycamores entered the week 4-8, having lost seven straight games against Division I programs, including the last two – home defeats to Eastern Illinois and UMKC – against teams ranked well below 200th in KenPom. Sure, three key seniors did graduate in the offseason and Greg Lansing’s program was picked sixth in the Missouri Valley, but the first two months of 2014-15 failed even to live up to those modest expectations. Conference play can do funny things to a basketball team, and it certainly did something to the Sycamores this past week; despite all signs pointing the other way, Indiana State upended two of the MVC’s better squads to begin its league slate.

Indiana State picked up two Missouri Valley huge wins this week. (gosycamores.com)

Indiana State picked up two Missouri Valley huge wins this week. (gosycamores.com)

Lansing’s club opened the week on the road against shorthanded-but-talented Illinois State, a good team (which beat Old Dominion by 19 in November) with a 91 percent chance of winning, according to KenPom. But despite those long odds, and although it had not beaten the Redbirds in Normal since 2011, Indiana State came out hot from the perimeter (43 percent from behind the arc), limited Illinois State top-scorer Daishon Knight to just five points, and overcame a halftime deficit to pull off the road upset. Neither team managed more than 0.90 points per possession – “We’ve always been a program that wins ugly games,” Lansing said afterwards – but the Sycamores produced enough late buckets and a big, last-second block to secure the victory. “That’s a really good start for us beating a good team.” Next up was Evansville on Sunday, a team fresh off a win over 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa on New Year’s Day. Again substantial underdogs and again hitting from the three-point line, the Sycamores kept pace with the Aces all afternoon and ultimately forced overtime tied at 70. Momentum swung towards Indiana State when Evansville big man Egidijus Mockevicius fouled out with 3:20 left in the extra period, and another big defensive play – this time a Devonte Brown steal – put Lansing’s group up for good. Big man Jake Kitchell led the way for Indiana State with 21 points and 11 rebounds.  “A lot of us struggled at the start of the year, including me. Guys are playing better now and the results are showing,” Lansing noted after the game. Indeed. One week ago, his team looked like it’d be hard-pressed to win two conference games all season. Now? The Sycamores sit coolly atop the MVC standings at 2-0. “It’s only a couple of wins, but we’re happy with them.”

Honorable Mentions: New Mexico (2-0: vs. Fresno State, vs. Colorado State); Coastal Carolina (2-0: at High Point, vs. Charleston Southern); St. Francis-Brooklyn (2-0: vs. Columbia, at Sacred Heart); BYU (3-0: vs. Portland, at Santa Clara, at San Francisco); Idaho (2-0: vs. Idaho State, vs. Weber State) Read the rest of this entry »

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On Branden’s Dawson’s Importance to Michigan State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 6th, 2015

Michigan State crushed Indiana on Monday night and there’s really no other way to describe it. The Spartans – in desperate need of something positive after closing out 2014 with losses to Texas Southern and Maryland – controlled nearly every aspect of the contest, out-rebounding the Hoosiers 50-28 (17-11 offensive), holding the visitors to 0.82 points per possession (their lowest of the season) and pushing the lead to as many as 30 in the second half. Can Tom Izzo’s club be this dominant on regular basis? Probably not. Indiana experienced one of its worst efforts of the season and opponents as offensively skilled as the Hoosiers won’t often shoot 5-of-24 from behind the arc and 28 percent from the field. But Michigan State’s formula for success in the blowout – using strong defense and rebounding to create transition offense – did help further confirm something we already suspected about the Spartans: Branden Dawson is by far the team’s most important player, and his week-to-week level of intensity on both ends of the court will dictate Sparty’s ceiling in the Big Ten.

Branden Dawson (right) had a huge hand in Michigan State's 70-50 win over Indiana on Monday. (Amanda Ray | MLive.com)

Branden Dawson (right) had a huge hand in the Spartans’ 70-50 win over Indiana on Monday. (Amanda Ray | MLive.com)

Michigan State likes to get out and run this year as much as any Izzo squad in recent memory, so the match-up with Indiana, one of the nation’s fastest and most transition-oriented teams, suited it just fine. What enabled the Spartans to open up such a wide margin, however, was not merely their ability to run-and-gun with the Hoosiers; it was their ability to stop them – Indiana was held to its lowest point total and fewest points per possession yet this season. And why couldn’t the Big Ten’s second most efficient offense find its groove? Because Dawson was as defensively aggressive as he’s been all season. The 6’6’’ senior blocked two shots, recorded a pair of steals, defended all five positions at various points in the night and took Indiana forward Troy Williams completely out of the game (zero points in 17 minutes). “We did a pretty good job on [Williams] and he’s been playing off the charts,” Izzo said afterwards. “It really helps when Dawson plays like he did. The rebounding, the running of the court.” Read the rest of this entry »

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MAC Primer: Sifting Through a Crowded Pack of Contenders

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 2nd, 2015

According to KenPom’s average efficiency rankings, the MAC is currently the 12th-best conference in college basketball, behind the Mountain West and Missouri Valley and just ahead of the Ivy League and Big West. But unlike most other mid-major conferences in its class – Harvard in the Ivy; Wichita State in the MVC; Green Bay in the Horizon – there’s no clear-cut favorite, or even clear pecking order in the MAC; seven of its top eight teams are ranked within 57 spots of each other. As conference play tips off this weekend, let’s take our best shot at separating true East and West Division contenders from those squads likely to fade in the muddled MAC pack. Remember, the top two seeds in this league receive a triple-bye in the MAC Tournament.

Teams to Believe In: MAC East

Justin Moss and the Buffalo Bulls should compete for the MAC East crown. (Chad Cooper, The Spectrum)

Justin Moss and the Buffalo Bulls should compete for a MAC East crown. (Chad Cooper, The Spectrum)

  • Buffalo. Buffalo lost three seniors from last season’s 19-10 unit, including MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea, yet – at 8-3 – looks to be legitimate. The Bulls are currently the conference’s highest-ranked unit in both KenPom and Sagarin (71st and 49th, respectively) with its three losses all coming on the road to respectable opponents – including Kentucky and Wisconsin, of which it led both at halftime. Bobby Hurley’s defense is much-improved from an efficiency standpoint (allowing well under a point per possession), and big man Justin Moss has almost immediately morphed into a poor man’s (or even a middle-class man’s) McCrea, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per contest. Likewise, guard Lamonte Bearden has emerged as one of the conference’s top freshmen (9.4 PPG, 4.0 APG). And while Jarryn Skeete’s scorching-hot three-point shooting (50% 3FG) may come back to earth a bit (the guard has missed the last two games with an injured ankle), the fact that preseason all-MAC East forward Will Regan has considerably underperformed to this point makes offensive improvement seem more likely than regression.

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O26 Weekly Awards: GW, Christian Wood, Benjy Taylor & Pac-12 Upsets

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 30th, 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

George Washington. While many folks were drinking eggnog and caroling and having holiday fun, George Washington was in Hawaii stringing together three impressive, defensive-minded victories in a row to win the Diamond Head Classic. In doing so, not only did the Colonials establish themselves as the Atlantic 10’s second-best unit, they also picked up a resume-defining non-conference victory that should work wonders come Selection Sunday.

George Washington beat Wichita State and won the Diamond Head Classic. (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)

George Washington beat Wichita State and won the Diamond Head Classic. (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)

Mike Lonergan’s club entered last Monday with essentially zero quality wins of note, having dropped all three opportunities against KenPom top-100 units – including a 13-point handling at Penn State the previous week – and running out of chances. Luckily, the trip to Hawaii offered a few finals shots before A-10 play, and the effects from that contest in Happy Valley (especially defensively) were apparently left on the mainland: GW opened the tournament by holding Ohio to 15 points in the second half and steamrolling the Bobcats, 77-49. Big man Kevin Larsen finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds and the Colonials allowed their MAC opponent a mere 0.77 points per possession – a dominant defensive effort that continued into their next two games. Against Colorado the next night, Lonergan’s group limited the Buffaloes to just 50 points on 36.5 percent shooting, their second-worst offensive output of the season. Then, on Christmas night, GW notched its biggest win (and probably the A-10’s biggest win) of the young season by storming back from eight down against Wichita State, grabbing the lead with under five minutes to play and holding off the Shockers for a 60-54 triumph. Lonergan’s decision to switch to a 1-3-1 zone in the second half enabled GW to limit Wichita State to its fewest points per possession since February 2, 2013, and helped spark the game-clinching, 20-6 run late in the contest. In fact, over the course of three games, the Colonials allowed just four (total!) double-figure scorers and never surrendered more than 0.90 points per trip – a stretch of defensive excellence that puts them firmly in the NCAA Tournament at-large discussion, likely from now until March.

Honorable Mentions: Loyola-Chicago (2-0: N-Texas Tech, N-Boise State); Stony Brook (2-0: vs. American, at Washington); UNLV (2-0: vs. Arizona, vs. Southern Utah); Iona (2-0: vs. Florida Gulf Coast, at Drexel)

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O26 Weekly Awards: St. Francis, Denzel Livingston, Jeff Neubauer & Texas Southern

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 23rd, 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

St. Francis (PA). After going 7-6 down the stretch last season and winning 10-plus games for the first time since 2011, St. Francis (PA) entered this season with more optimism and higher expectations than it has had in a while. Not only were the Red Flash picked fourth in the NEC preseason poll, but they even received a first-place vote – major respect for a program that hadn’t finished in the upper half of the league for a full decade. After picking up road wins at Duquesne and Rutgers this week, however, it appears that respect was well-warranted – and maybe even insufficient.

St. Francis (PA) is our O26 Team of the Week. (Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports)

St. Francis (PA) is our O26 Team of the Week. (Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports)

In both victories, SFU got the job done with defense, rebounding and strong efforts from forwards Earl Brown and Ronnie Drinnon. On Wednesday, Rob Krimmel’s bunch held the Dukes’ usually-proficient offense to just 52 points on a season-low 0.83 PPP, crushing the home team on the offensive glass – despite entering the night as the worst offensive rebounding team in the NEC – and maintaining a comfortable lead for all 40 minutes. Brown led the Red Flash with 16 points in the triumph while Drinnon grabbed 15 rebounds, a pair of solid outings that still couldn’t match what they accomplished on Saturday. As if man-handling an A-10 team was just another day at the office, SFU then headed to Rutgers, fell behind by 16 points, came out of the locker room unfazed, and used a 27-11 second-half run to beat the Scarlet Knights, 73-68, over the weekend. Brown’s 23 points and Drinnon’s 16 boards again paced Krimmel’s team, and the win – SFU’s first over a Big Ten school other than Penn State – turned heads across college basketball. Now 6-4 and nearing the KenPom top-150, the Red Flash are starting to look more like ‘NEC favorites’ than merely ‘NEC contenders.’

Honorable Mentions: Quinnipiac (2-0: vs. Lehigh, vs. Oregon State); American (2-0: at LaSalle, vs. Mount St. Mary’s); St. Francis (PA); VCU (2-0: at Belmont, at Cincinnati), Cal Poly (2-1: at San Francisco, vs. Northeastern (N), vs. Gonzaga (N-loss)) Read the rest of this entry »

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A Soft December Just What the Doctor Ordered For Michigan State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 19th, 2014

Michigan State’s non-conference schedule has been defined by missed opportunities – first against Duke, then Kansas, then Notre Dame – and now, for the first time in years, it will enter Big Ten play with virtually zero quality wins of note. Only Texas Southern and the Citadel remain before the conference opener against Maryland beckons on December 30, the final two contests in an exceedingly soft five-game stretch that’s sure to leave the Spartans’ resume short on substance. And yet, as Wednesday night’s 20-point victory over Eastern Michigan showed, this light period might be the best possible scenario for Tom Izzo’s club. With two players returning from injury, Branden Dawson on the mend and the offense still finding its identity, December offers the crucial break Michigan State needs to round into form.

Freshman Javon Bess should provide added depth for the Spartans. (J. Scott Park | MLive.com)

Freshman Javon Bess should provide added depth for the Spartans. (J. Scott Park | MLive.com)

On the one hand, Wednesday night marked an important step forward for the Spartans. Freshman Javon Bess – an expected contributor who missed the first month-plus with a foot injury – made his debut, logging one point and five rebounds in nine minutes of action. Izzo was high on Bess in the preseason and seems confident that the 6’5’’ wing will add an important, unique dimension it’s been lacking. “We’re missing a tough guy, and he [Bess] brings that to the table,” the coach said afterward. Likewise, sophomore guard Alvin Ellis III contributed 14 minutes in just his second full game back in the rotation. But while both players should provide needed depth in the coming months (especially Bess, whom Izzo thinks is “going to be an Alan Anderson-type”), neither appears to be game-shape enough yet to significantly contribute. Bess looked very raw during his brief second-half stint – understandable, considering the layoff – and Ellis, though aggressive, appeared clumsy and lost on several possessions. Luckily, with the team’s soft slate and eight days off prior to Maryland, Izzo has the luxury of slowly working them back to form: “Now we have time for practice.”

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