O26 Top Five (and More), Because It’s Never Too Early

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 7th, 2014

Don’t look now, but college basketball season is only seven months away! Sure, this one hasn’t technically ended yet, but with Dayton respectably bowing out in the Elite Eight and only one game left to play between two power conference teams, O26 folks need something to look forward to. So let’s examine a few teams sure to make some noise in 2014-15.

Top Five

Players like Mo Alie-Cox will have increased roles for VCU in 2014-2015. (vcuramnation.com)

Players like Mo Alie-Cox will have increased roles for VCU in 2014-2015. (vcuramnation.com)

  1. VCU. The Rams lose Juvonte Reddic – the team’s leading rebounder, second-leading scorer and an unquestioned leader – along with Rob Brandenberg, who’s been a reliable offensive weapon for the past four years. Still, contrary to what folks in Milwaukee had us recently believing, it does not appear they will lose Shaka Smart to another program. And that’s a victory in itself. The coveted head coach will remain in Richmond to lead a group that could be even better than this year’s unit, which grabbed a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ranked sixth overall in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dynamic weapon Treveon Graham returns along with quick-handed guard Briante Weber and a cast of other players capable of wreaking HAVOC in 2014-15. To boot, Smart welcomes his best recruiting class yet, led by top-50 forward Terry Larrier, who should see significant playing time right away.
  2. Wichita State. Star forward Cleanthony Early graduates along with role player Nick Wiggins and forwards Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby, so Wichita State will miss some big-time pieces next year. But the Shockers still return a solid core from this season’s 35-1 squad, including point guard and Missouri Valley Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter. The frontcourt might be a bit thin – redshirt freshman Shaq Morris and incoming seven-foot transfer Bush Wamukota need to contribute alongside Carter – and Early (a likely NBA first-rounder) is probably irreplaceable, but Gregg Marshall has always relied more on balance and depth than he has on individual talent. Another conference title and single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament should be doable for next season’s bunch.
  3. San Diego State. Can the Aztecs contend for the Mountain West title next year without Xavier Thames? Why yes, yes they can. Sure, the conference Player of the Year was their only reliable offensive threat for much of this past season, and yeah, rebounding maven Josh Davis also graduates. But Steve Fisher welcomes back a core of long-armed athletes, including NCAA Tournament stud Dwayne Polee and 6’10’’ shot-blocker Skylar Spencer, along with a top-notch recruiting class. Among the incoming freshmen are five-star forward Malik Pope, four-star forward Zylan Cheatham and four-star point guard Trey Kell, each good enough to find minutes right away. Oh, and Arizona transfer Angelo Chol, an athletic 6’9’’ power forward, will also be eligible after sitting out this season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Dayton vs. Goliath: Four Keys to Slaying the Gators

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 29th, 2014

Dayton is this tournament’s Cinderella, whether it welcomes that designation or not. As an afterthought 11-seed, the Flyers took down in-state rival Ohio State and its suffocating defense in the opening round, upended Syracuse and its sea of Orange in the round of 32, and then toppled Stanford, only slight favorites, on Thursday night. It’s been a surprising run to say the least. Still, this is not some out-of-nowhere program emerging from a one-bid league – Dayton has history, and the Atlantic 10 is among the better conferences in America – and the upsets, while upsets, haven’t really been inconceivable shockers. That could change tonight against Florida, the number-one overall seed and owners of the nation’s longest winning streak. The Gators are 10-point favorites in Vegas, 9-point, 84 percent favorites at KenPom, and very few pundits and prognosticators project them losing. So then, how can Archie Miller’s surprising bunch overcome the odds and pull off another one in Memphis? Let’s take a look.

They Flyers must be sharp tonight in order to keep the party alive. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Flyers must be sharp tonight in order to keep the party alive. (Photo: Getty Images)

  1. Attack in transition. It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that the smaller, less-talented team try running against the top dog. But there are two reasons why it makes sense here: The Flyers have the personnel to do damage on the run, and they cimply cannot allow Florida to set up its half-court defense with regularity. To the first point, Dayton is unique in that the majority of its players can push the ball up the floor, finish at the rim and shoot threes. As a result, transition scoring options are abundant – whether it’s shooting guard Vee Sanford or power forward Jalen Robinson – which allows for an effective attack even against higher level athletes. Since so many guys are competent ball-handlers, breaking the press and finding quick looks should be possible, and probably necessary, this evening – the Gators’ defense (while pretty great in all aspects) is especially stingy in the half-court. Once they slow you down, the SEC champs apply swarming double-teams, deny passing lanes and shut down the paint like few other teams in college hoops. UCLA was at its offensive best on Thursday when it ran the floor and attacked early in the shot clock, and Dayton will need to do much the same. Read the rest of this entry »
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March Chameleons: Dayton Adapts, But Can It Beat Stanford?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2014

Dayton’s run the stylistic gauntlet this month and lived to tell the tale, at least for a few more hours. Just look at the Flyers’ March: They beat Massachusetts in a 71-possession footrace, the type of up-and-down affair the Minutemen love; it toppled Saint Louis – on the road – and its grinding, exhausting, limit-your-threes defense; they methodically took down Richmond’s tough match-up zone, and then, in the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone; and it outdid Ohio State, one of the best defenses in the country with one of the best individual defenders in the country. If not for Langston Galloway’s near-buzzer-beater (and push-off?) in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, they might have defeated Saint Joseph’s too. Archie Miller’s group has won games fast and slow, physical and finesse, tactical and chaotic. And now Stanford looms, a club that mixed 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone defenses on Sunday to utterly baffle Kansas and send the heavily-favored Jayhawks packing for the offseason. Trouble on the horizon for the Flyers? Perhaps. But if their recent play is any indication, it won’t be because they can’t adapt.

Dayton was flying high in Buffalo, but can they beat the Cardinal? (Photo: Jamie Germano Staff Photographer)

Dayton was flying high in Buffalo, but can they beat the Cardinal? (Photo: Jamie Germano)

That adaptability starts with both the depth and versatility of Dayton’s roster. The Flyers ranked second in the A-10 behind only George Mason this season in bench minutes, with reserves accounting for nearly 36 percent of playing time. Among those reserves is Vee Sanford, a team captain and former starter who hit the game-winner against Ohio State in the second round. He, along with Scoochie Smith – a heralded freshman out of the Bronx –point guard Khari Price, and sharpshooter Jordan Sibert, make up a backcourt quick off the dribble and adept from long range. But to suggest that the team’s ‘backcourt’ is easily distinguishable from its ‘frontcourt’ would be a mistake, and almost impossible to conclude if you watch it play. The fact is, most players are able to handle the ball and nearly everyone can run the floor. At 6’7’’, Devin Oliver is the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, tough and physical but also capable of banging home threes. Dyshawn Pierre, the forward who hit clutch free throws in both games over the weekend, fits the same mold. Even 6’9’’ Jalen Robinson can move with ease and drain outside shots. Throw in a few other reserves who provide quality minutes at multiple positions, and Miller is able to mix-and-match lineups on a night-to-night, minute-to-minute basis.

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NIT Quarterfinal Preview: How Three O26 Schools Can Reach Madison Square Garden

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 25th, 2014

With Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Belmont all playing in the NIT Quarterfinals tonight and tomorrow, let’s examine what it will take for each O26 hopeful to reach the Big Apple next week.

Southern Miss

Southern Miss will give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. (RYAN MOORE — AP)

Southern Miss will give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. (RYAN MOORE — AP)

  • Opponent: Minnesota
  • TV: 9:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tuesday (Minneapolis, MN)
  • How they got here:  The Golden Eagles hosted Toledo in the First Round, handling the Rockets 66-59, before knocking off Missouri on the road by eight. In the two victories, they outrebounded their opponents by nine boards on the offensive glass.
  • Why they win: Southern Miss did not win 29 games this season by mistake. This team is deep, physical, experienced and should give Minnesota all it can handle in The Barn tonight. The Golden Eagles force opposing offenses into a ton of mishaps – they boast the ninth best turnover rate in the country – by trapping and extending their zone pressure in the half-court to give ball-handlers all kinds of trouble. The Gophers are wholly average when it comes to taking care of the rock, ranking 151st in the country in offensive turnover rate. They might struggle against Donnie Tyndall’s unique, aggressive zone look. Likewise, Southern Miss is an excellent offensive rebounding club (despite its undersized frontcourt) that should be able to garner second chance offensive opportunities against their good-but-not-great defensive rebounding foe. Standing just 6’5”, athletic guard-forward Michael Craig is excellent on the boards.
  • Why they lose: For as many turnovers as they force, Tyndall’s club is just as bad when it comes to coughing up the ball. It was near the bottom of Conference USA in turnover percentage this year, which could spell trouble against the Gophers: Like his father, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino applies pressure and gets after teams defensively. Four of Southern Miss’ six losses this season were to opponents ranked in the top-50 in defensive turnover rate, including Louisville, which smacked the Golden Eagles by 31 back in November. Additionally, this is a true road game – never easy – against a squad that has proven capable of getting hot from behind the arc (shooting 11-of-19 from deep vs. Iowa in February). That very well might happen against USM’s zone look.
  • Why you should watch: This game has some serious intrigue. Aside from the game itself – which should be a tight one – former Golden Gopher Chip Armelin is now a Golden Eagle after transferring to Southern Miss following the 2012 season. Meanwhile, Minnesota point guard Deandre Mathieu began his career playing for Tyndall at Morehead State, before transferring to Hattiesburg after the head coach left.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 77, #2 Villanova 65

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 22nd, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Shabazz Napier had a big night, and the Huskies are heading to the Sweet Sixteen. (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

Shabazz Napier had a big night, and the Huskies are heading to the Sweet Sixteen. (Credit: UConn Athletic Communications/Stephen Slade)

  1. Shabazz Napier was awesome. Killer crossovers, in-your-face threes, acrobatic layups – Napier took the game over in the second half like only he could. The senior guard scored 21 points in the final 20 minutes – including three straight triples midway through the period – to give Connecticut the edge in what had looked to be a barnburner. Even a late, seemingly serious ankle injury couldn’t stop the AAC Player of the Year. After sitting out a minute or two of action, Napier returned with a bang, making a crucial reverse layin and nailing several big free throws to effectively finish off the Wildcats. He ended the night with 25 points, just one more than he scored against Saint Joseph’s on Thursday, but the difference was his efficiency: Napier shot 9-of-13 from the field and 4-of-8 from distance.
  2. The Huskies’ defense shined during key stretches. Connecticut entered the night ranked 15th in the country in defensive efficiency, and that stinginess was on full display during several crucial periods against Villanova. When the Huskies trailed 20-11 at the 10-minute mark of the first half, their defense promptly shut out the Wildcats for over nine straight minutes and enabled the offense to chip away at the lead. Then, following a back-and-forth start to the second half, Connecticut asserted itself on the interior and prevented Jay Wright’s club from finding any good looks in the paint. It put a lot of pressure on Villanova’s three-point shooters, who were unable to carry the full load.
  3. Villanova probably overachieved in 2013-14, and it will be back. Many people felt the Wildcats were the most vulnerable #2 seed entering the NCAA Tournament, and they were probably correct. The fact is that this team likely won more games than it should have this season, especially considering their lack of NBA-caliber talent (according to projections) and limited experience. But the good news for Jay Wright is that – aside from James Bell – every significant contributor returns to the Main Line next year. Expect very good things out of Villanova in 2014-15.

Star of the GameShabazz Napier (25 points, five rebounds, three assists, 9-of-13 FG). Who else? The star point guard was extremely efficient and took the game over in the second half, nailing big shot after big shot and propelling Connecticut on to the Sweet Sixteen.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Dayton 55, #3 Syracuse 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 22nd, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregionKenny Ocker is an RTC columnist and correspondent. He is covering the Spokane pods of the East and West regionals this week. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Dayton is headed to the Sweet Sixteen. (Photo : reuters).

Dayton is headed to the Sweet Sixteen. (Photo : reuters).

  1. Dayton meant business. Dayton guard Vee Sanford (the hero on Thursday) said during Friday’s press conference that he saw Syracuse as “just another game” and repeatedly mentioned the team’s business-like approach entering Saturday. If the Flyers’ performance tonight was any indication, that sentiment was genuine. Archie Miller’s guys – showing no signs of an upset-hangover – were sharp defensively and made a concerted effort to penetrate the teeth of the Orange 2-3 zone on offense. In the second half, they looked for more outside shots, crisply rotating the ball and nailing six big threes in the final 20 minutes. The game plan was deliberate, the players were focused, and the positive results followed – a berth in the Sweet Sixteen.
  2. More resilience from the Flyers. Syracuse took a three-point lead with about eight minutes remaining – its largest of the night – and looked to be on the cusp of a big run. It could have been the moment where Dayton fell apart and the Orange, with its roaring crowd, ran away with victory. Instead, the Flyers responded with a four-point possession to retake the lead, knocked down big free throws down the stretch, and never surrendered their advantage. Just like it did against the Buckeyes, Miller’s group showed its ability to counterpunch after taking a few in the chin.
  3. Shooting woes crippled Syracuse. Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney shot 6-of-33 in his team’s five losses entering Saturday night. Against Dayton, he finished 0-of-5 from behind the arc. But it wasn’t just the sophomore: As a team, the Orange shot a dismal 0-of-10 from distance and could never find much of a groove offensively. Forward Jerami Grant played a big role in the win over Western Michigan but was virtually non-existent tonight. Syracuse looked more like the team everyone questioned in the season’s final month than the one that started off 25-0.

Star of the GameDyshawn Pierre (14 points, six rebounds). For the second straight game, Pierre knocked down some huge free throws to keep the Flyers in control in the game’s final moments. The shots were especially crucial following a key miss at the line by teammate Devin Oliver.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Villanova 73, #15 Milwaukee 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Villanova will need to be better on Saturday in order to beat Connecticut.  (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

Villanova will need to be better on Saturday in order to beat Connecticut. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

  1. Villanova can’t shoot like this and expect to go anywhere. Three-point shooting is a big component of the Wildcats’ offense, and they were absolutely awful from behind the arc tonight. After starting an ice-cold 0-of-17, Villanova finished just 4-of-23 from distance. James Bell, the team’s most relied-upon shooter, went 0-of-8. It proved to be alright against Milwaukee, because the defense was stout – holding the Panthers to 28.6 percent shooting from the floor – but the Big East regular season champs will not get away with similar results against Connecticut on Saturday, especially with the Huskies’ strong interior defense.
  2. We didn’t learn much about the Wildcats. Following Villanova’s Big East tournament loss to Seton Hall last week, no one really knew what to make of the Wildcats heading into the Big Dance. Sure, they are a #2 seed and yes, they won 28 games this season, but nothing really jumps off the page about this team. Are they a Final Four contender or a flawed group susceptible to an early upset? Unfortunately, nothing about their ho-hum victory over the Panthers answered that question. They never looked dominant – their lead wasn’t blown open until the last five minutes – but they also never looked truly threatened. The jury’s still out on these guys.
  3. Can they contain Shabazz Napier in the same way they contained Jordan Aaron? Milwaukee guard Jordan Aaron is no Shabazz Napier, but he is a solid player who can create his own shot and score in bunches. Villanova shut him down tonight, limiting the senior to just six points on 1-of-15 shooting. Whatever blueprint they used against the Panthers’ best player, they might want to consider using against Napier this weekend as well.

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Connecticut 89, #10 Saint Joseph’s 81 (OT)

Posted by Walker Carey on March 20th, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

 Three Key Takeaways.

Shabazz Napier made big plays when his team needed it most. (litchfieldcountysports.com)

Shabazz Napier made big plays when his team needed it most. (litchfieldcountysports.com)

  1. Shabazz Napier was not great, but showed why he’s a great player. The UConn star struggled to find his shot for most of the evening, finishing 7-of-22 from the field and airballing a couple of his attempts. But in the overtime period when his team needed him most, the AAC Player of the Year scored five straight points – including a difficult and-1 play that not too many guys could finish – to all but seal the victory. He ended the game with 24 points, eight boards, six assists, and hit all eight of his free throws. The Huskies go as their senior leader goes, and we’ll see just how far that takes them this month.
  2. DeAndre Daniels needs to keep showing up. Daniels was big tonight, scoring 18 points and hitting three big triples to keep the margin close when Saint Joe’s appeared to be in control of the game. The former five-star recruit has been inconsistent throughout the season/career, but he had himself a nice AAC Tournament and continued doing good things today against the Hawks. If he can become a consistent offensive weapon, the ceiling on this team is undoubtedly higher. Ryan Boatright was also sharp from behind the arc, knocking down four of his eight attempts and helping the Huskies to a team-wide 11-of-24 from distance.
  3. Saint Joseph’s ran out of gas. The Hawks have virtually no depth, ranking dead last in the country in bench minutes, so they were at an immediate disadvantage when this game went to overtime. Not only were they gassed, but Halil Kanacevic was in foul trouble, so when he picked up his fifth in the opening minute of the extra period, it spelled doom for Martelli’s club. Sure enough, UConn rolled from that point onward. All told, Saint Joseph’s received a total of nine minutes – yes, nine minutes – from its bench in 45 minutes of basketball.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Syracuse 77, #14 Western Michigan 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Tyler Ennis and Syracuse looked sharp against Western Michigan on Thursday (AP)

Tyler Ennis and Syracuse looked sharp against Western Michigan on Thursday (AP)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Syracuse looks sharp. The Orange have struggled mightily in recent weeks, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching them take on Western Michigan. This game was never close. Offensively, Syracuse’s ball movement was crisp, looks opened up under the basket, and the outside shooting was on point. Defensively, they stymied the Broncos for the much of the afternoon, eliminating passing lanes and hustling on every rotation. It was the type of energetic, complete effort that projects well for the Orange going forward.
  2. Trevor Cooney might be key going forward. While Jerami Grant, C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis were all excellent today, Trevor Cooney – and his 18 points on 4-of-8 three-point shooting – might have been the guy who really broke Western Michigan. Cooney buried several triples during the first half and early in the second half that squashed any small amount of hope the Broncos held on to. His ability to get hot and go on one-man runs might be crucial in elevating Syracuse from mere South Region threat to legitimate National Championship contender in the coming weeks.
  3. Crowd will be a factor on Saturday. Make no mistake about it – as good as the Dayton crowd was today, it did not hold a candle to the Syracuse contingency. And that’s not a knock on Flyers fans, either, because they were excellent. But the close proximity of the Orange faithful was evident from the get-go, and no single roar in the first game matched the ‘Cuse roars in the second. If Archie Miller’s crew plans on advancing to the Sweet Sixteen this weekend, it will have to do so in a hostile environment.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Dayton 60, #6 Ohio State 59

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Dayton pulled off a stunner in Buffalo. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Dayton pulled off a stunner in Buffalo. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

  1. The Battle of Ohio was even better than expected. When this game popped up on Selection Sunday, it was tabbed as one of the better round of 64 matchups, and it more than lived up to the hype. There were several huge momentum swings throughout the game, both fan bases had their moments, and the final five minutes – a taut five minutes – was rife with huge plays. The first game of the day will be tough to top throughout the rest of this round’s action.
  2. These Flyers are resilient. Sam Thompson sparked a big Ohio State run midway through the second half to put the Buckeyes back on top, and it looked like danger zone for Dayton. Unable to get any looks underneath and completely out of sync offensively, the Flyers very well could have faded into oblivion over the final 10 minutes. Instead, they kept attacking in transition and never hung their heads on the defensive end. It paid off. They reached the bonus relatively early on, hit some free throws, and kept the game tight. And when Aaron Craft’s layup fell through with 10 seconds on the clock, Archie Miller’s guys confidently ran the ball up the floor, got it into Vee Sanford’s hands, and he made the magic happen – a Raftery-sizedkiss off the glass to finish off the upset.
  3. Aaron Craft’s career ends. Regardless of how you feel about Craft, you should not remember him for the bad intentional foul he committed late in the second half. Instead, the lasting image should be the way he responded – by attacking the rim and making several enormous baskets down the stretch. If that Sanford shot had rimmed out, we’d be talking about Craft as the hero, again. Hate him, love him, the guy is a tough player who did a lot of great things in Columbus over the past four years. Remember that side of it.

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O26 Bracketbusting: East and West Regions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 19th, 2014

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The most joyous time of the year is finally upon us, and I’m not talking about tax season. I’m talking about buzzer-beating threes and scoring sprees, nickel-dimers and Nantz one-liners, back-door cuts and Farokhmanesh guts. I’m talking about the NCAA Tournament. And since O26 squads often make the most magic in March, let’s examine the prospects of each non-power conference unit in the upcoming Dance. Yesterday, Adam Stillman reviewed the South and Midwest Regions. Here, Tommy Lemoine looks at the East and West regions.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a legitimate chance to reach the second weekend, and perhaps even the Final Four.

Can San Diego State generate enough offense to make a deep run? (AP Photo)

Can San Diego State generate enough offense to make a deep run? (AP Photo)

  • San Diego State (#4, West) – This is the fifth straight season San Diego State has reached the NCAA Tournament, but only once in that span has it advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The good news for Aztec fans is that this is the best overall defensive unit – not to mention highest-seeded outfit – since 2011, the year Kawhi Leonard and company made that run to the second weekend. Steve Fisher’s club ranks seventh nationally in defensive efficiency thanks to long-armed perimeter defenders like Winston Shepard (he’s a 6’8’’ two-guard) and interior stalwarts like Skylar Spencer. The Aztecs are aggressive, confusing and energetic on that side of the ball. They draw New Mexico State on Thursday, a sizable and athletic #13 seed that’s both offensively proficient and does a good job defending the paint. But they turn the ball over quite a bit, and there’s a good chance SDSU will seize on that sloppiness, even if they have trouble scoring. In the following round, they would meet either Oklahoma or North Dakota State – two really efficient offensive squads that have both shown weaknesses this season against athletic, pressure defense. Both are beatable for the Aztecs. Finding success in Anaheim, though, might be a different story. The offense will need to be more consistent than it’s been up to this point, especially against a team like Arizona – the nation’s best defensive unit (and most likely Sweet Sixteen opponent). If Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames can play like he did in January and early March – when he put up numerous 20-plus point performances – and complementary pieces like athletic wing Dwayne Polee can make solid contributions, SDSU would have a shot. But if they can’t find buckets with regularity, the Aztecs won’t last long.
  • Gonzaga (#8, West) – It seems like everybody is sleeping on the Zags in favor of the ‘Marcus-Smart-can-make-a-run’ narrative, which is fine, and may very well happen. But do people realize that Mark Few’s bunch is ranked 20th overall in KenPom, with a top-15 defensive efficiency rating and a stellar effective field goal percentage? They might not be vintage Gonzaga, but these Bulldogs can still play. Their opening bout with Oklahoma State will probably be a good one – in fact, it has the highest ‘Thrill Score’ according to KenPom’s FanMatch – and  should be winnable if they can contain Smart and limit turnovers. The experienced backcourt of Kevin Pangos, David Stockton and Gary Bell will help in the latter department. If they manage to get past the Pokes, a match-up with Arizona in the round of 32 would be daunting, of course, but not necessarily insurmountable. Consider this: Three of the Wildcats’ four losses this season came against opponents ranked in the top-30 in effective height. Gonzaga, with 7’1’’ Przemek Karnowski and 6’9’’ Sam Dower in tow, ranks 25th. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon will not be able to simply bully Few’s frontcourt into oblivion. If the big men hold their own and Pangos (41 percent) and Bell (42 percent) get hot from behind the arc, watch out. Admittedly, a deep run into the second weekend or the Final Four seems a bit farfetched for the WCC champions – especially considering their lack of quality wins in 2013-14 – but I’m not willing to completely push aside the possibility of a Sweet Sixteen run.

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Bracket Prep: Saint Joseph’s, Louisiana-Lafayette

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 17th, 2014

With Championship Week officially over and a fresh bracket ready for filling, here’s what you need to know about the most recent automatic bid winners. 

Saint Joseph’s

Saint Joseph's returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. (Associated Press)

Saint Joseph’s returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. (AP)

  • Atlantic 10 Champion (24-9, 14-5)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #37/#49/#56
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +6.3
  • NCAA Seed: #10

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Saint Joseph’s started the week on the bubble and ended it with an Atlantic 10 tournament championship. The Hawks now head to the Dance with lots of confidence – having just beaten VCU and its vaunted defense for the second time this season – and lots of experience: three of the team’s most prominent players are seniors. Still, this is just the second time Phil Martelli has taken his program to the NCAA Tournament since it entered as a one-seed in 2004, and the first appearance since 2008. It was an important, much needed accomplishment for the veteran head coach. And perhaps he couldn’t have done it without the help of his pint-sized assistant coach on Sunday.
  2. This is probably Martelli’s most balanced team in several years, ranking 68th and 55th overall in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. The Hawks take a lot of threes – often kick-outs or dribble-screen hand-offs – and make a high percentage of them. Especially senior shooting guard and leading scorer Langston Galloway, who knocks down 44 percent of his triples and is capable of taking games over. The team is also efficient in the paint, thanks to a versatile front court featuring 6’8’’ Ronald Roberts, Jr., a superior athlete with the ability to make game-changing (and momentum changing) plays on both ends of the court, and Halil Kanacevic, who provides a tough, workman-like interior presence on defense and a surprisingly multi-skilled offensive game. They are the team’s top two rebounders and shot-blockers, and Kanacevic actually leads the way in assists due to his Arvydas Sabonis-like passing skills. The Hawks do have a pair of glaring weaknesses on each end, however: they are awful from the free throw line, and they rarely force turnovers. At 64.4 percent, only a handful of schools are worse from the stripe, and Saint Joe’s turnover rate was dead last in the conference. Read the rest of this entry »
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