Top of the O26 Class: A-10, A-Sun, Big South, Colonial, MEAC & SoCon

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 30th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region of the U.S: the Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Colonial, MEAC and Southern Conference. Previous installments include the Northeast region leagues and the Midwest region conferences.

Top Units

Atlantic 10

  • VCU – 2013-14 record: 26-9 (12-4). Shaka Smart has led VCU to four straight NCAA Tournaments including a Final Four run in 2011, and yet this might be his most talented bunch to date. Perhaps his most highly motivated, too. After suffering a bitter, never-should-have-happened defeat to Stephen F. Austin in the Round of 64 last March, preseason all-conference picks Treveon Graham and Briante Weber return, along with several other key pieces and Smart’s best recruiting class. Graham, a 6’6″ forward, is poised to break the school scoring record this season, while the quick-handed Weber looks to build on the career steals mark he already shattered – it’s like the guy was built for HAVOC. The presence of forward Mo Alie-Cox, backcourt contributors JeQuan Lewis and Melvin Johnson, and a trio of heralded freshmen – including four-star Terry Larrier – makes this team more than ready for a tough non-conference slate. Expect a bunch of wins, an A-10 title and big things come March.
VCU is loaded with talent this season. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

VCU is loaded with talent this season. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Dayton – 2013-14 record: 26-11 (10-6). Last year’s Cinderella should be top-three good in the A-10, but it may need some time to rediscover the magic. Gone is Dayton’s best all-around player, Devin Oliver, its most important big man, Matt Kavanaugh, and two productive guards. Luckily, Archie Miller’s tendency to use a deep rotation last season – 10 to 12 guys a game – should pay off; this year’s newly-anointed starters all saw quality minutes in 2013-14. Among them will be Scoochie Smith, who steps in as starting point guard following the transfer of Khari Price. Smith’s ability to open up the offense, along with the continued emergence of forwards Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott, will be important factors. Dyshawn Pierre and sharpshooter Jordan Sibert should lead the way, but it is the (probably large) supporting cast that will determine the Flyers’ ceiling.

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Poll Critiques: Colonial, Conference USA & Summit

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 27th, 2014

Over the next few weeks, we’ll examine and critique some of the more intriguing preseason conference polls. Here, we take a look at the good, the bad and the weird coming out of the Colonial, Conference USA and Summit League polls.

Colonial

There are plenty of question marks in the CAA this season. (Christopher Szagola/US Presswire)

There are plenty of question marks in the CAA this season. (Christopher Szagola/US Presswire)

The voters got it right at the top, tabbing Northeastern as the favorite in the CAA, followed by William & Mary and Hofstra. The Huskies are the one unit in this league to add more proven talent than they lost, not only bringing back the vast majority of last year’s roster – including Defensive Player of the Year and rebounding monster Scott Eatherton (15.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG) – but also regaining Quincy Ford, who was one among the CAA’s best all-around players before missing most of last year. Still, the recent departure of fourth-leading scorer Demetrius Pollard, combined with the fact that Bill Coen’s club went just 11-21 last season, makes you wonder if Northeastern can actually live up to its top billing. William & Mary also has an argument for the number one spot after finishing third in the standings a year ago and narrowly losing the CAA title game, welcoming back the conference’s best player (Marcus Thornton) and CAA Rookie of the Year (Omar Prewitt). Hofstra is rightfully slotted at third; despite last year’s 10-23 campaign, an influx of talented transfers and recruits, including former Niagara guard Juan’ya Green (16.5 PPG), justifies the anticipated climb.

  1. Northeastern
  2. William & Mary
  3. Hofstra
  4. Drexel
  5. James Madison
  6. College of Charleston
  7. Towson
  8. Delaware
  9. UNCW
  10. Elon

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Top of the O26 Class: Horizon League, MAC, MVC, Summit

Posted by Adam Stillman on October 24th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Midwestern region of the U.S: the Horizon, MAC, MVC, and Summit. Previous installments include the Northeast region leagues

TOP UNITS

Horizon League

  • Green Bay – 2013-14 record: 24-7 (14-2) – Green Bay had Cinderella written all over it last season. There was only one problem — the Phoenix were upset in the Horizon League Tournament and were instead relegated to the NIT. The good news? Reigning Horizon Player of the Year Keifer Sykes is back, as are four of the team’s top five scorers. The loss of 7-footer Alec Brown certainly hurts, but Green Bay could find itself in the Big Dance comes season’s end and make up for last year’s abrupt (and disappointing) end.
Keifer Sykes and the Green Bay Phoenix are poised to have a big 2014-15 season. (USAT)

Keifer Sykes and the Green Bay Phoenix are poised to have a big 2014-15 season. (USAT)

  • Cleveland State – 2013-14 record: 21-12 (12-4) – If anybody will challenge Green Bay for Horizon League supremacy, it will be Cleveland State. Losing leading scorer Bryn Forbes is a big blow, as he’s moved on to play at Michigan State for the remainder of his career. However, first team preseason selection Trey Lewis (13.1 PPG) is back, as is Anton Grady (10.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG). Watch out for Creighton transfer Andre Yates, who could end up as the best guard on the team.

MAC

  • Toledo2013-14 record: 27-7 (14-4) – Toledo reeled off 12 straight wins to start 2013 and won a school-record 27 games in all last season. The Rockets faded down the stretch, settling for a NIT berth, but it looks like 2014-15 will be Toledo’s time to shine. With six of their top seven scorers back, led by all-conference guard Julius “Juice” Brown, the Rockets look to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980.
  • Western Michigan – 2013-14 record: 23-10 (14-4) – The Broncos were a nice story last season, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. Let’s forget that they were promptly blown out by Syracuse in the first round. WMU will miss the contributions of do-everything big man Shayne Whittington (16.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG), but star guard David Brown headlines five of the top six returning scorers.

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Top of the O26 Class: Ivy, MAAC, America East, NEC & Patriot

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 22nd, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Northeastern U.S: the America East, Ivy League, Metro Atlantic, Northeast Conference and Patriot League.

Top Units

Harvard is the Ivy League favorite again in 2014-2015. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Harvard is the Ivy League favorite again in 2014-15. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Ivy League

  • Harvard – 2013-14 record: 27-5 (13-1). After failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for 66 straight years, Harvard suddenly finds itself in position to reach a fourth straight Big Dance. But just as times have changed, so have expectations — not only is Tommy Amaker’s club tabbed to win another Ivy League title, many expect it to do more damage in the postseason. Those lofty expectations can be largely attributed to the return of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, one of the top backcourt duos in the nation. Chambers is a precocious third-year point guard who has proven himself to be a gifted distributor and quality outside shooter (40.2% 3FG on his career), while Saunders is the team’s top scorer, best perimeter defender and reigning conference Player of the Year. And yet, despite those two, Harvard’s biggest strength might actually be in its frontcourt, which features a deep stable of athletic forwards who should wear down Ivy opponents in the paint. Best among them is Steve Moundou-Missi, a 6’7″ Cameroonian who logged a double-double against Michigan State in the Round of 32 last March. Jonah Travis, Evan Cummins, Kenyatta Smith, Zena Edosomwan — the list of expected contributors seems endless, and if the Crimson can avoid injury to its guards, a sustained presence in the Top 25 is a legitimate possibility.
  • Yale2013-14 record: 19-14 (9-5). Yale was the only Ivy League unit to knock off the Crimson last season, so with the majority of its starting five back, the Bulldogs should present the most serious threat to Harvard’s crown. Most crucial among the returnees is Justin Sears, a 6’8″ junior who was something of a statistical machine last season: The forward averaged nearly 17 points and seven rebounds per game, ranked in the top 100 nationally in block rate and drew over seven fouls per 40 minutes. With Javier Duren (13.6 PPG) pacing things in the backcourt and veteran guys like Armani Cotton and Matt Townsend shoring things up down low, Yale fans can expect another top-three Ivy League finish.

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Relaunching the Other 26 Microsite…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 22nd, 2014

As important as the blue-bloods are to college basketball — Tobacco Road, Big Blue Nation, Rock Chalk, etc. — it’s the little guys, the mid-majors, that so often give the sport its vibrancy and leave lasting impressions in March. In fact, the Other 26 leagues constitute a majority in college hoops, helping create a vast landscape of players and programs that make each season unique and full of seemingly endless possibility (as of right now, any one of 343 teams can win the National Championship). This microsite aims to provide a panoramic of that landscape through thoughtful, timely and engaging analysis over the course of the season. We will shed light on the unknown superstars, the underappreciated performers and the soon-to-be-Cinderellas that make the Other 26 great. And we hope to have some fun doing it, because after all, this is mid-major basketball and, well, just look at Kyle O’Quinn’s face…

Gear up for an exciting season at the Other 26 microsite. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gear up for an exciting season at the Other 26 microsite. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Be sure to check out our preview materials over the (less than four!) weeks leading up to opening tip-off, which will touch on every league in the O26 world and keep you updated as the season approaches. Some must-reads include:

  • Top of the Class – Regional Previews: in which we examine the best O26 teams, players and coaches in each geographic section of the country.
  • Poll Critiques: in which we break down the noteworthy, the intriguing and the downright peculiar among O26 teams in preseason conference rankings.
  • O26 Preseason Awards: our O26 All-Americans, Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Team of the Year.

Bookmark us, follow us on Twitter (@other26hoops) and enjoy all that the Other 26 have to offer. Now watch Mercer bust some moves.

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Amid Controversy, Dan Majerle is Quietly Building a Winner in Phoenix

Posted by Greg Mitchell on May 8th, 2014

The news that Royce Woolridge had decided to spend his final year of eligibility at Grand Canyon University may be a bigger deal than you think. The Phoenix-area native is returning home to play for Dan Majerle at the first for-profit university to call Division I home. Yes, Thunder Dan Majerle. In its inaugural Division I season in the reconfigured WAC, the former Phoenix Suns star and assistant coach guided the Antelopes to a surprising 15-15 (10-6 WAC) record, good for third in the conference (after being picked to finish last in the preseason). The Antelopes will lose four rotation players to graduation, including their top two scorers, but adding Woolridge is another small step forward for what one day turn out to be a major story in college basketball.

Dan Majerle is trying to build a winner at for-profit Grand Canyon (azcentral.com).

Dan Majerle is trying to build a winner at for-profit Grand Canyon (azcentral.com).

The former Washington State and Kansas guard is a high major player (7.4 PPG, 2.3 APG), and an even more important get for Majerle because he was a two-time high school All-Arizona selection at Phoenix Sunnyslope. The Antelopes’ top returning player, Jerome Garrison (37.8 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 20.5 PER), was also a Phoenix prep standout. Having these two local products to generate good will with area high school coaches and players could be a boon for future recruiting. It’s not as if Majerle lacks for local notoriety; current high schoolers may not remember NBA Jam or Thunder Dan’s playing days, but his list of All-Star appearances and NBA coaching chops should be attention-grabbers. Still, when Garrison was initially recruited by Grand Canyon, he’d never heard of the school that is located in his own backyard. “Nobody knew about Grand Canyon,” Garrison told USA Today. “Nobody knew anything going on at Grand Canyon. All you heard about was [Arizona State] and [Arizona] here.” Having players like he and Woolridge in the fold could allow Majerle to capitalize on what he already brings to the table.

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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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Gonzaga: What Gives?

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 25th, 2014

Gonzaga has been playing Division I basketball for 57 years. In that time, they’ve made 17 NCAA Tournaments. Sixteen of those 17 appearances have occurred consecutively over the last 16 years. And Mark Few has been the head coach for 15 of those. Just to be clear: Mark Few has taken Gonzaga to 15 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, a streak which accounts for 15 of the program’s 17 tournament appearances in school history. After the Zags’ big Elite Eight breakout surprise in 1999, Few entered as head coach and took the Bulldogs to the Sweet Sixteen in the following two seasons, marking three straight appearances in the Tournament’s second weekend for the burgeoning program. In the 12 years since the run from 1999-2001, they’ve made it to just two more Sweet Sixteens, losing in heartbreaking fashion to eventual national runner-up UCLA in 2006, then getting blown out by eventual national champion North Carolina in 2009.

Gonzaga Basketball Is Defined By The Mark Few Era (AP)

Gonzaga Basketball Is Defined By The Mark Few Era. (AP)

Mixed in there, however, are more underachievements based on seed line than overachievements: a 2002 first round loss as a #6 seed; a 2004 round of 32 loss as a #2 seed; a 2005 round of 32 loss as a #3 seed; and most famously, last year’s round of 32 loss as a #1 seed. Only twice has Gonzaga outperformed its seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2001 — that took place in 2003 where they won one game as a #9 seed (note that the Zags also then gave #1 seed Arizona one hell of a game in the next round), and in 2011 when they won a single game as a #11 seed.

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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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O26 Bracketbusting: East and West Regions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 19th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

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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