Jacksonville State Follows Ray Harper’s Lead to Surprising NCAA Bid

Posted by David Changas on March 6th, 2017

When Ray Harper abruptly resigned as Western Kentucky’s head coach after finishing his fifth season at the school last March, the odds that he would be coaching a team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament were so low as to be laughable. When he subsequently landed at Jacksonville State eight days later — a program that went 8-23 last season and had not finished in the top half of the Ohio Valley Conference in over a decade — his chances did not seem to improve. Never mind that the Gamecocks’ program in its two-decade history in Division I had also never been to the Big Dance.

Jacksonville State will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance next week.

But anyone who knows anything about Harper should not be surprised that he will be dancing in Dayton a week from now. Despite being picked by the media to finish dead last in its division, Jacksonville State completed a remarkable run on Saturday in Nashville with a 66-55 win over UT-Martin. The Gamecocks achieved the feat just one night after stunning prohibitive favorite Belmont, which had finished the regular season with a 15-1 OVC record that included two easy wins over them. In outlasting the Skyhawks in the championship game, the Gamecocks controlled the action throughout and were never really threatened. As usual, they were led by three outstanding guards: Erik Durham, Greg Tucker and Malcolm Drumright, who was named tournament MVP. Read the rest of this entry »

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Examining the Conference Unbeatens: Which Teams Can Go the Distance?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 10th, 2017

With one month left in the regular season, it’s no longer too early to consider which of the remaining conference unbeatens have a legitimate chance to enter March without a loss. So let’s dig in. (Chances of going unbeaten based on KenPom win probabilities).

Mark Few Appears to Have It All Figured Out (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga (25-0, 13-0 West Coast). America’s only remaining undefeated team, Gonzaga tops almost every relevant poll and metric thanks to nearly three full months of flawless basketball. Of the Bulldogs’ 25 wins, 22 have come by double-figures, including an astonishing 26.6-point margin of victory in conference play alone (with seven wins by 30-plus). Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (15.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.7 APG) has been worthy of All-America consideration; freshman forward Zach Collins (10.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) has been one of the most efficient players in the country; center Przemek Karnowski (12.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG), who was sidelined nearly all last season with a back injury, hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been an all-around remarkable season, especially for a unit whose top five scorers weren’t on the active roster in 2015-16. Up until last month, Gonzaga was projected to lose at Saint Mary’s—college basketball’s 16th-best team according to KenPom—this Saturday night. Now, the Bulldogs are favored to win by two. If they can escape Moraga unblemished, Mark Few’s team would almost certainly enter the postseason without a loss.

Chances of going unbeaten: 56.3%

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With John Becker at the Helm, Vermont Hasn’t Missed a Beat

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on February 8th, 2017

Five years ago, John Becker led Vermont to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as a Division I coach, upsetting Stony Brook in the America East championship game to complete a remarkable personal run that included coaching tennis at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hearing impaired. Although he had never played tennis beyond a casual level, he enjoyed more success in that sport than he did as the Division III school’s basketball coach, where he went 6-44 from 1997-99. After losing that job, Becker stayed in the Washington, D.C., area to get a master’s in information systems at George Washington, and five years later, he left a comfortable job in the Beltway to become the new Director of Basketball Operations for Mike Lonergan at Vermont. When Lonergan left for George Washington in 2011, Becker became his successor, and 10 months later he was in the NCAA Tournament beating Lamar in the First Four before losing to North Carolina. But that was 2012, and the “lucky to be here” phase of his career arc in Burlington is now long gone. Although Vermont has won at least 20 games in all six of his seasons on the sideline, the Catamounts have not returned to the NCAA Tournament since that initial run. And for one of the best mid-major fan bases in college basketball — a group that fills the wooden bleachers of Patrick Gym in snow, sleet and whatever the Flavor of the Month is at Ben and Jerry’s — that’s a decent-sized drought.

With John Becker at the helm, Vermont hasn’t missed a beat. (AP)

Luckily, the wait may soon be over. Vermont (21-5, 11-0 America East), a team that has won 13 straight games dating back to a pre-Christmas loss to Butler, is clearly the best team in the America East. While Stony Brook’s breakthrough last season was a feel-good story, you might also remember that the Catamounts blew a 15-point second-half lead in last year’s America East Tournament final. Most everyone returned from last year’s CBI semifinalist squad, and Becker also brought in Tulane transfer Peyton Henson and freshman Anthony Lamb, a classic mid-major steal who just finds a way to produce at both ends of the floor. Picked by America East coaches to win the conference crown this season, Vermont was going to be good. And for better or worse, they knew it. “It’s fairly obvious if you’re around us and have been around us since the beginning of last season, this group has been motivated and focused on getting back to the NCAA Tournament,” Becker said. “We don’t sit around and talk about it, but the way they carry themselves and the way they go about their business certainly indicates that they’re motivated to end this year the right way, with a championship.” Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s Time to Take Illinois State Seriously

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2017

Trailing by four points at halftime against Southern Illinois on January 11, Illinois State coach Dan Muller provided blunt analysis coming out of the locker room. “They out-competed us to start the game. I thought they were more physical,” he said. “We gotta play tougher.” And play tougher his team did. The Redbirds promptly squashed Southern Illinois’ hopes for the home upset, holding the Salukis to just six points over the opening 10:33 of the second half. It was one of eight games this season in which Muller’s team has held its opponent to eight points or fewer over the course of a 10-minute “quarter,” a testament to Illinois State’s relentless, swarming defense. With an improved offense to boot, it’s also a reason why the Redbirds are a legitimate threat to end Wichita State’s reign in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Deontae Hawkins and the Redbirds are the real deal this season. (Jasen Vinlove – USA TODAY Sports)

Illinois State enters today 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, a byproduct of not allowing an opponent to score over a point per possession since December 18. During that 12-game stretch, in fact, only two opponents have mustered better than 40 percent shooting against the Redbirds from inside the arc. How has Muller’s group—a top-75 defense last season—gone from good to elite? The answer boils down to quickness, interior length and discipline. In the backcourt, guards Paris Lee and Tony Wills possess tremendous lateral quickness, preventing ball-handlers from beating them off the dribble with any kind of regularity. Lee is a two-time member of the MVC All-Defensive Team; Wills—new to the starting lineup—is considered by Muller to be among the best perimeter defenders in the country. They do a masterful job of keeping players in front of them, even on switches. The Redbirds’ frontcourt, meanwhile, excels at sealing off gaps and turning the paint into an impassible wall. Juniors MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins provide quickness and athleticism, while sophomore contributors Phil Fayne (6’9″) and Daouda Ndiaye (7’1″) bring the size.

And yet, Illinois State isn’t a pack-line unit content with merely denying entry into the lane. Instead, they’re extremely active and aggressive both on the perimeter and near the basket, constantly slapping at the ball and often mixing up defenses to confuse opponents. The Redbirds rank among the top 40 nationally in both defensive block rate and steal rate, and Lee is college basketball’s active career steals leader. During a key stretch late in the first half against Wichita State on January 14, Illinois State switched to zone for five possessions in a row, only to switch back shortly before the half expired. The maneuver, which throw the Shockers into an offensive tailspin (seven-plus minutes without a field goal), enabled Muller’s group to build an insurmountable lead. Throwing analysis aside, Lee recently explained his team’s defensive success more simply: “We play fast. We play hard.”

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Balance and Efficiency Taking UNC Wilmington to New Heights

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 18th, 2017

Perhaps no box score better encapsulates UNC Wilmington this season than its 101-77 drubbing of William & Mary last Wednesday. By night’s end, six Seahawks had reached double figures—three with 18 points, two with 14 and one with 11—as the team shot a blistering 70 percent from inside the arc and forced 17 turnovers. It was the second straight game in which five players eclipsed double-figures, and the fourth time this season that UNC Wilmington had scored 100. Put simply, Kevin Keatts’ unit pushed the pace, created good looks and capitalized more often than not. Now 17-2 and ranked #43 in KenPom‘s ratings, the Seahawks seem destined to surpass last year’s record-tying 25 wins and first-round NCAA Tournament appearance. With one of college basketball’s most balanced and efficient lineups, they have legitimate second weekend potential.

Devontae Cacok has been a revelation for UNC Wilmington this season. (Photo by John Crouch)

Taking care of (and simply taking) the basketball. If stellar guard play is the mark of a true Cinderella, then UNC Wilmington certainly fits the bill. Keatts starts four guards—Denzel Ingram, Ambrose Mosley, Chris Flemmings and CJ Bryce—three of whom are seniors and all of whom can handle the ball. All that experienced ball-handling has helped the Seahawks post the second-lowest turnover rate in the country at 13.8 percent, a level of mistake-free prowess put on full display last week: In 143 combined possessions against William & Mary and Hofstra, UNC Wilmington suffered just 11 turnovers. Conversely, its defense has been especially aggressive this season, forcing turnovers at its highest rate ever (23.2%, 13th nationally) under the Rick Pitino prodigy. On top of all that, the Seahawks don’t seem to care who shoulders the load. Bryce, the team’s best player (17.8 PPG, 3.2 APG), Flemmings (16.1 PPG) and Ingram (15.6 PPG) have each led the team in scoring multiple times this year, and UNC Wilmington remains the CAA’s only unit without a player who takes more than 25 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor. Combine balanced, mistake-free basketball with easy buckets from turnovers, and what do you get? One of the 20 most efficient offenses in college basketball. Read the rest of this entry »

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Digging Through the Low Mids For Possible At-Large Bids

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 7th, 2017

The path to the NCAA Tournament for any mid-major starts out simply: Win the conference tournament. The alternative is to build an impressive non-conference resume and cross your fingers on Selection Sunday. Ask last year’s Saint Mary’s team that went 27-5 and was relegated to the NIT. As the Gaels learned a year ago, the Selection Committee places the bar exceptionally high and scheduling is a significant factor. A lackluster non-conference resume meant that St. Mary’s two regular season games against Gonzaga held great value (which it swept), but a pair of losses against an uninspiring Pepperdine squad sealed the Gaels’ fate. The exact recipe for an at-large bid can be hard to determine because the committee changes every year, but the following teams in traditional one-bid leagues could have a shot at an at-large bid if they falter in their conference tournaments.

Randy Bennett Found Out the Hard Way How Important Scheduling Is (USA Today Images)

Randy Bennett Found Out the Hard Way How Important Scheduling Is (USA Today Images)

UT-Arlington

The Mavericks have three losses on the season, all of which came against respectable opponents in a span of five days on the road. Aside from that, no low-major can top their pair of excellent wins that came at Texas and St. Mary’s. UT Arlington holds a top-50 RPI, but recent history does not appear to be on its side. The Sun Belt has earned only one at-large bid in the last eight NCAA Tournaments, and that bid went to Middle Tennessee State in 2013 (which has since moved on to Conference USA — more on the Blue Raiders below). UT Arlington could at least make things interesting by running the table until the conference tournament semifinals, which would give it 30 wins prior to Selection Sunday. Read the rest of this entry »

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Does Non-Conference Scheduling Matter?

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 5th, 2017

As we transition into the first full week of the conference season, commentators and pundits alike will be heard discussing how the toughness of a team’s non-conference schedule prepared them for the rigors of conference play. There is a long held prevailing belief in college basketball circles that a difficult non-conference schedule forces teams to improve on the fly. The premise is that those teams, having faced several opponents of equal or better acumen, are better prepared — “battle-tested,” if you will — for the early weeks of conference play. We can call this the Long Beach State Theory, as Don Monson’s team has ranked among the nation’s top five in non-conference strength of schedule (per KenPom), since 2010. Clearly he believes that a tough schedule in November and December readies the 49ers for Big West play. But is it really true?

Dan Monson Clearly Believes in a Tough Non-Conference Schedule (USA Today Images)

Dan Monson Clearly Believes in a Tough Non-Conference Schedule (USA Today Images)

In order to test this assumption, KenPom helpfully ranks the difficulty of every team’s non-conference slate. If the teams with the most difficult non-conference schedules consistently see their overall ratings rise during conference play, then we will know that those teams have improved over time relative to the rest of college basketball. We limited our sample to mid-majors exclusively, for the simple reason that it’s easier to gauge actual improvement over time from the middle of the national pack (e.g., Montana playing the 14th-toughest non-conference schedule last season and raising its KenPom rating by 35 spots during conference play). In reviewing the last six years of teams finishing among the top 40 non-conference schedules, 150 mid-majors qualified for our analysis.

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O26 Power 13: New Year, New Order, Same Teams on Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 4th, 2017

With 2017 now upon us and conference play ramping up, let’s take a step back and reexamine the best of the best across the O26.

1. Gonzaga (14-0) West Coast. Despite its cast of untested newcomers, chemistry and balance have not been an issue for Gonzaga this season. The Bulldogs have cruised to a 14-0 start behind a lineup whose top six scorers all average between 9.3 and 13.8 points per game. In fact, only two players—Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski—get more than 30 minutes per night, thanks largely to the effectiveness of bench players like Zach Collins (10.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Killian Tillie (4.6 PPG). Mark Few’s club has been equally excellent on both sides of the ball, ranking among the top 12 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That well-roundedness helped the Zags notch three neutral court victories over KenPom top-30 opponents, giving them a non-conference resume that should hold up very well in mid-March. A win or two over Saint Mary’s would only strengthen the cause. The Zags are once again a legitimate Final Four contender.

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary's opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary’s opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

2. Saint Mary’s (12-1) West Coast. Since its jarring, 14-point home loss to UT Arlington on December 8, Saint Mary’s has held five straight opponents under 0.90 points per possession. That’s a positive sign for a unit that has often struggled to win games when its offense goes cold. The Gaels—with victories at Dayton and Stanford—have also proven their ability to win on the road, which is not something they could claim last season (the NCAA Selection Committee took notice). With one of the nation’s elite point guards (Emmett Naar) and a center, Jock Landale, who currently ranks second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, it’s hard to imagine this team slipping much in WCC play. January 14, Saint Mary’s first tilt with Gonzaga in Spokane, can’t come soon enough.

3. Wichita State (12-3) – Missouri Valley. The Shockers’ 100-66 dismantling of Bradley on New Year’s Day perhaps best captures this team’s identity. Sixteen different players saw action (Wichita State leads the country in bench minutes); ball movement was crisp (25 assists on 34 made baskets); and the physicality was unrelenting. Put simply, Wichita State is going to pummel a whole bunch of inferior opponents in Missouri Valley play. With an already-tenuous at-large resume, however, one major question remains: can the Shockers avoid losing more than one or two games in the conference? With Illinois State and Missouri State both surging, nothing is guaranteed.

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Rhode Island & the Atlantic 10 Searching For Answers

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 12th, 2016

The phrase mid-major is thrown around a lot by those of us who watch this sport. At some point we got lazy and decided to classify every school outside of the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC as mid-major programs. While leagues like Conference USA and the Mountain West would not have fit the mid-major description in the early-to-mid 2000s, their basketball reputations have taken a dive in recent years as schools have relocated. Meanwhile, the Atlantic 10 has produced 52 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2000, the most of any conference outside the Power Six. As the preseason pick to finish second in the league, Rhode Island, much like the league it plays in, finds itself in an uncomfortable mid-December position.

Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews scored 31 points in Saturday's loss to Houston, one point shy of tying a career high. (Photo courtesy of GoRhody.com)

Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews scored 31 points in Saturday’s loss to Houston, one point shy of tying a career high. (GoRhody.com)

Although projecting the fortunes of this program is one of the tougher queries in college basketball, we have written in this space that 2016-17 could finally be the Year of the Rams. Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s recent basketball history is riddled with disappointment. Despite accumulating six 20-win seasons since the 1998-99 season — including four in a row from 2008-11 — the Rams have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament over that span. A healthy combination of returnees E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, in addition to improving depth and a jam-packed non-conference schedule, led many pundits to believe in the preseason that Rhode Island’s breakthrough was imminent.

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The Extremely Tough Road Mids Face in Earning #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 7th, 2016

A quick glance at the top of the college basketball rankings reveals that blue-bloods roam the landscape. Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky and defending champion Villanova all currently inhabit the top 10. For a mid-major school, the path to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is fraught with so many hurdles that it may seem all impossible. This is certainly not a new development, of course, as 37 of the last 40 top seeds in the Big Dance came from a power conference — the exceptions were Wichita State (2014), Gonzaga (2013) and Memphis (2008). Those three teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, West Coast Conference and Conference USA, respectively, entered the NCAA Tournament with a combined record of 98-3, and their three losses came to teams with an average KenPom ranking of #32. Furthermore, each of those non-power conference top seeds played a top-40 non-conference schedule.

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014. (Getty)

The point of this is to show that mid-majors can most certainly earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their margin for error is next to nothing — the recipe seems to involve running the regular season table or suffering a maximum of one loss. This year’s crop of teams constituting the elite of the non-power conferences is made up of three excellent teams. There are significant barriers to entry, but each of the three has at least a respectable chance of joining the top line conversation on Selection Sunday if their regular season goes exceptionally well. Let’s examine what each team must do to get there.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga is the obvious choice if any mid-major this season has designs on a #1 seed. The Zags are currently #6 in the RPI and already have good-not-great wins over likely NCAA Tournament teams Arizona, San Diego State, Florida and Iowa State. With non-conference games still to come against power conference foes Washington and Tennessee, Gonzaga will have a case to make to the committee on Selection Sunday. An unbeaten regular season that would necessarily include at least two wins over St. Mary’s (currently #3 RPI) could put Mark Few‘s team into contention for a coveted top seed. A one-loss Bulldogs team would have a much tougher time given a non-conference schedule that rates weaker than years past and all the firepower at the top of the polls this season, so anything less than perfection probably means a ceiling of a #2 seed for the Zags.

 

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