Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.
The Atlantic 10 Versus the World (the rest of Division I Actually):
A 79 percent winning percentage conference-wide looks good, but it masks a disappointing 36 percent (4-7) winning percentage versus the power conferences (defined here as the five BCS conferences — the ACC, B1G, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) plus the AAC and Big East — two fragments of the former Big East that should trouble those A-10 fans who anticipate more than two NCAA bids next March. The league must cut into that win deficit and the early season invitational tournaments which will play out over November’s last two weekends are the best place to start. Opportunities for non-conference signature wins diminish during December. Temple and Xavier, two teams with the “anywhere, anytime” scheduling attitude and the programs to back it up on the court have moved on. Massachusetts, Virginia Commonwealth and La Salle have beefed up their schedules, but other “flagship-in-waiting” programs (Saint Louis and Dayton for example) scheduled beatable but not RPI-notable opponents. The conference is crushing comparable conferences (the West Coast, Missouri Valley and the Mountain West conferences) and the low-majors in head-to-head play; that, combined with a (close to) 50 percent winning percentage versus the power conferences will translate into extra bids on Selection Sunday. Read the rest of this entry »
Eli Linton is a RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Wednesday night’s game between Wichita State and Tulsa in Tulsa.
While the search continues for the mid-majors that have the talent and chemistry to emerge as this year’s Wichita State, the actual Wichita State is looking to build on its Final Four success and reach the next level of sustained excellence, much like Gonzaga and Butler from recent years. On Wednesday night in Tulsa, the Shockers improved to 5-0 after a convincing 77-54 win over the home town university. But a key trend is noticeable — the Shockers have struggled to establish a rhythm in any of those wins until the second half, and they have looked very beatable along the way. For nearly the entire game against Tulsa, they didn’t even remotely look worthy of their #14 national ranking.
Fred VanVleet and the Shockers are feeling what it is like to get everyone’s best shot. (USA TODAY Sports)
Gregg Marshall alluded to the fact that this road game would be the first big test of the year and he was right. The Shockers looked sluggish and a little sloppy right out of the gate as they only managed eight points in the first five minutes of play. Tulsa was clearly outmatched in talent, but they were aggressive and gained confidence as the game wore on. The Shockers couldn’t figure out the Hurricane’s zone defense in the first half, and their own full-court press was ineffective, leading to some easy buckets for the home team. The game was tied at the half, but it wasn’t until nine minutes left in the game did the Shockers finally gain the lead for good and take momentum by forcing Tulsa into some turnovers and knocking down some three-pointers. The only time the Shockers showed flashes of that Final Four team came with 5:30 to go when Tulsa made one last surge to cut the lead to 63-53, but threes by Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, a dunk, and a steal on four straight possessions sealed the game and emptied the seats. It lasted just two minutes, but it was the only time the Shockers were in complete control. VanVleet and Baker were outstanding, both scoring 21 points each on a combined 14-of-23 shooting.
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Lipscomb and Belmont in Nashville.
When he lost his three leading scorers to graduation, including standout guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, many assumed that Belmont coach Rick Byrd would see his team take a step back from last year’s OVC championship squad. But this is Rick Byrd, and rebuilding at this point in the program’s existence is no longer a concern. As evidenced by Sunday’s win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, his latest group is once again likely the team to beat in the OVC, and a return to the Big Dance for the seventh time in nine seasons appears to be a distinct possibility.
Rick Byrd Has One of the Most Consistently Good Mid-Major Programs Going
On Wednesday night, the Bruins backed up their win over the Tar Heels with a resounding 94-64 thumping of cross-town rival Lipscomb in the season’s second “Battle of the Boulevard,” giving Belmont its NCAA-best 22nd consecutive home win. And in getting off to a strong start that includes not only the North Carolina win, but also a home victory over an Indiana State team that crushed Notre Dame in South Bend, Byrd’s squad is proving that it has simply reloaded. Now led in the backcourt by the solid duo of Reece Chamberlain and Craig Bradshaw, both of whom saw valuable minutes last season, Belmont relies on a stronger front line than it had last season. J.J. Mann, whom Byrd recently called one of the hardest workers and most competitive players he’s coached, proved his mettle by hitting the game-winning three against North Carolina. The senior forward looks poised to lead the Bruins in scoring this season, and his role as a vocal leader has increased with the departure of Johnson and Clark.
Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on November 19th, 2013
Last year about this time, the Mountain West’s record as a collective was 27-3. Sure, there wasn’t a large number of top shelf wins among those 27, but they were wins. This year the teams are a combined 19-12. UNLV lost by 21 at home to UC Santa Barbara. Colorado State got drilled by 32 at Gonzaga. Nevada lost at home to Pacific. Fresno State lost by 21 at Pitt. Air Force has lost to Jackson State and VMI. And newcomer San Jose State has lost to everybody it has faced, and that certainly hasn’t been a murderer’s row. Last year, the conference as a whole rode its strong RPI numbers, built up by a collection of a mostly good teams, to a best-ever five NCAA Tournament bids. This year, it remains to be seen just how good teams the teams at the top are, while the middle of the conference seems significantly weaker than it was last year, and the bottom of the conference even worse. Too long, didn’t read? The takeaway is there isn’t a chance in a million that the Mountain West sends five teams dancing this year.
Team of the Week
Utah State – The Aggies are one of the newcomers in the conference, but they’re off to a fine start, having won all three of their games including one over USC and another over that UCSB team that beat up on MW heavyweight UNLV. Behind veteran trio Spencer Butterfield, Preston Medlin and Jarred Shaw, Utah State looks like it will have an easy transition to its new conference.
Bairstow Has Been On Fire Out Of The Gate For the Lobos (Eric Draper, AP Photo)
Player of the Week
Cameron Bairstow, Sr, New Mexico – There may not be a player in the country who has improved as much as Bairstow in his four years in Albuquerque. As a freshman, he was notable only for his below-the-rim, scrappy style, as he averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game and fewer than three points per outing. But thus far this season, the 6’9” Aussie has been almost unstoppable, averaging 25.5 points, eight rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game, all while shooting 78.3 percent from the field. Oh, and not to be outdone, his frontcourt mate Alex Kirk has double-doubled in both his games on the way to 20 points and 12 rebounds per game averages.
Newcomer of the Week
Paul Watson, Fr, Fresno State – The 6’6” freshman out of Phoenix doesn’t have the type of body yet to lead you to believe he would succeed playing up front in major college basketball. But out of necessity, Watson has been forced to play the role of a big man for the Bulldogs. And, so far so good, as he’s averaged five rebounds a night, has scored both around the basket and from deep, and has eaten up minutes. There’s a big future for this Dog.
Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 18th, 2013
Alex Moscoso is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the George Mason vs. Northern Iowa game on Saturday.
On Saturday afternoon, Northern Iowa came to Fairfax, Virginia, to play George Mason for the second consecutive year. Both teams are etched into the minds of college basketball fans because of some recent unforgettable moments in March. The Panthers have remained relatively intact since their stellar moment in 2010. Same coach, same league, and moderate success in the Missouri Valley. The Patriots, however, have experienced a sort of program face-lift since their Final Four run. They lost long-time head coach, Jim Larranaga, to the ACC’s Miami (FL) in 2011, and hired Paul Hewitt, the former George Tech coach whose career there produced mixed results, as his replacement. They also upgraded their conference affiliation by moving from the Colonial to the Atlantic 10, starting this season. While Hewitt was in Atlanta, he relied on talented underclassmen, like Thaddeus Young and Iman Shumpert, to drive his program. But this season at George Mason, he’ll need to rely on his slate of returning upperclassmen to transition into the A-10 and make a run at the school’s first NCAA Tournament under his watch.
George Mason’s Sherrod Wright Lives For Big Moments.
Hewitt has led the Patriots to 20 wins in each of his first two seasons, and they return nearly everyone of significance including redshirt senior Sherrod Wright, who averaged 16.6 PPG last year. Despite that success, Hewitt has not yet managed to earn enough quality or timely wins to make the NCAA Tournament. Now that George Mason will be in a higher-profile league, the tougher competition will give his team more opportunities for signature wins on its resume. So far this season, the Patriots have eked out a win against American and beaten Lamar handily. The visit by the Panthers represented their first test against competition comparable to what they’ll be facing in the A-10 most nights out.
Lathan Wells is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between VCU and Winthrop in Richmond.
The VCU Rams have risen to prominence on the national scene over the last several years due largely to their suffocating, full-court defense and long-range shooting. This has proven to be a style that’s been immensely difficult for teams to prepare for, and most opponents don’t possess the stamina or depth to hang with the Rams for an entire game. But in the infant stages of the 2013-14 season, and following a solid 92-71 win over Winthrop Saturday night, VCU has also proven that it has the ability to win games in different fashions. It’s that versatility that makes this team particularly dangerous.
Legitimate options off the bench like JeQuan Lewis make VCU even more potent (credit: collegebasketball.org)
After the Rams capped off a rugged, grinding win in Charlottesville over in-state rival Virginia on Tuesday, it became apparent that taking the tempo away from this team would no longer guarantee success. The Rams fought off a night where they were whistled for 27 personal fouls and had several key players in early foul trouble with its consistent half-court defense. While they weren’t able to press the Cavaliers full-court due to the slow-it-down style Virginia prefers, Shaka Smart’s team’s perseverance on the road against an ACC foe in prime time showed that it has the makeup of a team that can handle in-game adversity. Avoiding the letdown that sometimes plagues teams playing as many youngsters as VCU was an important barometer early in the year, and the Rams were able to get back to pressing full-court and shooting well from downtown in pulling away against Winthrop.
After college basketball had spent the greater part of the last two decades getting more physical and watching scoring decline, the NCAA decided to act this past offseason by re-emphasizing rules against hand-checking and other physical perimeter play in an attempt to speed the game up and increase scoring. For some teams, this increased emphasis will have an outsized impact, none more than VCU. The Rams’ smothering, pressing Havoc defense used to be something nobody wanted to go to war with, leading the nation in steal percentage for each of the last two seasons, according to KenPom.com. To get some perspective on the rule changes, I talked with Rams superfan Chris Crowley, known as VCU Pav throughout his fan base (and most of the state of Virginia, who he frequently trolls on Twitter). A former VCU equipment manager who has crossed the country before to watch his team play, Crowley’s game day ensemble includes ram horns and a cape.
The new NCAA rules might hinder the game of Briante Weber and his teammates. (AP)
Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
Rush The Court: How long have you been a VCU fan? How did that start?
Chris Crowley:I started out as a manager for the basketball team from 2001 to 2004, and then decided I needed to concentrate on class a little bit more, so I decided to quit managing after my junior year. That was right around the time the Rowdy Rams (the student fan organization) were getting founded, so I jumped in with them – they were getting restarted; they were originally founded in the 1980s. We got restarted around the 2003-04 season, and I joined them in ’04-05, and the rest is history. Read the rest of this entry »
Lathan Wells is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Richmond vs. Belmont game on Monday night in Richmond.
The University of Richmond’s Robins Center recently underwent a $17 million renovation designed to reinvigorate a fan base and continue to make the Spiders one of the most difficult schools to play in their building in any league. After defeating Belmont on Monday night, 69-61, Richmond has now won 39 of its last 46 home games against non-conference foes. It was the second straight close, gritty home win for head coach Chris Mooney’s team, the kind of win largely made possible by the dependable guard play that will need to be a hallmark for this Spiders this year.
Anthony has been clutch for Richmond thus far (credit:Richmondspiders.com)
Though both are upperclassmen guards, senior point guard Cedrick Lindsay and sixth man Kendall Anthony have very different games that perfectly complement each other. Lindsay is excellent at getting to the basket, using his quick first step and strength around the basket to make plays happen around the rim. He is also the unquestioned leader of this team, helping to keep the youngish Richmond team even-keeled in times of pressure. Anthony, a diminutive junior at only 5’8”, provides instant energy off the bench and helps to make for a more frenetic pace that can unnerve opponents. While Anthony’s height may be a detriment when attacking the hoop, he more than makes up for it by slashing and kicking out to waiting Spider shooters on the wing. Anthony is also adept at finding creases in opponents’ zone defenses to launch his long-range shot (not a beautiful stroke, but an effective one that keeps defenses honest). When both are on the floor together, which is often, their styles help to push the pace when opportunities present themselves (spearheaded by the speed of Anthony) and also slow things down and run the half-court offense, a specialty of Lindsay’s. Together, they make the Spiders a well-rounded team not willing to be pigeon-holed into a methodical, easy-to-prepare-for Princeton offense.
Eli Linton is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Oral Roberts vs. Tulsa game on Sunday.
A bigger upset than you might think happened in a relatively obscure part of the mid-major world on Sunday when Oral Roberts celebrated a 74-68 non-conference road victory on the floor of their cross-town rival, Tulsa. Oral Roberts was able to overcome an abysmal shooting night (38 percent from the field) and the loss of Shawn Glover, their lone senior (fouled out with four minutes left in the game), and they did it by outrebounding the Golden Hurricane by 17 rebounds despite not having a starter over 6′ 7″. Tulsa also did its part by missing 19 free throws and going a horrific 1-of-9 from three-point territory.
Scott Sutton and his squad earned a quality win to start the season. (AP)
It was a sloppy game by both teams — what you might expect for a season opener — but there were also some important takeaways from this game. Both programs found themselves in a similar place before their 49th meeting: They are coached by men who come from Bill Self’s growing coaching tree, and can’t help but bring great expectations with that experience. Both schools have tasted some historical NCAA Tournament success and are looking to end long droughts, and both programs find themselves under a lot of pressure to produce for fan bases that measure success through conference championships and NCAA berths. The two schools are even more connected by the fact that they are mid-major schools from the same city, usually lost in the preseason discussion of potential “Cinderella” teams that are doing their best to keep that dream alive and stay relevant in the never-ending realignment of the power conferences. Each will need to win its conference championship to have any hope of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »
Welcome to 2013, the year of the roster overhaul in college basketball. The most notable projects may be taking place in Lexington and Lawrence, but this year’s UNLV team looks quite different from the Runnin’ Rebels as we last saw them. This version of the Rebs got their first chance to show off the new look on Friday night. It wasn’t easy and was rarely pretty, but behind four starters making their UNLV debuts, the Rebels used a strong second half to dispatch Portland State, 67-48. With junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones sitting this one out due to a tight hamstring, Khem Birch was the lone UNLV returning starter for the opener. Birch is no different from the quartet of teammates (and Dejean-Jones for that matter) he took the floor with tonight in one regard: He began his college basketball journey at another school, in a place a world away from Las Vegas. But on nights like this, with a slew of new faces surrounding him and his prodigious talent on full display, it becomes painfully obvious that for this UNLV team to fully maximize its potential, Birch must also stand alone from his teammates.
A Consistent Presence From Khem Birch Would Go A Long Ways For UNLV
While earning a #5 seed to the NCAA Tournament after a 25-win season is nothing to hang your head about, there was a definite sense of underachievement lingering in the desert last year. The overall talent level may not be quite as plentiful on this season’s team — there are no #1 picks hanging out on the wing — but Dave Rice’s squad isn’t starving for natural ability either; seven Runnin’ Rebels were top-100 recruits in their high school class. The goal, once again in Vegas, is to put that talent together in a maximally efficient manner.
Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on November 7th, 2013
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12. You can find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times? In some way, the 2012-13 regular season was the peak for the Mountain West basketball. As a conference, the MW finished third in RPI, behind only the Big Ten and the Big East, with regular season champion New Mexico finishing third nationally in that admittedly flawed rating. Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State all finished in the top 35 in RPI, while only two teams – Fresno State and Nevada – finished below 100 in that rating. And best of all, five of the nine conference teams earned invitations to the NCAA Tournament, and all five were either seed-line favorites or, in the case of Boise State, involved in a virtual coin-flip in a First Four game. But Selection Sunday was the last glimpse of glory for the conference, as only two of the conference teams made it even so far as the first weekend of the Tournament, and by the time the Sweet 16 rolled around, the MW was little more than a punchline. To put it plainly, this is a conference with a lot of doubters heading into the new season.
New Mexico’s Regular Season Success Was A Distant Memory Following An Opening Round NCAA Tournament Loss (Ethan Miller, Getty Images)
Replacing Production. To make matters worse, all of the historic powers in this conference are faced with replacing major losses. UNLV saw freshman Anthony Bennett leave on his way to becoming the number one overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, but will also have to find ways to replace transfers Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt, along with backcourt rock Anthony Marshall. New Mexico had head coach Steve Alford bail for the greener pastures of UCLA, not a week after agreeing to a big contract extension in Albuquerque, and will also have to find a replacement for breakout wing Tony Snell, who left for the NBA. Steve Fisher and San Diego State now find themselves without any remaining ties to the 2010 Sweet 16 team, as graduates Chase Tapley and James Rahon are joined on their way out the door by their own early entrant to the NBA Draft in Jamaal Franklin. And Colorado State? Geez, if you know anybody returning on the Ram basketball squad, you and I should sit down and have a beer sometime. While there is still plenty of talent around the conference, there are a lot of players who need to produce in order to make us believe.
The Final Effects of Realignment? Not too long ago, the Mountain West was a stable collection of nine teams who seemed more or less happy to be with each other, despite a flailing cable network and a mishmash of interests. Just three seasons ago, teams like Utah, BYU and TCU were cornerstones of the conference. Now, those three schools are gone. But, to be honest, the conference has to be thankful that they have who they still have. Even in the middle of last year’s basketball season, Boise State and San Diego State each had one foot out the door to the Big East (really? San Diego and Boise, east? This still bugs me after all this time) before cooler heads prevailed. Still, in an effort to replace those teams should their defection have completed, the MW snapped up Utah State and San Jose State from the WAC, and those two teams join the conference this season, marking the end to the changes in the membership of the Mountain West, at least for the foreseeable future. One significantly unfortunate side effect of all the running around – the balanced conference schedule where everybody plays everybody at home and away is a thing of the past.
Posted by Michael James (@ivybball) on November 6th, 2013
Michael James is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League. You can also find his musings on Twitter at @mrjames2006 and @ivybball.
Best Ivy Team Ever? Every league preview from this summer and fall seemed to start with the assumption that Harvard would not only cruise to the Ivy title, but that it could very well end up as the best team the league has ever seen. Putting aside the great Penn teams of the 1970s – one of which reached the Final Four and two others which finished third in the final AP poll – it’s extremely tenuous to predict that the Crimson will even end up as the best Ivy team of the 64-team era. The 1998 edition of the Princeton Tigers set that bar, finishing the regular season with just one loss and nabbing a #5 seed before falling to Michigan State in the round of 32. While that’s the best known example, five other Ivy teams spent some time in the national polls, including Princeton’s 1991 squad, which lost by two to Villanova as a #8 seed in the first round. Two Penn teams from the mid-90s cracked the Top 25 and one scored an NCAA win as a #11 seed, while Harvard and Cornell recently rode appearances in the Top 25 to #12 seeds with the latter advancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Given that most pundits have the 2013-14 Crimson as a fringe Top 25 team, it would seem that the hype about Harvard possibly being the best Ivy ever is mostly indicative of how soon most have forgotten the very good Ivy teams of the recent past.
There will be plenty of teams gunning for Harvard this season. (AP)
Going Digital – Just two years ago, the Ivy League office took a ton of flak as it struggled to farm out its premier basketball properties to television or even specialty streaming channels like ESPN3. Only six Ivy League contests were picked up that season, despite a dramatic race which ended where Princeton defeated the rival Quakers to send Harvard to its first NCAA Tournament in over 65 years. Last season, that number crept to nine broadcasts with the new league television deal with NBC Sports Network, but still the only way to watch Brown defeat Princeton to send Harvard back to the Big Dance was via a grainy web feed. Shortly after the season ended, however, the league announced a massive new infrastructure project to merge all of the web feeds into one Ivy Digital channel and provide professional, multi-camera, high-definition broadcasts of all events for the league’s revenue sports. Now, simply by paying one flat fee (roughly $100 for all sports), fans can watch any Ivy home contest and all league games without having to buy each individual school’s package and could access every game in one place. Add in features like quad view, which can allow viewers to watch four games at once, and the Ivy basketball fan has everything he or she needs to keep live tabs on the league race as it unfolds on Friday and Saturday nights in February and March.
Stability in an Unstable World– While the Ivy League and its core eight institutions weathered the conference realignment storm without even a joking rumor about possible new arrivals or departures, pardon the players and coaches if they stumble over the new affiliations of some of their non-conference foes this season. The four conferences that the Ivies have played the most over the past two seasons (America East, Patriot, NEC and the Atlantic 10) all underwent varying levels of changes, and that’s before considering the six games the league will play against the American Athletic Conference, which didn’t even exist last season. The result of all the chaos is a composite schedule with a diverse set of non-conference opponents, as Ivy teams will play members of 23 different leagues this season.
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Michigan’s Nik Stauskas apparently needed that shoe. He went 0-for-2 for four points in a 69-79 loss to Duke last night.