The Big East Fell Flat, or Did It?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 25th, 2015

A curtain of despair has suddenly fallen over the Big East’s 10 members. After starting off with an unblemished 4-0 record in the first day of the NCAA Tournament, five of the league’s six invited teams peeled off over the remaining three days, save Xavier (which played Cinderella story, Georgia State). What was considered the second-best conference from top to bottom now stands at just 5-5 with the Musketeers facing a significant battle against Arizona on Thursday night in Los Angeles. Even the conference’s biggest proponents can’t mask their disappointment with how things have played out. A whopping 60 percent of the league’s teams qualified — five of which were granted a #6 seed or better — and yet here we are, with only one school advancing past the first weekend. So what happened? Is this a problem with the conference as a whole or simply those individual teams? Or is it a problem at all?

Villanova Piccolo Girl Signified the Disappointment of an Entire League

Villanova Piccolo Girl Signified the Disappointment of an Entire League

To preface this examination, I had set the over/under at 2.5 for the number of Big East teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. This was under the presumption that Villanova was a near-lock and that two of the remaining schools would receive favorable enough draws to break through. The results were not ideal but the league’s overall performance cannot be blamed on the quality of the conference itself. Anyone who thinks that the Big East didn’t have talented players or deserve its six bids hasn’t watched the league this season. Sure, it wasn’t as top-heavy as the ACC but nearly every game was competitive and served to battle-test each team. Still, a team’s ability to achieve postseason success does not necessarily correlate with regular season scheduling. Teams likes Wichita State, Butler, Davidson, Northern Iowa and Gonzaga have had successful postseasons in years past despite playing softer conference schedules.

The Big East’s under-performance this March lies in individual games where opponents exploited weaknesses and exposed mismatches. No specific team other than Villanova lost a game it truly had no business losing. The results alone start to appear bad when we examine the conference as a whole. Let’s dig into each team’s situation:

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Putting Herb Sendek’s Firing Into Perspective

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 24th, 2015

With eight minutes left in Arizona State’s Pac-12 Tournament opening round game, they were up 14 on last place USC and headed for a quarterfinal rematch with UCLA, a team that they had just beaten in Tempe a few weeks before. The Sun Devils needed to win the Pac’s automatic bid in order to earn an NCAA Tournament appearance, but all things considered, the future looked reasonably bright. And then things drastically changed. Arizona State was outscored 21-4 over the final 8:29 of the game by the Trojans, and that seemingly bright future in the desert dimmed significantly. The blown lead a couple of Wednesday nights ago in Las Vegas did not simply mean the end to a season. It effectively meant the end to Herb Sendek’s career in Tempe. After increasing speculation about his position, Sendek was oficially fired on Tuesday. Doug Haller reports that the Sun Devils’ 42-point loss at Utah late in the season opened up the possibility of a change, and the USC debacle cemented it.

After Nine Seasons And Two NCAA Tournament Appearances, Herb Sendek Was Fired At Arizona State

After Nine Seasons And Two NCAA Tournament Appearances, Herb Sendek Was Fired At Arizona State

First, let’s wrap up Sendek’s career in Tempe. Nine seasons; two NCAA Tournament appearances; a record of 154-132; a conference record of 72-90. He landed the best recruiting class in the history of the school in 2007 when he pulled James Harden out of southern California, beating out schools like UCLA and Arizona for the future superstar’s services. He brought five ESPN top 100 recruits to Tempe and won just a single NCAA Tournament game, a win over Temple in 2009. In a vacuum, none of that is particularly impressive. Okay, so let’s remove that vacuum and give you some context about Arizona State basketball. In 1978, this program, along with Arizona, joined the Pac-8 to create the Pac-10. Thirty-seven college basketball seasons have gone into the books since then, and the Sun Devils have posted conference records of .500 or better 16 times. Sendek coached nine seasons in Tempe and recorded six of those. Bill Frieder is the other coach with any significant recent success at Arizona State – he tallied six .500-or-better seasons in eight years (before resigning in the wake of a point-shaving scandal and numerous other off-court issues). In those 37 seasons, Arizona State has made the NCAA Tournament seven times: twice under Sendek; twice under Frieder, once under Rob Evans; and twice, way back in the early 80s under Ned Wulk.**

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Ben Howland: An Odd Fit That Might Just Work Out For Mississippi State

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 24th, 2015

Several weeks ago I wrote on this microsite that it was shaping up to be the rare offseason where no SEC schools would be welcoming new coaches. That turned out to be a very incorrect notion. Anthony Grant was fired by Alabama on Selection Sunday and Mississippi State followed that up about a week later by announcing that Rick Ray would not be given a fourth year at the helm in Starkville. Ray’s firing registered higher on the “surprise meter” than that of Grant — the Bulldogs had just posted their best SEC record during his tenure (6-12), were expected to return an experienced nucleus of core players, and had signed a trio of three-star prospects in next year’s class. That clearly wasn’t enough for athletic director Scott Stricklin, and it did not take the school very long to name former Pitt and UCLA head coach Ben Howland as its next men’s basketball coach. Howland was loosely connected to seemingly every major job that opened a year ago but he was reportedly never seriously considered at any of Missouri, Tennessee or Marquette. He recently told USA Today that he regretted turning down three schools last offseason (one of these appears to have been Oregon State), two of which were in the process of rebuilding. This year Howland wasn’t willing to wait around, jumping on the first job opportunity that came his way.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland inherits a Mississippi State program that struggled under Rick Ray (Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire)

Is this a good fit? For one, the Bulldogs couldn’t have landed a more accomplished coach, what with Howland’s three Final Fours at UCLA, two Sweet Sixteens at Pitt and another NCAA Tournament appearance at Northern Arizona. At the same time, the Bulldogs would also be hard-pressed to find a coach with more baggage, primarily stemming from a 2012 Sports Illustrated story that alleged that Howland had let things spin severely out of control in Westwood. Also working against him is that he has no real ties to the SEC nor the South other than his hiring of former UCLA and LSU assistant Korey McCray, who made his name as the coach of the influential AAU program Atlanta Celtics. Still, the move has been roundly praised by writers. Howland’s adaptability to his geography seems to be a strong suit, as he’s won on the West Coast, Southwest and the Northeast.

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Sweet Sixteen Reset: Big Ten Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 23rd, 2015

We’re now down to only two B1G teams left playing in the 2014-15 season, as Michigan State and Wisconsin are the only two teams that won both their games this weekend. This is one less team that made the Sweet 16 one season ago, as these two along with Michigan were still alive one year ago. Here are some other quick takeaways from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament as it relates to the B1G.

Sam Dekker had 17 points to lead to Wisconsin past Oregon and into the Sweet 16 Sunday night. (Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports)

Sam Dekker had 17 points to lead to Wisconsin past Oregon and into the Sweet 16 Sunday night. (Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports)

  • They are Who We Thought They Were: Having two teams left in the field sounds about right for a league that was down a bit this season. As ludicrous as it is to completely bemoan a conference for being overrated (Big 12), or underrated (Pac 12) based simply off the small sample size that is the Big Dance, the Big Ten generally did about as well as expected. They had five teams in the round of 32, which is about the same number of teams that were in or around the top 25 all year. Maryland got a tough break with being a bit underseeded, and paid the price in losing to West Virginia. Iowa and Ohio State played about to expectations, as they would have had to pull off outstanding performances to get the best of Gonzaga and Arizona respectively. Michigan State was a bit of a surprise, but anyone who has seen Coach Tom Izzo‘s March resume, or saw how Sparty played in the Big Ten Tournament knows that this team was geared up to potentially make another March run.

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Big 12 Takes Three on the Chin, But Today is a New Day

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 20th, 2015

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Well, that could’ve gone better.

 

In the Big 12’s latest opportunity to reverse its NCAA Tournament fortunes, the conference fell flat on its face, losing all three of its games on Thursday. Were this the regular season or the conference tournament, I’d say that Baylor and Iowa State both losing by a single point shouldn’t be huge a cause for concern, and analytically, that remains true. If the Bears and Cyclones played their games again today and every day after that, they’d come out on top in an overwhelming number of those games. But it’s a different game this time of year where variance trumps all, and this was the end of the road for two teams that, at minimum, were expected to make it through the weekend. The same can’t be said for Texas, but that’s only a reflection of the Longhorns’ massive letdown of a campaign.

Three favorites, three losses, all in time for Happy Hour.

The Cyclones knew going into Thursday’s game against UAB that they could no longer afford to fall into double-digit deficits if they wanted to survive. They lived up to one end of the bargain, as the biggest hole they faced was just three points. But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take away from the fact that the Blazers didn’t have much business hanging around with the Big 12 Tournament champs, let alone knocking them off. UAB has a tall, athletic lineup, but the Cyclones outscored the Blazers 36-32 in the paint. Instead, Iowa State’s undoing came down to poor rebounding and relying too heavily on jumpers, shots that head coach Fred Hoiberg has become famous for despising. More than one-third of their attempts were jump shots, and star forward Georges Niang was most responsible in that department, attempting 10 jumpers and connecting on just two. Read the rest of this entry »

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What Are Big Ten Teams Seeking This Weekend?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 19th, 2015

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While it’s unlikely that all seven Big Ten teams will still be around at the end of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, each has something to gain from even just one win. None of the matchups on Thursday and Friday are overly imposing, and in actuality, many of them seem to be pretty equal. The Round of 32 could be a different story, but here’s what each team has on the line with a quality opening weekend performance:

Troy Williams will need to play well for IU to advance.   (Chris Howell/Herald Times)

Troy Williams will need to play well for Indiana to advance. (Chris Howell/Herald Times)

  • Indiana: This NCAA Tournament appearance is all about showing that the program hasn’t hit a wall under head coach Tom Crean and it’s about quieting the critics that have been out in full force this year. A win over a Wichita State squad with plenty of excellent experience in four starters who made the Final Four two seasons ago would be a nice victory for a team with no seniors and almost no size. Winning a second game against fellow blue-blood Kansas would give the Hoosiers valuable March experience to build upon with a great majority of the team scheduled to return next season.
  • Iowa: Iowa can regain some of the credibility it lost from last season’s nosedive. The Hawkeyes still have some problems with consistency although they’ve been slightly better in closing out the 2014-15 campaign. Fran McCaffery‘s team avoided the First Four this time around but it still has a difficult opener against the Atlantic 10 regular season champion, Davidson. Just being back in March Madness, though, isn’t good enough for Hawkeyes fans. Mostly the same cast of characters played significant minutes in last season’s opening round loss to Tennessee, so winning a game or two here will show that this talented crew didn’t underachieve during its time in Iowa City. McCaffery doesn’t have to face the same amount of pressure that someone like Crean does at Indiana, but losing early in March once again won’t exactly help him either.
  • Maryland: The Terrapins were ranked for most of the season, eventually making their way into the top 10 at the end of the year. Despite how Maryland fared in the polls, they ended up with only a #4 seed and have a challenging road to the Sweet Sixteen. This means that they need to get to the second weekend to show the committee and others that they were justifiably ranked where they were. They were the second best team in the conference for much of the season, but an early flame-out in March would give the critics of Big Ten basketball plenty of ammunition in saying that the league didn’t deserve seven bids. The Terps need to avoid the upset bug and make a solid run.

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How the Big 12 Can Change the Conversation

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 18th, 2015

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While the Big 12 went wire to wire this season as the top conference in America, according to KenPom and the RPI, its postseason results over the last decade continue to cast a shadow over the league’s legitimacy. Since 2005, the Big 12 is tied for fourth in NCAA Tournament wins, tied for fifth in Sweet Sixteen appearances and tied for fourth in Final Four berths. In the last 10 years, 17 Big 12 teams have underperformed relative to their seeds compared with just 12 teams that have overperformed. Although the season-long metrics are more reliable from an analytical perspective than chaotic NCAA Tournament results, the postseason is valued more heavily when it comes to both bar room debates and television contracts. Fortunately for the conference this season, it propelled seven teams into the Big Dance, so there are plenty of opportunities to quiet the skeptics. Here’s how each of those teams can help the conference flip the script.

Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones have a chance to save the Big 12 from more postseason criticism. (Eric Gay/AP).

The Mayor can rescue the Big 12 from years of tournament disappointment with a run to Indianapolis. (Eric Gay/AP)

  • Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg has turned the Iowa State program around and then some in his five years running the team, but the time is ripe for him to raise the status even higher by adding a trip to the Final Four — which would be Iowa State’s first since 1944 — to his already-impressive resume. The Cyclones are among the hottest teams in the country but they’ll need to keep up their hot shooting and not rely on their proven ability to mount comebacks in order to capitalize on the good favor they’ve curried.
  • Kansas: The Jayhawks limp into the Big Dance with Perry EllisLanden Lucas and Frank Mason at less than 100 percent. If that weren’t bad enough, they’re planning to be without Cliff Alexander and have notched just three wins in their last eight games away from Allen Fieldhouse (and one of those road wins was in Lubbock). Oh, and they received by far the worst Tournament draw of any #2 seed, facing a potential Elite Eight game against juggernaut Kentucky. As terrific a coach as Bill Self is, the odds of him extracting a 2012 type of run to the championship game from this team are long. A ride to the regional final would be impressive, though, especially if the Jayhawks can knock off local rival Wichita State in the process.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners have been snake-bitten in the Lon Kruger years, assuming the role of first round upset victim in their last two NCAA Tournament appearances. While Oklahoma needs to get over that hump, this team is Kruger’s best one yet so the expectations don’t stop at simply winning one game. A pilgrimage to the Sweet Sixteen would give Kruger the distinction of taking four different programs that deep, but Oklahoma’s excellent defense and Buddy Hield‘s scoring ability make the Sooners a threat to play even deeper, possibly slaying two monsters in Virginia and Villanova on the way there.

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Pac-12 Burning Questions: About Those Tourney Teams?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 18th, 2015

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Four Pac-12 teams are going dancing. And we’ve got four Burning Questions. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But, below, you’ll get takes from Adam Butler and Andrew Murawa about what to expect from the teams around the Conference of Champions this week and beyond.

Q: So, UCLA’s in the Tournament. On a scale of 1 to Holy Crap Really! how surprised are you. And can they do anything with their good fortune?

Adam Butler: I don’t know why but when the Bruins’ name was called on Sunday I wasn’t all that shocked. It makes no sense because they haven’t impressed by the numbers or the eyeball tests. But at the same time I like so many things about this team in a tournament setting. They’re the only Pac-12 team to keep things close on two occasions with Arizona and – while I don’t love moral victories – that’s something. Of course the committee doesn’t pay attention to any of the storylines so it’s not like Larry Brown ever coached UCLA or anything. I remain concerned about the Bruins’ cohesiveness but if all I need is to win one game, it’s hard not to at least be somewhat impressed with Kevon Looney and Norman Powell.

Yep, we had the same reaction, Bryce. (AP)

Yep, we had the same reaction, Bryce. (AP)

Andrew Murawa: I’m definitely all the way over on the Holy Crap Really! side of things. I just don’t get how the Bruins have done anything to deserve playing in this Tournament. They have home wins over Oregon and Utah which are, yeah, whatever, fine. Beyond that, the biggest smiley-face on their report card is only losing by an average of eight points in their two games against Arizona. Is that all you need to do these days? Play in a big conference and lose to good teams? All that said, when the Bruins have things clicking, they’re pretty fearsome. Tony Parker is coming along in the post, Kevon Looney makes “Wow!” plays on a regular basis, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton have proven themselves capable of big games. And Norman Powell is just playing lights out right now. This is a team that could beat SMU by 20. Or go 10 minutes without a bucket in the second half and fade into obscurity.

Q: Oregon gets an #8 seed and has to play Oklahoma State in Omaha. Did the Ducks get screwed?

AM: Given the lack of any truly notable wins on their non-conference slate, the Ducks’ relatively strong finish to the season in a weak Pac-12 shouldn’t really hold much sway. And it didn’t. But the fact that they’ve got to go to Big 12 country to play a Cowboys team that really didn’t do a whole lot to earn much good favor can’t sit well either.

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What SEC Teams Seek This Weekend

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 18th, 2015

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The Southeastern Conference has been hit hard in the national media and on social media and everywhere else for its less than stellar basketball reputation. To be fair, it’s not completely unwarranted. Ole Miss opened the season with a loss to Charleston Southern. Mississippi State lost to Arkansas State and McNeese State. Missouri boasts a loss to UMKC. Those are bad losses to be sure, but the SEC is definitely not a one-team league, and the NCAA Tournament is a very good time to prove it.

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But, the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Five SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament this season, including undefeated Kentucky, which is a step in the right direction. You have to wonder, though, how much the Wildcats running through the conference without a loss has tarnished the perception of the rest of the league. Close followers of the SEC recognize its depth of talent from top to bottom this year but college basketball success is often defined by how the conference performs in March. Whether you subscribe to that opinion or think it’s bunk, it is important for the SEC to prove its worth on the national stage this weekend. Below we will examine what each team stands to gain during the NCAA Tournament in addition to bolstering the overall perception of the conference.

  • Kentucky: ESPN has made you acutely aware that Kentucky is chasing history, but even though the Wildcats are on the pursuit of perfection, there are still plenty of doubters. Everybody knows haters are gonna hate, but there is really only one way to silence those detractors, and that’s to win. For Kentucky, anything short of a National Championship will bring out a chorus of “I told you sos” from the numerous Twitter trolls who have persistently claimed that Kentucky has benefited from a weak SEC slate. John Calipari‘s club is on a mission to achieve something much more substantial than providing trash talk ammunition for the Big Blue Nation to take on Louisville fans. The 2012 version of the Wildcats may very well have been a better team than this season’s crew, but the Anthony Davis Wildcats can’t claim a 40-0 record. With six more wins the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats will forever be remembered as one of the great teams in college basketball history. Lose, however, and this team might be categorized in the same breath as the 2009-10 John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins Wildcats; a talented team that fell short when it counted the most.

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Dreams of an ACC First Weekend

Posted by Matt Patton on March 18th, 2015

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The ACC’s six NCAA Tournament teams have a lot on the line this weekend. Let’s take a look at each to determine how their current status projects in getting through the first weekend and beyond.

  • Duke: The Blue Devils look to avoid another early exit after suffering two huge round of 32 upsets in the last three years (Mercer – 2014; Lehigh – 2012). The 2013 team advanced according to seed, losing to eventual national champion Louisville in the regional final, but that Duke squad was led by three seniors. The makeup of this year’s group — with only one senior — is very similar to those two young Duke teams that were bounced by double-digit seeds. But don’t expect another opening game debacle this year since Duke has earned the advantage of a #1 seed for the first time since 2011. Just getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament unscathed is not the goal for this team, however, as anything short of an Elite Eight appearance would be a major disappointment. Duke has won several games in tough environments already this season, but the finality of the NCAA Tournament could cause Coach K’s inexperienced team to tighten up. If it can handle a potential grinder on Sunday, that may be enough to loosen up the Devils for a much deeper run.
Justin Anderson is the key for the Cavaliers. (Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports)

Justin Anderson is the key for the Cavaliers. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

  • Virginia: All eyes will be on Justin Anderson when the Cavaliers take the court in Friday’s opener against Belmont. For Virginia to make a Final Four run, they’re going to need to have Anderson (and his offensive game) back in shape quickly. Assuming they handle the Bruins, Michigan State looms as the likely third round opponent in a rematch of last year’s Sweet Sixteen meeting in Madison Square Garden. The Spartans won that tightly contested game and come in to this year’s NCAA Tournament probably playing better than Virginia is right now. Good defense and a revenge factor will not be enough, though – the Cavaliers need buckets, and a healthy Anderson gets them easier than anyone else on the team. If Virginia makes it out of Charlotte, it will likely mean that Anderson has regained his effectiveness and that means bad news for the rest of the East Region.

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Gonzaga: Why You Should Take The Zags Seriously This Year

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 17th, 2015

Maybe it is just that the naysayers are louder. Maybe it is the whole “once bitten, twice shy” nature of postseason college basketball. But despite a 32-2 record, a #6 overall KenPom ranking, a #2 seed in the South Region, and a veteran-heavy lineup, the once beloved Gonzaga Bulldogs seem to be going the way of Rodney Dangerfield. Not only are they getting no respect on the national scene from the average college basketball fan, they’re at a point in the program’s history where the combination of overwhelming regular season success (they’ve won 14 of the last 15 WCC titles, for example) and relative lack of postseason success (just three Sweet Sixteen appearances in that same span) has drawn a peculiar combination of jealousy and dismissal. Fans around the WCC are sick of their dominance the way New York-hating baseball fans love to hate the Yankees, while the rest of the country doesn’t take them all that seriously due to their handful of NCAA Tournament flameouts.

Despite a 32-2 Record, Many Dismiss Gonzaga's Chances

Despite a 32-2 Record, Many Dismiss Gonzaga’s Chances. (Getty)

Now, I wrote about Gonzaga a year ago following their blowout loss to Arizona in the Round of 32. I stand by everything I wrote there: Gonzaga’s postseason record is a result of a combination of bad luck in a small sample size and, frankly, a relative lack of talent. I wrote about them again back in December, wondering if this year was really any different than those in the past. I’ve now watched the Zags play maybe a dozen times this season. I’ve seen them up close and personal four of those times. I’ve seen them grow from a point in December when they easily handled UCLA at Pauley Pavilion to last Tuesday night in Las Vegas when they took home another WCC Tournament title. And let me tell you, from a guy who watches a lot of college basketball, there aren’t very many teams in this country that are better than Gonzaga.

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Atlantic 10 Postseason Previews

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on March 17th, 2015

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vbtnblog.

Sunday, Sunday

As expected, the Atlantic 10 sent six teams to the postseason: three to the NCAA Tournament — Davidson, Dayton and Virginia Commonwealth — the other three to the NIT — George Washington, Richmond and Rhode Island. VCU benefited the most, not just with the championship and accompanying automatic bid, but in seemingly finding some of the answers that Shaka Smart has been searching for much of the season.

Archie Miller might be the most important returnee of the entire A10 conference. (AP)

Will the home court advantage give a slightly tired Dayton team the boost it needs? (AP)

NCAA Bound

Dayton head coach Archie Miller was reluctant to admit that the cumulative effect of a 33-game schedule may have played a role in his Flyers’ blowout loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship game on Sunday. “These guys, they have battled hard all year so it’s kind of hard to say we are finally tired. I don’t think we played tired.” He later tacitly acknowledged that sophomore point guard Scoochie Smith, who carried a good deal of the offensive burden through Dayton’s three-game run in Brooklyn, may have been feeling it. “He may be the one guy I look and say from a legs perspective he had some really good looks and was short on all of them, so hopefully we get Scoochie back.” The Selection Committee essentially said to the Flyers, “You get to open the Tournament at home! On three days rest” — a classic good news/bad news punch line. Their opponent, Boise State, will traverse a time zone to make the game. Smith, along with consistent play-makers Kendall Pollard and senior Jordan Sibert, should win this game, and after another two-day layoff and a bus ride to Columbus, will face #6 Providence, another uptempo team with a short bench. Read the rest of this entry »

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