ATB: Bubble Miss For Boise, Chalky Big East Goodness, and Unfortunate Injuries in the MW…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 14th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Power League Conference Tourneys En Masse.  Some of the Power Six leagues tipped off their conference tournaments Wednesday, and that only means one thing — teams have begun their final-ditch attempts at saving their bubble fortunes once and for all. The Big East already broke the ice; the Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and Mountain West (the MW is a “power league” in every sense of the word) got off the ground Wednesday. Meaningful outcomes have already gone final, but the best is yet to come. The selection committee keeps a critical eye fixed on these league finales, from the mildly appetizing early rounds you saw Wednesday night right up to the weekend championship games. The final sprint to Selection Sunday is here, and the end of the tunnel – bracket release, office pools, Seth Greenberg wailing and gnashing his teeth on a post-selection show Sportscenter segment (probably) – can’t come fast enough.

Your Watercooler Moment. Boise Falls Short. 

A win against SDSU would have done wonders for Boise State's Bubble Positioning (AP Photo).

A win against SDSU would have done wonders for Boise State’s Bubble Positioning (AP Photo).

By far the greatest bubble intrigue of the night could be found at the Thomas & Mack Center for UNLV and San Diego State’s quarterfinal match-ups in the Mountain West Conference Tournament. The MW has been a crazy league all season — terribly difficult to predict at times, open to random interpretation, a nightly treat of hoops unpredictability and hotly-contested games. There was nothing different about Wednesday night’s showdown. Boise played SDSU tough for 40 minutes and nearly held on for the RPI top-50 win it needed to seal its place in the NCAA Tournament. A loss puts the Broncos in a dangerously tight spot heading into the weekend. As fellow bubble squads around the nation likewise vie for resume-padding wins, Boise could very well see its profile squeezed out of an ever-tightening at-large allotment. The Broncos have done nice work thus far this season, and that road win over Creighton holds more weight now than it did about a month ago, and maybe, maybe the selection committee will give Boise the benefit of the doubt for playing in the top-to-bottom meat grinder that is the MW — who knows. Until the bubble coagulates, evolves, and shakes off its outer-fringe detritus over the next few days, Boise’s fate subject to the committee’s obscure discretion.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • No C.J. McCollum, But Mike Muscala, Bucknell Not a Bad Consolation Prize. A devastating foot injury in an early January game at VCU effectively ended Lehigh star C.J. McCollum’s season, and almost certainly his college career. That robbed us another chance to see McCollum pull off another massive first-round upset, but in order to get back to the NCAA Tournament, McCollum would have needed to get by Bucknell in the Patriot Conference Tournament. Without him in the lineup, the Mountain Hawks didn’t even get a shot at the Bison, losing to Lafayette in the semifinals, but even so, I’m not so sure McCollum could have led his team past Mike Muscala and company. Bucknell is good – really good. They took Missouri to the wire in January, won at Purdue, throttled New Mexico State and handled La Salle comfortably. They finished 12-2 in Patriot League play and on Wednesday night, Bucknell qualified for the NCAA Tournament by beating Lafayette in the tournament final. Whatever #2 or #3 seed happens to draw the Bison will not be smiling at the prospect of a breezy opening-round match-up. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: Wolters Is Going Dancing, Valpo Lives On and LIU-Brooklyn Earns Third Straight NCAA Bid…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 13th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. More Tourney Tickets. Bids are flying in from the most distant precincts of college hoops common fandom. The casual onlookers among us look at, say, South Dakota State or Valparaiso and breathe a collective sigh. They see an undeserving population of lower-class programs free riding off a welfare-like system of automatic bids that prizes a days-long single-elimination conference tournament over a season’s body of work. No one said the current small conference arrangement was the silver bullet for competitive entry; it’s just the complex and maddeningly frustrating world we live in. Look, these small league teams may not stand the same chance of making deep March runs as your average power conference denizen, but you know what? Who cares? Yeah, yeah, laugh all you want now, poke fun at the hyphenated university names and obscure locales, but the fact of the matter is these teams, like it or not, will be in the field come Selection Sunday, and they might just wind up giving your [insert BCS conference school here] a brutal time in the early rounds of the Tourney.

Your Watercooler Moment. Horizon and Summit League Hand Out Bids.

Last year's NCAA Tournament trip for SDSU resulted in an opening-round loss to Baylor. Wolters and SDSU are back at it again this year (AP Photo).

Last year’s NCAA Tournament trip for South Dakota State resulted in an opening-round loss to Baylor. Wolters and SDSU are back at it again this year (AP Photo).

In case you missed out on Valparaiso’s stunning semifinal victory over Green Bay, and the utterly hilarious reaction it induced from head coach Bryce Drew, be aware that the Crusaders were one Ryan Broekhoff last-second heave away from never making the final in the first place. Alas, Valpo pulled through, fought off Wright State in the championship round and secured its first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2004. The near-death semifinal experience gives Valpo’s inclusion a charmed quality, if you can call it that, but the biggest story from Tuesday night’s games comes straight out of Sioux Falls, where – you wanted it, you got it – Nate Wolters led South Dakota State to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance by knocking off league rival North Dakota State. Wolters shined, to the surprise of almost no one, scoring 27 points and dishing out six assists and making every big play in winning time to ensure the Jackrabbits would reach the sport’s grandest national stage once again. This Wolters fellow is an interesting story. Some have broached comparisons to Jimmer Fredette, but that’s really not an accurate description of Wolters’ game. He is a backcourt creative engine, not an electrifying, rhythm-garnering, pure jump shooter. His style is deliberate and cunning, smooth yet off-kilter, harmonious yet lethal. If you missed tonight’s game, circle SDSU’s first-round Tourney match-up, whoever arises, because it’s the final chance to behold one the sport’s most mysteriously alluring backcourt star. You won’t want to miss out.

Tuesday Night’s Quick Hits… 

  • Blackbirds Make It Official. Would you be surprised to learn the nation’s leading assist man, Jason Brickman, hails from a three-time defending NEC conference regular season and tournament champion, that Julian Boyd, LIU-Brooklyn’s best player, has been out since December with a knee injury, that the Blackbirds are – not just historically, but this year specifically – actually good? That’s the unit the NEC churned up and spewed out for its automatic NCAA bid this season, and unlike the countless cases where a “hot team” wins a few games to spoil another team’s dominant regular season work, the Blackbirds, who beat Mount Saint Mary’s in the NEC Tournament final Tuesday night, are here on merit, make no mistake. Even without Boyd, LIU-Brooklyn is attuned to the intensity and competition level of tourney games. If nothing else, experience should make the Blackbirds a tricky team to deal with. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: Buzzer-Beaters Galore, Conference Tournament Aplenty and Bubble Consolidation…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 11th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC C0lumnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. Regular Season Finale. The end is here. Sad, isn’t it? When I say end, I don’t mean the real end. That comes later, at the end of the greatest tournament in American sports. No, what I’m referring to is the regular season, the five-month long slog that took us through the uncertain fall months of non-conference play, across the New Year into a rugged conference landscape, and finally, into the brink of league tourney season. Other than the official crowning of regular season conference champions, select NCAA bids handed out in smaller leagues and a spate of meaningful bubble movement, nothing really happened over the weekend. It was sort of ordinary – if ordinary means a continuation of the craziness we’ve witnessed all season. So without further ado, I present your final regular season weekend ATB. Let’s have at it…

Your Watercooler Moment. The Big Ten Title Bout. 

A Big Ten Title was just one of the benefits Indiana will enjoy in the wake of a huge win at Michigan (Gettty Images).

A Big Ten Title was just one of the benefits Indiana will enjoy in the wake of a huge win at Michigan (Gettty Images).

The Big Ten regular season championship was up for grabs when the league’s five top teams (Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State) began action Sunday afternoon. The basic expectation was that Indiana, after being manhandled at home by Ohio State earlier this week, would lose at Michigan to open up the conference crown to all kinds of contingencies and x-way split scenarios. The Buckeyes wanted a piece of the pie; Tom Izzo’s team didn’t want to be left out; and the Wolverines, well, their fate was in their own hands. The thinking was absolutely on point – the Buckeyes showed Tuesday night in Bloomington what grit and defensive focus and physicality can do to the nation’s most efficient offense, how it can throw Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford into a funk and render the Hoosiers’ hot jump shooters mostly impotent for large stretches. The optics of IU’s postgame celebration – a major national talking point the next day, oddly enough – only increased the wackiness of the entire situation. IU had fallen in a game it was widely expected to win, and the postgame ceremony was expected to include not just a celebration of Indiana’s seniors, but also the official honoring of the Hoosiers’ first outright Big Ten title since 1993. It took another five days before checking that second box, but Indiana got its long-coveted conference title. The Hoosiers sunk Michigan (and its conference title hopes) in the final minute on a debilitating string of missed UM free throws, six consecutive IU points, a crucial layup from Cody Zeller and a whole lot of late-game savvy in front of a deafening Crisler Center crowd.

An outright conference title is just one of the prizes IU shored up Sunday. Another? The inside track on landing the Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis) hosting site for the NCAA Tournament, where red-and-white partisans will turn any IU game into a virtual home court advantage. Then there’s the NPOY implications – the fact that Oladipo, in the biggest game of the season, came up huge with 14 points, 13 rebounds (not to mention Zeller’s 25/10, if you still believe in Zeller’s outside shot at the POY awards) and his usual brand of supercharged defensive disruptiveness, and that Trey Burke just couldn’t get his team over the hump when it mattered most. Yes, Indiana won a lot more than standings supremacy over the nation’s toughest league. Just days after a puzzling loss, the Hoosiers now roll into postseason play with utmost confidence in their ability to make good on the preseason No. 1 ranking.

Also Worth Chatting About. Wildcats Buck up in Must-Win Finale.

The Wildcats seized the biggest resume boost available in the SEC by knocking off Florida at home (Getty Images).

The Wildcats seized the biggest resume boost available in the SEC by knocking off Florida at home (Getty Images).

Like any historically dominant sports entity, Kentucky has its share of location-agnostic dissidents within its sport. It is one of two teams, along with Duke, to drown in the national hatred. The Wildcats are blue, well-funded, a self-generating news cycle and in most seasons, good. Kentucky is good; oceans hold water; the sky is blue (you get the point). Making that argument would have seemed a bit silly for much of this season, with the possible exception of a mid-season stretch where the Wildcats tore off five straight wins, watched Nerlens Noel develop into a bona fide defensive star and potential lottery pick, and laid waste to most of the NCAA Tournament doubts heaved their way during an uninspiring non-conference performance. When Noel lost his season to an ACL injury in a road defeat at Florida, the stakes changed. Kentucky needed to show the selection committee that it belonged in the Tournament without its best and most important player. It needed to prove it was good, again. The only sign of goodness prior to Saturday from this current UK team came in an inspired overtime win over Missouri. The rest of the Wildcats’ Noel-less work, including road losses at Arkansas and Georgia, was less than inspiring. Kentucky had work to do before its at-large credentials could be considered even reasonably acceptable by selection committee standards.

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ATB: A Couple of Big Bubble Wins, Miami Stunned at the Buzzer and a Whole Bunch of Weird Losses…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 7th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Two Questionable At-Large’s Cash In. At the end of a long season, after a mixed bag of wins and losses leaves you wanting more, every now and then the schedule throws you a lifeline. Teams get big resume-boosting opportunities right in their own home gyms. Sometimes they take advantage; other times not. Villanova and Iowa State were blessed with such propositions in their respective home confines Wednesday night, with Oklahoma State visiting Hilton Coliseum and Georgetown making its way to the Wells Fargo Center. With Tourney ticket-punching affairs hanging in the balance, their agendas were simple. Win and you’re in.

Your Watercooler Moment. Bubble-Dwellers Score Big.

Taking out a top-half seed like Oklahoma State will make waves in the at-large picture (AP)

Taking out a top-half seed like Oklahoma State will make waves in the at-large picture (AP)

When national player of the year candidates meet desperate bubble teams, I’ll take the latter every time and never think twice. Arguably the best player in college basketball over the past few weeks, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, came upon a collective force he could not overcome in Philadelphia, PA. That force was Villanova’s home court advantage and added motivational edge, and the Wildcats – having already knocked off Syracuse, Louisville and Marquette at home this season – were not about to let this golden opportunity slip away. Sure, Jay Wright’s team could have busted off a few Big East Tournament wins and maybe, maybe snuck into the field after a loss Wednesday night. Instead, thanks to the efficient offense of JayVaughn Pinkston and solid defensive work on Porter, Villanova can go into Selection Sunday feeling optimistically comfortable about its position in the field. The other big bubble game didn’t feature a top-five team. A National POY candidate was in the building, though, and not even Marcus Smart could hold down the Cyclones’ potent offense in Ames. Like the Georgetown win, ISU’s triumph should get them over the hump (ISU’s case is thornier than Villanova’s, no doubt), provided it takes care of business Saturday at West Virginia. It’s never smart to make definitive statements about who’s in and who’s out before the selection committee gets together and sets in stone the field of 68. The committee has been known to make some puzzling decisions from time to time. And I don’t consider myself skeptical when I say the selection process will render more than a few dumbfounding choices this season. But on Wednesday night these two teams may have eliminated the possibility of selection day robbery altogether. Their profiles look worthy.

Also Worth Chatting About. Uh, Miami?

One of the main takeaways from Saturday’s loss at Duke, besides Ryan Kelly’s marvelous return, was the way Miami hung tough for 40 minutes, battled the Blue Devils every step of the way, and came one three-point shot away from sending the game into overtime. Miami came away with a loss, but if you’re Jim Larranaga you head back to Coral Gables feeling like your team not only managed the pressures of a brutal environment with poise and aplomb, but also nearly knocked off arguably the best team in the country (I don’t subscribe to this notion, but it’s out there) on a night when its newly-healthy senior forward miraculously returned from a weeks-long absence to play one of the best games in program history. It happens. Conference games are hard to win on the road. And besides, Miami still had the ACC regular season crown to bank on, right? All it had to do was win one of its final two regular season games to clinch its first outright conference title since moving to the ACC; easy stuff. On Wednesday night Georgia Tech was anything but “easy” at the BankUnited Center. The Yellowjackets stunned Miami, delaying its outright conference title and shaking up the ever-fluid NCAA Tournament seeding permutations, but more than anything else, Georgia Tech handed the Hurricanes their first truly worrisome lost of the conference season (shout out to Florida Gulf Coast!). Mere weeks away from the opening round, Miami will need to assess its mistakes and roll into the tourney riding the same confidence and momentum it had throughout most of league play.

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ATB: More Uncertainty Atop the Big Ten, a Mini-Brawl at Purcell Pavilion and DJ Cooper’s Immense Achievement…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 6th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Conference Tournaments, Y’all. The first conference tournament of 2013 slipped under the radar. If you missed it – and no one’s scolding you for passing on the opening round of the Big South Tournament – you can be forgiven. The smallest minnows of the mid-major world are long conditioned to early-round negligence in their conference tournaments. Just promise me one thing: When the mid-major tourney bombardment begins in earnest tomorrow, for the rest of the week and leading up until the Power Six tourneys, you will at least pretend like you know what you’re talking about when automatic bids are cashed in remote little gyms around the country and the at-large bubble pool inevitably shrinks. This stuff, whether it interests you or not, directly affects your teams’ NCAA hopes. On to the recap…

Your Watercooler Moment. Buckeyes Raid B-Town.

Stingy defense from the Buckeyes hindered Indiana's vaunted offense (AP).

Stingy defense from the Buckeyes hindered Indiana’s vaunted offense (AP).

First things first: Indiana is not invincible at Assembly Hall. Just this winter, Wisconsin went into the vaunted Hoosier Dome, controlled the pace of play and imposed its trademark trodgy style to excellent effect. The Badgers left with a five-point win and a frustrated Hoosiers fan base. Things have changed since, obviously. Indiana quickly righted the ship with five straight wins, building confidence and national acclaim by the week, and amidst all the madness at the top of the college hoops landscape this season, the Hoosiers had built something of a consensus as the number one team in the country (sorry Gonzaga, but this isn’t about you). All that was left in the final week of the regular season, which Indiana – thanks to Michigan’s win over Michigan State on Sunday – began having already claimed at minimum a share of the regular season title, was a home-and-away two-game finish. Those games commenced Tuesday with a visit from Ohio State and finished Sunday at Michigan. The latter was viewed as the biggest road block, and with good reason. Tuesday’s matchup was perceived as a stepping stone of sorts, a tune-up for the regular season finale. The offense would hum, Victor Oladipo would infect the game with positive energy and Indiana would ride a boisterous crowd to a comfortable victory. It was practically a formality.

Ohio State did not take well to the idea of a Hoosiers victory party. The Buckeyes used the stifling perimeter D of not only Aaron Craft but also bouncy sophomore Shannon Scott (who had four steals) and got another big scoring effort from Craft (15 points) to complement one of DeShaun Thomas’s habitually-high scoring marks (18 points) to pull out a nine-point win. As encouraging as it is to see Craft put together another high-scoring effort (he had 21 against Michigan State), the Buckeyes’ key to victory was their defense. Like the Badgers in early January, Ohio State took Indiana out of its offensive comfort zone, and the Hoosiers were too shaken to adjust. Ohio State didn’t just spoil Indiana’s senior night and presumptive full-regular season title clinching. It quite possibly unveiled a defensive blueprint to shut down the nation’s hottest offense.

Tonight’s Quick Hits…

  • Bubble Game of the Week. A cursory scanning of this week’s collection of games reveals an odd an utterly mystifying fact: there is only one game between two teams who truly classify as quote-unquote bubble inhabitants. Ole Miss was in danger of falling out of the conversation completely after losing to not just the worst team in the SEC this season, but one of the worst groups in league history: Mississippi State and its ghastly 227 RPI figure. The Rebels needed Tuesday night’s home game against Alabama just to stay in the picture; they got it, and probably dashed Alabama’s fading NCAA aspirations along the way. So Ole Miss isn’t totally dead, I suppose. Not yet. Winning at LSU Saturday would be a good place to start. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: Baylor’s Bubble Trouble, the Quiet Cardinal Resurgence, and Really, Baylor?

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 5th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. The Postseason is Among Us. It is time we bid adieu to a season full of fun Big Monday matchups. Sure, sure: not every Monday night slate offered up top-25 drama, or even putatively interesting storylines. There were some boring Monday nights, for sure. But the net-net of the regular season’s compendium of Big Monday matchups comes out positive. Speaking of positive, by the time you read this some of the smaller conference Tournaments may have already tipped off. We have entered the preliminary fluff; the postseason is just ahead. And if that’s the tradeoff for running out of Big Monday games, I don’t know about you, but I’ll take my postseason and leave those made-for-tv Monday nights behind without batting an eye.

Your watercooler moment. That Hurts, Baylor.

As Baylor slides towards the edge of the bubble, a wealth of talent is on the verge of missing out on the sport's preeminent postseason Tournament (AP).

As Baylor slides towards the edge of the bubble, a wealth of talent is on the verge of missing out on the sport’s preeminent postseason Tournament (AP).

When you see the way Baylor squandered a huge resume-boosting opportunity over the weekend against Kansas State – on Rodney McGruder’s last-second game-winning three, which came about after the Bears relinquished possession on a full-length inbounds play – Monday night’s loss at Texas doesn’t look anywhere near as heartbreaking. But it could wind up coming back to haunt the Bears on selection Sunday, where a classic bubble profile finds itself in the hottest of at-large waters. It didn’t have to be this way: McGruder could have missed that shot, and Baylor could have pulled off the upset, and a loss at Texas would be bad, no doubt, but not bad enough to outweigh the benefits of a massive K-State win. Hypotheticals are all the rage in bubble-anxious athletic departments this time of year, and you can rest assured Baylor has plenty of moments it’d like to have back this season. But the bottom line is that it’s March 4, conference tournaments are around the corner and Baylor, rife with future NBA draft picks and a backcourt that rumbled on to the Elite 8 last season, is in real danger of missing out on the Big Dance. The Bears’ do get one last saving grace (and it may not be enough, not without some serious work in the Big 12 Tournament): a home date with Kansas to close the regular season (March 9). That’s a game Baylor can win, but it’s not one Kansas will take lightly, even as the regular season grinds to a close. The Jayhawks take this Big 12 title streak thing kind of seriously; they won’t cede to Baylor’s Tournament desperation in the name of losing a grip on Bill Self’s ninth consecutive Big 12 crown, is what I’m saying. Baylor will need to overcome that crowning desire, along with the handful of inherent flaws that have weighed the Bears down all season. Good luck.

Tonight’s Quick Hit…

Bearcats No Match For Louisville. Three-game losing streaks in January, panic, negative questions making their rounds on the internet. Remember the days? Back when the then-number one Cardinals were stunned on their home floor by a Michael Carter Williams-powered Syracuse, then followed it up by catching the wrong end of Villanova’s mini streak of top-five takedowns and fell once more as Georgetown started to hit its stride en route an 11-game (and counting) win streak. Not only was the Cardinals’ traditionally helter-skelter offense called into question, their No. 1 efficiency D was also propped up for debate. The five-OT loss at Notre Dame didn’t help their national look, and when Louisville came upon a cupcake-laden four-game slate – Saint Johns, at South Florida, Seton Hall, Depaul – it was easy to forget about the Cardinals as a national title contender. In the meantime, Louisville beefed up its defense to Pitino’s pristine standards, gaining confidence along the way, all in time for a huge payback win at the Carrier Dome Saturday. Louisville was back, if you ever bought into the idea they were “gone” in the first place. Back, in my definition of the word, means back to something resembling the original glowing perception we had of the Cardinals – one of the two or three best teams in the country. Teams like that – with Smith and Siva minimizing mistakes, Chane Behanan supplying yeomen’s interior work and Gorgui Dieng cleaning up everything on the defensive end – don’t lost to Cincinnati at home. You know how this one ended.

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ATB: Kelly Ignites Duke, Bubble Teams Fall in Droves and a Breathtaking One-Man Show in the MVC…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 4th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. March’s First Weekend. The regular season is whittling down to it climactic end. After this weekend’s bloated weekend of excitements, where many a conference race were won and lost, only one more weekend remains before conference tournaments begin. The regular season has been filled with excitement and unlikely drama, so in one sense it is devastating to face the end-of-regular-season music. The nearing of conference and NCAA Tournaments is what I like to call the ultimate silver lining to that dour sentiment. That’s right: check your calendars. The Tournament, and the mini tournaments leading up to it, are coming to a TV near you. And soon. What I’m really trying to get at here is that as grim as the prospect of a Saturday afternoon with zero college hoops on tap may be, the treat at the end of the calendar will arrive at a moment’s notice. One phase (the regular season) gives way to a better one (the postseason). That turning point isn’t here yet, so in the meantime we’ll stop by and examine some of the hardwood happenings in various leagues around the country. All systems go:

Your watercooler Moment. Ryan Kelly Helps, a Lot.

The return of Kelly was the deciding factor in Duke's ACC bout with Miami (USA Today Sports).

The return of Kelly was the deciding factor in Duke’s ACC bout with Miami (USA Today Sports).

Whenever someone would mention Duke’s chances of advancing into the deep rounds of the NCAA Tournament, or its seeding prospects, they talked about Duke in two forms. With Ryan Kelly, the Blue Devils are undefeated with wins over Kentucky, VCU, Louisville, Minnesota, Ohio State, Temple and Davidson. Without him they’re not the same team, both empirically and wins-wise, and a mixed run through the ACC underscored the impact of Kelly’s absence on Duke’s collective unit. The conversation loomed as Duke took road losses at NC State, Miami, Maryland, and most recently, Virginia. No one doubted whether Duke would improve with Kelly in the lineup, only whether they could improve enough to regain their nonconference form or, in the most skeptical corners of ACC message boards, whether Kelly would return at all this season. And even if he did return, how much could we reasonably expect from an unconventional 6’ll’’ stretch four with a history of nagging foot injuries? The answer to that question came Saturday. Kelly returned to the Blue Devils just in time for a titanic ACC clash with Miami, who embarrassed the Blue Devils in Coral Gables in their first matchup in January. To say Kelly returned would be like saying Willis Reed “returned” from a torn thigh muscle for game seven of the Knicks’ NBA Finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kelly didn’t just return. He stole the show: 36 points on 10-of-14 shooting in a game that Miami kept close throughout, and was only sealed when Shane Larkin and Rion Brown missed game-tying threes as time expired. It’s unreasonable to bank Kelly for 30 points on any given night. I could even see him sitting out, or playing sparse minutes, in Duke’s two remaining regular season games. If his foot isn’t fully healed, he may need the extra rest to gear up for the NCAA Tournament. What matters is that Kelly is back, and Duke can start working on trending back towards the clear-cut No. 1 team that ruled the hoops landscape in November and December. 

Also Worth Chatting About. Big East Contenders Handle Business.

A midseason Big East panic is a distant memory after Louisville won at Syracuse Saturday (AP).

A midseason Big East panic is a distant memory after Louisville won at Syracuse Saturday (AP).

At the top of the Big East standings, a glut of variously capable teams has positioned itself within striking distance of the conference title at different stages this season. Syracuse and Louisville were the obvious favorites entering conference play, and teams such as Marquette, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame have looked threatening on occasion. The picture has remained muddy for a while now – as it should in a league as naturally competitive and unpredictable in the Big East. As the conference schedule wanes, time and gradual attrition has sliced the pool of realistic challengers into a formidable trio: Georgetown, Louisville and Marquette. The most surprising exclusion expedited its exit on Saturday afternoon at the Carrier Dome, where the Orange engaged in a low-scoring tussle, eventually falling on the wrong end of Louisville’s payback effort from the Orange win at the KFC Yum! Center earlier this season. You may or may not have realized, but the victory was Louisville’s fifth in a row since that devastating 5 OT loss at Notre Dame, the only one of which had any real consequence. The Cardinals are once again locking teams down with the nation’s No. 1 efficiency defense, getting just enough on the other end from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and peaking just in time for the postseason. With Marquette holding serve against the Irish on Saturday just a week after knocking off the Orange at home, the Golden Eagles stand tied with Louisville in the Big East table, with Georgetown holding down first place after its win over Rutgers Saturday night. Syracuse’s three-game skid essentially dashes its league crown hopes, but more importantly it gives the Orange two straight defeats in their previously unassailable home gym and three straight losses overall. The Orange, strangely enough, are officially vulnerable at home, and officially on the outside of the conference title chase looking in as they round out their last hurrah in the Big East.

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ATB: Another Big Upset in the Big Ten, the Still-Undefeated Zips and Some Pac-12 Drama…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 28th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Because Big Ten Upsets Come In Pairs. Right when the Big Ten churns out one massive upset, number one Indiana’s four-point loss at Minnesota Tuesday night, the league got bored, went back to the drawing board, and said – in the most demonic voice possible – hey, Michigan, your time has come. The Wolverines went down on the road, at the house of a traditional basketball doormat, and on most nights, that story in itself would block out the rest of the night’s schedule. Not so – the Michigan loss was merely an icebreaker for a long and thorough evening of big-time matchups. Your humble nightly ATB writer compiled a sampling of the biggest headlines. Alas:

Your Watercooler Moment. A Very Happy Valley. 

The conciliatory retort to any mildly surprising loss in the Big Ten season has gone a little something like this: it’s ok to lose on the road in the Big Ten, because you know how hard those Big Ten road games are, right? Wednesday night’s shocking result in Happy Valley, where Penn State won its first conference game in 18 tries after a blistering 15-point second-half comeback, was a huge exception. Most road games are difficult to win in this league, no question; from Mackey Arena to the Crisler Center to the Barn, the Big Ten lays claim to some of the nation’s most raucous campus environments. Teams lose, like Indiana at Minnesota, and it’s tough to get too caught up in the result. Any team in this uber-deep league can rip off a big upset win on any given night, it is widely and frequently said. We would have been rolling out the same logic had Michigan lost at, say, Illinois or Minnesota. Instead, the Wolverines elected – willfully or not – to suffer their worst loss of the season against the worst team in their league. And the weird part is, the final score really isn’t that crazy at all. To the passive onlooker, yes, Michigan had no business losing this game. But for anyone who paid mind to Penn State’s eight-point loss (ahem, moral victory) at the Crisler Center just 10 days ago, seeing Michigan bite the dust at State College was insane, but it wasn’t some Kansas-TCU-level revolution. The point in all of this is not to disparage Penn State by way of condemning the unlikelihood of Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines have some real issues to sort out in the final weeks, particularly on the defensive end. With two of their final three games coming against Michigan State and Indiana, Michigan needs to shake this off, address whatever issues ailed them at PSU and rally for an important concluding schedule in advance of what’s shaping up to be an utterly chaotic Big Ten Tournament.

Also worth Chatting About. Pac-12 Competitiveness. 

A league bereft of depth and quality last season is on the rise (AP).

A league bereft of depth and quality last season is on the improving (AP).

Unlike the 2012 version, this year’s Pac 12 is sort of ok. In fact, it’s more more than that. The league could, believe it or not, birth as many as six NCAA Tournament squads this season. Four of those Tournament hopefuls took the court Wednesday night, and the most significant result (Arizona’s loss at USC) is probably something we should have suspected all along. USC has won five of its past seven without fired coach Kevin O’Neill and are quietly playing their best basketball of the season; meanwhile, Arizona’s last three road games, including tonight’s loss, read as follows: a blowout loss at Colorado, a four-point win at Utah and a loss at USC. In other words, the Wildcats’ squeaky road ways were a dangerous way to life live in the Pac 12. In the other two marquee P12 games of the night, UCLA held serve against Arizona State and Colorado hung tough and gutted out a road win at Stanford. Most of these teams, with a few exceptions at the bottom, are competitively intriguing, and Wednesday night was the latest example. Not even the possibly one-seed bound Wildcats are safe against the likes of a middling if inspired USC. The league may not be great at the top — much like every power league this season, there truly is no “dominant team” — but the considerable growth in the middle regions has added substantial girth to a conference that sent just one at-large team to the NCAA Tournament last season and saw its regular season crownholder, Washington, miss the field altogether. Change is undeniable. The preeminent western conference is back on its feet, and the on-court product it doles out keeps getting better and better as the season closes in on the most crucial stretch.

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ATB: Hoosiers Slip at the Barn, Late Season UT Tournament Push Redux, and Memphis Folds at Xavier…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 27th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Big Boys Stumble. At various stages of this season, Indiana and Florida have been called the best team in the country. Both efficiency statistics and on-court observations confirmed the hype. Over weeks of grueling competition the season has spotlighted weaknesses on both outfits – Florida can’t win on the road, Indiana tightens up in the second halves of close games. Top teams get picked apart endlessly; it’s part of the reason why this sport, and its subjective polls, are so fun to talk about. With both going down on Tuesday night, I won’t even begin to imagine what will be said Wednesday morning about these teams. Some of the talk may be more optimistic than I’m leading on. Equally possible is a scathing revival of the “No Best Team” debate, and the attendant tirades about the quality and quantity of NBA talent in this year’s draft class. We, of course, will leave that for other people. Don’t worry: These upsets receive plenty of love in the space below. But if you expect a mainstream screed on the state of college basketball, on the evils of the one-and-done system, the ultimate vanity of the regular season, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Your Watercooler Moment. Don’t Rue IU.

It hurts to lose in any context. Even No. 1 Indiana can't avoid the occasional road defeat (AP).

It hurts to lose in any context. Even No. 1 Indiana can’t avoid the occasional road defeat (AP).

The rare multi-week placeholder of the number one ranking in the AP Poll lost Tuesday night. We should have seen this coming; the top spot in the rankings has been a dangerously ephemeral place since Duke fell from its No. 1 perch around the turn of the New Year. Indiana’s reign felt* like the most sustainable thing since, with not only the star power of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo mounting a strong case for their team’s unquestioned dominance. The results on the court were piling up quite nicely, too – the Hoosiers withstood a devastating last-second loss at Illinois, perilous road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, all while keeping that coveted numerical distinction. What IU was doing in the Big Ten – living and thriving on the road, what every team has tried and failed to do at time or another – was remarkable. It was also too good to be true. In this historically fierce Big Ten, was there anyone who reasonably believed Indiana could rip off eight straight wins, including trips to Minnesota and Michigan, to finish the season as a Kentucky 2012-like favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament? The Gophers ended that conversation Tuesday night at the Barn. Indiana lost one in a number of tricky Big Ten road games, and now, inevitably, the No. 1 debate will rage on for another week. This feels like a perfect juncture to salute the Hoosiers for an inspiring run of dominance unseen in any other league by any other team this season. After braving the road rigors of Big Ten country, Indiana, despite Tuesday night’s loss, can at least claim to have lived up to its preseason front-runner status. Reputational merits aside, the Hoosiers made a fine go at keeping No. 1 locked up in B-town. And given their body of work to date, they just might keep it (*see what I did there?) through next week.

Also Worth Chatting About.Deja Vols.

A big resume win was what Tennessee needed, and that's exactly what it got Tuesday night in beating Florida (AP).

A big resume win was what Tennessee needed, and that’s exactly what it got Tuesday night in beating Florida (AP).

This is not a new story. Last season, Tennessee won eight out of nine games to finish 10-6 in the SEC race. The Volunteers, powered by then-freshman wunderkind Jarnell Stokes, pushed hard for an at-large bid, and if not for an overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament, their late surge would have given the selection committee a long and hard decision to make. UT is pressing yet again as the conference season plays out, and it might just be in better position to leave Selection Sunday with more than an NIT one-seed this time around. Because when you snag the biggest kid on the SEC block, as the Volunteers did in Knoxville Tuesday night by beating Florida, the resume-changing potential is boundless. Tennessee is in the discussion now, no doubt, and the way Cuonzo Martin’s team is playing lately, and the soft tail end of the SEC schedule (at Georgia and Auburn, home against Missouri), things are looking up in Knoxville. The late-season Tournament surge is on, the Volunteers are playing their best basketball of the season, and in a year where the SEC boasts two decent teams and not much else, UT has a place in the at-large jumble. It also helps when the aforementioned Gators, the best NCAA chip available in this league, cannot, under any circumstance, beat quality teams on the road. The Gators’ road hiccups are of no big concern to UT. Right now, the Vols have their sights set on the prize they fell just short of last season. Their bubble stock is on the rise, that’s for sure – which is a lot more than you can say about most bubble-dwellers these days.

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ATB: Orange Lose Second Straight and Negative Bubble Movement For Villanova and Iowa State…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 26th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Not Your Average Monday. By now you know the Monday drill. Two good games, played under the ESPN Big Monday umbrella, are typically the only contests worth watching. That was mostly true this Monday, but the two nationally televised games (Syracuse-Marquette, followed by Kansas-Iowa State) were plenty entertaining for a single night of hoops. In fact, it almost felt like… March! Speaking of which, Monday was the last such weekday of February, which means by this time next week, we’ll have entered – to borrow from a recent Oscar-winning sci-fi trilogy – the one month to rule them all. It’s coming fast, any day now, and if Monday night’s action got you excited, well, just wait for what’s in store once the calendar flips at the end of the week.

Your Watercooler Moment. Davante Gardner’s Not Messing Around.

From the bench to the spotlight, Gardner played his best game of the season Monday night (AP).

From the bench to the spotlight, Gardner played his best game of the season Monday night (AP).

It is not always wise or logical to criticize the basketball decisions of head coaches. Unless your hoops knowledge eclipses the man drawing up the plays and apportioning playing time on the sidelines – which, if that is the case, should land you a Division I job somewhere, at some school – my best advice is, to put it as succinctly as possible, just be quiet. Marquette coach Buzz Williams sent junior center Davante Gardner to the bench after just 11 minutes of playing time in Saturday’s game at Villanova. The Golden Eagles did not win that game, and Gardner may indeed have prevented the Golden Eagles’ fourth conference loss. MU fans had good cause for protest, surely. Not only is Gardner the Golden Eagles’ most efficient offensive player, he’s also the most highly-used, and the team’s best offensive rebounder to boot. All of those skills were evident in Monday night’s three-point upset against Syracuse, in which Gardner came off the bench to score 26 points and grab eight rebounds. Maybe Gardner’s benching had no impact whatsoever on the way he played against the Orange. Maybe he was primed for a breakout game anyway. Or maybe – and this is where I fall on the matter – Williams’ bad-cop routine worked, and Gardner responded with his best performance of the season, almost as if to say, “just try and bench me now, coach!”

Also Worth Chatting About. So Close, ISU.

For the second time in a row, ISU played Kansas into overtime and lost (AP).

For the second time in a row, ISU played Kansas into overtime and lost (AP).

The key to Tournament salvation was palpable Monday night at Hilton Coliseum. First-place Kansas was getting all it could handle from the Cyclones, and it was starting to feel very much like these teams’ first meeting – when ISU pushed KU into overtime at Allen Fieldhouse and elicited Ben McLemore’s best game of the season to preserve a Jayhawks win. Fred Hoiberg’s team had KU on the ropes again Monday night, and again the game went into overtime, and again, Kansas held on for a win — Bill Self’s 500th, in fact. Senior Elijah Johnson was the star this time around, finishing with 39 points, but rather than focusing on Kansas’ quiet post-TCU loss resurgence, I cant help but feel for Iowa State in what’s become a season of “almosts.” Sealing just one of those KU wins would have given the Cyclones the requisite resume pop to appease the selection committee. Now their fate for the NCAAs will most likely come down to the final three games of the regular season (and the Big 12 Tournament). This team has shown enough thus far to make me think they can win one of two upcoming games at Oklahoma and against Oklahoma State. Getting both would make the Cyclones a virtual lock; just one may be enough. Anyway, if the Cyclones do end up missing out, they can look back on these potentially seismic Kansas near-wins and pinpoint the exact source of discontent. When college basketball gives you opportunities to knock off top-10 teams in overtime, you take them. Iowa State hasn’t, not just once, but twice.

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ATB: Canes Meet the Pain, the End of a Rivalry and a Bracketbusters Finale…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 25th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. Reining in the Last Weekend of February. The end of two prized college basketball traditions came to pass this weekend. ESPN’s annual Bracketbusters event saw its last go-round feature a slate that, frankly, didn’t meet the occasion of the event’s last rendition. Meanwhile, a decades-old Big East feud between Georgetown and Syracuse came to a close, and unlike the mediocre Bracketbusters field, the game was a fitting send-off for one of the nation’s best rivalries. Those two events headlined another excellent weekend schedule, the rest of which included (per the usual) a massive upset, some grueling league match-ups and all kinds of bubble and seeding implications sprinkled throughout.

Your Watercooler Moment. Miami Goes Down. 

The notion of Miami going undefeated in the ACC always felt like a distant, almost untenable concept. The Hurricanes are, at the risk of paint a bleak picture, a basketball non-entity. They play in front of an apathetic fan base at a “football school,” in a city with fans that are — let’s just say -– selective about going to see their teams play. Neither me, nor most of the nation’s best college hoops minds, knew exactly what to think. Miami was good, sure, but how good?

Until Saturday’s loss at Wake Forest, Miami’s first in ACC play, the answer was unambiguously glowing: Miami was good enough to run the table, despite everyone’s early-conference season doubts. The Hurricanes were storming through league competition, barely breaking a sweat while doing it and slowly but surely grasping the country’s attention as they rose up the AP Poll and surfaced as a favorite to land a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The praise was well-earned; this team can really play. Not only do they have spiffy efficiency numbers to back up the results – which include a 27-point drubbing of Duke and wins over NC State and UNC – they also have the experience and senior leadership to complete the intangible component of a legitimate Final Four candidate. It’s never fun to be the subject of another team’s court storming, nor is it comforting to have your undefeated conference run come courtesy of one of the nation’s worst Power Six schools (Yes, Wake plays teams tough at home, but come on: these squads aren’t in the same league). But if you began the weekend pleasantly impressed and optimistic about Miami’s chances of making a deep March run this season, I don’t know why you’d lose faith now. Miami lost, and it didn’t look particularly good in recent games against Clemson and North Carolina, but does one game negate a 13-0 ACC start, a top-10 efficiency profile and a senior-laden team armed with the sideline guile of March-savvy coach? No, it doesn’t.

Also Worth Chatting About. Hoyas Soil Storybook Big East Exit.

Wins don’t get any bigger than Georgetown’s Saturday at the Carrier Dome at the Carrier Dome. (Getty)

Wins don’t get any bigger than Georgetown’s Saturday at the Carrier Dome at the Carrier Dome. (Getty)

All the elements of a ceremonial Syracuse smackdown were present. A raging pack of 35,000 + orange-clad maniacs, an eligible and re-ingratiated James Southerland, the jersey-hanging commemoration of one of the best players in program history (Carmelo Anthony). Saturday, at the Carrier Dome, this was about the Orange, about Jim Boeheim, about punishing a rival one very last time. Otto Porter and the victorious Georgetown Hoyas were having none of it. A defensive battle, as expected, stayed tight deep into the second half. Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone frustrated the Hoyas all afternoon, and Georgetown countered with smothering defense of their own. The deciding factor was Porter. In a game where points, assists and general offensive execution was hard to come by, Porter rose to the occasion in an impossibly tough road environment (before Saturday, Syracuse hadn’t lost at the Carrier Dome in 38 games, the nation’s longest streak). And so after a bumpy opening in conference play, and all the usual Hoyas-centric questions about season-long endurance being raised, Georgetown has rendered moot a once debatable subject: who’s playing the best basketball in the Big East these days? Georgetown is the only answer.

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ATB: Cal Edges Oregon, a Bleak Outlook For Cincinnati and a Major Big 5 Match-up…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 22nd, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Preparing For A Packed Weekend. Tuesday night and Wednesday night stole most of this week’s college hoops goodness. They brought us the Kansas-Oklahoma State double-overtime nailbiter, Indiana’s show-me victory in East Lansing and an expected and enthralling Mountain West showdown at UNLV. Thursday night didn’t feature as diverse a selection of intriguing games or storylines, but one bad night of hoops – taken alongside a loaded weekend slate, which includes the last-ever BracketBusters event – is probably not going to fly over the high-level hardwood drama that played out over the past two nights. If anything, a one-night dose of relative mediocrity (at least schedule-wise) will whet your appetite for the weekend ahead.

Your Watercooler Moment. Justin Cobbs Lifts Cal.

A huge last-second shot by Cobbs lifted Cal over Oregon in Eugene (Photo credit: AP Photo).

A huge last-second shot by Cobbs lifted Cal over Oregon in Eugene (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The national media spotlight directed at Cal coach Mike Montgomery following a controversial second-half sideline encounter with star guard Allen Crabbe dwarfed the positive aspect of the Golden Bears’ eight-point win over USC. Cal was winning, and winning against solid Pac-12 competition (USC regained its competitive edge since getting ride of Kevin O’Neill; they are unequivocally a nuisance to play). Their three-game winning streak, which began with an eye-opening eight-point victory at Arizona, was extended Thursday night by a gutsy two-point win at Oregon, who had only lost once beforehand at Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks were without freshman point guard Dominic Artis, and Cal’s superior guard play only magnified Oregon’s shaky backcourt. But for as much as Artis’ absence may or may not have altered Oregon’s backcourt functionality, you can’t disabuse the fact that Cal picked up another huge win in a late-season surge full of them. This team’s recent rise has been a steady climb into the thick of Pac 12 contention; as of Thursday night, the Bears sit just one game back of Arizona and Oregon (and 0.5 games back of UCLA), with a manageable closing schedule that should allow the Bears to close the gap should the Duke or Wildcats slip the rest of the way. Justin Cobbs’ last-second heroics are just the latest evidence; right now, Cal is the best thing the Pac-12 has to offer, full stop. The only question is, why didn’t we see this the first, I don’t know, three months of the season?

Also Worth Chatting About. This Could Get Ugly For Cincinnati.

This has been a disappointing set of games for Cronin and Cincinnati (Photo credit: AP Photo).

This has been a disappointing set of games for Cronin and Cincinnati (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Let me start by saying this: I don’t envision any realistic scenario where Cincinnati misses the NCAA Tournament. Entering Thursday night’s game at UConn the Bearcats owned a top-40 SOS and RPI figure, nonconference wins over Oregon and Iowa State and commendable league triumphs against Marquette and at Pittsburgh. There are bubble teams that would give anything for that collection of wins and computer power. The Bearcats remain in decent bubble shape, but Thursday night’s overtime loss in Storrs brought to the surface a potentially grim reality for Mick Cronin’s team. Dating back to a February 6 loss at Providence, the Bearcats have now dropped four of their last five, the lone win coming against Villanova. Looking back and rattling off the factors (individual and schedule related) behind the losing skid is simple. It’s what most optimistic fans would do after watching their once-formidable Big East favorite endure the toughest portion of its conference schedule. Here’s where that logic falls flat. If you look at Cincinnati’s remaining games, the only one that you can honestly qualify as anything remotely resembling “easy” is the season-finale against South Florida. In the meantime, Cincy has to play at Notre Dame, a revenge game with UConn and at Louisville. Best case scenario: Cincinnati splits the final four, carries a totally respectable .500 Big East record into the league Tournament, and reboots for a postseason push. The Bearcats have already damaged their seeding prospects beyond what anyone could have reasonably imagined. Botching this final stretch could really diminish their stature in seeding and locational committee discussions.

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