Owen Kemp of Rock Chalk Talk and SB Nation Kansas City is the RTC Correspondent for the Big 12 Conference. With tournament action set to tip from Kansas City on Thursday, get set with RTC’s postseason preview and regular season recap.
Headed into the Big 12 Tournament, Kansas State is widely considered the hottest team in the conference and is looking square in the face of a semifinal matchup against the Kansas Jayhawks that could be the game of the tournament. That of course assumes the Wildcats get past potential quarterfinal opponent Colorado, who recorded a regular season sweep of Kansas State.
On the bottom half of the bracket, the Longhorns might have to take another shot from Baylor, TexasA&M and/or Missouri in order to play on Saturday. The Longhorns are a collective 5-0 against these teams during the regular season and all four teams, including Texas, are playing to improve their tourney seed.
The reality is that the NCAA Tournament impacts some, but really doesn’t mean much to others. Barring a minor miracle, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, OklahomaState and Iowa State are teams whose fans will be done following this weekend, unless you consider the NIT or CBI worth watching.
The Kansas Jayhawks are a lock for a #1 seed and even a quarterfinal upset wouldn’t change that. The Jayhawks aren’t likely to pack up and leave without a fight, but the results this weekend just aren’t that important for anything more than bragging rights.
Baylor and Nebraska are two teams that need a deep run to jump back on the bubble and the two teams that cannot afford a first or even second round loss if they want to be considered. A semifinal run by either and they can start making their case to the committee.
For the rest, it’s playing for seed. Colorado probably needs to avoid a first round upset, but beyond that, wins by the Buffs, Missouri, Texas A&M, Texas and Kansas State all serve as arguments for a higher seed in the NCAA tournament. For Texas, it’s probably a two-seed if they play well, a three if they do not. A&M probably falls in the 4-6 range. Missouri probably goes as high as a #6 and as low as a #10. Colorado is looking at something in the 10-12 range while Kansas State could jump quite a bit if they win the tournament and possibly work their way back to a #5 or six seed looking most likely at this point.
The Big 12 Tournament has different meanings for different teams, but it’s a weekend that definitely holds March ramifications for many, considering the parity across college basketball in 2010-2011.
Patrick Marshall of Bluejay Basketball is the RTC correspondent for the Big 12 and MVC Conferences.
Kansas didn’t rebuild, they reloaded this season. After questions whether this team would be able to be as good as they were last season with basically only Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, this new class has gelled together and Bill Self was able to prove that he is one of the best developers of talent in the nation and also the Big 12 Coach of the Year. As I said in my preseason predictions, Kansas could fly under the radar and by the end of the season have a seasoned team. I just didn’t think they would actually win the conference. Oklahoma has also had a great season, but the loss of Blake Griffin over two key games was the difference between winning the conference and finishing second. I’m sure a lot of people were surprised to see Missouri be as successful as they were this season. You just didn’t know if Mike Anderson had the guys he wanted to play high pressure defense. But probably the surprise for me is the performance of Texas. To be real honest, I am really surprised how many people feel so confident Texas is comfortably in the tournament after the inconsistencies this team has had this season. I had high expectations for them to win the Big 12, but the non-existence of a player to step up to play point guard has really hampered this team. But I’ll have more on Texas later. Kansas St., Texas A&M and Oklahoma St. all have realistic desires of making the NCAA Tournament.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
New Mexico (26-5, 13-3)
Colorado State (24-7, 11-5)
UNLV (23-8, 10-6)
San Diego State (21-9, 9-7)
Boise State (21-9, 9-7)
Air Force (17-12, 8-8)
Fresno State (11-18, 5-11)
Wyoming (18-12, 4-12)
Nevada (12-18, 3-13)
Player of the Year. Jamaal Franklin, Junior, San Diego State. The fact that the Aztecs finished four games out of first place and just a game above .500 in conference play could rightfully give one pause in selecting the reigning MW Player of the Year to repeat, but with several teammates slowed by injury, Franklin stepped up his numbers almost across the board. With his minutes ticking up just slightly, his point total took a minor dip, while his rebound numbers jumped and, most impressively with point guard Xavier Thames dealing with injuries all year long, his assist averaged doubled. No, he’s nowhere near a finished product – he turns it over too much and actually got worse shooting from range – but in a conference with no dominant players, Franklin’s consistent production (he’s scored in double figures in all but one game) earns the nod. Kendall Williams and Colton Iverson were considered as well, in part due to their impact on their team’s successes, but both New Mexico and Colorado State earned their superior records on the strength of team efforts.
Coach of the Year. Steve Alford, New Mexico. At the start of the year, while the Lobos were considered one of three teams as favorites in the conference, they were largely seen as trailing UNLV and San Diego State. And when all is said and done, they come away with a conference title by two games. Behind a lock-down defense and a patchwork offense, the Lobos won 11 games by two possessions or less. He’s done a great job developing Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow along the frontline and got solid production out of his backcourt. And we can’t discount the job he and his staff did in putting together a schedule that earned New Mexico the fourth-ranked strength of schedule and an RPI of #2.
Once Again, Steve Alford Got Everything Possible Out Of His Lobo Team.
Freshman of the Year. Anthony Bennett, Freshman, UNLV. During non-conference play, Bennett was regularly a double-double threat and a constant presence on the highlight reels. His numbers dipped in conference play, in part due to a late injury (he only scored in double figures in conference play nine times in 16 games) and he still hasn’t figured out how to play effectively with Mike Moser, but despite those late dips, he’s still the runaway winner of our Freshman of the Year award.
Newcomer of the Year, Colton Iverson, Senior, Colorado State. Entering conference play, Bennett was the favorite for the conference’s best newcomer. But while Bennett’s performance dipped, Iverson’s never did. With 13 double-doubles to his name, not only is Iverson the clear choice here, he was a strong contender for Player of the Year.
Strange League Makeup: Perennial contender VCU left for the Atlantic 10, leaving 11 teams in the CAA, but only seven of those squads will participate in this year’s league tournament held in Richmond. Outgoing Old Dominion and Georgia State are ineligible under CAA bylaws, while UNC-Wilmington and Towson are ineligible for any postseason play because of low APR scores. College of Charleston recently approved a move from the Southern Conference and will likely join next season.
Can Bruiser Take The Dragons Dancing? Drexel’s 12th-year coach has won 199 games with the Dragons, but Bruiser Flint has never brought the team to the NCAA Tournament (his last Tourney appearance was in 1998 with UMass). The Dragons, champions of the regular season last year, are the favorites to repeat and this time also win the conference tourney now that VCU isn’t around to boast what was essentially home-court advantage at the Richmond Coliseum. Flint has had his share of headaches in the Virginia state capital, but a lot of them would go away if he could just snip that Coliseum net.
Frantz Massenat Leads The Dragons As Preseason Favorites. (AP)
Multiple Bids? That seems to be the question every year in the CAA, a conference that sent multiple teams to the tournament in 2011, 2007 and 2006. Without VCU – a fringe Top 25 team – that appears unlikely. But a team like Drexel could theoretically build itself a strong enough at-large résumé and then get upset in the CAA Tournament. It would take a big season from a George Mason or Delaware to have the Colonial flag waved at multiple NCAA sites, though. Old Dominion, ineligible for the league title, created a rugged enough non-conference schedule for itself to be an at-large consideration, but the Monarchs probably aren’t talented enough this year to breeze through that slate.
David Gao is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can also find his musings online at Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, or on Twitter @dvdgao.
By and large, the Big West wound up largely like the preseason prognosticators predicted. Long Beach State dominated with their senior-laden team, winning 15 straight in conference play before Cal State Fullerton tripped them up. CSF was probably the biggest surprise and also most improved over the season, as coach Bob Burton pulled together his team of transfers and formed an offensive powerhouse. UCSB once again had a slightly disappointing conference season, while UC Irvine did better than predicted, tying for sixth when they were picked last overall. UC Riverside peaked early, upsetting a few teams early in the season, threatening to break into the top half of the conference. However, they faded down the stretch, and finished tied for sixth, about where they were picked. UCDavis, picked to finish seventh, had an abysmal season that was only slightly salvaged by a late season surge where they managed to upset both Pacific and CSF.
Ultimately, the top four and bottom five divide was very evident for the 2011-12 season. It will be one of the top four: Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, UCSB or CalPoly, who will have a realistic chance at going dancing.
Co-Players Of The Year – Larry Anderson & Casper Ware: So technically there’s only supposed to be one POY, but this one was too hard to choose. Ware is still the go-to player on the best team in the conference, a guy that seemingly steps up in crunch time game after game. At the same time, his 16.9 PPG and 3.2 APG are both slight dips from last year’s numbers, when he also won POY. Picking up the slack was fellow 49er senior Anderson, who won defensive player of the year for good reason. When he was injured against Cal State Fullerton in the season finale, Titans guard DJ Seeley went off, carrying CSF to victory. Without either Anderson or Ware, I don’t think the 49ers go 15-1. Really, the same case could be made for TJ Robinson. It’s been a three-headed beast all year.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
Coming into the year, we thought we had a couple really good teams in New Mexico and UNLV, and six other teams with more questions marks than answers. Four months later, add San Diego State to the list of really good teams, but add the other five teams in the conference as, at a minimum, pretty good. Only Air Force and Boise State end the season with losing records, and each of those teams has risen up and played one of the top three tough at some point, with the Falcons even pulling off a win over San Diego State. There are four teams (so far) with 20 or more wins and it looks more and more like Colorado State, with home wins over each of the top three teams in the conference, will join them in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Wyoming and TCU both remain strong candidates for NIT inclusion. All told, this was an excellent encore performance for a conference that was coming off their best season on the national stage, especially given the turmoil surrounding the Mountain West’s hits and misses in the conference realignment game. In short, despite a few bumps and bruises along the way, the MW is still alive and well. At least for now.
San Diego State 24-6 10-4
New Mexico 24-6 10-4
UNLV 25-7 9-5
Colorado State 19-10 8-6
TCU 17-13 7-7
Wyoming 20-10 6-8
Air Force 13-15 3-11
Boise State 13-16 3-11
Player of the Year. Drew Gordon, Senior, New Mexico. This was a tight race, with Gordon, UNLV’s Mike Moser and San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin all neck and neck at the finish line. But, I’ll always hold true to the theory that when in doubt, a tie goes to the senior. And I’ll still gladly make the argument that Gordon edges out the other two on his own merits as well. The one thing that all three players do well is rebound the ball, but Gordon is the best of the three. Franklin is more capable of creating his own shot than Gordon, but Gordon generally plays within himself and is more efficient offensively; likewise, while Moser has a perimeter jumper that is missing from Gordon’s game, it doesn’t go far enough to make up for the other advantages that the Lobo star has. And, defensively, Gordon is significantly more polished than either of his younger competitors. The race is very close, and in no way am I denigrating either Moser or Franklin. But likewise, I don’t want to take the easy way out and just call it a three-way tie. Call Gordon the better of equals.
Drew Gordon Earns Our MW Player Of The Year In A Close Race (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Coach of the Year. Steve Fisher, San Diego State. It has been a year of great coaching jobs in the Mountain West as well, but the race here is slightly less contentious. While we give Gordon the MW POY award by a nose, Fisher wins this by a full body length over guys like Jim Christian, Larry Shyatt, and Tim Miles. Christian and Shyatt took teams with basically the same personnel as last year and led a complete 180, while Miles took a team that lost three of its best players and has them a nose ahead of where they were last year. Meanwhile, Fisher took a team that lost its four leading scorers, including NBA First Round pick Kawhi Leonard, off a Sweet 16 team and led a ragtag bunch that included a undermanned frontline (Tim Shelton and his three knee surgeries, basketball novice Deshawn Stephens, and graduate transfer Garrett Green) to an unlikely Mountain West title. Along the way, he helped transform Chase Tapley from a role player into a team leader and a go-to scorer and Jamaal Franklin from a little-used reserve to a big-name player on the national scene. Oh, and then there’s the whole conference title and national top 25 ranking. That’s nice too.
It may sound cliché, but the tournament is wide open.
Even though top seed Nevada ran away with the league, the second half of the conference schedule was not a cakewalk. The Wolf Pack won the first seven games by over 10 points per game, but won by just under four points per game in the second go-round (and took a loss against Idaho). There was much jostling in the final weekend of play with seeds two through six up for grabs heading into the final game this past Saturday.
The first round boasts three intriguing matchups with upset potential (seed-based) in all three. New Mexico State struggled to put away Fresno State in both regular season meetings, winning by four and then by five in overtime (overcoming a 19-point second half deficit in the process).
Idaho and Hawai’i split the regular season meetings with each winning on the other’s home floor.
Utah State swept the season series with Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs lost by just four points in the first meeting and has won five of their last six games.
With apologies to San Jose State, they don’t stand much of a chance against Nevada and this one should be a breeze although the Spartans did play tough in the game in San Jose losing by just six points.
Can Wendell McKinnes And New Mexico State Defend Their WAC Tourney Crown? Based On How NMSU Has Been Playing Lately, Don't Bet Against Them (AP)
Favorites: Nevada and New Mexico State. They’re the top two seeds and it would be a shame if the two didn’t meet in the championship game.
Dark Horses: Idaho and Utah State. Two schools with similar styles of play, well coached (Idaho’s head coach Don Verlin was Stew Morril’s understudy at Utah State) tons of sets in their offense, not likely to beat themselves. Utah State boasts the league’s best coach in Stew Morrill. Read the rest of this entry »
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference.
Conference Tournament Preview
After a thrilling regular season, it’s on to Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Despite being a three-seed, OhioState has to be considered the favorite given how well they ended the regular season. If either MichiganState or OSU wins the Big Ten Tournament, they will get strong consideration for a one-seed. Teams like Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue can all improve their NCAA Tournament seeds with strong showings this weekend.
Northwestern is the only clear bubble team in the conference, and as such is under the most pressure to string some wins together. If the Wilcats can beat Minnesota in the first round, they’ll face a Michigan team that they only lost to twice this season, though both losses came in overtime. Two wins in the Big Ten tournament should make them a virtual lock for their first-ever tournament birth, but it’s much easier said than done with this level of competition.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
Sun Belt Tourney Outlook (by seed)
Middle Tennessee (25-5, 14-2): The heavy favorite to win the tournament, the Blue Raiders have a decent computer profile in case they falter. Still, Kermit Davis won’t want to leave anything to chance.
UALR (15-15, 12-4): The Trojans won the tournament last year out of nowhere. This year, they can’t sneak up on anybody.
Denver (21-8, 11-5): By far the scariest team in the league right now. If you watched them play back in November and December, you probably thought they’d win this league running away. Now, they’re starting to play like that again.
Louisiana (16-14, 10-6): Yes, the ULM loss is ugly, but this team must simply forget about that and move on.
North Texas (16-13, 9-7): The Mean Green are in a different position in the tournament this year as opposed to 2011. Back then, a senior-laden team was on a mission—a mission that fell short in the final seconds thanks to UALR. These young guys are a little more happy-go-lucky, though, which could be to their benefit.
South Alabama (16-11, 8-8): The Jaguars are one of the league’s most surprising teams, finishing .500 despite bringing in an entirely new backcourt. Ronnie Arrow definitely has a major sleeper here.
Western Kentucky (11-18, 7-9): UALR could have a difficult time with WKU in the quarterfinals, especially since the Hilltoppers have nothing to lose and have played well lately.
Florida Atlantic (11-18, 7-9): Despite this season’s disastrous results, four wins in four days are all Mike Jarvis needs to forget all about it.
Arkansas State (12-19, 6-10): The Red Wolves probably aren’t as bad as their record suggests, since they’ve lost a lot of close games and have competed somewhat against the top of the league.
Florida International (8-20, 5-11): In DeJuan Wright’s last stand, maybe his teammates will rally for him.
Troy (10-17, 5-11): The Trojans closed the season with two straight victories. That counts for something.
The Year That Was
After entering the season in the shadow of East favorite Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee dominated the Sun Belt Conference and ran away with the division.
The slumping Owls fell well short of expectations, but Kermit Davis’ team played masterful defense and pounded the ball inside to LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton. This was supposed to be a team with major offensive question marks. And this was supposed to be a program that could never get over the proverbial hump. This season, though, Davis finally elevated the Blue Raiders to the top.
After Entering The Season In The Shadow Of East Favorite Florida Atlantic, Kermit Davis' Middle Tennessee Crew Dominated the Sun Belt Conference (Getty)
No team experienced more turmoil than Western Kentucky, which fired Ken McDonald after a lackluster start. Even with one of the league’s youngest squads, Ken Harper took over and immediately instilled a new confidence in his players. Apparently, he impressed somebody at the top. The school gave Harper the reigns as the full-time head coach after originally tabbing him as an interim replacement. Harper led WKU to three wins in its final four games, including an upset of Middle Tennessee in the season finale.
Arkansas-Little Rock lost Sun Belt Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman to graduation, and the 2011-12 season did not begin with much fanfare. UALR struggled through a difficult non-conference schedule and as Denver flew high in November and December, it appeared the reigning Sun Belt tourney champs may fall flat. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The Pioneers used a late surge to finish with 11 conference wins, but UALR edged them for the West title by playing good old-fashioned Steve Shields basketball all winter.
We said before the season not to anticipate immediate dominance from Tony Mitchell at North Texas. Again, we couldn’t have been more wrong (that’s a theme here, as you’ve probably noticed). Mitchell averaged a double-double in his first season of collegiate basketball to help keep the Mean Green afloat despite the ineligibility of Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. If Mitchell stays another year, look out.
Louisiana-Monroe will not compete in the Sun Belt tourney due to a poor academic rating, but it closed the regular season with one heck of a victory. It’s so significant and shocking, in fact, that it’s worthy of inclusion in this section as a part of the overall landscape of the Sun Belt’s 2011-12 season. It was one of those scores that simply makes you shake your head: ULM 78, Louisiana 60. That happened this weekend. In Lafayette, mind you. And remember, ULM has lost 26 games this season. This is the kind of stuff they make Hollywood movies about. Just consider the storylines: 1) it was a rivalry game 2) Louisiana is one of the league’s better squads 3) ULM’s seniors will never play again and the team cannot compete in the postseason 4) it was on UL’s home floor 5) brothers Steven (ULM) and Darshawn (UL) McClellan were playing against each other 6) ULM won by 18 points and 7) ULM has, um, 26 losses this season! By the way, Steven and Darshawn both scored in double figures. Steven may have won, but Darshawn’s team is playing this weekend, so he’s got bragging rights there.
Tony Mitchell's Outstanding Season Earned Him Player of the Year Honors (Denton Record-Chronicle)
Sun Belt Conference Awards
Player of the Year: Tony Mitchell, North Texas
In some ways, we’re almost hesitant to give this award to a freshman. But Mitchell earned this. He averages a double-double, he’s the best shot-blocker in the league and he changes the game by simply stepping on to the court. Who else in this league can grab 20 rebounds one night, block six shots the next night and then score 30 points the next night? In a league with several terrific stars, Mitchell is an incomparable talent.
Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee
Surprisingly, as much as a slam dunk as this pick may seem, it’s hard to pick against Steve Shields at UALR or Joe Scott at Denver. Still, Davis crafted a team with a lot of new parts into a big winner. He got the most out of Dendy after he transferred from Iowa State and he molded his guards into a really solid unit. In the end, this team played its tail off. It showed.
D’Andre Williams, UALR, Guard: A quintessential leader, this man was the driving force behind the Trojans’ surprising West title this season. They don’t make them like D’Andre Williams anymore: solid, gritty, defensive-minded and able to make his teammates better in every way.
DeJuan Wright, FIU, Guard: The senior may actually be the league’s most underrated player, despite leading the league in scoring. How’s that for bizarre?
D’Andre Williams (far left), DeJuan Wright, Chris Udofia and LaRon Dendy Rounded Out the Sun Belt First Team
Chris Udofia, Denver, Forward: Finally, we got one right—we chose Udofia to break out this season, and he certainly did. But frankly, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. As a sophomore, he simply built on his success as a reserve the year before, and with more consistent playing time he became a stud on both ends of the floor.
LaRon Dendy, MTSU, Forward: Chosen by the league as the Player of the Year, Dendy could put a scare into somebody in the NCAA Tournament. He matches up well with any major frontcourt.
Tony Mitchell, UNT, Forward: Let’s pray he comes back for another season.
Ray Floriani is the RTC correspondent for the MAAC and NEC conferences.
The top teams in the Northeast Conference proved to be competitive and battled it against each other all season. Interestingly, the conference postseason shapes up as a very balanced eight team field. LIU Brooklyn is the defending champion and favorite. LIU will face challenges from Wagner, Robert Morris and St. Francis (NY) to name a few. Among the eight teams, even a hot Monmouth team poses a threat. It should make for an interesting tournament and if LIU Brooklyn repeats, they will have truthfully worked and earned it.
The top eight in the NEC qualify for postseason conference play. Each individual game is at the higher seed of the two teams. The conference tournament begins on Thursday with all eight teams tipping it off.
Sacred Heart vs. LIU Brooklyn – The Blackbirds were knocked off by Monmouth on Saturday but take a 24-game home winning streak in this meeting. Player of the Year Julian Boyd leads a well balanced and dangerous attack. Sacred Heart lost closes contests to Robert Morris and St. Francis (NY) in the last week. The Pioneers also took LIU Brooklyn to overtime before losing 103-91 back on February 16. Dave Bike’s club will try to become the first #8 seed to knock off the regular season champion in NEC history.
CCSU vs. Wagner – A Wagner-LIU semifinal is highly anticipated. First, the Seahawks have to knock off a dangerous CCSU team. The winningest team in the NY metro area, Wagner split with CCSU this season. The Blue Devils of Howie Dickenman are on a roll, winning three of their last four, included was that victory over Wagner on Saturday. With a versatile veteran and star in Ken Horton plus a backcourt talent in Rookie of the Year Kyle Venales, CCSU will not be an easy out.
Monmouth vs. Robert Morris – The Chuck is not easy on visitors but Monmouth is arguably the NEC’s most dangerous team at this point. The Colonials are on a roll of their own, winning six of their last seven. Monmouth, a preseason number ten pick, captured seven of their final nine under first year mentor King Rice. The ten NEC victories posted by the Hawks is their most since 2006 and includes victories over LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis (NY) the final week of the campaign.
Quinnipiac vs. St. Francis (NY) – A season ending loss at FDU dropped the Terriers to a four seed. Glen Braica’s group, a preseason 11 pick, will host their first NEC postseason conference game since 1997. St. Francis swept the Bobcats this season but Quinnipiac is another team with momentum, entering the NEC tourney winners of eight of their last eleven games. St. Francis will most likely be without two keys players in Travis Nichols and Stefan Perunicic who also missed the FDU contest.
Kevin Doyle is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. The PL is among the first of this season’s conference tournaments to tip, with action set to start tonight.You can find him on Twitter@KLDoyle11.
The Favorite: Despite losing back-to-back games against Lehigh and Holy Cross down the stretch, and a less than stellar performance against bottom-dweller Navy, Bucknell remains the favorite to win the Patriot League. The Patriot League Tournament—like many of the smaller conference tournaments around the country—has its championship game located at the highest remaining seed. Playing in the friendly confines of Sojka Pavilion has treated the Bison quite well over the past two seasons as they are a combined 26-3 there. The last road team to win the PLT was, ironically enough, Bucknell back in the 2004-05 season in Worcester against Holy Cross. Home court does have its perks, and Bucknell can rest easy knowing that if they take care of business all three tournament games will be played in Lewisburg. Semantics and seeding aside though, it also doesn’t hurt that Bucknell has far and away the league’s best big man in Mike Muscala. Steady guard Cameron Ayers, sharpshooter Bryson Johnson, and a lunch pail kind of player in Joe Willman make the Bison a formidable group. More on the Muscala—or, as the Bison faithful like to call him, “Moose”—later.
Dark Horse: Back in early February, the Holy Cross Crusaders looked as if they had mailed it in. Poor efforts on the defensive end, not playing as a cohesive unit, and questionable game preparation all contributed, among other things, to a 3-5 start in league play. After being on the wrong end of a 75-51 drubbing at Lehigh, something clearly happened inside the Holy Cross locker room and during practice sessions; the Crusaders’ six game winning streak, their longest since the beginning of the 2007-08 season, did not happen by chance. While the offense is still inconsistent and stalls during inopportune times, the defense has spearheaded the late charge. During the first eight games of league play, Holy Cross gave up an average of 69 points per game. Since then, they are giving up a remarkable 54.7 points. All that being said, the Crusaders have greatly struggled on the road (4-11) and the road to the Patriot League Championship in all likelihood runs through either Bucknell or Lehigh. A tall task for the Crusaders no doubt, but they are peaking at the right time.
Who’s Hot: Hide the women and children, C.J. McCollum is playing his best basketball of the season and the vaunted Lehigh offense is clicking on all cylinders as the Mountain Hawks enter the tournament. Over the course of their last 10 games—nine of them wins—McCollum is averaging 23.4 points. His lowest output during this run was 15 points against Bucknell, but his final three points of this contest came just before the buzzer as he connected on a triple from the top of the key to propel Lehigh to a comeback victory.
Some may call McCollum cocky and arrogant—especially in the preceding clip as he stares down the Bucknell student section—but his play certainly backs it up.
Player to Watch: All eyes will be on C.J. McCollum, but it behooves you to overlook the Patriot League’s best forward in several year: Mike Muscala. The junior from Minnesota is one of the most efficient players on the offensive end you will see this year as he shoots better than 50% from the field and close to 90% from the charity stripe—not too shabby for a 6’11 guy. On the defensive end, Muscala is on the verge of cracking the Top 10 in the Patriot League for blocks all time. What goes unnoticed is how intelligent he is on the floor with his exceptional positioning and court awareness. Muscala has not fouled out of a game this season, and has only picked up four fouls once. Staying out of foul trouble has enabled him to earn 30 minutes a night and really increased his production. While much of the talk from the media and those outside of Patriot League circles will be of McCollum, don’t forget the “Moose” at Bucknell.
Game to Watch: Lafayette @ Holy Cross—After having their season ended by Lafayette the past two years, Holy Cross will look to return the favor this time around. In the regular season, the teams split the season series with each team winning on the opponent’s home floor. The last time the teams met in Worcester, Holy Cross jumped out to a 24-14 halftime lead only to be outscored by 21 points in the second half. Lafayette will be at a major disadvantage in the third meeting though as Second-Team All-League performer Tony Johnson is out for the rest of the year with an ankle injury.
How’d They Fare: Bucknell was trounced by eventual National Champions Connecticut 81-52. It may be hard to believe, but this score doesn’t reflect how lopsided the game actually was. Bucknell looked to push the tempo and played exclusively man-to-man throughout the game, but simply did not have the horses that Connecticut had. Sometimes, the brains can outplay the talent, but very rarely are they able to outrun them.
A Look Back
How’d I Do? – Prior to the season beginning, here is how I saw things shaking out (preseason on the left, final standings on the right):
Bucknell (11-3) 1. Bucknell (12-2)
Lehigh (9-5) 2. Lehigh (11-3)
Holy Cross (7-7) 3. American (10-4)
Colgate (7-7) 4. Holy Cross (9-5)
American (6-8) 5. Lafayette (7-7)
Navy (6-8) 6. Army (5-9)
Lafayette (6-8) 7. Colgate (2-12)
Army (4-10) 8. Navy (0-14)
I was right on the mark in predicting that Bucknell and Lehigh would finish one/two, and that Holy Cross would finish in the top four, but believed in Colgate and Navy more than I should have and undersold American. (Just as an aside, Jeff Jones has never finished in the bottom four of the Patriot League and American has advanced to the semifinals in every year they have been in the league. Clearly, I have learned to no longer bet against coach Jones.)
As for Colgate, the Raiders performed up to many expectations in the non-conference, but struggled in the Patriot League against all teams not named Navy. Given that the Raiders are a senior laden team who finished last season going 6-8 down the stretch, I believed Matt Langel would have that moderate success carry over—it did not. Although, it should be known that their star forward Yaw Gyawu has been hindered by injuries for much of the year—Gyawu was pegged as a member of my All-League Team in the preseason.
All-League Team(statistics from conference games only)
G Seth Hinrichs, Lafayette (7.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 50.0 3PT%)
G Maxwell Lenox, Army (7.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 SPG)
F Worth Smith, Navy (6.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
F Dan Trist, Lafayette (6.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
Player of the Year: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh—This has been a two player race for much of the season, even though American fans would like to think that Charles Hinkle was in the discussion, but, in the end, the Player of the Year debate was going to come between C.J. McCollum and Mike Muscala. Arguments can easily be made for both players. Each is the focal point of their team and have experienced a good deal of success as individual players. However, it was McCollum’s dominance and ability to take over a game makes him the Player of the Year. Not a shot against Muscala at all, but it is easier for a 6’3 guard to take over a basketball game than a 6’11 forward. McCollum ranks sixth nationally in points per game at 21.7, but is more than just a scorer—the rest of his stat line reflects that. By many accounts, he has become more of a complete player, but certainly understands when he needs to carry Lehigh.
Coach of the Year: Jeff Jones, American—Losing virtually his entire frontcourt with Vlad Moldoveanu graduating and Stephen Lumpkins pursuing a career in baseball, Jeff Jones’ outlook for the year was bleak. Relying on transfers who had only been with the program for a year and two forwards who seldom saw the floor a year before, Jones had his work cut out for him. Fortunately for him, Charles Hinkle—one of the transfers from Vanderbilt—emerged early in the season as a reliable scorer, and sophomore Tony Wroblicky proved to be a serviceable big man. Even still, Jones turned a team that seemed destined for the middle-of-the-pack into a title contender.
Rookie of the Year: Seth Hinrichs, Lafayette—The 6’7 guard from Minnesota is a pure shooter in every sense of the word, and fits perfectly into Fran O’Hanlon’s jump shot friendly offense. Although Hinrichs has the height that would suggest he is a forward in the Patriot League, he lacks the bulk and size to work in the paint, and with a shot like his it would be foolish to put him down there. Hinrichs shot an impressive 50% from three, 54.8% from the field, and averaged 7.4 points all in Patriot League play. With Ryan Willen and Jim Mower graduating, Hinrichs will become a primary option next year for Lafayette.
Defensive Player of the Year: Bryan Cohen, Bucknell—Rather than bore you with analysis on Cohen’s ability to shut down an opponent’s top scoring threat, I’ll let the following numbers do the talking:
Lehigh, American, and Holy Cross were three of the top four teams in the Patriot League. Against these teams, Cohen has done a remarkable job limiting the scoring production of C.J. McCollum, Charles Hinkle, and Devin Brown.
Average points against all PL teams other than Bucknell
Average points scored against Bucknell
One can attribute the disparity in scoring to a poor shooting night, but such a pattern suggests that Cohen is a significant part of the lower scoring output. Dave Paulsen has a real luxury in matching him up with the opposition’s top scorer and knowing life will be made very difficult for him. Cohen was recently tabbed as the Patriot League’s Defensive Player of the Year; this is the third time he has received the honor. I’d like to see any other player garner such an award three times in their career—quite the feat.
6th Man of the Year: Mike Cavataio, Holy Cross—It has been quite the journey for Holy Cross senior swingman Mike Cavataio, just take a gander at his lengthy college basketball timeline:
2007-08: Played under Norm Roberts at St. John’s where he saw six minutes of action per game and made one start during Big East play against Marquette
2008-09: Transferred to Holy Cross to play under Ralph Willard, but had to sit out the entire season
2009-10: In his first season of eligibility, he played under first year coach Sean Kearney and averaged 11.3 points in 31 games
2010-11: After Sean Kearney was fired after one year, he played under Milan Brown and averaged 8.9 points in 29 games
2011-12: He was injured in the first game of the season against the College of Charleston and missed every game in the non-conference. He returned January 7th against Lehigh
Suffice it to say, this is not how Mike Cavataio drew up his college basketball career. Coming out of St. Francis Prep in New York, Cavataio had aspirations of lighting up Madison Square Garden playing for St. John’s. He soon realized that he could earn more minutes and play a significant role at a smaller school, and Holy Cross seemed like the perfect fit—a successful mid-major program under the tutelage of Ralph Willard. After sitting out a year, experiencing five different coaches between high school and college ball, and suffering through an injury—something he is accustomed to after breaking the same ankle twice during his sophomore year in high school—Cavataio has developed into the prototypical sixth man. He provides an instant spark off the bench with his defense—the Crusaders best on-ball defender—and mid-range and slashing ability on offense. Although he averages a mere 5.4 points, many of his contributions do not show up in the box score, something that his teammates and keen observes would tell you.
Most Improved Player: Charles Hinkle, American—Whatever Charles Hinkle did during the summer months and offseason, it worked. After averaging 11.6 points last year, many assumed that Troy Brewer would have to carry the load this season. And Brewer has been no slouch averaging 12 points a night, but the emergence of Hinkle as the go-to guy has alleviated the pressure Brewer and others may have felt. In his first three seasons, Hinkle rarely shot from behind the arc, and when he did he shot just 25%. This year, he is almost 20 percentage points better at 43.4%. His scoring average by year: 2.0, 1.4, 4.4, 18.8. A 14.4 point increase from his junior to senior season—unheard of. Jones told the Washington Post earlier this month: “We knew he was a good player, we knew he could help us. How much and in what role, that was up in the air. He was playing a role of working hard, good defense, as opposed to what he does best: shooting the ball in the basket.” I’d say that Hinkle has found is role just fine for Jeff Jones.
Game of the Year: Lehigh 56 Bucknell 53 (February 16th at Sojka Pavilion)—It was far from the prettiest game: more turnovers than assists, a combined 9-39 shooting from behind the arc, both teams shooting below 37%, and neither team cracking the 60 point mark, but the Lehigh-Bucknell tilt in Lewisburg was a dandy. In what may be a prelude to the championship game, a C.J. McCollum three pointer—this shot alone may have earned him the Patriot League Player of the Year award—won the game for Lehigh and ended Bucknell’s Patriot League winning streak at an impressive 20 games.
Ryan ZumMallen is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference.
Northridge is a confusing team. They lost to a terrible UC Davis team and then upended Pacific for the No. 3 seed, followed by a first-round blowout of Fullerton. So one could assume they are rolling, but who knows in the Big West? One night is typically a complete wash from the next. Still, Northridge is hungry while Santa Barbara has looked tired all year. Maybe they were taking the Lakers’ approach and coasting through the regular season. We’ll see, but either team will provide a worthy challenge in the title game. In the other game, expect Long Beach to handle Riverside, who doesn’t have the depth nor scoring power of the Irvine team that troubled the 49ers on Thursday.
Could Long Beach State pose a threat to a first-round NCAA opponent? Maybe. Could any of the other Big West teams? No. They will be mercilessly run ragged. And it will be tough for Long Beach to hang with a top-tier squad, as well. They would have to play mistake-free basketball for a complete forty minutes, something that has been difficult all year. The 49ers do have impressive wins over Iowa and Montana, as well as near-misses at UNC and on a neutral site against St. Mary’s. But an NCAA Tournament game would require a level of focus that they haven’t shown yet, not to mention depth that will keep coach Dan Monson confident even going seven players deep.
Even with all of that in mind, Santa Barbara has weapons. They beat a very good UNLV team earlier this year and are difficult to contain when James Nunnally and Orlando Johnson are both hitting. They were one-and-done last year, but they made it, and a second chance could mean trouble for a high seed looking ahead to their next round.
A Look Back
Once you get to the conference tournament, regular seasons go out the window. In no other conference is that truer than the Big West, where so little stands between teams that the actual seedings don’t mean much once the ball goes up. Several teams looked good on paper, only to falter on the court because of unforeseen circumstances. Or because they just weren’t as good as expected. Even late in the season, teams were swapping positions up to the last second, criss-crossing very thin lines that were trying – unsuccessfully – to settle the teams into place. In round one of the conference tournament, for instance, a No. 7 beat a No. 2, a No. 5 beat a No. 4, and No. 8 gave No. 1 a run for their money. It’s unpredictable, exciting and entirely frustrating. That’s just how it goes out here. Let’s take a look back before we march forward.
Big West Player of the Year: Casper Ware (G, Long Beach) The smallest man on the court was unquestionably the best player in the building on any given night. At just 5-10 (maybe), Ware was a dagger machine, hitting one big shot after another. In the offseason, he drastically improved his long distance shooting and made more three-pointers this year than in his previous two seasons combined. That extended range made it impossible for defenders to contain the lightning quick penetrator who previously made his name on attacking the basket. Ware was also the head of the Long Beach offense and finished second in assists. For good measure, he was also named the Big West Defensive Player of the Year, and by the end of the season made a habit of chasing down breaking guards to pin their layups against the glass, a la LeBron.
Casper Ware (Long Beach)
Larry Anderson (Long Beach)
Orlando Johnson (Santa Barbara)
David Hanson (Cal Poly)
Sam Willard (Pacific)
Big West Coach of the Year: Joe Callero (Cal Poly) - The Big West awarded this honor to Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson, but I always said that Callero deserved the award if Cal Poly finished in the top four. When they did me two better and grabbed the No. 2 spot, I definitely had to stick to my word. Cal Poly was not the most talented team in the Big West this season; they were maybe the sixth or even seventh. But the tightest defense I have seen in years lifted the Mustangs high above more talented teams that were not offensively disciplined. Cal Poly finished first in the conference in scoring defense and defensive field goal percentage. They forced turnovers without committing them, and that is unquestionably a sign of solid coaching. In 2009, Callero took over a notoriously poor team and in two years has earned 27 overall wins, a monumental feat for the perennial doormats. This isn’t a total rarity in the Big West, as teams will regularly focus all attention on a one-year run at the NCAA Tournament and then fall back into dark matter once their seniors graduate. Callero hasn’t had success because of a massive influx of talent or transfers, he’s done it with fundamentals and defensive intensity and deserves to be recognized. The fact that Cal Poly fell to the No. 7 seed UC Riverside in the conference tournament on Thursday does not take away from their achievements this season but instead illustrates the tiny margin of error between Big West teams. It only takes two (sometimes just one) hot shooter to take a team to the title in this conference. Riverside took Cal Poly out of their snail’s-pace comfort zone and that was enough to halt what the Mustangs have achieved this year. Still, cheers to making the most of what you have, Coach Callero.
1. Long Beach State (14-2, 21-10) – Defeated UC Irvine, 79-72, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. At one point, conference Player of the Year Casper Ware nailed four consecutive three-pointers to keep the Anteaters at bay, but this game went down to the wire before the 49ers pulled away for their tenth straight win. Long Beach is playing very well and their greatest attributes have been Ware and their intense focus. An over-reliance on Ware is beginning to show, though, as the point guard collapsed in pain in the second half with cramps and the 49ers, even armed with capable forwards and guards, struggled without him. There must be a priority to feed forward T.J. Robinson inside if Long Beach wants to dance this year.
2. Cal State Northridge (9-7, 14-17) – Defeated Cal State Fullerton, 75-54, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. With the collapse of Pacific and Santa Barbara this season, the Matadors found themselves in the No. 3 seed and promptly handled their first round opponents. This is not a bad team, but neither are they a complete team. They having scoring on the inside in Lenny Daniel and the outside in Reshaun McLemore, but consistency issues need to take a backseat if Northridge wants to contend for the title. That could be difficult, relying on a swarm of underclassmen and some true freshmen. The Santa Barbara draw is a tough one in the second round, but that’s what champions are made of.
3. Santa Barbara (8-8, 16-13) – Defeated Pacific – 79-67, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. I said last week, forget the records, no one wants to play UCSB in the first round of the conference tournament. The Gauchos responded to a listless season with a big win over the Tigers and are very dangerous with a little momentum. Still, this is a squad with very serious off-court and on-court issues: Vital scorer James Nunnally played poorly down the stretch and is rumored to be feuding with All-Big West teammate Orlando Johnson, while the Gauchos are below-average rebounders and have little control over their pace or even their own offense without a capable point guard. Explosive and a certain title contender, but do not bet on UCSB.
4. UC Riverside (6-10, 14-18) – Defeated Cal Poly, 70-66 in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. Riverside was able to speed up the game to avoid the suffocating Cal Poly defense and jumped out to a 14-0 lead. All three starting guards scored in double figures, led by 23 from Kareem Nitoto. It forced Cal Poly to play catch up and shoot an eye-popping 36 three-pointers, but 18 from All-Big West forward Shawn Lewis and 16 from My-Big West forward David Hanson forced overtime. Still, Riverside showed poise that had been absent from the conference season
5. Cal Poly (10-6, 15-15) – Lost to UC Riverside, 70-66 in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.
6. Pacific (8-8, 16-15) – Lost to UC Santa Barbara, 79-67, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.
7. Cal State Fullerton (7-9, 11-20) – Lost to Cal State Northridge, 75-54, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.
8. UC Irvine (6-10, 13-19) – Lost to Long Beach State, 79-72, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.
9. UC Davis (4-12, 10-21) – Did not qualify for Big West Tournament.
This is a one-bid league, so the Big West Tournament champion will be the team that punches a ticket to March Madness. Even Long Beach State, with 20 wins and a jaw-dropping non-conference schedule, will be an NIT invite without a tourney title. If Long Beach State does take the tourney, expect them to come in around the No. 13 seeding. If it’s any other team, expect a No 15. When the 49ers made it in 2007, the committee placed a lot of confidence in them with a No. 12 seed and Tennessee promptly blew them out by 35 points. The Big West hasn’t had a seed that high since. Until a Big West team steals a win, I wouldn’t expect any different.