Balance and Efficiency Taking UNC Wilmington to New Heights

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 18th, 2017

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

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

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

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Digging Through the Low Mids For Possible At-Large Bids

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 7th, 2017

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

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

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

UT-Arlington

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

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Does Non-Conference Scheduling Matter?

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 5th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 4th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rhode Island & the Atlantic 10 Searching For Answers

Posted by Nate Kotisso on December 12th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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The Extremely Tough Road Mids Face in Earning #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 7th, 2016

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

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

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

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

Gonzaga

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

 

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Last Year’s Media Darling Monmouth Is At It Again

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on December 5th, 2016

Early in the second half in Monmouth’s conference opener last Thursday night at Quinnipiac, Je’lon Hornbeak launched a rushed three-pointer early in the shot clock. Usually in the college basketball world, such an act is followed by a the response of a red-faced coach throwing his hands in the air or running down the bench to replace the trigger-happy perpetrator. King Rice was only a couple of feet away from Hornbeak upon the release, but there was no reaction from the sixth-year head coach. Not even an instinctive pained look or shaking of his head. Thirty seconds later, there was a different reaction — a nod of approval — as Hornbeak, this time a couple of feet closer and in rhythm, drilled a three-pointer in front of Rice. Monmouth, the MAAC favorite, went on to roll to its fourth straight victory. The good play continued over the weekend as the Hawks outlasted Canisius on Sunday.

Defending MAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson is back for another run. (SLAM)

Defending MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson is back for another run. (SLAM)

“We don’t really run plays. I have seniors,” Rice said. “We’ve been together for a long time. They know how I think; they know I want them to get it up quick. What do you do when you face a 1-3-1 and you’ve only had a chance to practice against it once? You just have to play basketball. Attack the gaps. If you just play, we have good players, they’ll find the holes.” By all rights, Monmouth should be one of the mid-majors anticipated to be “that” team in March, a veteran group that has tasted enough success to know that it is good enough despite not yet reaching the conference mountain top. But it’s a case of the been-there, done-that for 6-2 Monmouth. How come? Well, maybe there’s a bit of media fatigue on both sides. The Hawks raced to the frontal lobes of the national college basketball consciousness early last season — partially thanks to wins over UCLA, USC, Notre Dame, and Georgetown (yes, four of them) — but also with an entertaining style that included some wonderful improv theater from its bench after every big play. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Feast Week in Review: Winners, Losers and a Little Extra Stuffing

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2016

With December nearly upon us and early-season narratives finally taking shape, let’s take a moment to assess which O26 teams fared well—and which didn’t—during last week’s onslaught of holiday hoops.

Winners

Gonzaga looked every bit like a Top 10 team during Feast Week. (Photo: ZagsMBB/Twitter)

Gonzaga looked every bit like a Top 10 team during Feast Week. (ZagsMBB/Twitter)

  • Gonzaga (6-0). Despite blowing a 15-point halftime lead against #21 Iowa State on Sunday, Gonzaga won the AdvoCare Invitational title and now owns one of the best resumes in college basketball. In addition to its early-season drubbing of San Diego State (a win which should only gain in value as the season progresses), the Bulldogs beat previously-undefeated Florida on Friday before taking down the Cyclones. That’s three wins in three weeks over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, with Arizona, Washington, and MAC favorite Akron still on deck. Assuming Przemek Karnowski continues rounding into form—the now-healthy big man finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists on Sunday—the Zags have the pieces to be one of the deepest, most consistent groups Mark Few has ever had. And that’s saying a lot.

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This is the Year: Rhode Island Might Finally Go Dancing

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on November 28th, 2016

He may have been born into a basketball family with a future Hall of Famer for a father and an NBA lottery pick for a brother, but Dan Hurley did not have a silver whistle to expedite his way to the top of the coaching ladder. After finishing his playing career at Seton Hall in 1996, Hurley began his career by leading the junior varsity squad for his legendary father, Bob Hurley, Sr., at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City (NJ), where he had played alongside brother Bobby Hurley a few years prior. He went to Rutgers a year later, serving four years there as an assistant before heading to St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark (NJ). The youngest Hurley compiled a remarkable 223-21 record at that prep program over nine years, and when Wagner, a NEC team coming off a 5-26 season in 2009-10, came calling, Hurley accepted the challenge.

Now in Year Five, Dan Hurley has the Rams in line for a big season. (NJ.com)

Now in Year Five, Dan Hurley has the Rams in line for a big season. (NJ.com)

Hurley had almost become the coach at Marist a couple years prior, but decided — even though some snickered — Wagner was a better choice. Two years and a 25-6 season with the Seahawks later, Hurley was finally — some 17 years after beginning at the lowest rung of the coaching ladder — ready for a shot with a big-time program like Rhode Island. While rumored in the interim to be in contention for the St. John’s and Rutgers jobs when they opened, Hurley and Rhode Island seem to be made for each other. When Hurley was just beginning as an assistant at Rutgers in teh late 90s, the Rams were riding Jim Harrick, Cuttino Mobley and Tyson Wheeler to within one game of the Final Four in 1998, losing to Stanford by two points in a heart-breaker. Read the rest of this entry »

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GW Learning That Defensive Versatility Only Goes So Far

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 22nd, 2016

Last season, George Washington used a balanced offensive attack led by multi-skilled big man Tyler Cavanaugh to finish fifth in a competitive Atlantic 10 and ultimately win the NIT. A volatile offseason brought change, however, as the school fired head coach Mike Lonergan amid allegations of player mistreatment and suffered significant roster turnover from graduations and player defections. This led to bearish expectations this preseason, as the Colonials were tabbed to finish eighth in the A-10 preseason poll. Through the first four games of the season, that prediction appears accurate. While Cavanaugh and another versatile forward in Yuta Watanabe remain the stalwarts of GW’s frontcourt, their collective athletic shortcomings were exposed in an 81-73 loss to Georgia Monday night in the semifinal round of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

Tyler Cavanaugh is a great start for GW, but more production is needed. (USA TODAY Sports)

Tyler Cavanaugh is a great start for GW, but more production is needed. (USA Today Sports)

Cavanuagh and Watanabe’s defensive strengths lay in their ability to defend smaller players on the perimeter, but they can struggle against similar or superior size. When the Colonials backcourt failed to contain Georgia guard J.J. Frazier in the early stages of Monday night’s game, head coach Maurice Joseph switched the 6’8″ Watanabe onto the 5’11” Frazier. Watanabe got the better of that match-up from that point on, displaying impressive lateral mobility in preventing dribble penetration. Unfortunately, the defensive maneuver turned out to be a net loss, though, as Georgia exploited George Washington’s lack of reinforcements in the lane to build a 40-18 advantage in points in the paint. Read the rest of this entry »

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