Seven O26 Players You Should Know Before March

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 14th, 2018

Every NCAA Tournament there is at least one unknown player from a little-known school who captures the nation’s attention. Sometimes for a half, sometimes for a game, sometimes for a magical run to the second weekend. Here are some of the likeliest O26 candidates to reach the Dance and put on a show next month.  

Don’t know much about Chandler Hutchison? You might come March. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP)

  • Jaylen AdamsSt. Bonaventure. Adams was named to the Preseason Wooden Award Top 50 for the second straight season, which made his early absence extra disappointing. Luckily, Adams made up for lost time. Since making his debut on December 2, he has posted 20-point, 6-assist performances on six different times, including back-to-back 40-plus point efforts against Duquesne (40 points) and Saint Louis (44) this month. He ranks third in the Atlantic 10 in both scoring (20.2 PPG) and assists (5.3 PPG) while ranking eighth nationally in three-point percentage (51% 3FG). Against the Dukes and Billikens alone, Adams combined to shoot an absurd 18-for-26 from long range. As things stand right now, the Bonnies are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. If they sneak in, Adams has legitimate Steph Curry 2008 potential.
  • Mike DaumSouth Dakota State. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already well aware of Mike Daum. The 6’9″ forward is an offensive machine who ranks eighth nationally in scoring (23.3 PPG) and leading the Summit League in rebounding (10.0 RPG). As good as his back-to-the-basket game is — and its pretty doggone great — Daum has also developed into a lethal outside shooter, knocking down 41 percent of his 150 shots from long-range. In games against Kansas (21 points), Wichita State (31 points), and Colorado (37 points), the big man proved he can be just as effective against NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents as he can against the rest of the Summit League. Perhaps more importantly, his team, which lost to Gonzaga by 20 points as a #16 seed last March, looks more on track to be a #12 or #13 seed this season if it qualifies. As a #12 seed in 2016, Daum and the Jackrabbits nearly toppled Maryland.

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Five O26 Coaches Doing Great Jobs This Season…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2018

From major turnarounds to borderline miracles, let’s take a look at some of this season’s best coaching jobs across the mid-major landscape.

Joe Pasternack is doing a masterful job at UC Santa Barbara. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

  • Joe Pasternack — UC Santa Barbara. It’s difficult to overstate just how quickly Pasternack has turned things around at UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos were 6-22 last season — finishing dead last in the Big West — under longtime head coach Bob Williams. Their offense was especially bad, ranking 343rd nationally in efficiency and 350th (second-to-last) in effective field goal percentage. Williams was ousted after a mostly successful 19-year run, and in came Pasternack. In less that one full season, the longtime Arizona assistant — with the help of some key transfers — has completely revamped the Gauchos’ offense. Santa Barbara now ranks 41st nationally in offensive efficiency and boasts an effective field goal percentage (54.1% eFG) that is 12 points better than a year ago, helping Pasternack’s team get off to an incredible 14-5 (3-2 Big West) start. UC Santa Barbara’s KenPom ranking is up to 97th nationally after finishing 331st in 2016-17, while sophomore guard Max Heidegger (21.4 PPG) has turned into a front-runner for Big West Player of the Year. Despite understandably low expectations, the Gauchos are now the team to beat in the Big West.
  • Steve Forbes — East Tennessee State. The Buccaneers lost four of their top five scorers from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, including First Team All-SoCon guard T. J. Cromer (19.1 PPG). No matter. Instead of taking a step back — and despite middle-of-the-pack expectations — all East Tennessee State has done is jump out to a 16-4 (7-0 SoCon) record and rise from 114th nationally in adjusted efficiency margin to 58th. Much like his former boss, Gregg Marshall, Forbes has built a deep, defensive-minded roster seemingly impervious to personnel turnover. He’s also proving to have a keen eye for quality transfers and JuCo prospects, enabling him to reap immediate contributions from players like Texas Southern transplant Jalan McCloud (11.7 PPG). With a lineup that runs 10 deep and one of the 40 stingiest defenses in America, there’s no reason to think Forbes’ group can’t again reach the Big Dance — and maybe even win a game when it gets there.

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Crucial Week Ahead for Several O26 At-Large Contenders

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 5th, 2017

For mid-major NCAA Tournament hopefuls, non-conference play offers the only realistic chance to notch marquee, resume-building wins. Teams able to capitalize on those opportunities may put themselves in position for a bid next March even if they stumble during Championship Week. With only a few weeks of non-conference action remaining, let’s examine the important week that lies ahead for a few O26 at-large hopefuls:

Big opportunities lie ahead for Nevada and Rhode Island. (John Byrne, Nevada Wolf Pack Athletics)

  • Gonzaga (7-1) This week: vs. #4 Villanova, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tuesday. With another talented roster and early wins over Texas, Ohio State and #25 Creighton, Gonzaga should be in fine shape to reach its 20th-straight Big Dance, even if it slips up in the the WCC Tournament. Still, tonight’s Jimmy V Classic match-up against #4 Villanova — the best team in college basketball, according to KenPom — offers the Zags an important chance to significantly strengthen its profile. A win over the Wildcats would give Mark Few’s group a neutral court victory against a potential power conference champion. A loss, and Gonzaga — without any match-ups remaining against likely NCAA Tournament teams — will be left hoping those wins over the Longhorns, Buckeyes and Bluejays age well. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that this specific outcome could bump the Bulldogs up or down multiple seed lines come Selection Sunday.

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This Year’s WAC May Be Better Than You Think

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 21st, 2017

Utah Valley’s opening weekend road trip to Kentucky and Duke — dubbed the “toughest 24 hours in college basketball” — started out with a bang for Mark Pope’s upstart program: The Wolverines stormed out to a nine-point halftime lead in Rupp Arena, led by as many 12, and stayed within single digits for much of the second half. Big Blue eventually came back and won, of course, but not before a speechless crowd — and a stunned coach — took notice: “This team, Utah Valley, they’re going to win their share of games now. They’re big… they have got a couple guys that are out that can shoot… they’re legit,” John Calipari said afterward. And he’s absolutely right. Existing on the fringe of the national discussion, Utah Valley is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the WAC’s collection of top contenders this season: a nascent program fortified with impact transfers that’s built to surprise in non-conference play.

Oregon grad transfer Casey Benson should help Grand Canyon’s title hopes. (Grand Canyon University Athletics)

Believe it or not, the Wolverines were not picked to win (or even finish second) in the league this year. That distinction belongs to none other than Grand Canyon, which is off to a 3-0 start in its first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility. After winning a combined 49 games since 2015-16, the Lopes return Preseason WAC Player of the Year Joshua Braun and several other key contributors from last season’s unit. As if that were not enough, head coach Dan Majerle (with an assist from a certain member of the coaching staff) lured Oregon graduate transfer Casey Benson, a veteran point guard who logged 21 minutes in the Ducks’ Final Four loss to North Carolina last March. Through three games, Braun (20.0 PPG) and Benson (10.0 PPG) have been awesome, and Grand Canyon — a for-profit university with an impossibly raucous home crowd — looks every bit the favorite pundits thought it would be. Even if the Lopes don’t upend St. John’s in their semi-home tilt on December 5, don’t be surprised if Majerle’s group gives Illinois loads of trouble just before the New Year.

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Mid-Major Regional Quick Guide, Part II

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 10th, 2017

With the season now upon us, here’s a region-by-region look at the mid-major players, coaches, teams, and storylines you need to know entering 2017-18. Here’s Part I, focused on the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions of the country.

Midwest

  • Oakland. Returning talent, you ask? Seniors Jalen Hayes (15.9 PPG, 8 RPG) — perhaps the Horizon League’s best forward — and Martez Walker (17.8 PPG) are both back. Fresh blood? Former Illinois standout Kendrick Nunn (15.0 PPG in 2015-16) joins the fold. Coaching? Greg Kampe, alive and well, is simply one of the best. If the Grizzlies can avoid another conference tournament letdown, they could definitely be a Cinderella in March.
  • Offseason Realignment. Wichita State’s jump to the American Athletic Conference created a mini-domino effect in O26 land: Valparaiso joined the Missouri Valley, prompting IUPUI to fill the Crusaders’ spot in the Horizon.The Summit League, now down to eight members, wound up the ultimate loser here.
  • Alize Johnson – F – Missouri State. Wichita State’s departure aside, there’s a reason Missouri State was picked to win the Missouri Valley this season: Johnson — who averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 boards last season — is really, really good. The athletic forward logged 17 double-doubles and could be a first-round NBA Draft pick next summer.

  • Mike Daum. Put simply, Daum is one of the best players in college basketball. The 6’9″ junior ranked second nationally in scoring last season (25.3 PPG), a product of remarkable efficiency: Daum shot 42 percent from behind the arc, 87 percent at the free throw line, and posted a true shooting percentage of 65.5 percent — sixth-best in the country among players who played at least 80 percent of his team’s minutes. He scored 30+ points 12 times — including a 51-point, 15-rebound effort against Fort Wayne — and should do more of the same this season.
  • James Whitford – Head Coach – Ball State. After two straight 21-win seasons, Whitford’s  reclamation project is nearly complete. Expect the former Arizona assistant to become a household name — and hot commodity to boot — if he leads lead Ball State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000 this season. With a dependable point guard and powerful center back, Whitford might just have the roster to do it.
  • Old faces, new places in the Buckeye State. Former VCU and Alabama coach Anthony Grant takes over for Archie Miller at Dayton following an assistant coaching stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder. John Groce, fired from Illinois, is now back in the MAC at Akron.

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Mid-Major Regional Quick Guide, Part I

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 10th, 2017

With the season now upon us, here’s a region-by-region look at the mid-major players, coaches, teams, and storylines you need to know entering 2017-18.

Northeast

Makai Mason and Yale look to inflict more damage this season. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

  • Vermont. The Catamounts went 16-0 in America East play last season and hung around with Purdue for more than 30 minutes in the NCAA Tournament. Their top four scorers are all back in 2017-18, including conference Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes and Rookie of the Year Anthony Lamb. Oh yeah — Defensive POY Dre Wills and Sixth Man of the Year Darren Payne also return. Don’t blink, Kentucky.
  • Ivy League Athletes. Harvard and Yale should compete neck and neck for an NCAA Tournament bid this season, but either would be a scary draw for any high-major foe. The Crimson in particular are equipped with a sophomore trio of former four-star recruits. The Bulldogs welcome back giant-slayer Makai Mason and pro prospect Miye Oni. This ain’t your father’s Ivy League.
  • Rhode Island. Dan Hurley led Rhode Island to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since the Lamar Odom era last season. With E.C Matthews (14.9 PPG), Jared Terrell (12.6 PPG), and Stanford Robinson back (maybe), the Rams should be right back in position to inflict even more damage this March.
  • Tyler Nelson – G – Fairfield. The 6’3″ senior (19.5 PPG) was the MAAC’s second-leading scorer last season, showing a knack for big shots and eye-popping performances. Iona and Monmouth should be the league favorites in 2017-18, but Nelson’s high-volume, high-efficiency offense makes him the player to watch in that league.

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Jacksonville State Follows Ray Harper’s Lead to Surprising NCAA Bid

Posted by David Changas on March 6th, 2017

When Ray Harper abruptly resigned as Western Kentucky’s head coach after finishing his fifth season at the school last March, the odds that he would be coaching a team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament were so low as to be laughable. When he subsequently landed at Jacksonville State eight days later — a program that went 8-23 last season and had not finished in the top half of the Ohio Valley Conference in over a decade — his chances did not seem to improve. Never mind that the Gamecocks’ program in its two-decade history in Division I had also never been to the Big Dance.

Jacksonville State will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance next week.

But anyone who knows anything about Harper should not be surprised that he will be dancing in Dayton a week from now. Despite being picked by the media to finish dead last in its division, Jacksonville State completed a remarkable run on Saturday in Nashville with a 66-55 win over UT-Martin. The Gamecocks achieved the feat just one night after stunning prohibitive favorite Belmont, which had finished the regular season with a 15-1 OVC record that included two easy wins over them. In outlasting the Skyhawks in the championship game, the Gamecocks controlled the action throughout and were never really threatened. As usual, they were led by three outstanding guards: Erik Durham, Greg Tucker and Malcolm Drumright, who was named tournament MVP. Read the rest of this entry »

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Examining the Conference Unbeatens: Which Teams Can Go the Distance?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 10th, 2017

With one month left in the regular season, it’s no longer too early to consider which of the remaining conference unbeatens have a legitimate chance to enter March without a loss. So let’s dig in. (Chances of going unbeaten based on KenPom win probabilities).

Mark Few Appears to Have It All Figured Out (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga (25-0, 13-0 West Coast). America’s only remaining undefeated team, Gonzaga tops almost every relevant poll and metric thanks to nearly three full months of flawless basketball. Of the Bulldogs’ 25 wins, 22 have come by double-figures, including an astonishing 26.6-point margin of victory in conference play alone (with seven wins by 30-plus). Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (15.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.7 APG) has been worthy of All-America consideration; freshman forward Zach Collins (10.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) has been one of the most efficient players in the country; center Przemek Karnowski (12.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG), who was sidelined nearly all last season with a back injury, hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been an all-around remarkable season, especially for a unit whose top five scorers weren’t on the active roster in 2015-16. Up until last month, Gonzaga was projected to lose at Saint Mary’s—college basketball’s 16th-best team according to KenPom—this Saturday night. Now, the Bulldogs are favored to win by two. If they can escape Moraga unblemished, Mark Few’s team would almost certainly enter the postseason without a loss.

Chances of going unbeaten: 56.3%

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With John Becker at the Helm, Vermont Hasn’t Missed a Beat

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on February 8th, 2017

Five years ago, John Becker led Vermont to the NCAA Tournament in his first season as a Division I coach, upsetting Stony Brook in the America East championship game to complete a remarkable personal run that included coaching tennis at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hearing impaired. Although he had never played tennis beyond a casual level, he enjoyed more success in that sport than he did as the Division III school’s basketball coach, where he went 6-44 from 1997-99. After losing that job, Becker stayed in the Washington, D.C., area to get a master’s in information systems at George Washington, and five years later, he left a comfortable job in the Beltway to become the new Director of Basketball Operations for Mike Lonergan at Vermont. When Lonergan left for George Washington in 2011, Becker became his successor, and 10 months later he was in the NCAA Tournament beating Lamar in the First Four before losing to North Carolina. But that was 2012, and the “lucky to be here” phase of his career arc in Burlington is now long gone. Although Vermont has won at least 20 games in all six of his seasons on the sideline, the Catamounts have not returned to the NCAA Tournament since that initial run. And for one of the best mid-major fan bases in college basketball — a group that fills the wooden bleachers of Patrick Gym in snow, sleet and whatever the Flavor of the Month is at Ben and Jerry’s — that’s a decent-sized drought.

With John Becker at the helm, Vermont hasn’t missed a beat. (AP)

Luckily, the wait may soon be over. Vermont (21-5, 11-0 America East), a team that has won 13 straight games dating back to a pre-Christmas loss to Butler, is clearly the best team in the America East. While Stony Brook’s breakthrough last season was a feel-good story, you might also remember that the Catamounts blew a 15-point second-half lead in last year’s America East Tournament final. Most everyone returned from last year’s CBI semifinalist squad, and Becker also brought in Tulane transfer Peyton Henson and freshman Anthony Lamb, a classic mid-major steal who just finds a way to produce at both ends of the floor. Picked by America East coaches to win the conference crown this season, Vermont was going to be good. And for better or worse, they knew it. “It’s fairly obvious if you’re around us and have been around us since the beginning of last season, this group has been motivated and focused on getting back to the NCAA Tournament,” Becker said. “We don’t sit around and talk about it, but the way they carry themselves and the way they go about their business certainly indicates that they’re motivated to end this year the right way, with a championship.” Read the rest of this entry »

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It’s Time to Take Illinois State Seriously

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2017

Trailing by four points at halftime against Southern Illinois on January 11, Illinois State coach Dan Muller provided blunt analysis coming out of the locker room. “They out-competed us to start the game. I thought they were more physical,” he said. “We gotta play tougher.” And play tougher his team did. The Redbirds promptly squashed Southern Illinois’ hopes for the home upset, holding the Salukis to just six points over the opening 10:33 of the second half. It was one of eight games this season in which Muller’s team has held its opponent to eight points or fewer over the course of a 10-minute “quarter,” a testament to Illinois State’s relentless, swarming defense. With an improved offense to boot, it’s also a reason why the Redbirds are a legitimate threat to end Wichita State’s reign in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Deontae Hawkins and the Redbirds are the real deal this season. (Jasen Vinlove – USA TODAY Sports)

Illinois State enters today 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, a byproduct of not allowing an opponent to score over a point per possession since December 18. During that 12-game stretch, in fact, only two opponents have mustered better than 40 percent shooting against the Redbirds from inside the arc. How has Muller’s group—a top-75 defense last season—gone from good to elite? The answer boils down to quickness, interior length and discipline. In the backcourt, guards Paris Lee and Tony Wills possess tremendous lateral quickness, preventing ball-handlers from beating them off the dribble with any kind of regularity. Lee is a two-time member of the MVC All-Defensive Team; Wills—new to the starting lineup—is considered by Muller to be among the best perimeter defenders in the country. They do a masterful job of keeping players in front of them, even on switches. The Redbirds’ frontcourt, meanwhile, excels at sealing off gaps and turning the paint into an impassible wall. Juniors MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins provide quickness and athleticism, while sophomore contributors Phil Fayne (6’9″) and Daouda Ndiaye (7’1″) bring the size.

And yet, Illinois State isn’t a pack-line unit content with merely denying entry into the lane. Instead, they’re extremely active and aggressive both on the perimeter and near the basket, constantly slapping at the ball and often mixing up defenses to confuse opponents. The Redbirds rank among the top 40 nationally in both defensive block rate and steal rate, and Lee is college basketball’s active career steals leader. During a key stretch late in the first half against Wichita State on January 14, Illinois State switched to zone for five possessions in a row, only to switch back shortly before the half expired. The maneuver, which throw the Shockers into an offensive tailspin (seven-plus minutes without a field goal), enabled Muller’s group to build an insurmountable lead. Throwing analysis aside, Lee recently explained his team’s defensive success more simply: “We play fast. We play hard.”

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