For Villanova and VCU, Handling the Ghost of Seasons Past

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on November 25th, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog. Joe filed this report after Villanova’s 77-53 victory over VCU Monday evening.

When Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth faced off in the first round of the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last night, a trail of questions about these two dynamic teams followed them onto the court. Both had great success last season, winning their respective conference regular season titles while compiling a combined record of 55-14 (Villanova was 29-5 while VCU was 26-9) but each saw their seasons expire with a sigh that betrayed what they had worked for. VCU had run up a 24-7 record even before the conference tournament, securing no worse than an at-large place in the NCAA field as the Atlantic 10 Conference garnered a record-breaking six bids. They burned through Richmond and NCAA-worthy George Washington by 20 points apiece before bowing to a senior-heavy Saint Joseph’s squad, 65-61. But it was the two-point loss to Stephen F. Austin (77-75) that stung. Had HAVOC run its course? If the defensive turnover machine of seasons past could not produce, the Rams’ open court offense was reduced to their half court set which yielded far fewer points (and possessions). Like Gonzaga, Butler and George Mason before them, the Rams were no longer the hunters, they had become the hunted.

Will Shaka Smart Be Interested In The Open Position In Westwood? (US Presswire)

Smart’s club started off well, but tailed off against an equally talented Villanova squad in Brooklyn. (US Presswire)

In “the old” Big East a 28-3 regular season record capped with a 16-2 conference record would have heralded the Wildcats as an elite team and Final Four contender even before the conference tournament. For Villanova and “the new” Big East however, double-figure losses to Syracuse and Creighton (twice) appeared to undermine the Wildcats’ — and the Big East’s — attempts to write a new chapter. Villanova dropped their first round conference tournament game to Seton Hall (64-63), secured a #2 seed in the NCAAs, then dropped their second round game to former conference mate Connecticut (77-63). The Big East garnered four bids and no conference team made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Read the rest of this entry »

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For Hawaii, An Unexpected Triumph During Unpleasant Times

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 24th, 2014

Although the Warriors’ 74-70 victory over Pittsburgh on Friday was not the biggest upset of the weekend – that distinction went elsewhere – it was certainly among the most surprising, even if virtually no one could watch it. Few programs have had the rug pulled out from under it quite like Hawaii has to start 2014-15, with an ongoing NCAA investigation leading to the firing of its head coach and the departure of its best player, each within three weeks of the team’s season opener. To make matters worse, would-be contributor Sammis Reyes – a Chilean freshman who initially left the program amid coach Gib Arnold’s firing – was forced to redshirt after breaking his hand last Tuesday. And yet, despite all the attrition and adversity and general weirdness, interim head man Benjy Taylor and his guard-heavy lineup managed to gash the Panthers for 1.3 points per possession on Friday night and topple an ACC opponent for the first time since 2012. Could it be the prelude to a season-long rally? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, considering everything Hawaii has been through over the past month, it is one impressive victory.

Hawaii pulled off a surprising victory over Pittsburgh on Friday. (UH Athletics)

Hawaii pulled off a surprising victory over Pittsburgh on Friday night. (UH Athletics)

On October 23, Hawaii was picked fifth in the Big West preseason poll and forward Isaac Fotu (14.9 PPG and 6.1 RPG in 2013-14) was made an All-Conference selection; five days later, the university announced that Arnold and assistant coach Brandyn Akana had been relieved of their coaching duties. Expectations were not necessarily high coming into the season – top scorer Christian Standhardinger had graduated and point guard Keith Shamburger had transferred to Missouri – but the Warriors were supposed to at least be competitive in the nine-team conference. Without their head coach, though, the outlook became more suspect – especially considering the timing. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hawaii has been under NCAA investigation since March stemming from a self-reported incident in which “a men’s basketball coach submitted an altered document that was essential for admissions purposes.” The abrupt nature of the firing – just as the team was set to embark on its 2014-15 campaign – came as a surprise to many, including Arnold himself, who gave an emotional press conference from his home a few days after the fact:

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Long Beach State Takes Advantage of Rare Home Game vs. Power 5

Posted by Tracy McDannald on November 22nd, 2014

Non-conference scheduling can be a funny game in itself in college basketball, and a tough one if you are a quality mid-major program like Long Beach State. Head coach Dan Monson recalled how tough it has been to get schools in the Power 5 conferences to visit the Walter Pyramid in his eight seasons at the helm. In fact, before Friday night, just two other high-major programs — North Carolina in 2012 and USC in 2013 — have visited The Beach. So, Monson typically loads up the schedule with a Murderer’s Row gauntlet, compiling arguably the nation’s toughest road slate each year.

Dan Monson Has Long Beach State Playing Excellent Basketball

Dan Monson Was Grateful For Kansas State’s Willingness to Travel.

On the other end of that scheduling tango is a program like Kansas State, which faced the 49ers twice in games separated by just a week last season (once in Manhattan, Kansas and the other in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off) and came away with victories on both occasions. But the third time would be Long Beach State’s charm in a wire-to-wire, 69-60 decision in front of a jazzed up 4,256 fans.

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Keydet Fast: VMI Still Trying to Find Its Footing

Posted by Ray Curren (@currenrr) on November 21st, 2014

Virginia Military Institute coach Duggar Baucom was all apologies after his team’s opener last week against The Citadel. “They just made us guard,” Baucom said. “We call it a ‘red call’ when the shot clock goes under 10. It seemed like we were yelling that all night. You just have to deal with it. We were late on some deflections that probably should have been steals and that would have allowed us to run a little more. But we’ll have games like that every once in a while.” The Keydets may have pulled out a 66-65 victory on a clutch Trey Chapman three-pointer with 15 seconds left, but — while wins are important — the fact that VMI was held to 60 possessions in the game, the lowest number in Baucom’s 10-year career in Lexington, made Baucom swear to go back to the drawing board.

This might be the toughest season yet for Duggar Baucom at VMI. (Big South Athletics)

This might be the toughest season yet for Duggar Baucom at VMI. (Big South Athletics)

Baucom has made up-tempo basketball his identity throughout his coaching career, coming to VMI from Division II Tusculum a decade ago. He was under no illusions at how tough a job he would have to build a competitive program at the military school. He couldn’t offer many of the bells and whistles other Division I schools can, but he could show them how to play high-octane basketball. Baucom’s teams have finished in the top 10 nationally in adjusted tempo in the last eight years, and in the top two in six of those seasons, including last year when VMI won 20 games and advanced to the semifinals of the CIT. “Every day is a grind at a military school like VMI for the kids, and you have to do things a little differently as a coach,” Baucom said. “Recruiting is tough. We have great kids, though, and I wouldn’t swap them for anything. VMI has been very good to me.”

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Harvard’s Wake-Up Call Might Not Be So Bad

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 20th, 2014

Let’s make a few things clear about Harvard and its probably-gone at-large hopes. For one, if the team is worrying about an at-large selection come March, it probably means it lost two or three games in Ivy League play – which would be problematic on its own. For another, Tommy Amaker’s group is no stranger to faltering unexpectedly in the non-conference: in 2012, the Crimson lost to Atlantic 10 bottom-feeder Fordham; in 2013, it fell at home to Vermont; and last season, it suffered a 15-point defeat to sub-.500 Florida Atlantic. Each year, Harvard’s at-large aspirations took a severe hit before conference games even began, and each year the team responded by winning the outright Ivy League title. Sunday’s turnover-filled loss to Holy Cross is only different in that it happened just three days into the season, before anyone could even blink. With everything still left to play for – a league title, a Tourney birth, seeding implications – the much-hyped Crimson may have received the wake-up call it needed and was eventually going to get anyway. Now it must figure things out on the court before the schedule ramps up in coming weeks.

Harvard needs to bounce back after falling to Holy Cross on Sunday. (Robert F Worley/The Harvard Crimson)

Harvard needs to bounce back after falling to Holy Cross on Sunday. (Robert F Worley/The Harvard Crimson)

Siyani Chambers is probably the best point guard in the Ivy League yet the Crusaders’ pressure defense completely got the best of him on Sunday, turning him over a career-high nine times and holding the junior to just one point. As poorly as Chambers played, though, his track record suggests that he’ll be just fine going forward; the bigger problem might be his backcourt running mates, or lack thereof. Both he and Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders (24 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday) are going to play a lot and produce a lot, but nearly every other guard is an unproven commodity. Program mainstays Laurent Rivard and Brandyn Curry graduated in the offseason, stripping the team of its best perimeter shooter (Rivard shot 43% 3FG as a senior and holds the school’s all-time three-point record) and a solid all-around guard who could spell Chambers at the point (Curry was the team’s floor general before Chambers arrived in 2012). Corbin Miller (45% 3FG in 2011-12) – who missed the past two years due to an LDS mission – should fill some of the void left by Rivard, but true freshman Andre Chatfield looks like the only other guard receiving rotational minutes early on. As a result, not only is Harvard very thin in the backcourt from an injury-risk standpoint – losing Chambers, Saunders or Miller would be devastating – it also seems less-equipped to handle opponents that necessitate a guard-heavy lineup like Holy Cross. Too much pressure was placed on the pair in that game. Amaker has a ton of options when it comes to mixing and matching frontcourt guys, but far fewer when it comes to the backcourt, so the continued development and emergence of players like Miller and Chatfield will be crucial as the season progresses.

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Tremendous Guard Play Masks VCU’s Interior Weakness

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 19th, 2014

This year’s VCU team is considered Shaka Smart‘s best squad since he took the reins in Richmond some five years ago. The return of the majority of last year’s team coupled with three top-100 recruits helped the Rams to a #15 ranking in the preseason AP poll, the team’s second consecutive such honor. After two wins in its first two games of the season, it’s clear that there is a lot of talent on this roster. But there is also a glaring question shadowing the team: Can the Rams consistently win without offensive production in the post?

Alie-Cox and his fellow post players need to add offense to their defensive contributions (AP)

Mo Alie-Cox and his fellow post players need to add some offense to their defensive contributions (Associated Press)

The season’s first two contests — a convincing win over Tennessee and last night’s thrilling victory over Toledo — demonstrated more of what everyone has come to expect from VCU. The Havoc defense creates all kinds of problems for opposing offenses, and the Rams have a number of players who can hit the open three-pointer. In those two contests, the Rams have already created 40 turnovers and knocked down 20 threes. What’s different about this season’s team is that they lack a skilled big man who can provide a credible offensive threat on the interior. Juvonte Reddic and his 12 points per game are gone to graduation, and the players filling in for him have done little thus far to make up for his production.

Mo Alie-Cox is the sole big man in the starting rotation, and he has contributed only nine points through two games. Jarred Guest, Justin Tillman and Michael Gilmore have combined for 12 points as the frontcourt reserves. While all of these players have excellent potential, they too come with limitations. Alie-Cox is a brute force inside, but he stands at only 6’6″ and has a limited offensive skill set, making it difficult for him to match up against true centers. Guest is a senior but is still too lithe to bang with big bodies inside and often finds himself in foul trouble. Gilmore and Tillman are both freshmen, clearly learning their roles on the offensive side of the ball. The result so far has been a team living off the long ball and dribble penetration from its guards.

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Reviewing the Atlantic 10’s Opening Weekend

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on November 18th, 2014

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

With over 1,000 games to track over the next 15 weeks and a 351-team division that routinely offers 120 or more game-winning programs for consideration (the traditional measure of “a good season”), the Selection Committees of the past few seasons increasingly depend on quantitative analysis to separate the better teams (at times offering modest records) from those that appear to be better teams.

Coach Smart's team is ridiculously successful in "return games," boding well for conference tournament play (sportsillustrated.com)

Shaka Smart and VCU kicked off the season with a solid victory over Tennessee. Several other A-10 schools had quality wins as well. (Getty)

Here is Why These A-10 First Weekend Wins and Losses are Important:

  • Virginia Commonwealth vs. Tennessee (85-69) — The Rams’ recorded the conference’s first win over a power conference opponent on Friday night. How focused can the Volunteers be after their fan base ran former head coach Cuonzo Martin out of Knoxville, and Martin’s successor, Donnie Tyndall, became a “person of interest” in an NCAA investigation into program practices during his tenure at Southern Miss? Power conference membership will boost Tennessee’s index ranking (take your pick — Sagarin or kenpom or RPI or BPI — the effect will be present to some degree) whenever the Vols step on to the court with a conference-mate. Any win Tennessee manages this season will benefit VCU’s — and indirectly, the entire A10’s — ranking.
  • George Washington at Rutgers (73-50) — The conferences change, but Rutgers consistently finds the bottom of standings wherever the basketball program is located. Expect no different this season as the Scarlet Knights will sit at the bottom of the best conference in Division I. The math works out for the Colonials, as they won a road game (RPI bonus) by double figures against a team whose conference is ranked higher than the Atlantic 10.

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Atlantic 10 Season Preview

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on November 17th, 2014

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

Looking Back

The schools in the Atlantic 10 broke a conference record by sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament last March. Although the seeds fell in a narrow range from #5 (Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis) to #11 (Dayton), the A-10 drew one bid fewer than the Big 12 (seven), tied the Big Ten and Pac-12 (six each), while outdrawing the American (four), the Big East (four) and the SEC (three). What a way to end a season that began with hand-wringing over the departures of Charlotte, Temple and Xavier. Although the conference standard-bearers Saint Louis and VCU did not survive the first weekend (VCU went from the hunter to the hunted, falling to Stephen F. Austin in an overtime Round of 64 game) and A-10 Tournament Champion Saint Joseph’s fell to eventual National Champion Connecticut, Dayton did advance to the Elite Eight before falling to Florida, 62-52.

Will Shaka Smart Be Interested In The Open Position In Westwood? (US Presswire)

It was a great year for Shaka Smart, VCU, and the rest of the A10 last season. (US Presswire)

Rumors swirling around the Barclays Center during the Atlantic 10 Tournament had the A-10 in negotiations with Barclays and the Atlantic Coast Conference over access to the venue for their 2017 conference tournament. The conference had Barclays locked up through 2017, but the ACC (with ESPN’s backing) wanted a New York City venue for its 2017 and 2018 conference tournaments. The A-10 eventually agreed to relocate its tournament site for the 2017 (Pittsburgh’s Consol Center) and 2018 (Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center) seasons in exchange for an extension at the Barclays for the 2019-21 seasons and a commitment for three conference double-headers to be staged annually there in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tip-Off Marathon: The O26 Menu

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 17th, 2014

Tonight kicks off ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon, a jam-packed, 24-plus hour slate of basketball featuring numerous mouthwatering options for O26 fans. And with many of these games serving as important resume-building opportunities, you better come hungry. Let’s check out the menu.

Appetizers/Starters

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)

  • UC Santa Barbara at Florida Gulf Coast – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Tonight. We are not even sure if this is formally part of the Marathon, but what better way to whet your appetite than by watching Alan Williams take on Dunk City? After logging 22 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas on Friday, UC Santa Barbara’s 6’8’’ center gets a shot at the Atlantic Sun favorites in Fort Myers – the first of two contests between the Gauchos and Eagles this season. Florida Gulf Coast’s Brett Comer is among the better point guards in the country, while his running mate, Bernard Thompson, is a conference Player of the Year candidate. Both squads could wind up dancing in March.
  • Georgia State at #14 Iowa State – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Tonight. Certain to be one of the most popular appetizers on the menu, this game features a loaded underdog taking on a top-15 team in one of college basketball’s best environments. The Cyclones better be prepared for Georgia State, which boasts a pair of Bluegrass State transfers – Ryan Harrow (Kentucky) and Kevin Ware (Louisville) – and arguably the Sun Belt’s best player, guard R.J. Hunter (18.3 PPG in 2013-14). Hilton Coliseum will be rocking, as always, but perhaps maybe its magic will work in the Panthers favor, instead of the other way of around.
  • #22 SMU at #13 Gonzaga – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tonight. This is one of those fill-you-up-before-the-entrée type items, a hearty match-up of Top 25 units with high expectations. SMU took a serious hit when forward Markus Kennedy, the team’s best player, was ruled academically ineligible for the first semester, so Gonzaga is in great position playing at home. Still, even though Mark Few’s bunch looked utterly dominant in its opener against Sacramento State (with newcomers Byron Wesley, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis combining for 44 points), the Bulldogs must come out and execute against Larry Brown’s defensively-tough Mustangs. Kevin Pangos vs. Nic Moore is one of the best point guard match-ups of the young season.

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O26 Intrigue: Eight Storylines on Opening Weekend…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine & Adam Stillman on November 14th, 2014

Basketball is nearly upon us! Here are eight O26 storylines to keep an eye on during the opening weekend of hoops:

Does VCU seize the opportunity against Tennessee without Briante Weber?

VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min / Times Dispatch)

VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Times Dispatch)

The Rams should be one of the better teams in the country this season, and they will have several marquee opportunities to prove it before the calendar flips to 2015 – opportunities not only to justify their top-15 ranking, but also to better position themselves come Selection Sunday. The first of those chances will be tonight against Tennessee in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis. The fact that the Vols, a decent-but-not great SEC squad, have serious questions at point guard would normally be good news for VCU and its disruptive pressure defense. But without Briante Weber in the lineup – the senior guard is serving a one-game suspension – the Rams are down their peskiest defender and a guy who’s on track to break the NCAA’s all-time steals record. HAVOC will press on (literally), but keep an eye on whether Weber’s absence enables Tennessee to limit its turnovers, make this more of a half-court game, and minimize VCU’s easy transition buckets. The last thing Shaka Smart’s group wants is to drop a nationally-televised opener (6:30 PM ET, CBSSN) against a beatable power-conference opponent. Read the rest of this entry »

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Mountain West Conference Preview

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 13th, 2014

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and the Pac-12. You can find him on Twitter at @Amurawa.

Top Storylines

San Diego State… And Everyone Else. Last season it was the Aztecs and New Mexico who fought tooth and nail all season long for conference supremacy until it was decided on the final night of the season in San Diego when a late 26-7 run from the Aztecs erased a 16-point Lobo lead and earned the Aztecs an outright conference title. This year, with those Lobos down their only three double-digit scorers from last season, there is no clear-cut contender to the Aztecs’ throne. San Diego State is the only Mountain West team deserving of consideration for being placed among the top 25 teams in the country and, unless somebody else proves their worth, may be the only team going dancing come March. Sure, Steve Fisher’s crew will have plenty of questions to answer along the way, but given the steadiness of this program in recent years, the Aztecs are significant title favorites in this conference.

San Diego State Looks Like A Strong Bet To Repeat As Conference Champion

San Diego State Looks Like A Strong Bet To Repeat As Conference Champion.

As for the “everyone else” part, Boise State, Colorado State and UNLV appear to be the next group of teams in a tier behind the Aztecs. Maybe one of them can separate itself from the pack and challenge the Aztecs, but each of these teams will rely heavily on newcomers to fill in big gaps on their roster. The Broncos will need production from young frontcourt players to replace the nation’s best offensive rebounder. The Rams have four Division I transfers expected to play big roles. And the Rebels? Well, it isn’t all that much of an overstatement to say that everyone is new.

Taking Care of Non-Conference Business. Last year, the conference got in trouble early when Boise State, UNLV, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada and Wyoming all struggled mightily in non-conference play, coming out of November and December with little or nothing to show for their efforts. If this conference hopes to turn things around this season and get more than just the Aztecs and maybe one other team into the Big Dance, they need to score quality wins early in the season. Keep an eye on these games, for instance: Read the rest of this entry »

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2014-15 RTC Preseason O26 All-America Teams

Posted by Tommy Lemoine and Adam Stillman on November 12th, 2014

Considering the sheer number of teams competing in O26 conferences, reaching a consensus on the top 15 players – much less the top five – is an incredibly difficult task. Alas, here are our Preseason O26 All-Americans, along with the Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Newcomer of the Year for the upcoming season. Where did we go wrong?

Player of the Year

Fred VanVleet is our O26 Preseason Player of the Year. (Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports)

Fred VanVleet is our O26 Preseason Player of the Year. (Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports)

Fred VanVleet – G – Wichita State. Evaluating players based on their “leadership” and “composure” and ability to “play within themselves” can be a slippery slope, prone to subjectivity and flaws in perception. But when the numbers seem to back those claims up – a sparkling offensive rating, an eye-popping assist-to-turnover ratio – the intangible qualities quickly seem much more tangible. Which brings us to VanVleet. The 5’11’’ junior possesses nearly all the skills and qualities you could want in a point guard: He is a floor general, who posted the best assist rate in the Missouri Valley last season and fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the entire country; he is an efficient scorer who shot 41 percent from behind the arc and 83 percent from the stripe; he is a good defender who recorded four-plus steals on six different occasions. And by all accounts he is a true leader on and off the court, the steady hand guiding the steadiest bunch in mid-major hoops. Considering all those attributes, VanVleet is our Preseason O26 Player of the Year.

First Team

  • Fred VanVleet – G – Wichita State. See our Player of the Year writeup above. VanVleet is one of the best point guards in the entire country, regardless of league.
  • Ron Baker – G – Wichita State. If VanVleet is the best non-power conference guard in the country, then Baker, his backcourt running mate, is not far behind. The 6’3’’ junior punctuated an impressive 2013-14 campaign (13.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.1 APG) by scoring 20 points on 4-for-6 three- point shooting against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament last March and squashing any doubt about whether he could compete at the highest level. Baker now enters this season as the offensive cornerstone for a top 15 team, whose versatility and perimeter shooting is only expected to shine brighter for the Shockers.

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