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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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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