Previewing Tight Races in the Mid-Majors: Part II

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 3rd, 2016

Yesterday we published Part I examining the tight races at the top of the WCC and Atlantic 10. Today in Part II we will take a closer look at projected two-horse races of the Ivy League and MAAC.

Ivy League—Princeton vs. Harvard

Princeton

Can Freshman Phenom Siyani Chambers And Harvard Head Coach Tommy Amaker Turn The Crimson Into Tournament Darlings? (Joe Murphy/Getty)

Heading into his final collegiate season, Siyani Chambers, who has been one of the pillars of Harvard’s resurgence, arguably leads Tommy Amaker’s most talented team ever. (Joe Murphy/Getty)

  • Who they are: Last year’s very good Princeton team lost only two Ivy League games. The only issue for the Tigers was that Yale, which lost only one Ivy League game, was even better. But while the Ivy League champion loses many of its best players and should fade from the title picture, Princeton returns every key contributor plus Hans Brase — a player who averaged 11.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in 2014-15 before an injury caused him to sit out last year. Henry Caruso is a potential Ivy League POY, Spencer Weisz isn’t far behind him, and sophomore Devin Canady had the best offensive rating in the conference last year. Princeton is not a difficult team to project: the Tigers will run smart, efficient offense with good outside shooting, play sound defense, and certainly won’t beat themselves.
  • Why they will win: Because teams that go 10-2 in conference play and come back even better the next year generally win their conferences. Consider this: KenPom ranks Princeton 35th nationally, ahead of the likes of Connecticut and Texas. The Tigers are going to be really good. Head coach Mitch Henderson has been building toward an NCAA Tournament berth for a few years now, and this is the season where he will make it happen.
  • Why they will lose: If the Tigers don’t win, it will probably have more to do with Harvard than with Princeton. The only team to which Princeton lost that was ranked outside of the KenPom top 100 was — you guessed it — Harvard. Which brings us to…

Harvard

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Previewing Tight Races in the Mid-Majors: Part I

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 2nd, 2016

In this NCAA Basketball preview season, we are bombarded with lists. One common list is that of the trendy mid-major ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting college hoops world. Unfortunately, some of these high-quality teams find themselves in the same conference staring each other down for scarce March Madness bids. No mid-major is ever guaranteed an invitation to the Field of 68, of course, no matter how impressive it looks in November and December. Just ask the 2015-16 iterations of Monmouth and St. Mary’s about that. In this preseason post we will analyze several mid-major conference races that should be two-horse races, with details on each team, why they will (or not), and a bonus sleeper who isn’t yet in the conversation. Part I covering the WCC and Atlantic 10 will publish today. Part II on the Ivy League and MAAC will release later this week.

West Coast Conference—Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga

It's always fun when these two guys get their teams together

It’s always fun when these two guys get their teams together. (AP)

St. Mary’s

  • Who they are: Randy Bennett’s team came out of absolutely nowhere last year to become an offensive juggernaut, and the Gaels return every important piece from that 29-6 team. All six returning perimeter players are above average three-point shooters, with junior Aussie guard Emmett Naar looking an awful lot like the next Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Rahon acting as a capable secondary playmaker. On the inside, Dane Pineau is ruthlessly efficient and productive, and his backup Jock Landale is no slouch either. The Gaels play at a glacial pace and they don’t beat themselves.
  • Why they will win: This is going to be one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball once again. Last year’s team went 29-6 and last year’s team is essentially this year’s team with another year of experience. The Gaels could be second weekend good.
  • Why they will lose: If we learned anything last year, it is that St. Mary’s has no margin for error with Gonzaga also in the conference. The defense has to be good enough to compete and the outside shots have to fall. Otherwise, the Gaels may be on the outside looking in once again.

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O26 Programs on the Rise: Eight Teams Poised to Break Out

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 28th, 2016

On Monday, we brought you a list of under-the-radar O26 players primed for big seasons in 2016-17. This time around, we’re examining several programs on the cusp of making serious moves upward, either within their respective conferences or on the postseason stage.

  • Cal State Northridge – 2015-16 Record: 10-20 (5-11 Big West): Cal State Northridge (CSUN) may not have been very good last season, but it was certainly better after Kendall Smith became eligible in December. The UNLV transfer led the club in scoring (15.3 PPG) and was among the league’s best at drawing fouls. He, along with the team’s next four top weapons, all return — a fact which would alone be enough to portend improvement. Then consider what the Matadors added. Along with his intact roster, head coach Reggie Theus lured four high-major transfers—Darin Johnson (Washington), Dylan Johns (Texas A&M), Rakim Lubin (Connecticut), and Reggie Theus, Jr. (South Carolina)— each of whom bring positional size and talent to a squad already known for scoring points in the paint. If the pieces gel, CSUN can reverse its conference record and finish among the top four in the Big West.
One of the nation's top defensive units, College of Charleston may be smiling a lot in 2016-17. (kingkresse.com)

With one of the nation’s top defenses, College of Charleston could have a lot to smile about in 2016-17. (kingkresse.com)

  • College of Charleston – 2015-16 Record: 17-14 (8-10 Colonial Athletic): College of Charleston was defensively elite last season, and not just in the CAA—its adjusted defensive efficiency (93.3 AdjD) ranked 20th in the country, ahead of teams like North Carolina, Michigan State, and Oregon, among others. Then again, its offense ranked dead-last in the conference and among the 100 worst nationally. The return of nearly their entire roster, including CAA Rookie of the Year Jarrell Brantley (11.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG), should help the Cougars improve in that department, especially with an entire offseason to gel without the expectation of Canyon Berry’s return. If Earl Grant’s crew can put up just a few more points to complement that suffocating defense, look out. A conference title is within reach.

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O26 Stars in the Making: A Non-Comprehensive Guide to Breakout Candidates

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 24th, 2016

If you’re reading this post, chances are you already know about Alec Peters, Justin Robinson, E.C. Matthews, and a number of Other 26 players who have cemented themselves among the nation’s best. Look past those names, though, and you will find another tier of players on the fast-track to (relative) stardom. Whether because of increased minutes, increased visibility or both, here is a list of guys outside the power conferences poised to break out in 2016-17.

  • Jeremy Morgan, G – Sr., Northern Iowa – 2015-16: 11.3 PPG, 1.9 SPG: There’s no two ways about it: Northern Iowa’s collapse against Texas A&M last March was a brutal, all-time debacle that will not soon be forgotten in Cedar Falls. If there was a silver lining, though, it’s the fact that Morgan (36 points) accounted for a whopping 41 percent of his team’s scoring that night. In an MVC that saw many of its best players graduate (including the Panthers’ top two scorers), the 6’5″ senior—whose Valley-leading steal rate already earned him All-Defensive Team honors—should see his offensive numbers increase and his national profile rise.
Northern Iowa's Jeremy Morgan should become a household name in 2016-17. (Credit: Getty Images/ Ronald Martinez)

Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan should become a household name in 2016-17. (Getty Images/ Ronald Martinez)

  • Markis McDuffie, F – So., Wichita State – 2015-16: 7.4 PPG. 3.3 RPG: McDuffie is a true breakout candidate in the sense that his minutes and usage are almost surely going to skyrocket this season. The 6’8″ wing showed flashes of brilliance in limited action last year, using his versatility and athleticism to impact nearly every facet of the game. Among Missouri Valley Conference players, McDuffie finished among the top 15 in offensive rating, offensive rebounding percentage, and two-point percentage. As a defender, his length enables him to defend several positions. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet may be gone, but McDuffie—who will be relied on heavily to help fill that void—has the talent to become another Shockers legend.
  • Cameron Oliver, F – So., Nevada – 2015-16: 13.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.6 BLK: As a freshman, Oliver logged 12 double-doubles and earned Mountain West All-Defensive Team honors before nearly turning pro. His game-changing ability on both ends of the floor helped Nevada turn in its first winning season since 2012, including a CBI championship run on which Oliver averaged 19.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks per contest. Now in his second year, the powerful, athletic forward will be the unquestioned anchor for a Nevada club with its highest expectations since the Mark Fox era ended in 2009. Expect Oliver to shine, the Wolfpack to contend, and the basketball world to take notice. Just don’t count on him returning to Reno next season if he lives up to expectations.

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Atlantic 10 NCAA Tournament Reactions

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on March 15th, 2016

Shock at the NCAA Tournament’s exclusion of St. Bonaventure, the first regular season conference champion with an RPI better than #30 to be left out of the NCAA field since it was expanded to 64 teams, was not limited to members of the school’s community, fans of the conference, veteran bracketologists and a wide consensus of sportswriters. Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade weighed in with a scathing critique of the committee’s judgement and a promise to “talk to the selection committee representatives and compare the stats of all of the at-large selections to understand why [the Bonnies] were not selected to hopefully avoid this disappointment in the future”.

The other three projected teams were included in the field of 68. Let’s take a look at each.

Dayton #7 seed, Midwest Region

After the seeds were assigned to their NCAA Tournament sites a Dayton supporter suggested (tongue firmly in cheek) that fans of his school and Xavier gather at a known St. Louis watering hole to catch their respective games and swap stories about the old Atlantic 10. Dayton drew Syracuse and a roster that has been ravaged by NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions. The Orange run a six-man rotation, which may explain why Syracuse’s record since Valentine’s Day is a paltry 2-5. Dayton can crack Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone with outside shooting (Cooke, Smith or Pierre) or utilize its bouncy forwards (Pierre, Pollard) flashing to the free throw line to convert or find open shooters. Archie Miller typically goes nine deep, so expect the Flyers’ high-energy rotation to wear the Orange down over the course of the game. Survive that and #2 seed Michigan State is up next, a team that many thought deserved a #1 seed. Should the Flyers survive the first weekend, challenges in the form of Seton Hall (or Utah) and ultimately one from a mix of Virginia (#1 seed), a Tubby Smith-coached Texas Tech (#8) or Iowa State (#5) await. Michigan State is without question the toughest draw for Dayton in this region. Read the rest of this entry »

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Thoughts on the Atlantic 10’s Postseason Teams

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on March 14th, 2016

As we head into the heart of March Madness with the NCAA Tournament starting this week, let’s quickly review some of the key takeaways from the Atlantic 10 Tournament over the weekend in Brooklyn.

St. Joseph's Celebrated (USA Today Images)

St. Joseph’s Celebrated Its A-10 Title on Sunday in Brooklyn (USA Today Images)

At least six Atlantic 10 teams are still playing basketball, although only three will do so in the NCAA Tournament. It was clear as January turned to February that four A-10 teams were playing in a league of their own — Dayton, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth and St. Bonaventure. All four were dialed in during conference play, fighting among themselves to determine which would take or share the regular season title. After Selection Sunday, the three teams included in the field of 68 drew seeds ranging from #7 (Dayton) to #8 (Saint Joseph’s) to #10 (VCU). The shocker of Selection Sunday might have been the snub of the Bonnies, a team projected to make the field in 71 of the 80 brackets included in Bracket Matrix. Meanwhile, Davidson and George Washington joined a disappointed St. Bonaventure club in scooping NIT bids. Beyond those six, look for Fordham and/or Richmond to play in the CBI, CIT or Vegas 16. Rhode Island is, as coach Dan Hurley admitted after the Rams lost to Massachusetts Thursday, too banged up to be effective. Its season is over. Here are some thoughts on those teams still playing:

  • Dayton and VCU won’t sneak up on anyone this season. They may represent the conference’s name brands but each has significant flaws this season. VCU lacks multiple scoring threats, especially when their offense is initiated from the half-court. Senior guard Melvin Johnson and center Mo Alie-Cox can score — but only when someone besides Johnson is hot from the outside does the Rams’ offense look dangerous. Dayton won two games last year and ran all the way to the Elite Eight in 2014. This season’s ennui may stem from a variety of minor injuries, a concussion protocol implemented at the worst time and a fall semester suspension. On paper this team looks better than last season, but the Flyers have really struggled since Valentine’s Day.

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Fresno State Dances While San Diego State Worries

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 13th, 2016

America, meet Marvelle Harris and Fresno State. On the strength of a 68-63 win over perennial Mountain West power San Diego State in the conference’s championship game on Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs will be dancing for just the sixth time in program history and the first since 2001 (back when Jerry Tarkanian was still chewing towels on the sidelines). Harris poured in 18 confident points en route to the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, backing up league coaches’ decision to name him the Mountain West Player of the Year. There is no doubt that Harris is the type of talent that can carry his team to some success in an NCAA Tournament game. He’s a versatile senior scorer (20.7 PPG) who can hit from deep (witness his 25-footer to end the first half on Saturday), score at the rim (62.9% FG on his 175 attempts at the rim this year), or draw defenders and create for his teammates (assists on 26.1% of his teammates’ field goals while on the floor). On a team with six upperclassmen among the eight players who saw significant minutes on Saturday, there’s enough experience joining Harris to making the Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament stay extend beyond Friday.

Marvelle Harris And Fresno State Are Heading To The NCAA Tourney (AP Photo/David Becker)

Marvelle Harris And Fresno State Are Heading To The NCAA Tourney (AP Photo/David Becker)

It’s been a rough road for head coach Rodney Terry in his first head coaching job after nine seasons as an assistant at Texas. His first season at Fresno was the school’s final season in the WAC, a year in which the Bulldogs won just three conference games. His first full recruiting class (which led into the program’s first year in the Mountain West) was highlighted by the addition of prominent recruits like Robert Upshaw and Braeden Anderson, but it turned out that Harris was the only player in the class able to make a lasting positive contribution. From there, Terry mined his Big 12 roots and pulled in players like Cezar Guerrero (transfer from Oklahoma State), Julien Lewis (transfer from Texas) and Karachi Edo (a high school recruit from Texas). The Bulldogs have improved in each of Terry’s five years at the helm: five wins in the first year in the Mountain West; a .500 record in 2013-14; an additional conference win last year; and now this season a surprising 13 league wins, a second place regular season finish, and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

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Atlantic 10 Tournament: Early Round Takeaways

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on March 11th, 2016

The first two rounds of the Atlantic 10 Tournament are now in the books. Here are four takeaways from the first couple days of action.

Partly thanks to Trey Davis, who scored a game-high 20 points against Rhode Island, UMass is still dreamin' about dancin'. (Getty)

In part thanks to Trey Davis, who scored a game-high 20 points against Rhode Island, UMass is still dreaming about dancing. (Getty)

  1. The conference’s bottom six programs (La Salle, Saint Louis, George Mason, Massachusetts Fordham and Duquesne) are nowhere near competitive with the top eight. From week #1 through week #10 of conference play, the offensive/defensive differentials show that those six teams have separated themselves from their upper division conference mates (and not in a good way). The games Wednesday featured low offensive efficiency coupled with often hurried possessions. At halftime of Thursday’s first game, Richmond-Fordham, the Spiders led the Rams by 16, 38-22. Davidson led La Salle at the half 42-30. Massachusetts was fortunate enough to draw injury-riddled Rhode Island and took full advantage of a depleted Rhode Island squad to charge out to a 37-19 lead in the first half. Rhody would charge back to take a 59-58 lead in the game’s last two minutes before ultimately fading to fall by five. UMass will now face a rested and full-strength Virginia Commonwealth in the quarterfinal round. Read the rest of this entry »
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Jim Crews Era Over at Saint Louis

Posted by Joe Dzuback on March 10th, 2016

George Washington beat Saint Louis 73-65 this afternoon at the Barclays Center in the second round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The outcome was rarely in doubt, but the post game press conference with SLU coach Jim Crews was anything but business as usual. Three minutes before Crews arrived to deliver his remarks and take questions, the Billiken Athletic Department distributed a press release that began:

Saint Louis University Director of Athletics Chris May announced today that Jim Crews has been released as SLU’s head men’s basketball coach. This decision comes as the Billikens ended their season Thursday at the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship in Brooklyn, N.Y. After reviewing the 2015-16 season and talking with Coach Crews, I have decided that a change in leadership of the men’s basketball program is needed for the program to move forward in meeting our goals.

No Smiles On This Day, As Jim Crews Is Out At Saint Louis (Photo: Post Dispatch)

No Smiles On This Day, As Jim Crews Is Out At Saint Louis (Photo: Post Dispatch)

The press release arrived in the interview room two minutes after Dan Wolken broke the news on Twitter. Atlantic 10 Media Director Drew Dickerson announced no players would be available for the post game press conference only seconds before Crews, noticeably pale and subdued, entered to give his remarks. He congratulated the Colonials on a game well played and shared a number of thoughts about a career that has spanned four decades with head coaching stops at Evansville, Army and Saint Louis.

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State Your Case: Wichita State, Monmouth, Valparaiso, Saint Mary’s

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 9th, 2016

It’s an all-too-familiar story: Several of college basketball’s most promising mid-majors – potential bracket-busters that made mincemeat of their conferences during the regular season – bulldoze their way into March, only to see their dreams of an NCAA Tournament appearance crushed during Championship Week. Nice to know ya; enjoy the NIT; better luck next year. In fact, of the 11 conference tournaments completed so far in 2016, only one top seed (Chattanooga) has managed to clinch its league’s automatic bid. Luckily, for a few of the unfortunate champions, this season may offer new hope. An exceptionally weak bubble, combined with some strong Other 26 resumes, has enabled several teams from non-power conferences to remain in the at-large conversation. In the spirit of election season, let’s allow these candidates to state their cases leading up to Selection Sunday.

Will Ron Baker and the Shockers get another shot on Selection Sunday? (kwch.com)

Will Ron Baker and the Shockers get another shot on Selection Sunday? (kwch.com)

Wichita State

  • The At-Large Argument. Advanced metrics love the Shockers more than any other team on the bubble, and it’s not close. KenPom currently ranks Wichita State #11 in the country – ahead of Miami (FL), Arizona and Xavier, among others – thanks in large part to its second-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency. Sagarin is not quite as high on Gregg Marshall’s group, but he still ranks the Shockers among the top 25. For the sake of comparison, fellow bubble comrades Syracuse and Ohio State do not fall within the top 40 of either ranking. On top of that, the Shockers are a classic example of a team the NCAA Selection Committee might – and perhaps should – judge differently now that they are at full strength. Three of Wichita State’s eight losses came without All-American Fred VanVleet, who missed four games in late November with an ankle injury. In two of those losses, the Missouri Valley champs didn’t have starting center Anton Grady either, who suffered a nearly career-ending injury against Alabama – a game they lost by just four points. There were other injuries, too. Now healthy, Wichita State seems to be a genuinely better basketball team. Oh, and did we mention that non-conference victory over Utah?

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