O26 Superlatives, Part III: Big Sky, Big West, Southland, SWAC, Sun Belt & WAC…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2014

In Part III of our three-part series (click here for Part I and Part II), we pass out 2013-14 superlatives to the best teams, performers and performances from six different O26 conferences: Big Sky, Big West, Southland, SWAC, Sun Belt and WAC. In alphabetical order: 

Big Sky

Davion Berry and Weber State finally edged Montana and won the Big Sky. (Photo by Weber State)

Davion Berry and Weber State finally edged Montana and won the Big Sky. (Photo by Weber State)

  • Team of the Year – Weber State (17-11, 14-6). After winning 55 games in the previous two seasons, this was the year – the most parity-driven in recent memory – that Weber State outlasted Montana and won the Big Sky. The Wildcats now host the conference tournament, which could mean a return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2007.
  • Player of the Year – Davion Berry – Weber State. Narrowly edging out Montana’s Kareem Jamar and North Dakota’s Troy Huff for our Player of the Year, Berry averaged 19 points per contest, distributed the ball effectively, shot almost 40 percent from long range, and led his team to a title.
  • Coach of the Year – Tyler Geving – Portland State. Portland State was picked to finish ninth in the conference, an outlook that became even worse when senior Aaron Moore, averaging nearly 12 points per game, was dismissed from the team in early January. After the Vikings lost four straight close games in the middle of the Big Sky season, Geving deserves credit for leading his guys to a 5-1 finish and a fifth-place tie in the league.
  • Upset of the Year – Northern Colorado over Kansas State, 60-58. Until last Saturday, Kansas State was pretty much unbeatable at home this season: Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State, and George Washington — all these teams left Manhattan without a win. But you know who did manage to leave Manhattan with a win (aside from Baylor)? BJ Hill’s Bears. Gotta love early November.
  • Dunk (or Dunker) of the Year – Jaron Nash – North Dakota. Nash goes baseline, emphatically stuffs it with one hand, then salutes the home crowd. Great stuff.

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Conference Tournament Primer: Southland Conference

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet 10 more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the final push of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the O26 tourneys starting are the Southland, SWAC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10.

Dates: March 12-15
Site: Merrell Center (Katy, TX)

Sthland

What to expect: It would be shocking if Stephen F. Austin fails to win this tournament. The Lumberjacks are one of only three teams to go undefeated in conference play this season, dominating Southland opponents by more than 16 points per game and winning 12 of their 18 league contests by double-figure margins. In fact, Brad Underwood’s club has not lost a game of any kind since before Thanksgiving, a streak of 26 straight. They are the most offensively and defensively efficient team in the conference and rank 101 KenPom spots higher than any other Southland member. Put simply — SFA should further extend its impressive winning streak and punch a ticket to the Dance here, its first since 2009.

FavoriteStephen F. Austin. For all the reasons mentioned above, the Lumberjacks are the overwhelming, odds-on favorite in Katy this weekend.

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Saint Mary’s and San Francisco Depart Vegas on Markedly Different Paths

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2014

Both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco will be invited to participate in one of the other national postseason tournaments, but while their seasons may not be officially over, Monday night brought a close to any improbable NCAA Tournament dreams. Saint Mary’s was routed (again) by Gonzaga in one WCC semifinal, while San Francisco came up a play or two short versus BYU in the other, ultimately falling to Tyler Haws and the Cougars in overtime, 79-77. There are plenty of similarities on a paper resume between SMC and USF this season (both have RPIs in the 60s and 11 losses each), but that resemblance belies the current state of affairs of Bay Area WCC hoops. It would seem that Monday’s mode of exit is a far better illustration of where these two programs currently sit – and where they are headed. The young Dons appear ready to compete like they did in Vegas (and really, all season) on a consistent basis moving forward, but for their neighbors acros the San Francisco Bay in Moraga, the future may not be as bright. The talent pool has dried up for Randy Bennett and the Gaels, and the proudest era in Saint Mary’s basketball history could be on the verge of extinction.

Stephen Holt's Departure Will Make Like More Difficult For Randy Bennett And The Gaels Next Season. Is The Golden Era Of Saint Mary's Basketball Nearly Finished?

Stephen Holt’s Departure Will Make Like More Difficult For Randy Bennett And The Gaels Next Season. Is The Golden Era Of Saint Mary’s Basketball Nearly Finished?

We’ll take the good news before the bad and discuss USF first. Progress has been slow since Rex Walters arrived in 2008, but the Dons have increased their win total in every season except 2012-13 under the former NBA journeyman and former Jayhawk. Incremental growth ran a bit faster this season, as Walters’ team really began showing signs of life. The Dons went 13-5 in a WCC that finished ninth in conference RPI, and are set to return their entire rotation next season save for leading scorer Cole Dickerson. Dickerson’s crafty offensive game will surely be missed in 2014-15, but expectations should justly be enhanced with the Dons returning so much proven talent.

After winning back-to-back national titles in the 50s with two of the greatest players in basketball history leading the way, USF has made the NCAA Tournament just one time in the past three decades, and the last Don to play in the NBA retired more than 20 years ago. It’s been a long, confusing dry spell for a tradition-laden program, indeed. There isn’t any NBA talent on this USF roster (or next year’s, most likely), but as the program ascends the ranks of the WCC standings, the NCAA Tournament should again be within reach for Walters’ team. That statement alone constitutes progress, but anyone who caught a glimpse of this San Francisco team – either on Monday night or throughout its 13-win conference campaign – could tell you that things are looking up in the City by the Bay.

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O26 Storylines: Regular Season Champs and Potential Cinderellas

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 11th, 2014

Championship Week is in full swing. For the O26 conferences, it’s more than halfway over. Eight automatic bids have already been handed out as of Monday night. Let’s take a look at this week’s storylines before Sunday’s Selection Show.

Belmont is just one of many regular-season champions that will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. (GASTON GAZETTE)

Belmont is just one of many regular-season champions that will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. (GASTON GAZETTE)

Should one-bid leagues send their regular-season champion to the NCAA Tournament?

It’s in the best interest of one-bid leagues to send their best team to the Big Dance. That increases the likelihood of an upset, and thus more exposure for the school. We’ve already seen seven teams that won their respective conference’s regular-season title fall in the conference tournament. Enjoy the NIT, fellas. Belmont (Ohio Valley), Davidson (Southern), Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun), Green Bay (Horizon), High Point (Big South), Iona (Metro Atlantic) and Vermont (America East) all were #1 seeds in their conference tournaments, and all probably were legitimate threats to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, those leagues will be represented by weaker teams that don’t have much upset potential. Those top seeds aren’t rewarded for season-long excellence. Instead, they’re being punished for one slip-up. It won’t change because there’s no way any league’s going to want to lose the exposure that comes along with their tournament title game being broadcast on ESPN. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see those teams dancing, and as a result, we have a watered down NCAA Tournament field. Matt Norlander made an interesting argument here.

Which one-bid leagues boast NCAA Tournament representatives that could pull upsets?

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Conference Tournament Primer: Conference USA

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 11th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with another conference tourney tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, Conference USA gets started.

Dates: March 11-15
Site: Haskins Center (El Paso, Texas)

2014 cusa tourney bracket

What to expect: Four teams tied for first during the regular season at 13-3 — Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Middle Tennessee, and Southern Miss — and they’ll be seeded in that order here. Without much of a chance for at-large bids, the C-USA tourney should be a dogfight between those top four. Semifinal Friday should be a doozy if the chalk holds. The automatic bid winner could be a potential Cinderella in the big bracket.

Favorite: Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are the top seed, having won four straight and eight of their last nine games. Tech gets it done on the defensive end, ranking 22nd in the nation in defensive efficiency (94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Bulldogs aren’t too shabby on offense, either, ranking second in Conference USA in league games with 110.1 points scored per 100 possessions.

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The RTC Mountain West Superlatives

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 10th, 2014

Not only did the Mountain West regular season title come down to the final moments of the season, but the Player of the Year race was held in the balance until late Saturday night. Below, one man’s opinion on the best in the Mountain West.

Player of the Year

Xavier Thames, Senior, San Diego State – With 12 minutes left in the conference regular season and New Mexico up 16 at Viejas Arena, Cameron Bairstow looked like he had a hammer-lock on the POY award. A 26-7 run later, the Aztecs were conference champions and now Thames is the pick as the league’s MVP. But don’t believe for a second that this is a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision based largely on recentness; this was just a race that was neck and neck all season long, and Thames was the one to nose the finish. Bairstow winds up leading the conference in scoring, averaging better than three points a game more than Thames, but the Aztec point guard was not only his team’s leading scorer (16.9 PPG), but he was also their lead playmaker (3.0 APG), their most important defender on a top-ten defense nationally, and their rock down the stretch of close games. Down the stretch Saturday night, as Bairstow was held to a single point over the final 12 minutes of the game, Thames scored 10 points, as well as collecting two steals, two assists and a rebound in leading his team to a win. Bairstow had an excellent year, and the improvement in his game deserves plenty of recognition, but he also played with two other guys who deserve strong consideration for a first-team all-conference spot. For Thames, he was the Aztecs’ main guy and the one most responsible for their regular season conference title.

In Helping His Team Cut Down the Nets On Saturday Night, Xavier Thames Earned the RTC Mountain West Player of the Year (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

In Helping His Team Cut Down the Nets On Saturday Night, Xavier Thames Earned the RTC Mountain West Player of the Year. (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

Coach of the Year

Steve Fisher, San Diego State – This one doesn’t require nearly as much of an explanation. Fisher took a team that was picked by the media to finish fourth in the conference (full disclosure, RTC picked them 2nd), a team that had to replace four of its six leading scorers, including all-conference types Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, and turned this Aztec team into a national top ten team. At times it seemed like he was doing it with smoke and mirrors, but facts remain: 27-3; losses only at home to Arizona and on the road to Wyoming and New Mexico; regular season conference championship; and a likely top-four protected seed in the NCAA Tournament. Sounds like a Coach of the Year to me.

All-Conference

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What San Diego State’s Win Over New Mexico Says About Their Postseason Chances

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 10th, 2014

By now, if you care, you know already: San Diego State put together an impressive late-game run to overcome a 16-point deficit to knock off New Mexico on Saturday night, earning the Mountain West conference regular season title and thrilling the capacity Viejas Arena crowd. It was a great game, a great scene and a great encapsulation of all that we love about college basketball.

The Show Rushes The Court Following The Aztecs' Stunning Win Over New Mexico Saturday Night

The Show Rushes The Court Following The Aztecs’ Stunning Win Over New Mexico Saturday Night.

For San Diego State, the run at the end of the game was indicative of what they’ve done all year. Back in February, we wrote that what made this team special was their ability to do what they wanted to do on the court and prevent their opponents from doing what they wanted to do. However, for most of the middle part of the game, it was New Mexico that was having their way. They were pounding the ball inside with big guys Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and with 12 minutes remaining in the game, that duo had outscored the Aztecs 33-25 by themselves. And then came the 1-3-1 zone, a last resort from Aztec head coach Steve Fisher to prevent those Lobo bigs from doing them in. And it worked to a T. Bairstow had only a single free throw after that point, New Mexico only scored seven points the remainder of the game (three of which came on a meaningless Kendall Williams three at the buzzer) and the Aztecs finished on a wild 26-7 run to earn the title. There were 18 possessions when the game was still in doubt after the Aztecs switched to a 1-3-1 zone; in those 18, they forced eight turnovers and five missed threes (for completeness’ sake, the other five possessions included a pair of missed two-point jumpers, a total of one-for-four from the free throw line and – the lone bit of good – a Deshawn Delaney corner three).

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Increasingly Balanced WCC Could Have Bright Future Ahead

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 10th, 2014

Let’s play a little word association game. I say WCC, you say… Gonzaga – right? But when I say Gonzaga, there are bound to be a dozen or so words that will escape your lips before you say WCC. This only makes sense, because for as long as anyone can remember, Gonzaga has been the WCC. Or, at the very least, that interchangeability has served as a quick and easy (and fairly accurate) mental shortcut. But here in 2013-14, the times are a changin’ as Gonzaga has shown more fragility than it has in a long while, but more importantly, the rest of the conference has taken a significant step forward.

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15.

That pairing of Zag vulnerability and WCC uprising was on full display Saturday night in the WCC quarterfinals, where a Santa Clara team that finished eighth in the league pushed Mark Few’s team to the final buzzer. Gonzaga managed to narrowly escape the Broncos’ challenge (on a David Stockton coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds) and is still the clear favorite to take the WCC Tournament title this week, but are these more balanced days here to stay and flourish in the WCC?

The WCC will likely only send two teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament (an outside shot at three if Saint Mary’s or San Francisco can steal the WCC Tournament title), but even with Gonzaga slightly down, the league has been better than it has been in a very long time. Their current conference RPI and KenPom ranking of #9 is the best since the 2004-05 season, and there may be even better days ahead. Saint Mary’s core of seniors leaves Randy Bennett’s team vulnerable to a significant drop-off next season (the SMC situation almost demands its own post, honestly), but outside of the Gaels and a senior-laden Pacific team, most every WCC team will return the bulk of its core. The young nuclei around the league have all had their moments this season, and coaching staffs at Pepperdine, San Diego, Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara should all be expecting improved teams to return in 2014-15.

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O26 Superlatives, Part II: CAA, C-USA, MAC, MEAC, MVC, SoCon, Summit & WCC…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 10th, 2014

In Part II of our three-part series, we pass out 2013-14 superlatives to the best teams, performers and performances from eight different O26 conferences: CAA, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, SoCon, Summit and WCC. In alphabetical order:

Colonial Athletic Association

The Blue Hens outworked the rest of the CAA for much of 2013-2014. (The Post and Courier)

The Blue Hens outworked the rest of the CAA for much of 2013-2014. (The Post and Courier)

  • Team of the Year – Delaware (22-9, 14-2). Not even early- and late-season suspensions of two of Delaware’s best players could stop the Blue Hens’ run to a CAA regular season title. Monte Ross’ up-tempo club raced off to an 11-0 start in conference play, amassing a large enough lead that preseason favorite Towson was never able to catch up.
  • Player of the Year – Jerelle Benimon – Towson. You want beastly numbers? How about these: In 32 games, the 6’8’’ Benimon averaged 18.9 points, 11.7 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, recorded an NCAA-best 20 double-doubles and reached the free throw line 258 times, good for sixth in the country.
  • Coach of the Year – Monté Ross – Delaware. Ross found a way to keep things together, to keep winning after guard Devon Saddler – the team’s leading scorer – missed seven games due to suspension early in the season and Jarvis Threatt – the team’s third-leading scorer – was suspended for the entire month of February.
  • Upset of the Year – Northeastern over Georgetown, 63-56. In the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, miles from Boston or Washington D.C., Scott Eatherton and the Huskies pounded Georgetown in the paint and pulled off an unexpected upset. Alas, it was another full month before Bill Coen’s bunch wound up back in the win column.
  • Dunk (or Dunker) of the Year – Johnathan Burroughs-Cook – College of Charleston. Burroughs-Cook cares not that you are D-II school or that he is playing in a preseason game—he will still annihilate your attempt to draw a charge.

Conference USA

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Conference Tournament Primer: Mid-American Conference

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 10th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the MAC and the MEAC get started.

Dates: March 10, 12-15
Site: First Round: Campus sites; Second Round, Quarters, Semis and Championship: Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland, OH)

MACBracket

What to expect: The MAC’s power pendulum has swung numerous times this season, so it’s difficult to tell which contender has the best shot in Cleveland. Buffalo came on strong in the second half of the year and might boast the league’s most dominant player in Javon McCrea, a double-double machine who recently set the school’s all-time scoring record, while Western Michigan enters the event having won 10 of its last 11 games. Toledo, meanwhile, set a school record with 26 overall wins and will get a triple-bye (yes, a triple-bye) all the way to the semifinals, along with the Broncos. More likely than not, one of those three clubs will emerge as champion. Still, don’t be surprised if one of the conference’s other up-and-down challengers – like recent NCAA Tournament representatives Ohio and Akron – put together a run and leave with a trophy.

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Conference Tournament Primer: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 10th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the MAC and the MEAC get started.

Dates: March 10-15
Sites: The Scope (Norfolk, Va.)

2014 meac bracket

What to expect: It’s been two years since #15 seed Norfolk State pulled off a stunning upset of Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. While the MEAC boasts a different team this time around — North Carolina Central — it has another one that could put a scare into a top seed in the first round. That is, of course, if the Eagles can earn the league’s automatic bid this week. Hampton and Norfolk State will be their main challengers, and remember, the #1 seed has won this tournament only three times in the past 10 years. That tells some of the story as to why the MEAC is only 5-32 in NCAA Tournament games all-time

Favorite: North Carolina Central. The Eagles ran away with this league, winning it by two games over Hampton. Funny story, NCCU played Hampton once this season, but it didn’t count as a league game and I couldn’t find an explanation as to why that occurred. Nevertheless, NCCU has won 17 straight games, including 15 in a row in conference play. The Eagles ranked first in the MEAC in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

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Wichita State Makes History on its Way to the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 9th, 2014

Twenty-three years ago. That’s the last time a college basketball team entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Until now. The Wichita State Shockers completed their inexorable march toward regular season perfection with an 83-69 victory against Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game Sunday afternoon at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Thirty-four times opponents attempted to end Wichita State’s bid for perfection, and 34 times they failed. The 1990-91 UNLV team that entered the NCAA Tournament at 30-0 will no longer be the answer to a modern-day trivia question. That honor now belongs to Wichita State. “I wouldn’t say it was a celebration or a relief, but we understand what we accomplished is something special,” Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said. “At the same time we still have business to take care of.” Added Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet: “We’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to embrace it and appreciate it. This stuff doesn’t happen.”

Wichita Has Surprised Everyone On Its Way to Unbeaten Heading Into Selection Sunday (credit: TSN/Ryan Fagan)

Wichita Has Surprised Everyone On Its Way to Unbeaten Heading Into Selection Sunday (credit: TSN/Ryan Fagan)

Let’s forget the omnipresent strength-of-schedule argument surrounding the Shockers. Let’s forget the detractors who won’t be satisfied until Wichita State proves itself in the Big Dance. Let’s celebrate the accomplishment for what it is. Wichita State is just the second team in history to begin the season with 34 straight wins. The other? That UNLV squad that reached the Final Four at 34-0 before falling to Duke. This is one of the biggest stories in the history of college basketball. The Shockers pulled off a feat that’s only been done once before. And should they — with their inevitable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — be able to avoid the first #16 over #1 upset in Big Dance history, Wichita State would stand alone as the only team to start a college basketball season with 35 consecutive victories. “It’s got to be [one of the greatest stories in college basketball history],” Van Vleet said. “You’re talking about 34 up, 34 down. I don’t care who you’re playing or where you’re at or where you’re from, 34-0 is 34-0.”

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