ATB: Kelly Ignites Duke, Bubble Teams Fall in Droves and a Breathtaking One-Man Show in the MVC…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 4th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. March’s First Weekend. The regular season is whittling down to it climactic end. After this weekend’s bloated weekend of excitements, where many a conference race were won and lost, only one more weekend remains before conference tournaments begin. The regular season has been filled with excitement and unlikely drama, so in one sense it is devastating to face the end-of-regular-season music. The nearing of conference and NCAA Tournaments is what I like to call the ultimate silver lining to that dour sentiment. That’s right: check your calendars. The Tournament, and the mini tournaments leading up to it, are coming to a TV near you. And soon. What I’m really trying to get at here is that as grim as the prospect of a Saturday afternoon with zero college hoops on tap may be, the treat at the end of the calendar will arrive at a moment’s notice. One phase (the regular season) gives way to a better one (the postseason). That turning point isn’t here yet, so in the meantime we’ll stop by and examine some of the hardwood happenings in various leagues around the country. All systems go:

Your watercooler Moment. Ryan Kelly Helps, a Lot.

The return of Kelly was the deciding factor in Duke's ACC bout with Miami (USA Today Sports).

The return of Kelly was the deciding factor in Duke’s ACC bout with Miami (USA Today Sports).

Whenever someone would mention Duke’s chances of advancing into the deep rounds of the NCAA Tournament, or its seeding prospects, they talked about Duke in two forms. With Ryan Kelly, the Blue Devils are undefeated with wins over Kentucky, VCU, Louisville, Minnesota, Ohio State, Temple and Davidson. Without him they’re not the same team, both empirically and wins-wise, and a mixed run through the ACC underscored the impact of Kelly’s absence on Duke’s collective unit. The conversation loomed as Duke took road losses at NC State, Miami, Maryland, and most recently, Virginia. No one doubted whether Duke would improve with Kelly in the lineup, only whether they could improve enough to regain their nonconference form or, in the most skeptical corners of ACC message boards, whether Kelly would return at all this season. And even if he did return, how much could we reasonably expect from an unconventional 6’ll’’ stretch four with a history of nagging foot injuries? The answer to that question came Saturday. Kelly returned to the Blue Devils just in time for a titanic ACC clash with Miami, who embarrassed the Blue Devils in Coral Gables in their first matchup in January. To say Kelly returned would be like saying Willis Reed “returned” from a torn thigh muscle for game seven of the Knicks’ NBA Finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kelly didn’t just return. He stole the show: 36 points on 10-of-14 shooting in a game that Miami kept close throughout, and was only sealed when Shane Larkin and Rion Brown missed game-tying threes as time expired. It’s unreasonable to bank Kelly for 30 points on any given night. I could even see him sitting out, or playing sparse minutes, in Duke’s two remaining regular season games. If his foot isn’t fully healed, he may need the extra rest to gear up for the NCAA Tournament. What matters is that Kelly is back, and Duke can start working on trending back towards the clear-cut No. 1 team that ruled the hoops landscape in November and December. 

Also Worth Chatting About. Big East Contenders Handle Business.

A midseason Big East panic is a distant memory after Louisville won at Syracuse Saturday (AP).

A midseason Big East panic is a distant memory after Louisville won at Syracuse Saturday (AP).

At the top of the Big East standings, a glut of variously capable teams has positioned itself within striking distance of the conference title at different stages this season. Syracuse and Louisville were the obvious favorites entering conference play, and teams such as Marquette, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame have looked threatening on occasion. The picture has remained muddy for a while now – as it should in a league as naturally competitive and unpredictable in the Big East. As the conference schedule wanes, time and gradual attrition has sliced the pool of realistic challengers into a formidable trio: Georgetown, Louisville and Marquette. The most surprising exclusion expedited its exit on Saturday afternoon at the Carrier Dome, where the Orange engaged in a low-scoring tussle, eventually falling on the wrong end of Louisville’s payback effort from the Orange win at the KFC Yum! Center earlier this season. You may or may not have realized, but the victory was Louisville’s fifth in a row since that devastating 5 OT loss at Notre Dame, the only one of which had any real consequence. The Cardinals are once again locking teams down with the nation’s No. 1 efficiency defense, getting just enough on the other end from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith and peaking just in time for the postseason. With Marquette holding serve against the Irish on Saturday just a week after knocking off the Orange at home, the Golden Eagles stand tied with Louisville in the Big East table, with Georgetown holding down first place after its win over Rutgers Saturday night. Syracuse’s three-game skid essentially dashes its league crown hopes, but more importantly it gives the Orange two straight defeats in their previously unassailable home gym and three straight losses overall. The Orange, strangely enough, are officially vulnerable at home, and officially on the outside of the conference title chase looking in as they round out their last hurrah in the Big East.

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The Other 26: Let the Madness Begin

Posted by IRenko on March 2nd, 2013

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

As the calendar turns to March, let us declare: Let the Madness begin. The NCAA Tournament is still three weeks away, but the fight to get there begins in earnest this coming week, as 12 mid-major conferences will kick off their tournaments. The Big South and Horizon League will have the honor of kicking things off on Tuesday night, with their first round tournament games. Ten more conferences will follow suit with the first auto-bids being awarded a week from today in the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley.

We’ll be back next week with updates on all the action, but until then, there is still the homestretch of the regular season to attend to. So let’s move on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and (regular season) games to watch this week.

Top 10

RTC -- TO26 (3.2.13)

Honor Roll

The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.

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ATB: Another Big Upset in the Big Ten, the Still-Undefeated Zips and Some Pac-12 Drama…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 28th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Because Big Ten Upsets Come In Pairs. Right when the Big Ten churns out one massive upset, number one Indiana’s four-point loss at Minnesota Tuesday night, the league got bored, went back to the drawing board, and said – in the most demonic voice possible – hey, Michigan, your time has come. The Wolverines went down on the road, at the house of a traditional basketball doormat, and on most nights, that story in itself would block out the rest of the night’s schedule. Not so – the Michigan loss was merely an icebreaker for a long and thorough evening of big-time matchups. Your humble nightly ATB writer compiled a sampling of the biggest headlines. Alas:

Your Watercooler Moment. A Very Happy Valley. 


The conciliatory retort to any mildly surprising loss in the Big Ten season has gone a little something like this: it’s ok to lose on the road in the Big Ten, because you know how hard those Big Ten road games are, right? Wednesday night’s shocking result in Happy Valley, where Penn State won its first conference game in 18 tries after a blistering 15-point second-half comeback, was a huge exception. Most road games are difficult to win in this league, no question; from Mackey Arena to the Crisler Center to the Barn, the Big Ten lays claim to some of the nation’s most raucous campus environments. Teams lose, like Indiana at Minnesota, and it’s tough to get too caught up in the result. Any team in this uber-deep league can rip off a big upset win on any given night, it is widely and frequently said. We would have been rolling out the same logic had Michigan lost at, say, Illinois or Minnesota. Instead, the Wolverines elected – willfully or not – to suffer their worst loss of the season against the worst team in their league. And the weird part is, the final score really isn’t that crazy at all. To the passive onlooker, yes, Michigan had no business losing this game. But for anyone who paid mind to Penn State’s eight-point loss (ahem, moral victory) at the Crisler Center just 10 days ago, seeing Michigan bite the dust at State College was insane, but it wasn’t some Kansas-TCU-level revolution. The point in all of this is not to disparage Penn State by way of condemning the unlikelihood of Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines have some real issues to sort out in the final weeks, particularly on the defensive end. With two of their final three games coming against Michigan State and Indiana, Michigan needs to shake this off, address whatever issues ailed them at PSU and rally for an important concluding schedule in advance of what’s shaping up to be an utterly chaotic Big Ten Tournament.

Also worth Chatting About. Pac-12 Competitiveness. 

A league bereft of depth and quality last season is on the rise (AP).

A league bereft of depth and quality last season is on the improving (AP).

Unlike the 2012 version, this year’s Pac 12 is sort of ok. In fact, it’s more more than that. The league could, believe it or not, birth as many as six NCAA Tournament squads this season. Four of those Tournament hopefuls took the court Wednesday night, and the most significant result (Arizona’s loss at USC) is probably something we should have suspected all along. USC has won five of its past seven without fired coach Kevin O’Neill and are quietly playing their best basketball of the season; meanwhile, Arizona’s last three road games, including tonight’s loss, read as follows: a blowout loss at Colorado, a four-point win at Utah and a loss at USC. In other words, the Wildcats’ squeaky road ways were a dangerous way to life live in the Pac 12. In the other two marquee P12 games of the night, UCLA held serve against Arizona State and Colorado hung tough and gutted out a road win at Stanford. Most of these teams, with a few exceptions at the bottom, are competitively intriguing, and Wednesday night was the latest example. Not even the possibly one-seed bound Wildcats are safe against the likes of a middling if inspired USC. The league may not be great at the top — much like every power league this season, there truly is no “dominant team” — but the considerable growth in the middle regions has added substantial girth to a conference that sent just one at-large team to the NCAA Tournament last season and saw its regular season crownholder, Washington, miss the field altogether. Change is undeniable. The preeminent western conference is back on its feet, and the on-court product it doles out keeps getting better and better as the season closes in on the most crucial stretch.

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ATB: Canes Meet the Pain, the End of a Rivalry and a Bracketbusters Finale…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 25th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. Reining in the Last Weekend of February. The end of two prized college basketball traditions came to pass this weekend. ESPN’s annual Bracketbusters event saw its last go-round feature a slate that, frankly, didn’t meet the occasion of the event’s last rendition. Meanwhile, a decades-old Big East feud between Georgetown and Syracuse came to a close, and unlike the mediocre Bracketbusters field, the game was a fitting send-off for one of the nation’s best rivalries. Those two events headlined another excellent weekend schedule, the rest of which included (per the usual) a massive upset, some grueling league match-ups and all kinds of bubble and seeding implications sprinkled throughout.

Your Watercooler Moment. Miami Goes Down. 


The notion of Miami going undefeated in the ACC always felt like a distant, almost untenable concept. The Hurricanes are, at the risk of paint a bleak picture, a basketball non-entity. They play in front of an apathetic fan base at a “football school,” in a city with fans that are — let’s just say -– selective about going to see their teams play. Neither me, nor most of the nation’s best college hoops minds, knew exactly what to think. Miami was good, sure, but how good?

Until Saturday’s loss at Wake Forest, Miami’s first in ACC play, the answer was unambiguously glowing: Miami was good enough to run the table, despite everyone’s early-conference season doubts. The Hurricanes were storming through league competition, barely breaking a sweat while doing it and slowly but surely grasping the country’s attention as they rose up the AP Poll and surfaced as a favorite to land a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The praise was well-earned; this team can really play. Not only do they have spiffy efficiency numbers to back up the results – which include a 27-point drubbing of Duke and wins over NC State and UNC – they also have the experience and senior leadership to complete the intangible component of a legitimate Final Four candidate. It’s never fun to be the subject of another team’s court storming, nor is it comforting to have your undefeated conference run come courtesy of one of the nation’s worst Power Six schools (Yes, Wake plays teams tough at home, but come on: these squads aren’t in the same league). But if you began the weekend pleasantly impressed and optimistic about Miami’s chances of making a deep March run this season, I don’t know why you’d lose faith now. Miami lost, and it didn’t look particularly good in recent games against Clemson and North Carolina, but does one game negate a 13-0 ACC start, a top-10 efficiency profile and a senior-laden team armed with the sideline guile of March-savvy coach? No, it doesn’t.

Also Worth Chatting About. Hoyas Soil Storybook Big East Exit.

Wins don’t get any bigger than Georgetown’s Saturday at the Carrier Dome at the Carrier Dome. (Getty)

Wins don’t get any bigger than Georgetown’s Saturday at the Carrier Dome at the Carrier Dome. (Getty)

All the elements of a ceremonial Syracuse smackdown were present. A raging pack of 35,000 + orange-clad maniacs, an eligible and re-ingratiated James Southerland, the jersey-hanging commemoration of one of the best players in program history (Carmelo Anthony). Saturday, at the Carrier Dome, this was about the Orange, about Jim Boeheim, about punishing a rival one very last time. Otto Porter and the victorious Georgetown Hoyas were having none of it. A defensive battle, as expected, stayed tight deep into the second half. Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone frustrated the Hoyas all afternoon, and Georgetown countered with smothering defense of their own. The deciding factor was Porter. In a game where points, assists and general offensive execution was hard to come by, Porter rose to the occasion in an impossibly tough road environment (before Saturday, Syracuse hadn’t lost at the Carrier Dome in 38 games, the nation’s longest streak). And so after a bumpy opening in conference play, and all the usual Hoyas-centric questions about season-long endurance being raised, Georgetown has rendered moot a once debatable subject: who’s playing the best basketball in the Big East these days? Georgetown is the only answer.

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The Other 26: This Is Not Mark Few’s Best Team… Yet

Posted by IRenko on February 16th, 2013

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

After a 17-point win at St. Mary’s on Thursday night pushed Gonzaga’s record to 24-2 and cleared its biggest hurdle to a regular season record tainted with just two losses, some are wondering whether this is the best team that Mark Few has put together in his 14 years at the helm. It’s a fair question, given the way they’re playing. But the best ever? Sure, not since Adam Morrison was dragged off the court after a heartbreaking loss to UCLA ended his college career, have the Zags had a player with the combination of star power, All-American credentials, and curious hairstyle that Kelly Olynyk has brought this year. And, true, moreso than the Morrison-led team of 2006, this squad is a well-balanced offensive machine, with a multitude of frontcourt and backcourt options. They proved that on Thursday, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have deferred most of the scoring load this year to Olynyk and Elias Harris, dropped a combined 38 points on St. Mary’s.

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

But Few’s best team ever? They have a ways to go before they can claim such an honor. Take, for example, the 2004 team, which also dropped just two contests heading into the NCAA Tournament.  That squad was led by All-American senior guard Blake Stepp, and like Olynyk, he had lots of help. Junior Ronny Turiaf, sophomore Morrison, and senior Cory Violette shared the scoring load, with all four players averaging in double-digits. They coasted through league play undefeated, never winning a game by less than double digits, and ended the season on a 20-game win streak en route to a 2 seed in the Tournament, Gonzaga’s best ever. Their two pre-Tournament losses were to St. Joe’s and Stanford, both of which went on to earn 1 seeds that year. By contrast, this year’s Gonzaga team lost to Illinois, a bubble team, at home by 11 points.

Of course, this year’s squad could prove itself a superior to the 2004 team — or any team that Few has coached — if it can get past the Sweet Sixteen. Since Gonzaga burst onto the college hoops scene 14 years ago with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’ve yet to get reach the brink of a Final Four, much less a Final Four itself. The ballyhooed ’04 squad was upset by 10th-seeded Nevada in the second round, the ’05 team squandered a 3 seed with a second round loss to Texas Tech, and the ’06 Zags memorably collapsed against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen (a game to which one cannot refer without remarking that it was perhaps the finest moment of Gus Johnson’s illustrious career). This Gonzaga team stacks up well with those predecessors, but unless it breaks through to the second game of the second weekend, it won’t prove to be their clear superior.

What’s undisputed, however, is that the Zags have been dominant enough to remain at the top of this year’s Top 10.  On to that, our Honor Roll, and this week’s games to watch  . . .

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The Other 26: It’s Nate Wolters’ World, and We’re Just Living In It

Posted by IRenko on February 9th, 2013

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

It wasn’t that long ago when we were musing in this space about whether an early December ankle injury was hindering Nate Wolters’ performance. After missing two games, Wolters registered three straight games with a sub-100 offensive rating (per Ken Pomeroy), decidedly mediocre performances by Wolters’ high standards. But those would be the only three games this year where Wolters fell below that mark, as he emerged from his funk with a 28-point performance in a big win over New Mexico. Since then, Wolters has been as productive as ever. But none of us could have expected what happened on Thursday night. Wolters exploded for an incredible 53-point performance.

Nate Wolters Owned the Court on Thursday Night (South Dakota State Athletics)

Nate Wolters Owned the Court on Thursday Night (South Dakota State Athletics)

Wolters shot 17-of-28 from the floor, including 9-of-14 from three-point range. He added 10 points from the free throw line. He outscored the entire opposing team, IPFW, in the second half, 38-37. He scored in every which way — step back threes, drives through the lane, catch-and-shoot threes, drives along the baseline, threes off ball screens, pull-up jumpers … you name it, he did it.

Wolters is now averaging 22.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. He commits just 2.3 turnovers a game despite using more than 30 percent of the Jackrabbits’ possessions. He shoots over 80 percent from the free throw line and over 40 percent from the three-point line. And perhaps most important of all, he has led his team on an eight-game winning streak that has buried an uneven start to the conference season and put the Jackrabbits in a first-place tie with Western Illinois. If you’ve yet to catch the Wolters show, fret not as there are some high-profile opportunities in the coming weeks. Next Saturday, the Jackrabbits welcome Western Illinois to Brookings, and you can bet that the joint will be jumping. And a week later, Wolters will take his talents to Murray, Kentucky to square off against Isaiah Canaan and the Racers in a premier Bracketbuster matchup.

On to this week’s Top 10, our Honor Roll, and the games to watch this week …

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ATB: The Original No. 1 Returns, Phog Allen Defiled and More Mountain West Craziness…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 4th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. One More Month. Passage into February is a temporal marker for college basketball’s great postseason. Talks of preparing for “next month” are fair game now. Bubble discussion will rage on a daily basis. Each win will be scrutinized not just by the box score, but for its RPI and strength of schedule effects. The next monthly calendar flipping will bring even more excitement, but as the large masses who casually check in on the sport after the Super Bowl conveniently forget, the race to the dance can be just as tantalizing as the dance itself. From here on out, the competition will be fierce, the pressure will mount, and each and every day will bring us closer to our final destination: the NCAA Tournament. With another weekend in the books, time to revisit the first February action of this college hoops season.

Your Watercooler Moment. Another Slow Start Dooms Michigan.

A poor start hurt Michigan's chances Saturday in Bloomington (Photo credit: Getty Images).

A poor start hurt Michigan’s chances Saturday in Bloomington (Photo credit: Getty Images).

Everybody loses games. What separates the great from the merely good, is the ability to learn from those losses, eliminate the bad tendencies, keep the good ones and readjust your memory bank. Michigan knows the perils of getting out to a slow start on the road in Big Ten play. In its lone loss of the season prior to Saturday’s eight-point defeat in Bloomington, the Wolverines allowed Ohio State to storm out to a 16-3 lead in Columbus. Michigan clawed back to make a real game of it, but in the end, Ohio State held on. The Wolverines’ early sluggishness put them in too large a hole to climb out of. Michigan should have come away from that loss with a stern appreciation for how to handle the opening minutes of high-level conference road games. Against Indiana, managing the early possessions without letting things get out of hand was the foremost hurdle to knocking off the No. 3 team in the country in its own super-packed, deafening, red-and-white filled building. Michigan didn’t – the Wolverines allowed the Hoosiers to bust open a 28-13 advantage by the 10-minute mark in the first half, ignite a delirious Hoosiers crowd and force the Wolverines into a massive uphill climb from that point onward. Michigan responded with excellent point guard play from Trey Burke and solid bench production from freshman big man Mitch McGary, but much like the Ohio State game, the Wolverines couldn’t quite make it all the way back.

Other factors – Victor Oladipo’s energetic defense, Cody Zeller’s easy looks in the post, the natural benefits of playing in one of the nation’s fiercest home gyms, Michigan’s numerous chances to win the game later on – need to be considered before pinning this loss entirely on Michigan’s slow beginning. And I don’t doubt John Beilein counseled his team on the dangers of a slow start at a hostile hoops fortress like Assembly Hall. But it just felt like Michigan came out with a tentative, almost rattled mindset – that once Indiana started hitting shots, the Wolverines had no power to settle the game down, collect themselves and dictate the flow on their terms. The comeback effort was strong, again, but it doesn’t disabuse the fact that Michigan played into the Hoosiers’ home-crafted momentum advantage, and had a much, much better shot at leaving with a W if not for that poor opening stretch. An eight-point loss at Indiana is not the end of the world; Michigan will rebound, and when these teams meet again on March 10, you can expect another high-paced, high-intensity, high-stakes battle. 

Also Worth Chatting About. Um, Kansas?

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The Other 26: Niagara Rushes Forth

Posted by IRenko on February 2nd, 2013

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

When you hear the word “Niagara” you’re not likely to think of basketball. But in the shadow of one of the world’s natural wonders, something is percolating on the hardwood. After a thrilling 93-90 overtime win over Iona that included a rally from a late 15-point deficit and a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the game, Niagara sits atop the MAAC standings at 10-1. A win over Loyola today would cap a tremendous week for the Purple Eagles, giving them a perfect 3-0 record against the next three teams in the standings — Iona, Loyola, and Canisius — over the past seven days.

Juan'ya Green Capped Niagara's Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer  in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Juan’ya Green Capped Niagara’s Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Last year, Niagara finished 14-19, the first time in head coach Joe Mihalich’s 10-year tenure that he suffered consecutive losing seasons. Mihalich had taken the Purple Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007 and to the NIT in 2004 and 2009, but the team had fallen behind the pack in the MAAC in the three years since. The seeds of a resurgence were planted during last year’s losing campaign, as a host of young players started to find their footing in Division 1 college hoops. Having lost no one to graduation, Niagara was predicted to finish fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches’ poll. That seemed a fair, perhaps optimistic, assessment, but the clear light of hindsight makes a mockery of it.

What accounts for the turnaround? Mostly the maturation of Niagara’s all-sophomore backcourt: Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, and Ameen Tanksley. Last year, the trio showed that they had talent. This year, they’re showing that they can channel it into efficient offense.  Green is actually averaging fewer points (16.5) than he did as a freshman (17.6), but that’s in part because he’s managed to corral his considerable talents and become a more effective facilitator. Coming out of high school, Green was known for his prodigious scoring ability, but questions lingered about his ability to create for his teammates. He’s answering those questions this year, increasing his assists (5.2 per game) and decreasing his turnovers (2.8 per game). With Green deferring more to his teammates, Mason, the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, has stepped into the role of lead scorer. He’s upped his per-game average from 15.1 to a team-leading 18.7, but more importantly, he’s become a much more efficient scorer.  He’s increased his field goal percentage from 38.2 to 44.6. He now shoots almost 80 percent from the free throw line, after shooting less than 65 percent last year, a significant development because of his knack for getting to the charity stripe. Tanksley, for his part, has also boosted his field goal percentage, from 38.6 to 45.7 and upped his scoring average into double-digits.

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The Other 26: Week One

Posted by IRenko on December 1st, 2012

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

Greetings, readers, and welcome back for another year of The Other 26, RTC’s weekly foray into the mid-major world, now securely ensconced on a microsite that shares its name. College hoops seemed to start earlier this year than it ever has, producing a November that was packed with much more action than the few preseason tournaments to which old geezers like me are accustomed. That means that there is quite a bit of ground to cover, and precious little time to waste. Let’s get right to it after the jump, with our first installment of the TO26 Top 10, a look back at which teams caught our eye with strong (and not so strong) starts, and a look forward to this week’s most compelling TO26 match-ups.

Looking Back:  Strong Starts

  • The Rest of the Mountain West – Coming into the season, UNLV and San Diego State received well-deserved hype and top 20 rankings.  But it’s clear that they’re going to have quite a bit of competition in conference play. New Mexico has barely shown the effects of losing their frontcourt tandem Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. They have notched several solid wins en route to a 7-0 record, defeating UConn, George Mason, Davidson, and Mercer — all teams with realistic NCAA Tournament hopes. Fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years, and with a cast of strong returnees and transfers, Colorado State entered the season with reasonably high expectations. But their ability to adjust to new coach Larry Eustachy remained an open question. Well, question answered. The Rams are undefeated at 5-0, posting wins over strong mid-major teams Montana and Denver and pounding the Washington Huskies by 18 points on the road. But, wait! The MW’s depth does not end there. Leon Rice’s Boise State squad, which plays just one senior, is off to a 5-1 start and is coming off of a 13-point win over Creighton on the road. Meanwhile, Wyoming and Air Force are a combined 13-1 on the season.  Throw in competitive newcomers Nevada and Fresno State, and UNLV and San Diego State may not have an easy conference game all year.

Elias Harris Leads a Potent Gonzaga Frontcourt (US Presswire)

  • Gonzaga – Gonzaga came into the season with a Top 25 ranking, so they’ve not exactly snuck up on anyone. But they’ve nonetheless impressed, collecting wins over West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Davidson by an average of more than 20 points. Throw in three more lopsided victories, and the Zags are sitting pretty at 7-0 and little sweat to show for it. Kelly Olynyk has emerged from his redshirt year as a genuine frontcourt force. Along with Elias Harris and Sam Dower, he gives the Bulldogs three skilled, athletic bigs. Throw in freshman post anchor Przemek Karnowski, and the Zags have four big men averaging nine or more points. While this frontcourt foursome has managed to outshine the heralded backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell on the offensive end, what’s been most impressive about Gonzaga’s start is its defense. Mark Few’s teams have steadily improved at that end of the floor over the past few years, and it could be the key that finally unlocks their door to the Final Four. Read the rest of this entry »
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College Basketball By The Tweets: Opening Weekend

Posted by Nick Fasulo on November 12th, 2012

Nick Fasulo is an RTC correspondent who writes the column College Basketball By the Tweets, a look at the world of college hoops through the prism of everyone’s favorite social media platform. You can find him on Twitter @nickfasuloSBN.

The concept was exciting, the buildup palpable. Friday, the hard start to the 2012-2013 season, was supposed to be a grand way to officially tip off the new season by building off of last year’s success of playing a game on an aircraft carrier. But this time around, things went horribly wrong. Yeah Kentucky – Maryland was a good watch. Alabama provided a thrilling finish in their victory over a dangerous South Dakota State team. And UConn surprised many with an impressive victory over Michigan State.

But two games had to be canceled. Canceled because they were being played outdoors on an aircraft carrier in humid areas. Marquette – Ohio State (the Carrier Classic)  and Georgetown – Florida (Navy-Marine Corps Classic) were canceled due to excessive condensation on the court, an embarrassing pair of incidents that will likely put an end to this novel idea, or at least make organizers proceed far more cautiously when attempting to schedule a basketball game in a unique setting.

Naturally, fans took those responsible to task on Twitter. We’ll start with those directly affected, as Marquette blog “Paint Touches” was the first to state the obvious:

Then just under 24 hours later, he dropped some valuable empirical knowledge as San Diego State and Syracuse held their Saturday afternoon shootaround.

And while it seems as though the Orange would have handled the Aztecs if they played indoors, Steve Fisher’s team struggled to get to the rim, relying on perimeter shots that were likely affected by sun and wind.

Meanwhile, Marquette/Ohio State event organizer Morale Entertainment had a major PR crisis on their hands, tweeting out the following to a number of ticked off fans.

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2012-13 RTC Conference Primers: Mid-American Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 16th, 2012

Ethan Back is the MAC correspondent for RTC.

Top Storylines

  • Will Ohio Be Able to Reach the Sweet Sixteen Again? After an extremely successful season that ended in an overtime loss in the Sweet Sixteen against ACC power North Carolina, Ohio will look to make another deep NCAA Tournament run. The Bobcats have a lot of hype to live up to, as they return all of their significant contributors from a season ago, including standouts D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt. Not all of the personnel returns from a season ago, however, with former head coach John Groce now at Illinois, but new head coach Jim Christian will look to keep momentum going.

Ohio’s D.J. Cooper Hopes To Follow One Head-Turning Season With Another. (AP Photo/T. Dejak)

  • Toledo’s Postseason Ban: Toledo has a very solid core intact from the 2011-12 season, so it’s a real shame that the Rockets won’t be able to qualify for postseason play due to its academic problems. Luckily for the Rockets, two of its best players (Rian Pearson and Julius Brown) are underclassmen, so they’ll still get a chance to win the MAC Tournament in future years, assuming they stay in school beyond the 2012-13 season.
  • East vs. West: Last season, the East had five teams finish with a winning record, whereas the West had a measly one. This clear imbalance within the MAC doesn’t have serious ramifications, as the conference tournament seeds are not based on division, but for the sake of self-respect, the West will hope to have a better season than it did last year.
  • No More Zeiglers: Winning games hasn’t been an easy task for Central Michigan these past two seasons, as its 12-20 conference record during that span indicates. It won’t be any easier this year after the firing of head coach Ernie Zeigler led to the transfer of his son and the Chippewas’ leading scorer Trey Zeigler to Pittsburgh. New head coach Keno Davis brings great experience to the program, but his first season on the job will likely be a rough one.

Reader’s Take I

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Analyzing the Big 12 Early Season Tournaments: Iowa State & Oklahoma State Edition

Posted by Nate Kotisso on October 10th, 2012

We’re just two days away from the official opening to the 2012-13 college basketball season as schools will be able to start officially practicing Friday night. Before then, though, we’re going to take a look at the various pre-conference tournaments that have become synonymous with the first month of college basketball. Nearly every Big 12 school is competing in one of those tournaments this season and we’ll take time each day this week to preview each bracket, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico to New York City. On Tuesday, we took a look at Texas and Kansas. On Wednesday, Kansas State and the NIT Preseason Tip-Off were previewed.  Today, we’ll analyze how Iowa State and Oklahoma State will stack up in their preseason tournaments. 

Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Dates: November 15, 16 and 18

Location: Coliseo Ruben Rodriquez in Bayamon, PR

Teams: Akron, Massachusetts, UNC Asheville, NC State, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Providence and Tennessee

A sports photographer’s dream (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman)

If you look at these teams by name alone, you’d think this was a pillowy type of tournament. But look harder and you’ll see a preseason top 10 team, a #16 seed who nearly upset a #1 in last year’s NCAA Tournament, three teams that played in last year’s NIT, and a team with two five-star recruits (maybe) in the starting lineup. Not bad, eh?

The Akron Zips not only have an awesome nickname but return four of its five leading scorers from a team that barely lost to Sweet Sixteen-bound Ohio in the MAC Tournament championship. UMass head coach Derek Kellogg made it to NIT Semifinals in New York last year and his 5’9″ point guard Chaz Williams was voted to the all-conference first team. If that doesn’t say something about how good they are in a deeper A-10, I don’t know what will.

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