David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Lipscomb and Belmont in Nashville.
When he lost his three leading scorers to graduation, including standout guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, many assumed that Belmont coach Rick Byrd would see his team take a step back from last year’s OVC championship squad. But this is Rick Byrd, and rebuilding at this point in the program’s existence is no longer a concern. As evidenced by Sunday’s win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, his latest group is once again likely the team to beat in the OVC, and a return to the Big Dance for the seventh time in nine seasons appears to be a distinct possibility.
Rick Byrd Has One of the Most Consistently Good Mid-Major Programs Going
On Wednesday night, the Bruins backed up their win over the Tar Heels with a resounding 94-64 thumping of cross-town rival Lipscomb in the season’s second “Battle of the Boulevard,” giving Belmont its NCAA-best 22nd consecutive home win. And in getting off to a strong start that includes not only the North Carolina win, but also a home victory over an Indiana State team that crushed Notre Dame in South Bend, Byrd’s squad is proving that it has simply reloaded. Now led in the backcourt by the solid duo of Reece Chamberlain and Craig Bradshaw, both of whom saw valuable minutes last season, Belmont relies on a stronger front line than it had last season. J.J. Mann, whom Byrd recently called one of the hardest workers and most competitive players he’s coached, proved his mettle by hitting the game-winning three against North Carolina. The senior forward looks poised to lead the Bruins in scoring this season, and his role as a vocal leader has increased with the departure of Johnson and Clark.
Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 18th, 2013
Brad Jenkins is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Sunday afternoon’s North Carolina vs. Belmont game from Chapel Hill.
Normally when a small school like Belmont wins a road game against a traditional power like North Carolina, it is deemed a major upset. But the Bruins’ 83-80 victory in Chapel Hill Sunday afternoon did not look like a big surprise. This statement has more to do with North Carolina’s team right now than it does with Belmont. After a lackluster win over a lightly-regarded Holy Cross on Friday night, RTC ACC microsite columnist Lathan Wells pointed out that North Carolina was suffering from an offensive identity crisis. As of Sunday, the Tar Heels are still looking for answers.
Roy Williams is Searching for Answers in Chapel Hill
The story of the first half was certainly the pathetic 9-of-28 free throw performance by North Carolina, leaving the Heels behind by seven points at the half. They were better from the charity stripe in the second half but still finished a dismal 22-of-48 for the game. For a team with only one perimeter shooting threat in Marcus Paige, attacking the basket aggressively against the smaller Bruins would appear to be a sound strategy. The problem was that the two guys repeatedly getting fouled are both bad free throw shooters. J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo were a combined 15-of-35 from the free throw line on Sunday, but that’s not a total shock given their history: McAdoo shot 58% last year and Tokoto managed to make only 38.5% of his free throws. So maybe that strategy isn’t so great after all. The only real effective thing North Carolina did on the offensive end was hit the glass. The Heels collected 21 of their misses out of a possible 43, for a phenomenal offensive rebound rate approaching 50 percent.
Pitt News: Great article from a couple of weeks ago from Pittsburgh student Jasper Wilson, who spent some time with Panther alumnus Ricardo Greer. Greer was a star (though he took a backseat role to All-American Brandin Knight his senior season), who graduated in 2001. Now Greer plays basketball in France, where he’s played the majority of his professional career. Wilson does a great job illuminating Greer’s life with the boons and challenges that come with playing basketball in Europe. Really great work.
Run the Floor: Suffice to say Boston College‘s season hasn’t opened the way Steve Donahue planned. The Eagles are 1-4. Their one win came by three, at home against a bad Florida Atlantic team (the same team Duke beat by more than thirty points). Their losses are all to decent teams (Providence, Massachusetts, and Toledo), but decent losses don’t help your RPI–especially home losses against Toledo. Donahue’s team may just be taking some time to come together, but their performances are starting to look eerily consistent.
CBSSports.com: Gary Parrish thinks that Lebron’s Decision influenced consensus top-five recruits Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor in their decision to pick a school together. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it also applies to the super-classes that John Calipari has strung together. Jones and Okafor chose Duke, giving the Blue Devils the top class in the country for next season. Consensus top-ranked prospect Okafor, a back to the basket center, will give Mike Krzyzewski his most skilled big since at least Carlos Boozer (and possibly Elton Brand).
Tar Heel Blog and One Foot Down: A couple of ranked teams got embarrassed this weekend. Lathan’s article from Friday looks especially prescient after North Carolina lost to Belmont at home. The Tar Heels went a shocking 22-48 from the free throw line, which certainly contributed to their loss. But they also choked up a six-point lead in the final minutes thanks to some hot shooting from Belmont. Notre Dame also lost at home to Indiana State (the first November loss of Mike Brey’s tenure) thanks to putrid offense and absolutely nothing from its backcourt. [side note: Syracuse also produced an abhorrent free throw line this weekend, putting up the old 12-28 from the charity stripe]
Charlottesville Daily Progress: Virginia‘s loss to VCU raised a lot of questions about the team’s ability to close games. Yes, Tony Bennett is playing an inexperienced point guard, but that’s no excuse for letting any game close on a 10-1 run. After the game, Bennett noted that his team needed to be mentally stronger (quoting Bob Knight in the process). Unfortunately, mental strength won’t cause a shot-creator to appear. Joe Harris is one of the best players in the ACC, but he’s not a guy that will break you down at the end of the shot clock. He has to find a way to be more effective (probably drawing a foul on a drive into the lane) because Virginia won’t come close to it’s potential if it continues playing like it did against the Rams.
Tonight’s Lede. Tournament Commencement. Day one of the NCAA Tournament proper, the field of 64, is officially in the books. Games were won, upsets were wrought, careers ended and through it all, bracket hope springs eternal for those who survived their first big test. The second half of “second round” competition will tip off in just a few hours, followed by a weekend of further elimination and refinement. There is no mistaking it: the NCAA Tournament is here and we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the drama to come in later rounds.
Your Watercooler Moment. What? Harvard?
The most shocking result of the day came as an almost unthinkable late-night surprise (Getty Images).
Next year was going to be the year I picked Harvard to not only win its opening round game, but – depending on how the matchups shook out – quite possibly rip off a sweet-16 or even Elite 8 run. The Crimson get seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, snagged this offseason in a sweeping academic scandal, back for 2013-14, along with another solid recruiting class and a promising young backcourt in Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. The Crimson have all the pieces to crash the field next season. It is from this backdrop that you can understand why what Harvard pulled off Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena was a year ahead of schedule. The Crimson downed three-seed New Mexico in the biggest upset of the Tournament’s first day. It was also Harvard’s first ever NCAA Tournament win, and it came thanks to a depleted roster holding one of the nation’s best backcourt duos, Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, to a combined 17 points and two assists. The Lobos were a trendy Final Four pick. They had size and experience and a skilled seven-foot big man to anchor their offensive attack. They had the considerable weight of being the Mountain West’s Tournament entrepreneur. Harvard has its first Tournament win in school history and maybe the most remarkable upset we’ll see this March.
Also Worth Chatting About. A12-5 Upset Double. You Saw it Coming.
A seeding mismatch left Oklahoma State with a brutal first-round matchup (AP Photo).
Because there was so little immediate uproar about teams actually getting in/left out of the Tournament, people channeled their anger towards the bracket itself. Two of the biggest points of contention within were Oregon’s mystifying 12 seed following a Pac-12 conference Tournament championship and Cal’s comfy opening-round location (San Jose). The Ducks deserved more respect than a 12-seed and the Bears, for all their success in conference play, did not deserve the benefit of playing so close to their Berkeley Campus. Oregon’s underseed wasn’t just a slight to Dana Altman’s team, it was a menacing first-round predicament for Oklahoma State, a five-seed criminally burdened with a Ducks team that was in contention for a Pac-12 regular season crown for much of the season. Oregon dominated Marcus Smart and company from start to finish; an innocent observer would have suggested Oregon was the five seed, and OSU the 12. A few hours later, fellow Pac-12 12-seed Cal did not disappoint the hometown crowd in avenging a regular season home loss to UNLV. Neither of these P-12 squads belonged in their respective bracket locations. Oregon is not a 12 seed; it’s just not! And the Rebels, with their putative seeding advantage, never should have had to play what amounted to a road game in their opening-round matchup. None of it was very fair, and all of it confirmed what most instinctively believed upon bracket reveal Sunday afternoon: the committee screwed up.
Tonigh’s Quick Hits…
Two One Seeds. Two Totally Different Stories. There are big expectations for Gonzaga this season. The questions aren’t about the Zags’ worthiness as a No. 1 seed so much as they are what follows: can Mark Few’s team finally break through into the deep rounds? Judging by their-opening round game against 16-seed Southern, the answer is an emphatic no. The Jaguars pushed Gonzaga to the brink in Salt Lake City, and were it not for a couple of clutch deep jumpers from point guard Kevin Pangos, Thursday may have brought the first-ever 16-1 toppling. Phew. Louisville’s first-round game was far less interesting. The Cardinals whipped North Carolina A&T, holding the Aggies to 48 points and validating their overall No. 1 seed in every which way.
Memphis! Whenever Josh Pastner’s name cropped up in conversation, the impulsive reaction was to spew out the following statistic: 0. As in, tournament wins since Pastner took over the Tigers’ head coaching job in 2009. No longer will Pastner be juxtaposed with Tournament ignominy so immediately – Memphis fans will very much want another win or two before Pastner is off the hook – not after the Tigers fought off Matthew Dellavadova and Saint Mary’s in a highly anticipated 6-11 matchup Thursday. With Memphis headlong into a round-of-32 date with Michigan State this weekend, Pastner’s Tournament run is probably over. But the first one is always the toughest, or so they say, and Pastner and his team managed to accomplish that much in a year where first-round failure would have triggered an unrelenting stream of local fan venom throughout the long offseason.
Three Trendy Upset Picks Fall Short. In any given year, there are a few matchups where you feel confident enough, matchup-wise, to pull the trigger on a brave and courageous high seed victory. I heard a wide selection of suggested first-round knock offs in the lead up to Thursday, and three of the most frequent were (11) Bucknell over (6) Butler, (14) Davidson over (3) Marquette and (11) Belmont over (6) Arizona. All of which seemed very reasonable for different reasons: Mike Muscala can really work the paint; Davidson boasts one of the better frontlines in the country along with an elite in-game coach; Belmont is almost perennially Tournament-worthy under Rick Byrd. I wouldn’t have been shocked in the least to see any of those dominoes fall. None of them did, only Davidson really came close and now those doubted favorites (Butler, Marquette, Arizona) can press forward without the burden of potential first-round upset embarrassment.
Not So Efficient Now, Pitt. According to Ken Pomeroy’s win prediction formula, Pittsburgh went into Thursday’s 8-9 game against Wichita State with a 73 percent chance of advancing. Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks have recommended the Panthers all season (they ranked eighth as of Thursday in his per-possession database), and many data-savvy bracketeerists took that as a cue to simply and heedlessly push Pitt on through to a third-round matchup with Gonzaga, where Jamie Dixon’s team would give the Zags all kinds of physicality matchup issues. The only problem? The Shockers, ranked 34th in Pomeroy’s system, were more efficient than Pitt in every conceivable way throughout their 40-minute second-round tussle, and after an 18-point win it is Wichita, not the Panthers, who will get a clean shot at dropping the Zags this weekend.
The Point Guard Duel That Wasn’t. More than a genuine interest in seeing whether South Dakota State could pull off an unlikely upset of three-seed Michigan Thursday night, there was considerable buzz about what Nate Wolters – a semi-nationally known lead guard with an alluring all-around game – could conjure up against consensus First Team All-American and projected first-round draft pick Trey Burke. Fans were expecting a back-and-forth, individual, put-the-team-on-my-back kind of PG battle; this was Wolters’ night. It never materialized. Burke finished with just six points on 2-of-12 shooting and Wolters dropped 10 while making just three of 14 field goal attempts. The game itself was competitive going into the half, but without Wolters doing crazy, Wolters-like, 53-point things, the Jackrabbits never really stood a chance. The point guard battle of the Tournament was a dud and the game wasn’t much better.
Game-Winner of the Night. Everyone’s confident Davidson upset pick looked really convincing for about 35 minutes. Then Marquette shifted gears, found its three-point stroke late and Vander Blue did the rest.
Derrick Nix, Michigan State (NPOY) – The first game on Thursday was not what anyone would call competitive: Nix poured in 23 points and 15 rebounds as the Spartans controlled Valpo throughout.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis – A lot of people like Saint Louis as an Elite 8-Final Four-range team. Evans (24 points, six rebounds) gave you no reason to reconsider in Thursday’s stomping of New Mexico State.
Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon – Scoring touch aside, Kazemi affects the game exclusively with his defense and rebounding more than perhaps any other player in this Tournament. His 11-17 double-double Thursday is standard issue evidence.
Dorian Green, Colorado State – Not all of the Mountain West flopped Thursday. UNLV and New Mexico are good as gone, but CSU, thanks in part to Green’s 26 points against Missouri, are gearing up for an intriguing third-round fixure with Louisville.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – I can’t ignore Olynyk’s 21 points and 10 rebounds – Olynyk has been consistently awesome all season. Whether he can lift the Zags to a win Saturday over Wichita State, I’m not so sure.
Tweet of the night. Beating a rugged three-seed like New Mexico, who many believed actually merited deserved a two-seed, is a huge feat in the moment. It’s even bigger for Harvard in a historical context.
New Mexico just became the Land of Disenchantment. And brackets implode nationwide. Like everybody else on Twitter right now #Harvard
Andrew Murawa is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game between #6 Arizona and #11 Belmont in Salt Lake City.
Three Key Takeaways.
First Half Domination. It’s the same old song and dance for Belmont: great season, plenty of love on Selection Sunday as a possible Cinderella, then they come out and lay an egg in the tournament against a bigger and more athletic opponent. The Bruins turned in perhaps their worst half of the season on Thursday evening, grabbing just 9.1% of their own misses and only 50% of their opponents misses, while also getting outshot 52.2% to 29.6% in effective field goal percentage. While senior Ian Clark cobbled together enough offense to tally 11 points, the rest of his team combined to make just 2-of-17 field goal attempts. All of which combined to equal a 32-20 halftime deficit. Belmont played Arizona pretty tight in the second half, but the first-half damage was done.
Mark Lyon was the star of the game for Arizona. (AP)
Too Much Size and Athleticism. With the tallest guy on Belmont checking in at just 6’7” and with Arizona featuring four rotation guys along the frontline at least that tall, not to mention significantly more athletic, you probably should have seen this coming to some extent. But the sheer level of the domination along the frontline was startling. Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett have been improving slowly but surely all year and today, after getting through the grind of the Pac-12 and similar level athletes, they seemed to get a lot of joy out of beating up on overmatched opponents. And Mark Lyons? After seeing guys like Jahii Carson and Larry Drew II and Dominic Artis and Spencer Dinwiddie, he seemed to know he could get by whichever Belmont guard was checking him and get into the lane with ease. Credit the Wildcats for exploiting mismatches and advancing, but things are about to get much more difficult.
Pac-12. Underrated? On a day when the Pac-12 went 3-0 in the Tournament you’ve got to start to wonder just how good this conference is. They haven’t had much of a chance to prove it outside of the league since December, consider what Oregon did to Oklahoma State today. And consider that Arizona, for instance, has wins against teams like Miami, Florida, San Diego State and now Belmont in their undefeated non-conference slate, but struggled to seven losses against Pac-12 competition. Maybe the Pac-12 is better than we thought?
Star of the Game. Mark Lyons, Arizona. Look, Lyons is never going to be the type of distributing point guard that would fit in so well on this Arizona team. But tonight at the very least he was the guy Mark Lyons is really good at being. He attacked off the bounce and seemed to get to the rack just about whenever he wanted. And when the ball found its way to him around the perimeter in the halfcourt game, he stepped up and drilled catch-and-shoot jumpers. And, especially in the first half, he harassed Kerron Johnson and got inside his head, limiting Belmont’s second-leading scorer to just four first-half points.
We released the Official RTC Bracket for the South and East Regions earlier today — be sure to check that out if you need a refresher on our methodology for this exercise — and we’ll save you the fluff this time and cut right to the chase with the Midwest and West Regions. (note: our Final Four selections are after the analyses)
Quick Hitters From the Midwest Region
Advancing to Atlanta: #1 Louisville
Round of 64 Upset: #11 St. Mary’s over #6 Memphis
Later Round Upset: N/A
Three Most Disputed Games: #5 Oklahoma State over #12 Oregon, #11 St. Mary’s over #6 Memphis, #2 Duke over #3 Michigan State
Four Questions About the Midwest Region
Louisville is the odds-on favorite to not just advance out of the Midwest Region, but win the National Championship. Which team has the best chance at dashing Louisville’s title hopes?
Does Pitino Have Another One of These In His Immediate Future? (Getty Images)
Andrew Murawa: After giving the Cards the nod as the overall #1 seed, the selection committee certainly didn’t do them any more favors, dropping them in, what is to me, the toughest region in the bracket. Once they get out of the Round of 64 in this region, Rick Pitino’s club could be facing nothing but dangerous clubs, from the nation’s best rebounding team in Colorado State, to one of the nation’s hottest teams in Saint Louis, to possibly Michigan State or Duke in the Elite Eight. All of those teams can beat the Cards. But the team with the best chance is certainly the Blue Devils, a squad that has already beaten them this season, albeit without Gorgui Dieng.
The #8 vs. #9 game is usually a coin-flip type of game, but it is a 100% consensus that Colorado State beats Missouri. Are the Rams that much better than Missouri?
Zach Hayes: The Rams are by no means world-beaters, but the consensus opinion probably stems from their ability to compete where Missouri excels: on the boards. Colorado State ranks in the nation’s top two in both offensive and defensive rebounding, a glass-crashing tenacity which should work to negate the rebounding prowess of both Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers. The confidence also resides in how shaky Missouri has been at the tail end of close games despite featuring an elite point guard in Phil Pressey. Most bracket prognosticators would rather go to war with a Rams team starting five seniors over Missouri’s constant unpredictability away from home, where their only scalps came against the dregs of the SEC.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Oh, well. What’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful. – Cinderella
It’s time for college basketball’s annual ball, which means it’s time for America to fall in love with Cinderella all over again. There are 36 teams from the 26 non-power-conferences who have been invited to this year’s Big Dance, and while the slipper no longer fits for some of the more prominent of these schools, for the bulk of them, this is a rare opportunity to make a name for themselves on the grandest of stages.
This is the first of a two-part series taking a look at the NCAA Tournament prospects for all 36 teams hailing from The Other 26. We focus today on the TO26 teams in the South and West regions, grouping them into five rough categories, and, within each category, ordering them by their likelihood of advancing.
These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?
Gonzaga (#1, West) — It’s been five years since a TO26 team reached the top seed line. In 2008, Memphis rode its #1 seed all the way to the brink of a national championship, and Zags fans are hoping for the same — and perhaps more — this year. Gonzaga has no glaring weaknesses. They are led by an athletic, skilled frontcourt, the centerpiece of which is NPOY candidate Kelly Olynyk. They get steady guard play from Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and David Stockton. If they’re to run into any trouble, it will likely be against a team that (1) sports a strong, athletic interior defense that can contain Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower and pound the glass, and (2) can hit the three-point shot consistently, as Illinois did in beating them (Gonzaga’s defense allows a lot of three-point attempts). There are a fair number of teams that meet the first criteria in the West bracket, but not many with a lot offensive firepower from the three-point line or otherwise. In short, this is as good a shot as Gonzaga has ever had to make the Final Four. The eyes of the nation will be watching to see if they can make good on their promise.
Virginia Commonwealth (#5, South) – VCU is a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four, and there’s some merit to that notion, but here is the most important thing you need to know about them: They are 25-2 on the year (and 14-0 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate over 18 percent. And they are 1-6 (and 0-5 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate under 18 percent. The Rams’ first-round opponent, Akron, falls squarely in the former camp (20.8 percent), a problem for the Zips that will be exacerbated by the absence of their legally-troubled starting point guard, Alex Abreu. After that, things get a bit trickier for the Rams. Their two potential Third Round opponents, Michigan and South Dakota State, rank in the top 10 in the country in turnover rate. Those stats are perhaps somewhat inflated by the fact that both teams play in conferences that don’t feature a lot of pressure defenses, but if you’re looking for a point guard to lead you against such a defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Trey Burke or Nate Wolters. It’s true that Michigan has struggled lately in general, and that if you look ahead to a potential match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, Havoc’s odds of success improve, but I’d caution against over-exuberance at the Rams’ chances given a potentially dicey Third Round contest.
Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (9 AM), Midwest (11 AM), South (1 PM), West (3 PM). Here, Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCwestregion).
You can also check out our RTC Podblast with Andrew breaking down the West Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.
Favorite:#2 Ohio State (26-7, 16-5 Big Ten). Not to take anything away from Gonzaga, a team and a program that should be very pleased with itself for the excellent season it has had, but the Buckeyes get the nod by an eyelash. While the Zags have been coasting through WCC play for the past couple months, Thad Matta’s club has dealt with the gauntlet of the Big Ten and emerged with an eight-game winning streak, boasting wins over teams like Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State (twice). Aaron Craft, a veteran guard with plenty of great basketball in his past, is probably playing the best ball of his distinguished career. And guys like LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Lenzelle Smith are tossing in just enough offense to aid big-time scorer Deshaun Thomas. Throw in the nation’s sixth-best team in defensive efficiency and let’s make the battle-tested Buckeyes a slight favorite to repeat as a Final Four team.
Aaron Craft and The Buckeyes Have Been Through The Big Ten Gauntlet, Making Them The Slight West Regional Favorite
Should They Falter: #1 Gonzaga (31-2, 18-0 WCC). It would be easy to play the contrarian here and offer up plenty of backlash to the Bulldogs’ first-ever #1 seed and name New Mexico – a pretty darn good team in their own right – as the next best team in this region. But make no mistake, Gonzaga can ball. With Kelly Olynyk, a first-team All-American favorite, the Zags have the third-most efficient offense in the nation and Mark Few’s best offensive team in his time in Spokane. And while there are some concerns about the Zags’ ability to match up defensively with big and athletic guards, this is a team that is also Few’s most efficient defensive team ever – by far. While there are plenty of potential stumbling blocks (regardless of who they face in the Round of 32, that looks like a serious rumble, for instance), the Zags definitely have the ability to reach an Elite Eight. Or better. Read the rest of this entry »
The first five NCAA Tournament bids were earned over the weekend, so as each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.
The Belmont Bruins Are Dancing Again
OVC Champion (26-6, 16-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #18/#47/#50
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +13.1
Likely NCAA Seed: #10-#12
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
In what is becoming a spring ritual as routine as Groundhog Day, the Belmont Bruins are back in the NCAA Tournament field. It’s the third straight year and sixth time in the last eight seasons that the Bruins have earned their league’s auto-bid to get there, with the fresh take on this go-around being the conference they represent – no longer Atlantic Sun members, Belmont will be repping the Ohio Valley. For all the March buzz the program seems to generate, they will still be seeking their first NCAA Tournament win come next week. Don’t be shocked if they are once again a trendy pick to swing a first-round upset, but is this the group that finally gets it done for Rick Byrd?
Another year, another uber-efficient offensive outfit in Nashville. The senior backcourt of Ian Clark (18.1 PPG, 46% 3FG) and Kerron Johnson (13.7 PPG, 4.8 APG) will be among the most talented and experienced in the field of 68, but nearly every Bruin that steps on the floor produces at an efficient clip. Belmont is best in the country in two-piont FG%, but still gets nearly a third of their points from behind the arc. It all comes together for an effective field goal percentage of 56.8% – good for second best in the nation.
Picking Belmont to win a game in past years has hardly been a foolish idea, but this year’s team should have the best shot yet to pick up that elusive first NCAA win. The seed should be the highest in program history, five upperclassmen fill out the starting lineup, and the Bruins had to emerge from an underrated OVC to get here. Their Achilles heel remains an undersized rotation that struggles to rebound on both ends, so it wouldn’t hurt to draw a less physical team unlikely to kill the Bruins on the glass. Drawing Wisconsin and Georgetown the last two years – tough, disciplined units, both – was a bit of bad luck, but there should be plenty of power conference foes on the #5-#7 lines that would not relish a first round match-up with Belmont.
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s OVC Championship in Nashville.
Late in Saturday’s Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game, it looked like the college basketball world would face a week-long debate about whether Belmont, a top-25 RPI team that won the league’s regular season championship, would merit an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after falling to defending champion Murray State. The Racers appeared to be in control when they led 62-58 with fewer than 40 seconds to play in regulation. But an Ian Clark jumper and a two missed free throws from Ed Daniel set up a Kerron Johnson drive that tied the game with nine seconds remaining. Following some controversy surrounding a clock stoppage issue and Murray State calling timeout before crossing half-court, the Racers could not get a good look for the win. In overtime, after Murray State star Isaiah Canaan dribbled the ball off of his foot in a tie game with 25 seconds remaining — one of 26 Racer turnovers on the night — it was Johnson again playing the hero as he pulled up in the lane and made a high-arcing jumper over Daniel, giving the Bruins a 70-68 victory and the league’s auto-bid in their first year, as well as the 1,000th victory in program history.
It Was Storybook For Belmont Saturday
Belmont is now able to avoid all talk of whether its resume was good enough to earn a coveted at-large spot in the field, and while we may never know whether it was, coach Rick Byrd is more than happy to not have to wonder. “I had thought about that question because I knew we could lose either of these games,” he said. Now, he can focus on getting his team ready for its next opponent, whoever it may be. The Bruins must sit and wait a week before finding out whether their resume was good enough to earn a seed that will give them a reasonable shot at a first-round victory, something that has eluded the program in its first five appearances in the Big Dance. There was the near-miss in 2008 against Duke that put the program on the national map, and the disappointing double-figure losses to Wisconsin and Georgetown the last two years, when the Bruins represented the Atlantic Sun. While they clearly stepped up in competition in the OVC this year, most projections, including our latest, have them in the #12-line, only a spot better than the past two seasons. So while the RPI may be higher than it has ever been for Byrd’s team, the draw his team gets may look familiar. What likely faces the Bruins is a game against a bigger, more athletic high-major squad that will present match-up issues.
We know that March started 10 days ago, but for college basketball fans the month really gets going once teams start to receive automatic bids for the NCAA Tournament — over the weekend, the first handful of bids were handed out. The first entries into the field of 2013 NCAA Tournament are Belmont, Creighton, Florida Gulf Coast, Harvard, and Liberty. While none of these schools are traditional powers in the sense that the person who wins your office pool will know about them, they do represent a pretty wide range from a “mid-major” power that is the envy of many athletic directors at bigger conferences (Creighton) to a team with 20 losses that up until Sunday was probably most notable for being the former school of Duke’s Seth Curry (Liberty).
One of the schools that earned an automatic bid was Creighton, which made it back to the NCAA Tournament after a hard-fought victory against Wichita State that should have showcased the high level of basketball being played in the Missouri Valley Conference. Unfortunately, much of the country was unable to watch the conclusion of the championship game as CBS cut away from the end to show the start of the Indiana-Michigan game. This will not approach the level of infamy of the famous “Heidi” game, but this is a pretty big slap in the face of basketball fans across the country who are not only enticed by big brand names, but who like watching quality mid-major basketball — especially in the closing minutes of a game with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.
With Creighton seemingly on its way to the new Big East, the dominoes in conference realignment have again begun to fall with some analysts speculating that the MVC could go after Belmont or Denver as a replacement for the Bluejays. Of course both teams are new to their current conferences (OVC for Belmont and WAC/Summit for Denver), which would mean that the move would inevitably trigger another cascade with the aggrieved conference pursuing the next biggest fish in the pool. At this point we are just hoping that the Catholic 7/Big East-Big East/America 12 split is the last major move of this cycle.
Speaking of that split, there are still a few pieces adrift in that wreckage as Notre Dame has been looking for a way out of the “old” Big East to head to the ACC. Now it appears that they may have a way with the league reportedly asking for at least $2.5 million as an exit fee. The at least modifier gives us some pause, but if that is what the sources are anchoring the discussion on, we doubt that the number would be much higher without football involved in the negotations. If true, it is interesting how far the price has fallen from the previous bargaining where the conference was asking for future football games against its schools, which would bring in much more money than $2.5 million through direct ticket sales, advertising, and television contracts.
While on the subject of all these Big Easts, the conference in its current form will holds its final conference tournament beginning Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. We don’t care who carries on the name in the future — a league tourney that doesn’t have Syracuse, Georgetown, UConn and Pitt in it just won’t be the same. The NYTuses the prism of a block that St. John’s star Walter Berry made on Syracuse star Pearl Washington to win the 1986 Big East Tournament to tell the history of the league, and it’s well worth the next 10 minutes of your time. The two former Big East legends, each now approaching 50 years old, plan on attending the event this week — we suspect that they won’t be the only ghosts of Big East past who will be around to relive past glories and celebrate the lifetime of a league that redefined major college basketball.
This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.
Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)
Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournamentbid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) – This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action.
South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) – Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.
And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …