#rushthetrip: Wrapping Up 12 Games, 17 Days and 5,476 Miles on the Road

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 25th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

They say that all good things must come to an end, and so is the case for my 17-day journey through college basketball’s Western lands. Large cities and small towns alike took turns as temporary homes, while the miles of passing scenery morphed from desert to snowy mountains and back to desert again, with plenty of change in between. The whirlwind ride reinforced the breadth of variety in the towns, arenas, and fan bases that stand behind Divison I’s basketball programs — only further mythologizing the notion of a “typical college town.” They make you work out West (note to future college basketball road trippers: the Heartland will be far kinder to your car’s odometer), but the payoff was worth every exhausting mile. By the numbers and some personal favorites, here’s the story of my trip.

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It's Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

Opening Night Was The Highlight Of This Trip, When The Pit Proved Worthy Of It’s Elevated Standing Among The Home Floors Of College Hoops

#rushthetrip, By The Numbers

  • Days: 17
  • States: 10
  • Games: 12
  • OT Games: 3
  • Miles Driven: 5,476
  • Distance from Tucson, AZ, to Spokane, WA: 1,494 miles
  • Tickets Received: 2
  • Biggest Arena: BYU (capacity of 20,900, sixth in D-I)
  • Smallest Arena: Sacramento State (capacity of 1,200, 348th in D-I)
  • Most Points (Individual): Stephen Madison, 42 (Idaho)
  • Smallest Margin Of Victory: 1, Boise State over New Mexico
  • Largest Margin Of Victory: 15, Gonzaga over Pepperdine
  • Best Team (by KenPom ranking): Arizona (#1)
  • Worst Team (by KenPom ranking): Southern Utah (#351)

#rushthetrip Favorites

Best Venues

  1. The Pit, Albuquerque, NM
  2. Marriott Center, Provo, UT
  3. McKale Center, Tucson, AZ

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 25th, 2014

This week in the Mountain West conference had it all: a much-awaited Top 25 match-up between the two teams remaining in the race for the conference title; an epic (game of the year?) overtime battle between what appears to be the third- and fourth-best teams in the conference that went down to, literally, the final split second before some postgame controversy; and straight heartbreak, when an all-conference performer had his season abruptly ended by injury. Let’s get right to it.

Team of the Week

New Mexico – A little patience, plenty of hard work and steady improvement, and the Lobos are back where their fans expected them to be all along – in first place in the conference. After going on the road and handling the Runnin’ Rebels with relative ease, Craig Neal and company returned home and, in front of a raucous home crowd, showed San Diego State that there is at least another team in the conference capable of some lockdown defense on occasion. Inside the Top 25 and tied atop the conference standings, the Lobos seem to be peaking at just the right time.

Cameron Bairstow And The Lobos Earned A Big Home Win Over San Diego State on Saturday Night (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images)

Cameron Bairstow And The Lobos Earned A Big Home Win Over San Diego State on Saturday Night. (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images)

Player of the Week

Cameron Bairstow, Senior, New Mexico – Prior to today, we had awarded the Mountain West Player of the Week 11 different times this season. Four players had earned our award twice – Xavier Thames, Larry Nance and Khem Birch. That tie has now been broken, and at precisely the time when the senior Aussie big man first inched ahead of Thames in the Player of the Year race. There is plenty of work left to be done, but with Bairstow’s averages this week of 22.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 3.0 BPG in two huge conference games, his inclusion here can hardly be argued with. Read the rest of this entry »

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#rushthetrip Day 14: A Year Late to Fort Collins

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 20th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Rarely had it been as fun to be a Colorado State basketball fan as it was in 2013. The Rams won 26 games a season ago, including their first in the NCAA Tournament since 1989, and Moby Arena transformed into one of the most impenetrable – and unlikely — home fortresses in all of college basketball. With Fort Collins rallying behind them, CSU sold out three consecutive home games for the first time in program history, and despite a decisive loss in the round of 32 to eventual champion Louisville, the program may never have posted a finer season. Fun times, indeed. But for all the fanfare surrounding that team, my visit to peek in on this year’s team felt doomed to banality from the start. The state of Colorado has never exactly been a haven for college basketball, and with Larry Eustachy now guiding Colorado State through a rebuilding season after that banner 2012-13 campaign, things figured to be pretty quiet in Fort Collins.

The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night

The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night

And they were. Moby Arena was easily less than half-full for a visit from Boise State on Tuesday night, and a steady onslaught of Broncos’ three-pointers prevented the sparse crowd (and the Rams) from ever feeling a part of this game. While I could envision 9,000 fans fleeing the cold winter nights for the comfort of Moby’s Ram-green seats, the apathy of the scene stood in stark contrast to the home floor that we witnessed in Fort Collins a season ago. In all but the most basketball-crazed regions of the country, it’s an expected drop-off in support when 26-9 transforms into 14-13, which is where the Rams find themselves after Boise rolled to a 12-point victory. This doesn’t mean Colorado State – and its fan base – won’t be back in the near future (Larry Eustachy has proven more than capable of building a program), but here in 2014, Fort Collins has slipped off the college basketball radar.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on February 18th, 2014

It’s February 18. Valentine’s Day has come and gone, as has President’s Day. We’ll flip the calendar to March in less than two weeks. There are exactly three weeks of conference play remaining. In other words: In case you haven’t noticed, another season has almost entirely slipped past us. But, over these final three weeks there is a lot still to be decided. Our twosome at the top of the conference — San Diego State (11-1) and New Mexico (10-2) — each dropped a game this week, but with their first of two remaining regular season battles on Saturday and with both schools yet to visit third-place UNLV, there could be a lot of movement atop the leader board. The other big spot to look at in the standings is fifth place. Why? Because the top five seeds will all get first-round byes at the Mountain West Tournament, while the other six teams will be competing an extra day for a chance to get to Thursday’s quarterfinals. Right now, Wyoming and Nevada are in the fourth and fifth spots, but Boise State and Fresno State lurk just behind. And speaking of those Broncos, last week we talked about the climb they face if they are going to get back in the conversation for an at-large NCAA bid. Give them credit because they got off on the right foot, knocking off New Mexico by a point in Boise last Wednesday night, bringing their record in games decided by two possessions or fewer since Christmas to 2-6.

Anthony Drmic Helped Lead Boise State To Its Best Win Of The Year, Over New Mexico Last Wednesday (Adam Eschbach, Idaho Press-Tribune)

Anthony Drmic Helped Lead Boise State To Its Best Win Of The Year, Over New Mexico Last Wednesday (Adam Eschbach, Idaho Press-Tribune)

Team of the Week

Wyoming – When you welcome a top five team into your arena and come away with a solid win, as the Cowboys did last Tuesday night against San Diego State, you’ve got a strong head start in the race for my Team of the Week. Wyoming turned on the offense against a great Aztecs defense and got big nights out of just about everyone who saw the floor, with Riley Grabau in particular coming up big when most needed. The Cowboys followed that up by going on the road and uglying one out over a bad San Jose State team to improve to 7-5 in conference play. And once again, head coach Larry Shyatt has his team overachieving.

Player of the Week

Khem Birch, Junior, UNLV – He only played once, but what a game it was, as the junior big man fell just one additional blocked shot short of a triple-double against Utah State on Saturday as he helped his Runnin’ Rebels win their sixth game in seven outings. Birch dominated the middle with 10 defensive boards (and a couple on the offensive end) and nine blocks in helping to limit the Aggies inside while also jump-starting UNLV’s transition game.

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#rushthetrip Day Eight: In Every Regard, Boise State’s Potential On Full Display

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 13th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

It’s been a tough year on the hardwood in Boise. A series of close defeats – many littered with critical late-game Bronco mistakes – has derailed a season that began with unusually high expectations. As protectors of the famed blue turf, the Boise faithful aren’t strangers to their school beginning an athletic season with grand aspirations, but rarely has such hope accompanied the basketball program. When I planned my trip a month ago, Wednesday’s matchup with New Mexico looked to have both MW title and NCAA Tournament implications. Unfortunately, upon arrival at Taco Bell Arena last night, said implications existed only for the visiting Lobos.

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

I should admit here to being a Boise apologist. I have long been fascinated with the school’s football program (like many across the country), and was also probably higher than most on the potential for this year’s basketball team. Leon Rice has the program heading in the right direction, and it seemed possible that the football team’s success could help propel the basketball team into a more regular relationship with the Big Dance. But for now, that notion remains a fantasy. The Broncos have never won an NCAA Tournament game (San Jose State is the only other MW team to share this distinction), and rarely (if ever) generate the fan support to sell out the 13,000 seat Taco Bell Arena.

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O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive Clash

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.

So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.

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O26 Resume Review: St. Joe’s, Dayton, BYU, Southern Miss & Boise State…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 12th, 2014

There wasn’t a whole lot of movement in the O26 bubble picture this past week. We’ve seen teams projected safely in the field continue to cement that status — Wichita State, San Diego State, Saint Louis, etc. — and another couple squads with a gaudy records but subpar SOS and RPI numbers take themselves completely out of the at-large discussion — Harvard and Green Bay. While there weren’t many teams that picked up resume-making wins last week — most tread water or broke a little above even — we also didn’t see all that many teams exacerbate things with horrible losses. So let’s check out who helped and hurt themselves in this week’s O26 resume review:

Helped

Saint Joseph’s (16-7, 6-3 Atlantic 10)

Saint Joseph’s biggest week of the season brought mixed results. The Hawks fell flat against Saint Louis in a 65-49 loss last Wednesday before rebounding with a solid 69-62 victory against Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday. A sweep might have put Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA Tournament field, but a sweep the other way probably would have signaled lights out on the Hawks’ at-large aspirations. The week’s split saw Saint Joseph’s RPI jump from #53 to #46 in seven day’s time. The Hawks are sitting squarely on the fence in the bubble conversation. The Bracket Matrix places the Hawks as the second team in the First Four Out category. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBS’ Jerry Palm and Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller have Saint Joseph’s currently out of the field as well, while Yahoo’s Brad Evans has the Hawks as the last team in the field. A home game with Dayton and road tilt at George Washington highlight the remaining slate. Ken Pomeroy, however, projects Saint Joseph’s to lose four more regular-season games, which would certainly leave the Hawks in the NIT.

Projected seed for now: Out

Dayton (16-8, 4-5 Atlantic 10)

Dayton is still alive for an at-large bid (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Dayton is still alive for an at-large bid (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

The Flyers are back on track, winning three straight games. While this past week’s victories came against George Mason and Saint Bonaventure, a pair of teams in the bottom half of the A-10, it’s just important that Dayton keeps winning and doesn’t suffer any bad losses. Mission accomplished this week. It will be more of the same in the near future with Rhode Island, La Salle and Duquesne dotting the upcoming schedule. Then comes the stretch that will ultimately determine Dayton’s fate — a closing stretch with Saint Joseph’s, Massachusetts, SLU and Richmond. The RPI sits at #60, up five spots from a week ago. KenPom has Dayton losing to Saint Joseph’s and SLU but winning the rest of its league games. That would put the Flyers at 21-10 overall and 9-7 in the A-10. That might be enough to earn Dayton a bid.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on February 11th, 2014

We’re in the back stretch of conference play and, as we have expected for the past couple months, we now have clear separation between the top two teams in the conference – San Diego State and New Mexico, which have combined for only one conference loss – and the rest of the pack. Nevada dropped a pair of road games; UNLV lost on the road; and Wyoming dropped a pair as well, giving the second place Lobos a three-game lead in the loss column over the third-place team. Even more clearly, this looks like a two-bid league come March, barring a big surprise in the conference tournament. The third highest-rated team in the RPI is Boise State, checking in at #68 following a heartbreaker against the Aztecs.

A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)

A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits. (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)

Let’s play a fun game of “let’s pretend” and say that the Broncos catch fire, win out in conference play and get to the championship game in Vegas before bowing out to either San Diego State or New Mexico. Never mind that this team hasn’t shown any indication that its capable of that type of streak, but that would put them at 24-10 with a win over New Mexico in the regular season and a win over the Lobos again (although possibly San Diego State) in the MW Tournament semifinal. That would give them two wins over New Mexico as by far their best wins of the season, with Utah – currently ranked #103 in RPI – ranks as their next best win. Not exactly the resume of an NCAA Tournament team.

Team of the Week

San Diego State – In a week where three conference schools scored a road win as part of a 2-0 week, the Aztecs had the most impressive road win by going to Boise State, roaring back from a 13-point deficit in the middle of the second half, then getting a big go-ahead three-pointer from Dwayne Polee with five seconds left to break the Broncos’ spirit. The Aztecs followed that up by coming home and handing it to Nevada in workmanlike fashion while in the process tying a school-record 20-game winning streak.

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O26 Storylines: Boise State, Indiana State and Southern Miss…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 7th, 2014

I’m beginning to think nobody wants a bid to the NCAA Tournament. At least not any of the O26 teams that are considered on the bubble. A couple more teams seemingly withdrew their names from consideration this past week, and that’s the laser focus of this week’s O26 Storylines post. While Wichita State’s ongoing quest for perfection is a no-brainer for storyline of the week, we already wrote about the Shockers here and here. And even though Sacramento State delivered maybe the most improbable finish of the season, it really doesn’t have any meaningful ramifications.

Are Boise State’s at-large NCAA Tournament chances gone?

Boise State is just about out of chances for an at-large bid.

Boise State is just about out of chances for an at-large bid. (AP)

Yes. It’s the Mountain West automatic bid or bust for the Broncos. Boise State (15-8, 5-5 MW) let a golden opportunity slip through its hands on Wednesday night, coming up just short in its upset bid against San Diego State. The Broncos led by as many as 14 points in the second half before finally capitulating when Dwayne Polee drained a three-pointer with five seconds left to give the Aztecs a 67-65 advantage (the final margin). That was Boise State’s best shot at a resume-making win, and the Broncos blew it. They are quickly running out of opportunities. Only a home game against New Mexico on February 12 constitutes a shot at a quality win. While the Broncos’ aren’t hindered by any horrible losses — the worst being against UNLV and its #102 RPI — Boise State can’t boast any quality wins either. Their best win is over #118 RPI Utah. Yikes. Even a win against New Mexico won’t be enough to save the Broncos. They’ve just missed out on too many chances. Just look at the list. Kentucky, Iowa State, San Diego State (twice), New Mexico, Saint Mary’s. Five of those losses were by single digits, including three that were by four or fewer points. If Boise State can’t win the MW Tournament, the Broncos will have to go down as one of the most disappointing teams of the season.

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O26 Resume Review: VCU & St. Joe’s Rising, Toledo & St. Mary’s Falling…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 5th, 2014

Let’s be honest. It wasn’t a good week for O26 teams with NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. In fact, it was downright awful. It’s almost as if a few of these teams don’t want to go dancing after all. There certainly are spots to be had. Even with just 36 at-large berths handed out this season thanks to the addition of the American, an abundance of middling high-major teams has left the door open for some strong O26 candidates. They just haven’t taken advantage, and this week says it all. Let’s see who helped and hurt themselves this week.

Helped

VCU (18-4)

VCU is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team.

VCU is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team.

Is VCU even a bubble team at this point? Probably not. The Rams are probably safely into the field barring an unexpected collapse. VCU’s RPI rose from #35 to #28 as of Monday after wins against Fordham and fellow A-10 bubble-dweller Richmond this past week. The Rams have won five straight games and are off to one of their best overall starts in school history. A tricky game at surging St. Joseph’s awaits Saturday, but VCU is most definitely trending upward right now.

Projected seed for now: #10

BYU (15-9). It amazes me that a WCC team with nine losses is still in the at-large conversation, but that demonstrates just how weak the bubble is this season. Don’t we say this every year, though? BYU capped a strong week with a pair of double-figure wins against Pacific and Saint Mary’s, boosting its RPI from #49 to #45 in the process. That’s pretty much right on the fence. The Cougars need to keep taking care of business during the next couple weeks before the make-or-break portion of the schedule — at Saint Mary’s on February 15 and home to Gonzaga on February 20. Win both of those and the Cougars just might be dancing next month.

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O26 Game of the Week: Indiana State Looks to Ruin Perfection

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 5th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on. 

Wichita State (23-0) at Indiana State (14-5) – 8:05 PM ET, Wednesday. This is probably the greatest remaining hurdle on Wichita State’s quest for an undefeated regular season. Now 23-0, the Shockers have just eight games left on their schedule, only three of which come against squads with a .500 or better record, and just one versus a team ranked within the KenPom top-100. That team is Indiana State, and that game is tonight at the Hulman Center.

Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)

Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)

Greg Lansing’s group should be dialed in after regaining some much-need momentum over the weekend at Northern Iowa, using a big second half rally to end the Panthers’ 11-game home winning streak and return to the win column. The Sycamores suffered a dreadful 19-point drubbing at Southern Illinois just three days earlier to all but end their at-large hopes, a sobering reality that perhaps bled into Saturday’s contest early. It took an angry locker room message from the head coach before the team finally woke up, ripping off 12 straight points in the first four minutes of the second half, tying the game before the first media timeout and maintaining firm control until the final whistle. It was an impressive comeback, the kind of focused, resilient effort they will need for a full 40 minutes in order to beat Wichita State.

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Boise State’s Struggles Not Doing Mountain West Any Favors

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 3rd, 2014

Derrick Marks couldn’t move. The UNLV celebration had begun and handshake lines were forming around him, but Marks remained motionless, eyes staring blankly ahead. Losing 11-point leads in the final three and a half minutes of a basketball game will induce a little shock sometimes, but a glance at the paralyzed Marks made it clear that that this loss ran even deeper than that. Boise State had provided a 36-minute demonstration of why it had been picked second in the MW preseason poll. The Broncos looked like the NCAA Tournament team everyone had expected at the start of the year, and Marks was at the center of it all. He scored 22 points in every which way -– step-back jumpers, mid-range leaners, acrobatic layups — giving his team firm control of the second-half flow of play. But just as Boise appeared to be assuming a handle on both game and season, that fateful closing run of the Rebels (17-2 in its totality) completely ripped away any grip they may have found. Marks’ may still be processing the Broncos’ new reality, but the jarring loss landed his team further away than ever before from their second consecutive NCAA appearance. The Boise plight may also be a Mountain West plight, as the conference is looking more and more like a two-bid league, just a season after proudly sending five teams to the Big Dance.

Derrick Marks And Company Had Things Rolling For Most Of Saturday Night. A Late UNLV Surge Stole A Win From The Broncos, And May Have Redirected The Course Of Their Season.

Derrick Marks And Company Had Things Rolling For Most Of Saturday Night. A Late UNLV Surge Stole A Win From The Broncos, And May Have Redirected The Course Of Their Season.

This season was supposed to go differently for Leon Rice’s team. Expectations are bound to be elevated when you return your top six players from an NCAA Tournament team, and the Broncos have been unable to keep pace with the increased hype. Aside from a home win over a surprisingly solid Utah team, Boise’s most impressive result came in a road victory over #111 (KenPom) Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic. They have taken care of business against inferior opponents (14-0 vs teams outside the top 100), but Saturday’s loss dropped the Broncos to just 1-7 against teams inside the top 100. That scar will need to be touched up in the coming weeks if Boise wants at-large hope on Selection Sunday, but don’t take that ugly record at face value. Four of those losses came by four points or less (including last night), and all but one, a 15-point loss at Kentucky, came by single digits. Most every major team statistical category is within range of where it was a year ago, and the defense actually looks marginally improved. The Broncos are clearly not leaps and bounds ahead of where they were a season ago, but contrary to what the record might indicate, they don’t actually appear to be any worse.

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