What’s going on, Georgetown? Losing to a good Oregon team after traveling all the way out to South Korea is one thing, but Northeastern? And it’s not even the NCAA Tournament yet? The Hoyas joined the ranks of the upset specials on Thursday afternoon, dropping their first game in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and moving on to face Kansas State, which was knocked off by Charlotte just a few hours earlier. The Hoyas led Northeastern at the half, 36-25, but went extremely cold in the second half, especially at around the 10-minute mark when Northeastern went on a 14-0 run. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera was the only Hoya in double figures, scoring 14 points. His backcourt mate Markel Starks was held to nine points on 2-of-12 shooting. Despite a significant size disadvantage, Northeastern really won this game on the interior. Their forward combination of Reggie Spencer and Scott Eatherton combined for 30 points and 19 rebounds, while the six frontcourt players who got playing time for Georgetown totaled just 26 points and 25 rebounds. Losing to a team nicknamed the “Huskies” which played a lot of zone can not feel good for the Georgetown faithful.
With his team struggling to find playmakers, Creighton coach Greg McDermott has moved to a two point guard lineup, featuring both Austin Chatman and Devin Brooks in the backcourt, and the lineup has paid dividends so far. Both played well down the stretch in the Bluejays’ comeback win against St. Joseph’s, sparking a 21-11 run. Chatman is a fan of what the lineup brings to the table: “I think this is a good option for us. It spreads the court more and opens things up. It makes it easier to get into the lane and find our shooters, and we have a lot of guys that can shoot it.” As the more experienced of the two, he usually moves off the ball and allows the explosive Brooks to take over at the point. The early dividends have been good, making Creighton a bit more diverse on offense: “When we’re out there together, it gives us more people to make plays on the court. I like playing with Dev. It’s fun.”
Zone defenses have been becoming more en vogue for a few years now, and this season with the more heavy scrutinization of contact on the perimeter, even more teams are looking to implement zones in their defensive repertoire. One of those squads is St. John’s, which used a zone effectively down the stretch in a win over Bucknell. Down three with 10 minutes left, the Johnnies shifted to the zone and held the Bisons to 5-of-16 shooting from that point, securing a 67-63 Red Storm victory. Steve Lavin credits the defensive switch as one of the main reasons that his team was able to pull the game out: ”The zone defense was the difference. It took them out of their rhythm and set up the blocks because it kept our bigs at home.”
Marquette, known as one of the more staunch man-to-man teams in the nation under Buzz Williams, may also begin to incorporate more zone defense into its system this year. The Golden Eagles, who were picked to win the Big East by many, have been among the teams most affected by the way the game is being called this season, Williams admitted to Michael Hunt of the Journal Sentinel: “We were fouling with all five guys the way things are being called now.” Between the more frequent fouls called on physical defense, and the loss of a number of big playmakers from last season, the Golden Eagles are a team in a bit of flux, as was apparent in an ugly loss to Ohio State last week.
Xavier has had some injury issues in this early season, and those reared their head once again in Wednesday’s 77-51 win over Miami (OH) when Isaiah Philmore was forced out of the lineup with a wrist injury. Philmore is fourth on the team in scoring at nine points per game and is not someone that Chris Mack can really afford to lose for an extended stretch, especially with a big match-up against Iowa on the horizon. Luckily, the injury seems to only be a sprain, and Philmore’s status is currently day-to-day. Here’s hoping he’s back soon.
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
I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Lexington after Thursday’s Second Round game between Butler and Bucknell. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Three Key Takeaways:
Mike Muscala Could Not Get It Going — All eyes were on Bucknell’s Mike Muscala this afternoon, and the big man shrunk under the spotlight. He got off to a poor start, scoring just two points in the first half on 1-of-9 FG shooting. He started to find the net a bit in the second half, as the Bison climbed back from a double-digit deficit to make it a competitive game. But he never developed a good rhythm, and at the end of the day, Bucknell needed more than his nine points on 4-of-17 shooting. Butler’s defense gets some credit, but Muscala missed a lot of shots that he typically makes.
Brad Stevens’ crew flustered the Bucknell offense all game long. (AP)
Not That Easy on the Eyes — Apart from an exciting stretch in the middle of the second half, this game was plagued by ineffective offense. Butler hardly put on an offensive clinic, but Bucknell was the biggest offender. After shooting a miserable 25.9 percent from the field in the first half, they couldn’t find a consistent rhythm in second. Apart from a pair of lightning quick runs that actually gave them a six-point lead, the offense continued to struggle. And it wasn’t just Muscala who struggled. The Bison’s second and third leading scorers, guards Cameron Ayers(12.5 ppg) and Bryson Johnson (11.1 ppg), continued the disappearing act that they unveiled in the Patriot League tournament, combining for 0 points on 0-of-4 FG shooting in the first half.
Butler Overcame Its Cold Shooting — Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham combined to make more than 150 threes this year, but against Bucknell, the two were stone cold. They shot a combined 2-of-9 from three-point range and missed several two-point jumpers, combining to go 5-of-18 from the field. The two guards made up for their poor shooting, though, by taking care of the ball. Turnovers have plagued the Bulldogs’ guards all season, but Clarke and Dunham committed none today.
Star of the Game: With Butler’s shooters in a game-long cold spell, it fell to Roosevelt Jones to ignite the offense with his unorthodox game. Perhaps it was fitting that Jones, who resembles a fullback in appearance and style of play, was the star of a contest that had a 21-14 football-like score at halftime. Jones’ ugly shotput runners in the lane and ragged drives to the basket epitomized the ugly nature of Butler’s win. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting and added five boards and four assists. The turnover-prone guard also had just one miscue.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
This is part two of our TO26 bracket analysis, focusing on the 17 non-power-conference teams that populate the East and Midwest regions. The teams are grouped into five rough categories, and, within each category, they are ordered by their likelihood of advancing. For our analysis of the South and West regions, see here.
These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
St. Louis (#4 Midwest) — The Bilikens are flying a bit under the radar, but this is a team that should be a favorite for a Sweet 16 run. They have one of the best defenses in the country, a group of experienced guards who can attack and shoot (Kwamain Mitchell, Mike McCall, Jordair Jett), a surprisingly effective post presence in Dwayne Evans, and a pair of pick-‘n-pop big men (Rob Loe, Cody Ellis) who can drain the three. It should be said, though, that the Bilikens’ draw is not necessarily ideal. A first-round game against New Mexico State presents some matchup quandaries (see below), as does a potential Third Round game against Oklahoma State — both teams are prepared to bang and grind with the Bilikens down low. Ultimately, I think the St. Louis’ defense is strong enough to get them to the Sweet 16, where their steady guard play gives them a non-trivial chance of knocking off the Cards.
Can Rotnei Clarke Lead Butler Back to the Final Four?
Butler (#6, East) — Yes, they’re back. Neither Bucknell nor their potential Third Round opponent (Marquette or Davidson) will be an easy team to conquer, but all three of these teams will give Butler an important reprieve from its biggest vulnerability — a tendency to turn it over. Bucknell and Marquette will also play at the kind of grinding pace at which the Bulldogs excel. And they’ll focus their offense on the areas of the floor where Butler’s defense is strongest — the paint. Butler also has the shooters — Rotnei Clark, Kellen Dunham — to bombard Marquette’s compact defense and the rebounders to exploit Marquette’s weakness on the glass. If anything, Bucknell may pose a bigger matchup problem, as they tend to chase teams off the three-point line and they don’t give up much on the offensive glass. The Bison will be a tough opponent, but when you look at Butler’s pod as a whole, a Sweet 16 run looks well within reach.
One and Done
These teams have at least a 50/50 (or better) chance of picking up a win, but are unlikely to get two.
Colorado State (#8, Midwest) – I would actually bump the Rams up to the tail end of the “Regional Threats” group if not for the uncertain status of starting point guard Dorian Green. The team’s unquestioned floor general, Green suffered an ankle injury in the first round of the MWC tournament, and though he played in a semifinal loss to UNLV, was ineffective. With a fully healthy Green, the Rams’ have a good chance of toppling Missouri. The two teams are somewhat similar in that they try to score in the paint on offense, while keeping opponents out of the paint of it on defense. Neither team is especially potent from the three-point line, and both rely a fair amount on offensive rebounding, though the Rams’ have the advantage here, especially as they are equally adept at controlling their defensive glass. That, along with Missouri’s tendency to be a bit loose with the ball, may be the difference-maker. And don’t sleep on Colorado State’s chances against Louisville in the next round. The Cardinals’ weak points are defensive rebounding and three-point shooting. The Rams are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and as noted above, their defense forces teams to beat them from the three-point line. They also take pretty good care of the ball, which will serve them well against Louisville’s pressure defense. But this analysis could be all for naught if Green isn’t healthy enough to be effective.
Creighton (#7, Midwest) – Doug McDermott is perhaps the most fundamentally sound player in college basketball. His All-American status owes itself to his incredibly precise offensive footwork, positioning, movement, shot, and cuts. He has inside-outside skills that present a very tough matchup if you’re not used to guarding him. And he’s surrounded by lots of great three-point shooters. Cincinnati’s defense has generally been strong, so they might be able to contain McDermott and the Bluejays’ three-point attack. But they’ll have to be especially effective because their offense has been truly miserable. I like the Bluejays’ chances here. A Third Round matchup with Duke would be a tougher proposition, as the Blue Devils combine a defense that shuts down the three-point line with an offense that is far more high-powered than Cincinnati’s. McDermott may well get his points, especially posting up inside, but that’s not likely to be sufficient.
With the NCAA Tournament officially underway as of last night’s game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty — although, let’s be honest, things don’t really begin to heat up until Thursday afternoon — we are unveiling the Official RTC Bracket today. Up first are the South and East Regions with the Midwest and West Regions to follow later this afternoon. Prior to revealing the picks, some quick analysis, and four questions to our bracket experts, here’s our methodology.
The inspiration behind the bracket largely comes from our weekly Blogpoll where a number of ballots from key contributors are combined to form a single Top 25. Rather than have eight people put their heads together and collectively fill out the bracket, we asked each to select their own bracket. Afterward, those selections were tallied up and the team with the majority vote in each slot is the one picked to advance below. As an example, you will notice that in the #8 vs. #9 game in the South Region, North Carolina was picked to advance in seven of eight brackets — hence the 88% tally next to the Tar Heels’ name. Deeper into the bracket, you may wonder how it’s possible for Kansas to advance past Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen with just 50% of the brackets choosing the Jayhawks, but that’s because three brackets had Michigan and one bracket had VCU, thereby giving Kansas the edge.
Here’s the first half of the 2013 Official RTC Bracket:
Quick Hitters From the South Region
Advancing to Atlanta: #3 Florida
Round of 64 Upset: #11 Minnesota over #6 UCLA
Later Round Upsets: #3 Florida over #2 Georgetown in the Sweet Sixteen and #3 Florida over #1 Kansas in the Elite Eight
Three Most Disputed Games: #11 Minnesota over #6 UCLA, #4 Michigan over #5 VCU, #1 Kansas over #4 Michigan
Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.
Bucknell Earns A #11 Seed
Bucknell earned the Patriot League’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament after a 28-5 season that included three wins in the conference tournament. After weeks of projecting as a #12 or #13 seed, the Bison were treated favorably by the Selection Committee and given a #11 seed in the East Regional. The Bison will play Butler in famed Rupp Arena in Lexington. Eleven is the best seed any Patriot League team has garnered since Bucknell was a #9 seed in 2006. Because Bucknell received an #11 while other at-large teams came in as low as #13, some of the chatter shifted from the match-up it drew to speculation about whether the Bison were good enough to have received an at-large bid had it come up short in the conference tournament. According to the full seeding list, it appears they were. But it’s a tough question to answer, because it was a moot point after they won the Patriot League Tournament, and because they would have likely taken a big hit in the seeding list had they lost to either Lafayette or Army in the tourney.
Would Mike Muscala and Bucknell have made the Field of 68 had they lost in the Patriot League Tournament? (Matthew O’Haren/USA Today)
All in all, Butler is a good match-up for the Bison. The Bulldogs started this season 16-2, including a win over in-state rival Indiana, and they looked like a Final Four favorite after an exciting buzzer-beater win over Gonzaga in January. Despite finishing out the year with a modest 10-6 record, five of Butler’s losses came to NCAA Tournament teams (including three losses against St. Louis).
Of course, the key for any team playing against Bucknell will be containing Mike Muscala. The match-up to watch in the Butler game will be Muscala vs. Andrew Smith. Smith is a 6’11” senior who leads the team in rebounding and is second in scoring. He actually missed the game against Charlotte this season with an abdominal injury, and it was one of Butler’s only losses this season against a non-Tournament team. Read the rest of this entry »
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, Brian Otskey (@botskey) breaks down the East Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC East Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCeastregion).
You can also check out our RTC Podblast with Brian breaking down the East Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.
Favorite: #1 Indiana (27-6, 14-5 Big Ten). Ranked No. 1 in 10 of the 19 AP Top 25 polls this season (through last week), Indiana is the strong favorite in this region. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season title but fell to Wisconsin in the conference tournament semifinals this past Saturday. Indiana fans are definitely bummed that their team won’t be playing in the Indianapolis regional but they will still show up. IU fans travel as well as any school in the country.
Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers earned the top seed in the East region (Photo: Andy Lyons)
Should They Falter: #2 Miami (27-6, 18-3 ACC). It has been a dream season in Coral Gables as Miami won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles. History, however, is against this team. Miami has made only one Sweet Sixteen appearance (1999-2000) in program history, representing the furthest this program has ever ventured into March. Also, nobody on the roster has ever played in an NCAA Tournament game. There are positives, though. Head coach Jim Larranaga obviously had a memorable run with George Mason in 2006 and most of Miami’s major contributors are older, veteran players. It’s much easier to win when you’re coaching 22- and 23-year olds rather than 18- and 19-year olds.
Grossly Overseeded: #4 Syracuse (26-9, 14-8 Big East). Despite advancing to the Big East championship game and playing better than Louisville for 24 minutes in that game, Syracuse’s overall profile looks more like a #5 or #6 seed rather than a #4. The Orange were just 5-5 in true road games, under .500 against the RPI top 50 and only 12-9 against the top 100. Before the Big East Tournament run, Syracuse had lost seven of its last 12 regular season games. There’s no doubt the week at Madison Square Garden helped Jim Boeheim’s team (as it historically has), but Syracuse is still too high for my liking.
Grossly Underseeded: #14 Davidson (26-7, 20-1 Southern Conference). Stephen Curry put Davidson on the map with a magical run to the 2008 Elite Eight, the only NCAA Tournament victories for the Wildcats since 1969. This year’s edition is pretty good in its own right. Coached by Bob McKillop, who has now made a respectable seven NCAA Tournament appearances in his 24 years at the small school near Charlotte, North Carolina, the Wildcats won 26 games and lost only once in conference play. Davidson challenged itself in the non-conference, playing the #20-rated schedule that included games against Gonzaga, Duke and New Mexico. Davidson has just two top 100 wins but we figured a 26-win team that scheduled up would have been rewarded with something other than a #14 seed. Ken Pomeroy’s rating projects only a four-point loss to Marquette so it’s clear that the Wildcats are capable of winning a game.
After four months of basketball, fields for the NCAA, NIT, and CBI will be released tomorrow. In this piece, we’ll put together where each Pac-12 team fits into the picture as of late afternoon Saturday.
P12 S Curve Rank
New Mexico State
NIT Bubble Out
Weber State (CBI)
Definitely Dancing:Arizona is the highest ranked Pac-12 team, and will remain the highest no matter the result of the UCLA/Oregon game tonight. The Wildcats have to like their current standing on the seed line, as it gives them a chance at an opening game with a team that will have played two days earlier. I project either Iowa State or Virginia to be that team, and if I were a Wildcats fan, I’d be pulling hard for Virginia rather than the Cyclones. Next up is six seed UCLA, and if they beat Oregon tonight to take home both the regular season and conference titles, I see them climbing up to a low five-seed. But right now they would match up with Bucknell, the Patriot League champions that finished the season at 28-5. The Bison are much more dangerous than your usual mid-major conference champion, ranking only behind Gonzaga, New Mexico, Saint Louis, Memphis, and Creighton as the mid-major conference champs. Our final lock goes to Oregon, a team that slipped to the bubble last week before winning its first two Pac-12 Tournament games and advancing to the tournament championship game. The Ducks will of course want to win tonight, but knowing their only escape from the #8/#9 game will be with a loss to the Bruins, a defeat wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. If they were to remain where they currently are at 3:00 PM PT tomorrow, I have Dana Altman and company meeting NC State in the Second Round.
Over the course of the last two nights, four more teams made their Big Dance dreams a reality. 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.
It’s An NEC Tournament Three-Peat For The Blackbirds. Welcome Back To The Big Dance!
NEC Champion (20-13, 15-6)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #178/#184/#162
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.2
Likely NCAA Seed: #16
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
While it might be a bit of hyperbole to announce the Long Island Blackbirds as a NEC dynasty, three conference tournament titles in a row will get that conversation started. LIU may have found the transition under new coach Jack Perri to be slightly rougher than expected – they were just 5-10 before winning 10 of their final 13 games – but a familiar destination has appeared at the end of the road – the NCAA Tournament. And while the Blackbirds haven’t completely embarrassed themselves in the past two NCAA Tournaments (losing by 15 and 22 points, respectively), can this year’s team make the next step and put a real scare into one of the field’s top teams?
Normally, a team playing at the 29th quickest tempo in the nation would be lauded for their freneticism, and yes, LIU does play fast. But after back-to-back years of holding a top three spot in the metric, things have slowed down a bit in Brooklyn. The offensive personnel on this team is impressive. Junior point guard Jason Brickman is the nation’s leader in assists at 8.5 per contest, while his backcourt mate CJ Garner has been on a scoring tear, going for 30+ in three of the Blackbirds last four. Neither is the team’s most talented player, however; senior Jamal Olasewere plays power forward for LIU at 6’7”, but would seamlessly fit in on most any power conference team at the two or the three. A phenomenal athlete who can both put the ball on the deck and score with his back to the basket, Olasewere is a match-up problem waiting to happen.
It’s fun to watch LIU play offense. Too often though, it’s just as fun to watch their opponents play offense. LIU ranks 318th nationally in defensive efficiency, and gave up at least 89 points to each of their three power conference foes this season — Kentucky, Maryland, and Seton Hall (yes, the same Seton Hall that managed a total of 81 regulation points during its two-game Big East Tournament run.) None of those three games were particularly close. The offensive firepower gives the Blackbirds more bite than your typical #16 seed, but their profound inability to get stops is the reason they will likely be in that slot. LIU might have a little bit of fun at the Big Dance – maybe 20 minutes or so – but nothing they have done so far suggests they are capable of hanging with the nation’s elite for the full 40.
Tonight’s Lede. Power League Conference Tourneys En Masse. Some of the Power Six leagues tipped off their conference tournaments Wednesday, and that only means one thing — teams have begun their final-ditch attempts at saving their bubble fortunes once and for all. The Big East already broke the ice; the Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and Mountain West (the MW is a “power league” in every sense of the word) got off the ground Wednesday. Meaningful outcomes have already gone final, but the best is yet to come. The selection committee keeps a critical eye fixed on these league finales, from the mildly appetizing early rounds you saw Wednesday night right up to the weekend championship games. The final sprint to Selection Sunday is here, and the end of the tunnel – bracket release, office pools, Seth Greenberg wailing and gnashing his teeth on a post-selection show Sportscenter segment (probably) – can’t come fast enough.
Your Watercooler Moment.Boise Falls Short.
A win against SDSU would have done wonders for Boise State’s Bubble Positioning (AP Photo).
By far the greatest bubble intrigue of the night could be found at the Thomas & Mack Center for UNLV and San Diego State’s quarterfinal match-ups in the Mountain West Conference Tournament. The MW has been a crazy league all season — terribly difficult to predict at times, open to random interpretation, a nightly treat of hoops unpredictability and hotly-contested games. There was nothing different about Wednesday night’s showdown. Boise played SDSU tough for 40 minutes and nearly held on for the RPI top-50 win it needed to seal its place in the NCAA Tournament. A loss puts the Broncos in a dangerously tight spot heading into the weekend. As fellow bubble squads around the nation likewise vie for resume-padding wins, Boise could very well see its profile squeezed out of an ever-tightening at-large allotment. The Broncos have done nice work thus far this season, and that road win over Creighton holds more weight now than it did about a month ago, and maybe, maybe the selection committee will give Boise the benefit of the doubt for playing in the top-to-bottom meat grinder that is the MW — who knows. Until the bubble coagulates, evolves, and shakes off its outer-fringe detritus over the next few days, Boise’s fate subject to the committee’s obscure discretion.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
No C.J. McCollum, But Mike Muscala, Bucknell Not a Bad Consolation Prize. A devastating foot injury in an early January game at VCU effectively ended Lehigh star C.J. McCollum’s season, and almost certainly his college career. That robbed us another chance to see McCollum pull off another massive first-round upset, but in order to get back to the NCAA Tournament, McCollum would have needed to get by Bucknell in the Patriot Conference Tournament. Without him in the lineup, the Mountain Hawks didn’t even get a shot at the Bison, losing to Lafayette in the semifinals, but even so, I’m not so sure McCollum could have led his team past Mike Muscala and company. Bucknell is good – really good. They took Missouri to the wire in January, won at Purdue, throttled New Mexico State and handled La Salle comfortably. They finished 12-2 in Patriot League play and on Wednesday night, Bucknell qualified for the NCAA Tournament by beating Lafayette in the tournament final. Whatever #2 or #3 seed happens to draw the Bison will not be smiling at the prospect of a breezy opening-round match-up. Read the rest of this entry »
Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. Follow him on Twitter (@mitchgoldich) for live updates throughout the Patriot League Tournament.
Bucknell Locks Up Home Court Advantage: The Bison made history this season, becoming the first Patriot League team ever to win three consecutive outright regular season titles. Their 12-2 conference record gives them the top seed in the tournament, ensuring that all of their games will be played in Sojka Pavilion. Their success in Sojka is one of the key reasons they’ve been so great over the last few years, and is a big reason they’ll be tough to take down in the tournament. The Bison went 11-1 on their home floor this season, including a 6-1 mark in conference play. The Bison are an astounding 75-15 all-time against Patriot League foes in Sojka, though that does include a loss to Lehigh in last year’s Patriot League Championship Game.
McCollum Unlikely To Return:The entire complexion of the Patriot League season changed on January 5, when Lehigh star CJ McCollum broke his foot in a nationally televised game against VCU. Lehigh’s preseason All-American became one of the breakout stars in college basketball when he scored 30 points in the Mountain Hawks’ upset over Duke in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He lived up to the hype surrounding his senior season, and led the nation in scoring (25.7 points per game) before the injury. The initial time frame had him out 8-to-10 weeks, which is anywhere from March 2-16. Head coach Brett Reed said on the Patriot League coaches’ conference call that McCollum continues to get healthier, but that he is preparing for the tournament with his squad that went 8-4 in league play without their star. Even if McCollum was healthy enough to take the court, there’s no way to know how many minutes he could log or how effective he’d be.
Leopards Running Hot:While Bucknell and Lehigh dominated the preseason and early-season headlines, it’s that other team in Pennsylvania playing the best ball in the conference right now. The Lafayette Leopards started the season 1-6 and 3-8. On December 14, I even had them dead last in my Patriot League Power Rankings. A close loss at Stanford left them 5-10 at the new year, but seemed to offer hope that the team had figured things out. Behind Tony Johnson’s stellar play at point guard, the Leopards won nine of their final 11 conference games, including an upset over Bucknell and a season sweep over the hated rival Lehigh. The Leopards enter the Patriot League Tournament on a five-game winning streak, and are a legitimate contender to win their first league championship since the 1999-2000 season.
Breaking Down the Tournament Field
Bucknell(25-5, 12-2) – Bucknell spent the non-conference portion of their season flirting with an automatic bid, but their run through league play was not dominant enough to keep them in that discussion. They have simply not looked as good since they nearly beat Missouri in January (more on that below), but they are still the favorite to win the tournament. In addition to Muscala, they have a strong cast with seniors Bryson Johnson and Joe Willman, also in the 1,000 point club. Johnson set the conference record for most three-pointers made in a career and Cameron Ayers joined him at better than 41 percent from beyond. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
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Michigan’s Nik Stauskas apparently needed that shoe. He went 0-for-2 for four points in a 69-79 loss to Duke last night.