The Other 26: Let the Madness Begin

Posted by IRenko on March 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

Top 10

RTC -- TO26 (3.2.13)

Honor Roll

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

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ATB: A Low-Scoring Battle at the Pete, More Despair for WVU and Payback in the Patriot League…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 19th, 2013

ATB

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

Tonight’s Lede. Beautiful, Monday Night’s Hoops was Not. The idea of playing Monday night games, in most cases two days removed from a Saturday game, is – for lack of a better word – hard. Teams are exhausted from their weekend exploits, have limited time to prepare for Monday’s opponents and are often stuck under a national spotlight, such as ESPN’s Big Monday, with not as much energy or precision or pregame preparedness as they might like. The quality of basketball can sour. That much was clear in Monday night’s Pittsburgh-Georgetown game; the encore, Kansas State-West Virginia, wasn’t all that great, either. There were a couple of other games to speak of on another nonchalant evening, which should make this recap at least somewhat more interesting than most Monday wrap-ups.

Your Watercooler Moment. Notre Dame Didn’t Lose.

The ability to shake off poor shooting, as Notre Dame evinced at Pittsburgh Monday night, is crucial in March (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The ability to shake off poor shooting, as Notre Dame evinced at Pittsburgh Monday night, is crucial in March (Photo credit: AP Photo).

No team that opens a game missing 18 of its first 19 shots and scoring just three points over the first 13 minutes of play rightfully deserves to come away with a win. Notre Dame began Monday night’s trip to the Peterson Events Center with a clearly discerned offensive hangover from Saturday’s blowout loss at Providence, sparking cynical Twitter commentary calling for assistance from football coach Brian Kelly, inducing a wave of channel-flipping activity and leading some to question whether the Irish were still feeling the effects of that grueling five-overtime win over Louisville nine days ago – all of which dissipated quickly once Notre Dame rattled off a 16-3 run to close out the first half. From then on, the Irish went out and did what few teams have customarily been able to at the Pete during Jamie Dixon’s tenure. They dominated the glass (for all the criticism and incongruities of rebounding margin, Notre Dame’s 36-22 edge says something), dictated a pace-averse style (54.2 possessions) and watched their much-maligned, 14th-best-in-the-Big-East defensive efficiency hold Pittsburgh’s typically hyper-efficient offense to 42 points at just under 0.80 points per trip. It wasn’t the most satisfying offensive performance from either side, but if you’re Mike Brey, it’s hard to not walk away from this game feeling objectively stoked about the Irish’s stingy efforts on the other end. Pittsburgh didn’t shoot it particularly well (the 0-of-8 mark from three won’t help), and the Panthers have been known to lay an offensive egg every now and then (see the Cincinnati loss or Duquesne win), but as a rebound to what was pretty clearly Notre Dame’s worst all-around game of the season at Providence, beating the No. 20 team in the country in its own rowdy building – one efficiency wonks have been doing backflips over ever since November – is not a terrible consolation. 

Monday Night’s Quick Hits…

  • Patriot League Showdown. As an NCAA Tournament measuring stick, Bucknell’s trip to Lehigh Monday night didn’t have much to say. The Bison’s at-large hopes were, for all intents and purposes, dashed before conference action thanks to losses against Penn State, Princeton and Missouri. Even so, Bucknell – who hasn’t really taken advantage of the C.J. McCollum injury-created void atop the league standings – needed this game to pull clear of the Mountain Hawks, who had already beaten Bucknell on the road without McCollum. Any big Bucknell win, the 2012-13 mid-major hoops logic goes, should include a big performance from NBA prospect Mike Muscala. Think again: The Bison got 19 points from guard Bryson Johnson (Muscala finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, well below his season averages), and held Lehigh to just 1-of-15 from beyond the arc to hold on for their biggest win of the season to date. The next time these teams meet could be in the Patriot League Tournament final, with McCollum’s return by then a distinct possibility. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: This Is Not Mark Few’s Best Team… Yet

Posted by IRenko on February 16th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CIO… the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 8th, 2013

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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.

Looking Back

  • Lafayette Separates From The Pack: For much of the season, it’s been Lehigh and Bucknell trading places at the top of the Patriot League power rankings, with nobody else staking a firm claim to the third spot. Two weeks ago I put Lafayette in the three-hole, in what was easily the most difficult call to make. The Leopards immediately justified that ranking with a blowout win at Lehigh the following day. Lafayette thoroughly dominated Lehigh, winning 78-57 in Bethlehem. Lafayette is 4-3 at the midpoint of league play, with a very favorable schedule for the second half. Each of the Leopards’ four toughest opponents (Bucknell, Lehigh, Army and American) will travel to Easton, where they have reeled off eight straight wins. Fran O’Hanlon’s squad seems poised to grab the third seed in the Patriot League Tournament, and has the best chance to take down Bucknell or Lehigh once they get there.
Lehigh Has Held Steady Without C.J. McCollum Thanks To White-Hot Perimeter Shooting.

Lehigh Has Held Steady Without C.J. McCollum Thanks To White-Hot Perimeter Shooting.

  • Bucknell Survives American: Bucknell and American collided last week in one of the most exciting games of the Patriot League season. American trailed by one point at halftime, and then started to pull away in the second half. Daniel Munoz hit a three-pointer with 2:16 left to stretch the lead to 55-48. The Bison came back and scored eight straight points to finish the game up 56-55. Mike Muscala grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a put back with 21 seconds left to get the Bison within a point. Then, he did the same exact thing on the final possession of the game, scoring on another put back layup with 0.8 seconds left to end the game. The Bison were presumed the conference favorite after a strong run through the non-conference season, even before Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum went down with a broken foot. But Bucknell lost their home game against Lehigh on January 23, and then looked shaky on the road in D.C. It’s hard to know what exactly to make of this game. It could be a good sign that they were able to escape and pull out a close win, or it could be a bad sign that the team isn’t playing as well as they were early in the season. Still, the Bison have reached the midway point of the league season with a 6-1 record, tied with Lehigh atop the standings.
  • Muscala, McCollum Named Senior CLASS Award Finalists: Muscala and McCollum have grown accustomed to seeing their names next to each other as they’ve rewritten chunks of the Patriot League record book throughout their intertwining careers.  They’ve put themselves in elite company once again, as the Patriot League produced two of the ten finalists for one of college basketball’s most prestigious awards, the Senior CLASS Award. The award recognizes Division I seniors with notable achievements in four areas—community, classroom, character and competition. A committee of media members selected the finalists from a list of 30 candidates that also included Lehigh’s Gabe Knutson. It’s hard to speculate how much McCollum’s time lost to injury may affect voters, but it’s a testament to his body of work that he was still selected as a finalist. Both men are strong students and high-character leaders, as well as two of the most talented players the league has ever seen. The award recipient will be selected by combining votes from fans, media members and head coaches, with the winner revealed at the Final Four.  Fans of either player can vote here.

Power Rankings

  1. Bucknell (19-4, 6-1) – Despite the shaky game against American, Bucknell’s 3-0 record since the last Check-In allows it to wrestle the top spot back from Lehigh. Muscala continues to run away with the Patriot League Player of the Year Award, leading the conference with 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He has officially graduated from that conversation and entered discussions around national awards and NBA draft stock. While Muscala deserves his share of attention, he has received help. Bryson Johnson made six three-pointers against Navy on Saturday, giving him an even 300 for his career. He is now just two shy of tying the league record set by American’s Garrison Carr from 2005-2009. Bucknell’s success can also be attributed largely to their defense, and they lead the conference in points allowed (58.4 per game) and opponents’ field goal percentage (37.4). Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: Niagara Rushes Forth

Posted by IRenko on February 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CIO… the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 25th, 2013

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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.

Top Storylines

Lehigh Upsets Bucknell: The Lehigh Mountain Hawks traveled to Lewisburg on Wednesday and did more than just upset league favorite Bucknell. With their 65-62 win inside a rabid Sojka Pavilion, they reignited the fervor around what had previously been the most anticipated season in Patriot League history.

The Patriot League doesn’t typically receive much national media coverage. Most years, college basketball fans don’t pay attention until March rolls around and it’s time to see who will represent the conference in the Big Dance — if then. This year was different. The rivalry between Lehigh and Bucknell was debated across the country this preseason. Lehigh was fresh off its stunning upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament, returning future first-round NBA draft pick C.J. McCollum. Bucknell won the regular season Patriot League title, and boasted a former Patriot League Player of the Year Award winner Mike Muscala, with NBA dreams of his own. But when McCollum broke his foot on January 5 at VCU, most thought that the buzz around the Patriot League was gone. Not so fast.

Mike Muscala's Coming Out Party Is Over, Now It's All About Tracking His Draft Stock.

Mike Muscala’s Coming Out Party Is Over. Now It’s All About Tracking His Draft Stock.

Lehigh’s most deadly weapon is the three-point shot, and they rank second in the nation at 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. On Wednesday, the Mountain Hawks made an incredible 10 out of 18 threes. Shots started dropping early, as Lehigh hit six threes while racing out to a 27-12 lead. The crowd never relented, willing the Bison back into the ballgame. Bryson Johnson connected on a four-point play, as Bucknell began chipping away. This was the moment it felt like Lehigh finally missed McCollum. Early in the game, the team had an easy time spreading the floor, sharing the ball and knocking down shots. Suddenly they needed a go-to guy to create a shot and get a big bucket. Bucknell came all the way back to within 29-28 at the break.

The Mountain Hawks have played extremely well without McCollum, and head coach Brett Reed said in his postgame press conference that the team has been successful without him for the same reasons they were successful with him. “This year’s team has faced adversity,” Reed said. “It would have been easy to feel down and take a step back after the comeback. But our guys have continued to demonstrate poise, resiliency and togetherness.”

In one of the strangest stats of the early part of the season, no Patriot League game has had any lead changes in the second half all year. Muscala quickly put that stat to bed with a layup to give Bucknell the lead, and the Bison charged ahead by seven with 12:46 to go. The Mountain Hawks shot themselves back into it, hitting four out of five threes in the second half. BJ Bailey, hit all four of his threes en route to a game-high 18, and added a spectacular block as the shot clock expired. Mackey McKnight threw his body around, hitting the deck on a made three and shortly after on a driving lay-up. Gabe Knutson struggled from the field, but had a pretty finish on a play that he started to the right of the basket and finished on the other side.

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RTC Top 25: Week 10

Posted by KDoyle on January 21st, 2013

If there was ever a day that could be used as prepping for the Thursday and Friday games of the NCAA Tournament, this past Saturday was that day. With 154 games taking place beginning at 11 AM and not wrapping up until much later in the evening with the magic that took place inside Hinkle Fieldhouse as Butler topped Gonzaga and some more games out west to round out the night, Saturday had it all. Saturday also had many implications for the RTC25 as there was a fair amount of movement in all directions. Michigan has climbed all the way back up to #1, Butler is a Top 10 team — after not even receiving votes in the preseason — two teams from the Missouri Valley are in the thick of things, and a total of eight teams are in the “ARV” category ranging from Cincinnati (once a Top 10 team itself) to Bucknell.

A whole lot to touch on…the Q n’ D after the jump…

Week 10

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The Other 26: You Will Be Entertained

Posted by IRenko on January 19th, 2013

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

After a one-week hiatus, we are back and just in time for a veritable orgy of great college hoops matchups today.  Yes, there is Louisville v. Syracuse, Florida v. Missouri, Oregon v. UCLA, and Ohio State v. Michigan State.  But things get no less interesting as you move down to the mid-major level, where several compelling matchups featuring conference contenders will unfold.  Before we get to the Top 10, let’s take a look at what’s on tap today:

  • Gonzaga at Butler — The nation’s two Cinderella darlings will square off at the storied Hinkle Fieldhouse in a made-for-TV (yes, ESPN College Gameday will be in the house) contest.  It will be the final game of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule and, arguably, its toughest.  The loss of Rotnei Clarke to a frightening neck injury will take some of the luster off of this matchup, as Butler will be playing without their leading scorer.  The task will be no easier on the other end of the Court, as the Bulldogs will have to contend with a potent Gonzaga frontcourt, led by 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, who has emerged into a bona fide All-American candidate.  But as we all know, being the underdog suits Brad Stevens just fine.
  • Creighton at Wichita StateDoug McDermott has wowed the nation over the past week with a pair of 30-point games, and between his dominance and Creighton’s three-point shooting, the Bluejays’ offense has become quite difficult to stop.  But if there’s a team in the MVC who can do it, it’s Wichita State.  The Shockers have the best defense in the league, which will have the added boost of a raucous home crowd for this premier matchup.  The Shockers’ strong, quick guards will challenge Creighton at the other end, and Cleanthony Early might prove a tough matchup for McDermott.  Carl Hall is also back in the lineup for the Shockers, so both teams will be at full strength.
Siyani Chambers Is Having An Outstanding Freshman Year (Anthony Nesmith/CSM/Cal Sport Media/AP Images)

Siyani Chambers Is Having An Outstanding Freshman Year (Anthony Nesmith/CSM/Cal Sport Media/AP Images)

  • Harvard at Memphis — With Conference USA muddling through a down year, this could be be Memphis’ toughest opponent of the 2013 calendar year.  The Crimson have turned in a quality season despite the unexpected one-year withdrawals of senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey due to an academic cheating scandal.  Much of the credit for that goes to freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who is fifth in the country in minutes per game.  Tommy Amaker has put a great deal of faith in the young man, but he has rewarded him with a 31% assist rate, 50% three-point shooting average, and 88% FT shooting average.  Chambers will lock horns with Joe Jackson, who has steadied himself this season to become a reliable scorer and team leader.  The senior point guard has hit double-digits in points in 12 straight games, the longest mark of his college career.
  • Western Illinois at North Dakota State — North Dakota State has been one of the great underreported stories of the season, rolling up a 16-3 record and supplanting South Dakota State as the Summit League’s favorite.  But Western Illinois has also creeped to the top of the league standings, just a game behind NDSU at 6-1.  The Leathernecks are led by an inside-out combo of big man Terrell Parks (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rbg) and do-everything senior guard Ceola Clark.  Clark is an excellent defender, and he’ll need to be at his best to help stop a North Dakota State that is a well-oiled, methodical, efficient machine.  Marshall Bjorkland, the Bison’s 6-8 junior, is arguably the most efficient scorer in the country.  He leads the nation in effective FG percentage (72.4%) and is fourth in true shooting percentage (71.2%).
  • Utah State at Denver — Louisiana Tech remains at the top of the WAC standings after holding off Idaho on Thursday night, but these two squads are just one loss behind them.  So tonight’s game has a lot riding on it.  Expect a low-scoring contest between two of the lowest tempo teams in the country.  Royce O’Neale and Chris Udofia lead Denver’s Princeton offense, which wears down opponents with movement and relies heavily on the three-point shot.  Utah State will look to Preston Medlin, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game, and center Jarred Shaw who gets lots of touches in Stew Morrill’s offense. 
  • College of Charleston at Davidson — Charleston will have a chance to move into a tie atop the Southern Conference South standings with a win at Davidson.  They’ll be led by their backcourt combo of Andrew Lawrence and Anthony Stitt, while their hosts will rely more heavily on their frontcourt tandem of De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen.  Davidson can fall in love with the three-point shot to their detriment.  They’re better when they get the ball to the versatile Brooks and Cohen.  Getting the ball in the basket won’t be easy against Charleston, which has a pretty good defense anchored in the middle by Adjehi Baru.
  • Belmont v. Tennessee State – You would think that this game between the OVC’s two undefeated teams would lose its luster with the absence of Tennessee State’s star big man, Robert Covington, except for one thing — they’ve won every one of their six OVC games without him.  Covington went down with a torn meniscus in a December 18 trip to Middle Tennessee State that the Tigers went on to lose by 38 points.  At that point, they were 5-7 on the season but they’ve reeled off seven straight since and now sit atop the OVC East standings.   But they may need more than the Ewing Effect when they travel across town to face off with Belmont.  The switch from the A-Sun to the OVC hasn’t dimmed the Bruins’ ability to dominate their conference competition.

So there it is, a day-long feast for the glutton who craves mid-major hoops.  We move on, now, to the updated Top 10 rankings, our weekly (starting this week) Honor Roll, and a few more games to keep an eye on as the week unfolds.

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CIO…the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 11th, 2013

CIO header

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.

Looking Back

  • Lehigh Loses McCollum: Lehigh’s Pre-Season All-America guard, CJ McCollum, suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot during Saturday’s nationally televised game at VCU. More than 30 NBA scouts came to watch him in person, but he went down midway through the first half.  This injury is a real shame, not just for Lehigh but for the whole league. The Patriot League has received unprecedented levels of press so far this season because of McCollum and the anticipated exciting battle between Lehigh and Bucknell for the league title. Now, much of the buzz may dissipate before conference play even starts. McCollum has already undergone surgery, and early diagnoses had him out 8-10 weeks. The Patriot League Tournament falls right in that stretch, so it’s unknown if he’ll make it back out on the court again this season. Even if he does rush back, it may take him longer to return to 100 percent. The Patriot League’s all-time scoring leader will now fall short of Daren Queenan’s school record, which was set before Lehigh joined the conference. While he is fiercely dedicated to his team’s success this year, nobody would expect him to do anything foolish with his body while he still projects to be a first round pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.
Being Without Its Top Star For Several Weeks Doesn't Sit Well With Lehigh Fans. (Joe Mahoney/AP)

Eight-to-Ten Weeks Without C.J. McCollum Doesn’t Sit Well With Lehigh Fans. (Joe Mahoney/AP)

  • Bucknell Keeps Building a Resume: The Bison came heartbreakingly close to beating Missouri in their most difficult non-conference game of the season, dropping a 66-64 contest in Columbia. Still, Bucknell is establishing itself as one of the top mid-major teams in the country. The Bison are ranked fourth in the latest College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. They come in at #36 at kenpom.com and #38 in the RPI. Bucknell has escaped the non-conference portion of its season with a league record 13 wins, and it’s now safe to say that an at-large bid is officially in play. McCollum’s injury makes them the favorite to win the Patriot League Tournament, whether he returns for the tournament or not, but a strong regular season and a tournament upset could land Bucknell in the Big Dance anyway.
  • Wrapping Up the Non-Conference Season: The performance of the league slipped a bit over the last two weeks, dropping the conference’s cumulative record to 62-62 with just one non-conference game remaining (Colgate plays the New Jersey Institute of Technology in February). Some of those wins came against competition below the Division I level, but the eight schools have combined to go 56-41 against D-I teams outside of the six power conferences. The teams are an impressive 48-29 against the A-10, America East, CAA, Ivy, MAAC, NEC and MEAC. Those marks are good enough to hold steady at #16 out of 33 in the conference ratings on Ken Pomeroy’s website. Last year the Patriot League finished at #22.

Power Rankings

  1. Bucknell (13-3) – Seemingly every other game, Mike Muscala puts forth an effort described as his best game of the season.  If he hadn’t had his coming out party yet, it was definitely against Missouri last Saturday.  Muscala put up 25 points and 14 rebounds against a nationally ranked team loaded with talent.  The Bison led at halftime and outrebounded the Tigers, but fell just short.  Muscala stepped on the base line with 4.1 seconds left in a one-point game, with Bucknell in position to take the lead.  Though Muscala currently leads ESPN.com’s Player Efficiency Ratings, this is not a one-man team.  Cameron Ayers, son of former Ohio State and NBA coach Randy Ayers, has scored in double figures in six straight games and Bryson Johnson is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: CJ McCollum’s Injury, Illinois Thrashes Ohio State, and Cincinnati’s Big Letdown…

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 7th, 2013

ATB

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

The Weekend’s Lede. This weekend brought a comforting turn in the hoops calendar. It was the first weekend spent in the throes of conference play. On Saturday, starting at 11am ET with Pittsburgh at Rutgers and on through Sunday night, high-quality games could be found on various networks. There were upsets, blowouts, and predictable results – all of which we’ve seen at different stages this season. But there’s a different vibe when it comes to conference play, to me at least, and it was refreshing to take it all in. Gone are the days of high majors beating down cupcakes. Most conference games are real, competitive, no-sleep-walking-allowed basketball games. And they’re here to stay, at least until April. This put me in an especially rosy mood, which is a good sign for what lies ahead in 2013, and an even better sign for college basketball in general. League competition is already shaking perceptions and standings in noticeable ways, and we haven’t even yet broken free of the college football fever. Just wait until February; I can hardly hide my excitement. So let’s recap the first conference weekend. It was a good one.

Your Watercooler Moment. CJ McCollum Breaks His Foot.

After bursting on the scene during last season's upset over No. 2 Duke, McCollum could very well have seen his last sample of NCAA Tournament basketball (Photo credit: AP).

After bursting on the scene during last season’s upset over No. 2 Duke, McCollum could very well have seen his last sample of NCAA Tournament basketball (Photo credit: AP).

Twice this season C.J. McCollum has left NBA Scouts looking for refunds on game tickets. The first time was a minor medical ailment. McCollum sprained his ankle and couldn’t suit up for a Dec. 20 game against North Texas. Saturday’s injury was far more severe. What’s truly saddening about McCollum’s broken foot isn’t the lengthy eight-to-ten-week recovery or the implications for his NBA draft status. It’s the fact that McCollum made the move most college basketball fans wish future first-round picks would make more often. McCollum eschewed guaranteed millions to play out his eligibility. In April, he penned a reflective piece explaining his decision. The SportingNews’ Mike DeCourcy dug up one of McCollum’s pivotal justifications: “By returning for my senior year, I give myself a chance to complete my degree at a prestigious university, while putting myself in a position to be successful no matter what happens in my future.” McCollum will still accomplish those goals, but the basketball component of his senior year won’t go as planned. Passing up the professional game for another year in college is always risky business. Many players wind up hurting their “draft stock” and regretting their decisions. McCollum should be back before the end of the season, and I have little doubt he can redeem whatever shine he may lose during his recovery, whether that be in the midst of a late-season Tournament surge or in draft workouts. McCollum is a preternaturally gifted scorer. He belongs in the NBA. This will do little, if anything, to hurt his draft prospects – provided he returns to his pre-injury form. It’s a tough setback, but nothing McCollum, a determined, clear-headed and driven individual, cannot overcome.

Also Worth Chatting About. Nothing Will Come Easy In The Big Ten.

The Illini didn't need hot three-point shooting to dominate Ohio State in Champaign (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

The Illini didn’t need hot three-point shooting to dominate Ohio State in Champaign (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

The formula to Illinois’ early success was flawed. It depended heavily on the three-point shot, which is an inherently risky way to win basketball games, but even more perilous when you don’t have a reliable source of interior scoring. Which Illinois didn’t…..until Saturday. The Illini’s win over Ohio State wasn’t surprising. It was the way Illinois bombarded the Buckeyes not with long-range shots, but with effective low post play. Sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu was slowly, surely coming around of late, but he came up small in this week’s loss at Purdue, and one was starting to get the sense he was still a year or two away from contributing in meaningful ways. On Saturday, he showed up, and boy, does Ohio State wish he hadn’t. Egwu finished with 16 points and eight rebounds to bail out Illinois’ again poor three-point shooting (8-for-27). Illinois showed it doesn’t need the long-ball to knock off good teams – at least not when Egwu’s holding fort in the paint. The same problems remain with Ohio State: Can anyone help DeShaun Thomas shoulder the scoring load? Is Aaron Craft that guy? Will Shannon Scott, Laquinton Ross and Sam Thompson pick up steam as the season rolls along? This will give John Groce’s team boatloads of confidence for an upcoming home date with Minnesota, but the way the Gophers have looked thus far, it may need to recapture its hot three-point shooting stroke to spring the upset.

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The Other 26: Cowboy-ing Up

Posted by IRenko on January 5th, 2013

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

College basketball has just four undefeated teams left. You can likely recite the identity of the first three:  Duke, Michigan, and Arizona, who occupy the top three spots in the AP rankings. But you may be surprised to learn that the fourth team is the Wyoming Cowboys. Larry Shyatt’s squad sits at 13-0 after a successful non-conference season that featured solid wins over Colorado, Illinois State, and Denver.

Leonard Washington Has Led Wyoming to a Surprising Undefeated Start (Troy Babbitt / US PRESSWIRE)

Leonard Washington Has Led Wyoming to a Surprising Undefeated Start (Troy Babbitt / US PRESSWIRE)

Last year, the Cowboys finished sixth in the MW. Then in the offseason, they graduated three of their five starters. So how have they managed to reel off 13 straight victories to start the year? Wyoming is very strong defensively, but they were just as good, if not better, last year. The biggest difference is a major improvement on offense, as their adjusted efficiency has gone from 0.99 points to 1.08 points per possession. That may not sound like a big difference, but when you realize that a single game is composed of dozens of possessions, it adds up to a substantially better offensive performance. This increased efficiency has been driven by the Cowboys’ ability to get to the free throw line and to convert on two-point opportunities. Senior forward Leonard Washington deserves the credit for leading the team in both respects. The 6’7″ tweener is shooting 63.7 percent on two-point field goals and draws 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes — one of the higher rates in the country.

The second significant factor in the Cowboys’ improvement is the offseason development of senior Derrious Gilmore and sophomore Larry Nance, Jr. (yes, the former NBA player’s son). Gilmore has rewarded Larry Shyatt’s decision to hand him the starting point guard spot by improving his per game averages from 3.1 points and 1.1 assists per contest to 11.8 points and 3.2 assists per game. He averages more than 32 minutes per game, second most to Washington. Nance, meanwhile, has gone from averaging 4.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per contest to 11.2 and 6.8, respectively.  He shoots over 60 percent on two-point attempts and 84.2 percent from the free throw line. Add in the contributions of returning starter and senior guard Luke Martinez (14.5 points, 42.2% 3FG) , and the Cowboys have a feature a surprising amount firepower.

Despite their undefeated mark, it remains an open question as to how good the Cowboys really are. Last year, they got off to 14-2 start during non-conference play but crumpled to a 6-8 record in the Mountain West. This year’s record is even more impressive to be sure and, as noted above, features some solid if unspectacular wins. But the strength of schedule is about to kick into a higher gear, as they enter conference play against a very deep and talented Mountain West. If they can maintain their offensive improvement through the rest of the year and continue to get contributions from a range of players, they may be Dancing for the first time since 2002 and just the second time in 25 years.

Let’s move on to this week’s Top 10, the performances that caught our eye this past week, and the games to watch in the week ahead.

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RTC Top 25: Week 7

Posted by KDoyle on January 2nd, 2013

Apologies that we are a bit tardy in rolling out our Top 25; with the holidays behind us and the New Year officially upon us, we plan on hitting 2013 running. A fairly light week of hoops resulted in little movement in the RTC25. Duke remains #1 for the sixth straight week, Minnesota cracks the Top 10 for the first time, and NC State jumps back into the poll after making a departure for several weeks. In perhaps the most exciting game of the week, Gonzaga shot back up to #10 after a big road win in Stillwater against Oklahoma State. The Quick n’ Dirty after the jump.

Week 7

Quick n’ Dirty Analysis.

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