We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.
Dates: March 5, 7-9
Site: Times Union Center (Albany, NY)
What to expect: Iona will be heavy favorites in the MAAC Tournament this week after going 24-7 and controlling the regular season from start to finish. The uptempo Gaels are an exceptionally efficient offensive unit, led by one of the country’s best scoring duos – guard A.J. English and big man David Laury – who account for nearly 40 points per game. But beware: Monmouth, Canisius and crosstown rival Manhattan each gave Iona trouble this winter and the top seed has not won the event since 2010. Rider, the second-place finisher, would be more of a threat if seven-footer Matt Lopez hadn’t torn his ACL in late February. Count on the regular season champs to clinch another NCAA Tournament appearance – its third since 2011 – but don’t expect a cakewalk.
Favorite: Iona. Along with its stellar inside-out duo, Iona boasts the conference’s premier freshman in 5’10” guard Schadrac Casimir. His shooting prowess (44% 3FG on 203 attempts) combined with English, Laury, wing Isaiah Williams (45% 3FG) and athletic transfer Kelvin Amayo makes the Gaels incredibly difficult to stop.
The past 10 days have been especially fraught with injuries and suspensions and ineligibility rulings, many of which are sure to affect conference races across the Other 26. Let’s examine some of the major losses and their impact as the season approaches:
Isaac Fotu’s career might be over at Hawaii. (Charles Simmons/chasingthemomentphoto.com)
Isaac Fotu– F – Hawaii. Just a couple days after head coach Gib Arnold was abruptly fired, Hawaii lost its best player last week when Fotu was ruled ineligible due to an ongoing improper benefits investigation. The 6’8’’ all-conference forward averaged 14.9 PPG and 6.1 RPG a year ago and figured to at least keep the Warriors competitive in the Big West. Without him, the outlook is much grimmer. Christian Standhardinger – last year’s leading scorer and rebounder – graduated and starting point guard Keith Shamburger transferred to Missouri, leaving shooting guard Garrett Nevels (13.1 PPG) as Hawaii’s lone returning starter. In fact, he will be the only returner who averaged more than five points per game in 2013-14, meaning Hawaii is effectively a collection of young, unproven players adapting to a new coach with the season opener right around the corner. If Fotu does not return – which appears to be the case, as of late Monday night – this could be a rough season in Honolulu. Read the rest of this entry »
Day four of Championship Fortnight means three more conferences tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next two weeks of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s conference tournaments. Today, the MAAC, MVC and WCC get started.
Dates: March 6, 8-10 Site: MassMutual Center (Springfield, MA)
What to expect: The highest seed has not won this tournament since 2010, but that could change this year with Iona atop the league standings. The offensive-minded Gaels have advanced to the Big Dance in each of the last two seasons – including as an at-large bid in 2012 – and look poised to make a return, winning 13 of their final 14 games and playing steady, efficient basketball along the way. The one loss in that span was to Manhattan, the Gaels’ most likely challenger in Springfield. George Beamon’s 20 points per game leads the Jaspers offensively, but it is on the defensive end where Steve Masiello’s squad has the distinct advantage – center Rhamel Brown is a long, game-changer in the paint who boasts the highest block rate in the country. If Manhattan and Iona meet up in the conference championship on Monday night, it will be must-watch television. And don’t ignore Canisius, either — the team’s electrifying point guard, Billy Baron, averages more than 25 points per outing and is capable of catching fire at any moment.
Ice Bath, and watch Stephen Curry highlights for an hour.
According to a “10 Questions With…” feature on the Canisius mens’ basketball page, that’s the sum of Billy Baron’s pregame routine. And it makes perfect sense, when you think about it. An ice bath for the ice water that runs through his veins — evident from the game-winning shots he so often takes, and hits — and the Curry highlights to remind him of just how captivating a player he can be, how rare it is to possess the kind of quick-release, out-of-the-gym range he has in his arsenal. Not to mention the crafty shot-fakes, gorgeous passes, sudden changes of direction and countless other moves put on display by the Davidson legend. Baron probably watches for those, too. And while the MAAC Player of the Year favorite certainly has elements of Curry in his game, it was BYU great Jimmer Fredette who Siena coach Jimmy Patsos compared him to earlier this season, an appropriate parallel in its own right. Whether he’s more like Curry, Fredette or some other former hoopster, though, doesn’t really matter. The larger point is this: Baron is a rare talent who demands your attention when he takes the court and who’s fully capable of becoming a mid-major star in March, depending on how far the Griffins can go.
Billy Baron vs. Notre Dame, December 29, 2013.
Jimmer Fredette vs. Gonzaga, March 19, 2011.
Perhaps the most electrifying aspect of Baron’s game is his ability to pull up and hit from just about anywhere inside the half-court line. And I mean anywhere. Though opposing teams try guarding him all the way up the floor, often using additional defenders to step out and help or even double-team when necessary, he is still able to exploit the tiniest amounts of open space and briefest moments of defensive relaxation. Like Jimmer (and his brother, Jimmy), Baron will simply hoist from four or five feet beyond the three-point line, catching unwitting defenders off-guard and leaving opposing coaches pulling out their hair. Last month, he hit a three from the ‘A’ in Iona’s mid-court decal late in the first half and another from the ‘I’ early in the second. In fact, he’s nailed shots from numerous giant logos this season, regularly enabling his team to cut into deficits or build on leads in the blink of an eye. And like Curry, Baron also has a tremendous feel for how the opposition will react to his movements. He will employ the slightest shot-fakes and hesitations to make defenders over-commit, then take a quick dribble left or right to find the open look. On the year, the 6’2’’ senior is shooting over 42 percent from behind the arc, which is incredibly impressive considering how closely opposing squads guard him and how difficult his attempts can be. When Baron gets the hot hand, it’s hard to look away.
We are officially less than one month from Selection Sunday (hooray!), so standout performances (and dreadful upsets) are now more impactful than ever on conference races and NCAA Tournament aspirations. Let’s pass out some awards to the best of the best from the O26 last week.
O26 Team of the Week
Highlighted by the upset over San Diego State, Wyoming had a stellar week. (Jeremy Martin/AP)
Wyoming. The Pokes began the week with their biggest home win since joining the Mountain West in 1999, and ended it with their greatest defensive effort in that same span. On Tuesday night, Wyoming notched its first victory over a top-five team in Arena Auditorium in 16 years by defeating San Diego State, 68-82, to end the Aztecs’ 20-game winning streak and prompt a well-deserved rushing of the court. Not only did the Cowboys out-shoot, out-defend and out-energize Steve Fisher’s club, but they did so with style, eschewing open jumps shots (their offense is predicated on burning the shot clock and finding the best look possible) in favor of wide open dunks, time after time down the floor. At one point, as they opened up a double-figure lead midway through the second half, the team was exuding such high-flying swagger and cool confidence that it became hard to tell if you were watching this year’s Wyoming club or last year’s Florida Gulf Coast. And when SDSU made a late charge to pull within four at the under-one minute mark, in a moment where it seemed the league powerhouse was going to exert its will, Nathan Sobey went ahead and threw down a transition slam — what else? — to bury the Aztecs for good. The last time Wyoming knocked off a team that highly ranked, the year was 1998, the opponent was Rick Majerus-led Utah, and the Cowboys’ head coach was… Larry Shyatt. The first time around.
As great as the Steve Fishers and Gregg Marshalls and Jim Crews of the world are — and they’re pretty darn great — several other O26 coaches have also achieved remarkable success so far in 2013-14, often with less to work with and more to prove. Let’s examine a few of those head coaches around the country who have stood out to this point despite leading lesser-known programs.
Tony Jasick has raised the bar at IPFW this season. (gomastodons.com)
Tony Jasick– IPFW. At 18-7, Jasick’s team has already tied IPFW’s highest win total since it joined the Division I ranks 13 years ago, vastly exceeding expectations along the way. The Mastadons were picked to finish sixth out of eight teams in the Summit League preseason poll, making their current 6-2 conference record — enough to be tied for first place — quite a surprise, especially considering that they’ve already beaten the next three top contenders. In its win against overwhelming league-favorite North Dakota State, IPFW went 20-of-21 from the free throw line and committed just 11 fouls en route to a double-figure victory. It took Dayton some last-second heroics at home to beat Jasick’s club, and after falling to Illinois by just two points in late November, Illini head coach John Groce said of the Mastadons: “I thought they were going to be the best execution team that we have played so far. And they were.” Only 35 years old and in just his third year, Jasick could very well lead his program to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season and is sure to become a hot coaching name in the near future.
If you hit the town Friday night to enjoy a few beverages or catch up on Oscar-nominated flicks and you missed the Horizon League/MAAC double-header on ESPNU, allow us to catch you up on a couple storylines that emerged from two excellent basketball games.
Alec Brown and the Phoenix can play with anyone this season. (Courtesy: Green Bay Athletics)
Green Bay has tremendous potential. Green Bay withstood another monstrous dunk by Jerran Young to beat Wright State on Friday night and move to 4-0 in the Horizon League, marking its eighth straight win overall. Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes again led the charge for Brian Wardle’s club, combining for 42 points and controlling the game from start to finish, even as the Raiders made numerous mini-runs throughout the second half. Now 14-3 and with metric rankings that scream ‘dangerous mid-major’, it’s time to start asking the question: Just how high is the ceiling for the Phoenix? If the team’s recent play is any indication, the answer might be “really, really high” — as in, NCAA-Tournament-victory-or-victories high. For one, there probably isn’t another inside-out combination as productive and dynamic as Brown and Sykes at the mid-major level. Brown is a legitimate NBA prospect (scouts were in the building on Friday night) whose athletic, 7’1” frame and ability to shoot from the perimeter (50% from three) — when he’s not dominating the paint — make him unstoppable on most nights. Sykes, meanwhile, is a quick, explosive point guard whose skills as a distributor are surpassed only by his scoring prowess — he dropped a career-high 34 points against Milwaukee last week and had 32 against Wisconsin in November. The rest of the group — players like the athletic forward Greg Mays and rebounding/defensive maven Jordan Fouse — complete a Green Bay team well-rounded enough to sit 42nd overall in KenPom’s rankings, having already beaten ACC-contender Virginia and pushed Wisconsin to the wire earlier in the season. Sure, the Phoenix could go on to drop several Horizon contests, lose in the league tournament and miss the Big Dance altogether. But it’s just as easy to see this team winning the conference, embracing the role of disrespected underdog and pulling off an upset or two in March.
Conference play was in full swing this week, offering up numerous monster performances, several sizable comebacks and just plain excellent basketball games (see: Akron vs. Ohio on Sunday night… seriously, watch the replay). Let’s get to it with some weekly awards for top O26 performers.
O26 Team of the Week
Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit/USA TODAY Sports)
Saint Louis. With all due respect to UMass and VCU, last week showed why Saint Louis remains the team to beat in the A-10 until proven otherwise. The Billikens — with relatively little fanfare, despite jumping out to the school’s best start in 20 years — quietly tipped off conference play at Rhode Island on Tuesday night against a fast-improving Rams team fresh off an impressive win at LSU. It had all the makings of a trap game, with Saint Louis perhaps looking ahead to its looming clash against Dayton on Saturday. And sure enough, the Billikens almost fell into the trap; Dan Hurley’s group gave them all they could handle for a full 40 minutes. Trailing by a seemingly-insurmountable 11 points in the second half, the Rams mounted a 23-7 run to take a five-point lead with under nine to go, energizing the crowd and putting all the pressure on the occasionally-stagnant Saint Louis offense. It might have spelled trouble had Jordair Jett not been having the best offensive game of his career. But indeed he was, and the senior guard poured in 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes, knocking down a huge three and several key free throws to give the Billikens the one-point edge with a few ticks remaining before coming up with the game-clinching steal in the final moment. In all, the eventual conference player of the week finished with a career high 31 points and led his team to a 59-58 victory.
It was Saturday’s tilt with Dayton that was tabbed as a potential loss, with the offensively-proficient Flyers coming in as slight favorites at home according to KenPom. Saint Louis was having none of that, though. The Billikens took the lead midway through the first half and never let go, playing vintage, suffocating defense and finding enough patient looks offensively to coast to a 67-59 victory. It was the type of game we’ve seen so many times from this team: The opponent, ostensibly within reach, scraps and claws until it becomes clear that the Saint Louis defense simply will not let up — each player in position, rotating to their spots, aggressively defending the three point line — and a comeback is completely hopeless. Dwayne Evans led the charge offensively with a crisp 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Now 15-2 (2-0 A-10), the Billikens are ranked second overall in defensive efficiency, have crept into the AP Top 25 and again look well-equipped to make a run at the conference title, and perhaps more, by season’s end.
In Ken Pomeroy’s recently-published conference race simulations, Manhattan wins the MAAC 6,161 times out of 10,000 simulations, which — in an 11-team league— makes it the overwhelming favorite. And for good reason. Despite being picked first in the conference preseason poll, the Jaspers have actually managed to exceed expectations in the first two months, using an aggressive defense and attack-first offense to notch several impressive road victories and an early 4-0 record in league play. So while fellow contenders like Iona, Canisius and Quinnipiac are likely to make the automatic bid far from a guarantee, Manhattan has already shown its potential as the most complete and dangerous upset threat from this league come March.
George Beamon and the Jaspers could be a tough NCAA Tournament match-up. (MAACSports)
Iona has been the cream of this conference for the past two years, making the NCAA Tournament twice — including as an at-large bid in 2011-12, the second ever out of the MAAC — and doing so with exceptional offense. Tim Cluess’ up-tempo, free-flowing attack has yielded three straight top-30 finishes nationally in offensive efficiency and over 20 wins in each of those seasons. Their problem has often been on the other end of the court, as Cluess’ teams sometimes making a habit of playing porous defense for long stretches that the scoring cannot always overcome. Likewise, Saint Peter’s, the conference tournament champion in 2011, was one of the best defensive teams the league has ever seen (finishing fifth in the country in defensive efficiency), but it could not generate the offense necessary to become a threat in the Big Dance. Put simply, the NCAA Tournament’s MAAC representative has lacked balance in recent years.
We looked at the best of the AAC non-conference schedules in Part I, after explaining a bit of what makes for a good non-conference schedule. This season, there’s quite a bit more bad than good, which could drag down the collective RPIs of AAC members and ultimately lead to lower NCAA Tournament seeds come March.
Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats return the favor of a visit last season from MW favorite New Mexico with a road trip of their own to The Pit. They also will play former Big East rival and mid-level ACC squad Pitt at Madison Square Garden. Then… well, there’s the rivalry game with Xavier, which seems poised to finish in the bottom half of a newly constituted (read: relatively weaker) Big East; N.C. State, clearly headed toward the bottom of the ACC, and Conference USA also-ran MTSU. That trio might end up in the RPI top 100; it’s highly unlikely any other team on the schedule will come close.
Louisville: If the defending champs can escape Rupp Arena with a win, all will be forgiven by both their fans and the committee, as a road win against Kentucky is perhaps the highest quality victory available in college basketball this year. Southern Miss, which finished with an RPI of #30 last season, is favored to win Conference USA. They face a potential Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off final against North Carolina at the Mohegan Sun. They need the Tar Heels to be there, because the rest of their foes are middling teams in weak leagues, with Charleston the most likely to crack the top 100, and several – we’re looking at you, Hofstra and UMKC – seeming likely to end up north of #300.
Tonight’s Lede. Pac-12 Takes Center Stage. Last season, the Pac-12 made history by becoming the first Big Six conference not to send its regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid. The downward spiral that lead to this unfortunate circumstance began in non-conference play, where the league squandered nearly all of its big match-ups, which deflated the Pac-12’s RPI and set up a vicious cycle whereby teams had no shot of upward movement on the NCAA bubble shuffling line. This year, the league is marginally better. The high-end quality, starting with UCLA and Arizona, is light year’s ahead of where it was last season, but the league as a whole isn’t all that much improved. Three momentous Pac-12 matchups – Cal at UCLA, Colorado at Arizona and Stanford at USC – highlighted tonight’s slate, each of which allowed for valuable observation and analysis. Without giving away the rest of tonight’s ATB, I’ll reveal this much: the Pac-12 isn’t horrible!; which is to say, the regular season champ, whoever that may be, should be on solid footing come Selection Sunday.
Your Watercooler Moment. Apparent Buzzer-Beater Waved Off To Deny Colorado Huge Road Win At Arizona.
In truth, I’d love to discuss the way Colorado went out and fought Arizona for 40 minutes (and OT), the way Tad Boyle’s team got five players in double figures and played remarkably resilient hoop against the No. 3 team in the country in a tough road environment, the way the Buffaloes proved the Pac-12 race is far from the foregone conclusion many envisioned after the Wildcats’ veritably peerless non-conference work. But I just can’t. The biggest talking point is unavoidable – Sabatino Chen’s buzzer beater that wasn’t. Debate will rage on for days about whether or not Chen’s banked-in three was released before the buzzer, and whether the officials had enough evidence to overturn the initial ruling (a made bucket, a Colorado win). For a closer look, assuming you’re not satisfied with the real-time footage provided above, check out this GIF segmenting Chen’s release into discrete steps. The controversy will intensify if this ultimately leads to Colorado’s NCAA Tournament denial. But seeing as Colorado took the undefeated Wildcats to the absolute brink – and did so without a productive scoring night from star forward Andre Roberson (nine points on 3-of-7 from the floor) – this team looks very capable of making noise in the Pac 12 title chase and earning an at-large bid without sweating Selection Sunday. Besides, an event as controversial and contentious as this often has a galvanizing effect on a team. This could springboard Colorado into a substantial winning streak; the opposite effect – a demoralizing defeat that leads to a downward losing spiral – is a possibility, but I’m not betting on Colorado feeling sorry for itself. Tad Boyle will have his bunch playing inspired basketball when they take the floor at Arizona State in three days. Fairly or unfairly officiated, it’s a total drag to see such a tight game come down to an official’s whistle. When two of the Pac 12’s best teams meet up, I think we can all agree the teams, not the referees, should be the ones settling the final score.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
Wolverines Dispel B1G Road Game Theory. The common perception about this year’s Big Ten is that every road game, save a few locales, will be a chore. That’s been the look of things so far, with Illinois losing to Purdue Wednesday night, and Indiana just barely hanging on at Iowa on New Year’s Eve. Michigan had no such trouble on its trip to Northwestern. The Wolverines trounced Bill Carmody’s team on the strength of 44 combined points from backcourt duo Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke got anything he wanted, whenever and wherever he wanted it. The Wildcats, already without defensive specialist JerShonn Cobb (suspension) and perimeter weapon Drew Crawford (injury), were without leading scorer Reggie Hearn, which turned an already undermanned lineup into coterie of inexperienced freshmen and marginal role players. Whether or not Northwestern was at full strength, Michigan wasn’t losing this game. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a team in the country that can beat the Wolverines when they shoot 59 percent from beyond the arc and just under 60 percent overall. Read the rest of this entry »
Tonight’s Lede. Normalcy Reigns In One Of College Hoops’ Best Rivalries. The organic hate developed as a historical byproduct of uninterrupted competition is what makes rivalry games hum. Those sentiments spilled out of bounds in last season’s rendition of the Crosstown Shootout, when Xavier and Cincinnati’s annual meeting erupted into a full-out brawl that led to multiple suspensions, a relocation of the series from campus gyms to a neutral site arena and a name change to diffuse violent tensions (Crosstown Classic). The repackaged form of the Crosstown whatever ensued Wednesday night, only without most of the protagonists from last year’s melee, and with each program in a completely different place than it was a year ago. This time around, Cincinnati – owners of the nation’s 6th-rated defense on a per-possession scale, a relentless backcourt trio and an undefeated record – had the upper hand; Xavier is still incorporating a host of young pieces and learning on the fly after losing five starters. The end result was pretty much what you might expect: Xavier mustered enough emotion and pride to hang around for most of the night, but was eventually outlasted by Mick Cronin’s team. The outcome was less important than the event itself. There were no punches thrown, no pre-game radio waves trashtalk, no nonsense in the postgame news conference. It was organically competitive basketball, with all the natural emotions of a rivalry contained to enhance, but not dominate, the actual game being played. The Crosstown Shootout is no more; the refurbished edition isn’t all that much different (the variations are cosmetic, much less inherently structural). And that’s good news.
Your Watercooler Moment. Father-Son Coaching Matchup Highlights Louisville-FIU.
The understudy didn’t have the manpower or the experience to spring the upset on his old man – not when Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals are playing some of the best basketball in the country, not when Peyton Siva connects on a career-high five three-pointers and sophomore Wayne Blackshear notches 18 points (also a career-high). This was an unfair fight from the start, both tactically and personnel-wise; the younger Pitino never really stood a chance. Louisville was expected to cruise to a win, and that’s exactly what happened. For Richard Pitino, this game wasn’t about making a statement by beating one of the nation’s best teams. It was about the younger Pitino getting his first real shot in the national spotlight, and despite the lopsided scoreline, there was nothing embarrassing about his first jab at the man that showed him the coaching ropes. Not all young coaches are instantaneously successful. The Brad Stevens’ and Shaka Smarts of the world are not how most coaches break into the profession. Richard Pitino has the bloodlines to be successful, and that’s as auspicious a natural advantage as any young coach could ask for. Who knows how long or how fruitful the younger Pitino’s career will be. As it stands, his development is an interesting storyline to keep tabs on. The longer he coaches and the more he learns, I suspect Richard Pitino to develop many of the same mannerisms and principles – the feet stomping, the sideline death stares, the trademark defense-first philosophy – as the future Hall of Famer who raised him.
Tonight\’s Quick Hits…
Signs Of Progress For Texas. The main story of Texas’ season thus far is the continued absence of point guard Myck Kabongo, which reached a climactic end Wednesday night with the Yahoo! Sports report that revealed sophomore point guard has been suspended for the season after lying to NCAA investigators. Another angle is the Longhorns’ youth, which is evident in large quantities all over the floor, albeit extremely talented. The undertold narrative of the Longhorns’ slow start is their remarkably stout defense, which ranks fourth in the country on a per-possession scale and first overall in effective field goal percentage. The Longhorns lived up to their statistical bona fides on the defensive end by stifling the one-dimensional UNC Tar Heels into 21-of-67 shooting, including 3-of-19 from beyond the arc. Throw in 15 points from sophomore forward Jonathan Holmes and 18 from freshman Cameron Ridley, and what you get is a dominating 18-point dismantling of Roy Williams’ team. Read the rest of this entry »