Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Hosts the South Regional
New Favorite: #3 Florida. It hasn’t been an arduous road to the Sweet Sixteen as Florida dismantled #14 Northwestern State and #11 Minnesota to advance to Arlington. Although the Golden Gophers cut a 21-point halftime deficit down to eight midway through the second half, they never truly challenged Florida and the Gators coasted to an easy win. Did we learn anything that we already didn’t know about Florida in the process? Probably not. Billy Donovan’s team is as good as anyone at blowing out inferior competition, but it was impressive to see their resolve demonstrated against Minnesota. The common belief is that the Gators crumble down the stretch in close games — amazingly, they have not won a game by single digits this year — but there was no need for late-game drama this weekend. To reach the Elite Eight, Florida will have to next beat #15 Florida Gulf Coast. Not exactly murderer’s row to get to the South Region final by having to play against all double-digit seeds, but FGCU has already proven that it is far from a traditional #15 seed. After posting big wins over Georgetown and San Diego State, the Eagles have shown they can more than hang with any team in the NCAA Tournament. With that said, I projected Florida to win the region when the bracket was initially released and they’ve only confirmed that belief after the first weekend.
Horse of Darkness: #4 Michigan. So much for Shaka Smart’s vaunted havoc defense. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. had little problem dealing with Virginia Commonwealth’s pressing defense en route to a convincing 25-point victory. The Rams’ 71 point swing— a 46-point win against Akron and 25-point loss to Michigan — is by far the greatest two-game switcheroo in NCAA Tournament history, as the Wolverines demonstrated that all a team needs to foil Smart’s plan is a backcourt consisting of two NBA-level players. Michigan is grossly underseeded and is probably closer to a #2 seed than #4. This is a team that was ranked in the Top 10 for virtually the entire season, but limped into the NCAA Tournament after going 6-6 in its final 12 Big Ten games. It has been evident that Michigan’s style of play has kicked up a notch against non-Big Ten teams; South Dakota State and VCU’s urge to speed up the pace of the action seemed to play right into Michigan’s hands. With Trey Burke running the show, John Beilein has the best point guard in the South Region going up against a Kansas team that clearly lacks a steady one of its own. Kansas played one good half in the first two rounds — albeit an extremely good second half against North Carolina — but is ripe for the taking.
Burke Played Like a NPOY Candidate Last Game (AnnArbor.com)
Biggest Surprise (1st Weekend): #15 Florida Gulf Coast 78, #2 Georgetown 68. What, like you thought there could possibly be a surprise that trumps what Florida Gulf Coast did in Philadelphia on Friday and Sunday? Not only did the Eagles make history as the first #15 seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, they did so with flying colors — quite literally — in beating Georgetown and San Diego State by 10 points each. FGCU’s win over Georgetown was certainly a major surprise, as a 24-10 team that finished in second place in the Atlantic Sun and had been swept by Lipscomb soundly beat a 25-6 Big East team with a slew of wins over top teams. Yet after its resounding win over the Hoyas, was anyone that surprised with its victory over a San Diego State team that proved to be mostly average in a Mountain West Conference that went 2-5 in this year’s Dance? Neither win was a fluke for Andy Enfield’s squad; the Eagles flat out beat these two teams that spent much of the season ranked in the Top 25. From Andy Enfield’s story — a former NBA assistant with Rick Pitino, owning his own company called “Tract Manager,” and marrying a supermodel — to the fact that FGCU has been a Division I program for less than a decade, the endless stream of alley-oops and ridiculous dunks thrown down by high-flying no-name players, the swagger and jovial attitude of Sherwood Brown, and the heartwarming story of Brett Comer, among many other things… words simply cannot do justice to what Florida Gulf Coast accomplished over the weekend.
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 Marquette and Davidson. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Three Key Takeaways:
Marquette Saved Its Best for Last, and Davidson Saved Its Worst – After trailing for almost the entire second half and staring at a seven-point deficit with under two minutes to play, Marquette found the wherewithal to stage a March-worthy comeback. Through 38 minutes and 57 seconds, Marquette had shot 1-of-11 from three-point range, but they managed to drain three straight contested threes in the final 63 seconds, the last of which pulled them to within a point with 11 seconds left. And that’s when Davidson threw away the game. They’d committed just one turnover in the second half, in the face of heavy perimeter pressure. But De’mon Brooks chose the worst possible moment to throw a wild pass into the frontcourt that Nick Cochran could not track down. With the ball back and five seconds left, Marquette’s Vander Blue drove to the basket, and Davidson’s defense, which had contained dribble penetration all game, retreated, allowing him to convert a relatively easy layup to win the game with a second left.
Vander Blue’s game-winning layup put Marquette to the third round and sent a devastated Davidson squad home. (AP)
This Was As Tough a Loss as They Come – For 39 minutes, Davidson withstood Marquette’s bruising physicality, even seeming to out-tough them at times. Their defense clamped down on Marquette’s guards, clogging the paint, shutting down their dribble penetration, and contesting shots all game. They held Marquette to just 34 percent field goal shooting (and 27 percent from three-point range). And when their hot three-point hand cooled off, they mustered enough offense against Marquette’s tough interior defense to be in a position to win. It was the kind of gutsy mid-major performance that makes March special, and it made the Wildcats’ collapse in the final minute all the more painful.
Marquette’s Aggression on the Boards Paid Off — Offensive rebounding is an important part of Marquette’s offensive attack, and at halftime, they had rebounded 10 of their 22 misses. But they converted these boards into just three second-chance points. That was due, at least in part, to Davidson’s tough gang defense under the rim. But the Golden Eagles kept at it, and in the second half, they scored six key second-chance points late in the game.
Star of the Game: Vander Blue, Marquette’s leading scorer, had a mediocre offensive game overall, but he came through when it counted most. His three-pointer with 11 seconds to play pulled the Golden Eagles to within a point, and his drive and finish on the final play of the game gave us our first great Tournament moment.
Marquette rode a dominant season at home, where the Golden Eagles finished a perfect 16-0, to a 14-4 Big East record which tied Louisville and Georgetown atop the Big East. Buzz Williams’ team notched big wins over NCAA Tournament teams Wisconsin, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh twice. Marquette had a double bye in the Big East tournament, but dropped its quarterfinal match-up against Notre Dame.
Marquette Raced to Another Great Season Under Buzz Williams
Region: East Seed: No. 3 Record: 23-8 (14-4 Big East) Matchup: vs. Davidson in Lexington
Key Player: When he can stay on the floor, Davante Gardner is a total mismatch for most of the teams that Marquette will run into this March. The 6’8″, 290-pound bruiser averages over 11 points in just over 21 minutes per game with remarkable efficiency. He shoots at a 58% clip from the floor, and is among the best free throw shooters in the conference at 84% from the line. When Marquette finds a mismatch down low, he can exploit it and find himself camped there all night.
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
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.
Championship Week continued in full blast on Monday night, as five more NCAA Tournament tickets were punched. 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.
Sun Belt Cinderellas Again — Welcome Back To The Big Dance Hilltoppers
Sun Belt Champion (20-15, 14-10)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #166/#183/#184
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.5
Likely NCAA Seed: #15-#16
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
Who needs the regular season anyways? For the second consecutive campaign, Western Kentucky saw months of mediocrity give way to an unlikely week of dominance at the Sun Belt Tournament, where they depart as champions again. The sequel may never be as thrilling as the original – the 2012 Hilltoppers were just 9-18 (!) before winning their final six games to earn the auto-bid – but this Western Kentucky team is as unlikely a Big Dance participant as any.
Western Kentucky isn’t elite in any one facet of the game, but they may be able to match up with their opening round opponent with regard to physicality and toughness. The Hilltoppers are third in the Sun Belt in effective height, and also rank third in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. 6’6” sophomore George Fant is slightly undersized for the amount of time he spends in the paint, but leads the team in rebounding at 6.6 boards per game. Fant also ranks in the top 50 in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Senior Jamal Crooks (11.8 PPG, 4.1 APG) is another high-motor Hilltopper – his emotional energy and leadership is a crucial reserve for the young team around him.
Expect WKU to compete on both ends, but don’t mistake intensity with skill. They do not shoot the ball well from deep, turn the ball over at an unacceptable clip (on 22.3% of possessions), and don’t play a whole lot of defense either. It all adds up to a rather unimpressive paper profile, and the 10-10 Sun Belt record before this week does little to make you feel better about things. The exact seed line will depend on what happens elsewhere, but either way, it’s hard to envision the Hilltoppers being competitive, much less capable of manufacturing an upset for the ages.
Soak It In De’Mon — You And The Wildcats Are Tournament Bound Yet Again
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.
This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.
Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)
Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournamentbid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) – This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action.
South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) – Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.
And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …
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 State — Doug 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)
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.
Tonight’s Lede. A staple of my childhood hoops watching fandom has and will forever be “Big Monday.” It never gets old. Finish up a quick dinner, find that comfortable spot on the couch, flick on your television (or, to be technologically correct, your ESPN3 Ipad app) and take in two quality matchups. ESPN’s Monday night special has always aired games from various leagues, but to me at least, there’s a strong connection to the Big East. That 7 PM ET window will always be associated with Big East hoops, and all the great memories it’s brought us over the years. As you already well know, the once-proud northeastern league is edging closer and closer towards extinction. Next year’s Big Monday (if it continues) will not be the same. Tonight’s Big East matchup, Louisville at UConn, won’t rank among the all-time greats. It probably won’t even classify as one of the better Big East games of 2012-13. But it was Big East basketball on a Monday night in January at 7 PM, riding out what’s looking evermore like the last year of its existence. That is good enough, as far as I’m concerned.
Your Watercooler Moment. The Cardinals Are Number One For A Reason.
The Cardinals may won’t keep the top ranking for the rest of the season, but for now, they’re playing like the best team in the country (Photo credit: AP Photo).
After a wild weekend of conference play, the coveted summit of the AP Poll got its first major shakeup of the season. Three unbeaten power clubs (Duke, Michigan, and Arizona) had fallen in the past seven days, so there was no obvious choice at number one. Louisville had a legitimate claim. The Cardinals’ only loss of the season came against the last month’s top dog, Duke, with defensive anchor Gorgui Dieng still nursing a wrist injury. All Rick Pitino’s team has done since that defeat was win, and do so in convincing fashion, excepting a tense second-half in a late-December win over rival Kentucky. Some clamored for Duke to retain its top ranking. Others vied for Michigan. For whatever reason – proximity of loss, per possession analysis, last year’s Final Four run – the Cardinals ended up with the majority of AP first-place votes. Maintaining that perch required Louisville to fend off a feisty UConn team in Storrs Monday night. All Louisville did was go out and show why some of the nation’s brightest hoops writers marked them atop their Monday ballots. The Huskies got out to a hot start, powered by tremendous guard play from freshman Omar Calhoun, and carried a 34-28 lead into the break. Then Louisville ratcheted up the defensive intensity and UConn withered under the Cardinals’ smothering pressure. Russ Smith added 23 points to outgun Calhoun, and the Huskies – energetic and confident as ever in the opening half – ran out of steam. That’s what number one teams do – they string you along for a while, keeping your team and fans invested in the flow of the game, waiting for the moment to seize on any misstep or sign of fatigue. Then they take control of the game, which is what Louisville did somewhere around the 10-minute mark in the second half. Louisville is as deserving of number one as any team in America. Everything about tonight’s performance (specifically, a four-minute run midway through the second half where the Cardinals opened up a 13-point lead) was foolproof evidence.
Tonight’s Quick Hit.
The Kansas We Know. Had Ben McLemore not pulled off one of the finest banked-in three-pointers in recent memory to send Iowa State into overtime and preserve a home victory, this game would have felt something like a must win for the Jayhawks. Baylor, for all its flaws and inconsistency, was a bigger challenge for the Jayhawks. You almost had the sense that if the Bears caught Kansas sleeping again, and Isaiah Austin could put together an all-career game, and Pierre Jackson found holes on the perimeter, and a bunch of other favorable contingencies fell into place, the Bears had a real chance to hand Bill Self’s team its first home loss of the season. Well, no, you didn’t. Instead, you looked at the Bears, saw an incoherent and disparate group, and realized that Kansas is far and away the better team, and far and away the class of the Big 12. If the Jayhawks lose in conference play this season, it won’t happen in Lawrence.