The Other 26: The Mountain West Enters the Spotlight

Posted by IRenko on December 29th, 2012

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.

The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.

(Getty Images)

Alex Kirk Led a Tough New Mexico Performance Against Cincinnati (Getty Images)

The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.

The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season.  But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.

This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.

Top Ten Rankings

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The Other 26: The New A-10 Asserts Itself

Posted by IRenko on December 21st, 2012

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 the A-10 added Butler and VCU to its ranks this past offseason, we knew that the two teams would strengthen the now 16-team conference. The two schools, each of which has had recent improbable Final Four runs, were expected to join the ranks of Xavier, Temple, St. Louis, and Dayton, and, along with a resurgent St. Joseph’s, UMass, and LaSalle, make the A-10 the deepest and, arguably, most exciting non-BCS conference in the country. But after the past week, it’s become clear that not only are these two programs going to add depth to the A-10, they may very well conquer it in their first year.

Rotnei Clarke’s Sharpshooting Helped Butler to a Big Upset of Top-Ranked Indiana (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

Rotnei Clarke’s Sharpshooting Helped Butler to a Big Upset of Top-Ranked Indiana (Brian Spurlock/USA Today)

By now you know that Butler took down top-ranked Indiana 88-86 in a thrilling overtime win last Saturday. What was most surprising about the win, though, was how Butler did it. It wasn’t their vaunted defense, which gave up 1.13 points per possession to Indiana’s full-throttled attack — the second most this year for the Bulldogs and well above their averages during the Brad Stevens era. Rather, it was Butler’s efficient offense, which registered 1.16 points per possession. Part of that was their three-point shooting (11-24, 48.1%) with Rotnei Clarke leading the way (5-11). We have come to expect that from Butler, which often relies on the three-point shot as a great equalizer. But the more surprising, and perhaps more significant, elements of Butler’s offense were its willingness to attack the basket and its prodigious output on the offensive glass.  Sophomore wing Roosevelt Jones led the attack, often exploiting a favorable matchup against Jordan Hulls, en route to 16 points on 6-10 shooting (no threes). And the Bulldogs rebounded nearly half of their own misses — 48.7%. To some extent, the Bulldogs took advantage of sloppy block-outs by Indiana, but this reflects a season-long strength and a marked shift from the early years of Brad Stevens’ tenure. In Stevens’ first four seasons, Butler never averaged an offensive rebounding percentage of more than 32.8 percent. But last year, the Bulldogs hauled in 35 percent of their misses, and this year, it’s up to 39.4 percent.

As impressive as Butler’s win was, VCU quietly made waves of its own this past week as they pummeled Alabama and Western Kentucky by a combined 51 points. In both games, VCU went for the kill early, jumping out to big leads on the strength of their Havoc defense. The Rams did not allow Alabama to score a field goal until 10:44 had elapsed, en route to a 33-18 halftime lead that they would convert into a 73-54 final score. Alabama finished the game with 18 turnovers — a season high, as it often is for teams facing VCU’s defensive pressure. Four days later, VCU suffered no letdown from its BCS beatdown, whipping on Western Kentucky, one of the Sun Belt’s top teams and last year’s Tournament participant. After jumping out to 15-3 lead, the Rams would head into halftime up 42-16, cruising the rest of the way to a 76-44 win.  VCU forced a whopping 32 turnovers, including one on each of Western Kentucky’s first three possessions.

The old Bulldogs may be learning new tricks while the Rams thrive on the tried-and-true, but regardless of how they’re doing it, both teams have vaulted themselves to the top of A-10 heap.  Don’t take my word for it, ask the computers. Any of them — Butler and VCU are the A-10’s two highest ranking teams in the RPI, Sagarin ratings, and Pomeroy ratings.  The A-10’s mainstays have not distinguished themselves. Temple was routed badly by Duke in its first real competitive game of the year and just lost to Canisius at home by 10 points; Xavier is trying to replace five starters; St. Louis is trying to get their feet under them after losing their coach and then their star point guard to injury; and St. Joe’s, UMass, and Dayton have struggled to find consistency. As a result, there is a good chance that the A-10 will crown a champion it has never crowned before.

On to this week’s Top 10 and more …

Top Ten Rankings

RTC -- TO26 (12.21.12)

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Morning Five: 11.27.12 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on November 27th, 2012

  1. The big news of the day was that Gorgui Dieng, Louisville’s anchor on the inside, would be out for 4-6 weeks with a fractured scaphoid. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t a huge setback for the Cardinals  as they will still probably be a top two seed when Selection Sunday rolls around barring some collapse. Rick Pitino is pointing towards the start of Big East play as the target date for Dieng’s return, but we are looking for a return a little bit before that–on December 29 at home against Kentucky. Louisville has a couple of interesting games between now and their match-up with the Wildcats, but they should be able to win all of those games relatively easily with the possible exception of a game against Missouri in a little under two weeks.
  2. We wondered how long Jamie Dixon would suspend Trey Zeigler after Zeigler’s DUI arrest over the weekend and we are still wondering as Dixon handed down the ubiquitous, but nebulous indefinite suspension. Zeigler was found asleep at the wheel of his Hummer (likely from his dad before any of you start talking about NCAA investigations although it is a different sort of hardship we guess) with a subsequent blood-alcohol content of 0.129 (above the legal limit of 0.08) and then reportedly vomited in his holding cell. Zeigler, who was expected to have an immediate impact for the Panthers, has been limited to a reserve role, but may have cost himself a shot at getting any meaningful minutes before the start of conference play. Zeigler’s preliminary hearing is set for February 5, but we expect that Dixon will come to a decision on the length of Zeigler’s punishment well before that.
  3. With the ACC-Big Ten Challenge nearly upon us there are several fairly big injuries to catch up on. The one that is the most certain involves North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston, who will miss today’s game against Indiana after spraining his left knee during a practice over the weekend. Hairston’s absence will hamper the Tar Heels’ hopes of pulling off an upset at Assembly Hall in what already was an extremely challenging environment for the young Tar Heels to come out of with a victory. The other two significant injuries come from the Big Ten and the state of Michigan specifically, but according to reports both Tim Hardaway Jr (recovering from a knee to his head–possibly a concussion, but the reports are vague) and Travis Trice (concussion) are expected to play in their games against North Carolina State and Miami, respectively.
  4. We have talked quite a bit about conference realignment in this space, but Denver appears to be taking it to an extreme as they are reportedly on the verge of moving to the Summit League from the WAC next year making it their third conference in three years. On some level we can understand Denver’s move as they went to the WAC that was hemorrhaging teams, but then realized they were in a failing conference so they had to move on for the sake of the athletic department, but on some level (ok, many levels) it just feels wrong.
  5. Over the past year we have seen quite a few players transfer from a program to be with an ailing family member. Unfortunately for North Carolina State’s Thomas de Thaey, a native of Belgium, that was not an option as he announced that he would be leaving the school to return to Belgium to be near his father, who is battling cancer. He will reportedly pursue a professional career in Belgium while being near his father. As for the Wolfpack, they will have to adjust their already short rotation to absorb the loss of de Thaey, who was averaging 9 minutes per game this year.
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The WAC’s New Additions Reveals Just How Far the League Has Fallen

Posted by Chris Johnson on October 10th, 2012

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

Conference realignment has not been kind to college basketball. There are exceptions to this statement: The Atlantic 10, who over the past year added VCU and Butler, very much won out. But on the whole, hoops leagues have watched flagship programs jump ship to chase lucrative media rights contracts and better positioning in the increasingly football-oriented college athletics landscape. The winds of change prompted high-profile departures from the Big East (West Virginia, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse), pillaged the CAA (Old Dominion, Georgia State, VCU) and swiped thriving outfits from other leagues. While the reasons sometimes differed – with a few exceptions, football and TV money reigned supreme; the variant motives were more a matter of degree than type – the overall result was mostly unilateral. Hoops conferences were weakened, either by losing teams to football-savvy and/or more monied leagues, taking on substandard replacements or having natural rivalries eroded. The good news is we’re witnessing a temporary conference-hopping lull after a summer teeming with realignment buzz. The college hoops offseason is a long and frustrating stretch that challenges the outer limits of creative resolve. Filling that gap with realignment news, particularly when that news includes negative consequences for the sport’s competitive balance, is not fun. We should probably enjoy this peace while it lasts, because conference loyalty is hardly the same enduring relationship it used to be. These are massive changes with lasting impacts. College hoops may never be the same.

It will fall on programs like New Mexico State to carry the WAC’s flagship going forward (Eric Jamison/AP).

Through all the program-hopping and controversial departure dates and spiteful conference tournament bans (I’m looking at you, CAA), there is no league that learned the perils of realignment in a more devastating way than the Western Athletic Conference. Over the past two decades, the once-thriving mid-major outfit has suffered a slow and agonizing decline, with a whopping 24 schools leaving for greener pastures. The extended bout of membership attrition prompted the WAC to steep to new levels of realignment hopelessness. That’s no disrespect to Cal State Bakersfield and Utah Valley, which the league announced Tuesday will gain full membership by July 1 of next year and begin competition in 2013, but is this the best the WAC can do? When your membership has been whittled down to four and league administrators have relegated football to the BCS ranks (a tell-tale sign of league futility), the answer is, almost invariably, yes.

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Sun Belt Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-Up

Posted by CNguon on March 3rd, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Tournament Preview

Sun Belt Tourney Outlook (by seed)

  1. Middle Tennessee (25-5, 14-2): The heavy favorite to win the tournament, the Blue Raiders have a decent computer profile in case they falter. Still, Kermit Davis won’t want to leave anything to chance.
  2. UALR (15-15, 12-4): The Trojans won the tournament last year out of nowhere. This year, they can’t sneak up on anybody.
  3. Denver (21-8, 11-5): By far the scariest team in the league right now. If you watched them play back in November and December, you probably thought they’d win this league running away. Now, they’re starting to play like that again.
  4. Louisiana (16-14, 10-6): Yes, the ULM loss is ugly, but this team must simply forget about that and move on.
  5. North Texas (16-13, 9-7): The Mean Green are in a different position in the tournament this year as opposed to 2011. Back then, a senior-laden team was on a mission—a mission that fell short in the final seconds thanks to UALR. These young guys are a little more happy-go-lucky, though, which could be to their benefit.
  6. South Alabama (16-11, 8-8): The Jaguars are one of the league’s most surprising teams, finishing .500 despite bringing in an entirely new backcourt. Ronnie Arrow definitely has a major sleeper here.
  7. Western Kentucky (11-18, 7-9): UALR could have a difficult time with WKU in the quarterfinals, especially since the Hilltoppers have nothing to lose and have played well lately.
  8. Florida Atlantic (11-18, 7-9): Despite this season’s disastrous results, four wins in four days are all Mike Jarvis needs to forget all about it.
  9. Arkansas State (12-19, 6-10): The Red Wolves probably aren’t as bad as their record suggests, since they’ve lost a lot of close games and have competed somewhat against the top of the league.
  10. Florida International (8-20, 5-11): In DeJuan Wright’s last stand, maybe his teammates will rally for him.
  11. Troy (10-17, 5-11): The Trojans closed the season with two straight victories. That counts for something.

Reader’s Take

 

The Year That Was

  • After entering the season in the shadow of East favorite Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee dominated the Sun Belt Conference and ran away with the division.
  • The slumping Owls fell well short of expectations, but Kermit Davis’ team played masterful defense and pounded the ball inside to LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton. This was supposed to be a team with major offensive question marks. And this was supposed to be a program that could never get over the proverbial hump. This season, though, Davis finally elevated the Blue Raiders to the top.

    After Entering The Season In The Shadow Of East Favorite Florida Atlantic, Kermit Davis' Middle Tennessee Crew Dominated the Sun Belt Conference (Getty)

  • No team experienced more turmoil than Western Kentucky, which fired Ken McDonald after a lackluster start. Even with one of the league’s youngest squads, Ken Harper took over and immediately instilled a new confidence in his players. Apparently, he impressed somebody at the top. The school gave Harper the reigns as the full-time head coach after originally tabbing him as an interim replacement. Harper led WKU to three wins in its final four games, including an upset of Middle Tennessee in the season finale.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock lost Sun Belt Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman to graduation, and the 2011-12 season did not begin with much fanfare. UALR struggled through a difficult non-conference schedule and as Denver flew high in November and December, it appeared the reigning Sun Belt tourney champs may fall flat. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The Pioneers used a late surge to finish with 11 conference wins, but UALR edged them for the West title by playing good old-fashioned Steve Shields basketball all winter.
  • We said before the season not to anticipate immediate dominance from Tony Mitchell at North Texas. Again, we couldn’t have been more wrong (that’s a theme here, as you’ve probably noticed). Mitchell averaged a double-double in his first season of collegiate basketball to help keep the Mean Green afloat despite the ineligibility of Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. If Mitchell stays another year, look out.
  • Louisiana-Monroe will not compete in the Sun Belt tourney due to a poor academic rating, but it closed the regular season with one heck of a victory. It’s so significant and shocking, in fact, that it’s worthy of inclusion in this section as a part of the overall landscape of the Sun Belt’s 2011-12 season. It was one of those scores that simply makes you shake your head: ULM 78, Louisiana 60. That happened this weekend. In Lafayette, mind you. And remember, ULM has lost 26 games this season. This is the kind of stuff they make Hollywood movies about. Just consider the storylines: 1) it was a rivalry game 2) Louisiana is one of the league’s better squads 3) ULM’s seniors will never play again and the team cannot compete in the postseason 4) it was on UL’s home floor 5) brothers Steven (ULM) and Darshawn (UL) McClellan were playing against each other 6) ULM won by 18 points and 7) ULM has, um, 26 losses this season! By the way, Steven and Darshawn both scored in double figures. Steven may have won, but Darshawn’s team is playing this weekend, so he’s got bragging rights there.

Tony Mitchell's Outstanding Season Earned Him Player of the Year Honors (Denton Record-Chronicle)

Sun Belt Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Tony Mitchell, North Texas

In some ways, we’re almost hesitant to give this award to a freshman. But Mitchell earned this. He averages a double-double, he’s the best shot-blocker in the league and he changes the game by simply stepping on to the court. Who else in this league can grab 20 rebounds one night, block six shots the next night and then score 30 points the next night? In a league with several terrific stars, Mitchell is an incomparable talent.

Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee

Surprisingly, as much as a slam dunk as this pick may seem, it’s hard to pick against Steve Shields at UALR or Joe Scott at Denver. Still, Davis crafted a team with a lot of new parts into a big winner. He got the most out of Dendy after he transferred from Iowa State and he molded his guards into a really solid unit. In the end, this team played its tail off. It showed.

First-Team All-Conference:

  • D’Andre Williams, UALR, Guard: A quintessential leader, this man was the driving force behind the Trojans’ surprising West title this season. They don’t make them like D’Andre Williams anymore: solid, gritty, defensive-minded and able to make his teammates better in every way.
  • DeJuan Wright, FIU, Guard: The senior may actually be the league’s most underrated player, despite leading the league in scoring. How’s that for bizarre?

    D’Andre Williams (far left), DeJuan Wright, Chris Udofia and LaRon Dendy Rounded Out the Sun Belt First Team

  • Chris Udofia, Denver, Forward: Finally, we got one right—we chose Udofia to break out this season, and he certainly did. But frankly, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. As a sophomore, he simply built on his success as a reserve the year before, and with more consistent playing time he became a stud on both ends of the floor.
  • LaRon Dendy, MTSU, Forward: Chosen by the league as the Player of the Year, Dendy could put a scare into somebody in the NCAA Tournament. He matches up well with any major frontcourt.
  • Tony Mitchell, UNT, Forward: Let’s pray he comes back for another season.
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Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on February 24th, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Surprise, surprise: Middle Tennessee is your East Division champion. Reeling off four straight victories after that lone loss at Denver on national television earlier this month, the Blue Raiders tallied 30 assists in a 94-61 win at Louisiana-Monroe on Thursday night. That’s downright unheard of. They also made 10 three-pointers and allowed 15 players to appear in the game. Kudos to Kermit Davis for sharing the love.

    Kermit Davis and Middle Tennessee Are On The Brink Of Joining The NCAA Tourney Party (AP)

  • It’s official: Ray Harper is no longer an interim head coach at Western Kentucky– he got the full-time gig. The move adds a little stability to an increasingly unstable program in Bowling Green after the rocky tenure of previous head coach Ken McDonald. Harper, who served as an assistant on McDonald’s staff, won two national championships as a head coach in the Division II ranks. His team has responded relatively well to him, despite youth and major adversity.

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (25-4, 14-1): With a top-40 RPI and a decent computer profile, the Blue Raiders could actually sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. Kermit Davis certainly won’t want to bank on that, though especially since Middle Tennessee lacks that elusive signature victory. As a biased observer of the Sun Belt, it’s clear this team belongs in the Big Dance. Watch these guys play for 10 minutes and you’ll understand that. Unfortunately, the selection committee needs to be able to quantify success, and a few wins over Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Belmont, and Mississippi won’t get the job done. This is all a pointless debate if the Blue Raiders take care of business in Hot Springs though.
  2. South Alabama (16-10, 8-7): Here come the Jaguars: with six victories in their last seven games, they have locked up the two-seed in the East Division. South Alabama completed a sweep of Florida Atlantic by edging the preseason favorites in overtime on Thursday, a symbolic victory in more ways than one. If you are looking for a trendy upset pick in the Sun Belt Tournament, here’s your team. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: Week 11

Posted by IRenko on February 11th, 2012

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.

It was a brutal week for the TO26 top 15, as the top four teams lost five games combined.  Read on to see how that shuffled the rankings.  After the revised top 15, we look at the top 10 results of the past week, sorting through both the headline-grabbing upsets and the big games that may have slipped past your radar.  Then we preview the top 10 games of the coming week, which includes a bounty of top matchups this Saturday and several small conference teams putting their first-place records on the line against their stiffest competition.

Top 10 Results of the Past Week

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Checking In On The… Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on February 10th, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Florida Atlantic’s season may be the strangest in recent memory in the Sun Belt. The preseason favorites dropped games to South Alabama (February 2) and Florida International (February 4) by a combined 31 points, appearing to hit rock bottom during this miserable 2011-12 campaign. And then, something funny happened: the Owls recovered from a blown 15-point lead to edge upstart Denver on Thursday, moving above .500 in Sun Belt play. With five games remaining, Mike Jarvis‘ team is essentially eliminated in the East, but perhaps edging the Pioneers will offer it a little late-season momentum.
  • North Texas may have lost two starters due to eligibility issues, but Tony Mitchell is single-handedly carrying the Mean Green right now. Lately, he’s showing flashes of his NBA potential as the league’s leading rebounder. He shoots 53.6% from three-point range, he has five double-doubles already and he’s dropped 30 points on two teams — as a freshman. Last week, Arkansas State became his latest victim. Mitchell went for 21 points and 15 rebounds in UNT’s 76-64 win.

Don't Count Out Mike Jarvis And Crew Quite Yet, FAU Is Showing Some Fight

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (22-4, 11-1):  It was bound to happen at some point. Facing an especially energized crowd at Denver thanks to an ESPN2 telecast, the Blue Raiders were no match for the intensity of the building. Unable to impose its will on the boards or defend at its normal level, Middle Tennessee also turned the ball over 17 times and looked rattled for the first time, well, ever. It carried over to Thursday night, when Western Kentucky forced the Blue Raiders to miss 18 of their first 20 shots. Eventually, they recovered for a fairly easy win, but we’re finding out that MTSU is human after all.
  2. Florida Atlantic (10-14, 6-5): At this point, Mike Jarvis has to focus on getting better in small increments in order to make a run in the Sun Belt Tournament next month. With his veteran team’s collapse this year, FAU can now only share an East title if a) Middle Tennessee loses out and b) the Owls win out. That would have seemed like a ridiculous situation just a few months ago, but that’s the nature of sports and college basketball in general. Much has been made of Ray Taylor‘s subpar season, but this team has a lot of problems that extend beyond his play. Kore White never showed up this year, nor did any other forward on this roster. Jarvis has to wish Brett Royster could gain a little eligibility these days. Read the rest of this entry »
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Set Your TiVo: 02.03 – 02.05

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 3rd, 2012

Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him @botskey on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

There are lots of good games on Saturday, highlighted by the big one in Columbia. Overall it’s a very nice day of hoops despite only a handful of truly terrific games.

#4 Kansas @ #6 Missouri – 9:00 PM EST Saturday on ESPN (*****)

KU Needs Taylor To Be Good Tyshawn on Saturday (credit: Missourian)

  • It doesn’t get much better than this. Two teams that don’t particularly like each other and a Border War rivalry with roots in the Civil War era. Missouri enters this game after surviving Texas in Austin on Monday. The Tigers have perhaps the best offense in the nation with incredible balance at the guard and wing positions. The question for Frank Haith and his team will be how effective Ricardo Ratliffe can be against Thomas Robinson inside. Ratliffe shoots almost exclusively in the paint and converts an astounding 75.1% of the time. However, Ratliffe will be going up against a front line of Robinson and Jeff Withey (3.1 BPG) in this one and needs to utilize his patented pick-and-roll more in this game. Ratliffe won’t have great success going one-on-one against either Robinson or Withey inside. Kansas’ defense ranks #4 in two-point percentage against but the Jayhawks are vulnerable to the three-ball. That’s where Missouri and snipers Marcus DenmonKim English and Michael Dixon can really take advantage of Bill Self’s team.
  • The Jayhawk offense is essentially a two-man operation. While players like Withey and Travis Releford contribute offensively, Kansas’ fortunes depend on Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor has taken his game to another level over the last month, highlighted by the back to back 28-point efforts against Iowa State and Baylor. The Kansas senior hasn’t shot under 40% from the floor since January 4 but will be the focus of Haith’s perimeter defense. Taylor is prone to turnovers and you can bet the Missouri guards will be ball hawking him all night long. If Taylor has a good ball handling night, Kansas will be in very good position to grab a road win. Robinson will get his points but it’s up to Taylor to put the Jayhawks in a position to win this game.
  • It’s hard to pick against Missouri at home but if any team is going to win in Columbia, Kansas is the one. With ESPN in the house for the top two teams in the Big 12, this will be as charged an environment as you will see all year in college basketball. Despite Ratliffe’s stellar shooting percentage, Kansas should win the battle inside. The duo of Robinson and Withey is incredibly difficult to score against and Robinson is obviously a load on the offensive end as well. However, the friendly confines of Mizzou Arena and the Tigers’ perimeter attack and balance should be enough to put Missouri over the top.

#3 Ohio State @ #23 Wisconsin – 2:00 PM EST Saturday on ESPN (****)

  •  Ohio State can take command of the Big Ten with a win in this game. The Buckeyes hold a one game lead over Wisconsin in the loss column heading into Saturday’s matchup. If Ohio State has one weakness, it’s three-point shooting. Thad Matta is not going to beat Wisconsin, a team that shoots well over 20 threes a game, from outside. Matta has the best player on the floor in Jared Sullinger and he needs to use him early and often in order to set the tone. Ohio State is not going to turn Wisconsin over and fast break points will be at a minimum. The Buckeyes must execute their half court offense in order to win this game and the way to do that is through the big man in the middle.
  • The Badgers have righted the ship with six straight wins but will need a big game out of their supporting cast if they are going to make it a seventh. Jared Berggren in particular must contain Sullinger on the low block or else Aaron Craft can feed him all day long with no consequences. Offensively, Wisconsin will run everything through Jordan Taylor but guys like Josh Gasser and Ben Brust need to be hot from deep in order for the Badgers to pull off the win. Wisconsin will be limited to one shot per possession most of the time as it loves to run the shot clock down and shoot threes. Ohio State ranks fourth in defensive rebounding percentage, mostly thanks to Sullinger.
  • This game features the top two defensive teams in the nation in terms of efficiency. It’s likely to be a low scoring, low possession affair that comes down to the final minutes. Players like Ryan Evans for Wisconsin and Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith could be the determining factors. The battle at the point guard position between Taylor and Craft will be phenomenal but the complementary players usually put a team over the top in matchups like these. We think that’s what will happen at the Kohl Center on Saturday.
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Checking In On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on January 28th, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Now off to the best start in program history, Middle Tennessee has its sights set on more than just a Sun Belt East Division title. Instead, the Blue Raiders have positioned themselves for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, especially if they can win at Vanderbilt in an out-of-conference tilt this weekend. At 20-2, MTSU has not lost in league play yet, and it leads preseason favorite Florida Atlantic by four games in the win column. Joe Lunardi from the vaunted four-letter network has the Blue Raiders in the NCAAs as a #12 seed, so they may actually have a little breathing room if they fail to win the SBC tourney. Of course, this is all moot if they stumble down the stretch in conference play.
  • A lot of teams have beaten Lousiana-Monroe this season — 19, to be exact. But during the Warhawks woeful 2-19 season, no team has come close to what Troy did to them last weekend. The Trojans, never shy to jack up three-pointers under coach Don Maestri, tied an NCAA record by making 11 straight three-pointers in a 91-63 victory. Overall, Troy made 15 threes, and that streak of 11 threes ties marks set by Niagara and Eastern Kentucky in 1997. The statistics get better and better, too. Troy made almost as many threes (15) as twos (15), and Justin Wright tied his career-high with four made treys. And as for the Warhawks? They made a measly six three-pointers.

Power Rankings

East

  1. Middle Tennessee (20-2, 9-0):  Nothing has changed since our last update two weeks ago. The Blue Raiders, who entered the season as a questionable pick in the East because of offensive concerns, are far and away the best team in the Sun Belt Conference. It’s to the point where Middle Tennessee can no longer judge itself purely by the wins it amasses. Rather, it looks as though this team could beat just about anybody when March rolls around. That’s because the Blue Raiders hound opponents on the defensive end and have the size of a major-conference squad. Bruce Massey has also played terrific basketball on both ends of the floor, as he’s been a catalyst for this team’s 20-2 start.

    Bruce Massey (13) Has Been A Catalyst For Middle Tennessee

  2. Florida Atlantic (9-12, 5-3): With a few close victories over rival FIU and Western Kentucky, the Owls are back on track. Unlike North Texas last season, which fell from preseason consensus favorite to middle-0f-the-pack, FAU actually has a chance to turn this thing around in 2011-12. It’s not dead yet, but it may need to run the table from here on out to have any chance of catching Middle Tennessee. Point  guard Ray Taylor still doesn’t look like the Player of the Year candidate he should be, but he’s starting to play better after a tough start to the season. If he gets his game going, this team could make a late push. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking in On… the Sun Belt Conference

Posted by dnspewak on January 13th, 2012

Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • It wasn’t Ken McDonald‘s fault this his team lost in overtime to Louisiana earlier this month. The Ragin’ Cajuns, after all, scored the winning bucket with six players on the floor. After more than three years of McDonald’s frustrating tenure, though, the Sixth Man loss must have been the final straw for athletic director Ross Bjork. McDonald lost his job after the game, departing with a 67-49 record. Now, interim head coach Ray Harper must mold this young team into a competitor this winter, which should be a tall task for a team mired in a 1-7 free-fall since December 7.
  • Tony Mitchell‘s debut in Sun Belt play did not exactly make any headlines, as he fought foul trouble and scored just six points in each of his first two games. The third SBC contest with South Alabama was a charm, however. Mitchell went for 34 points and 16 rebounds, scoring in every way imaginable. He attacked the glass, fired from three-point range and finished 11-14 from the field. And last night, Mitchell’s hot streak continued with a 21-point effort in front of several NBA scouts in Denton. We knew this would be the case, but it’s starting to look like Mitchell is a sure one-and-done.

The Dynamic Tony Mitchell Hasn't Disappointed So Far (North Texas)

Power Rankings
East
  1. Middle Tennessee (16-2, 5-0):  Here’s an easy formula to dominate a league: bully people on the glass and on the defensive end. That’s where MTSU makes its living. Averaging 11 offensive rebounds per game as a team, the frontcourt duo of LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton is simply unfair right now. Plus, with Bruce Massey playing well at the point and MTSU’s depth starting to round into shape, Kermit Davis doesn’t appear to have many weaknesses right now. Except, of course, for one big one: three-point shooting. Even though they do most of their damage in the paint, the Blue Raiders do not have an outside threat right now. Raymond Cintron is the only player really capable of getting hot from the perimeter, and even he shoots less than 40 percent from the field. Besides that, it’s hard to envision Davis’ team suffering a collapse after this 5-0 start. Saturday’s game at preseason favorite Florida Atlantic might be the most important game of the season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Burning Questions: A One-Bid League?

Posted by AMurawa on January 12th, 2012

Each week through conference play, we’ll offer up a couple of different takes on the biggest question of the week in the Pac-12. This week:

“Is the Pac-12 a One-Bid League?”

 

Connor Pelton: With stats like “0-20 in road games against the RPI Top 100” and the conference’s best road win coming at New Mexico State, a good argument can be made that the Pac-12 is a one-bid league. The way I see it, however, the conference will get a minimum of two bids, and possibly a third depending on the conference tournament. At most, the selection committee will have two at-large bids set aside for the Pac-12 going into championship week. The teams most likely in the conversation for those two are California, Stanford, Colorado, and Arizona, while Oregon and Oregon State will have to win the Pac-12 tourney to get in.

Out of those four, I see Cal and Arizona stealing the bids. But if the ultra-soft bubble that we are hearing about now remains through the next two months, Stanford could pull a third at-large spot by making the championship of the tournament. Colorado doesn’t have a true “bad loss” on their schedule at the moment, but I can only see them winning 19-20 games going into championship week. With a poor RPI, they are going to have to get an automatic bid.

Of course this is pure speculation at this point, but we are coming to the point in the season where games like Colorado-Arizona (January 21 and February 9) and California-Stanford (January 29 and March 4) not only matter for the conference race, but also have a huge impact on the national bubble. I think the Pac-12 will get more than one bid, but it is crucial for all four of these teams to prove they belong night in and night out down this stretch run.

Read the rest of this entry »

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