O26 Shake-Up: Assessing an Ugly Week of Suspensions & Injuries

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 4th, 2014

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 could be over at Hawaii. (Photos courtesy Charles Simmons / www.chasingthemomentphoto.com)

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 »

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Conference Tournament Primer: Colonial Athletic Association

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 7th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week-plus of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the CAA and SoCon get started.

Dates: March 7-10
Site: Baltimore Arena (Baltimore, MD)

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(caasports.com)

What to expect: Help may have arrived just in time for Delaware. After starting 11-0 in conference play, the Blue Hens dropped two of their final five games and appeared vulnerable without starting point guard Jarvis Threatt and key reserve Marvin King-Davis, each suspended at the end of January. Both players have since returned to the court and will likely prove much-needed in the team’s run for the automatic bid. It won’t come easy: Towson, the preseason league favorite, enters the tournament on a six-game winning streak and is equipped with the conference’s best player, Jerrelle Benimon. Since the event will be held in Baltimore instead of Richmond this year, both teams should feel comfortable — Towson is right down the road, and Delaware’s campus is only one hour away. Drexel and William & Mary could be semifinal threats, but expect a Hens-Tigers championship game on Monday night.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Toledo, Jerrelle Benimon, UTEP & Chicago State…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 22nd, 2014

The rigors of conference play began taking its toll last week as several O26 league favorites discovered just how hard conference road games can be. Some teams dealt with these hurdles better than others, the results of which ranged anywhere from surprising upsets to crazy comebacks to clutch shots. Let’s pass out a few awards to the performers who handled themselves best during the O26 week that was.

O26 Team of the Week

In part thanks to some Juice Brown heroics, Toledo had an excellent week. (BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH)

In part thanks to some Juice Brown heroics, Toledo had an excellent week. (Jeremy Wadsworth/Blade)

Toledo. First it was the expected-but-still-disappointing loss to Kansas followed by a forgettable defeat at Western Michigan, and all of a sudden the Rockets — once unbeaten and the talk of the mid-major world — were in serious jeopardy of losing their groove. Some teams might have become deflated, lost confidence and continued to slide, but not Toledo. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk remained calm after falling to the Broncos, noting “We didn’t play well in two games all year. This is one of two… we’ll be fine.” His team has responded in similar fashion, handling Central Michigan with ease two Saturdays ago before collecting a pair huge wins this past week to remain the MAC West kings. First was a home contest against surging Buffalo, a squad on a four-game winning streak that looked poised to make it five in a row. The Bulls jumped out to a quick lead in the opening minutes that it wouldn’t hand over until midway through the second half, even then not backing down from the Rockets. A big reason for that was because Javon McCrea was his usual beastly self, finishing with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and enabling his team to keep pace and ultimately knot things up at 59 with a minute and a half to play. But just when the game appeared to be headed for overtime, Toledo point guard Julius “Juice” Brown made the magic happen, capping off an eight-point, 90 second stretch by receiving the second pass off a full-court inbounds play, hoisting from just inside the arc, and nailing a buzzer-beater to win the game, 67-65. It was one of the most exciting finishes you will see all season and an emphatic completion to an important win for the Rockets.

Despite the mid-week heroics, though, it was Saturday morning’s match-up at Akron that was supposed to provide the drama, with two teams pegged to win their respective divisions in the preseason and each featuring first-team all-conference talent. But as the game wore on, it became more evident that this was not going to be the hotly contested battle many thought — Toledo thoroughly and resolutely outplayed the Zips for much of the 40 minutes, pounding them on both ends of the glass and putting the game completely out of reach midway through the second half. Brown finished with his second straight 20+ point outing, while former Ohio State forward J.D. Weatherspoon — who has emerged as a vital paint presence in recent games — scored 20 points and secured a game-high 14 rebounds. The win was something of a statement for the Rockets, an assertion of dominance over a club predicted by many to win the league and return to the NCAA Tournament this season. Now 15-2, Kowalczyk’s group has regained its status as one of the more dangerous non-power conference teams in America, a position it hopes to maintain through MAC play and into the postseason. The wins over Buffalo and Akron were key steps on that path and important demonstrations of resiliency, earning Toledo our award for Team of the Week.

Honorable Mentions: George Washington (2-0: vs. VCU, @St. Bonaventure); Towson (2-0: @Drexel, @College of Charleston); UTEP (2-0: @Middle Tennessee State, @UAB).

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What Devon Saddler’s Return Means for Delaware and the CAA

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 18th, 2013

After missing the previous seven games for an unspecified violation of team rules, Delaware guard Devon Saddler returned Monday night in a difficult road meeting with North Dakota State that did not go well for the Blue Hens — they surrendered 1.23 points per possession, shot just 5-of-22 from three-point range, and lost by 19 points. “We were not sharp,” head coach Monte Ross commented after the game. Saddler, though, was, dropping in 24 efficient points off the bench and showing onlookers why he is one of the preeminent scorers in college basketball. It was a significant silver lining in an otherwise disappointing night for Delaware, the type of impressive return that could be a harbinger of good things to come in CAA play this season.

Devon Saddler should make Delaware real contenders in the CAA. (US Presswire)

Devon Saddler should make Delaware real contenders in the CAA. (US Presswire)

But before we just assume that Saddler’s return automatically means all positive things for the Hens, it is important to note how the team performed during his absence. In those seven games, Ross’s up-tempo club won five of them and pushed both Villanova and Notre Dame to the brink in two close road losses by a combined nine points. The offense was arguably more efficient since before the personnel loss, never finishing below 80 points and receiving increased production from emerging scoring option — and verifiable sharpshooter — Kyle Anderson, who currently ranks first in the country in three-point percentage for players with at least 60 attempts, at 54 percent. Impact transfer Davon Usher, who was eligible immediately after coming over from Mississippi Valley State in the offseason, also shouldered a large amount of the scoring load with considerable success, finishing with at least 25 points in four of the contests without Saddler. Additionally, Delaware moved up a whopping 83 spots in KenPom during that time, from #162 to #79, making it second among CAA teams behind only ailing-but-resilient Drexel.  Put simply, the Blue Hens were playing good basketball.

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Can Drexel Win the CAA Without Damion Lee?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 6th, 2013

After losing senior guard Chris Fouch for almost the entire season and finishing in the bottom half of its league last year, Drexel’s 2013-14 campaign seemed to be one filled with resurgent optimism, especially after a promising month of November. The Dragons nearly beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on college basketball’s opening night before winning three straight contests, including victories over Elon and Rutgers, to advance to the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals in Madison Square Garden. There, Bruiser Flint’s squad jumped out to an early 27-8 lead on fourth-ranked Arizona, proving to a national audience — and perhaps itself — that it could play with anyone. But in the second half, CAA Player of the Year candidate Damion Lee went down with a torn ACL, and the outlook for Drexel this season changed in an instant. A team predicted to compete for the league title was suddenly and decidedly shorthanded.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Season Tip-Off-Drexel vs Arizona

Does Damion Lee’s Injury Change the Outlook for the Dragons?

With Lee, Frantz Massenat and Fouch, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility because of his ankle injury, the Dragons were set to have arguably the best backcourt in the conference. And while they still might, what with Massenat’s preseason all-conference stature and Fouch’s elite shooting ability, losing a player as dynamic as Lee undoubtedly lowers the team’s ceiling going forward. The question will be to what extent. At 6’6″, Lee led the team in scoring last season with 17.1 points per game, consistently displaying his ability to pull up from anywhere on the court and attack the rim when his team needed it. He was also an effective rebounder for his position, compiling four 20+ point, 10+ rebound performances over his career up to this point. With all three guards back and healthy this year, merely keying on Lee or attempting to shut down Fouch or Massenat was simply not a viable strategy for opponents; if one or even two guys had bad night, another of the backcourt stars was there to carry the load. Perhaps most importantly, the three of them on the court together meant that no one had to play outside of their comfort zones, unlike last season when Massenat struggled to be both point guard and relied-upon scorer each night.

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College Basketball By The Tweets: Title Game Tilts, Coach Fights & Parker Shows Off

Posted by David Harten on November 28th, 2013

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Wednesday night made for one of the better nights we’ve had so far in this year’s college basketball season. It’s holiday tournament time — the three days in Maui were capped, the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off got underway, and a host of other tournaments across the country start today. Trophies were raised and big performances were necessary… and Syracuse and Baylor made it tough to appreciate having 20/20 vision in what I like to call “the day-glow game.”

Let’s take it to the best tweets of the night, shall we?

The top games on the night came in Madison Square Garden, with Duke taking Alabama after Arizona got all it could want from Drexel, and in the Lahaina Civic Center, with Syracuse and Baylor playing for all of the surfboards in Maui. As far as the Blue Devils’ play was concerned, it wasn’t the start they envisioned.

Arizona also fought back after trailing by as much as 19 to the Dragons, pulling away very late for the win. Drexel suffered more than a loss on its record, with one of their better players in Damion Lee exiting the game in the second half with a knee injury. The good news is that Dragons’ head coach Bruiser Flint said the team doesn’t believe there’s any serious damage.

And before things got underway in the Maui title game, Dayton proved its worth in the third place game, beating California, 82-64. As possibly the most impressive team in the tournament, you’d expect this to be a huge confidence boost for Devin Oliver, coach Archie Miller and the rest of the Flyers.

Staying in Hawaii, Syracuse started fast against Baylor, thanks mainly to Tournament MVP C.J. Fair’s scoring and Tyler Ennis being the steady presence at the point.

Oh, and between the Orange and Baylor’s uniforms, the television was tough to look at.

We cut back to Duke and Alabama, where midway through the first half, Blue Devils’ wunderkind Jabari Parker hit possibly the most impressive shot of the night, with a turnaround, baseline fadeaway over a defender that made so many in attendance and watching on TV say “that’s an NBA elite-level shot.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Feast Week Mission Briefing: Arizona in the NIT Season Tip-Off

Posted by Connor Pelton on November 27th, 2013

With Feast Week tipping off over the weekend, we’re outlining the roads ahead for prominent Pac-12 teams involved in neutral site events this week. 

What They’ve Done So Far: Arizona has shown up on the nation’s radar once so far this season, and the Wildcats took advantage of the opportunity. Jumping out to a 24-11 lead, the Wildcats were in firm control of the proceedings at San Diego State. Junior guard Nick Johnson led the Cats with 23 points, and his four free throws in the last seven seconds put the 69-60 victory on ice. Outside of that night in Southern California, they have had a quiet campaign clean of any losses.

Nick Johnson And The Wildcats Have A Tantalizing Potential Matchup With Duke On Friday

Nick Johnson And The Wildcats Have A Tantalizing Potential Matchup With Duke On Friday

First Round Preview: The NIT Season Tip-Off actually began in Tucson last week, with Arizona taking care of Fairleigh Dickinson and Rhode Island in the initial two rounds of this tournament. This tournament actually respects the results of its on-campus competitions (unlike every other early season event), and for that reason, the Wildcats get Drexel this afternoon. The Dragons have opened the season at a 3-1 clip, playing all four games away from home. They started the year with a five-point loss at UCLA, proving they can hold their own against Pac-12 competition. Drexel is led by senior guard Chris Fouch, who averages 17.3 PPG and is a threat to score every trip down the floor. The Cats are certainly the pick in this one, but don’t be surprised if this one is tight into the final minutes.

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AAC M5: 11.20.13 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 20th, 2013

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  1. Last night was supposed to be the national stage on which Josh Pastner and his Memphis Tigers announced they were for real. Instead, Marcus Smart happened. And now the scrutiny on the Tigers and their inability to win games against quality opponents will be even greater. Last night’s game was never close at any point as Smart and the Cowboys led by 18 at the half and cruised to an easy victory from there as the Tigers turned the ball over 14 times and made just two of their 13 three-point attempts. There was never any question that Smart would be the best player on the floor for either team last night, but many expected Memphis’ veteran and deep backcourt to make things competitive. Instead the team’s best player was reserve forward Nick King and the quartet of senior guards were basically non-existent for much of the game. Senior leader Joe Jackson had exactly zero assists in 25 minutes and super-transfer Michael Dixon went just 1-of-10 from the field and turned the ball over three times. For years the Tigers and Pastner have garnered national recognition thanks in large part to the program’s ability to beat up on Conference USA opponents and bring in ballyhooed recruiting classes. But after last night’s drubbing, it seems like everyone is starting to figure it out and Memphis will have to earn its way back into the national conversation as Pastner fends off questions about whether his coaching will ever catch up to his recruiting.
  2. Yesterday was a good day for Louisville guard Kevin Ware. The junior made headlines last year when news leaked that he had missed a court date for a reckless driving and speeding citations. To make matters worse, the media immediately started asking questions about a 2013 Dodge Challenger that Ware was driving. Right before another solid 13 minutes of play in an easy win over Hartford, Louisville announced that Ware has been cleared by school compliance and would remain eligible. It seems like Ware had simply been lent the car by his close friend (I wish I had close friends who would lend me their awesome cars), which is not a violation of any NCAA rules. Ware still has to be back in court next Monday for his rescheduled hearing, but he will probably be allowed to pay the fine and move on with his life. This story appears to have quickly runs its course, but before it disappears it did the handy job of wrecking the feel-good story of Ware’s triumphant return to the court. This is all fine by us as we weren’t particularly comfortable with the cheesy “long road back” stories and we aren’t comfortable with all of the moralizing being done by some media members on the issue of this speeding ticket. Having now been on both ends of the media barrel, hopefully Ware can move on and we can talk about his play on the court rather than all of the extra noise off it. Although it’s worth noting that any time we can get an opportunity watch Rick Pitino scold the media about doing their jobs, we all win.
  3. It has only been five games but it already feels like it is going to be an up-and-down season for Rutgers and new head coach Eddie Jordan. One night after the Scarlet Knights looked impressive in knocking off Canisius, they were completely throttled last night by a Drexel team that was clearly better than them in every facet of the game. This is what happens when you combine legitimate talent with a complete lack of depth under the tutelage of a first-year coach still navigating the college game. Unfortunately, the ups and the downs have already started happening and the Scarlet Knights really haven’t played anybody yet, which makes some of us wonder whether they are in for a long season. There was some good news for the program today as the 2014 recruiting class officially signed and it is a good one. It’s only a three-man class, but it offers talent and versatility that will hopefully help the team return to relevancy sooner rather than later.
  4. In the most trivial news of the day, Cincinnati freshman guard Deshaun Morman broke his foot in practice and will be forced to redshirt this season for obvious medical reasons. We say trivial not because breaking a foot is trivial but because Morman hadn’t played in any of the team’s first three games and was likely going to redshirt anyway. Head coach Mick Cronin seemed to indicate there was a chance Morman wouldn’t redshirt, but now the decision has been made for him and the limping Bearcats’ backcourt will need to find depth from somewhere else. In the same story, Cronin mentions that starting point guard Ge’Lawn Guyn‘s status for the Bearcats’ next game is up in the air as Guyn recovers from a sore right knee. The silver lining is that at least these injuries are happening in the early part of the schedule and not in February.
  5. Larry Brown has forgotten more about coaching basketball than my puny head will ever be able to comprehend, but it’s quotes like the one he gave after last night’s disappointing loss to Arkansas that make me wonder why recruits enjoy playing for him. The quote, if you are really too lazy to click on the link, went something like this, “Ben Moore was great… found out that I have some freshmen that need to play more and seniors who shouldn’t.” Giving Moore credit where credit is due is all well and good, but calling out two seniors on your team in front of the media after the third game of the season seems like an irrational tactic. Shawn Williams and Nick Russell were the only two seniors who played last night, so it’s not hard to figure out who Brown was throwing under the bus, and the best part is that neither Russell nor Williams played particularly poorly last night. Brown cleaned house when he arrived in Dallas and got away with it because he quickly replaced those departing players with more talented ones, but it’s hard to believe Brown has any loyalty to any of his players given the way he talks about them publicly. Forward Jalen Jones has already announced he will transfer and the Mustangs could actually use him. Don’t be surprised if some of the newcomers now get pushed out of the rotation as Brown tries to continue to improve the talent level in the program. There is nothing wrong with trying to improve the team, but you won’t get the team to play hard for you if you don’t have their backs and Brown has made it very clear that if you don’t play well, he won’t have your backs.
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Alford Era Begins With a Win But Program Still Lacks Excitement

Posted by Brendan Mulvihill (@themulv) on November 9th, 2013

The Steve Alford era officially began at UCLA in front of a sparse crowd at Pauley Pavilion, as the Bruins kicked off their regular season against Drexel last night. Alford’s team held off the Dragons, 72-67, in a game that was not decided until the final minute of play. While the new coach was extremely positive about his team’s performance and ability to dig out a tough win, there still seems to be lack of urgency and excitement around the UCLA program. On the opening night of college basketball at a program with the history and tradition of UCLA, there should be electricity in the air. Unfortunately, that was not the case at all.

It's a New Era in Westwood (Don Liebig/ASUCLA Photography)

It’s a New Era in Westwood (Don Liebig/ASUCLA Photography)

Alford needs to bring some fire to his program, his players and the fan base. He seems to be re-instilling a defensive toughness back to the Bruins. They held Drexel to 38 percent shooting overall and forced mostly jump shots. However, there isn’t a killer instinct in this team. It’s still early in his tenure, but that is something to keep an eye on as we move towards conference play. UCLA let Drexel hang around in this game, particularly coming out of halftime, but the Bruins will not be able to do that against the better competition in the Pac-12.

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2013-14 RTC Conference Preview: Colonial Athletic Association

Posted by Mark Selig on November 4th, 2013

Mark Selig is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can also find his musings online on Twitter @markrselig.

Reader’s Take

 

Looking Back

Since the last CAA game — a James Madison championship that its fans waited nearly two decades to see — the league has officially said goodbye to perennial powers George Mason (off to the Atlantic 10) and Old Dominion (now in Conference USA in a football-driven move), and hello to intriguing newcomer College of Charleston (formerly of the Southern Conference). Based on last year’s RPIs, the CAA won’t immediately suffer, but Mason — with a Final Four appearance last decade — is obviously a more high-profile program than Charleston. ODU is too. The swap is just the latest in the CAA’s geographical shift. The league is losing its Virginia members (VCU exited before last season) and seems to be trending south.

New Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich is just one of several newcomers to an ever changing CAA. (AP)

New Niagara coach Joe Mihalich is just one of several newcomers to an ever changing CAA. (AP)

The league also said goodbye to Mo Cassara, Hofstra’s hard-luck coach who took the job in tough circumstances (replacing Tim Welsh after a DUI) and was let go in equally difficult ones. His replacement? Longtime Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who said he’ll have to donate all the purple wardrobe accumulated from 15 years with the Purple Eagles to JMU coach Matt Brady (ironically, Mihalich and Brady both have wives named Mary, and both have three sons, including a set of twins — with the same May 30 birthday!). Brady, meanwhile, parlayed his CAA title into a four-year contract extension, although the talks were a bit drawn out, nearly lingering until his previous contract expired. As for a new coach joining Mihalich in the league, second-year Charleston coach Doug Wojcik becomes every CAA reporter and copy editor’s worst nightmare. Wojcik (I’m already getting the hang of it), is no stranger to the CAA, having played with David Robinson at Navy in the 1980s.

The final goodbye from the CAA was to the city of Richmond — home of the league’s last 24 postseason tournaments. The league offices are still located in Richmond, but the CAA will host its annual playoff in Baltimore this year. Trying to establish Charm City as a sort of hub for CAA hoops, the conference held its media day at the Renaissance Baltimore, a swanky hotel overlooking the Inner Harbor. “Crab Cakes and basketball. That’s what we’re going to do here in Charm City,” Towson coach Pat Skerry, channeling a Wedding Crashers line, said during a lunchtime speech at media day.

Power Rankings

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RTC Championship Previews: Colonial Athletic Association

Posted by CNguon on March 8th, 2013

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Mark Selig is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can find more of his written work at jamesmadison.rivals.com or on Twitter @MarkRSelig.

CAA Tournament Matchups/Predictions

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#4 George Mason vs. #5Drexel, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. — If you were to tell me last March that Mason and Drexel would meet in the first round of the CAA tournament, I would have said, “Really? What happened? Did four teams become ineligible for the tournament while the Patriots and Dragons underperformed?” And the March 2012 version of me would have been strangely prescient. But this is a heavyweight bout in Round 1, and the winner could certainly take the whole fruit basket. The teams split two regular season matchups, with each road team winning. Mason blew a 20-point first-half lead in its loss, but for the most part, both games came down to the final eight minutes, when the teams traded leads. This one should also go to the wire —and I’ve got Mason barely holding on in a thrilling opener to the weekend.

Pick: George Mason 62, Drexel 61

#2 Delaware vs. #7 Hofstra, Saturday, 6 p.m. — Hofstra, in this writer’s opinion, is the only team of the seven incapable of winning the tournament. Which means that Delaware, which hasn’t reached the semifinals since 2003, should finally make the final four. The Hens have weapons all over the court, while Hofstra counts on the same few players to log big minutes and try to make something happen. There won’t be many blowouts this weekend, but this game has a chance to be over quickly if Delaware shoots the ball well in the first half. Hofstra’s best gameplan is to limit possessions, remain within striking distance, and catch some second-half breaks. The Pride can hang around, but won’t seriously threaten.

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ATB: Cal Edges Oregon, a Bleak Outlook For Cincinnati and a Major Big 5 Match-up…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 22nd, 2013

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

Tonight’s Lede. Preparing For A Packed Weekend. Tuesday night and Wednesday night stole most of this week’s college hoops goodness. They brought us the Kansas-Oklahoma State double-overtime nailbiter, Indiana’s show-me victory in East Lansing and an expected and enthralling Mountain West showdown at UNLV. Thursday night didn’t feature as diverse a selection of intriguing games or storylines, but one bad night of hoops – taken alongside a loaded weekend slate, which includes the last-ever BracketBusters event – is probably not going to fly over the high-level hardwood drama that played out over the past two nights. If anything, a one-night dose of relative mediocrity (at least schedule-wise) will whet your appetite for the weekend ahead.

Your Watercooler Moment. Justin Cobbs Lifts Cal.

A huge last-second shot by Cobbs lifted Cal over Oregon in Eugene (Photo credit: AP Photo).

A huge last-second shot by Cobbs lifted Cal over Oregon in Eugene (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The national media spotlight directed at Cal coach Mike Montgomery following a controversial second-half sideline encounter with star guard Allen Crabbe dwarfed the positive aspect of the Golden Bears’ eight-point win over USC. Cal was winning, and winning against solid Pac-12 competition (USC regained its competitive edge since getting ride of Kevin O’Neill; they are unequivocally a nuisance to play). Their three-game winning streak, which began with an eye-opening eight-point victory at Arizona, was extended Thursday night by a gutsy two-point win at Oregon, who had only lost once beforehand at Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks were without freshman point guard Dominic Artis, and Cal’s superior guard play only magnified Oregon’s shaky backcourt. But for as much as Artis’ absence may or may not have altered Oregon’s backcourt functionality, you can’t disabuse the fact that Cal picked up another huge win in a late-season surge full of them. This team’s recent rise has been a steady climb into the thick of Pac 12 contention; as of Thursday night, the Bears sit just one game back of Arizona and Oregon (and 0.5 games back of UCLA), with a manageable closing schedule that should allow the Bears to close the gap should the Duke or Wildcats slip the rest of the way. Justin Cobbs’ last-second heroics are just the latest evidence; right now, Cal is the best thing the Pac-12 has to offer, full stop. The only question is, why didn’t we see this the first, I don’t know, three months of the season?

Also Worth Chatting About. This Could Get Ugly For Cincinnati.

This has been a disappointing set of games for Cronin and Cincinnati (Photo credit: AP Photo).

This has been a disappointing set of games for Cronin and Cincinnati (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Let me start by saying this: I don’t envision any realistic scenario where Cincinnati misses the NCAA Tournament. Entering Thursday night’s game at UConn the Bearcats owned a top-40 SOS and RPI figure, nonconference wins over Oregon and Iowa State and commendable league triumphs against Marquette and at Pittsburgh. There are bubble teams that would give anything for that collection of wins and computer power. The Bearcats remain in decent bubble shape, but Thursday night’s overtime loss in Storrs brought to the surface a potentially grim reality for Mick Cronin’s team. Dating back to a February 6 loss at Providence, the Bearcats have now dropped four of their last five, the lone win coming against Villanova. Looking back and rattling off the factors (individual and schedule related) behind the losing skid is simple. It’s what most optimistic fans would do after watching their once-formidable Big East favorite endure the toughest portion of its conference schedule. Here’s where that logic falls flat. If you look at Cincinnati’s remaining games, the only one that you can honestly qualify as anything remotely resembling “easy” is the season-finale against South Florida. In the meantime, Cincy has to play at Notre Dame, a revenge game with UConn and at Louisville. Best case scenario: Cincinnati splits the final four, carries a totally respectable .500 Big East record into the league Tournament, and reboots for a postseason push. The Bearcats have already damaged their seeding prospects beyond what anyone could have reasonably imagined. Botching this final stretch could really diminish their stature in seeding and locational committee discussions.

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