The most humble college basketball player in the country might be a Lithuanian based in southern Indiana. EgidijusMockevicius has grabbed 20 rebounds in back-to-back games, including a 23 point, 20 rebound effort on Tuesday night against Loyola Chicago. How was he able to do this? Luck, he says. “The ball was just bouncing into my hands. It’s just the luck,” the senior big man told CBSSports Network after the game. The numbers would disagree. Mockevicius is grabbing defensive rebounds at a historic pace, currently leading the country with a 40.2 defensive rebounding percentage. This type of production is simply never seen, anywhere. This ferociousness on the defensive backboards is a big part of the reason why he won the Lou Henson Award, which is given the top mid-season mid-major player.
Edgidijus Mockevicius has been a monster on the defensive glass this season (Wichita Eagle, AP).
The table below shows the top individual defensive rebounding percentage of each of the past eight seasons. The only players that come even close to Mockevicius’ current production are Kenneth Faried in 2009-10 and John Bryant in 2008-09. Faried has been the gold standard in recent college basketball rebounding lore, but Mockevicius is exceeding even his numbers midway through this season. There’s still a long ways to go, but there’s little reason to think the senior can’t keep rebounding at this pace. His production hasn’t slipped against better competition, as he grabbed nine rebounds against Providence, 12 against Arkansas, 13 against Fresno State and 16 against Wichita State. “The thing that makes Big E so good is he’s so smart. Obviously he’s great on the boards,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller told The Pantagraph last week. “He keeps constant pressure on you at the rim at both ends.”
We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.
Missouri Valley Tournament
Dates: March 5-8
Site: Scottrade Center (St. Louis, MO)
What to expect: Northern Iowa versus Wichita State: Round Three. After they split a pair of games in the regular season, Arch Madness now serves as the backdrop for what should be an epic title game between the Missouri Valley’s two most dominant teams. Any other match-up would be a surprise. The Shockers probably have the slight edge because of their considerable experience in pressure-packed, neutral-court games, but look for both clubs to receive single-digit seeds on Selection Sunday. Evansville is the only other conference opponent to beat one of them – narrowly edging the Panthers on New Year’s Day – while the advanced metrics like Illinois State as the third-best team. Still, neither the Aces nor the Redbirds are likely to threaten here.
Favorite: Wichita State. Could go either way here considering the regular season split, but let’s call Wichita State the favorite since it’s been in this position before.
Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
Indiana State. The Sycamores entered the week 4-8, having lost seven straight games against Division I programs, including the last two – home defeats to Eastern Illinois and UMKC – against teams ranked well below 200th in KenPom. Sure, three key seniors did graduate in the offseason and Greg Lansing’s program waspicked sixth in the Missouri Valley, but the first two months of 2014-15 failed even to live up to those modest expectations. Conference play can do funny things to a basketball team, and it certainly did something to the Sycamores this past week; despite all signs pointing the other way, Indiana State upended two of the MVC’s better squads to begin its league slate.
Indiana State picked up two Missouri Valley huge wins this week. (gosycamores.com)
Lansing’s club opened the week on the road against shorthanded-but-talented Illinois State, a good team (which beat Old Dominion by 19 in November) with a 91 percent chance of winning, according to KenPom. But despite those long odds, and although it had not beaten the Redbirds in Normal since 2011, Indiana State came out hot from the perimeter (43 percent from behind the arc), limited Illinois State top-scorer Daishon Knight to just five points, and overcame a halftime deficit to pull off the road upset. Neither team managed more than 0.90 points per possession – “We’ve always been a program that wins ugly games,” Lansing said afterwards – but the Sycamores produced enough late buckets and a big, last-second block to secure the victory. “That’s a really good start for us beating a good team.” Next up was Evansville on Sunday, a team fresh off a win over 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa on New Year’s Day. Again substantial underdogs and again hitting from the three-point line, the Sycamores kept pace with the Aces all afternoon and ultimately forced overtime tied at 70. Momentum swung towards Indiana State when Evansville big man Egidijus Mockevicius fouled out with 3:20 left in the extra period, and another big defensive play – this time a Devonte Brown steal – put Lansing’s group up for good. Big man Jake Kitchell led the way for Indiana State with 21 points and 11 rebounds. “A lot of us struggled at the start of the year, including me. Guys are playing better now and the results are showing,” Lansing noted after the game. Indeed. One week ago, his team looked like it’d be hard-pressed to win two conference games all season. Now? The Sycamores sit coolly atop the MVC standings at 2-0. “It’s only a couple of wins, but we’re happy with them.”
Honorable Mentions: New Mexico (2-0: vs. Fresno State, vs. Colorado State); Coastal Carolina (2-0: at High Point, vs. Charleston Southern); St. Francis-Brooklyn (2-0: vs. Columbia, at Sacred Heart); BYU (3-0: vs. Portland, at Santa Clara, at San Francisco); Idaho (2-0: vs. Idaho State, vs. Weber State)Read the rest of this entry »
Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
Saint Mary’s. It’s a full month into the season and we still didn’t know much about the Gaels before last weekend. They were transfer-laden, proficient on offense and led by Brad Waldow (21.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG) down low – that much we understood – but Randy Bennett’s club had yet to play a road contest (or even leave Moraga) through its first six games. And aside from a pair of solid wins over New Mexico State and UC Irvine, Saint Mary’s most noteworthy performance prior to Saturday was a 83-71 loss to Boise State on December 6. Was this team good? Mediocre? An at-large contender? Even if the Gaels’ 71-67 victory at Creighton over the weekend doesn’t fully answer all of those questions, it does make one thing clear: These guys are going to be competitive in the WCC.
Saint Mary’s pulled off a huge road victory in Omaha. (MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD)
Creighton entered Saturday on a 24-game home winning streak, an impressive run that coach Greg McDermott probably would have assumed safe if you had told him Waldow would end up with just 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting. “Obviously, our game plan was to slow down Waldow, because he’s such a big part of their offense,” McDermott said afterwards. Unfortunately for the Bluejays, the Saint Mary’s backcourt more than picked up the slack, as Stanford-transplant Aaron Bright scored 22 points and Kerry Carter dropped in 19. Equally as important was sophomore forward Dane Pineau, who – having never reached double figures in his career – stepped up enormously in wake of Waldow’s off night, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and ripping down 10 boards. The Gaels withstood an early-second half Creighton surge by responding with a 12-0 run of their own, ultimately forcing an extra period – where Bright and Pineau sealed the deal. Now at 6-1 and with a marquee road victory under its belt, Saint Mary’s looks capable of challenging BYU for second-best in the WCC and putting itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion. This weekend’s victory at the CenturyLink Center could go a long way.
Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.
Utah (6-1) at Brigham Young (7-2)– 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Wednesday.
Perhaps a look-ahead spot for Utah, with Kansas looming on Saturday? Not a chance. Basketball matters in the Beehive State, and these intrastate rivals – who have continued playing each other annually, despite both leaving the Mountain West in 2011 – might be its top two programs. The Cougars boast the 11th-most efficient offense in America, led by arguably the nation’s premier scorer, Tyler Haws, who comes in having scored 30-plus points in three of his past four outings. Joining him is versatile point guard Kyle Collinsworth (13.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.8 APG) and a cast of shooters capable of lighting up the scoreboard in bunches. Guard Anson Winder (50% 3FG) has been a perimeter-shooting X-factor in the early-going, reaching double-figures in eight of the team’s first nine games. Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for Dave Rose’s uptempo bunch.
Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)
Stopping Utah, however, might be cause for concern. Everyone knows that Delon Wright, the Utes’ 6’5’’ point guard, is really good – he might be more versatile than Collinsworth – but the bigger match-up issue could be seven-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl. The Aussie has been a revelation for Larry Krystkowiak, flashing an advanced offensive skill set (10-of-10 FG against North Dakota), muscle on the glass (leads the nation in OReb%) and strong interior defense (15th in block percentage). If he plays like he did against Wichita State (12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks), the big man will be tough for BYU’s foul-prone frontcourt to handle. Utah is the more balanced team – a top 50 squad in both offensive and defensive efficiency – and might be the better team, but the Marriott Center should be louder than ever with the rival Utes coming to town. You’ll want to flip over to ESPNU tonight.
More to Watch
Northern Iowa (8-0) at VCU (5-3)– 7:00 PM ET, NBCSN, Saturday. Will VCU lose twice in a row at the Siegel Center? The Rams’ 22-game home winning streak was broken last Saturday in a loss to Virginia, and they will certainly have their hands full against a Northern Iowa unit that just cracked the Top 25. Believe it or not, these teams are very familiar with each other – this will be their third meeting in the last four years – and the Panthers upset VCU in Cedar Falls last December. The Rams forced 16 turnovers in that game and nailed 10 three-pointers, but their interior defense was lackluster (UNI shot 67% 2FG) and they allowed Northern Iowa too many trips to the free throw line. Similar problems have plagued Shaka Smart’s bunch so far in 2014-15, which could be a problem against a team with lots of shooters and a newfound attack-first mentality (Panthers rank 22nd in FTA/FGA). Of course, VCU has capable shooters of its own and will amp up HAVOC in front of its always-raucous home crowd. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s been only one story to (consistently) grab national headlines out of the Missouri Valley this season, and it’s been a big one. You may have heard that Wichita State (currently 26-0) is trying to wrap up the first undefeated regular season since St. Joseph’s ran the table back in 2003-04. So it’s understandable that any other Valley storylines haven’t had a chance to reach national consciousness, short of Barry Hinson wanting his wife to play power forward for his team. But the Shockers’ bid for perfection runs into a Valley storyline on Saturday that needs an additional spotlight: Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, one of the best scorers you’ve probably never heard of.
D.J. Balentine is likely the best scorer Wichita State’s elite defense will face all season (rantsports.com).
There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you haven’t. The Purple Aces (11-14, 4-9 MVC) are near the bottom of the Valley and nowhere near any kind of postseason bid. You may, however, be hearing Balentine’s name more often over the next few years. Someone will need to assume Billy Baron’s role as the chic, mid-major scoring star, and it could very well be the Evansville sophomore. Balentine is sixth in the country in points per game (23.6) and is coming off a 38-point performance against Illinois State on Wednesday night. He dropped 43 on Northern Iowa earlier this season, and hasn’t wilted against the upper echelon of the Valley, scoring 23 against Indiana State and 26 in his first game against the Shockers. There’s no question the sophomore gets a more-than-healthy heaping of shots (15 per game), but his offensive game is dangerous because of its balance. Balentine gets to the line over eight times per game and is shooting 86 percent once he gets there. He’s also beaten teams from deep, taking 35.3 percent of his shots from three and knocking down over 40 percent of those. He’s also got the seventh best assist rate in the Valley, despite being the definition of a high-volume shooter.
Hello February! College hoops welcomes you into 2014’s second month with a mouth-watering slate of action. You may be sold at “Duke-Syracuse,” but there will be plenty of games that don’t set Carrier Dome attendance records worth watching. That’s not to say that your college basketball fan credentials will be confiscated if you aren’t settling in to your couch for some ACC on ESPN action at 6:30 PM ET today – because they will be – but here are some other storylines to watch on the first day of February.
Perfection Will Be Tested
All Three Unbeatens Are In Action Saturday. With Visitors From Durham In Town, C.J. Fair And Syracuse Look To Be The Most Vulnerable Of The Trio.
For the first time since 1976, there are three teams 20-0 or better in college basketball, and all three are in action on Saturday. Wichita State shouldn’t have any issues with Evansville (3-6 in the MVC) at The Roundhouse (3:00 PM ET, ESPNU), but both Arizona and Syracuse face serious threats to their dreams of perfection. The Wildcats visit Berkeley to take on a Cal team (10:30 PM ET, P12 Nets) which had been undefeated at home up until Wednesday, when Arizona State squeezed out an overtime win over the Bears. If Mike Montgomery’s team is to add the signature victory of all signature victories to its resume, they will need senior Richard Solomon to have a big game against that impressive Arizona frontcourt. All the way across the country, Duke would be well-served to find a way to match up with the impressive frontcourt of their undefeated opponent. The Blue Devils are not a great rebounding team, but in their game with Syracuse (6:30 PM ET, ESPN), keeping the Orange (ninth nationally in OR%) off the offensive glass will be imperative for Coach K’s squad. On the other end, look for Jabari Parker to get plenty of touches out of the high post. A record crowd is expected at the Carrier Dome for this one, which obviously sounds like good news for Syracuse. Maybe not, though. The last time there was an attendance record set at the dome (last February, versus Georgetown), a do-it-all 6’8” forward named Otto Porter torched the Orange for 33 points and eight rebounds in a lopsided victory for the visitors. Can Parker induce a little déjà vu on Saturday, and end Syracuse’s perfect season while he’s at it?
Most of the major recruiting battles we follow involve coveted high school recruits, but as we have all seen sometimes the top junior college players can also have a big impact particularly when they wind up at the right program. So although yesterday’s announcement that Kadeem Allen, one of the top junior college players in the country, was committing to Arizona might not blow up the message boards it could still be a significant move. Allen is a 6’3″ guard who was a high-major recruit coming out of high school, but was unable to qualify so went to junior college in Kansas where he averaged 17.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game last year as a freshman on his was to junior college All-American honors. Assuming Allen honors his commitment he should have another year to learn the Arizona offense under T.J. McConnell before he will really have to compete for the job so even if Allen doesn’t work out Sean Miller should have plenty of time to find a replacement for McConnell.
After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years, Purdue was hoping to bounce back this season. Much of their hopes coming into the season appear to rest on the shoulders of sophomore center A.J. Hammons, but those hopes will have to be put on hold temporarily as Hammons was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Hammons, who averaged 10.6 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game last season, will miss Purdue’s two exhibition games and its season-opener against Northern Kentucky. The actual suspension should not necessarily be a cause for concern for Boilermaker fans (Matt Painter said it was a conduct-related suspension and not one related to academics), but the fact that Hammons, who was supposed to lead the team this year (see our post on the topic published yesterday and written before the announcement), would be reckless enough to get suspended might be a reason to be worried.
Speaking of reckless… Yesterday, Roy Williams announced that North Carolina would finally reveal P.J. Hairston‘s punishment in two weeks for his multiple transgressions over the summer. We have no idea what Hairston’s suspension will be since it has previously been announced that he would miss some regular season games, but has been practicing with the team. At this point, we doubt any significant suspension is coming (unless the NCAA steps in), but the length of Hairston’s suspension will be significant because the Tar Heels have some stiff competition early including a match-up against Louisville in their fifth game (potentially). Michigan State in their seventh game, and Kentucky in their ninth game. Without Hairston’s offense and experience these would likely be almost certain losses for the Tar Heels and would pose an interesting dilemma for NCAA Tournament seeding when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Most of the season previews you will be reading over the next week will focus on the star players and occasionally some key role players, but as Mike DeCourcy notes in his piece on Evansville senior Bryce Weiler there is more to the college basketball experience than what most of us are exposed to. As DeCourcy notes, despite Weiler’s blindness (the result of congenital abnormalities when he was born four months premature) he has managed to become an integral member of an Evansville team that went from being a 9-21 team his freshman year to a 21-15 team last year (his junior year). For all of the ridiculous stories we see around college sports (ranging from the suspensions to individuals throwing away their careers) it is nice to see stories like this.
If you are like us you have probably been been waiting impatiently for the season to start. To keep ourselves occupied we have been reading through all sorts of preview pieces, but two of the most interesting “previews” that we have seen come from Ken Pomeroy (featured as the current rankings) and Dan Henner (ESPN Insider access only), who have somehow produced a rating system to predict how good different teams are coming into the season using an algorithm that is probably way too complex for us to understand. One of the more interesting things about the aspects is how widely they differ on how they project some teams. John Templon took on the Herculean task of comparing the two rankings systems. The wide divergence for top teams (like Arizona, which is Hanner’s #8 team, but only Pomeroy’s #23 team) will probably draw the most attention, but the bigger spread for some other teams is probably more interesting for the overall comparison. It will be interesting to see how close these two preseason rankings end up to the final rankings when the season is done.
Tonight’s Lede. Because Big Ten Upsets Come In Pairs. Right when the Big Ten churns out one massive upset, number one Indiana’s four-point loss at Minnesota Tuesday night, the league got bored, went back to the drawing board, and said – in the most demonic voice possible – hey, Michigan, your time has come. The Wolverines went down on the road, at the house of a traditional basketball doormat, and on most nights, that story in itself would block out the rest of the night’s schedule. Not so – the Michigan loss was merely an icebreaker for a long and thorough evening of big-time matchups. Your humble nightly ATB writer compiled a sampling of the biggest headlines. Alas:
Your Watercooler Moment. A Very Happy Valley.
The conciliatory retort to any mildly surprising loss in the Big Ten season has gone a little something like this: it’s ok to lose on the road in the Big Ten, because you know how hard those Big Ten road games are, right? Wednesday night’s shocking result in Happy Valley, where Penn State won its first conference game in 18 tries after a blistering 15-point second-half comeback, was a huge exception. Most road games are difficult to win in this league, no question; from Mackey Arena to the Crisler Center to the Barn, the Big Ten lays claim to some of the nation’s most raucous campus environments. Teams lose, like Indiana at Minnesota, and it’s tough to get too caught up in the result. Any team in this uber-deep league can rip off a big upset win on any given night, it is widely and frequently said. We would have been rolling out the same logic had Michigan lost at, say, Illinois or Minnesota. Instead, the Wolverines elected – willfully or not – to suffer their worst loss of the season against the worst team in their league. And the weird part is, the final score really isn’t that crazy at all. To the passive onlooker, yes, Michigan had no business losing this game. But for anyone who paid mind to Penn State’s eight-point loss (ahem, moral victory) at the Crisler Center just 10 days ago, seeing Michigan bite the dust at State College was insane, but it wasn’t some Kansas-TCU-level revolution. The point in all of this is not to disparage Penn State by way of condemning the unlikelihood of Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines have some real issues to sort out in the final weeks, particularly on the defensive end. With two of their final three games coming against Michigan State and Indiana, Michigan needs to shake this off, address whatever issues ailed them at PSU and rally for an important concluding schedule in advance of what’s shaping up to be an utterly chaotic Big Ten Tournament.
Also worth Chatting About.Pac-12 Competitiveness.
A league bereft of depth and quality last season is on the improving (AP).
Unlike the 2012 version, this year’s Pac 12 is sort of ok. In fact, it’s more more than that. The league could, believe it or not, birth as many as six NCAA Tournament squads this season. Four of those Tournament hopefuls took the court Wednesday night, and the most significant result (Arizona’s loss at USC) is probably something we should have suspected all along. USC has won five of its past seven without fired coach Kevin O’Neill and are quietly playing their best basketball of the season; meanwhile, Arizona’s last three road games, including tonight’s loss, read as follows: a blowout loss at Colorado, a four-point win at Utah and a loss at USC. In other words, the Wildcats’ squeaky road ways were a dangerous way to life live in the Pac 12. In the other two marquee P12 games of the night, UCLA held serve against Arizona State and Colorado hung tough and gutted out a road win at Stanford. Most of these teams, with a few exceptions at the bottom, are competitively intriguing, and Wednesday night was the latest example. Not even the possibly one-seed bound Wildcats are safe against the likes of a middling if inspired USC. The league may not be great at the top — much like every power league this season, there truly is no “dominant team” — but the considerable growth in the middle regions has added substantial girth to a conference that sent just one at-large team to the NCAA Tournament last season and saw its regular season crownholder, Washington, miss the field altogether. Change is undeniable. The preeminent western conference is back on its feet, and the on-court product it doles out keeps getting better and better as the season closes in on the most crucial stretch.
Tonight’s Lede. Bubble Unpredictability. The NCAA Tournament bubble is a nebulous thing to gauge. Predictions are laid out with RPI figures and relevant strength of schedule numbers over these early months, and all of that gets compiled into individual “resumes” – the digestible team units used by the NCAA selection committee to construct its preferred field of 68. The best way to improve your “resume” goes without saying. Win good games against good teams, and you’re helping your chances of inclusion. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two big wins to launch a team into the bubble conversation, or to provide that definitive RPI boost to send it over the cut line. In the end, all final decisions are reached in a secretive board room, and for as accurate as bracket models have become in recent years – and as ostensibly similar as the esteemed media mock selection event has become — we’re all fooling ourselves if we think we know exactly how the committee evaluates teams. One team won a monstrously important game tonight – the kind of thing that really shakes up that selection process. Care to find out who it was?
Your Watercooler Moment. You Needed That One, UK.
If Tuesday night is a sign of things to come, Kentucky could be a scary good team come March (Photo credit: AP Photo).
There are Kentucky fans, illogical or not, who will come down hard on 2012 national championship-winning coach John Calipari if he’s unable to lead Kentucky to the NCAA Tournament this season. Wildcats fans are some of the most relentless partisans in college sports. They expect the best, roster turnover and relative recruiting down year be damned. Whether or not UK ultimately gets there, I can’t say for sure. There’s a lot of season left to be played, and UK has plenty of work to do before locking up a bid. Here’s what I know: Kentucky is in much better shape, Tourney-wise, after Tuesday night’s win at Ole Miss. In almost any other year, that sounds more like some deranged Rebels fan’s perverse joke. This season, it’s not even a small stretch. Andy Kennedy’s team has evolved into a real SEC title contender, thanks mostly to the huge impact (physical and emotional) of Marshall Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer, and a set of quality complementary frontcourt players. But for a few spots – a road loss at Middle Tennessee, a near-loss at Auburn – the Rebels have looked appreciably better than John Calipari’s team all season. With all that considered, there remained some suspicion about whether Ole Miss, long a doormat for the likes of UK and Florida in the SEC, could seize the opportunity against the worst team of Calipari’s UK tenure to cement its mantle as the league’s surefire No. 2 (Florida is absolutely napalming anyone it comes into contact with; the Gators are No. 1, and it’s not close). Henderson gives the Rebels an offensive spark unlike anything Kennedy has ever worked with in Oxford, and Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner are as solid as any non-Patric Young SEC bigs. This is Ole Miss basketball’s year to shine, and Tuesday night was its night to drill the young Wildcats. It had all the momentum and clear advantages it needed, but the Rebels couldn’t quite size up Calipari’s team. But let’s not let this be about some newly-discovered flaws in the Ole Miss formula. Kentucky deserves the credit for this win, because this Kentucky team was nothing like the incoherent mess we’ve seen for large stretches this season.
The “switch” everyone’s been waiting Kentucky to “flip” may or may not have, you know, flipped Tuesday night, but when you look at Kentucky’s 87-74 win, there are few times this season when the Wildcats have looked as good, or even half as good, as it did in Oxford. Not only did UK outwork and thoroughly outplay a vastly improved SEC contender, they went into a blaring environment, stuffed with a legion of vitriolic Rebels fans ready to coronate their home team’s triumph over a historic program, and exited with a resounding W. They did it with Kyle Wiltjer scoring and defending like he never has before, with Archie Goodwin snapping his conference play swoon, and a whole bunch of really encouraging developments that, if sustained, will erase any doubts UK fans ever had about the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament chances.