Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can also find his musings online at Sun Belt Basketball or on Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
Middle Tennessee continues to roll. Despite a slip-up at UAB, the Blue Raiders got revenge on Belmont with a narrow three-point victory, offsetting a double-overtime loss earlier in the season to the Bruins. Behind a spirited home crowd at the Murphy Center, MTSU’s physicality and strength eventually wore down Belmont, who could not hold its own on the boards. With the victory, the Blue Raiders improved to 10-2, and they picked up what could prove to be the most important win of the season for coach Kermit Davis.
Speaking of important wins, Florida Atlantic has wasted several opportunities to claim them recently. Mike Jarvis scheduled a difficult slate to test his defending Sun Belt champion squad, but so far, the Owls have fallen flat against the likes of Washington, Kansas, South Florida and Mississippi State. But don’t give up hope for an upset just yet: FAU travels to Miami and Harvard during the next week.
A week after shocking the nation with a road win at Utah State, the Denver Pioneers dropped an overtime heartbreaker to MAAC favorites Iona. There’s no shame in losing to a team that has the talent to win 25 games this year, and the Gaels might be an at-large contender if they do not win their conference tournament. Still, in the end, it was Iona’s up-tempo style that sped up DU and forced it into 20 turnovers. The Pioneers actually held their own on the boards and shot reasonably well from beyond the arc, and had they held on to the ball, they could have picked up another quality victory in the non-conference.
Mike Jarvis and Floirda Atlantic Have Faced a Rugged Non-Conference Schedule (AP)
Middle Tennessee (10-2, 0-0): Kermit Davis may finally have the team his fan base has been waiting for all these years. Gone are the days that MTSU finished with a middling .500 record — these Blue Raiders look like NCAA Tournament contenders. With LaRon Dendy (14.4 PPG/6.7 RPG) leading the way, Middle Tennessee has the sort of size you might find in a power conference. Davis’s team rebounds with authority and dominates its opponents in the paint. The Blue Raiders are the best defensive team in the conference, and though they won’t wow you with perimeter shooting and an explosive offense, this team plays as hard as anybody around. Florida Atlantic has the guards we all love to talk about, but you won’t find any team with more intimidating size than MTSU.
Florida Atlantic (4-6, 0-0): It’s not time to panic yet, but we’re finding out early in this 2011-12 campaign that FAU is human. The consensus pick to repeat as East champs, the Owls’ undersized forwards have struggled against bigger post players. What’s more concerning, though, is the way FAU’s experienced guards have struggled. In particular, Ray Taylor (8.3 PPG/5.1 APG) hasn’t quite found his groove yet, and he’s even started coming off the bench. We’re talking about one of the league’s best players here, people — playing off the bench. He scored 20 points in a loss to Mississippi State, but coach Mike Jarvis even said he can still play better. He has to, or Florida Atlantic won’t go anywhere this season. Read the rest of this entry »
The wave of college basketball signings have subsided, but Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has announced the addition of two recruits for next season. Forwards C.J. Cole and Jarion Henry will join the squad, rounding out a four-man recruiting class. Interestingly, the 6’9” Henry is the son of Skeeter Henry, who starred for Oklahoma during the days of the Big Eight. Henry is a coveted recruit and a top-150 prospect according to Rivals, but Cole is a bit more obscure. He’s a 6’7” product of Sperry High School in the state of Oklahoma, where he earned All-State honors twice.
Kansas State grinded out a victory over George Washington last night, but there was more to the story than the 69-56 final score would suggest. Several Wildcats have D.C. connections, and there is bitter blood between the two squads. Rodney McGruder is a D.C. product, and Martavius Adams also knew several of the GW players as well. Maybe it was the pressure, or perhaps the two players’ old friends knew how to stop them: McGruder and Adams combined for just 12 points. But a win’s a win, as they say.
Here’s some more Kansas State news that has nothing to do with basketball. Or KSU basketball, we should say: a prospective Kansas State student has now accused Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine of molesting him, too. 23-year-old Zach Tomaselli will head to Manhattan next year, and though this won’t affect Big 12 basketball in any way, it’s still interesting to note that the league has a bit of a connection now to the Syracuse case.
To another part of the state of Kansas– in Lawrence, we’ve got a few news and notes to pass along. First, Thomas Robinson is still unstoppable. He had a career-high 17 rebounds against Florida Atlantic on Wednesday, and that’s the most by a Jayhawk since Cole Aldrich in 2010. Did we mention Robinson also scored 19 points? Plus, Bill Self is also reporting that Anthony West actually will not walk-on the team. He would have given Kansas another body at 6’6”, but he says he does not have the time to compete.
And finally, a blog for Texas has a different view of Kansas, from an outsider’s perspective. Burnt Orange Nation gave a broad view of the Jayhawks, and like we’ve all been saying, KU still obviously has a chance to win this league. This particular article repeated most of the same lines we’ve used time and time again: always trust Bill Self, no matter which players he graduates or loses to the NBA. Self simply knows how to assemble a winning team, and the former reserves playing big roles this year are thriving already. Just look at what Thomas Robinson is doing.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can also find his musings online at Sun Belt Basketball or on Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was:
Pioneers Rolling:Denver looks like the best team in the Sun Belt Conference having knocked off both St. Mary’s and Utah State in the span of a week. And did we mention Denver is the first team since 2009 to beat the Aggies on their home floor? Nobody wins road games at Utah State—except for Denver, apparently. JoeScott’s team played flawlessly leading from start to finish. At one point, Denver led by 20 points eventually routing USU 67-54. And the game wasn’t even as close as that score would suggest.
Jags Pick Up Pace: South Alabama has quietly pieced together a couple of quality wins. Widely considered a bottom-feeder in the East Division, the Jaguars are now riding a two-game winning streak with wins against LSU and UAB. Not bad, huh?
Arkansas State In Neutral: The Red Wolves got a bit of national attention for their bizarre 54-27 loss at Louisville, simply because of the horrid offensive output. ASU rebounded with a blowout over Southeast Missouri State, however, but a 2-4 start isn’t what John Brady probably had in mind.
Denver's Chris Udofia Has The Denver Pioneers On The Rise After Quieting One Of College Basketball's Loudest Road Environments In Utah State. (AP/Tony Avelar)
1.Florida Atlantic (3-5, 0-0): Kansas was too much for FAU as the Owls fell by 23 points in Lawrence on Wednesday. Mike Jarvis probably hoped his team could compete a little better, but it simply did not have the size to slow down either Thomas Robinson or Jeff Withey. Florida Atlantic lost the rebounding battle by 20, and it missed an opportunity to gain a signature upset. It will have plenty of chances for that, though, later in the month: Jarvis brings his team to Mississippi State, Miami, and Harvard.
2. Middle Tennessee (6-1, 0-0): The only thing keeping MTSU from an undefeated record right now is a double-overtime slip-up against a good Belmont team a few weeks ago. That’s how well Kermit Davis has his team playing right now. LaRon Dendy has been a major factor in his first season in Murfreesboro after transferring from Iowa State, and the Blue Raiders have been stellar both defensively and on the boards. If this team can keep flexing its strength in those areas, the offense will come, especially now that Jason Jones is healthy.
3. South Alabama (3-2, 0-0): Something has clicked with this USA team, and a lot of that can be attributed to freshman guard Xavier Roberson’s play. Ronnie Arrow has zero returning guards from last year’s team so he needed somebody to step up quickly. Roberson has seized that role, and he scored 19 points in that overtime win at LSU. With Augustine Rubit doing his thing, Roberson’s emergence is great news for the Jaguars.
4. Florida International (2-3, 0-0): After a three-game losing streak, FIU salvaged the month of November with a victory over a solid Coastal Carolina team this weekend. The Golden Panthers have struggled to defend the three-point line at times this season, and they fell into old habits by dropping another nailbiter to Arkansas Pine Bluff. Last season, close losses killed Isiah Thomas’s squad. He’ll need to fix that as the year goes on.
5. Troy (3-3, 0-0): These sneaky Trojans may not be so bad after all. In coach Don Maestri’s 30th season at the helm, Troy is now at .500 after a victory over East Tennessee State. Mo Weathers continued his spectacular point guard play with seven assists and 14 points, and he’s picked up right where he left off last season. Weathers is a special player—the kind of guy who should make an All-Conference team at the end of the season—and he’s getting a lot of help from his teammates these days.
6. Western Kentucky (2-5, 0-0): They are young, inexperienced, playing under pressure, may have lost veteran guard Caden Dickerson for the rest of the year due to injury. We understand why WKU isn’t playing well right now, but those excuses won’t sit well with the demanding fan base. The Hilltoppers fell apart at home against VCU last week, just days after playing the Final Four participants to the wire in the Charleston Classic. WKU did finally get a victory over Southeast Lousiana, but this team has a long way to go.
1.Denver (5-1, 0-0): Hello, Pioneers. In typical Joe Scott fashion, Denver made Utah Statelook silly on Wednesday night by boring it with a well-oiled offensive machine. Denver coasted against the Aggies, snapping a 33-game home winning streak and stunning the nation. It’s not often you hear a buzz like this about a Sun Belt team, but you better believe Denver will get some national press for this victory. Chris Udofia is offering a new look at forward for this team, and the guards are shooting the ball well from beyond the arc. The most important thing, however, is that Denver isn’t relying on the three-point shot. It has offensive options in the frontcourt now—like Udofia—and it’s much less one-dimensional than a year ago.
2.Louisiana (3-5, 0-0): They haven’t played murderer’s row, but a decently competitive non-conference slate is wearing the Ragin’ Cajuns down. They battled MAC favorite Kent Statefor 40 minutes but ultimately lost this week without J.J. Thomas, and they also dropped a road contest at Duquense. Thomas, the star of the UL and a Sun Belt Player of the Year candidate, dealt with a knee injury during that Kent State game.
3.Arkansas State (2-4, 0-0): Although the West appeared to be the more competitive division in the pre-season, only Denver has overachieved to this point. ASU’s play has been disappointing after losing Martavius Adams, and it hit rock bottom when it scored 27 points in a loss to Louisville. The Cardinals are a terrific team. But 27 points? It’s tough to swallow at the Division I level. Rick Pitino’s pressure turned ASU over 23 times, and it made just 10 field goals on the night.
4.North Texas (1-4, 0-0): After a dominating victory over a Division II opponent, UNT has fallen flat lately. In four road losses—three to BCS-conference teams—the Mean Green have struggled to acclimate the large cast of newcomers. Freshman Jordan Williams, a heralded recruit, can’t find his shot right now, but it’ll come around. When Tony Mitchell joins this team in the second semester, things may turn around.
5.Arkansas Little Rock (2-5, 0-0): The defending Sun Belt tourney champs aren’t defending their title well so far, and like ASU, they also may have hit “rock bottom” in a blowout to Northwestern State. When UALR develops its primary scorers, it will be fine. Right now, though, the loss of reigning SBC Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman is evident.
6.ULM (1-6, 0-0): Keith Richard is in the W column. He’s battling through a difficult year with this team, considering it is not eligible for post-season play and a few key players have redshirted. Surprisingly, despite the 0-6 start, the Warhawks earned an easy road victory at Nicholls State this week by dominating the second half of play. Loyola transfer Charles Windborne came to play this year, as he’s scored in double figures four times already. That will help take the pressure off leading scorer Fred Brown, who took an absurd amount of shots for this team last year.
Denver vs. Iona, Dec. 7: The Pioneers have already defeated two mid-major powers in St. Mary’s and Utah State. Can they beat a third in Iona? Tim Cluess has a heck of a team here, complete with Arizona transfer Momo Jones, stud point guard Scott Machado, and Mike Glover, the man so ferocious they call him Optimus Prime. Iona loves to run, and it has athletes all over the floor. If Denver can slow the pace, it can control this game.
Florida Atlantic at Mississippi State, Dec. 13: It’d be nice for Jarvis’s program to at least notch one of these upset road wins. The Owls’ problem isn’t quickness or athleticism—it’s sheer size. They don’t have the bigs to play with teams like Mississippi State, who throw out the towering Arnette Moultrie and Renardo Sidney.
Middle Tennessee vs. Belmont, Dec. 13: It’s revenge time for MTSU, which lost the first meeting in double-overtime. That’s the only thing standing in the way of a 7-0 start for the Blue Raiders, and that’s got to weigh heavily on Kermit Davis’s mind. With a second chance at a victory, Middle Tennessee has a chance to pick up a quality non-conference win to add to its post-season resume.
Caught On Film
John Brady has had a difficult start to this season. After kicking off his best player, his Arkansas State squad has struggled to find a new scorer. You can see that frustration and hear it in his voice in the press conference below, which followed a blowout loss to Missouri State.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference and a Big 12 microsite staffer. You can also find his musings online at www.sunbeltbasketball.com or on Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
Blue Raiders > Blueblood: Middle Tennesseecame to play this November. The Blue Raiders quietly earned a solid season-opening victory over Austin Peay,a favorite in the Ohio Valley Conference. Two days later, it knocked off Loyola Marymount—and then, the Blue Raiders earned one of the more significant victories of Kermit Davis’s tenure by blowing out UCLA86-66 on Tuesday night. Iowa Statetransfer LaRon Dendy dominated the Bruins, who played without star forward Reeves Nelson, and MTSU’s famous defense held UCLA in check. Most impressively, the Blue Raiders made 10-11 three-point attempts. Even Davis wasn’t quite sure how to describe the performance: “it was a perfect storm tonight,” he said.
Joshua Smith And UCLA Were No Match For The Blue Raiders, Who Notched A Huge Win Tuesday Night In Convincing Fashion. (Robert Gauthier/LA Times)
Arkansas State Sputtering: The start of the season didn’t fare so well for the Red Wolves. After losing all-conference forward Martavius Adams to dismissal earlier this fall, ASU fell by three points to Lamarand then got embarrassed by Missouri Statein a home blowout. John Brady’s team didn’t start very well last year either, and it still finished with a share of the Sun Belt West title. But the Red Wolves have a long way to go at this point, but maybe they started to turn it around last night with a win over UT-Martin.
Owls Struggle Out Of The Gate: The consensus favorite in the Sun Belt, Florida Atlantic, may be 1-3, but it looked very competitive in those two losses to solid Portland and Washingtonteams. FAU even nearly completed a double-digit comeback against the Huskies, cutting the lead to four before eventually falling short. The trouble came Wednesday night, when the Owls went cold from the field in an ugly loss to American. Again, it’s early; too early to make any sweeping judgments. These are the same players that dominated the East division last year, so we’ll cut them some slack for now.
Zach Hayes is RTC’s official bracketologist. He will periodically put together his latest bracket projections throughout the season. Tell him where you agree or disagree @zhayes9 on Twitter.
Last Four In: Drexel, Illinois, Kansas State, Notre Dame.
First Four Out: Virginia Tech, Georgetown, Oregon, Minnesota.
Next Four Out: Northwestern, BYU, Princeton, Oklahoma State.
Click to Enlarge Bracket
This was the most clear-cut foursome for the top line that I can recall during any previous preseason bracket and all four deserve to be anointed Final Four teams here in October.
Maybe a bit of a surprise in both instances, but I’m taking Texas A&M and California to win their respective leagues. Maybe their talent level is not up to par with the likes of Kansas and UCLA, but I like their stability, coaching and players like Khris Middleton and Allen Crabbe are primed to explode.
Danny Spewak of SunBeltBasketball.com is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference and a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @dspewak.
Reader’s Take I
Restoring the Glory: In a mere three-year span, the Sun Belt has taken a discouraging tumble. During the 2007-08 season, the league’s RPI ranked 14th among the 31 Division I conferences. It placed two teams in the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 squad in Western Kentucky (thanks in part to this shot). Now, fast forward to present day: the SBC finished 23rd in the conference RPI in 2010-11, and the auto-bid winner (Arkansas-Little Rock) lost the play-in game as a 16-seed. Hoping to curb the trend, the commissioner’s office decided to take action, forcing every team to schedule a stronger non-conference slate starting this year. That tactic should help improve the league’s overall rating, but more importantly, it actually appears the league has upgraded its talent significantly. With every head coach returning and a wave of star recruits incoming (see below), the Sun Belt looks ready for a rebound.
The New Guys: Tony Mitchell, the five-star North Texas forward who originally signed with Missouri, headlines a brilliant crop of newcomers across the conference. In addition to Mitchell, UNT coach Johnny Jones inked all sorts of talent out of the state of Texas, including coveted shooting guard Jordan Williams. Western Kentucky will also rely on a highly-touted recruiting class to help rebound from a disappointing season, and Middle Tennessee welcomes Iowa State transfer LaRon Dendy. Florida International might have the most intriguing prospect in big man Joey De La Rosa, but his eligibility isn’t a given right now.
After Enrolling at North Texas, Tony Mitchell Is Finally Set To Take The Court. (USA Basketball)
Goodbye, Denver: The Pioneers will leave for the Western Athletic Conference after the season, but coach Joe Scott has a competitive roster in place to compete for the West division in DU’s final year in the Sun Belt. That’s the only realignment update to note with this league, although more moves at the top of college sports could eventually trickle down to the SBC.
Tough Luck, ULM: After failing to meet academic standards, the NCAA ruled the Warhawks ineligible for postseason play in 2012. Keith Richard is still in the process of rebuilding the program, so an appearance in even the CIT or CBI looked like a pipe dream. Still, the ruling also means the Warhawks cannot participate in the Sun Belt Tournament, and that’s a harsh way to end the careers of the five seniors on this squad.
Predicted Order of Finish (conference records in parentheses)
Over the past few months there has been a growing sentiment that college players, particularly those in revenue-generating sports, deserve to be paid in addition to the value of their athletic scholarships. The recently released report (full PDF here) by the National College Players Association (NCPA) and Drexel professor Ellen Staurowsky created a lot of buzz and has been used by many proponents of proposals to pay college athletes as a piece of academic evidence to reinforce the notion that the athletes are getting cheated out of millions, if not billions, of dollars. While the report does a good job of making the case that athletes should be more highly compensated than they are at the present time, it is not without its flaws, which come both from the author herself and the people who have already chimed in to use it against the current state of college athletics.
The NCAA Has Come Under Increasing Attacks (Credit: Funcityfinder.com)
Before we go into the actual data, we should clarify that we approached this study with a skeptical eye because it was funded by the NCPA. A study analyzing the under-payment of a group of individuals funded by an entity that represents that group of individuals should always be viewed critically in the same manner that a medical journal article funded by a pharmaceutical company is viewed. This does not necessarily mean that the report is flawed in some way, just like a study funded by a pharmaceutical company may in fact be valid. It is just that you need to dig a little deeper rather than just looking at the figures presented in the executive summary or the lay press. Having said that, let us take a look at what the study says, what it does not say, and what some of the potential implications are for college sports in general along with possible solutions moving forward.
The report is essentially an analysis of the financial state of Division 1 athletes in college football and men’s college basketball (the two “revenue-generating” sports) in contrast to the money made by the schools and the coaches. The major findings of the study can be summarized rather succinctly:
“Full-ride” athletic scholarships fall short of “full-ride” academic scholarships as the former are restricted by NCAA rules from covering the full cost of attendance (the figure that schools report to the Department of Education). In 2010-11 they fell short by an average of $3,222;
The dollar value of the room and board portion of an athletic scholarship falls below of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guideline of poverty ($10,890 for a single individual) for 85% of those living on-campus and 86% of those living off-campus with the average athlete on a “full-ride” falling $1874 and $1794 short, respectively;
Applying the revenue sharing used by the NFL and NBA last season where players get 46.5% and 50% of revenue generated, the average to calculate the “fair market value” of the athletes indicates that football players and basketball players are worth approximately $121,048 and $265,027, respectively, each year;
For players on teams that were in the top 10 highest estimated fair market value in football, 100% received scholarships that were worth less for room and board than the federal poverty line (average $2,841 below), and in basketball 80% received scholarships that were worth less for room and board than the federal poverty line (average $3,098 below);
For a set of 21 schools that earn over $30 million in revenue, their players received scholarships with room and board valued on average between $3,070 (on-campus) and $4,967 (off-campus) below the federal poverty line; and
FBS schools spend on average approximately $350,000 more per each non-revenue-generating sports team than their FCS counterparts do, which, according to the authors, indicates potential cost-saving opportunities that would enable them to maintain the scholarship opportunities for athletes in those sports while still being able to provide enough money for those in revenue-generating sports, as those cost-savings ($6.3 million per year if one assumes an average of 18 non-revenue generating teams per school) would be able to provide approximately $64,000 per player per year in the revenue-generating sports.
While all of these seem to be compelling arguments on the surface, there are quite a few weaknesses inherent in several of them that we will get to in a little bit.
Jim Calhoun‘s non-announcement announcement that he plans to return to the Connecticut sidelines for the 2011-12 season was no shocker to anybody. If it wasn’t the interminable wait for a ‘final’ decision that tipped you off, it was the well-placed leaks from key recruits and their families; if you still weren’t convinced, surely the announcement that superstar center Andre Drummond had chosen to reclassify to the Class of 2011 and play for the Huskies this coming season clinched it. Regardless of when you believed he’d be back, Calhoun will coach his team this season at the rather ripe age of 69 years old (he turns 70 next May) and, despite some health issues in the past, he shows few signs of slowing down. And, in fact, his team will be on the short list of contenders after North Carolina and Kentucky most likely to cut the nets down next April in New Orleans.
Why Would Calhoun Give This Up?
We know that with his third national title last season, the curmudgeonly coach passed Kansas’ Phog Allen (66) as the oldest coach to win a college basketball national title, but with a stacked team returning and a few more gray hairs on top of his head, it got us wondering who his senior citizen peers are within the other sports. Here’s the list of oldest coaches to have won a title in each of the major team sports:
MLB – Jack McKeon (2003), 72 years old
NCAA Football – Bobby Bowden (1999), 69 years old
NCAA Basketball – Jim Calhoun (2011), 68 years old
NFL – George Halas (1963), 68 years old
NHL – Scotty Bowman (2002), 68 years old
NBA – Phil Jackson (2010), 64 years old
Calhoun’s championship last season falls right into the middle of that list, but if he were to win another one next spring a mere five weeks shy of his 70th birthday, he’d trail only the inimitable Jack McKeon as the oldest head coach to win a major title in American team sports. All due respect to McKeon and our friends in Major League Baseball, but Calhoun’s hands-on approach in teaching 18-21 year-old players is a completely different job than delegating those duties to a coaching staff to train older professionals — from our viewpoint, the daily demands on Calhoun’s energy are considerably more.
On Thursday, the University of Kentucky issued a statement claiming that it was in error in celebrating John Calipari’s 500th win on February 26 after beating Florida, and that in future media guides and any published material it would depict Calipari’s career win total with the vacated wins from his time at Memphis and Massachusetts subtracted.
Behold, the Statistic In Dispute, From Kentucky's 2010-11 Factbook
Here’s what happened. At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Kentucky considered Calipari to have logged 480 wins (vacated wins not removed), while the NCAA officially listed him with 438 (42 wins removed). The NCAA evidently considered it to be a slap in the face when Kentucky had its small post-game display to mark what UK considered Cal’s 500th win on February 26, as well as the fact that its media guides and website ignored the NCAA’s removal of the wins from Calipari’s record. It asked UK to change it and alert the media that the celebration of Calipari’s 500th was erroneous. Kentucky’s compliance office responded to the NCAA, but they were unmoved and sent another missive, again pressing for the change. And the reason the NCAA knew about this and went down this road was…a tip from a fan of a rival program.
[Ed. Note: You can read the correspondence between the NCAA and Kentucky here. It's pretty interesting. And we're not sure how Lexington Herald-Leader sportswriter Jerry Tipton could ever comfortably show his face in Lexington again.]
This was the right move by Kentucky. It wouldn’t make any sense for the program to go out of its way to position itself on the NCAA’s bad side, and 42 wins is simply too small a prize to justify the continued poking of that bear. At some point John Calipari will move on and either coach somewhere else or retire. Kentucky won’t care how many wins John Calipari has then, but we guarantee the NCAA would remember it if Kentucky decided to openly defy them. As we all know, the NCAA is still judge, jury and executioner in this biz, and if anything should come up in the future, you’d rather they have a more favorable opinion of you. Kentucky noted the error, didn’t apologize — one really wasn’t warranted, though it sounds like that’s what the NCAA wanted — but promised to make the adjustment the NCAA asked for. And let’s be honest — if those are the rules everyone has to play by, then justice really was done here.
Congrats are in order for the following teams that locked up automatic NCAA berths this week: St. Peter’s (MAAC), Old Dominion (CAA), Wofford (SoCon), Gonzaga (WCC), Indiana State (MVC), Belmont (Atlantic Sun) and UNC-Asheville (Big South). It’s always fun watching these teams celebrate their conference championships because the excitement just feels more honest than, say, when an Ohio State or a Pittsburgh wins its conference tournament. Championship Week is great for television purposes because there are so many great games to watch, but there usually is less urgency among the teams from the major conferences. For them, conference tournaments are about posturing for seeds and surviving the weekend injury-free. Roy Williams once called the ACC Tournament a big cocktail party, and it’s not surprising that his two title teams both bowed out in the semifinals.
What We Learned
Davies Will Obviously Be Missed, But Charles Abouo's Emergence Has Mitigated the Sting
If you’re a big time recruit and have BYU in your top five, you might want to reconsider your stance on the Cougars. Seriously, why would a player with options want to go to BYU now that its draconian honor code system is in the national spotlight. By now, everyone knows BrandonDavies (BYU’s third leading scorer and leading rebounder) was suspended from the BYU basketball team for allegedly having premarital sex with his girlfriend. Davies’ suspension is a crushing blow for the Cougars, who have gone from a sexy popular national title pick to a team some think won’t make it out of the first weekend.
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
Three more conferences begin things tonight. The Big Sky and Sun Belt look to be very competitive with multiple teams capable of getting hot at the right time and running away with the title, while the Summit League features the Oakland Golden Grizzlies at the head of the pack and everyone else trying to keep up. All three conferences are definite single-bid leagues meaning all games will be played with a great sense of urgency; the agony of defeat and glory of victory becomes that much more apparent as well.
The Favorite: Northern Colorado has played the best ball in the Big Sky over the course of the past month and they also have arguably the league’s best player in Devon Beitzel on their side. Montana will have their chance to prove me wrong, but right now it is the Bears who are the favorite.
Dark Horse: Any team that is proficient at shooting the three ball cannot be discounted in a game. Despite having a middle of the road 9-7 record within the conference, Northern Arizona can stroke it with anyone. Cameron Jones, Gabe Rogers, and Eric Platt all shoot well over 40% from downtown.
Who’s Hot: Northern Colorado has won eight of their last nine games and 15 of 18 to enter the Big Sky tournament as the hottest team.
Player to Watch: Cameron Jones has had his way with Big Sky teams this year as he is averaging just shy over 20 points on the year and has scored in double figures in every game save one. He’s got Northern Arizona playing well entering the tournament as the Lumberjacks have won four of five games with the lone loss coming to Northern Colorado by a point.
First-Round Upset: Eastern Washington over Weber State. Although they have struggled for most of the season, Eastern Washington is riding a modest two game winning streak entering the Big Sky tournament with their last win coming against the team they will do battle with in the tournament’s first round: Weber State.
How’d They Fare? It was one of the most heroic performances that you have never heard of in college basketball. Anthony Johnson’s performance in the second half of the Big Sky Championship game against Weber State propelled Montana to the NCAA Tournament where they narrowly lost to #3 seed New Mexico. Montana was trailing 40-20 at the intermission, but Johnson scored 34 of his 42 points in the decisive half to defeat the Wildcats. If Johnson’s unbelievable performance carried over to the New Mexico game, Montana advances to the second round. Instead, they were defeated by the Lobos 62-57.
Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simple one of the greatest moments—if not the very greatest—in Big Sky history came in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina fans, close your eyes:
Daniel Spewak is the RTC correspondent for the Sun Belt Conference. With SBC tournament action set to tip on Saturday, get up to speed with RTC’s preview and regular season wrap-up.
The Favorite: The Sun Belt Conference tournament is what ESPN’s Championship Week is all about. There is no talk of “bubble” in the Sun Belt. The only team in the league with a chance at avoiding a 16-seed is Florida Atlantic, a team with a strong overall record and several quality wins. And even that’s a long shot. The Owls are the easy favorite to cut down the nets next Tuesday, but they’re not invincible. Just two weeks ago, they scored 42 points in a loss at Denver and fell at home to Louisiana-Lafayette.
On Fire: The last time Louisiana-Lafayette lost, Egypt was still an authoritarian country, the NFL was still playing and Michigan State was actuall yranked! The Rajun’ Cajuns don’t at all resemble the team that started 3-14, which is why the 11-game winning streak isn’t necessarily a fluke. They’re only one of two teams to win at FAU in league play this year, and a rematch may await next week.
The Sleeper: Sure, there’s an argument to be made that North Texas and Western Kentucky are strong “sleeper” picks, because underachievers often feel like they have new life once the conference tournament starts. We’re going to stray away from those teams, though, and pick Denveras the SBC sleeper. Of course, DU’s been an underachiever since that undefeated start in league play, but the Pioneers are in a different situation. After losing star Nate Rohnert, Joe Scott’s team wasn’t expected to compete in the West this year. Denver has exceeded expectations, in spite of the poor finish, and it has the pieces to win four games in a row. As we said earlier, Denver plays one of the nation’s slowest tempos and thrives when its methodical, Princeton offense can create open threes and layups. As long as the shots are falling and DU’s offense is executing, this team has a shot to pull a shocker.