Brian Goodman is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from the Kansas City pod of this weekend.
Three Key Takeaways:
Western Kentucky gave Kansas a ride, but Jeff Withey was the difference and Kansas escaped. (AP/Orlin Wagner)
For 35 minutes, Western Kentucky evoked ghosts of Kansas tournament past, but not in the classical sense. Even dating back to the Paul Pierce era, the Jayhawks have lost tournament heartbreakers and pulled out near-misses to far inferior teams with undersized sweet-shooting talents. That wasn’t the case tonight, as Western Kentucky held a 31-30 halftime lead despite just one made three. Rather, the Hilltopers made good use of George Fant’s fearlessness, Jamal Crook’s elusiveness and T.J. Price’s nose for the ball to send the hometown crowd into a prolonged state of anxiety. Western Kentucky matched Kansas in the shooting department in the first half, but frustrated Jeff Withey into a pair of fouls and outdoing the Jayhawks on the glass. Kansas’ backcourt struggled mightily, leaving the bulk of the work to Withey and freshman Perry Ellis. Kansas’ defense adjusted at halftime – what else would you expect from Bill Self? – and forced Western Kentucky into an icy 20.5% clip in the second half.
Jeff Withey saved Kansas from the wrong side of history. The Jayhawks’ paint protector dug KU out of the mess with big blocks and baskets in the closing minutes. Withey rejected seven shots total, which begs the question of why exactly the Hilltoppers continued to run at him. Fant had some success against him in the first half, but the Big 12’s all-time blocks leader was having none of it after the intermission, and his contributions on both ends of the court helped Kansas avoid an historic upset. One of the big storylines Sunday will be how Bill Self utilizes his center against a heavily perimeter-oriented Tar Heel squad.
The Jayhawks will need much more out of its backcourt on Sunday. Against a far inferior squad, Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore combined for just 21 points, a handful of which came in the closing seconds as Western Kentucky desperately tried to come back. The issue wasn’t as much Jamal Crook, Caden Dickerson and T.J. Price being problematic defensively as much as Kansas making suspect decisions. The Jayhawk backcourt finished the game sloppily in the closing seconds, giving Western Kentucky several opportunities that it didn’t earn down the stretch. Looking forward, Kansas has struggled against pressure defense throughout the season, so it will definitely be interesting to see how the Tar Heels approach the Jayhawks defensively.
Star Of The Game: Jeff Withey (17 points, six rebounds, seven blocks) – Kansas’ center was everywhere Friday night, coming up huge in the second half to give KU’s sputtering offense the opportunities it needed to gain separation. It became mind-boggling to see the Hilltoppers continue to dribble right at Withey, and he turned them away at seemingly every opportunity.
Championship Week continued in full blast on Monday night, as five more NCAA Tournament tickets were punched. As each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.
Sun Belt Cinderellas Again — Welcome Back To The Big Dance Hilltoppers
Sun Belt Champion (20-15, 14-10)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #166/#183/#184
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.5
Likely NCAA Seed: #15-#16
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
Who needs the regular season anyways? For the second consecutive campaign, Western Kentucky saw months of mediocrity give way to an unlikely week of dominance at the Sun Belt Tournament, where they depart as champions again. The sequel may never be as thrilling as the original – the 2012 Hilltoppers were just 9-18 (!) before winning their final six games to earn the auto-bid – but this Western Kentucky team is as unlikely a Big Dance participant as any.
Western Kentucky isn’t elite in any one facet of the game, but they may be able to match up with their opening round opponent with regard to physicality and toughness. The Hilltoppers are third in the Sun Belt in effective height, and also rank third in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. 6’6” sophomore George Fant is slightly undersized for the amount of time he spends in the paint, but leads the team in rebounding at 6.6 boards per game. Fant also ranks in the top 50 in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Senior Jamal Crooks (11.8 PPG, 4.1 APG) is another high-motor Hilltopper – his emotional energy and leadership is a crucial reserve for the young team around him.
Expect WKU to compete on both ends, but don’t mistake intensity with skill. They do not shoot the ball well from deep, turn the ball over at an unacceptable clip (on 22.3% of possessions), and don’t play a whole lot of defense either. It all adds up to a rather unimpressive paper profile, and the 10-10 Sun Belt record before this week does little to make you feel better about things. The exact seed line will depend on what happens elsewhere, but either way, it’s hard to envision the Hilltoppers being competitive, much less capable of manufacturing an upset for the ages.
Soak It In De’Mon — You And The Wildcats Are Tournament Bound Yet Again
As we move through Championship Week (the second half of Championship Fortnight, of course), we’ll continue to bring you these short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. In this post, we’ve got the WCC, Summit, Horizon, and Sun Belt winners from the past two nights…
Matthew Dellavedova (And His Mouth Guard) Are Dangerous (AP/ Tony Avelar)
WCC Champion (27-5, 16-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #25/#43/#35
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +11.3
Likely NCAA Seed: #6-#8
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
St. Mary’s has been a nationally-recognized mid-major for a number of years now, but the Gaels program did something this year that it had never done before, and especially not in the Mark Few/Gonzaga era — win both the outright regular season WCC title and the conference tournament championship. Whether this is a notable achievement en route to a nice run in the NCAA Tournament or something that represents the highlight of the season remains to be seen, but there’s no question that this group has the team chemistry, coaching, and talent to do some damage in the coming week. Two years ago, the Gaels rode a red-hot Omar Samhan past two perimeter-oriented teams into the Sweet Sixteen, and if the matchups break favorably for them again, Randy Bennett‘s team certainly has the capability of breaking through again.
The straw that stirs the Gaels’ drink is WCC Player of the Year, Matthew Dellavedova. The sneaky-quick Australian point guard can score (15.6 PPG), shoot (59 threes, 36.0% 3FG), dish (6.4 APG) and board (3.3 RPG), but more than any of that, it is his ability to successfully run Bennett’s offensive sets that makes him invaluable. St. Mary’s has an elite offense (#20 nationally), which is roughly on par with the Sweet Sixteen team of two seasons ago. Where it struggles, of course, is on the defensive end. As exhibited on nights against athletic teams when the shots aren’t falling, the Gaels have trouble keeping the game close enough to grind out a victory.
As good as Dellavedova and his senior compatriot Rob Jones are (14.8 PPG, 10.7 RPG), the duo struggles against superior athletes. Jones was harassed into a rough outing against the waves of rangy athletes that Murray State threw at the Gaels in their Bracketbuster game last month, while Dellavedova was bumped into a 3-10 shooting performance (1-8 from three) against Baylor earlier in the season. This is why matchups are absolutely key for St. Mary’s next week. If they come up against a first game opponent that can out-run and out-jump them at most positions, they’re probably in big trouble — Connecticut or Mississippi State comes to mind — but if they instead find themselves matched up against a team that plays under the rim like they do — say, Harvard or Purdue — they have a great shot to advance one or two rounds.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
Sun Belt Tourney Outlook (by seed)
Middle Tennessee (25-5, 14-2): The heavy favorite to win the tournament, the Blue Raiders have a decent computer profile in case they falter. Still, Kermit Davis won’t want to leave anything to chance.
UALR (15-15, 12-4): The Trojans won the tournament last year out of nowhere. This year, they can’t sneak up on anybody.
Denver (21-8, 11-5): By far the scariest team in the league right now. If you watched them play back in November and December, you probably thought they’d win this league running away. Now, they’re starting to play like that again.
Louisiana (16-14, 10-6): Yes, the ULM loss is ugly, but this team must simply forget about that and move on.
North Texas (16-13, 9-7): The Mean Green are in a different position in the tournament this year as opposed to 2011. Back then, a senior-laden team was on a mission—a mission that fell short in the final seconds thanks to UALR. These young guys are a little more happy-go-lucky, though, which could be to their benefit.
South Alabama (16-11, 8-8): The Jaguars are one of the league’s most surprising teams, finishing .500 despite bringing in an entirely new backcourt. Ronnie Arrow definitely has a major sleeper here.
Western Kentucky (11-18, 7-9): UALR could have a difficult time with WKU in the quarterfinals, especially since the Hilltoppers have nothing to lose and have played well lately.
Florida Atlantic (11-18, 7-9): Despite this season’s disastrous results, four wins in four days are all Mike Jarvis needs to forget all about it.
Arkansas State (12-19, 6-10): The Red Wolves probably aren’t as bad as their record suggests, since they’ve lost a lot of close games and have competed somewhat against the top of the league.
Florida International (8-20, 5-11): In DeJuan Wright’s last stand, maybe his teammates will rally for him.
Troy (10-17, 5-11): The Trojans closed the season with two straight victories. That counts for something.
The Year That Was
After entering the season in the shadow of East favorite Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee dominated the Sun Belt Conference and ran away with the division.
The slumping Owls fell well short of expectations, but Kermit Davis’ team played masterful defense and pounded the ball inside to LaRon Dendy and J.T. Sulton. This was supposed to be a team with major offensive question marks. And this was supposed to be a program that could never get over the proverbial hump. This season, though, Davis finally elevated the Blue Raiders to the top.
After Entering The Season In The Shadow Of East Favorite Florida Atlantic, Kermit Davis' Middle Tennessee Crew Dominated the Sun Belt Conference (Getty)
No team experienced more turmoil than Western Kentucky, which fired Ken McDonald after a lackluster start. Even with one of the league’s youngest squads, Ken Harper took over and immediately instilled a new confidence in his players. Apparently, he impressed somebody at the top. The school gave Harper the reigns as the full-time head coach after originally tabbing him as an interim replacement. Harper led WKU to three wins in its final four games, including an upset of Middle Tennessee in the season finale.
Arkansas-Little Rock lost Sun Belt Player of the Year Solomon Bozeman to graduation, and the 2011-12 season did not begin with much fanfare. UALR struggled through a difficult non-conference schedule and as Denver flew high in November and December, it appeared the reigning Sun Belt tourney champs may fall flat. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The Pioneers used a late surge to finish with 11 conference wins, but UALR edged them for the West title by playing good old-fashioned Steve Shields basketball all winter.
We said before the season not to anticipate immediate dominance from Tony Mitchell at North Texas. Again, we couldn’t have been more wrong (that’s a theme here, as you’ve probably noticed). Mitchell averaged a double-double in his first season of collegiate basketball to help keep the Mean Green afloat despite the ineligibility of Chris Jones and Jordan Williams. If Mitchell stays another year, look out.
Louisiana-Monroe will not compete in the Sun Belt tourney due to a poor academic rating, but it closed the regular season with one heck of a victory. It’s so significant and shocking, in fact, that it’s worthy of inclusion in this section as a part of the overall landscape of the Sun Belt’s 2011-12 season. It was one of those scores that simply makes you shake your head: ULM 78, Louisiana 60. That happened this weekend. In Lafayette, mind you. And remember, ULM has lost 26 games this season. This is the kind of stuff they make Hollywood movies about. Just consider the storylines: 1) it was a rivalry game 2) Louisiana is one of the league’s better squads 3) ULM’s seniors will never play again and the team cannot compete in the postseason 4) it was on UL’s home floor 5) brothers Steven (ULM) and Darshawn (UL) McClellan were playing against each other 6) ULM won by 18 points and 7) ULM has, um, 26 losses this season! By the way, Steven and Darshawn both scored in double figures. Steven may have won, but Darshawn’s team is playing this weekend, so he’s got bragging rights there.
Tony Mitchell's Outstanding Season Earned Him Player of the Year Honors (Denton Record-Chronicle)
Sun Belt Conference Awards
Player of the Year: Tony Mitchell, North Texas
In some ways, we’re almost hesitant to give this award to a freshman. But Mitchell earned this. He averages a double-double, he’s the best shot-blocker in the league and he changes the game by simply stepping on to the court. Who else in this league can grab 20 rebounds one night, block six shots the next night and then score 30 points the next night? In a league with several terrific stars, Mitchell is an incomparable talent.
Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee
Surprisingly, as much as a slam dunk as this pick may seem, it’s hard to pick against Steve Shields at UALR or Joe Scott at Denver. Still, Davis crafted a team with a lot of new parts into a big winner. He got the most out of Dendy after he transferred from Iowa State and he molded his guards into a really solid unit. In the end, this team played its tail off. It showed.
D’Andre Williams, UALR, Guard: A quintessential leader, this man was the driving force behind the Trojans’ surprising West title this season. They don’t make them like D’Andre Williams anymore: solid, gritty, defensive-minded and able to make his teammates better in every way.
DeJuan Wright, FIU, Guard: The senior may actually be the league’s most underrated player, despite leading the league in scoring. How’s that for bizarre?
D’Andre Williams (far left), DeJuan Wright, Chris Udofia and LaRon Dendy Rounded Out the Sun Belt First Team
Chris Udofia, Denver, Forward: Finally, we got one right—we chose Udofia to break out this season, and he certainly did. But frankly, it wasn’t hard to see this coming. As a sophomore, he simply built on his success as a reserve the year before, and with more consistent playing time he became a stud on both ends of the floor.
LaRon Dendy, MTSU, Forward: Chosen by the league as the Player of the Year, Dendy could put a scare into somebody in the NCAA Tournament. He matches up well with any major frontcourt.
Tony Mitchell, UNT, Forward: Let’s pray he comes back for another season.
Danny Spewak is the RTC correspondent for Sun Belt Conference. You can find him Twitter @dspewak.
The Week That Was
Surprise, surprise: Middle Tennessee is your East Division champion. Reeling off four straight victories after that lone loss at Denver on national television earlier this month, the Blue Raiders tallied 30 assists in a 94-61 win at Louisiana-Monroe on Thursday night. That’s downright unheard of. They also made 10 three-pointers and allowed 15 players to appear in the game. Kudos to Kermit Davis for sharing the love.
Kermit Davis and Middle Tennessee Are On The Brink Of Joining The NCAA Tourney Party (AP)
It’s official: Ray Harper is no longer an interim head coach at Western Kentucky– he got the full-time gig. The move adds a little stability to an increasingly unstable program in Bowling Green after the rocky tenure of previous head coach Ken McDonald. Harper, who served as an assistant on McDonald’s staff, won two national championships as a head coach in the Division II ranks. His team has responded relatively well to him, despite youth and major adversity.
Middle Tennessee (25-4, 14-1): With a top-40 RPI and a decent computer profile, the Blue Raiders could actually sneak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. Kermit Davis certainly won’t want to bank on that, though especially since Middle Tennessee lacks that elusive signature victory. As a biased observer of the Sun Belt, it’s clear this team belongs in the Big Dance. Watch these guys play for 10 minutes and you’ll understand that. Unfortunately, the selection committee needs to be able to quantify success, and a few wins over Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Belmont, and Mississippi won’t get the job done. This is all a pointless debate if the Blue Raiders take care of business in Hot Springs though.
South Alabama (16-10, 8-7): Here come the Jaguars: with six victories in their last seven games, they have locked up the two-seed in the East Division. South Alabama completed a sweep of Florida Atlantic by edging the preseason favorites in overtime on Thursday, a symbolic victory in more ways than one. If you are looking for a trendy upset pick in the Sun Belt Tournament, here’s your team. Read the rest of this entry »
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
There’s not much excitement to report from the Sun Belt’s first night of conference play on Thursday, but UALR looks like the big winner with a road win at North Texas. The Trojans, who have struggled on the road under Steve Shields in recent years, had lost all six away contests during non-conference play, but a double-double from forward Will Neighbour and stellar guard play helped grind out the victory over the Mean Green. That will probably be a theme this year in the wide open West Division, where only Denver has established itself as a power. The Pioneers, by the way, handled Troy at home in their opener. East leader Middle Tennessee also held off a pesky Florida International team in Murfreesboro, and Western Kentucky escaped in overtime at Louisiana-Monroe.
With the second semester underway, the much anticipated debut of Tony Mitchell at North Texas hasn’t disappointed anybody. Although Mitchell struggled with foul trouble in the loss to UALR on Thursday, he has already showcased his freakish athleticism by throwing down dunk after dunk during his first four games. In wins over Jackson State, Grambling and New Orleans, Mitchell averaged more than 13 points per game and looked more than comfortable on the court. Even in a loss to LSU, Mitchell scored 11 points in 27 minutes after earning the start for Johnny Jones. He’s still improving at this point, but Mitchell should be a different player by early March.
Kermit Davis Has His Middle Tennessee Squad In Mid-Season Form (AP)
Middle Tennessee (12-2, 1-0) — Congratulations, Kermit Davis: you are now the winningest coach in MTSU history. Davis won his 165th game against FIU on Thursday, but more importantly, his team looks like the runaway favorite in the East after completing an impressive non-conference run. Two months ago, suggesting another division champ besides Florida Atlantic would have seemed insane, but Davis finally may have turned the corner with this program. This team is physical, nasty and downright intimidating, especially on the defensive end with LaRon Dendy and Shawn Jones as the shot-blockers. These forwards rebound well and they don’t give an inch in the paint, and on the other end — Dendy in particular has emerged as a back-to-the-basket scorer. There was never a question that MTSU would defend this season, but Bruce Massey, Marcos Knight and the rest of the guards have also answered every offensive concern Davis had in the pre-season. Middle Tennessee looks like a machine on offense right now, and that’s because it shares the ball as well as anybody in the Sun Belt.
Florida Atlantic (4-9, 0-0) — Don’t give up on the Owls. Sure, the record doesn’t look pretty, but Mike Jarvis challenged this team by taking his players to every city imaginable: Seattle, Washington D.C., Hempstead (N.Y.), Tampa, Lawrence, Starkville, Sunrise (Fla.) and Cambridge. That’s a lot of plane trips and bus rides, so it’s not surprising that the East Division favorite stumbled. It’s not encouraging that Jarvis’s squad could not pull even a single road upset over the likes of Kansas, Mississippi State, Miami or Harvard, but this team has not looked intimidated in any of those contests. It fought admirably in a double-overtime loss to the Hurricanes, using a frantic comeback late in regulation to shock UM. And the good news is, all-league point guard Ray Taylor is starting to play better after an early-season slump, and freshman Omari Grier has cracked into this loaded backcourt as the team’s best outside shooter. When FAU kicks off Sun Belt play on Saturday at Louisiana, don’t expect it to roll over and die. Read the rest of this entry »
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)
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Sun Belt correspondent, Danny Spewak.
Staying Put: Not a single head coach in the Sun Belt changed jobs this summer. That fact is especially noteworthy in Bowling Green, a city that nearly chased Western Kentuckycoach Ken McDonald away during a mid-season losing streak. Athletic director Ross Bjork chose to retain McDonald, and he gave a fascinating interview to Nick Baumgardner about his decision. Down south in the state of Texas, Johnny Jones will return to North Texas after rumors linked his name to a few power-conference job openings. The folks over at ESPN Dallas saw asilver lining to UNT’s underachieving regular season and loss in the finals of the SBC Tourney. Jones interviewed at Auburn prior to last season, so although he’s in Denton for now, his name may keep popping up on the national radar.
They Don’t Count: Kentucky coach John Calipari made headlines this summer when NCAA officials asked him to apologize for holding a ceremony in February celebrating his 500th career victory. After all, due to vacated wins at Massachusetts and Memphis, some of Calipari’s wins don’t count in the formal record books. Turns out, Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis is getting the same message from the NCAA—just without the media coverage. Reporters at FAUOwlAccess.com did some serious investigative reporting by obtaining a letter sent to FAU, telling the school not to count Jarvis’ vacated victories at St. John’s. School officials say they have no objections to the NCAA’s request.
Big-Time Transfer: Games between Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe just got a little more interesting. Vanderbilttransfer Darshawn McClellan announced in May he will transfer to ULL, and that means coach Bob Marlin picks up a 6’7″ forward who averaged more than 14 minutes per game during his first two years in the SEC. But more importantly, it means he’ll play against his brother, Steven McClellan, a sophomore forward who averaged 5.1 points per game last season. Who will the family root for?
Solomon Bozeman shot the UALR Trojans into the NCAA Tournament before falling to Akron in the first round (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images).