Among Possible Cinderellas, Green Bay’s Ceiling Higher Than Most

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 1st, 2014

Oakland’s Greg Kampe screamed and scolded and tried everything he could to stop Green Bay’s second half surge on Thursday night, but it was ultimately futile—the Phoenix was just too talented, too relentless, too good for the Grizzlies to handle for 40 minutes. In fact, with a dynamic point guard and an NBA-caliber center leading the charge, Brian Wardle’s club might end up being the Horizon League’s most serious NCAA Tournament threat since the great Butler teams of yesteryear. And not just a one-off threat, either. If it can take care of business in the conference tournament, this bunch has legitimate second weekend potential in the Big Dance.

Keifer Sykes and the Phoenix are capable of doing damage in the Dance. (USAT)

Keifer Sykes and the Phoenix are capable of doing damage in the Dance. (USAT)

For one thing, Green Bay has the bodies and athleticism to hold its own against a lot of high-major behemoths. Alec Brown—the aforementioned future pro—is a 7’1’’ big man who can be as effective on the perimeter as he is on the low block. Which is to say, all around really effective. Against Oakland, Brown shot 4-for-7 from the behind the arc, including a quick-release transition three, and improved his mark to nearly 47 percent on the year. He’s even more lethal in the paint (shooting well above 50 percent), and is anything but a one-way player: Brown’s block rate is good for 32nd in the country and he’s already broken his own school record for blocked shots in a season three different times. And while the senior might serve to improve on his rebounding, Jordan Fouse and Greg Mays are more than equipped to fill any void that exists on the glass. The pair of athletic forwards are fine compliments to Brown, adept at cleaning up misses and throwing down jams. Fouse, for example, racked up nine rebounds (four offensive) and shot 6-for-6 from the field against the Grizzlies, including a thunderous alley-oop dunk to accentuate the Phoenix’s 11-0 run out of the halftime break. The frontcourt’s size and athleticism is uncharacteristic for a program of Green Bay’s stature, fully capable of giving an unwitting or under-prepared high-major opponent all kinds of fits in a few weeks.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Wyoming, Billy Baron, Brian Wardle & George Mason…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014

We are officially less than one month from Selection Sunday (hooray!), so standout performances (and dreadful upsets) are now more impactful than ever on conference races and NCAA Tournament aspirations. Let’s pass out some awards to the best of the best from the O26 last week.

O26 Team of the Week

Highlighted by the upset over San Diego State, Wyoming had a stellar week. (Jeremy Martin/AP)

Highlighted by the upset over San Diego State, Wyoming had a stellar week. (Jeremy Martin/AP)

Wyoming. The Pokes began the week with their biggest home win since joining the Mountain West in 1999, and ended it with their greatest defensive effort in that same span. On Tuesday night, Wyoming notched its first victory over a top-five team in Arena Auditorium in 16 years by defeating San Diego State, 68-82, to end the Aztecs’ 20-game winning streak and prompt a well-deserved rushing of the court. Not only did the Cowboys out-shoot, out-defend and out-energize Steve Fisher’s club, but they did so with style, eschewing open jumps shots (their offense is predicated on burning the shot clock and finding the best look possible) in favor of wide open dunks, time after time down the floor. At one point, as they opened up a double-figure lead midway through the second half, the team was exuding such high-flying swagger and cool confidence that it became hard to tell if you were watching  this year’s Wyoming club or last year’s Florida Gulf Coast. And when SDSU made a late charge to pull within four at the under-one minute mark, in a moment where it seemed the league powerhouse was going to exert its will, Nathan Sobey went ahead and threw down a transition slam — what else? — to bury the Aztecs for good. The last time Wyoming knocked off a team that highly ranked, the year was 1998, the opponent was Rick Majerus-led Utah, and the Cowboys’ head coach was… Larry Shyatt. The first time around.

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O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive Clash

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2014

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.

Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.

So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.

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In Case You Were Out Friday Night: Green Bay and Billy the Kid

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 18th, 2014

If you hit the town Friday night to enjoy a few beverages or catch up on Oscar-nominated flicks and you missed the Horizon League/MAAC double-header on ESPNU, allow us to catch you up on a couple storylines that emerged from two excellent basketball games.

Alec Brown and the Phoenix can play with anyone this season. (Courtesy: Green Bay Athletics)

Alec Brown and the Phoenix can play with anyone this season. (Courtesy: Green Bay Athletics)

Green Bay has tremendous potential. Green Bay withstood another monstrous dunk  by Jerran Young to beat Wright State on Friday night and move to 4-0 in the Horizon League, marking its eighth straight win overall. Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes again led the charge for Brian Wardle’s club, combining for 42 points and controlling the game from start to finish, even as the Raiders made numerous mini-runs throughout the second half. Now 14-3 and with metric rankings that scream ‘dangerous mid-major’, it’s time to start asking the question: Just how high is the ceiling for the Phoenix? If the team’s recent play is any indication, the answer might be “really, really high” — as in, NCAA-Tournament-victory-or-victories high. For one, there probably isn’t another inside-out combination as productive and dynamic as Brown and Sykes at the mid-major level. Brown is a legitimate NBA prospect (scouts were in the building on Friday night) whose athletic, 7’1” frame and ability to shoot from the perimeter (50% from three) — when he’s not dominating the paint — make him unstoppable on most nights. Sykes, meanwhile, is a quick, explosive point guard whose skills as a distributor are surpassed only by his scoring prowess — he dropped a career-high 34 points against Milwaukee last week and had 32 against Wisconsin in November. The rest of the group — players like the athletic forward Greg Mays and rebounding/defensive maven Jordan Fouse — complete a Green Bay team well-rounded enough to sit 42nd overall in KenPom’s rankings, having already beaten ACC-contender Virginia and pushed Wisconsin to the wire earlier in the season. Sure, the Phoenix could go on to drop several Horizon contests, lose in the league tournament and miss the Big Dance altogether. But it’s just as easy to see this team winning the conference, embracing the role of disrespected underdog and pulling off an upset or two in March.

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O26 Mid-Season Awards: Gregg Marshall, Chaz Williams, Jon Severe and Others…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 9th, 2014

With non-conference action all but wrapped up and league play already going in earnest, it‘s time now to pass out some mid-season superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn some national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next two months.

O26 Midseason Coach of the Year

Gregg Marshall has Wichita State off to a 15-0 start this season. (Jamie Green/MCT)

Gregg Marshall has Wichita State off to a 15-0 start this season. (Jamie Green/MCT)

Gregg Marshall – Wichita State. Could the Shockers actually outdo themselves from a year ago? Even with expectations high coming into 2013-14, very few could have predicted the kind of start Wichita State has had to this season, fresh off its Final Four run last March. Monumental success of that type often breeds sluggish beginnings or even major letdowns the year after, which is what makes Marshall’s coaching job so impressive — his team has not missed a beat. The Shockers have jumped out to a 16-0 record that includes wins over BYU, Tennessee, Saint Louis and Alabama, the latter two coming on the road and all of them despite losing key seniors Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead to graduation. Together with preseason MVC Player of the Year Cleanthony Early and NCAA Tournament hero Ron Baker, Marshall has inserted Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton into the lineup — complementary pieces a season ago — along with JuCo transfer forward Darius Carter to create a starting five arguably more efficient and consistent than last year’s group. They are balanced (four players average in double figures), deep, and rarely lack focus from night to night. And while the early winning has generated a lot of buzz about Wichita State possibly going undefeated in the regular season, its coach won’t let the commotion deter his team’s one-step-at-a-time approach. Marshall recently said, “I’ve always said you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Right now, we’re not thinking about eating the entire elephant. We’re thinking about our next meal.” That mentality has earned Marshall our award for mid-season O26 Coach of the Year.

Honorable MentionsSteve Fisher – San Diego State, Derek Kellogg – Massachusetts, Tod Kowalczyk – Toledo, Mitch Henderson – Princeton

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Big East M5: 10.21.13 Edition

Posted by Dan Lyons on October 21st, 2013

bigeast_morning5(2)

  1. New York Times writer Zach Schonbrun experienced a sense of relief among the various schools at last week’s Big East Media Day in Manhattan. After many seasons played under the shroud of conference realignment, culminating with the awkwardness of last season’s farewell tour for Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame, the Big East is now a settled, basketball-driven league focused on private schools in metropolitan markets. While the conference’s new members — Butler, Creighton, and Xavier — are all located in the Midwest, they fit into the league quite well culturally. St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin actually thinks the new schools fit in better than some of the public universities that have moved on to the American Athletic Conference, and the schools who left for the ACC for largely football-based reasons: “It’s not like a ‘Sesame Street’ deal — which one doesn’t belong… You’ve got a tree, a bush, some seaweed and then a truck. It just didn’t fit. I think now we have a league that’s more similar.”
  2. Georgetown lost an excellent player to the NBA Draft in standout forward Otto Porter, but guard Markel Starks thinks that the Hoyas are more than just one player and that his team will look to prove that this season: “We play as a unit… We play as a group. Obviously, we just lost a great player. Even still, with or without him, we play as a unit. … I think we can still be a very dangerous team.” Starks, now a senior, will probably bear much of the weight of Porter’s absence in the scoring column, after averaging 12.8 points per game last season. He will be joined in the backcourt by D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who proved capable of exploding for big point totals last season. Smith-Rivera scored at least 14 points in three of his last four regular season games last season, and dropped 33 in 34 minutes against DePaul on February 20.
  3. One of the major changes fans will notice in the conference this year is a lack of legendary coaches on the sidelines, although the Big East will not be hurting for talent in that spot. Gone are Hall of Famers like Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, but rising stars like Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Georgetown’s John Thompson III are poised to lead the conference into this new era. Thompson agrees that the coaching talent in the league is very high: “If you look around the room, the quality of coaching is outstanding. Yes, we lost some Hall of Fame coaches, but I don’t think too many teams want to go up against the guys in this room. Every game is going to be a battle. That was true last year; that’s going to be true this year.” Williams also believes in the overall quality of the league, and thinks it stands up with the best conferences in college basketball: “Every coach is going to say they play in the best league, but if you objectively study the numbers, I think what this league has done the last five years speaks for itself. I think this year that will hold firm, too.”
  4. Even without the likes of Syracuse, Louisville, and UConn, many are excited about the prospects of the Big East, especially those at the league’s three new schools: Butler, Creighton, and Xavier. Between the television contract with Fox Sports 1 and the ability to play at Madison Square Garden, the Big East provides a great increase in exposure for the former Horizon League, Missouri Valley Conference, and Atlantic 10 teams. Rumble in the Garden‘s Chris Ronca caught up with Xavier’s Chris Mack and Creighton’s Greg McDermott, who were both very excited about these new possibilities. Mack says his players are excited about playing at MSG:  “Playing for your conference championship in the Mecca is an amazing opportunity for Xavier fans and players.” McDermott talked about the league’s TV contract and it’s impact on the Creighton program: “[Creighton’s] fans have longed for this for awhile.” McDermott went on to say that “with Fox [Sports] 1, it’s very exciting for the program… there’ll be a lot of new ideas with how [Creighton’s] product is shown nationally.”
  5. Sports Illustrated‘s [and RTC‘s] Chris Johnson’s “Stock Watch” series sets its gaze on the Big East, and he’s quite bullish on Villanova, while throwing a bit of shade on Butler. Johnson cites Villanova’s surge in the middle of last season, where the Wildcats knocked off top five Louisville and Syracuse outfits in a a five-day stretch, as evidence that Jay Wright’s club is very dangerous. He likes the combination of Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston, and Daniel Ochefu, and believes that if the team continues to get to the free throw line and play stingy defense, it can push for the top of the league standings. As for Butler, Johnson believes that the loss of Brad Stevens in conjunction with an increase in the difficulty of conference play will hurt the Bulldogs, as will the departures of Rotnei Clark and Andrew Smith as well as the injury to Roosevelt Jones.
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Morning Five: 05.08.13 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on May 8th, 2013

morning5

  1. The biggest news of the day on Tuesday, and a subject on which we’ll have more later this afternoon, is that the NCAA Tournament’s marquee event, the Final Four, is headed to cable giant TBS beginning in 2014. CBS and Turner Sports have jointly held the broadcast rights to March Madness for three years now, and it was well-known that TBS would have the right to begin airing the Final Four next season, but the choice of Turner Sports to exercise that option shows just how valuable the company thinks the property has become. As to specifics, the two entities will split things next season, with each getting two games of the Elite Eight, Turner taking the Final Four, and CBS the national championship game. The same situation will apply in 2015, but in 2016 Turner will take the entire final weekend before rotating it back to CBS the next year and alternating each season after that (the Elite Eights will remain split). At first blush, this seismic broadcasting shift may appear to be a downgrade from network television, but as Mike DeCourcy writes, cable television is nearly as ubiquitous as the networks nowadays, and the additional revenue brought in from the partnership with Turner allowed the NCAA Tournament to avoid the nuclear option of a horrifying expansion to 96 teams.
  2. So the Final Four might be moving to a new broadcast format next year, what about some prominent players hoping to get there? A couple of rising seniors were on the move yesterday, with UNLV’s Mike Moser settling on a destination for his final collegiate season — Oregon — and Tennessee’s Trae Golden seemingly on the outs with his coaching staff as he has decided to leave Knoxville. Moser had been rumored to be considering Washington and Gonzaga, but the Portland product ultimately was swayed by the success that Dana Altman has shown with several of his transfers (most notably Arsalan Kazemi last season). Moser was a preseason All-American at UNLV last year who struggled with injuries and his role in a lineup that featured freshman wunderkind Anthony Bennett as well as a number of other talented players. The Moser transfer makes sense under the graduate exception, but Golden is a lot tougher to figure. After a successful junior season where he had made it publicly known he was pleased with the direction of the program (and why not, he was the only point guard on the team), he has decided to leave Knoxville; and if you read the tea leaves among some of his UT buddies, it may not have completely been his decision. He too will try to employ the graduate transfer option next season, but it’s at this point unknown where he is headed.
  3. From players on the move to programs, two more schools are jumping conferences in the timeless yet endless pursuit of greater glory somewhere up the food chain. Davidson‘s Stephen Curry may own the NBA Playoffs at this point, but he never owned the A-10! At least that’s the logic behind the tiny school’s jump from the SoCon (where it has been a member for the better part of 80 years) to the Atlantic 10 beginning in July 2014. The school has arguably had a move like this on its agenda for a while, because it turned down an invitation to the CAA last year, presumably expecting a bigger and better offer to come soon enough. One of the residual effects of all the football-driven conference realignment nonsense is that there has been a bit of an unanticipated pooling of talented mid-major basketball programs as a result. Along the same lines, Oakland University (remember, it’s in Michigan, not California) announced that it would be joining the Horizon League starting this summer. Even though Butler is now gone from the HL, Oakland brings a solid program to the fold led by Greg Kampe that has been to the NCAA Tournament in two of the last four seasons (2010, 2011).
  4. We missed this one yesterday, but it’s a fascinating piece published by David Steele that looks at the story behind one of this year’s 46 early entries into the NBA Draft — a guy by the name of Joshua Simmons. It’s not newsworthy in the sense that seemingly every year there are a few guys who forgo their eligibility who have no business doing so (and a few others who do so as a publicity stunt), but Simmons’ situation is really one of no other viable basketball options. It’s not that anyone he’s played for thinks he’s a bad apple or couldn’t potentially claw his way onto a professional roster someday, it’s that he simply ended up on a difficult path that led from a Division II school to a junior college to, well… nowhere. That’s why he’s on the early entries list, and that’s why he’s simply hoping for an invitation to the pre-draft camps and ultimately, the summer league. It’s certainly not a well-worn path to the NBA, but it’s the only one he has.
  5. By now we’re all sick of hearing about Andrew Wiggins, right? The precocious Canadian wing who has been compared to everyone from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant is the top player in the Class of 2013, and every major school on his list still thinks it has a great shot at landing him. His quartet of suitors are Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida State, but according to this article from the Louisville Courier-Journal, the wait should be ending soon. He expects to make his decision within the next “week or so,” which means that the message boards, blogs, and the commentariat at all four schools will be working overtime in the interim. In the meantime, he plans on moving back to Toronto, going to prom with his grade school friends, and generally trying to live the rest of his spring out as a normal teenager graduating high school would — in other words, an impossible feat for someone as closely watched as Wiggins.
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Morning Five: 05.10.12 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on May 10th, 2012

  1. The biggest news to release on Wednesday was that the ACC has renegotiated its television rights deal with ESPN in light of the fact that it has added two additional members. The twin poaching of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East last year will result in a 32.9% increased annual payout for each school — from an average of $12.9M to $17.1M — proving that the new reality of cable channels willing to pay exorbitant amounts for college sports isn’t drying up anytime soon. The total amount ESPN paid for the rights to ACC football and basketball through 2026-27 is $3.6 billion, ensuring that Dookie V. will remain in his catbird seat at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rest of his life.
  2. Realignment has allowed the ACC and the Big 12 (reportedly) to re-negotiate their television deals in their favor this week, so it’s unsurprising that further positioning is already under way. Chip Brown at Orangebloods.com floated a scenario yesterday that suggests the ACC’s Florida State could find a better deal over in the Big 12 ($19M per year), a conference that might also allow the Seminoles to develop its own Longhorn-style network (worth another estimated $5M per year). Very little would surprise us at this point, and the dollars talk — for the better part of two decades, FSU has seemed a strange fit in the basketball-centric ACC, so a jump to the Big 12 with no invitation to the SEC forthcoming seems just as reasonable as anything else. Maybe they could go west as a package deal: According to Andy Katz’s report from the new Big East commissioner’s conference call on Wednesday, Louisville has informed the other schools in its league that they’re gone at the first decent offer (presumably from the Big 12 or ACC). We’re sure there will be no shortage of this chatter for the next, oh, four months.
  3. Open and notorious solicitation of a school wanting to join a new conference isn’t confined only to the power leagues, of course. Oakland University (located in metro Detroit, not northern California) is hoping for consideration to replace Butler in the Horizon League when the Fighting Brad Stevenses move on to the Atlantic 10 after next season. A decade ago local rival Detroit, not wanting to share geographic space within the same league, managed to keep Oakland out — whether they’ll be able to turn down a program out of the Summit League that has made the NCAA Tournament three times in the last eight years remains to be seen. But it appears to be a natural fit if Detroit can find a way to play nice.
  4. With the coaching carousel winding down (only three jobs open currently), Jeff Goodman rates some of the notable coaching hires of this offseason. Although he doesn’t give actual grades to the decisions thus far, it’s interesting that he writes that the Larry Brown hire at SMU is the one where he’s “Not sold… yet.” In reading through this list, though, perhaps the most striking thing in a year where there have been 43 coaching openings so far, is that brand-name jobs have quite simply not been available. Which was the best opening — Virginia Tech? Kansas State? It has definitely not been a good year for aspiring young coaches to trade up — at least, not yet.
  5. It wasn’t a 1500-word missive to make his case for ‘nontraditional’ scheduling for a ‘nontraditional’ yet tradition-rich program, but Indiana’s Tom Crean on Wednesday gave his side of the story in the Great Scheduling Debate involving Kentucky and IU’s terminated home-and-home series. Crean basically argues that Indiana is already playing several neutral site games with the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis and whichever exempt tournament that it is invited to in a given season (e.g., next year’s Legends Classic), so it doesn’t make sense for the Hoosiers to play yet another neutral site game with Kentucky. He also reminds everyone that it was the Wildcats, not the Hoosiers (both under different head coaches at the time, who moved the game back on campus in the mid-2000s after a 15-year run at neutral venues. As we argued on Tuesday, though, the notion that teams should play as many as a quarter of its pre-NCAA schedule in neutral venues seems a bit ridiculous to us, but we’re mostly bitter about the loss of one of the best regional rivalries in college basketball, so don’t mind us.
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Why The Atlantic 10 and Butler Both Benefit From Bulldogs’ Addition

Posted by EJacoby on May 2nd, 2012

Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.

In recent years, the Atlantic 10 Conference has established itself as perhaps the strongest non-BCS league in college basketball. It’s not part of the power six, yet the A-10 is too good to put in the “mid-major” category. The conference sent four teams to the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and three teams to the Big Dance in each of the four years prior. With Tuesday’s news that Butler is heading to the Atlantic 10 for all sports beginning in the 2013-14 season, there’s reason to believe that the A-10 should remain one of the stronger college basketball leagues in the nation. Butler is a great replacement for Temple (departing in 2013), and the move also makes plenty of sense for the Bulldogs. After tremendous success in the Horizon League and historic prominence as a mid-major in back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011, it’s time for Brad Stevens and Butler to challenge itself in a stronger league.

Brad Stevens and Butler Is Headed to the Atlantic 10 in 2013-14 (AP Photo/D. Phillip)

Butler’s feat of back-to-back title game appearances will certainly hold as one of the biggest college basketball stories of this decade, but coach Stevens doesn’t want his legacy to be defined by those two seasons. Stevens could have had nearly any job opening he wanted after leading Butler to an 89-15 record in his first three seasons, but the coach was content with the ‘Butler Way,’ signing a long extension that will keep him in Indy through the 2021-22 season. Despite the team’s nationally recognized success, it’s still not easy to draw top recruits to play in the Horizon League. Butler could not pass up on this opportunity to join the stable and competitive A-10 starting in the fall of 2013, when the Bulldogs will ratchet up their schedule strength by taking on the likes of Xavier, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, La Salle, and St. Joseph’s in conference play. Already armed with one of the top names in coaching and a talented young roster, Butler now has the benefit of added exposure and competition to offer to potential recruits.

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Bracket Prep: St. Mary’s, Western Kentucky, Detroit, and South Dakota State

Posted by EJacoby on March 7th, 2012

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…

St. Mary’s

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Western Kentucky

  • Sun Belt Champion (15-18, 11-9)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #193/#192/#203
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = -2.4
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16 (First Four)
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ATB: Big East Tourney Begins and Four More Teams Punch NCAA Tickets…

Posted by rtmsf on March 7th, 2012

[Ed. note: Technical difficulties last night led to late publication of this post. For that, we apologize.]

Last Night’s Lede. For some in the Northeast, the Big East Tournament is the most spectacular event in the college basketball season. The classic six overtime Connecticut-Syracuse game from the 2009 tourney was replayed last night on ESPNU and brought us all on a trip down (recent) memory lane to one of the best games of the past decade. The conference’s powerhouses will hopefully bring us some more classic moments in Madison Square Garden this week, though Tuesday night’s first round didn’t include a single close game. Elsewhere, three more NCAA Tournament bids were earned in small conference tournaments, and the Ivy League’s champion was also determined a bit earlier than expected. Let’s get into the rundown of another fun Championship Week night…

Your Watercooler Moment.  South Dakota State Finally Dances.

SDSU Celebrates Its First Ever Trip to the Dance (Summit League)

It was a shocker when top-seeded Oral Roberts fell in the semifinals of the Summit League Tournament last night to Western Illinois, and last night’s heavily favored Jackrabbits nearly suffered the same fate. WIU led for much of the night on Tuesday and had a chance to win this game in regulation but could not convert. The Leathernecks (great team name, by the way) had another chance to tie or win it in overtime down by two but again fell short, giving South Dakota State its first ever Summit League championship and NCAA Tournament berth. The Jackrabbits have a mid-major star in Nate Wolters, who averages 21.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game, and will look to lead SDSU to an upset victory in next week’s Big Dance. South Dakota State has a fine RPI of #55 and could actually end up as a #14 or even #13 seed, giving it a realistic chance to bust open a bracket with an upset or two. Wolters scored just 14 points on 5-22 shooting in Tuesday’s low-scoring, 52-50 affair, but the guard is capable of going for 30 in any game.

Last night’s Quick Hits…

  • Western Kentucky the Most Unlikely Bid Winner Thus Far. In early January, Western Kentucky was a 5-14 team that had just fired its head coach after one of the strangest finishes you’ll ever see to a game, in which WKU’s opponent used six players on the final possession to win the game. Interim coach/permanent coach Ray Harper is now two months later leading the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament after their 74-70 win over North Texas on Tuesday night. This Sun Belt champion was the #7-seed in the tournament and will enter the NCAA’s as the sixth team in the past decade to have a record below .500, at 15-18. This resilient Western Kentucky team has gone through a wild ride and now will surely be playing early next week as part of the tournament’s ‘First Four’ games, looking to advance to take on a #1 seed. Read the rest of this entry »
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ATB: Friday Night Lights With Jack Cooley, Harvard, and Plenty of Conference Tourney Action…

Posted by rtmsf on March 3rd, 2012

Tonight’s Lede. Friday night is usually reserved for the likes of the Ivy League and the MAAC, but that’s not the case during Championship Fortnight. With eight mid-major conference tournaments in action and 22 more teams eliminated from national title contention tonight, there were plenty of reasons to stay interested. Furthermore, we were treated with some compelling Ivy action as well as another look at one of the surprise teams of not only the Big East but also the entire country this year. Let’s jump into it…

Your Watercooler Moment. Cooley Than You.

Jack Cooley Is One of the Big East's Biggest Surprises This Year (US Presswire)

Just four days after Jack Cooley’s worst game of the year — a two-point, zero-rebound outing at Georgetown — the junior center returned to the lineup with a vengeance tonight, going for a 27/17 masterpiece on 10-15 shooting from the field to lock his team into a double-bye at next week’s Big East Tournament. The fact that we just wrote the previous sentence — that Notre Dame finished in the top four of the Big East standings and received a double-bye — is nothing less than phenomenal and a testament to the vast improvement of Cooley and several of his teammates this season. After losing its top three players to graduation (Ben Hansbrough, Carleton Scott) and injury (Tim Abromaitis), nobody expected the youthful Irish to do much of anything this year. Instead, Mike Brey’s team is now locked into the #3 seed in next week’s conference tournament and owns the only victory of the season over the Syracuse juggernaut. We’re not completely sold on the Irish making a deep run into March Madness, but the fact of the matter is that Mike Brey is one of the most underrated coaches in the country given that he’s pushed his team to six straight 20-win seasons and will make the NCAAs for the fifth time in six seasons.

Tonight’s Quick Hits

  • Harvard Keeps Hope Alive. It’s seemed a foregone conclusion for months that Harvard would win the Ivy League’s automatic bid this season and earn its first trip to the NCAA Tournament in over six decades. After last weekend’s home loss to Penn, however, the Crimson and Quakers were locked in a tie with two defeats each in the loss column. The Ivy doesn’t do artificial tiebreakers — like last year’s Harvard-Princeton classic, they decide their ties on the court. With alumnus Jeremy Lin watching from the stands in Morningside Heights tonight, Harvard barely survived Columbia in a nail-biting game that went to overtime. Penn kept the pace with an easier win over Brown, but HU will travel next to Cornell while the Quakers still have a home game against Yale before its rivalry game at Princeton on Tuesday. With one more win Saturday, the Crimson are at least guaranteed a berth in the Ivy playoff game again, but they probably do not want to tempt the basketball gods by losing that one.
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