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 – 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 Mentions: Steve Fisher – San Diego State, Derek Kellogg – Massachusetts, Tod Kowalczyk – Toledo, Mitch Henderson – Princeton
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.”
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.
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 IIIare 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The biggest news to release on Wednesday was that the ACChas 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.
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.
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.
With the coaching carousel winding down (only three jobs open currently), Jeff Goodmanrates 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.
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.
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.
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.
[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 »
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.
Tonight’s Lede. Championship Fortnight is under way! With three days still left in February, the Big South Tournament tipped off its opening round at two different campus locations to mark the arrival of the best time of the year. Elimination basketball, baby. Most of the nation is still focusing on the last week of the regular season in the power conferences, and the final Big Monday of the 2011-12 season featured one of the country’s two NPOY candidates in action, an RTC that went oh-so-badly, and an impressive defensive performance by a team we’re having trouble figuring out. Let’s jump in…
See That? Tournament Basketball Has Started... (credit: Big South Conference)
Your Watercooler Moment. When RTCing Goes Very Wrong. You all know our general set of guidelines when it comes to rushing the court. Make it special. Listen to your gut. Full and complete coverage. Easy enough, right? Well, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be RTCing for any reason until the game is actually over. Delaware State’s fans must not have gotten the memo tonight against Morgan State, and it severely cost them. After a tip-dunk by Tahj Tate gave the Hornets a one-point lead very late in the game, players and fans spilled onto the court in jubilation of the apparent victory. The only problem — there were still 1.1 seconds remaining on the game clock. After a significant delay, the officials levied a delay of game technical foul on Delaware State, allowing Morgan State’s Aric Brooks to hit two free throws to win the game. It’s not very often that MEAC basketball is highlighted on the national stage for something significant — this certainly isn’t the PR hit that the league offices were probably hoping for.
Survive and Advance. Big South. The Big South Tournament got under way on Monday night with High Point overtaking Gardner-Webb, 68-58, and VMI (remember when they could score?) outlasting Radford, 55-53. High Point will advance to play the top seed, UNC-Asheville, on Wednesday night, while VMI will take on the #2 seed, Coastal Carolina.
Unbelievably, even though the calendar reads February 27 and March is still a full 60 hours away, Championship Fortnight begins tonight in Lexington, Virginia, and High Point, North Carolina. The Big South Tournament opening round tips off this evening with two games hosted at VMI and High Point versus Radford and Gardner-Webb, respectively. Tomorrow night the Horizon League Tournament will tip off with games at Butler, Detroit, Youngstown State, and Milwaukee. In all, 16 different conferences will begin their tournaments this week, but only four will crown their champions by next Sunday — the Big South, the OVC, the Atlantic Sun, and the Missouri Valley. The full schedule of each round through next Sunday is below.
If you buy into the theory that (almost) every team has a shot to win it all through its conference tournament’s automatic bid, over the next 14 days we’ll whittle down roughly 321 contenders to the ballyhooed 31 AQs along with the chosen 37 at-larges. Even if you don’t care about that, it’s still worth noting that we start elimination-style, win-or-g0-home basketball as of tonight. No matter the month, that’s always a good thing.
Tonight’s Lede. After nearly a month of non-stop action, the schedule begins to lighten during the weeknights of the next two weeks as teams go easy while preparing for and taking final exams. There were only 17 games tonight, none involving ranked teams, and the rest of the week until Saturday is only marginally better. Still, that gives us all an opportunity to take a breath and begin reviewing exactly what we’ve seen in the first four weeks of play. That will come later this week, but as for tonight, there was really only one major storyline.
Your Watercooler Moment. Dick Vitale Court Unveiled at Detroit.
Dick Vitale: Defender of the Game (AP/C. Osorio)
It’s probably hard for college basketball fans under a certain age to believe this, but in the 1980s and part of the 1990s, Dick Vitale was almost as big a part of a broadcast as the teams playing that night. Whether Georgetown-Syracuse or Duke-Carolina or Michigan-Indiana, the game didn’t feel truly big time unless Vitale was in attendance. Long before he became the somewhat cliched caricature of himself known as “Dookie V,” the man was as instrumental as anyone alive in bringing college basketball to the masses and making it fun for fans. His coaching career at the University of Detroit Mercy was better than most think (78-30 overall, with a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 1977), but he’ll not be remembered for that — rather, it will be his unbelievable passion and intensity in elevating a game from merely exciting to out-of-your-seat enthralling. Let’s put it this way — with his innovative sayings, his obvious love for the sport, and the way he could bring himself to an apoplectic state at a basketball game, he was Gus before Gus. And for that, we’ll always love the guy, no matter how many times he mentions Duke in a broadcast.
That’s Debatable is back for another year of expert opinions, ridiculous assertions and general know-it-all-itude. Remember, kids, there are no stupid answers, just stupid people. We’ll try to do one of these each week during the season. We’re fairly discerning around here, but if you want to be included, send us an email with your take telling us why at email@example.com.
This Week’s Topic: Many of the small conferences are starting their tournaments this week. Which one do you find the most compelling in terms of the possibility of upsets and/or creating chaos for the NCAA Selection Committee in a little over a week? Also, pick a relatively unknown team that you’d like to see make a run through their conference tourney so that America will get to watch them play on the big stage in March Madness.
Walker Carey, RTC contributor.
I think the Horizon League Tournament is the small conference tournament that is the most compelling in terms of creating chaos for the NCAA Selection Committee. In my mind, Butler, Cleveland State, and Milwaukee are the only teams that have the capability of winning the tournament. If Butler loses (which is very possible), it will be very interesting to see how the committee will view the Bulldogs’ resume. I tend to believe that Cleveland State will win the Horizon League championship because they have the best player in the league on their team in senior guard Norris Cole. I would enjoy to see the Vikings make a run to the Horizon League championship and shake things up in the tournament like they did when they were a #13 seed and upset #4 seed Wake Forest two seasons ago. With Cole, I think this is very possible for Gary Waters’ Cleveland State squad.
John Stevens, RTC editor.
I’ll take the Colonial. You’ve got six 20-win teams out of twelve, and you’ve got to figure George Mason has a bid locked up with Old Dominion looking good, as well. Let’s say someone like Drexel (a 20-9 team with a resume that includes a win at Louisville, mind you) gets hot and wins this thing. Could we be looking at a four-bid year for the Colonial, with James Madison or VCU sneaking in as a function of the soft bubble this year? And how can you not root for William & Mary, a team that’s never been to the NCAA Tournament, after the fantastic case they made for at-large inclusion last year? As far as a team I’d like to see make a run, I’ll go with Morehead State. It wouldn’t be much of a run, of course, since as a 2-seed they earned that weird double-bye in the OVC Tournament and only need to win two games (same situation as 1-seed Murray State) to claim the title. But the world needs to see Kenneth Faried play at this level one more time. He and the Eagles won a preliminary round game in 2009 before getting cooked by 1-seed Louisville, and two NCAA Tournament games for the Fabulous Faried just doesn’t seem like enough.
Danny Spewak, RTC contributor.
Vermont won the America East Conference by one game and rightfully earned the top seed in the tournament by avoiding slip-ups against the league’s lower-tier teams. You’ll want to keep an eye on this tourney, though, because Vermont hasn’t exactly faired well against the top of the AE. Second-seeded Boston University swept Vermont this year, including an overtime win Sunday. And the third seed, Maine, routed the Catamounts on their home floor back in January. The Black Bears, a preseason favorite, have since collapsed and lost seven of eight games to finish the season. Regardless, either team could still pose a threat to Vermont’s NCAA tourney hopes at some point during the next week. For sympathy’s sake, I’d like to see Weber State win the Big Sky this March and pluck a spot in the Big Dance. How can you not feel bad for this program? Two years ago, the Wildcats ripped through the league with a 15-1 record but slipped to the NIT. Last year, Anthony Johnson’s legendary performance helped Montana stun the regular season champs again. Finally, 2010-11 appeared to be “The Year,” with two-time POY Damian Lillard returning for his senior year. Naturally, he broke his foot and played just 10 games this year, and he’ll now wait on the status of a medical redshirt. It’d be nice to see the third-seeded Wildcats win three games for their tragic hero.