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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
The Lede. The story of this week so far appears to be just how difficult it is for us to find 37 at-large teams to fill out this year’s bracket. Can you imagine how this would look if they NCAA had expanded to 96 teams? We’d be discussing teams like New Mexico, Cal and Ole Miss as serious candidates for inclusion, a specter that nobody would want to face. Memo to all the bubble teams — give us a reason to support your selection, will you?
Diebler Didn't Need to Drive Tonight (AP/J. Beale)
Your Watercooler Moment. Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble. On Saturday night, after Virginia Tech successfully vanquished the Dookies and RTC’d with reckless abandon, we wrote: “Did Virginia Tech Finally Get Over the NCAA Hump? Of course, it’s hard to say for certain with these guys. After vanquishing #1 Duke for its most important win in years, the Hokies will probably turn around and lose to Boston College at home on Tuesday. Let’s hope not.” Sigh……… And Seth Greenberg dares to argue year after year why his team is left on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in? His team didn’t show up tonight, falling behind by as much as 30-12 in the opening minutes and only making half-hearted runs the rest of the way — put simply, BC appeared to be a team that wanted to play in the NCAAs, while Tech seemed to play like they were already guaranteed a bid. The Hokies now sit at 19-10 (9-6 ACC) with a tough trip to fellow bubbler Clemson over the weekend on the horizon. It’s going to be another one of those Marches for the Virginia Tech fanbase, as even with a bubble softer than Greenberg’s midsection, the Hokies are no lock for the NCAAs and are generally unlikely to make things easy on the Selection Committee.
In other Bubble trouble, several teams hurt their case in what is rapidly becoming a race to the dirty bottom in terms of finding enough legitimate teams to fill out this year’s 68-team bracket.
Baylor – The Bears were already on a bit of life support with only a handful of bracketologists having Baylor as a part of the 68-team field based on their current resume. Getting a road win against a middle-pack Big 12 team would have helped, but a terrible shooting night from their backcourt of LaceDarius Dunn and AJ Walton (combined 5-26 FGs) did them in. The Bears host reeling Texas over the upcoming weekend, but it’s looking more and more that, with a weak RPI and few quality wins of substance, that the only way Baylor finds its way back into the Dance is by making a run in the Big 12 Tournament.
Alabama – For a half, it appeared that maybe, finally, inexorably, Anthony Grant’s team might get the kind of marquee win that would make all the bracketologists stand up and take notice that they’re playing some pretty good ball down in Tuscaloosa this winter. It wasn’t to be. Florida blistered the Tide with a 48-21 second half, breaking open a tied game at the half and clinching the Gators’ first SEC regular season title since the Oh-Fours left campus in 2007. For Bama, its rough non-conference schedule is likely to act as an NCAA albatross two Sundays from now — the Tide needs to win the SEC Tournament, more than likely, to Dance this year.
Illinois – The Illini competed with Purdue tonight, but they simply weren’t going to beat the Boilermakers in their building where they were 16-0 this season. This loss won’t hurt them much, but they do not want to enter the Big Ten Tournament next week with an 8-10 conference record and absolutely needing a win, do they? Beating Indiana at home is a security blanket that they cannot afford to drop (Illinois lost to Indiana in Bloomington, remember).
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
Louis Farrakhan as College Hoops Patron. Yes, you read that correctly. We don’t usually think of the elderly Nation of Islam leader and college basketball at the same time, ever, but Farrakhan attended tonight’s NC State-Virginia game to represent for his grandson, Cavalier guard Mustapha, during his Senior Night. Farrakhan the Younger dropped 15/4/3 assts in an 11-point win for Virginia, a key victory as the Wahoos attempt to keep an overall winning record to become NIT-eligible this season. The Cavs are currently 15-14 with a road game at Maryland and the ACC Tournament upcoming, so they still have some work to do. We suppose this might be the first and only time that Farrakhan will ever attend a college hoops game.
Conference tournaments start tonight, as both the Big South Conference and Horizon League tip things off with opening round postseason action. As of right now, there are approximately 325 teams still “alive” for the 2011 national championship. Each of their names is somewhere below in the Circle of March, as we’re calling it. When a team is formally eliminated, either through a loss in their mid-major conference tourney, a discharge by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, or a subsequent defeat in the NCAAs, we’ll remove its name from our circle. On April 4, there will only be one team left from amidst this chaos — see if you can find which one.
To celebrate the start of the postseason, we’ve also put together a nice little chart to help you follow along. The next thirteen days — a/k/a Championship Fortnight – will without question be wild as teams play their way in and out of the NCAA Tournament picture and correspondingly exhibit the heartache and unadulterated joy that goes along with the beauty of March Madness.
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences. Up first are the Big South and Horizon League.
Being the “Other 26” guy around these parts, I deemed it appropriate to give a quick look into all 25 (the Ivy, of course, has no tournament) of the non-BCS conference tournaments prior to their commencement. I will bring you these previews for each conference on the day their first round games are slated to be played. We kick things off with the Big South and the Horizon League. Both will unquestionably be interesting tournaments as Coastal Carolina’s recent issues and allegations regarding NCAA violations have opened the door for the rest of the conference. Unlike the Big South which was dominated by Coastal for nearly the entire year, the Horizon League had great parity at the top of the conference with six teams reaching ten wins or better.
The Favorite: Coastal Carolina—dare I say it—no longer the favorite to win the Big South tournament? After coming up just short last year as Winthrop dashed their hopes of advancing to the NCAA Tournament, Coastal came out with a vengeance this year to take back what they thought should have been theirs. They won 22 straight games—14 of them coming in the Big South—and appeared untouchable. But, amidst recruiting violations and eligibility issues, Coastal’s chance at advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993 has taken a serious hit. Now, the league is wide open with Liberty, and UNC-Asheville also vying for the coveted auto-bid. I like Asheville as they have won three straight heading into the conference tournament with one of the wins coming in dramatic fashion against Coastal at the buzzer.
Dark Horse: They score a whole lot of points, but also give up a ton as well. Clearly, I am referring to the VMI Keydets. The scoring ability of Austin Kenon with his deadly shot is an aspect of VMI’s game that always makes them a threat to win games.
Who’s Hot: VMI happens to be the hottest team entering the tournament having won five of their last six games.
Player to Watch: Now that Coastal Carolina’s Desmond Holloway has been ruled ineligible, there is no other obvious player to keep an eye on. Austin Kenon for VMI is certainly one to keep tabs on as he can light up the gym maybe better than anyone in the conference, but I believe Matt Dickey of UNC-Asheville is poised for a big tournament. If Dickey’s name sounds familiar it is due to his heroics as he miraculously stole Coastal Carolina’s inbounds pass and hit an off-balance three to propel his Bulldogs to a big win.
Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.
Some bad news for those of you expecting the bubble to shrink in the next two weeks: the number of potential bid stealers is smaller than I can ever remember. The most likely candidates in previous years were out of Memphis-dominated Conference USA, Butler-dominated Horizon or WCC-dominated Gonzaga, but this season none of those three perennial powerhouses are locks for the dance, rendering each conference a one (or two in the WCC with Saint Mary’s) league. In fact, all three likely need to win their respective tournaments to feel safe on Selection Sunday. The Missouri Valley is also shaping up as a one-bid league for the fifth straight year and BYU, San Diego State and UNLV (playing the tournament at their home floor in Vegas) are so far ahead their Mountain West competition it’s highly unlikely any major upsets come to fruition. The same theory applies to Utah State in the WAC. One team that I do feel could snag a bid from a mediocre bubble team is Southern California out of the Pac-10 in a replay of 2009 when the #6 seed Trojans at 9-9 in the league rode DeMar DeRozan, Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson to a surprising automatic berth. With 12 losses overall on the season – including black marks against Rider, Bradley and TCU from early in the campaign– Kevin O’Neill’s squad clearly needs to complete a sweep of the conference tournament to go dancing. Depth and consistent scoring has been a recurring issue all season, but the talent is in place with a frontcourt duo of Nikola Vucevic (17.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG) and Alex Stephenson and the growing comfort level of point guard transfer Jio Fontan, who tied a season-high with 21 points in Thursday’s upset win over Arizona. USC also has the highest defensive efficiency in the Pac-10 and limited Arizona star Derrick Williams to just eight points. Watch out for the Trojans in two weekends as a sneaky candidate to turn the Pac-10 a four-bid league.
Nikola Vucevic and USC is a possible bid stealer in two weeks
A tip of the cap is in order for Frank Martin and his Kansas State Wildcats. Most skewered the hard-nosed coach for losing control of his program during K-State’s numerous low points –from the loss in Kansas City to UNLV sans Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly to the embarrassing blowout at rival Kansas with Gameday in the house to once-heralded recruit Wally Judge leaving the team – but it’s my opinion that Martin’s demanding style may have actually kept this team afloat while coaches that run their program with a softer hand may have had a total implosion on their hands. The combination of Martin’s constant yearning for focus, effort and execution out of his players and a senior in Pullen who flat-out refused to let his team hit rock bottom has led to a resurgence that would have been unfathomable three weeks ago. If you told me in early February that Kansas State, amidst all their turmoil and turnover, would win in Austin against what appeared to be a powerhouse Texas squad, I’d never have believed you. The Wildcats now shape up extremely well not only to make the NCAA Tournament – stellar RPI/SOS, wins over Kansas, Texas and Missouri and an ascent up the Big 12 standings – but also to make a Sweet 16-type run behind Pullen, the improving play of Curtis Kelly and the underrated contributions of Rodney McGruder.
BYU doesn’t exactly have the most glowing NCAA Tournament history. In fact, their first round victory over Florida last year was BYU’s first tournament win since 1993. The same reprieve is often played out under the bright lights of March: the softer, finesse, untested Cougars face a tough, physical, athletic opponent from a power six league and go into the fetal position. My admiration for Fredette was the singular reason I chose BYU as my second round upset pick last year to beat K-State. After an opening 10-0 run, BYU was thoroughly dismantled by the springy Wildcats and Jacob Pullen outplayed his counterpart Fredette. This trend was precisely why I believed San Diego State would take care of business last Saturday. Sure, the Cougars took care of business in a building they rarely ever lose in late January, but the Aztecs are that nightmarish matchup – a team full of bouncy, athletic, board-banging skilled players like Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas – that give the Cougars fits historically. Then BYU came out and blocked seven shots. They were barely out-rebounded. Thomas scored nine points and Leonard was limited to six field goals. Along with Fredette’s wizardry and the jump shooting ability of his teammates, I was doubly impressed by BYU’s attitude and toughness in such a raucous environment against an opponent I perceived as a matchup problem. Their zone defense was fantastic and their offensive execution – both in the halfcourt when Fredette was constantly doubled off of ball screens and in transition opportunities – was picture perfect. I’m a buyer.