O26 Game of the Week: Saint Louis-VCU Pt. II, Iona-Manhattan & More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 27th, 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.

Saint Louis (25-2) at Virginia Commonwealth (20-7) – 6:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Yes, this was our Game of the Week just two short weeks ago and yes, the Billikens all-but-clinched the Atlantic 10 crown by winning on their home floor. So why does the second iteration once again headline the week? Well, for one thing, it was a really good basketball game the first time around. Saint Louis held serve in Chaifetz Arena, sure, but not before VCU forced 17 turnovers and battled back from a double-figure deficit to make the final two minutes thrilling — it took a Rob Loe three-pointer with around 30 seconds left to ice it for the home team. And the defenses lived-up to their dominant billing, each limiting the opposing offense to well-under one point per possession on the afternoon. Even if you had tuned in for just five minutes of action, the high level of play and serious potential of both teams would have become quickly evident.

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee)

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (Chris Lee, AP)

And that’s the overarching reason why Saturday’s tilt — this time in Richmond — is the main event in an already-loaded week; Saint Louis-VCU isn’t merely a marquee A-10 match-up, it’s a marquee national match-up. Everything at stake in a high-profile power-conference game is also at stake here: perception, NCAA Tournament profile, late-season momentum, bragging rights, and in the case of the Billikens, a very long winning streak. Jim Crews’ bunch has reeled off 19 straight victories over the course of three full months, last losing way back on December 1 to still-undefeated Wichita State. Shaka Smart’s group, meanwhile — fresh off a painfully-close road loss to UMass last Friday — has not dropped a home game in more than a year, obliterating visiting opponents this season by nearly 17 points per contest. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in Verizon Wireless Arena, and the basketball-watching public will be the beneficiary. KenPom has the home squad pegged as 62 percent favorites, which is to say, it’s more or less a toss-up. Tune in on Saturday — Round II should be great.

Four More to Watch

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If Canisius Goes Dancing, Billy Baron Could Become the Next March Star

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014

Ice Bath, and watch Stephen Curry highlights for an hour.

According to a “10 Questions With…” feature on the Canisius mens’ basketball page, that’s the sum of Billy Baron’s pregame routine. And it makes perfect sense, when you think about it. An ice bath for the ice water that runs through his veins — evident from the game-winning shots he so often takes, and hits — and the Curry highlights to remind him of just how captivating a player he can be, how rare it is to possess the kind of quick-release, out-of-the-gym range he has in his arsenal. Not to mention the crafty shot-fakes, gorgeous passes, sudden changes of direction and countless other moves put on display by the Davidson legend. Baron probably watches for those, too. And while the MAAC Player of the Year favorite certainly has elements of Curry in his game, it was BYU great Jimmer Fredette who Siena coach Jimmy Patsos compared him to earlier this season, an appropriate parallel in its own right. Whether he’s more like Curry, Fredette or some other former hoopster, though, doesn’t really matter. The larger point is this: Baron is a rare talent who demands your attention when he takes the court and who’s fully capable of becoming a mid-major star in March, depending on how far the Griffins can go.

Billy Baron vs. Notre Dame, December 29, 2013.

Jimmy Patsos thinks Baron is similar to Jimmer Fredette, which certainly makes sense. (ABOVE: Billy Baron vs. Notre Dame...BELOW: Jimmer Fredette vs. Gonzaga)

Jimmer Fredette vs. Gonzaga, March 19, 2011.

Perhaps the most electrifying aspect of Baron’s game is his ability to pull up and hit from just about anywhere inside the half-court line. And I mean anywhere. Though opposing teams try guarding him all the way up the floor, often using additional defenders to step out and help or even double-team when necessary, he is still able to exploit the tiniest amounts of open space and briefest moments of defensive relaxation. Like Jimmer (and his brother, Jimmy), Baron will simply hoist from four or five feet beyond the three-point line, catching unwitting defenders off-guard and leaving opposing coaches pulling out their hair. Last month, he hit a three from the ‘A’ in Iona’s mid-court decal late in the first half and another from the ‘I’ early in the second. In fact, he’s nailed shots from numerous giant logos this season, regularly enabling his team to cut into deficits or build on leads in the blink of an eye. And like Curry, Baron also has a tremendous feel for how the opposition will react to his movements. He will employ the slightest shot-fakes and hesitations to make defenders over-commit, then take a quick dribble left or right to find the open look. On the year, the 6’2’’ senior is shooting over 42 percent from behind the arc, which is incredibly impressive considering how closely opposing squads guard him and how difficult his attempts can be. When Baron gets the hot hand, it’s hard to look away.

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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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Does Cinderella Reside in the Big Apple This Season?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 6th, 2014

In Ken Pomeroy’s recently-published conference race simulations, Manhattan wins the MAAC 6,161 times out of 10,000 simulations, which — in an 11-team league— makes it the overwhelming favorite. And for good reason. Despite being picked first in the conference preseason poll, the Jaspers have actually managed to exceed expectations in the first two months, using an aggressive defense and attack-first offense to notch several impressive road victories and an early 4-0 record in league play. So while fellow contenders like Iona, Canisius and Quinnipiac are likely to make the automatic bid far from a guarantee, Manhattan has already shown its potential as the most complete and dangerous upset threat from this league come March.

George Beamon and the Jaspers could be a tough NCAA Tournament match-up. (MAACSports)

George Beamon and the Jaspers could be a tough NCAA Tournament match-up. (MAACSports)

Iona has been the cream of this conference for the past two years, making the NCAA Tournament twice — including as an at-large bid in 2011-12, the second ever out of the MAAC — and doing so with exceptional offense. Tim Cluess’ up-tempo, free-flowing attack has yielded three straight top-30 finishes nationally in offensive efficiency and over 20 wins in each of those seasons. Their problem has often been on the other end of the court, as Cluess’ teams sometimes making a habit of playing porous defense for long stretches that the scoring cannot always overcome. Likewise, Saint Peter’s, the conference tournament champion in 2011, was one of the best defensive teams the league has ever seen (finishing fifth in the country in defensive efficiency), but it could not generate the offense necessary to become a threat in the Big Dance. Put simply, the NCAA Tournament’s MAAC representative has lacked balance in recent years.

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Morning Five: 08.09.13 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on August 9th, 2013

morning5

  1. After Jay Bilas’ crusade against the NCAA’s online store and its use of players names to sell memorabilia the NCAA announced yesterday that it would no longer sell merchandise affiliated with specific universities. To do so the NCAA will shut down the site temporarily while it scrubs any vestiges of its use of amateur athletes’ names for its own profit. Now the NCAA will supposedly only feature merchandise related to its championship events. We are assuming that this merchandise will be allowed to feature the logos or names of the teams competing for those championships or we suspect that those items will not sell either. Having said that we are glad to see that the NCAA is willing to adjust at least a little bit when its hypocrisy is pointed out.
  2. In a somewhat cryptic tweet John Calipari both welcomed Steve Alford to Twitter and alluded to the possibility of UCLA and Kentucky playing in the near future. Although UCLA has been down recently they remain the most decorated program in college basketball history. Despite their storied histories the two schools have only met ten times with the Wildcats holding a 6-4 edge . A match-up between the two schools would certainly draw the attention of college basketball fans particularly if Alford is able to keep California recruits in state and make the Bruins a competitive team.
  3. As numerous reports have documented the past few years have not been easy for Dean Smith as he is suffering from what appears to be dementia. This has been particularly troubling for those who know him as more than just a legendary college basketball coach, but also a civil rights advocate. So yesterday’s announcement that President Obama would be honoring Smith along with 15 others with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The date of the ceremony has not been announced yet, but we imagine it will be a star-studded event particularly with two of the other inductees being Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
  4. With football just around the corner we have been anxiously waiting for the release of college basketball schedules and for the most part we have just been receiving bits and pieces of schedules from various teams that mostly revolve around a few non-conference games that are part of previously arranged events. So the Big 12’s release of this year’s conference schedule is the first real significant release we have seen. We may eventually do a post on this, but really the entire schedule comes down to two dates: January 18 and March 1. Those two dates are when Kansas and Oklahoma State play each other. Everybody in the conference office and ESPN might pretend that is not true, but realistically those are the only two games that matter. A few other teams like Kansas State and Baylor might be intriguing, but we need to see those teams prove something before we can trust them (especially Baylor).
  5. We have expressed our issues with how liberally the NCAA hands out transfer waivers, but in the case of Mike Poole we have no objection to his waiver being approved. Poole, a senior guard who averaged 4.4 points and 3 rebounds per game last season, transferred from Rutgers to Iona this off-season and was granted a legislative relief waiver so he will be eligible to play immediately. Given the video evidence demonstrating Mike Rice’s abuse towards his players the NCAA did not really have any option, but to grant Poole a waiver. It will be interesting to see how a change of scenery will affect Poole who had a higher scoring average (6.5 points per game) as a sophomore. The announcement should only further strengthen the Gaels’ position as the MAAC favorite going into the season.
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Rushed Reactions: #2 Ohio State 95, #15 Iona 70

Posted by IRenko on March 22nd, 2013

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I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game between #2 Ohio State and #15 Iona. You can follow him on Twitter at @IRenkoHoops.

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Ohio State Won at Iona’s Pace  — Ohio State ordinarily plays at a fairly slow pace, while the Gaels like to race up and down the court, using their quickness to hide their lack of size inside. Iona managed to get the kind of uptempo game with which they’re typically comfortable, as each team had a whopping 78 possessions and combined for 136 field goal attempts and 46 free throw attempts. But Ohio State seemed to benefit from the breakneck pace more. They consistently broke Iona’s pressure, and seemed inspired by the Gaels’ quick pace to rev up their own. Relying on steady ball control and their athleticism advantage, the Buckeyes outscored the Gaels 34-11 on fast break points and 29-9 on points off turnovers.

    Sam Thompson showed off his athletic gifts against Iona. (Getty)

    Sam Thompson showed off his athletic gifts against Iona. (Getty)

  2. Sam Thompson Can Put on a Show — One consequence of the Buckeyes’ getting to play an up-tempo game is that bouncy wing Sam Thompson had a chance to show off his incredible athletic gifts. Thompson delighted the pro-OSU crowd with a series of high-flying dunks, none more spectacular than an incredible one-handed, full extension, alley oop that he threw down with 1:23 to play in the first half. Not only was it a highlight reel feature, but it snapped a 7-0 Iona run that cut OSU’s lead to four, and sparked the Buckeyes’ own 15-0 run.
  3. Momo Jones Says a Quiet Goodbye — Iona’s talented point guard played his first two season at Arizona before transferring to Iona to be closer to his family, and his grandmother in particular. It seemed to take him some time to adjust, but he managed a stellar second act, playing an instrumental role in the Gaels’ Tournament trip last year and leading them back this year. But he went out with a bit of a whimper. The scoring just nine points on 3-of-14 shooting (1-of-8 from three-point range).

Star of the Game: While many feel that Deshaun Thomas’ season has been somewhat disappointing, he’s scored in double-figures in every game, and saw no need to interrupt that streak tonight. Thomas poured in 24 points on an efficient 8-of-12 from the field. He showed his complete offensive game, hitting jumpers (a perfect 3-of-3 from three-point range) and taking advantage of Iona’s size disadvantage down low to score in the paint. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Other 26: Bracket-Busting, South and West Edition

Posted by IRenko on March 19th, 2013

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I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

Oh, well. What’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful. — Cinderella

It’s time for college basketball’s annual ball, which means it’s time for America to fall in love with Cinderella all over again. There are 36 teams from the 26 non-power-conferences who have been invited to this year’s Big Dance, and while the slipper no longer fits for some of the more prominent of these schools, for the bulk of them, this is a rare opportunity to make a name for themselves on the grandest of stages.

This is the first of a two-part series taking a look at the NCAA Tournament prospects for all 36 teams hailing from The Other 26. We focus today on the TO26 teams in the South and West regions, grouping them into five rough categories, and, within each category, ordering them by their likelihood of advancing.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?

Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?

  • Gonzaga (#1, West) — It’s been five years since a TO26 team reached the top seed line. In 2008, Memphis rode its #1 seed all the way to the brink of a national championship, and Zags fans are hoping for the same — and perhaps more — this year. Gonzaga has no glaring weaknesses. They are led by an athletic, skilled frontcourt, the centerpiece of which is NPOY candidate Kelly Olynyk. They get steady guard play from Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and David Stockton. If they’re to run into any trouble, it will likely be against a team that (1) sports a strong, athletic interior defense that can contain Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower and pound the glass, and (2) can hit the three-point shot consistently, as Illinois did in beating them (Gonzaga’s defense allows a lot of three-point attempts). There are a fair number of teams that meet the first criteria in the West bracket, but not many with a lot offensive firepower from the three-point line or otherwise. In short, this is as good a shot as Gonzaga has ever had to make the Final Four. The eyes of the nation will be watching to see if they can make good on their promise.
  • Virginia Commonwealth (#5, South) — VCU is a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four, and there’s some merit to that notion, but here is the most important thing you need to know about them: They are 25-2 on the year (and 14-0 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate over 18 percent. And they are 1-6 (and 0-5 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate under 18 percent. The Rams’ first-round opponent, Akron, falls squarely in the former camp (20.8 percent), a problem for the Zips that will be exacerbated by the absence of their legally-troubled starting point guard, Alex Abreu. After that, things get a bit trickier for the Rams. Their two potential Third Round opponents, Michigan and South Dakota State, rank in the top 10 in the country in turnover rate. Those stats are perhaps somewhat inflated by the fact that both teams play in conferences that don’t feature a lot of pressure defenses, but if you’re looking for a point guard to lead you against such a defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Trey Burke or Nate Wolters. It’s true that Michigan has struggled lately in general, and that if you look ahead to a potential match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, Havoc’s odds of success improve, but I’d caution against over-exuberance at the Rams’ chances given a potentially dicey Third Round contest.

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Bracket Prep: Western Kentucky, Davidson, James Madison, Gonzaga & Iona

Posted by BHayes on March 12th, 2013

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Championship Week continued in full blast on Monday night, as five more NCAA Tournament tickets were punched. As each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.

Western Kentucky

Sun Belt Cinderellas Again -- Welcome Back To The Big Dance Hilltoppers

Sun Belt Cinderellas Again — Welcome Back To The Big Dance Hilltoppers

  • Sun Belt Champion (20-15, 14-10)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #166/#183/#184
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.5
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #15-#16

 Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Who needs the regular season anyways? For the second consecutive campaign, Western Kentucky saw months of mediocrity give way to an unlikely week of dominance at the Sun Belt Tournament, where they depart as champions again. The sequel may never be as thrilling as the original – the 2012 Hilltoppers were just 9-18 (!) before winning their final six games to earn the auto-bid – but this Western Kentucky team is as unlikely a Big Dance participant as any.
  2. Western Kentucky isn’t elite in any one facet of the game, but they may be able to match up with their opening round opponent with regard to physicality and toughness. The Hilltoppers are third in the Sun Belt in effective height, and also rank third in the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. 6’6” sophomore George Fant is slightly undersized for the amount of time he spends in the paint, but leads the team in rebounding at 6.6 boards per game. Fant also ranks in the top 50 in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Senior Jamal Crooks (11.8 PPG, 4.1 APG) is another high-motor Hilltopper – his emotional energy and leadership is a crucial reserve for the young team around him.
  3. Expect WKU to compete on both ends, but don’t mistake intensity with skill. They do not shoot the ball well from deep, turn the ball over at an unacceptable clip (on 22.3% of possessions), and don’t play a whole lot of defense either. It all adds up to a rather unimpressive paper profile, and the 10-10 Sun Belt record before this week does little to make you feel better about things. The exact seed line will depend on what happens elsewhere, but either way, it’s hard to envision the Hilltoppers being competitive, much less capable of manufacturing an upset for the ages.

Davidson

Soak It In De'Mon -- You And The Wildcats Are Tournament Bound Yet Again

Soak It In De’Mon — You And The Wildcats Are Tournament Bound Yet Again

  • Southern Conference Champion (26-7, 20-1)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #69/#66/#67
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +9.4
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #12-#14

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

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Three Thoughts as Indiana State Outlasted Iona

Posted by WCarey on February 23rd, 2013

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday afternoon’s Bracketbuster game between Iona and Indiana State. You can follow him at @walkerRcarey.

Iona and Indiana State met in Terre Haute on Saturday to kick off the final day of the final Bracketbusters event. Both teams entered the contest struggling quite a bit. The Gaels had posted just a 1-4 record in February and in the process, had dropped into a fifth-place tie in the MAAC standings. Sitting at 15-12 overall and 9-7 in conference play, Iona does have star power in senior guard Momo Jones and junior guard Sean Armand. Despite its star power, the team has really struggled in close games – all of its last five losses have been by three or fewer points. Just two weeks ago, Indiana State was a legitimate candidate to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. However, the Sycamores have been in a tailspin ever since, dropping winnable road games to Missouri State and Bradley and losing at home to a Wichita State team that the Sycamores defeated on the road last month. With one team having to get back on the winning track, Indiana State defeated Iona 65-64 in what was a tight battle until the final buzzer. The following are three thoughts from Saturday’s action.

Indiana State

Indiana State is Slipping Off the Bubble, But Got the Win Today

  1. Despite This Season’s Struggles, Tim Cluess Certainly Has Iona Going In The Right Direction.  In his first three seasons as the leader of the Gaels, Cluess has posted a 65-33 record, which is quite impressive when you consider the program won just 12 games four seasons ago. In his inaugural campaign, Cluess led his team to 25 victories and all the way to the CIT Final. Last season, the Gaels also won 25 games, but this time earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament where the team was eliminated by BYU in a heartbreaker. New Rochelle, N.Y. is not exactly a location many recruits covet, but Cluess has been able to build on the success of his predecessor, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, and transform the program into one that will be consistently battling for the MAAC title and NCAA Tournament bids. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: Niagara Rushes Forth

Posted by IRenko on February 2nd, 2013

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

When you hear the word “Niagara” you’re not likely to think of basketball. But in the shadow of one of the world’s natural wonders, something is percolating on the hardwood. After a thrilling 93-90 overtime win over Iona that included a rally from a late 15-point deficit and a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the game, Niagara sits atop the MAAC standings at 10-1. A win over Loyola today would cap a tremendous week for the Purple Eagles, giving them a perfect 3-0 record against the next three teams in the standings — Iona, Loyola, and Canisius — over the past seven days.

Juan'ya Green Capped Niagara's Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer  in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Juan’ya Green Capped Niagara’s Thrilling Win Over Iona With a Last-Second Three-Pointer in Overtime (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News)

Last year, Niagara finished 14-19, the first time in head coach Joe Mihalich’s 10-year tenure that he suffered consecutive losing seasons. Mihalich had taken the Purple Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2007 and to the NIT in 2004 and 2009, but the team had fallen behind the pack in the MAAC in the three years since. The seeds of a resurgence were planted during last year’s losing campaign, as a host of young players started to find their footing in Division 1 college hoops. Having lost no one to graduation, Niagara was predicted to finish fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches’ poll. That seemed a fair, perhaps optimistic, assessment, but the clear light of hindsight makes a mockery of it.

What accounts for the turnaround? Mostly the maturation of Niagara’s all-sophomore backcourt: Juan’ya Green, Antoine Mason, and Ameen Tanksley. Last year, the trio showed that they had talent. This year, they’re showing that they can channel it into efficient offense.  Green is actually averaging fewer points (16.5) than he did as a freshman (17.6), but that’s in part because he’s managed to corral his considerable talents and become a more effective facilitator. Coming out of high school, Green was known for his prodigious scoring ability, but questions lingered about his ability to create for his teammates. He’s answering those questions this year, increasing his assists (5.2 per game) and decreasing his turnovers (2.8 per game). With Green deferring more to his teammates, Mason, the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, has stepped into the role of lead scorer. He’s upped his per-game average from 15.1 to a team-leading 18.7, but more importantly, he’s become a much more efficient scorer.  He’s increased his field goal percentage from 38.2 to 44.6. He now shoots almost 80 percent from the free throw line, after shooting less than 65 percent last year, a significant development because of his knack for getting to the charity stripe. Tanksley, for his part, has also boosted his field goal percentage, from 38.6 to 45.7 and upped his scoring average into double-digits.

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ATB: Butler Stumbles, Arizona Underwhelms and Illinois Shows Flashes…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 1st, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Top 10 Teams Hit The Road. Two top 10 teams hit the road Thursday night with disconcerting challenges on tap. One team, playing and succeeding beyond expectations in its first year in a new league, ran into a defensive death trap it couldn’t overcome. The other did what its been doing all season – what has caused many to doubt its merits as a real national or (even conference) favorite. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the first team is Butler. The second is Arizona. On a night packed with boring match-ups, the above two – Butler at Saint Louis and Arizona at Washington – stood out. The Big Ten also gave us something to talk about, even if the end result fell in line with the most basic team assumptions about the nation’s best conference. Thursday was a little light on intrigue, but don’t fret, a promising weekend awaits. 

Your Watercooler Moment. Encouraging Signs From Illinois In East Lansing.

Another conference loss wont lift the spirits of Illini fans, but Illinois flashed the three-point shooting that made it one of the most dangerous teams in the country in the nonconference (Photo credit: USA Today Sports Photo).

Another conference loss wont lift the spirits of Illini fans, but Illinois flashed the three-point shooting that made it one of the most dangerous teams in the country in the nonconference (Photo credit: USA Today Sports Photo).

They weren’t going to stay cold forever. We had plenty of evidence suggesting otherwise. The Illini built a reputation in the non-conference season on three-point shooting. John Groce’s team not only shot a bunch of threes, for a good two-month stretch it also sank a high percentage of those long-range shots. Illinois stormed through the Maui Invitational, picking up a blowout win over Butler in the process, then barraged Gonzaga in the Kennel with – what else? – 11 threes and 35 points from Brandon Paul in an 11-point win. At the time, Illini fans were rightfully thrilled about their newfound offensive explosion and about Groce’s ability to unlock the upper reaches of his team’s offensive parts in just his first year on campus. Illinois was winning, times were good in Champaign, but all the while the Illini’s hot start was taken with a token of skepticism. Devoting so many possessions and shot attempts to three-pointers is fraught with risk, and once the conference season arrived, Illinois was swiftly introduced to the repercussions of that strategy by losing five of its first seven Big Ten games. Entering Thursday night, the Illini had posted the Big Ten’s worst three-point field goal percentage in conference play (24.5%). A little bit of three-point fall-off was a realistic expectation, what with all the rigorous defenses throughout the Big Ten. But 24 percent? The worst mark in the conference? Something had to give.

The Illini lost their sixth conference game at Michigan State Thursday night, but unlike most of its other league losses – the majority of which were downright ugly – Illinois had a brief re-encounter with its nationally-relevant self of 2012.  The Illini stroked five three-pointers in the first half and committed just one turnover to stake a 10-point lead at the break, kept it close throughout the second half thanks in part to Tracy Abrams’ three-point shooting, and hung around long enough to very nearly spring one of the most surprising upsets of any team in any league. Keith Appling’s season breakout – 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists – stemmed the tide in the waning moments, and the Spartans, a legitimate Big Ten contender, held on at home. Taken together, despite leaving the Breslin Center with another conference L, John Groce and his staff can’t walk away with any real complaints. To the absolute contrary, he should be measurably encouraged. A hot-shooting Illini team is a dangerous one. The Illini may never recapture their lights-out form of November and December, but anything close would be good enough to turn around the Illini’s thus-far ugly league season.

Also Worth Chatting About. For Arizona, Winning Isn’t Enough.

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Set Your DVR: Week of 01.28.13

Posted by bmulvihill on January 28th, 2013

setDVR

Brendon Mulvihill is an RTC contributor. You can find him @TheMulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.

Things are a little quiet this week with mostly match-ups between top and bottom teams in the conferences.  However, there are a few games that mean a lot to certain teams, including those in some of the smaller conferences. Let’s get to the breakdowns!

Pittsburgh at #8 Louisville – 7:00 PM EST, Monday on ESPN (****)

Pitino looks to end a three game slide to in-state rival Kentucky on Saturday (AP)

Pitino needs to stop the bleeding at Louisville (AP)

  • Louisville is in an absolute must-win situation. They have lost their last three games and have struggled at crunch time with opportunities to win. Everyone keeps saying the Cardinals still could be the team to beat in March. However, history shows that teams that lose three games in a row during the regular season rarely win the title. Only four teams since 1980 have lost three games in a row and still managed to win the whole thing – 1982-83 North Carolina State, 1984-85 Villanova, 1987-88 Kansas, and 2005-06 Florida. Only one team in history has lost four games in a row and still won the tourney – Danny Manning and the Miracles (Kansas actually lost five straight at one point that season). The reality is that Rick Pitino‘s team is a poor shooting team and unless they get that corrected quickly, Louisville should not be considered a threat to win it all. Pittsburgh on the other hand seems to be turning things around. After starting 1-3 in conference play, they have managed to rattle off four straight wins. Both teams need a win to stay within two games of Syracuse and Marquette in the Big East. Pitt has improved their shooting and offensive rebounding in the last four contests and has been able to play tough defense without putting teams on the line. Keep a close eye on how Pitt does in the paint against Louisville shot blocker Gorgui Dieng. The Panthers are not a threat from three, so most of their points will come from inside the arc. For Louisville, they need to convert their turnovers into points by simply hitting shots. While Pittsburgh is not as long as Syracuse, Villanova, and Georgetown, they are not short. So Pitino’s crew needs to get to the basket for lay-ups and dunks. Shooting over the top is not a great way to break a shooting slump. Watch Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear, as their performance on the interior will be the key to Louisville breaking their losing streak.

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