UConn and Cincinnati: Trading Places in the Postseason

Posted by Will Tucker on April 5th, 2014

On March 8, 2014, Cincinnati and UConn looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. Having just hung 97 points on Memphis to complete a sweep of Josh Pastner’s team, the Bearcats went on the road and clinched a share of their first conference championship since 2004. That same day, Connecticut suffered an 81-48 drubbing at the hands of Louisville – the kind of humiliating end-of-season defeat that might spell doom for a team’s postseason.

AAC Men's Basketball Championship

Mick Cronin and Kevin Ollie: diverging paths (Richard Messina / Hartford Courant)

To the Huskies’ credit, they had just beaten Cincinnati a week before, capping a 6-1 stretch that followed a road loss to the Bearcats in February. But Kevin Ollie’s team exhibited red some flags even before being massacred in Louisville. They had eclipsed 70 points during regulation only once in the past seven games. DeAndre Daniels, who in January I predicted was poised for a breakout season, scored in double figures only twice during the same time frame. UConn had been outrebounded in their previous six games by an average margin of 8.3 boards per game.

Cincinnati, conversely, looked like a physically imposing, battle-tested, and veteran squad that was prepared to usher the program beyond the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1996. Rebounding from consecutive close losses to Louisville and UConn, All-American Sean Kilpatrick was firing on all cylinders in his subsequent two games, averaging 29 points on 68 percent shooting. Fellow seniors Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles appeared up to the task of complementing Kilpatrick in the frontcourt. And after winning the number one seed in the AAC Tournament by way of a coin flip, the Bearcats seemed destined for a rematch with de facto home team Memphis, whom they had already twice beaten soundly.

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UConn and the ACC: The One That Got Away

Posted by Chris Kehoe on April 4th, 2014

When the most recent jumble of conference realignment was underway, the ACC squarely targeted the Big East for its newest conquests. Commissioner John Swofford wanted to add programs that were strong in the revenue sports of football and basketball, holding distinctive geographic locations that would open up the conference to new fans and marketing possibilities. The ACC won out in a big way, snagging prominent athletic programs at Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh from the old Big East. While these programs are have had varying degrees of success in the sport that drives realignment, Notre Dame is the only football name brand (and the Irish retained their football independence). So while the current athletic landscape is shaped by the financial juggernaut that is college football, the ACC locked up some of the country’s most elite basketball programs.

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

UConn has a rising star in Head Coach Kevin Ollie (credit: CT Post)

So while the ACC may have sought greater football legitimacy as its primary goal, the league also landed two massively successful basketball programs in Syracuse and Louisville. As a result, the ACC may very well have positioned itself as the basketball conference of the future, made up of most if not all of the best programs up and down the East Coast. That is, with one notable exception. As the league plundered the Big East, it may have made a drastic mistake from a basketball perspective. The ACC left behind a basketball powerhouse in its own right, Connecticut, a school that all but pleaded for entry into the ACC and a Final Four participant in a season when no conference team made it past the Sweet Sixteen. Recall the silly preseason talk about how the ACC was supposed to be ‘the best ever’, and it leaves you wondering if the exclusion of a program like UConn was the right move. The basketball program based in Storrs has had continued and sustained excellence in the sport over a long period of time, winning the national title three times since 1999 (as well as 2004 and 2011), and putting 13 players into the NBA as lottery picks since 1994. Few programs can match that record.

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Shabazz Napier’s Maturity Fuels a Final Four Run to Remember

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 2nd, 2014

The lasting takeaway from the tournament that began UConn’s 2010-11 season is the same memory that defined the NCAA Tournament that ended it: Kemba Walker’s brilliance. The year of Kemba may have reached a crescendo in March and early April three years ago, but it began back in November 2010, when Walker’s three-day, 90-point bender propelled the unranked Huskies to an unexpected Maui Invitational title. Lost within that preseason title run was our then-insignificant introduction to Connecticut freshman Shabazz Napier. The Massachusetts native has never been short on confidence, but back then, his self-assurance served only to speed up the game around him. Napier went 7-of-22 from the field in Maui, committed more turnovers than assists, and was a largely inconsequential element of the Huskies’ early-season championship run.

UConn Is Headed Back To The Final Four, In No Small Thanks To Their Experienced, Mature Floor General Shabazz Napier

UConn Is Headed Back To The Final Four, In No Small Thanks To Their Experienced, Mature Floor General Shabazz Napier

Of course, almost any Husky not named Kemba could have fallen into that category – both in Maui and beyond — but Napier’s opening act at the school was a representative dose of a freshman season in which reckless play and poor decision-making turned him into quite the efficiency drain. On the season, Napier shot under 33 percent from three-point range, made just 42 percent of his two-point attempts, and posted an astronomically high turnover rate of 22.3 percent. For the sake of reference, the freshman’s ball-dominating teammate, Walker, had a turnover rate nearly half that of Napier that season (11.6 %). Comparisons to NPOYs aren’t always the fairest, but either way, the statistical breakdown of Napier’s freshman year is incapable of hiding the immaturity that he brought with him to Storrs. He ended that season as a national champion and a key piece of UConn’s future, but significant refinement was needed for Napier to ever realize his potential.

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AAC M5: 12.11.13 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on December 11th, 2013

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  1. The praise continues to roll in this week for USF forward Chris Perry, whom CBSSports.com named their National Freshman of the Week after he logged consecutive double-doubles in wins at George Mason and versus Alabama. Perry, who is now averaging 9.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on the season, is the first AAC freshman to claim the title, and joins an exclusive group alongside former honorees Jabari Parker of Duke and Tyler Ennis of Syracuse. Given that he seems to have earned a starting role for the foreseeable future, Jeff Borzello points out that the 6’8” Florida native appears “set to emerge as one of the better freshmen in the American Athletic Conference.”
  2. Memphis fans received some good news when MRI results indicated that starting guard Chris Crawford suffered a medial ankle sprain – rather than anything more serious – against Northwestern State last Saturday. The senior has yet to miss a game in more than three seasons at Memphis, but coach Josh Pastner said Crawford’s status remains day-to-day and it’s possible he could sit out Friday’s contest against Arkansas-Little Rock. The bigger issue is whether he will be fully recovered by the time the Tigers face off against Florida in Madison Square Garden next Tuesday, now that the Gators’ backcourt is returning to full strength. Crawford is averaging 9.7 points per game and is among the top 15 players in the AAC in terms of steal percentage this year.
  3. Speaking of Florida, Sports Illustrated writer Kelli Anderson asserts that Shabazz Napier’s performance against the Gators last week was enough to thrust the UConn senior into the thick of the Wooden Award conversation. In addition to averaging 15.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.1 steals per game, last week the senior point guard became just the fourth player in UConn history to both score 1,000 points and dish 500 assists. Responding to the inevitable Kemba Walker comparisons, Napier credited Walker’s leadership as having a major influence on his own development: “That was the biggest problem I had coming in… I understood only what I needed to do on the court, not necessarily what my teammates needed to do. I didn’t know how to talk to my teammates.” The AAC claimed two of the 10 spots in SI.com’s Wooden Watch this week, with Napier at #5 and Louisville’s Russ Smith listed at #7.
  4. The AAC enters exam week ranked ninth in conference RPI, following a lackluster assortment of non-conference schedules that resulted in few quality wins for the league’s members. RTC’s C.D. Bradley notes that “only once since 2000 has a conference ranked as low as ninth in the RPI sent even four teams to the tournament,” which belies Memphis coach Josh Pastner’s former prediction that the AAC would earn six bids in its inaugural season. Interestingly, Louisville and Cincinnati were among the teams that came out of the four-bid Conference USA in question in 2005, and conference RPI didn’t prevent the Cardinals from making it to the Final Four that year. Bradley identifies Louisville at Kentucky, Cincinnati versus Pittsburgh, and Memphis versus Florida as the most significant of the remaining opportunities for the league to redeem itself.
  5. Shortly after revelations that former player Derrick Randall is suing Rutgers for mistreatment at the hands of coach Mike Rice, The Star-Ledger reports that three other former players have filed notice of possible lawsuits against the university. A Rutgers spokesperson refused to identify the players involved, but said the university’s lawyers had asked the complainants “to clarify their filings,” believing they did not meet certain legal conditions. According to the spokesperson, Randall remains the only player to sue the school at this point.
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AAC M5: 11.25.13 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on November 25th, 2013

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  1. In sad news, particularly so close to the holidays, the family home of Cincinnati forward Jeremiah Davis III was severely damaged by a fire last week. No one was injured. “It’s Thanksgiving you know and I’m just thankful for my family,” Davis III told the News Record. “They’re what’s most important. Family is the biggest thing.” Davis said his teammates’ support has been invaluable. “They gave me their condolences and have been trying to make me laugh to just get my mind off of that.” Head coach Mick Cronin said the university is trying to figure out how to help his family without running afoul of NCAA rules. “We’re working on it but it’s a process,” Cronin said. “Nothing ever goes quickly with the NCAA.”
  2. Louisville rolled through its first three games at home in easy fashion, looking every bit a consensus top three team in America. Then came a weekend trip to Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, where we would imagine Rick Pitino will not be booking another trip soon. The Cardinals slopped their way through a Saturday win over Fairfield — “This was a bad performance by us… But we’ll come back. I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.” — and then proved their coach wrong by getting manhandled by North Carolina on Sunday. Pitino blamed the loss on the team’s defense: “It’s quite evident tonight that this is not the same team defensively at the three, four and five spot.” Unfortunately, it’s the exact same players at the three spot and the four spot as a year ago, which suggests that the absence of NBA first-round pick Gorgui Dieng has weakened the team defensively as whole.
  3. Connecticut missed out on the last Big East Tournament as we’ve known it due to academic troubles last season, and the AAC won’t be playing its tournament in the Big Apple this year. And yet senior guard Shabazz Napier still managed to have his Kemba Walker moment in the world’s most famous arena, dropping 47 points over two nights at MSG to lead the Huskies to a 2KSports Classic title. “That’s my big brother. I try to emulate everything that he does in a sense, but also put my type of talent, my type of skills on it,” Napier said of Walker, the MVP of the 2011 Big East and NCAA Tournaments. “I’m not trying to be him — that’s hard shoes to fill. I’m just trying to be Shabazz.” Indiana’s Tom Crean, whose Hoosiers lost to UConn in the final, had a different comparison in mind. “I imagine it would be in the NFL like trying to deal with a great running back — like Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson now, something like that.”
  4. Playing a smaller but still crucial role in UConn’s MSG win was senior Tyler Olander, a former starter adjusting to a bench role this year. “You just have to be ready when your number is called,” he said, and he was when foul trouble snared Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah. In 24 minutes of action, he notched only four points and four rebounds, but he also got two steals, including one after Napier’s go-ahead basket than ended up being the game-winner. Olander had an eventful summer in a bad way, getting arrested twice and earning a spot in coach Kevin Ollie’s doghouse. Since then, he has been working hard to rebuild his reputation. “I’m so proud of Tyler and how he’s handled himself off the court,” Ollie said Friday night, “and that’s giving him the opportunity to do the different things he’s doing on the court.”
  5. It’s still early, but the AAC continues to struggle to acquire good wins this season. As of Sunday night, the conference ranked ninth in RPI, with no wins over a team currently in the top 50 (although Indiana is likely to end up there). Only UConn (#14), Cincinnati (#45) and SMU (#78) are in the top 100. Again, it’s early, and the RPI will definitely shift substantially in the weeks and months ahead. But nearly three weeks into the college basketball season, it’s hard to dispute that the conference is off to a disappointing start. If it doesn’t start getting wins over decent teams soon, it risks a disappointing overall season; just ask the 2011 and 2012 Pac-10, which discovered that if none of your teams beats anybody in the non-conference slate, they don’t turn into quality wins themselves for conference foes come January and February.
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DeAndre Daniels Key to UConn’s Season

Posted by Todd Keryc (@tkeryc) on November 22nd, 2013

Todd Keryc (@tkeryc) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday night’s game between Connecticut and Boston College in the 2kSports Classic.

Through the first four games of this season, it looked more like 2010 than 2013 for the UConn Huskies. Shabazz Napier, the 6’1” lightning-quick senior point guard, had inherited the role of Kemba Walker and the rest of the roster was there to support him however they could. This was the basic premise of the 2010-11 national championship season in Storrs. Players like Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and even Napier himself stepped up when needed but largely deferred to the greatness of Walker and it resulted in a magical March.

Deandre Daniels

DeAndre Daniels Had a Huge Thursday Night Against BC

This November, it’s been the Napier show in Connecticut. He leads the team in scoring (largely expected), assists (no-brainer) and steals (not terribly surprising). He also leads the team in rebounding, which is stunning when you see that he averages just fewer than 10 per game, nearly six more than anyone else on the team. He is a complete floor general and he bears full responsibility to make UConn succeed. With less flair and without the incredible scoring ability of Walker, Napier has nevertheless turned into the 2013 model of Kemba. And if it continues, UConn has no chance of advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament.

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Big East M5: 01.04.13 Edition

Posted by Dan Lyons on January 4th, 2013

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  1. Following Providence’s loss to Louisville this week, Ed Cooley called the Cards the best team in the country. While it’s not rare for a coach to stump for one of his conference-mates in a discussion like this, Cooley may very well be right. Louisville has tremendous depth, a legitimate All-America candidate in Russ Smith, and their only loss was to current #1 Duke by five points without defensive enforcer Gorgui Dieng in the lineup. Cooley went on to praise Louisville’s style of play, and probably thanked a higher power that he wouldn’t need to play them annually in a few years time.
  2. Increased off-the-ball movement has led to more scoring opportunities for Notre Dame, and the Irish offense seems to be rolling as Big East play opens. In Tom Noie’s piece, Jerian Grant discusses how the offense switched from an emphasis on ball screens to one on cuts and constant motion, leading to more scoring opportunities for the Irish — who are averaging just under 80 points per game since the last week in November. Mike Brey has also allowed his star guards to open things up a bit more this season, according to Eric Atkins: ”Coach has given Jerian and I the green light to get it and go and really push it whenever we see fit. That’s helped us get out in transition.  All that combined has really gotten the points up higher than we normally have had.”
  3. Credit Shabazz Napier for taking a strong leadership role in what was destined to be a tough year for the UConn program. He has taken over as the Huskies’ leading scorer, as expected, but he is doing so with increased efficiency as well. Last season, Napier scored 1.17 points per shot, but this year he’s at a vastly improved 1.46 points per shot.  He’s also attacking the boards with a team-leading 4.2 rebounds per game and 23 rebounds in his last three contests. Napier may not be able to make a Kemba Walker-type run in the NCAA tournament as a junior, but he has done his best Walker impression as a do-it-all star for UConn so far this year.
  4. The great Jim Boeheim legacy debate continues to rage on, and yesterday the Los Angeles Times’ Diane Pucin had a little round table discussion with Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune and Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant about whether Boeheim is the second best coach in NCAA history. Pucin is the person most open to the notion that Boeheim ranks up there with Coach K, Bob Knight, and John Wooden, while the other two writers have more reservations about ranking him that high do to his sole national championship. Amore probably sums the whole exercise best to close the piece: “Boeheim should be respected and admired as one of the greatest coaches, a significant figure in the history of his sport. No. 2? Top 10? … Top 10 sounds about right, but ranking him is as complicated as it is unnecessary.”
  5. With the loss of Yancy Gates after last season, Cincinnati had a pretty sizable hole to fill down low, but they are getting some decent production from junior David Nyarsuk. Nyarsuk, a native of the Republic of South Sudan who spent his first collegiate year at NAIA Mountain State University, has come on a bit of late, and is now averaging 4.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game. Nyarsuk may not be in line for any all-conference honors, but if he can continue to learn the game and increase his effectiveness, he will play an important role for the Bearcats this year. He is Cincinnati’s tallest player at 7’1″, and is really the team’s only other option at center besides 6’10″ Chiekh Mbodj.
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Award Tour: Anthony Bennett is the New No. 1 Freshman, the Five Worst D-I Teams, and an Ode to the Big East Conference…

Posted by DCassilo on December 14th, 2012

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David Cassilo is an RTC columnist who also writes about college basketball for SLAM magazine. You can follow him at @dcassilo.

Farewell, Big East. As a Villanova grad who grew up in New Jersey, you were always close to my heart. I’ll miss the prime time Saturday night final. I’ll miss the coaching legends. I’ll miss the physical play that would be called for a foul in any other league. I’ll miss the afternoon games of the Big East Tournament. I’ll miss being sponsored by Aeropostale. I’ll miss record crowds at the Carrier Dome. I’ll miss seeing Carnesecca and his sweater sitting behind the St. John’s bench. I’ll miss Mick Cronin being displeased with his team. I’ll miss West Virginia fans throwing stuff. I’ll miss looking at the newspaper and saying, “Wow, DePaul won.” I’ll miss Madison Square Garden. I’ll miss the weird dimensions of the RAC. I’ll miss Seton Hall thinking its good. I’ll miss Providence’s mascot. I’ll miss UConn breaking the rules. I’ll miss Pitt’s illegal screens and 30-year old point guards. I’ll miss Boston College, Virginia Tech and Miami. I’ll miss Pitino’s press conferences. I’ll miss people saying Villanova is Guard U when it rarely sends a guard to the NBA. I’ll miss Georgetown running the Princeton offense. I’ll miss the overachievers at Notre Dame and Marquette. I’ll miss that time South Florida was good. I’ll even miss the double bye, Burr and Higgins. Now let’s end this league in style.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

10. Brandon Paul – Illinois (Last Week – NR)
2012-13 stats: 19 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.5 APG

Illinois is going to need a big effort out of Brandon Paul at Indiana. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

Brandon Paul tore apart Gonzaga. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

With 35 points at Gonzaga last Saturday, Paul officially declared his candidacy in the Player of the Year race. The major improvement in his game this year comes down to his shooting. He never cracked 40 percent from the field in his first three years but is up to 46.8 percent this season.This week: December 16 vs. Eastern Kentucky

9. Michael Carter-Williams – Syracuse (Last Week – NR)
2012-13 stats: 12.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 10.4 APG, 3.8 SPG

There’s no doubt that Carter-Williams does more to fill up the stat sheet than any player in the country, but it’s his passing that has been second to none. He leads the nation in APG and has 37 dimes in his last three games. A high turnover rate (3.8 per game) and poor three-point shooting (22.2 percent) hold him back from challenging for the top spot. This week: December 15 vs. Canisius, December 17 vs. Temple

8. Jeff Withey – Kansas (Last Week – 7)
2012-13 stats: 13.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 5.6 BPG

After blocking five shots against Colorado last Saturday, Withey has swatted the ball at least that many times in six of his team’s eight games. His defensive dominance coupled with the rise of freshman Ben McLemore has the Jayhawks thinking of a return to the title game. This week: December 15 vs. Belmont, December 18 vs. Richmond

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ATB: Big Dance Day One Roundup — Two Upsets, Top Four Seeds Roll, Defending Champs Are Gone…

Posted by EJacoby on March 16th, 2012

Tonight’s Lede – It’s madness, baby!!! The real start of the NCAA Tournament arrived on Thursday afternoon, as did the collective drop of productivity from employees across the country. March Madness brings the best sick days, mobile apps, and computer split screens out of us, in the pursuit of tracking our brackets and following our favorite teams throughout the day. This Thursday is always special; the mark of the most exciting postseason in sports, and this year was no different. Despite the lack of buzzer-beaters and major upsets, day one was still a fantastic day of college basketball with plenty of key storylines. More fascinating finishes and thrilling games are surely on the way, but let’s take a look at all the action from the first half of the round of 64…

Your Watercooler Moment. #12 VCU Pulls Another Shaka.

Wichita State Was Devastated After Shaka Smart's Boys Pulled Another Upset (US Presswire)

It was just last year when Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams pulled off one of the all-time great Cinderella runs in NCAA Tournament history, winning five games as a #11 seed to go from the First Four to the Final Four in the 2011 Big Dance. In 2012, things were expected to be different — VCU is no longer a sleeper, the Rams were stuck with an even worse seed, and they had to take on a fellow strong mid-major team with Sweet Sixteen aspirations of their own. But the VCU boys did it again, or at least completed stage one of another improbable run. The #12 seed Rams defeated #5 Wichita State in a thrilling game, 62-59, for the biggest upset of day one. VCU jumped to a quick advantage and led by nine at halftime, but a late run by the Shockers gave WSU the lead with about two minutes to play. Bradford Burgess, the lone returning starter from last year’s Final Four team, answered with the biggest shot of the night — a three from the corner that would give VCU a lead that it did not relinquish. Joe Ragland and Toure’ Murry did their best to keep Wichita State’s dreams alive, but VCU was not to be denied on this day. Burgess finished with 16 points, five boards, four assists, and two steals in the win, which sends VCU to a date with #4 Indiana on Saturday.

Also Worth Chatting About. #16 UNC Asheville Nearly Makes History. #16 seeds were 0-108 all-time in the NCAA Tournament coming into Thursday, but nobody told the Bulldogs, a senior-laden team that was fired up to take on a reeling Orange team after word that their center Fab Melo would be ineligible for the Tournament. Without Melo, Syracuse was completely out of sorts, though the player’s absence was no excuse for the rest of the team to play so poorly on both ends. ‘Cuse survived and will move on to Saturday while putting this game behind them, but the story was UNC Asheville’s incredible effort to nearly win this game. The Bulldogs led by four points at halftime and hung tough for the entire 40 minutes despite leading scorer Matt Dickey only shooting 1-13 with five points! Asheville got 18 points from J.P. Primm and all of the team box score statistics were very similar in this game, but Syracuse’s late-game execution proved to be too much. Plenty of fans and media members will say that poor officiating was a large factor in the outcome, as UNCA may have gotten jobbed on several calls in the final four minutes. There was one undoubtedly awful call against Asheville that should have resulted in a Syracuse turnover, but blaming the loss on the referees is not something coach Eddie Biedenbach would do. It was a valiant effort by the Bulldogs that just came short, ending in a seven point win for Cuse. The Orange survive to play #8 Kansas State in the next round on Saturday.

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ATB: Bids Earned From Montana to Brooklyn While Power Conferences Do Battle…

Posted by EJacoby on March 8th, 2012

Tonight’s Lede. The Big East Tournament continued in the early afternoon, but nothing crazy has happened in New York City, yet, with all favorites moving on to Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Big 12 and Pac-12 tournaments also got underway on Wednesday, but all of the top seeds had byes until later rounds. The most exciting action once again took place in the smaller conference tourneys, providing more do-or-die action with Big Dance tickets on the line. We start with the best game of the night, which took place in the Patriot League:

Your Watercooler Moment. C.J. McCollum Outduels Mike Muscala for Lehigh Victory

C.J. McCollum Put the Team on his Back to Send Lehigh Dancing (Getty Images/R. Martinez)

The Patriot League final took place on #1 seed Bucknell’s court, and the home team’s star player went off for 30 points and 14 rebounds. But it wasn’t enough, as the conference’s leading scorer made a few more plays for the road team. C.J. McCollum, the league Player of the Year who put up ridiculous numbers this season, again ran wild for the Mountain Hawks on Wednesday night. The junior guard scored 29 points with five assists, three rebounds, three steals, and two blocks, doing it all for Lehigh including hitting 10-13 free throws with several of them in the final four minutes. Mike Muscala had a monster double-double for Bucknell, but he could not convert on the team’s final couple of possessions and didn’t get enough help from his teammates. Lehigh held on to win, 82-77, and is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.

Tonight’s Quick Hits

  • Brooklyn Represents the Northeast Conference Once Again. LIU-Brooklyn is one of the highest scoring teams in Division I, and not even the NEC’s best defensive team could slow down the Blackbirds on Wednesday night. LIU defeated Robert Morris, 90-73, on Wednesday night to capture its second consecutive NEC title. The Blackbirds head back to the NCAA Tournament where they last were disposed of by North Carolina in a high-scoring round one game. Expect much of the same for an LIU team that has high-flying forwards (Julian Boyd and Jamal Olasewere each average about 17 points per game), but doesn’t play a whole lot of defense. The attacking style worked in the NEC, but could it work as a #15 seed in the NCAAs? Regardless, Brooklyn will be in the house for the Big Dance. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big East Afternoon Five: 01.31.12 Edition

Posted by mlemaire on January 31st, 2012

  1. We start our belated end-of-the-month Morning Five by talking about Stan Heath and his South Florida Bulls. Despite boasting a 6-3 conference record, very few actually believe the Bulls will still be in the thick of the Big East race by the end of the regular season, and they are probably right. Heath’s team has exactly zero quality wins and the schedule will get much more difficult down the stretch, but let’s give credit where credit is due. South Florida is not a premier program, and now they have won six conference games for just the second time since 2006, so Heath deserves a fist-pound, even if he probably won’t get a long-term contract extension.
  2. Kudos to Mike Vaccaro for first sniffing out the story that Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim went to school at the same time that New York Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin did, because now we know that Boeheim was actually Coughlin’s resident assistant. This is the type of story with absolutely zero sporting implications but tons of fun anecdotes. For example, Boeheim thought Coughlin would end up being a middle school math teacher. Can you imagine the terrified eighth-graders that had to learn fractions while Coughlin cursed them out? Yeah, I think football coach is probably a better fit.
  3. Postgame locker room videos have become an Internet staple in recent months and while Notre Dame‘s Mike Brey‘s speech after his team beat Connecticut wasn’t quite as inspirational, it was still fun to watch. We have already done it in this space plenty, but let’s give Brey just a little bit more praise for the way he has coached an undermanned team to the top half of the Big East. Every year it seems like Notre Dame has less talent than other teams in the conference, yet every year Brey has this team exceeding expectations. There is a lot of basketball left to play, and of course its entirely possible the Fighting Irish fade and fall off the bubble, but I won’t count them out as long as Brey is on the bench.
  4. Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is rapidly becoming one of my favorite columnists if only because there are few columnists in the country who pump out quality college basketball columns as often as Cook does. You had to know he would be back at it today after the Pittsburgh Panthers won their third straight conference game and are on their way to reclaiming some of the respect they had lost when they lost their first seven. If you didn’t notice the theme, it is that the Panthers are going to keep fighting despite the fact that the NCAA Tournament is still a longshot at this point. We will take a closer look at Pittsburgh’s postseason chances either tonight or tomorrow, so make sure to check back.
  5. The good folks of The Hartford Courant decided to state the obviousConnecticut needs to right the ship, and they need to do it quickly. The Huskies have five games left on their schedule against teams ahead of them in the conference standings and don’t look too closely but Jim Calhoun has had some recent success in helping his team get back on track quickly. The difference is that last year’s team had a clear leader in Kemba Walker, but the current version of the Huskies are really young and in need of a steadying influence on the court. Plenty of people in Storrs are hoping they find it quickly.
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The Doctor Is In The House: Connecticut Edition

Posted by mlemaire on January 31st, 2012

Over the next few weeks we will be diagnosing some of the weaknesses and reasons behind the struggles of some Big East teams. Next up is Connecticut, losers of their last three games and five of their last seven.

When you lose someone as important to your offense and departed star Kemba Walker was to UConn’s offense, there will undoubtedly be some growing pains. But most people thought that the remaining talent on Jim Calhoun’s roster was enough to make them a viable if unlikely contender to repeat as National Champions. But now, on the heels of three straight close losses to supposedly inferior teams, some are beginning to wonder if the young Huskies have enough left in the tank to make the NCAA Tournament at all.

1. The team’s commitment to defense seems to have disappeared.

Since 2003, the Huskies have been a consistent presence among the nation’s leaders in defensive efficiency, having never ranked below #41 overall. This season they currently are ranked #80 in the country in defensive efficiency, despite having not one but two premier shot-blockers and endless amounts of length and athleticism on the wings. The team is second in the conference in field-goal percentage but dead last in the conference in three-point field goal percentage which would seem to mean that the onus is on the Huskies’ perimeter defenders to take away their opponents’ open looks. But a renewed commitment to defense will have to be a team effort. Even if Alex Oriakhi can’t get back to blocking shots at the same rate he did in the past two seasons, the Huskies will still block plenty of shots, so forcing turnovers and closing out on shooters should be two things Calhoun harps on in practice.

Traditionally Excellent, UConn's Defense Hasn't Been Up To Speed This Season.

2. There has not been any consistent offensive post play.

When the highly touted Andre Drummond reclassified and joined UConn in time for the start of this season, pundits and fans alike began salivating over the prospect of having Drummond and Oriakhi playing alongside each other in the middle of UConn’s defense. Not only would they be a two-man block party defensively, but their simultaneous presence would make it difficult for opposing defenses to double-team either of them. Unfortunately, none of that has happened. Drummond is a difference-maker defensively and he has shown flashes offensively, but he remains inconsistent and sometimes timid.

Oriakhi probably deserves his own number in this column as this season has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the junior captain. He was supposed to assume a larger role offensively and blossom into one of the conference’s best big men. Instead he has seen his minutes drop and as a result he is averaging a paltry 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game and has posted just one double-double all season. According to KenPom, the Huskies are the eighth-tallest team in the country, so there should be no reason why they are being outrebounded by Notre Dame‘s undersized bunch.

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