O26 Weekly Awards: New Mexico, Jeremy Ingram, Donnie Tyndall & ECU…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 26th, 2014

Think about it, folks: this time next week, it will be March. Let that sink in for a minute… Now let’s take a step back and give some recognition to several of last week’s top performers and performances.

O26 Team of the Week

The Lobos made it loud and clear that they're legitimate. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lobos made it loud and clear that they’re legitimate. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

New Mexico. If the Lobos made one thing abundantly clear last week, it’s this: They are every bit the team we thought they were back in the preseason (they are who we thought they were!). While San Diego State has captured the lofty rankings and national media attention for much of 2013-14, New Mexico — once favorites to win the Mountain West — has lurked under the radar for the better part of three months, amassing plenty of wins but not many headlines. But after a pair of statement victories in a four-night span, over two of its biggest rivals? That all changed in a hurry.

Entering last Wednesday’s game at UNLV, head coach Craig Neal was confronted with the challenge of having to focus his team on the task at hand without looking ahead to Saturday’s enormous tilt against San Diego State. Not necessarily an easy task, but an especially important one considering that the Runnin’ Rebels had more or less handled New Mexico in its own gym just one month earlier. Lucky for Neal, he never had to worry much at the Thomas & Mack Center — his senior point guard Kendall Williams took any possible questions about “focus” and immediately extinguished them with a flurry points. Williams nailed a three in the first minute of the contest to give the Lobos an early lead, then helped his team maintain that advantage for the remainder of the night by notching 29 points — including 17 in the first half — along with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. The outcome was never in question, and what made the 68-56 final even more impressive was the fact that New Mexico, not especially known for its defense, held UNLV to a paltry 31.7 percent from the field. Now the Lobos could look ahead.

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O26 Resume Review: Bubble Watch Edition

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 19th, 2014

We are less than a month from Selection Sunday. The bubble picture is as unsettled as ever. So what better time to do a complete O26 resume review? Instead of reviewing teams that helped and hurt their profiles this past week, however, let’s take a look at all the legitimate at-large candidates among the O26 conferences.

Atlantic 10

  • Locks: Saint Louis
  • Should be in: Massachusetts, VCU
  • Work to do: George Washington, Richmond, Saint Joseph’s, Dayton

There is no way SLU (23-2) misses at this point. The Billikens are ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1964, boast a #11 RPI and hold a three-game advantage in the loss column over VCU, Saint Joseph’s and Richmond with six games to play. The Atlantic 10 as a whole looks like a safe bet for four bids, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see the league get six teams into the NCAA Tournament this season.

Seven Atlantic 10 teams have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes.

Seven Atlantic 10 teams have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes.

  • Massachusetts (20-5, #19 RPI). The Minutemen are still in pretty good position to make the NCAA Tournament. Sure, a home loss to cellar-dwelling George Mason last week looks awful, but strong wins against New Mexico, Providence, BYU and LSU in the non-conference slate make this a solid overall profile. Home games with VCU and SLU, as well as a road tilt at Dayton, highlight the remaining schedule.
  • VCU (20-6, #23 RPI). All in all, not a bad week for the Rams. VCU took care of business at home against George Washington before falling 64-62 at SLU. A win there might have bumped the Rams up into the lock category, but they stay here for now. The early season win at Virginia continues to look better and better as the Cavaliers are on fire. VCU travels to UMass on Friday and hosts SLU on March 1.
  • George Washington (20-6, #37 RPI). George Washington rebounded Tuesday night after a rough week where the Colonials were walloped by 17 points at VCU before falling by six to UMass at home. Those were two huge opportunities for GW to cement its place in the field of 68. Then the Colonials topped fellow bubble-dweller Richmond on Tuesday, thus taking a step closer to the field. George Washington can pretty much count itself in with a win at Saint Louis this weekend. The Colonials still can hang their hats on a great neutral-court win against Creighton way back on December 1. Read the rest of this entry »
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Raheem Appleby’s Injury a Huge Blow for Louisiana Tech

Posted by Adam Stillman on January 16th, 2014

Louisiana Tech’s promising season just came to a screeching halt. The Bulldogs were the Conference USA favorite and held legitimate hopes for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament prior to yesterday. Those goals might appear a bit lofty now after it the school announced on Wednesday that leading scorer Raheem Appleby will miss 6-8 weeks with a severe ankle sprain. The junior guard boasts some impressive numbers, averaging 16.1 points and 2.1 assists per game this season. Appleby hurt his ankle a week ago while driving to the basket during Louisiana Tech’s 84-64 victory against Florida Atlantic, and he missed all of the Bulldogs’ subsequent 85-51 victory on January 11 against Florida International. Now the best-case scenario for the 6’4″ guard appears to be a return for the Conference USA Tournament during the second week of March. This is a really tough blow for a Bulldogs squad aspiring for a long postseason run.

Raheem Appleby's injury is a big blow to Louisiana Tech's NCAA Tournament hopes. (ncaa.com)

Raheem Appleby’s injury is a big blow to Louisiana Tech’s NCAA Tournament hopes. (ncaa.com)

Louisiana Tech still harbors at-large aspirations — even with a #98 RPI — thanks in large part to a resume-enhancing road win on December 30 at Oklahoma. That 102-98 overtime victory looks even more impressive now that the Sooners are ranked #25 in the RPI. The Bulldogs also have another top 100 win against St. Bonaventure (#83 RPI). Louisiana Tech’s losses have come to national title contender Oklahoma State (#11 RPI) in Oklahoma City, at Saint Mary’s (#52 RPI) and Louisiana-Lafayette (#94 RPI). While that last loss doesn’t help, the Bulldogs still have an outside shot at an at-large bid. Should Louisiana Tech exit the C-USA gauntlet nearly unscathed — maybe a loss or two — with a subsequent defeat in the Conference USA Tournament championship, the Bulldogs then present an intriguing argument for a bid.

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O26 Buzz: This Week’s Storylines

Posted by Nicholas Patrick on January 3rd, 2014

Every Friday throughout the rest of the season, the Other 26 Microsite will dig into some of the top storylines featuring those leagues from the previous week.

1. Eye-Opening O26 Results from the Past Week

Kyle Collingsworth and his fellow BYU Cougars need to get back on track after opening WCC play with consecutive losses

Kyle Collingsworth and his fellow BYU Cougars need to get back on track after opening WCC play with consecutive losses

  • Saturday: UNC Greensboro 55, Virginia Tech 52: The Spartans’ complete list of victories against D-I opponents now includes High Point, Stetson, James Madison, oh, and a member of the ACC.
  • Saturday: Massachusetts 69, Providence 67 (OT): Derrick Gordon’s game-winner gave the Minutemen their fifth victory against power conference opponents.
  • Monday: Southern 116, Champion Baptist College 12: This game was already unsettling by the time CBC scored its first point (at that time, Southern had already put up 44 points).
  • Monday: Louisiana Tech 102, Oklahoma 98 (OT): Alex Hamilton scored 36 to lead the Bulldogs to their first win against a power conference opponent.
  • Monday: Pepperdine 80, BYU 74: The Cougars trailed from the opening minutes and finished a disheartening week that also included a loss to Loyola Marymount to open WCC play.
  • Tuesday: North Texas 61, Texas A&M 41: The Mean Green took charge midway through the first half and never looked back on their way to crushing the Aggies.
  • Thursday: Gonzaga 73, Saint Mary’s 51: If this blowout win over their primary WCC rival is any indication, the Zags may not have a true challenger for the conference crown.

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O26 Buzz: This Week’s Top Storylines

Posted by Nicholas Patrick on December 13th, 2013

Every Friday throughout the rest of the season, the Other 26 Microsite will dig into some of the top storylines featuring those leagues from the previous week. 

1. O26 Teams Make Statements Against Power Conference Teams

George Washington's Joe McDonald and Maurice Creek turned heads with a buzzer-beating win at Maryland (washingtontimes.com)

George Washington’s Joe McDonald and Maurice Creek turned heads with a buzzer-beating win at Maryland (washingtontimes.com)

  • Saturday: New Mexico cruises at home, handing Cincinnati its first loss, 63-54; Green Bay’s Greg Mays and Keifer Sykes each contribute 20+ points to defeat Virginia, 75-72
  • Sunday: Maurice Creek’s buzzer-beater lifts George Washington to a big win at Maryland, 77-75

  • Tuesday: After trailing nearly the entire game, Gonzaga surged ahead late to win at West Virginia, 80-76
  • Wednesday: North Dakota State’s Marshall Bjorklund scored 26 points to lead the Bison over Notre Dame, 73-69

Near misses: Arizona 63, UNLV 58; Xavier 85, Bowling Green 73 (OT); Washington State 67, Idaho 66; Kansas State 64, South Dakota 62; Xavier 63, Evansville 60.

2. Chances For More Statements to Come

With only a few weeks remaining before conference play gets into full swing, opportunities are winding down for Other 26 teams to trip up power conference opponents. Some of this week’s most intriguing match-ups:

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College Basketball By The Tweets: Title Game Tilts, Coach Fights & Parker Shows Off

Posted by David Harten on November 28th, 2013

bythetweets

Wednesday night made for one of the better nights we’ve had so far in this year’s college basketball season. It’s holiday tournament time — the three days in Maui were capped, the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off got underway, and a host of other tournaments across the country start today. Trophies were raised and big performances were necessary… and Syracuse and Baylor made it tough to appreciate having 20/20 vision in what I like to call “the day-glow game.”

Let’s take it to the best tweets of the night, shall we?

The top games on the night came in Madison Square Garden, with Duke taking Alabama after Arizona got all it could want from Drexel, and in the Lahaina Civic Center, with Syracuse and Baylor playing for all of the surfboards in Maui. As far as the Blue Devils’ play was concerned, it wasn’t the start they envisioned.

Arizona also fought back after trailing by as much as 19 to the Dragons, pulling away very late for the win. Drexel suffered more than a loss on its record, with one of their better players in Damion Lee exiting the game in the second half with a knee injury. The good news is that Dragons’ head coach Bruiser Flint said the team doesn’t believe there’s any serious damage.

And before things got underway in the Maui title game, Dayton proved its worth in the third place game, beating California, 82-64. As possibly the most impressive team in the tournament, you’d expect this to be a huge confidence boost for Devin Oliver, coach Archie Miller and the rest of the Flyers.

Staying in Hawaii, Syracuse started fast against Baylor, thanks mainly to Tournament MVP C.J. Fair’s scoring and Tyler Ennis being the steady presence at the point.

Oh, and between the Orange and Baylor’s uniforms, the television was tough to look at.

We cut back to Duke and Alabama, where midway through the first half, Blue Devils’ wunderkind Jabari Parker hit possibly the most impressive shot of the night, with a turnaround, baseline fadeaway over a defender that made so many in attendance and watching on TV say “that’s an NBA elite-level shot.” Read the rest of this entry »

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ATB: Buzzer-Beaters Galore, Conference Tournament Aplenty and Bubble Consolidation…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 11th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC C0lumnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. Regular Season Finale. The end is here. Sad, isn’t it? When I say end, I don’t mean the real end. That comes later, at the end of the greatest tournament in American sports. No, what I’m referring to is the regular season, the five-month long slog that took us through the uncertain fall months of non-conference play, across the New Year into a rugged conference landscape, and finally, into the brink of league tourney season. Other than the official crowning of regular season conference champions, select NCAA bids handed out in smaller leagues and a spate of meaningful bubble movement, nothing really happened over the weekend. It was sort of ordinary – if ordinary means a continuation of the craziness we’ve witnessed all season. So without further ado, I present your final regular season weekend ATB. Let’s have at it…

Your Watercooler Moment. The Big Ten Title Bout. 

A Big Ten Title was just one of the benefits Indiana will enjoy in the wake of a huge win at Michigan (Gettty Images).

A Big Ten Title was just one of the benefits Indiana will enjoy in the wake of a huge win at Michigan (Gettty Images).

The Big Ten regular season championship was up for grabs when the league’s five top teams (Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State) began action Sunday afternoon. The basic expectation was that Indiana, after being manhandled at home by Ohio State earlier this week, would lose at Michigan to open up the conference crown to all kinds of contingencies and x-way split scenarios. The Buckeyes wanted a piece of the pie; Tom Izzo’s team didn’t want to be left out; and the Wolverines, well, their fate was in their own hands. The thinking was absolutely on point – the Buckeyes showed Tuesday night in Bloomington what grit and defensive focus and physicality can do to the nation’s most efficient offense, how it can throw Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford into a funk and render the Hoosiers’ hot jump shooters mostly impotent for large stretches. The optics of IU’s postgame celebration – a major national talking point the next day, oddly enough – only increased the wackiness of the entire situation. IU had fallen in a game it was widely expected to win, and the postgame ceremony was expected to include not just a celebration of Indiana’s seniors, but also the official honoring of the Hoosiers’ first outright Big Ten title since 1993. It took another five days before checking that second box, but Indiana got its long-coveted conference title. The Hoosiers sunk Michigan (and its conference title hopes) in the final minute on a debilitating string of missed UM free throws, six consecutive IU points, a crucial layup from Cody Zeller and a whole lot of late-game savvy in front of a deafening Crisler Center crowd.

An outright conference title is just one of the prizes IU shored up Sunday. Another? The inside track on landing the Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis) hosting site for the NCAA Tournament, where red-and-white partisans will turn any IU game into a virtual home court advantage. Then there’s the NPOY implications – the fact that Oladipo, in the biggest game of the season, came up huge with 14 points, 13 rebounds (not to mention Zeller’s 25/10, if you still believe in Zeller’s outside shot at the POY awards) and his usual brand of supercharged defensive disruptiveness, and that Trey Burke just couldn’t get his team over the hump when it mattered most. Yes, Indiana won a lot more than standings supremacy over the nation’s toughest league. Just days after a puzzling loss, the Hoosiers now roll into postseason play with utmost confidence in their ability to make good on the preseason No. 1 ranking.

Also Worth Chatting About. Wildcats Buck up in Must-Win Finale.

The Wildcats seized the biggest resume boost available in the SEC by knocking off Florida at home (Getty Images).

The Wildcats seized the biggest resume boost available in the SEC by knocking off Florida at home (Getty Images).

Like any historically dominant sports entity, Kentucky has its share of location-agnostic dissidents within its sport. It is one of two teams, along with Duke, to drown in the national hatred. The Wildcats are blue, well-funded, a self-generating news cycle and in most seasons, good. Kentucky is good; oceans hold water; the sky is blue (you get the point). Making that argument would have seemed a bit silly for much of this season, with the possible exception of a mid-season stretch where the Wildcats tore off five straight wins, watched Nerlens Noel develop into a bona fide defensive star and potential lottery pick, and laid waste to most of the NCAA Tournament doubts heaved their way during an uninspiring non-conference performance. When Noel lost his season to an ACL injury in a road defeat at Florida, the stakes changed. Kentucky needed to show the selection committee that it belonged in the Tournament without its best and most important player. It needed to prove it was good, again. The only sign of goodness prior to Saturday from this current UK team came in an inspired overtime win over Missouri. The rest of the Wildcats’ Noel-less work, including road losses at Arkansas and Georgia, was less than inspiring. Kentucky had work to do before its at-large credentials could be considered even reasonably acceptable by selection committee standards.

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The Other 26: Five Intriguing Championship Week Storylines

Posted by IRenko on March 9th, 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.

With regular season action having wound down, we’ll dispense with our standard format this week in favor of a streamlined focus on five key Championship Week storylines, along with, as always, our updated top 10 rankings.  I joined the RTC Podblast crew on Wednesday for a full-fledged preview of TO26 conference tournament action, talking about the most exciting tournaments, the most anticipated matchups, potential bid stealers, and more. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to the sweet, dulcet sounds of my voice for more on those big picture topics, and instead offer five less obvious storylines to follow. 

Will Kendall Williams Lead the Lobos to a Number 2 Seed? (Maria Brose / Albuquerque Journal)

Will Kendall Williams Lead the Lobos to a Number 2 Seed? (Maria Brose / Albuquerque Journal)

  1. Will Cinderella Show up Early? — If you love to cheer on Cinderella squads as they try to knock off highly-seeded favorites, there’s no need to wait for the Big Dance. The conference tournaments comprise more than two dozen Little Dances, in which a Cinderella run is as likely as it is later in March. Last year, Western Kentucky managed to snare the Sun Belt’s automatic bid, despite entering the postseason tournament with a #7 seed and an 11-18 record. Can anyone manage the feat this year? Already, we have a great underdog story brewing in the WCC, where Loyola Marymount, which went 1-15 in regular season conference play, has won two tournament games to secure a semifinal berth. It will take a true miracle to overcome their next obstacle — the number one team in the country, Gonzaga — but miracles are what March is for.
  2. Can New Mexico Secure a #2 Seed? – Gonzaga appears poised to plant the TO26 banner on the top seed line, but is it possible that another TO26 team could find itself just one line down? Our latest bracketology hands the Lobos a #2 seed, though many other projections predict a #3 seed. A run through the MW Tournament — on the heels of a two-loss regular season in what is the conference’s deepest, most competitive year in memory — would, one would hope, be enough to give the Lobos their highest seed in school history (they twice notched a #3 seed, including in 2010). And it would be the first time that two TO26 squads landed two of the top eight seeds since 2004, when St. Joseph’s and Gonzaga each managed the feat.
  3. Will Akron Regroup? — A week ago, Akron was riding a 19-game winning streak, was undefeated in MAC play, and was two games clear of Ohio in the East Division standings with three games left. The Zips fell last Saturday in a surprising 81-67 loss to Buffalo, in which they were torched by Javon McCrea for 28 points. But that was a mere bump in the road compared to what happened next. On Thursday, it was announced that junior point guard Alex Abreu had been indefinitely suspended after being arrested on felony charges of marijuana trafficking, and in their first game without him last night, the Zips fell at home to Kent State, 66-61. Worse than blowing their lead atop the East Division (if Ohio wins Saturday, the teams will end the regular season tied), the Zips are now limping into the postseason with little chance of an at-large bid and needing to win three straight MAC tournament games without Abreu to make good on their once-promising March prospects. How important is Abreu to this team? He’s third in scoring, at 10.3 points per game, and shoots a team-leading 39.4 percent from three-point range. But more than that, he is the facilitator that makes Akron’s offense go, notching six assists per game, for which he ranks in the top 20 nationally. Read the rest of this entry »
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The RTC Podblast: The Other 26 Championship Edition

Posted by rtmsf on March 6th, 2013

In this week’s RTC Podblast, we tackle Championship Fortnight with a detailed look at a number of the Other 26 league tournaments around the country. As always, Shane Connolly (@sconnolly114) is our host, but we also bring in the RTC O26 correspondent, I. Renko (@irenkohoops), to help dissect some of the more notable tourneys tipping off this week and next. The schedule of topics is below if you feel like jumping around. Later this week we’ll do our traditional podcast, and next week we’ll absolutely be breaking down each of the power conference tournaments with our cast of microsite correspondents around the country.

  • 0:00-4:23 – Gonzaga the Best O26 Team, But Not the Best Team in the Country
  • 4:23-6:03 – MW and A-10 Are Elite Conferences
  • 6:03-11:07 – St. Louis and New Mexico Battle for Next Best O26 Team
  • 11:07-14:55 – Other 26 Teams Looking Good for At-Large Bids
  • 14:55-17:24 – The Curious Case of Louisiana Tech
  • 17:24-20:37 – Teams That Can Make Noise… If They Get In
  • 20:37-23:14 – MW and A-10 are the Tourneys to Watch
  • 23:14-26:13 – Other Leagues to Keep an Eye On
  • 26:13-29:20 – Dream Conference Tournament Match-ups
  • 29:20-30:43 – Conference Primed for Classic March Moment/Wrap
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The Other 26: Let the Madness Begin

Posted by IRenko on March 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.

As the calendar turns to March, let us declare: Let the Madness begin. The NCAA Tournament is still three weeks away, but the fight to get there begins in earnest this coming week, as 12 mid-major conferences will kick off their tournaments. The Big South and Horizon League will have the honor of kicking things off on Tuesday night, with their first round tournament games. Ten more conferences will follow suit with the first auto-bids being awarded a week from today in the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley.

We’ll be back next week with updates on all the action, but until then, there is still the homestretch of the regular season to attend to. So let’s move on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and (regular season) games to watch this week.

Top 10

RTC -- TO26 (3.2.13)

Honor Roll

The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.

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Pac-12 Bracketology: February 9 Edition

Posted by Connor Pelton on February 9th, 2013

As we dive into the back nine of conference play and approach the home stretch of the season, it’s time to take a look at the three postseason tournaments and where each Pac-12 team fits into the picture. I’ll make my full bracket projections each week (or two) for the NCAAs, NIT, and CBI, and then report where the Pac falls on the list.

pac12_1

Definitely Dancing: Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA are all locks at this point in the season. I have the Wildcats just a bit higher than most prognosticators at number four in the nation, as they have been one of the few consistently good teams that doesn’t have any bad losses (barely). In an interesting second round matchup, they square off with the best 16 seed, Charleston Southern. Of course, the two teams already met in the season opener, with CSU hanging around for a good portion of the game before fading quietly down the stretch.

Oregon is so much of a lock that it would basically have to lose each of its remaining games to miss the tournament. It may be hanging onto a four seed by a thread, but good wins over the likes of UNLV, Arizona, and UCLA give them the nod over any bubble team if it ever came down to that. I currently have the Ducks matching up against a mildly dangerous Louisiana Tech squad at 13. The Bulldogs have a nearly impeccable 20-3 record, but the schedule has been fairly soft.

UCLA’s recent two game skid has made things much more interesting for the Bruins, but this year’s bubble is so soft that they are fine for now. That’s in part due to their Top 50 RPI standing and good wins against Indiana State, Missouri, Colorado, and Arizona. However, the recent struggles don’t go unpunished. Dropping down to a low eight seed means as challenging a tournament opener as you’re going to get, and that comes in the form of a 19-4 Colorado State team.

Bubble In: Colorado and Arizona State are the other two Pac-12 teams I see making the field of 68, but both will likely be sweating bullets come Selection Sunday. The 15-7 Buffaloes are actually seeded pretty high considering their record, due in part to a Top 25 RPI that’s keeping Tad Boyle and company on the good side of the bubble. There are five remaining key games on CU’s slate (home against  Arizona, Arizona State, and Oregon, at the Bay Area schools), and if the Buffs come out on the good side of three of them they should be a lock for the Big Dance.

Arizona State is on even thinner ice. The Sun Devils are the final team in my rankings before the dangerous 12’s begin, and while their record (17-5) is much better than Colorado’s, an SOS of 110 is holding them down badly. Regardless of where they land in the field, this ASU team will be a sneaky bunch come tournament time. A meeting with head coach Herb Sendek’s former school in the opener would be quite a sight, and a chance for the Pac-12 to get some major recognition on a national level.

Freshman Point Guard Jahii Carson Has Led Arizona State From The Bottom Of The Pac To The NCAA Bubble (credit: Zach Long)

Freshman Point Guard Jahii Carson Has Led Arizona State From The Bottom Of The Pac To The NCAA Bubble (credit: Zach Long)

NIT Locks: Washington is the next team up for the Pac-12, and while its recent poor play means the Huskies won’t be in any NCAA bubble discussion, an NIT lock is definite. The Huskies currently sit at an uninspiring 13-10, but they have been in most every game they’ve played (only two losses were by double digits, and the last three were all by five points or less). Combine those factors with the fact that Alaska Airlines Arena typically draws well, and the Huskies made a run to the semifinals of the same tournament last season, I like Washington right now a solid four seed. That means they would host at least a first round game, and I have them playing an interesting Xavier squad in the opener.

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The Other 26: The Mountain West Enters the Spotlight

Posted by IRenko on December 29th, 2012

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.

The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.

(Getty Images)

Alex Kirk Led a Tough New Mexico Performance Against Cincinnati (Getty Images)

The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.

The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season.  But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.

This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.

Top Ten Rankings

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