Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
When you lose four starters, 73% of your scoring production, and one NBA lottery pick from the season before, it usually means that a year of rebuilding awaits your basketball program. But for San Diego State, a fresh slate of players who mainly watched and waited their turns last season have picked up where Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Billy White, and Malcolm Thomas left off. Tuesday night’s road victory over Wyoming improved No. 15 SDSU to 18-2 on the season and 3-0 in Mountain West conference play as one of the most surprising teams in the country. Veteran coach Steve Fisher and the new-look Aztecs have wildly exceeded expectations and are looking to match or surpass last season’s run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Steve Fisher is Leading This Year's Aztecs to Unexpected Success (Getty Images/K. Horner)
Junior guards Chase Tapley and James Rahon are the only current Aztecs who played significant minutes on last year’s outstanding 34-3 team that won the MWC and advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Tapley was a starter and averaged 8.6 PPG a year ago, but this season has taken his game to a whole new level. The shooting guard leads the Mountain West in scoring (16.4 PPG) and steals (2.05 SPG) while hitting a tremendous 46.7% from behind the arc on over five attempts per game. His growth from role player to star guard, however, is not even the biggest improvement on the team. That distinction goes to sophomore Jamaal Franklin, who hardly rose off the bench last season (8.1 MPG), but who’s now developed into one of the most talented players in the conference. He didn’t start the first 10 games of this season, but Fisher has had him in the lineup in the past 10 after he flashed tremendous skills and strength at the small forward position. He’s now averaging 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game as a versatile threat for the Aztecs.
No matter how established the program, every college basketball coach eventually takes a chance on a transfer. Jim Boeheim, for example, plucked Wesley Johnson from Iowa State and turned him into the Big East Player of the Year in 2009-10. Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski’s current rosters both include transfers with Brandon Wood (Valparaiso) and Seth Curry (Liberty), and in 1979, a former Indiana Hoosier named Larry Bird nearly won a title with Indiana State just a few years after quitting basketball (and Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers) altogether.
Hoiberg and Haith Are Recruiting Transfers Heavily to Their Programs
Normally, coaches take one or two transfers at a time to fill immediate holes, but that’s not everybody’s philosophy. Meet Missouri’s Frank Haith and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, a pair of coaches who have abandoned traditional recruiting methods at their new schools in favor of Division I transfers. Haith, hired in April to replace Mike Anderson, is using three open scholarships in 2011-12 on players who will not appear in a single basketball game this season by signing Keion Bell (Pepperdine), Earnest Ross (Auburn) and Jabari Brown (Oregon). Hoiberg, on the other hand, has four transfers on his roster in his second year with the Cyclones: Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State), Royce White (Minnesota), and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois). The two coaches have energized their fan bases by signing big names from major schools, but Haith and Hoiberg’s recruiting tactics cannot be accurately judged at this point. Iowa State’s Fab Four will begin Big 12 play next month, and Missouri’s three transfers will not all be eligible until December 2012.
Instead of speculating as to whether the two teams will suffer from dreaded chemistry problems with so many transfers, why not crunch the numbers to see if The Transfer Effect really exists? Although finding aggregate data for Division I transfers is virtually impossible, recent anecdotal evidence shows that the recruiting strategy is an enormous risk for both coaches. Seven teams from both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons welcomed three or more transfers to their programs at the same time, and only two teams (San Diego State and UNLV) finished above .500 in league play. Seton Hall, the only power conference team in the group, missed the NCAA Tournament.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences and a microsite staffer for the Pac-12.
A Look Back
While a couple Mountain West teams took their lumps early in the week, the weekend was an unabashed success for the teams at the top of the conference, clearly highlighted by UNLV knocking off the nation’s #1 team, North Carolina, at the Las Vegas Invitational Saturday night. In the process, and with preseason co-favorite New Mexico struggling to find its stride early, the Runnin’ Rebels have grasped the mantle of sole favorite in the conference. The Lobos lost their second game of the season on Thanksgiving night, dropping an overtime game to Santa Clara at the 76 Classic, but they rebounded to sweep through an unimpressive consolation bracket in that tournament. And San Diego State confirmed the fact that they are, in fact, a contender not only for an NCAA Tournament bid, but a league title, despite losing the bulk of last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. While there are some other solid teams among the rest of the conference, these three have risen to the top as the cream of the conference, but the strength and depth of the conference can be seen in the MW’s collective 39-10 record (second in the nation behind only the Big Ten’s 63-10 record) including a 3-0 record against the ACC and a 6-2 record against the Pac-12.
Team of the Week
UNLV – Last week the Rebels probably should have been the pick here, but in the interest of mixing things up, I went with Boise State. This week Dave Rice’s team leaves no other option. Not only did the Rebels beat the #1 team in the country, they handled them pretty well, winning 90-80, outrebounding the vaunted Tar Heel front line (31.7 OR%, 78.6 DR%) and knocking down 13 threes (spread out over five players) to seal the deal. Last year at this time, the Rebels were coming off of an impressive championship performance at the 76 Classic, but were never really able to capture the energy they showed that weekend the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if this vintage of the Rebels has a staying power that last year’s team did not.
Player of the Week
Mike Moser, Sophomore, UNLV – Much like the TOTW award, Moser could have and probably should have taken down this award last week. This week, no such slight as he averaged 13.3 points and 13 rebounds per game, and stepped up his game even another notch in the UNC upset when he had 16 points, 18 boards, added six assists and even dropped in his first two three-pointers of the season (although, his shot selection may be one area he could still stand to work on). With his long arms, freaky athletic ability and feel for the game, you can expect to see his name here again this year.
Game of the Past Week
San Diego State 76 UC Santa Barbara 75 (OT) – The Aztecs traveled north to Santa Barbara to face a formidable foe Saturday night and needed a late 11-0 run in regulation to eventually force overtime, then an improbable ending to seal the victory in overtime. SDSU head coach Steve Fisher was the Michigan coach when Chris Webber infamously called a timeout that his team didn’t have in the waning moments of a national championship game. On Saturday night, Fisher’s Aztecs were on the receiving end of a similar play. With SDSU up three and the clock under ten seconds, UCSB’s Orlando Johnson lost control of the ball near midcourt. After Johnson recovered the ball in a scramble, an unidentified Gaucho called for timeout; unfortunately for them, they had just used their final timeout minutes before. Jamaal Franklin sank one of two technical free throws, effectively sealing what had been a great back and forth game. Point guard Xavier Thames had his best game as an Aztec, going for 20 points, ten rebounds and six assuists, while UCSB’s Johnson had 26 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Games of the Upcoming Week
Creighton @ San Diego State, 11/30, California @ San Diego State, 12/4 – The Aztecs stretch of incredibly tough non-conference opponents wraps up this week with visits from the favorites of the Missouri Valley and the Pac-12 conferences. By the end of the week, SDSU will have played six top-75 teams (according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings), and if they can continue the success they’ve had in the opening weeks of the season, they could earn serious consideration for a national ranking. Creighton’s sophomore wing Doug McDermott leads a Blue Jay team that is #1 in the country in effective field goal percentage, and the Aztecs defense will have to take a big step forward to slow down that offensive attack on Wednesday. Then on Saturday, the Golden Bears backcourt duo of Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez will be pitted against SDSU’s backcourt in a battle of the two team’s strengths.
Fun Stat of the Week
In honor not only of UNLV’s 13 three-pointers in their win over UNC on Saturday, but also of the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the three-point shot to the college game, it is worth noting that the Rebels hold the NCAA record for consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer, with 812 games. The Rebels are joined by Vanderbilt and Princeton as the only three teams in the country who have made at least one three-point field goal in every game since the rule was implemented, but since the Rebels have played more games than the other two schools, they currently hold the record.
Runnin' Rebels Fans Participated In An RTC-Approved Court Storm Saturday Night After UNLV Toppled #1 North Carolina.
1. UNLV (7-0): Okay, I’ve made it this far without bragging about the fact that I had UNLV hanging tough with UNC in the LVI final, several days before the matchup was even official and then again after the win over USC was final. Well, enough fake humility. Now that’s out of the way; more details from the upset over UNC. First, senior forward Chace Stanback set a career-high with 28 points and added ten revounds, a breakout performance for the team’s leading returning scorer who had been almost invisible the previous night (four points, two rebounds in 17 minutes against USC). Second, Oscar Bellfield was brilliant, scoring 16 points, knocking down four threes and handing out nine assists in what may have been the best game of his UNLV career; if he can continue that type of play, this Rebel team has got a bright future. Third, the three-headed center of Brice Massamba, Quintrell Thomas and Carlos Lopez was solid if unspectacular against the future pros along the Tar Heel front line – the three combined for 14 points, nine rebounds and a couple blocks, while deftly using 11 of their 15 fouls in 44 minutes of action. And finally:
A Look Ahead: Tough week for the Rebels, especially in the penumbra of the North Carolina victory; the team travels to UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday night (and RTC Live will be courtside there) and heads to Wichita State on Sunday.
2.San Diego State (7-1): It’s important to remember what the Aztecs are missing from last year’s Sweet 16 team. First, NBA lottery pick and freak-of-nature Kawhi Leonard’s double-double and lock down defense are gone. Senior forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas (21.7 highly efficient points and 12.5 rebounds between them) are also gone. And floor general-supreme and master of the clutch hoop, D.J. Gay, also gone. The only two returnees who played significant roles for last year’s club – Chase Tapley and James Rahon – were merely low-usage role players. This year, however, Tapley has stepped up and taken over not only a leadership position on this team, but also the role as go-to scorer. He has attempted double-digit field goals in six of the Aztecs first eight games, scored in double figures in the same number of games and done so while knocking down exactly half of his 46 three-point attempts to this point. Rahon hasn’t been quite so lucky yet, as an ankle injury kept him out of SDSU’s first three games and he has yet to really hit his stride yet. The three-point specialist did post a career-high 20 in the win over Long Beach State, but he’s struggled with his stroke from deep, hitting just three of his 20 attempts thus far.
A look ahead: We detailed the Aztecs’ tough stretch at home above in our Game of the Week section, but after this week, SDSU takes a significant step down in the remainder of its non-conference schedule, with games against Division III and NAIA teams mixed in with ho-hummers against Big West and WCC also-rans.
3. New Mexico (4-2): It hasn’t really been the start that New Mexico fans expected. The loss to in-state rival New Mexico State? Okay, it’s a hard-fought rivalry game; anything can happen. You can write off a loss there with any number of excuses or explanations. But the 76 Classic opening round loss to Santa Clara? That one was inexcusable. Defensive problems were exposed in that game (notably the fact that as athletic as Kendall Williams is, he had no chance chasing SCU’s Kevin Foster off multiple screens every possession), but give the Lobos credit – their defense looked better in the final two games of that competition, albeit against lesser competition. Further, the New Mexico offense showed signs of coming into its own, with freshman Hugh Greenwood clamping down the point guard position that he’ll likely hold for the next four years with a three-game, zero-turnover performance over the weekend. Moreover sophomore wing Tony Snell continued his vastly improved play, hitting 18 of 32 field goals (and 12/24 threes) on his way to a stellar weekend. Williams and Drew Gordon, the established stars on this club, still have yet to really get comfortable out there, but with Greenwood running the offense smoothly and Snell giving opposing defenses a third scoring option to worry about, expect the Lobo big guns to have a bit more room to operate.
A look ahead: A visit from Idaho State on Wednesday precedes a tough matchup in the MW/MVC challenge on Saturday when Missouri State visits Albuquerque.
4. Boise State (4-1): The Broncos got brought back down to earth a bit on Tuesday with a ten-point road loss at Long Beach State, but given that the 49ers are a high-caliber opponent, there is no shame in that loss for BSU. The Broncos bounced back Saturday with a 14-point win over Northern Illinois, and the trend of new players stepping up every night for head coach Leon Rice continued as sophomore guard Jeff Elorriaga went for 14 points on the night. Offensively, Elorriaga is nothing but a bomber. On the year he has attempted 20 field goals; 18 of those (and all six of his makes on the year) were from behind the arc. Kenny Buckner, a bruising jucotransfer, also picked things up this week, posting a season-high 14 points in the loss to LBSU. Buckner provides a good presence in the middle for the perimeter-oriented Broncos, averaging 5.4 rebounds in 18.8 minutes on the season.
A look ahead: The Broncos host a couple of MVC opponents this week, with Drake coming in on Wednesday night before Indiana State visits on Saturday. The latter game is the only official part of the MW/MVC Challenge.
5. Air Force (3-1): The Falcons only played one game this past week – a 76-73 overtime loss to Colorado – but they’ll hold on to the #5 spot this week, if only because, you know the Pac-12 is so strong that a loss to one of its member institutions is no big deal, right? Anyway, Michael Lyons continued his sparkling start to the season by going for 31 points, seven rebounds and three steals in the losing effort. Junior Todd Fletcher continued his solid play at the point by handing out six assists in the game; he’s had at least six assists in every game this season against Division I competition. And junior center Taylor Broekhuis has shown that as long as he can stay out of foul trouble (which he did not do in the Falcons’ season opener against Army) he can provide a strong interior presence for the Academy.
A look ahead: It’s another slow week for the Falcons, with only a trip to Des Moines on Saturday for a matchup with Drake ahead.
6. Wyoming (6-1): The Cowboys have lost the toughest game they’ve played this year – a road trip to face Green Bay, a team that is just 2-4 on the year – and have beaten no one of consequence (they’re best win is over Northern Colorado, another 2-4 team). But the mere fact that the Cowboys are beating these teams is an accomplishment. Last year, Wyoming lost to Northern Colorado by 14, to North Florida by 16 and to South Dakota by ten. While this team may not have the talent to measure up with the big boys at the top of the league, at the very least they are competing under new head coach Larry Shyatt. This week it was redshirt junior guard Luke Martinez, who misses all of last season with a broken elbow, who led the way, averaging 17 points per night and knocking down 16 out of 26 three-pointers in the Jim Thorpe Classic round-robin tournament in Laramie. Fellow guard Francisco Cruz pitched in with three consecutive double-figure games, while freshman forward Larry Nance, Jr. (does that name ring a bell?) had his best game of his young career on Saturday with nine rebounds and four steals, although his offensive game is still not quite ready for primetime. Also worth noting is that JayDee Luster, who struggled to take care of the ball under previous head coach Heath Schroyer, has handed out 26 assists this season while only turning it over three times.
A look ahead: Utah Valley on Wednesday won’t raise the bar much, and a visit from a poor Bradley team in the MW/MVC Challenge on Saturday means the Cowboys have a good chance to get to 8-1 before they face Colorado on 12/9.
7. Colorado State (4-2): The Rams won both of their games this week, but the fact remains that the team’s best win was in the opener over an average Montana team. With no real producers on this team over 6’6”, this team is going to go as far as its backcourt triumvirate of Wes Eikmeier, Jesse Carr and Dorian Green will take it. This week, in close wins over Texas-San Antonio and Manhattan in the NIT Season Tip-Off consolation bracket, Eikmeier and Green were strong, each scoring in double figures in both games (Eikmeier 20.5 PPG this week, Green 16 PPG). None of the three guards are true lead guards, but all share the duties at point; the problem is that none of the three are great at creating opportunities for teammates. Up front, Greg Smith and Will Bell are hard workers (the two combined to average 18.8 PPG and 10.5 RPG), but they could get overpowered even by a relatively small frontcourt like SDSU’s.
A look ahead: The Rams will get a couple of good tests this week, with Colorado visiting on Wednesday, followed by a trip to Northern Iowa on Saturday.
8. TCU (4-2): After a strong opening win in the Paradise Jam, the Horned Frogs dropped their final two games, with Ole Miss sending the team back home with an 11-point loss. But they bounced back on Saturday with an exciting one-point win at Houston. After Houston took a one-point lead with six seconds left, senior wing J.R. Cadot rebounded his own miss and scored with under a second left to give TCU their fourth win on the year. The 6’5” Cadot has taken it upon himself to hit the glass with abandon this season, leading the team in rebounds and generating offense for an team without a lot of offensive options by crashing the offensive boards. Juco transfer Adrick McKinney has also been helping out on the glass and while this is still a relatively undertalented team, head coach Jim Christian is getting the most out of the players he does have.
A look ahead: Lamar visits Fort Worth on Wednesday, with a trip to Evansville lined up on Saturday.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-10 conferences. We will be publishing a series of conference report cards over the next week for conferences that got multiple NCAA bids to recap the conference, grade the teams, and look at the future for the conference.
Conference Recap: It was a banner year for the Mountain West despite the turbulence of the offseason that will see two of the standard-bearers of the conference (Utah and BYU) leave for arguably greener pastures this summer with TCU following them out the door the following summer. The two teams leading the conference this season, BYU and San Diego State, posted a combined 66-8 record this year and were constants in the national top ten making the Sweet 16 before bowing out in tight contests. In addition to having two of the country’s top teams the conference also had arguably the nation’s top player in BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, who led the country in scoring, regularly producing eye-popping, shake-your-head-in-disbelief moments and becoming a household name in Utah and beyond. UNLV joined the conference leaders in the NCAA Tournament, but tripped up in ugly fashion before losing head coach Lon Kruger to Oklahoma over the weekend. Colorado State and New Mexico had their hopes pinned on NCAA Tournament bids, but came up a little short. Nevertheless, this was undoubtedly the biggest collection of talent in the history of this conference and likely the high water mark. While there is not a whole lot of love lost between either followers of the conference or executives in the MWC and BYU, there is little doubt that the loss of both of the Utah schools from its ranks will leave a major hole.
It was clearly the year of the Jimmer in the Mountain West
While most of the college basketball world has been focused on the Final Four or certain ridiculous coaching hires (more on that in a bit), there was some very interesting news out of San Diego State where according to Malcolm Thomas, Aztec star Kawhi Leonard is essentially set to head to the NBA this summer. Although Leonard hasn’t said anything officially, the statements by Thomas are intriguing as the two players live together. We should probably hear something from Leonard in the next few weeks to make this official.
On to the ridiculous coaching hirings, Missouri‘s decision to hire Frank Haith was widely panned and it seems like he will be coaching some of his own players in the very near future. Although they are stating otherwise, the decision by Kim English and Laurence Bowers to look into the NBA Draft on the same day that news of Haith’s hiring became public looks very suspicious. Both have stated that Haith’s hiring had nothing to do with their decision and neither has hired an agent, so it is possible that both will return and play for Haith. The timing of their announcement, though, will not do anything to assuage the already frail psyche of Missouri fans.
In one of the more interesting coaching transitions of the young offseason, Princeton coach Sydney Johnson announced that he was leaving the school to take the same position at Fairfield. In a short time at Princeton, Johnson turned the Tigers around from a 6-23 record in his first season to the NCAA Tournament this year after that buzzer beater that knocked off Harvard in a playoff for the Ivy League title. In the NCAA Tournament, Princeton nearly shocked the basketball world in playing Kentucky to the wire before Brandon Knight hit a lay-up to win it for the Wildcats in the closing seconds. From what we have read, the primary motives here appear to be a significant increase in pay and the hope of competing on a level playing field, as many speculated that Harvard’s reported decision to ease admission standards further for basketball players would leave Princeton at a significant competitive disadvantage, since their administration was unwilling to budge on its admissions standards.
Former Oklahoma State basketball player Darrell Williams was charged with one count of sexual assualt and four counts of rape based on allegations from two women stemming from an incident in December. The trial is set to begin on May 13th. Technically Williams has been suspended indefinitely, but we can’t imagine that Travis Ford will let Williams back on the team or that Williams would want to remain at Oklahoma State even if he was found not guilty.
Finally it looks like not everybody was in Houston just to see the Final Four. Southern University athletic director Greg LaFleur was in Houston for the Final Four, as were many high-ranking officials from other schools, except that LaFleur was arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute. The school has released a terse generic statement saying that they will investigate the matter. LaFleur has been athletic director at Southern since 2005, but we suspect that he will lose his job over this. The one thing saving him from national embarassment here is that he is the athletic director at Southern.
After another weekend of scintillating and shocking NCAA Tournament results, it’s time to check back in with our various correspondents who were in Anaheim, San Antonio, New Orleans and Newark reporting on the games this weekend.
Location:Anaheim, CA Round:Regional Final Teams:Connecticut, Arizona Date:26 March 2011 Correspondent: Andrew Murawa
In the preview for this game, I talked about the idea that it wouldn’t necessarily be the stars that determined the outcome of this game, but the role players. While Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams led the way with 20 points each, the two All-Americans combined to make just two of their 13 attempts from beyond the arc and to shoot a combined 12-30 from the field. The big difference between the two is that Walker was able to take advantage of all the defensive attention that was being paid to him and trust his teammates to make big plays. Walker wound up with seven assists as teammates like Jeremy Lamb (19 points, two threes) and Shabazz Napier (ten points, two threes) came up big when called upon. “Arizona did a great job of throwing two guys at me and I realized it kind of late,” said Walker. “But I was able to get Jeremy involved and he was able to make so big plays for us. Jeremy was on tonight, and I wanted to keep going to him.”
According to Jim Calhoun, it was Walker’s suggestion to repeatedly run Lamb off baseline screens in several late-game possessions. “Kemba says, ‘We got to get the ball to Jeremy!’ Now, I’ve had a lot of great players, and great players want the ball in their hands and he did some great things down the stretch obviously, but he’s saying to the coaches let’s not run cage, let’s run circle for Jeremy, and obviously it paid off great. And he looked at Jeremy and he said, ‘And you’ll make those shots, too.’ I don’t think there is any kid in America doing that. He’ll carry us and take over the game but as good as it has been, his play was great, his leadership even better.”
Jeremy Lamb was asked in the postgame press conference to comment on a UConn assistant coach’s statement that the freshman had been so great in the Tournament that it was like he didn’t even know where he was. What followed next proved beyond all doubt that Lamb really didn’t know where he was, as he turned to Coach Calhoun and Walker with a confused look on his face, prompting both of them to begin cracking up, then responded to the reports with “you mean like — what do you mean?” Alex Oriakhi cleared things up a bit, telling Lamb, “he wants to know if you have a pulse.” Lamb responded: “Well, no, I mean, I haven’t thought about it sinking in yet, I just like to go out there and play. I don’t like to think about where we’re playing and how big the stage is. Right now I’m just having fun playing basketball.”
Some 27 years ago, Jeremy Lamb’s father, Rolando Lamb, hit a game winning buzzer-beater to beat a Calhoun-coached Northeastern team in the NCAA Tournament. According to Calhoun, all is now forgiven. “I think that after his shot that beat us when he played for VCU I told him he owed me one and he certainly has – he’s paid me back ten-fold. That was just one game.”
For the second straight game, the Huskies were the beneficiaries of their opponent’s star forward getting in early foul trouble. And in both games, after taking a solid lead into the halftime locker room, UConn had to withstand numerous second-half charges, playing in what was essentially a road game. “When teams make runs, we don’t let it get to us because I guess we know we’re going to make runs back with Kemba and Jeremy Lamb being able to score the ball the way they’re able to,” said sophomore center Oriakhi.
After three days of quiet, it’s time to get serious about figuring out this national championship thing. Sixteen to twelve… let’s check out tonight’s games.
#2 San Diego State vs. #3 Connecticut – West Regional Semifinal (at Anaheim, CA) – 7:15 pm ET on CBS.
Does Fisher Have Another Final Four Run in Him?
One of these teams has won two national championships. The other just got done winning their first two NCAA Tournament games ever. While the Aztecs have had a great breakout season and now stand at 34-2 on the season, UConn has won 44 Tournament games in the Jim Calhoun era alone. Luckily for SDSU, past performances in the Big Dance need have no impact on this year’s games. If you throw out the bloodlines for the two programs, you’ll find that we have the makings for what should be an excellent game. We’ve got star power on both ends of the court, with UConn’s point guard Kemba Walker a candidate for the National Player of the Year and SDSU’s Kawhi Leonard an All-American candidate. We’ve got big name coaches with national championships and Final Four experience, as Calhoun will be matched up with Steve Fisher, who won one title at Michigan in ’89, then got back to the title game in both ’92 and ’93. We’ve got an impressive freshman class including Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, and Jeremy Lamb on the UConn side matched up with three starting seniors on the Aztec squad. In short, we’ve got all the trappings of a serious battle. For the Aztecs, the big goal is going to be slowing Kemba Walker. While SDSU has had plenty of experience at trying to slow another high-scoring point guard (one Jimmer Fredette – you may have heard of him), Walker is a different challenge for SDSU, as he is a quicker, shiftier guard than Fredette, and a guy who you’d rather have shooting the three than challenging his defenders off the dribble. As a result, it is likely that D.J. Gay and/or Chase Tapley will get the majority of minutes tasked with defending Walker, while frontcourt players like Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas will be left to keep one eye on Walker while trying to body-up the Huskies’ athletic offensive rebounders up front. The SDSU frontcourt will also have to provide the majority of the scoring, and given that they haven’t seen a team as big, long and bouncy as the Huskies, they’ll need to prove that their opponents’ size does not bother them. The Aztecs figure to have plenty of support from their fans, who only need to drive about an hour north to attend the game, but they’ll need to prove that their shaky performance down the stretch in Saturday’s game against Temple was an aberration rather than the norm. Until they can close out a game in the NCAA Tournament with confidence, we’re not sure they’re trustworthy against a big-time foe.
The RTC Certified Pick: Connecticut
#2 Florida vs. #3 BYU – Southeast Region Semifinals (at New Orleans, LA) – 7:27 pm ET on TBS.
Looking at this game on paper, it’s pretty hard to find any discernible differences between these two teams. The main determinant of this game will likely be tempo. BYU would love nothing more than to get the Gators caught up in a fast-paced game, forcing them to recklessly throw up ill-advised three pointers leading to long rebounds and many Cougar runouts. Dave Rose’s team excels in transition with Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery leading the charge. While Emery is certainly a terrific point guard, his biggest impact on this game could come defensively. He’ll guard Florida’s Erving Walker in all likelihood and that could be a major problem for the 5’8 Walker. Emery’s length and quickness has the potential to disrupt the Florida floor general, plus the BYU senior ranks #15 individually in steal percentage. If Walker can’t get the offense flowing, Florida may result to lots of isolations and quick shots, certainly not ideal for a team that does its best work at a slower pace in the half court. The Gators have a big advantage inside and have to use it to win. Billy Donovan needs to keep Kenny Boynton, expected to play after spraining his ankle against UCLA, in check and make sure his guards work the ball inside to Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus. This could very well be the game where the loss of Brandon Davies dooms BYU for good. The Cougars rank a paltry #222 in offensive rebounding percentage so Florida should hold a significant edge on the glass. BYU has been out-rebounded in four of their seven games without Davies and we expect that trend to continue tonight. Defensively, Florida has to keep Fredette off the free throw line and force him to make outside shots. It’s alright for the Gators if Jimmer drains more than a few bombs but he’s most dangerous when he can get into the lane and to the stripe, or create for others when defenders are drawn to him inside. Florida ranks #15 in defensive free throw rate and will have to keep that up against Fredette specifically. We have to wonder if Donovan will assign Parsons the task of defending Fredette. Parsons is a big man (6’9) but he’s fairly quick for his size and can bother Jimmer with his superior length. Quickness will be the issue because Fredette possess a terrific first step to blow by opponents. The Cougars will have an edge at the line if this is a close game since Florida struggles as a team (67%). It should be a terrific matchup but a slight edge has to go to the Gators in New Orleans this evening.
***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
One auto bid and a host of major conference games are on tap today, two days out from Selection Sunday. The afternoon session features plenty of bubble teams making their closing arguments to the Selection Committee. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.
SEC Quarterfinals (at Atlanta, GA): Georgia vs. Alabama – 1 pm on ESPN FullCourt (***)
We’ve heard all kinds of things about this game from an elimination game to a play-in game. Whatever it may be, one team will be looking better than the other by the time it’s over. Alabama beat Georgia in the regular season finale six days ago and now they meet again in another game with major NCAA implications. RTC’s resident bracketologist had Georgia in and Alabama the first team on the “out” list as of last night while Joe Lunardi over at ESPN has the Bulldogs as the last team in the field and the Crimson Tide in the same position as RTC. This game will be played almost exclusively in the paint as neither team shoots it well from deep. Both teams rank in the top 20 in interior defense but Georgia has to avoid turnovers to win. Alabama thrives on giveaways despite their slower tempo, ranked #28 in defensive turnover percentage. Georgia committed 16 turnovers in the loss to the Tide last week and lost the game despite out-shooting Alabama from the floor. Senario Hillman leads Alabama in steals and will look to harass the Georgia guards all game long. The battle in the paint between Trey Thompkins and JaMychal Green could determine the outcome of the game if the Bulldogs don’t turn it over often.
Big Ten Quarterfinals (at Indianapolis, IN): Michigan vs. Illinois – 2:30 pm on ESPN (***)
Illinois is generally considered to be in the field of 68 but Michigan could really use a win. The Wolverines are likely in as of now but a loss here and other results around the country could make it a very close call on Sunday. The Illini won the only meeting of the regular season, a two point win in Champaign on February 16. Michigan protects the ball very well but rebounding and defense did them in against Illinois in that game. John Beilein would love to play this game in the half court where his team can probe and dissect the Illinois defense, although the Illini rank tenth in three point defense and Michigan fires up almost 23 triples per game. With two dynamic playmakers in Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr, Michigan can break a team down off the dribble of spot up for a three. This is a game they definitely can win but a better effort on the glass is needed. Michigan ranks near the bottom of D1 in offensive rebounding percentage (that will happen when you shoot so many threes) and was out-rebounded in the loss to Illinois last month.
RTC is pleased to announce that we’ll be covering all of the major conference tournaments this year — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC — in addition to the strongest two high-middies, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. Each day for the rest of this week, we’re asking our correspondents to provide us with a Daily Diary of the sights and sounds from the arena at each site. Equal parts game analysis and opinion, the hope is that this will go beyond the tiresome game recaps you can find elsewhere and give you an insightful look into Championship Week. Today’s coverage: ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Mountain West & Pac-10.
ACC Tournament – by Kellen Carpenter
Miami-Virginia. This was a truly bizarre game that I’m still not sure makes any sense. Greensboro Coliseum was surprisingly packed for a 12 pm game between the 8 and 9 seed. Both teams boasted sizable and vocal fanbases who were each treated to a game of runs. Miami jumped out ahead, leading by six at the half, and then one of the weirdest second halves I have ever seen happened. Miami only scored eight points over the first 18 minutes of the second half. Virginia, rallying strongly, jumped out to a 50-39 lead with 2:15 left on the clock. Then Miami went nuts. No, really. I’m still not sure what happened. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy by a series of weird, truly improbably events. Miami cut the eleven point deficit and forced an overtime which the Hurricanes suddenly dominated and walked away with a truly unexpected win. For a the first game of the ACC Tournament, it was not just a dinger, but a hum-dinger. Whenever you can get a crowd of Floridians and Virginians to scream their heads off in the early afternoon in North Carolina, you’ve put on quite a show. Beyond that, nothing about this game mattered.
Wake-BC. After the drama of the Miami and Virginia game, any game with a team that had only managed to win one ACC game over the course of the season was bound to be a letdown. What was surprising to me, was the letdown in crowd energy. Winston-Salem, home of Wake’s campus, is a mere 20 minutes away, yet it seemed like the Demon Deacons had fewer fans present than Miami. Boston College had a very small and quiet contingent who seemed happy to quietly watch as the Eagles just took apart Wake. It really wasn’t much of a game, with the hyper-efficient Boston College offense firing on all cylinders (well, excepting the Raji cylinder). Reggie Jackson scored 27 points on 13 shots. Joe Trapani scored 22 points on 12 shots. Nicholas Biko scored 21 points on 12 shots. Wake Forest’s porous defense could do little to stop them, and their impotence on the offensive end doomed them. Freshman Travis McKie was a bright spot, going 6-8 in the first half while the rest of his team struggled. But, for some stupefying reason, McKie only got two shots in the second half, one of these being a put-back dunk of his own manufacture. If there is a silver lining to that second half, it’s the fact that Wake actually managed to outscore BC, 36-34. Sadly, this was clearly not enough to make up for the 16 point deficit incurred in the first half. My favorite part of this game, was clearly the few, loud Wake Forest fans sitting directly behind me. One woman seemed particularly keen on trying to coach Travis McKie’s admittedly poor free throw shooting (2-5). Every time he got to the line she would yell “Bend your knees! Follow through!” If only he had listened? The season is mercifully over for Wake, and BC will get it’s chance at tougher competition tomorrow when they take on Clemson.
NC State-Maryland. There were, as you might expect, an alarming number of loud, red-wearing people at this game. Maryland jumped out to an early lead which energized/enraged these loud, red-wearing fans. In response, the N.C. State band played Cee-Lo’s “Eff You,” which, when you think about it, is a perfect pep band song: catchy and insulting to the other team, while the lack of singing effectively makes it family friendly. Well-played, Wolf Pack band. That said, the pep band arrangement of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song was pretty excellent as well. And if the bands played with flair, the teams did too. There was more speed, athleticism, and acrobatic drives on display in this game than in the first two games combined. Cross-overs, spin moves, and behind the back dribbles on the fast break had the crowd frequently on its collective feet. Does Tracy Smith have the MVB (Most Valuable Beard) of this tournament? It’s hard to see anyone overtaking him. Maryland looked in command the whole game, but since Miami’s Miracle, there was a palpable nervousness in the crowd until the buzzer finally went off.
Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech controlled this game from the start and once it became clear that Georgia Tech could never catch up, the crowd that had gathered for the previous game started to vanish. Virginia Tech’s fans were consistently loud and even when the Hokies’ lead exceeded twenty, the fans took every call against them as if the game depended on it. Meanwhile, the Georgia Tech fans seemed resigned to his fate. Georgia Tech never managed to score more than a point per minute in the first half. It was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a tournament setting, and remember, I watched the Wake Forest game earlier today. Virginia Tech played well enough, but I couldn’t help but be concerned about the minutes that the starters were playing. Malcolm Delaney played 39 minutes despite the massive lead VT held throughout. He only sat for the final minute of the game and that was after he had taken a needless hard foul. You have to wonder how such long minutes on consecutive days are going to affect the Hokies hopes of going deep into this tournament. Well, you don’t have to worry, but I would.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West conference. With the MWC tourney tipping off Wednesday, get set with RTC’s regular season wrap-up and tournament preview.
For the top four seeds, the MWC Tournament is of great importance, with Colorado State the team with the most on the line. The Rams sit firmly on the bubble for an NCAA at-large invitation, and while winning the whole thing and the automatic bid that goes along with it would be their best bet, prevailing wisdom indicates that if they can take care of New Mexico in the quarterfinals and then upset BYU in the semifinals, Tim Miles’ club will have gone a long way towards punching its ticket. Meanwhile, for the top-seeded Cougars, they’ve still got some things to prove. In the wake of last week’s dismissal of its best interior player, BrandonDavies, for a BYU honor code violation, the Cougars hopes of possibly earning a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament have disappeared. However, where they will wind up seeded remains a real question – a good showing in the MWC Tournament and a run to the championship could still earn them a #2 seed, while an early exit could confirm the doubts of the NCAA Selection Committee and relegate them to a #3 or even a #4 seed. For San Diego State, they’ve still got plenty to prove as well. Their best wins on the season are over Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and a season-sweep of UNLV – good wins, but certainly not great. However, if SDSU can add another win over UNLV and get the BYU monkey off of its back, it could prove its credentials as a possible #2 seed. And then there’s UNLV, a team that has had a roller coaster ride of an offseason. If they can defend their homecourt in the conference tournament and come away with an MWC title, they could wind up as high as a #6 seed (assuming they knock off SDSU and BYU along the way), while an earlier exit could relegate them to a #9 or so. For seeds five through nine in the MWC Tournament, the stakes are clear: win the title or consider your options for the “other” postseason tournaments. New Mexico has a good shot at an NIT bid, should they fail to win three games in Las Vegas, while the rest of the bottom five seeds will determine whether to call it quits or consider possible invitations from the CBI or CIT.