Rushed Reactions: #6 Butler 68, #11 Bucknell 56

Posted by IRenko on March 21st, 2013

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I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Lexington after Thursday’s Second Round game between Butler and Bucknell. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Mike Muscala Could Not Get It Going — All eyes were on Bucknell’s Mike Muscala this afternoon, and the big man shrunk under the spotlight. He got off to a poor start, scoring just two points in the first half on 1-of-9 FG shooting. He started to find the net a bit in the second half, as the Bison climbed back from a double-digit deficit to make it a competitive game. But he never developed a good rhythm, and at the end of the day, Bucknell needed more than his nine points on 4-of-17 shooting. Butler’s defense gets some credit, but Muscala missed a lot of shots that he typically makes.

    Brad Stevens' crew flustered the Bucknell offense all game long. (AP)

    Brad Stevens’ crew flustered the Bucknell offense all game long. (AP)

  2. Not That Easy on the Eyes — Apart from an exciting stretch in the middle of the second half, this game was plagued by ineffective offense. Butler hardly put on an offensive clinic, but Bucknell was the biggest offender. After shooting a miserable 25.9 percent from the field in the first half, they couldn’t find a consistent rhythm in second. Apart from a pair of lightning quick runs that actually gave them a six-point lead, the offense continued to struggle. And it wasn’t just Muscala who struggled. The Bison’s second and third leading scorers, guards Cameron Ayers (12.5 ppg) and Bryson Johnson (11.1 ppg), continued the disappearing act that they unveiled in the Patriot League tournament, combining for 0 points on 0-of-4 FG shooting in the first half.
  3. Butler Overcame Its Cold Shooting — Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham combined to make more than 150 threes this year, but against Bucknell, the two were stone cold. They shot a combined 2-of-9 from three-point range and missed several two-point jumpers, combining to go 5-of-18 from the field. The two guards made up for their poor shooting, though, by taking care of the ball. Turnovers have plagued the Bulldogs’ guards all season, but Clarke and Dunham committed none today.

Star of the Game: With Butler’s shooters in a game-long cold spell, it fell to Roosevelt Jones to ignite the offense with his unorthodox game. Perhaps it was fitting that Jones, who resembles a fullback in appearance and style of play, was the star of a contest that had a 21-14 football-like score at halftime. Jones’ ugly shotput runners in the lane and ragged drives to the basket epitomized the ugly nature of Butler’s win. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting and added five boards and four assists. The turnover-prone guard also had just one miscue.

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The Other 26: Bracket-Busting, East and Midwest Edition

Posted by IRenko on March 20th, 2013

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

This is part two of our TO26 bracket analysis, focusing on the 17 non-power-conference teams that populate the East and Midwest regions. The teams are grouped into five rough categories, and, within each category, they are ordered by their likelihood of advancing.  For our analysis of the South and West regions, see here.

Regional Threats

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

  • St. Louis (#4 Midwest) — The Bilikens are flying a bit under the radar, but this is a team that should be a favorite for a Sweet 16 run. They have one of the best defenses in the country, a group of experienced guards who can attack and shoot (Kwamain Mitchell, Mike McCall, Jordair Jett), a surprisingly effective post presence in Dwayne Evans, and a pair of pick-‘n-pop big men (Rob Loe, Cody Ellis) who can drain the three. It should be said, though, that the Bilikens’ draw is not necessarily ideal. A first-round game against New Mexico State presents some matchup quandaries (see below), as does a potential Third Round game against Oklahoma State — both teams are prepared to bang and grind with the Bilikens down low. Ultimately, I think the St. Louis’ defense is strong enough to get them to the Sweet 16, where their steady guard play gives them a non-trivial chance of knocking off the Cards.
Can Rotnei Clarke Lead Butler Back to the Final Four?

Can Rotnei Clarke Lead Butler Back to the Final Four?

  • Butler (#6, East) — Yes, they’re back. Neither Bucknell nor their potential Third Round opponent (Marquette or Davidson) will be an easy team to conquer, but all three of these teams will give Butler an important reprieve from its biggest vulnerability — a tendency to turn it over. Bucknell and Marquette will also play at the kind of grinding pace at which the Bulldogs excel. And they’ll focus their offense on the areas of the floor where Butler’s defense is strongest — the paint. Butler also has the shooters — Rotnei Clark, Kellen Dunham — to bombard Marquette’s compact defense and the rebounders to exploit Marquette’s weakness on the glass. If anything, Bucknell may pose a bigger matchup problem, as they tend to chase teams off the three-point line and they don’t give up much on the offensive glass. The Bison will be a tough opponent, but when you look at Butler’s pod as a whole, a Sweet 16 run looks well within reach.

One and Done

These teams have at least a 50/50 (or better) chance of picking up a win, but are unlikely to get two.

  • Colorado State (#8, Midwest) – I would actually bump the Rams up to the tail end of the “Regional Threats” group if not for the uncertain status of starting point guard Dorian Green. The team’s unquestioned floor general, Green suffered an ankle injury in the first round of the MWC tournament, and though he played in a semifinal loss to UNLV, was ineffective. With a fully healthy Green, the Rams’ have a good chance of toppling Missouri. The two teams are somewhat similar in that they try to score in the paint on offense, while keeping opponents out of the paint of it on defense. Neither team is especially potent from the three-point line, and both rely a fair amount on offensive rebounding, though the Rams’ have the advantage here, especially as they are equally adept at controlling their defensive glass. That, along with Missouri’s tendency to be a bit loose with the ball, may be the difference-maker. And don’t sleep on Colorado State’s chances against Louisville in the next round. The Cardinals’ weak points are defensive rebounding and three-point shooting. The Rams are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and as noted above, their defense forces teams to beat them from the three-point line. They also take pretty good care of the ball, which will serve them well against Louisville’s pressure defense. But this analysis could be all for naught if Green isn’t healthy enough to be effective.
  • Creighton (#7, Midwest) Doug McDermott is perhaps the most fundamentally sound player in college basketball. His All-American status owes itself to his incredibly precise offensive footwork, positioning, movement, shot, and cuts. He has inside-outside skills that present a very tough matchup if you’re not used to guarding him. And he’s surrounded by lots of great three-point shooters. Cincinnati’s defense has generally been strong, so they might be able to contain McDermott and the Bluejays’ three-point attack. But they’ll have to be especially effective because their offense has been truly miserable. I like the Bluejays’ chances here. A Third Round matchup with Duke would be a tougher proposition, as the Blue Devils combine a defense that shuts down the three-point line with an offense that is far more high-powered than Cincinnati’s. McDermott may well get his points, especially posting up inside, but that’s not likely to be sufficient.

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Previewing the Patriot League’s Postseason Prospects

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 19th, 2013

Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.

Bucknell Earns A #11 Seed

Bucknell earned the Patriot League’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament after a 28-5 season that included three wins in the conference tournament. After weeks of projecting as a #12 or #13 seed, the Bison were treated favorably by the Selection Committee and given a #11 seed in the East Regional. The Bison will play Butler in famed Rupp Arena in Lexington. Eleven is the best seed any Patriot League team has garnered since Bucknell was a #9 seed in 2006. Because Bucknell received an #11 while other at-large teams came in as low as #13, some of the chatter shifted from the match-up it drew to speculation about whether the Bison were good enough to have received an at-large bid had it come up short in the conference tournament. According to the full seeding list, it appears they were. But it’s a tough question to answer, because it was a moot point after they won the Patriot League Tournament, and because they would have likely taken a big hit in the seeding list had they lost to either Lafayette or Army in the tourney.

After winning the Patriot League tournament, it will be interesting to see what Mike Muscala and the Bison have in mind for an encore when they face Butler.

Would Mike Muscala and Bucknell have made the Field of 68 had they lost in the Patriot League Tournament? (Matthew O’Haren/USA Today)

All in all, Butler is a good match-up for the Bison. The Bulldogs started this season 16-2, including a win over in-state rival Indiana, and they looked like a Final Four favorite after an exciting buzzer-beater win over Gonzaga in January. Despite finishing out the year with a modest 10-6 record, five of Butler’s losses came to NCAA Tournament teams (including three losses against St. Louis).

Of course, the key for any team playing against Bucknell will be containing Mike Muscala. The match-up to watch in the Butler game will be Muscala vs. Andrew Smith. Smith is a 6’11” senior who leads the team in rebounding and is second in scoring. He actually missed the game against Charlotte this season with an abdominal injury, and it was one of Butler’s only losses this season against a non-Tournament team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bracket Prep: East Region Analysis

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 18th, 2013

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Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (9 AM), Midwest (11 AM), South (1 PM), West (3 PM). Here, Brian Otskey (@botskey) breaks down the East Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC East Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCeastregion).

You can also check out our RTC Podblast with Brian breaking down the East Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.

East Region

Favorite: #1 Indiana (27-6, 14-5 Big Ten). Ranked No. 1 in 10 of the 19 AP Top 25 polls this season (through last week), Indiana is the strong favorite in this region. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season title but fell to Wisconsin in the conference tournament semifinals this past Saturday. Indiana fans are definitely bummed that their team won’t be playing in the Indianapolis regional but they will still show up. IU fans travel as well as any school in the country.

Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers earned the top seed in the East region (Photo: Andy Lyons)

Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers earned the top seed in the East region (Photo: Andy Lyons)

Should They Falter: #2 Miami (27-6, 18-3 ACC). It has been a dream season in Coral Gables as Miami won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles. History, however, is against this team. Miami has made only one Sweet Sixteen appearance (1999-2000) in program history, representing the furthest this program has ever ventured into March. Also, nobody on the roster has ever played in an NCAA Tournament game. There are positives, though. Head coach Jim Larranaga obviously had a memorable run with George Mason in 2006 and most of Miami’s major contributors are older, veteran players. It’s much easier to win when you’re coaching 22- and 23-year olds rather than 18- and 19-year olds.

Grossly Overseeded: #4 Syracuse (26-9, 14-8 Big East). Despite advancing to the Big East championship game and playing better than Louisville for 24 minutes in that game, Syracuse’s overall profile looks more like a #5 or #6 seed rather than a #4. The Orange were just 5-5 in true road games, under .500 against the RPI top 50 and only 12-9 against the top 100. Before the Big East Tournament run, Syracuse had lost seven of its last 12 regular season games. There’s no doubt the week at Madison Square Garden helped Jim Boeheim’s team (as it historically has), but Syracuse is still too high for my liking.

Grossly Underseeded: #14 Davidson (26-7, 20-1 Southern Conference). Stephen Curry put Davidson on the map with a magical run to the 2008 Elite Eight, the only NCAA Tournament victories for the Wildcats since 1969. This year’s edition is pretty good in its own right. Coached by Bob McKillop, who has now made a respectable seven NCAA Tournament appearances in his 24 years at the small school near Charlotte, North Carolina, the Wildcats won 26 games and lost only once in conference play. Davidson challenged itself in the non-conference, playing the #20-rated schedule that included games against Gonzaga, Duke and New Mexico. Davidson has just two top 100 wins but we figured a 26-win team that scheduled up would have been rewarded with something other than a #14 seed. Ken Pomeroy’s rating projects only a four-point loss to Marquette so it’s clear that the Wildcats are capable of winning a game.

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Bracket Prep: LIU-Brooklyn, South Dakota State, Valparaiso, Bucknell

Posted by BHayes on March 14th, 2013

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Over the course of the last two nights, four more teams made their Big Dance dreams a reality. As each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.

LIU-Brooklyn

It's An NEC Tournament Three-Peat For The Blackbirds.  Welcome Back To The Big Dance!

It’s An NEC Tournament Three-Peat For The Blackbirds. Welcome Back To The Big Dance!

  • NEC Champion (20-13, 15-6)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #178/#184/#162
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.2
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16

 Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. While it might be a bit of hyperbole to announce the Long Island Blackbirds as a NEC dynasty, three conference tournament titles in a row will get that conversation started. LIU may have found the transition under new coach Jack Perri to be slightly rougher than expected – they were just 5-10 before winning 10 of their final 13 games – but a familiar destination has appeared at the end of the road – the NCAA Tournament. And while the Blackbirds haven’t completely embarrassed themselves in the past two NCAA Tournaments (losing by 15 and 22 points, respectively), can this year’s team make the next step and put a real scare into one of the field’s top teams?
  2. Normally, a team playing at the 29th quickest tempo in the nation would be lauded for their freneticism, and yes, LIU does play fast. But after back-to-back years of holding a top three spot in the metric, things have slowed down a bit in Brooklyn. The offensive personnel on this team is impressive. Junior point guard Jason Brickman is the nation’s leader in assists at 8.5 per contest, while his backcourt mate CJ Garner has been on a scoring tear, going for 30+ in three of the Blackbirds last four. Neither is the team’s most talented player, however; senior Jamal Olasewere plays power forward for LIU at 6’7”, but would seamlessly fit in on most any power conference team at the two or the three. A phenomenal athlete who can both put the ball on the deck and score with his back to the basket, Olasewere is a match-up problem waiting to happen.
  3. It’s fun to watch LIU play offense. Too often though, it’s just as fun to watch their opponents play offense. LIU ranks 318th nationally in defensive efficiency, and gave up at least 89 points to each of their three power conference foes this season — Kentucky, Maryland, and Seton Hall (yes, the same Seton Hall that managed a total of 81 regulation points during its two-game Big East Tournament run.) None of those three games were particularly close. The offensive firepower gives the Blackbirds more bite than your typical #16 seed, but their profound inability to get stops is the reason they will likely be in that slot. LIU might have a little bit of fun at the Big Dance – maybe 20 minutes or so – but nothing they have done so far suggests they are capable of hanging with the nation’s elite for the full 40.

South Dakota State

Next Stop For The Jackrabbits: The Big Dance

Next Stop For The Jackrabbits: The Big Dance

  • Summit League Champion (25-9, 16-3)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #65/#103/#94
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +4.6
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #13-#14

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Championship Previews: Patriot League Tournament

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 6th, 2013

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Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. Follow him on Twitter (@mitchgoldich) for live updates throughout the Patriot League Tournament.

Top Storylines

  • Bucknell Locks Up Home Court Advantage: The Bison made history this season, becoming the first Patriot League team ever to win three consecutive outright regular season titles. Their 12-2 conference record gives them the top seed in the tournament, ensuring that all of their games will be played in Sojka Pavilion. Their success in Sojka is one of the key reasons they’ve been so great over the last few years, and is a big reason they’ll be tough to take down in the tournament. The Bison went 11-1 on their home floor this season, including a 6-1 mark in conference play. The Bison are an astounding 75-15 all-time against Patriot League foes in Sojka, though that does include a loss to Lehigh in last year’s Patriot League Championship Game.
  • McCollum Unlikely To Return: The entire complexion of the Patriot League season changed on January 5, when Lehigh star CJ McCollum broke his foot in a nationally televised game against VCU. Lehigh’s preseason All-American became one of the breakout stars in college basketball when he scored 30 points in the Mountain Hawks’ upset over Duke in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He lived up to the hype surrounding his senior season, and led the nation in scoring (25.7 points per game) before the injury. The initial time frame had him out 8-to-10 weeks, which is anywhere from March 2-16. Head coach Brett Reed said on the Patriot League coaches’ conference call that McCollum continues to get healthier, but that he is preparing for the tournament with his squad that went 8-4 in league play without their star. Even if McCollum was healthy enough to take the court, there’s no way to know how many minutes he could log or how effective he’d be.
  • Leopards Running Hot: While Bucknell and Lehigh dominated the preseason and early-season headlines, it’s that other team in Pennsylvania playing the best ball in the conference right now. The Lafayette Leopards started the season 1-6 and 3-8. On December 14, I even had them dead last in my Patriot League Power Rankings. A close loss at Stanford left them 5-10 at the new year, but seemed to offer hope that the team had figured things out. Behind Tony Johnson’s stellar play at point guard, the Leopards won nine of their final 11 conference games, including an upset over Bucknell and a season sweep over the hated rival Lehigh. The Leopards enter the Patriot League Tournament on a five-game winning streak, and are a legitimate contender to win their first league championship since the 1999-2000 season.

Reader’s Take

 

Breaking Down the Tournament Field

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  1. Bucknell (25-5, 12-2) – Bucknell spent the non-conference portion of their season flirting with an automatic bid, but their run through league play was not dominant enough to keep them in that discussion. They have simply not looked as good since they nearly beat Missouri in January (more on that below), but they are still the favorite to win the tournament. In addition to Muscala, they have a strong cast with seniors Bryson Johnson and Joe Willman, also in the 1,000 point club. Johnson set the conference record for most three-pointers made in a career and Cameron Ayers joined him at better than 41 percent from beyond. Read the rest of this entry »
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CIO… the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 22nd, 2013

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Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.

Looking Back

  • Bucknell Wins Lehigh Rematch: The Bison and Mountain Hawks have spent the majority of this season tied atop the league standings, and they stayed that way when both teams lost last Saturday. While their losses may have hurt both teams’ overall resumes, they did nothing to diminish the importance of the game between two 8-2 opponents. The rematch was critically important to both teams, but more so to Bucknell because Lehigh had already won the first match-up in Lewisburg. Had Lehigh won, they would have had a one-game lead, plus the season sweep — essentially a two-game lead, with three to play. Lehigh’s uncharacteristically poor shooting was one of the night’s main storylines, as the Mountain Hawks went just 1-of-15 from three-point range and 6-of-15 from the free throw line. After Lehigh shot 10-of-18 from beyond the arc in their first meeting, the Bison wanted to contest those shots better and force Lehigh to come inside for better looks. Still, 1-of-15 is obviously a brutal night, and there is no excuse for a team previously shooting better than 75 percent from the line to go 6-of-15. Bucknell’s star Mike Muscala scored just 12 points, with his minutes limited due to first half foul trouble, but his nine rebounds and four blocks made a big impact during his 26 minutes on the floor. Bryson Johnson made three three-pointers and scored 19 points, and Cameron Ayers made a wild shot that put the game away after Lehigh had cut an 11-point deficit down to three points in the final minute. With a one-game cushion and a softer schedule, the Bison now look very likely to take the top seed and lock up home court advantage throughout the Patriot League Tournament.
  • Tony Does It Twice: Tony Johnson, who goes by the twitter handle @Tonytone_3, gave Patriot League fans two reasons to say his name this week. Lafayette’s dynamic point guard hit game winning shots in consecutive games. First he hit a bucket with 4.5 seconds left to put Lafayette ahead of Bucknell 63-62 on Saturday. Then on Wednesday, he hit a tie-breaking three-pointer with even less time remaining against Holy Cross. The Leopards started the season 5-10, and dropped to 8-12 after losing two of their first three Patriot League games. They have since reeled off six wins in eight games, including upsets of both Bucknell and Lehigh. Johnson’s play (12.2 points and 5.0 assists per game in league play) is a major reason the Leopards are legitimate contenders to win what was previously considered a two-team league.

    The Leopards Have Leaned On Tony Johnson To Keep Them In The Thick Of The Patriot League Race. (April Bartholomew/Morning Call)

    The Leopards Have Leaned On Tony Johnson To Keep Them In The Thick Of The Patriot League Race. (April Bartholomew/Morning Call)

  • The Patriot League’s Most Exciting Day: While arguably the most anticipated season in Patriot League history has offered compelling storylines, it took a little while for the games on the court to live up to the hype surrounding the league. With a few notable exceptions, the first half of league play saw relatively few second half lead changes, let alone games coming down to the final possession. Fortunately, with the Patriot League Tournament on the horizon, the games have gotten more exciting. Saturday, February 16 was easily the most fun day of the Patriot League season, with three games decided by a total of six points all playing out at once. Johnson’s last second shot lifted Lafayette past Bucknell. Lehigh came all the way back from 22 points down to Colgate, before the Raiders fended them off. And Army held off a last-second shot to grab a one-point win over Navy. Fans of the league can hold plenty of hope that when matchups are renewed for their third installment during the conference tournament, the games will only continue to get more exciting.

Power Rankings

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The Other 26: This Is Not Mark Few’s Best Team… Yet

Posted by IRenko on February 16th, 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.

After a 17-point win at St. Mary’s on Thursday night pushed Gonzaga’s record to 24-2 and cleared its biggest hurdle to a regular season record tainted with just two losses, some are wondering whether this is the best team that Mark Few has put together in his 14 years at the helm. It’s a fair question, given the way they’re playing. But the best ever? Sure, not since Adam Morrison was dragged off the court after a heartbreaking loss to UCLA ended his college career, have the Zags had a player with the combination of star power, All-American credentials, and curious hairstyle that Kelly Olynyk has brought this year. And, true, moreso than the Morrison-led team of 2006, this squad is a well-balanced offensive machine, with a multitude of frontcourt and backcourt options. They proved that on Thursday, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have deferred most of the scoring load this year to Olynyk and Elias Harris, dropped a combined 38 points on St. Mary’s.

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

But Few’s best team ever? They have a ways to go before they can claim such an honor. Take, for example, the 2004 team, which also dropped just two contests heading into the NCAA Tournament.  That squad was led by All-American senior guard Blake Stepp, and like Olynyk, he had lots of help. Junior Ronny Turiaf, sophomore Morrison, and senior Cory Violette shared the scoring load, with all four players averaging in double-digits. They coasted through league play undefeated, never winning a game by less than double digits, and ended the season on a 20-game win streak en route to a 2 seed in the Tournament, Gonzaga’s best ever. Their two pre-Tournament losses were to St. Joe’s and Stanford, both of which went on to earn 1 seeds that year. By contrast, this year’s Gonzaga team lost to Illinois, a bubble team, at home by 11 points.

Of course, this year’s squad could prove itself a superior to the 2004 team — or any team that Few has coached — if it can get past the Sweet Sixteen. Since Gonzaga burst onto the college hoops scene 14 years ago with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’ve yet to get reach the brink of a Final Four, much less a Final Four itself. The ballyhooed ’04 squad was upset by 10th-seeded Nevada in the second round, the ’05 team squandered a 3 seed with a second round loss to Texas Tech, and the ’06 Zags memorably collapsed against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen (a game to which one cannot refer without remarking that it was perhaps the finest moment of Gus Johnson’s illustrious career). This Gonzaga team stacks up well with those predecessors, but unless it breaks through to the second game of the second weekend, it won’t prove to be their clear superior.

What’s undisputed, however, is that the Zags have been dominant enough to remain at the top of this year’s Top 10.  On to that, our Honor Roll, and this week’s games to watch  . . .

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CIO… the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 8th, 2013

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Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post.  Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.

Looking Back

  • Lafayette Separates From The Pack: For much of the season, it’s been Lehigh and Bucknell trading places at the top of the Patriot League power rankings, with nobody else staking a firm claim to the third spot. Two weeks ago I put Lafayette in the three-hole, in what was easily the most difficult call to make. The Leopards immediately justified that ranking with a blowout win at Lehigh the following day. Lafayette thoroughly dominated Lehigh, winning 78-57 in Bethlehem. Lafayette is 4-3 at the midpoint of league play, with a very favorable schedule for the second half. Each of the Leopards’ four toughest opponents (Bucknell, Lehigh, Army and American) will travel to Easton, where they have reeled off eight straight wins. Fran O’Hanlon’s squad seems poised to grab the third seed in the Patriot League Tournament, and has the best chance to take down Bucknell or Lehigh once they get there.
Lehigh Has Held Steady Without C.J. McCollum Thanks To White-Hot Perimeter Shooting.

Lehigh Has Held Steady Without C.J. McCollum Thanks To White-Hot Perimeter Shooting.

  • Bucknell Survives American: Bucknell and American collided last week in one of the most exciting games of the Patriot League season. American trailed by one point at halftime, and then started to pull away in the second half. Daniel Munoz hit a three-pointer with 2:16 left to stretch the lead to 55-48. The Bison came back and scored eight straight points to finish the game up 56-55. Mike Muscala grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a put back with 21 seconds left to get the Bison within a point. Then, he did the same exact thing on the final possession of the game, scoring on another put back layup with 0.8 seconds left to end the game. The Bison were presumed the conference favorite after a strong run through the non-conference season, even before Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum went down with a broken foot. But Bucknell lost their home game against Lehigh on January 23, and then looked shaky on the road in D.C. It’s hard to know what exactly to make of this game. It could be a good sign that they were able to escape and pull out a close win, or it could be a bad sign that the team isn’t playing as well as they were early in the season. Still, the Bison have reached the midway point of the league season with a 6-1 record, tied with Lehigh atop the standings.
  • Muscala, McCollum Named Senior CLASS Award Finalists: Muscala and McCollum have grown accustomed to seeing their names next to each other as they’ve rewritten chunks of the Patriot League record book throughout their intertwining careers.  They’ve put themselves in elite company once again, as the Patriot League produced two of the ten finalists for one of college basketball’s most prestigious awards, the Senior CLASS Award. The award recognizes Division I seniors with notable achievements in four areas—community, classroom, character and competition. A committee of media members selected the finalists from a list of 30 candidates that also included Lehigh’s Gabe Knutson. It’s hard to speculate how much McCollum’s time lost to injury may affect voters, but it’s a testament to his body of work that he was still selected as a finalist. Both men are strong students and high-character leaders, as well as two of the most talented players the league has ever seen. The award recipient will be selected by combining votes from fans, media members and head coaches, with the winner revealed at the Final Four.  Fans of either player can vote here.

Power Rankings

  1. Bucknell (19-4, 6-1) – Despite the shaky game against American, Bucknell’s 3-0 record since the last Check-In allows it to wrestle the top spot back from Lehigh. Muscala continues to run away with the Patriot League Player of the Year Award, leading the conference with 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He has officially graduated from that conversation and entered discussions around national awards and NBA draft stock. While Muscala deserves his share of attention, he has received help. Bryson Johnson made six three-pointers against Navy on Saturday, giving him an even 300 for his career. He is now just two shy of tying the league record set by American’s Garrison Carr from 2005-2009. Bucknell’s success can also be attributed largely to their defense, and they lead the conference in points allowed (58.4 per game) and opponents’ field goal percentage (37.4). Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: Niagara Rushes Forth

Posted by IRenko on February 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CIO… the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 25th, 2013

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Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.

Top Storylines

Lehigh Upsets Bucknell: The Lehigh Mountain Hawks traveled to Lewisburg on Wednesday and did more than just upset league favorite Bucknell. With their 65-62 win inside a rabid Sojka Pavilion, they reignited the fervor around what had previously been the most anticipated season in Patriot League history.

The Patriot League doesn’t typically receive much national media coverage. Most years, college basketball fans don’t pay attention until March rolls around and it’s time to see who will represent the conference in the Big Dance — if then. This year was different. The rivalry between Lehigh and Bucknell was debated across the country this preseason. Lehigh was fresh off its stunning upset of Duke in the NCAA Tournament, returning future first-round NBA draft pick C.J. McCollum. Bucknell won the regular season Patriot League title, and boasted a former Patriot League Player of the Year Award winner Mike Muscala, with NBA dreams of his own. But when McCollum broke his foot on January 5 at VCU, most thought that the buzz around the Patriot League was gone. Not so fast.

Mike Muscala's Coming Out Party Is Over, Now It's All About Tracking His Draft Stock.

Mike Muscala’s Coming Out Party Is Over. Now It’s All About Tracking His Draft Stock.

Lehigh’s most deadly weapon is the three-point shot, and they rank second in the nation at 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. On Wednesday, the Mountain Hawks made an incredible 10 out of 18 threes. Shots started dropping early, as Lehigh hit six threes while racing out to a 27-12 lead. The crowd never relented, willing the Bison back into the ballgame. Bryson Johnson connected on a four-point play, as Bucknell began chipping away. This was the moment it felt like Lehigh finally missed McCollum. Early in the game, the team had an easy time spreading the floor, sharing the ball and knocking down shots. Suddenly they needed a go-to guy to create a shot and get a big bucket. Bucknell came all the way back to within 29-28 at the break.

The Mountain Hawks have played extremely well without McCollum, and head coach Brett Reed said in his postgame press conference that the team has been successful without him for the same reasons they were successful with him. “This year’s team has faced adversity,” Reed said. “It would have been easy to feel down and take a step back after the comeback. But our guys have continued to demonstrate poise, resiliency and togetherness.”

In one of the strangest stats of the early part of the season, no Patriot League game has had any lead changes in the second half all year. Muscala quickly put that stat to bed with a layup to give Bucknell the lead, and the Bison charged ahead by seven with 12:46 to go. The Mountain Hawks shot themselves back into it, hitting four out of five threes in the second half. BJ Bailey, hit all four of his threes en route to a game-high 18, and added a spectacular block as the shot clock expired. Mackey McKnight threw his body around, hitting the deck on a made three and shortly after on a driving lay-up. Gabe Knutson struggled from the field, but had a pretty finish on a play that he started to the right of the basket and finished on the other side.

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CIO…the Patriot League

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 11th, 2013

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Mitch Goldich is the RTC correspondent for the Patriot League. You can find more of his work online at The Huffington Post.  Follow him on Twitter at @mitchgoldich for more updates.

Looking Back

  • Lehigh Loses McCollum: Lehigh’s Pre-Season All-America guard, CJ McCollum, suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot during Saturday’s nationally televised game at VCU. More than 30 NBA scouts came to watch him in person, but he went down midway through the first half.  This injury is a real shame, not just for Lehigh but for the whole league. The Patriot League has received unprecedented levels of press so far this season because of McCollum and the anticipated exciting battle between Lehigh and Bucknell for the league title. Now, much of the buzz may dissipate before conference play even starts. McCollum has already undergone surgery, and early diagnoses had him out 8-10 weeks. The Patriot League Tournament falls right in that stretch, so it’s unknown if he’ll make it back out on the court again this season. Even if he does rush back, it may take him longer to return to 100 percent. The Patriot League’s all-time scoring leader will now fall short of Daren Queenan’s school record, which was set before Lehigh joined the conference. While he is fiercely dedicated to his team’s success this year, nobody would expect him to do anything foolish with his body while he still projects to be a first round pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.
Being Without Its Top Star For Several Weeks Doesn't Sit Well With Lehigh Fans. (Joe Mahoney/AP)

Eight-to-Ten Weeks Without C.J. McCollum Doesn’t Sit Well With Lehigh Fans. (Joe Mahoney/AP)

  • Bucknell Keeps Building a Resume: The Bison came heartbreakingly close to beating Missouri in their most difficult non-conference game of the season, dropping a 66-64 contest in Columbia. Still, Bucknell is establishing itself as one of the top mid-major teams in the country. The Bison are ranked fourth in the latest College Insider Mid-Major Top 25. They come in at #36 at kenpom.com and #38 in the RPI. Bucknell has escaped the non-conference portion of its season with a league record 13 wins, and it’s now safe to say that an at-large bid is officially in play. McCollum’s injury makes them the favorite to win the Patriot League Tournament, whether he returns for the tournament or not, but a strong regular season and a tournament upset could land Bucknell in the Big Dance anyway.
  • Wrapping Up the Non-Conference Season: The performance of the league slipped a bit over the last two weeks, dropping the conference’s cumulative record to 62-62 with just one non-conference game remaining (Colgate plays the New Jersey Institute of Technology in February). Some of those wins came against competition below the Division I level, but the eight schools have combined to go 56-41 against D-I teams outside of the six power conferences. The teams are an impressive 48-29 against the A-10, America East, CAA, Ivy, MAAC, NEC and MEAC. Those marks are good enough to hold steady at #16 out of 33 in the conference ratings on Ken Pomeroy’s website. Last year the Patriot League finished at #22.

Power Rankings

  1. Bucknell (13-3) – Seemingly every other game, Mike Muscala puts forth an effort described as his best game of the season.  If he hadn’t had his coming out party yet, it was definitely against Missouri last Saturday.  Muscala put up 25 points and 14 rebounds against a nationally ranked team loaded with talent.  The Bison led at halftime and outrebounded the Tigers, but fell just short.  Muscala stepped on the base line with 4.1 seconds left in a one-point game, with Bucknell in position to take the lead.  Though Muscala currently leads ESPN.com’s Player Efficiency Ratings, this is not a one-man team.  Cameron Ayers, son of former Ohio State and NBA coach Randy Ayers, has scored in double figures in six straight games and Bryson Johnson is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. Read the rest of this entry »
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