#rushthetrip Day 14: A Year Late to Fort Collins

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 20th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

Rarely had it been as fun to be a Colorado State basketball fan as it was in 2013. The Rams won 26 games a season ago, including their first in the NCAA Tournament since 1989, and Moby Arena transformed into one of the most impenetrable – and unlikely — home fortresses in all of college basketball. With Fort Collins rallying behind them, CSU sold out three consecutive home games for the first time in program history, and despite a decisive loss in the round of 32 to eventual champion Louisville, the program may never have posted a finer season. Fun times, indeed. But for all the fanfare surrounding that team, my visit to peek in on this year’s team felt doomed to banality from the start. The state of Colorado has never exactly been a haven for college basketball, and with Larry Eustachy now guiding Colorado State through a rebuilding season after that banner 2012-13 campaign, things figured to be pretty quiet in Fort Collins.

The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night

The Moby Magic Of 2013 Was Nowhere To Be Found On Tuesday Night

And they were. Moby Arena was easily less than half-full for a visit from Boise State on Tuesday night, and a steady onslaught of Broncos’ three-pointers prevented the sparse crowd (and the Rams) from ever feeling a part of this game. While I could envision 9,000 fans fleeing the cold winter nights for the comfort of Moby’s Ram-green seats, the apathy of the scene stood in stark contrast to the home floor that we witnessed in Fort Collins a season ago. In all but the most basketball-crazed regions of the country, it’s an expected drop-off in support when 26-9 transforms into 14-13, which is where the Rams find themselves after Boise rolled to a 12-point victory. This doesn’t mean Colorado State – and its fan base – won’t be back in the near future (Larry Eustachy has proven more than capable of building a program), but here in 2014, Fort Collins has slipped off the college basketball radar.

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O26 Game of the Week: SDSU at The Pit, Gonzaga-BYU, Others…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

San Diego State (22-2) at New Mexico (19-5) – 10:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game — this week — is a huge one for New Mexico. If it can avenge an early loss to UNLV tonight in Las Vegas, Craig Neal’s team will return home on Saturday with a chance to pull even with San Diego State atop the Mountain West standings and solidify itself as an NCAA Tournament lock. Up to this point, the only major feather in the Lobos’ cap is a win over Cincinnati back in early December, so beating the Aztecs this weekend would not only shake up the conference race, it would also carry serious resume-boosting implications. Not to mention bragging rights in a match-up that features two of the best fan bases west of the Mississippi.

Kendall Williams and the Lobos  welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

Kendall Williams and the Lobos welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

In fact, considering how closely matched the game is on paper, New Mexico’s 15,000-plus screaming fans might very well become a deciding factor when it’s all said and done. According to KenPom, the Lobos are pegged as the slight favorites with a win probability of 54 percent, a figure that will dip considerably when they head to San Diego in early March. But first they get to host the Aztecs in The Pit, their menacing, subterranean arena in which they boast an all-time winning mark well over 80 percent. Not many visiting teams escape unscathed. For San Diego State fans, the silver lining is this: Steve Fisher units have gone an admirable 6-8 in the daunting stadium since he took over in 1999.

Of course, the outcome will ultimately be decided on the court, and there, each team will have distinct advantages. For New Mexico, the ability to get interior scoring from its imposing frontcourt duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow will be critical. The big men combined to average 36 points and 15 rebounds in the Lobos’ two victories over the Aztecs last year; in the one loss, they mustered just two points and nine boards total. Paint production will be especially important considering that opposing guards Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard are stingy perimeter defenders, capable of minimizing Kendall Williams’ usually-considerable offensive production. San Diego State, meanwhile, hopes to continue playing the excellent team defense that has limited opponents to around 0.94 points per possession this season, good for 17th in the country. They are long, fast, physical and will suffocate teams that are ill-prepared. On the other end, the Aztecs are led by the gifted Thames — who’s likely to win Mountain West Player of the Year — and the team-wide ability to garner second-chance looks by crashing the offensive glass. Forwards Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien must out-bang the sizable New Mexico frontcourt if San Diego State hopes to generate enough offense to survive Albuquerque. The game will be high-stakes and high-energy, so flip to The Deuce and check it out when Saturday night rolls around.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Wyoming, Billy Baron, Brian Wardle & George Mason…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014

We are officially less than one month from Selection Sunday (hooray!), so standout performances (and dreadful upsets) are now more impactful than ever on conference races and NCAA Tournament aspirations. Let’s pass out some awards to the best of the best from the O26 last week.

O26 Team of the Week

Highlighted by the upset over San Diego State, Wyoming had a stellar week. (Jeremy Martin/AP)

Highlighted by the upset over San Diego State, Wyoming had a stellar week. (Jeremy Martin/AP)

Wyoming. The Pokes began the week with their biggest home win since joining the Mountain West in 1999, and ended it with their greatest defensive effort in that same span. On Tuesday night, Wyoming notched its first victory over a top-five team in Arena Auditorium in 16 years by defeating San Diego State, 68-82, to end the Aztecs’ 20-game winning streak and prompt a well-deserved rushing of the court. Not only did the Cowboys out-shoot, out-defend and out-energize Steve Fisher’s club, but they did so with style, eschewing open jumps shots (their offense is predicated on burning the shot clock and finding the best look possible) in favor of wide open dunks, time after time down the floor. At one point, as they opened up a double-figure lead midway through the second half, the team was exuding such high-flying swagger and cool confidence that it became hard to tell if you were watching  this year’s Wyoming club or last year’s Florida Gulf Coast. And when SDSU made a late charge to pull within four at the under-one minute mark, in a moment where it seemed the league powerhouse was going to exert its will, Nathan Sobey went ahead and threw down a transition slam — what else? — to bury the Aztecs for good. The last time Wyoming knocked off a team that highly ranked, the year was 1998, the opponent was Rick Majerus-led Utah, and the Cowboys’ head coach was… Larry Shyatt. The first time around.

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#rushthetrip Day Eight: In Every Regard, Boise State’s Potential On Full Display

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 13th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

It’s been a tough year on the hardwood in Boise. A series of close defeats – many littered with critical late-game Bronco mistakes – has derailed a season that began with unusually high expectations. As protectors of the famed blue turf, the Boise faithful aren’t strangers to their school beginning an athletic season with grand aspirations, but rarely has such hope accompanied the basketball program. When I planned my trip a month ago, Wednesday’s matchup with New Mexico looked to have both MW title and NCAA Tournament implications. Unfortunately, upon arrival at Taco Bell Arena last night, said implications existed only for the visiting Lobos.

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

I should admit here to being a Boise apologist. I have long been fascinated with the school’s football program (like many across the country), and was also probably higher than most on the potential for this year’s basketball team. Leon Rice has the program heading in the right direction, and it seemed possible that the football team’s success could help propel the basketball team into a more regular relationship with the Big Dance. But for now, that notion remains a fantasy. The Broncos have never won an NCAA Tournament game (San Jose State is the only other MW team to share this distinction), and rarely (if ever) generate the fan support to sell out the 13,000 seat Taco Bell Arena.

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O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive Clash

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.

So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.

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O26 Game of the Week: Indiana State Looks to Ruin Perfection

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 5th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on. 

Wichita State (23-0) at Indiana State (14-5) – 8:05 PM ET, Wednesday. This is probably the greatest remaining hurdle on Wichita State’s quest for an undefeated regular season. Now 23-0, the Shockers have just eight games left on their schedule, only three of which come against squads with a .500 or better record, and just one versus a team ranked within the KenPom top-100. That team is Indiana State, and that game is tonight at the Hulman Center.

Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)

Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)

Greg Lansing’s group should be dialed in after regaining some much-need momentum over the weekend at Northern Iowa, using a big second half rally to end the Panthers’ 11-game home winning streak and return to the win column. The Sycamores suffered a dreadful 19-point drubbing at Southern Illinois just three days earlier to all but end their at-large hopes, a sobering reality that perhaps bled into Saturday’s contest early. It took an angry locker room message from the head coach before the team finally woke up, ripping off 12 straight points in the first four minutes of the second half, tying the game before the first media timeout and maintaining firm control until the final whistle. It was an impressive comeback, the kind of focused, resilient effort they will need for a full 40 minutes in order to beat Wichita State.

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Boise State’s Struggles Not Doing Mountain West Any Favors

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 3rd, 2014

Derrick Marks couldn’t move. The UNLV celebration had begun and handshake lines were forming around him, but Marks remained motionless, eyes staring blankly ahead. Losing 11-point leads in the final three and a half minutes of a basketball game will induce a little shock sometimes, but a glance at the paralyzed Marks made it clear that that this loss ran even deeper than that. Boise State had provided a 36-minute demonstration of why it had been picked second in the MW preseason poll. The Broncos looked like the NCAA Tournament team everyone had expected at the start of the year, and Marks was at the center of it all. He scored 22 points in every which way -– step-back jumpers, mid-range leaners, acrobatic layups — giving his team firm control of the second-half flow of play. But just as Boise appeared to be assuming a handle on both game and season, that fateful closing run of the Rebels (17-2 in its totality) completely ripped away any grip they may have found. Marks’ may still be processing the Broncos’ new reality, but the jarring loss landed his team further away than ever before from their second consecutive NCAA appearance. The Boise plight may also be a Mountain West plight, as the conference is looking more and more like a two-bid league, just a season after proudly sending five teams to the Big Dance.

Derrick Marks And Company Had Things Rolling For Most Of Saturday Night. A Late UNLV Surge Stole A Win From The Broncos, And May Have Redirected The Course Of Their Season.

Derrick Marks And Company Had Things Rolling For Most Of Saturday Night. A Late UNLV Surge Stole A Win From The Broncos, And May Have Redirected The Course Of Their Season.

This season was supposed to go differently for Leon Rice’s team. Expectations are bound to be elevated when you return your top six players from an NCAA Tournament team, and the Broncos have been unable to keep pace with the increased hype. Aside from a home win over a surprisingly solid Utah team, Boise’s most impressive result came in a road victory over #111 (KenPom) Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic. They have taken care of business against inferior opponents (14-0 vs teams outside the top 100), but Saturday’s loss dropped the Broncos to just 1-7 against teams inside the top 100. That scar will need to be touched up in the coming weeks if Boise wants at-large hope on Selection Sunday, but don’t take that ugly record at face value. Four of those losses came by four points or less (including last night), and all but one, a 15-point loss at Kentucky, came by single digits. Most every major team statistical category is within range of where it was a year ago, and the defense actually looks marginally improved. The Broncos are clearly not leaps and bounds ahead of where they were a season ago, but contrary to what the record might indicate, they don’t actually appear to be any worse.

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Ranking the Mountain West Coaches

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 30th, 2014

Any time you get around to comparing one coach to another, it’s a shaky situation. Isn’t the real decision about who is the better coach decided on the court? Sure, one coach may have more talent than another, but then again, isn’t pulling in talent part of the job description? So, prior to unveiling my rankings of the coaches in the Mountain West, lets offer up some criteria. For the most part, recruiting is excluded from this analysis. The question that we’ll attempt to answer instead is this: Pick any random team in the country — you don’t know its roster or its strengths and weaknesses — which Mountain West coach would give you the best chance over this and the next couple of seasons to get the most out of those players and leave the program in the best possible place at the end?

Well, here’s one man’s take, feel free to disagree.

Steve Fisher, San Diego State

The Dean Of Mountain West Coaches, Steve Fisher Is Among The Best In The Nation. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

  1. Steve Fisher, San Diego State – The results speak for themselves. Not only are the Aztecs the best team in the conference this year, Fisher’s done the most unbelievable job of building a program in the conference. Seriously, his track record at SDSU may not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as elite program-builders with national titles under their belts like Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun, but this trajectory is very, very close. Put it this way: There’s one sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in this conference and it is this man. He’s head and shoulders above the rest. The knock on him when he was at Michigan was that he could recruit well but wasn’t much of a teacher or a tactician. And earlier in his career at San Diego State, he struggled with some end-game scenarios (the 2006 NCAA Tournament First Round loss to Indiana still upsets me). But these days, his record in unimpeachable. He gets his players to improve from one season to the next and throughout their careers. Even while bringing in solid talent, he gets his team to exceed expectations. The team that he puts on the court is something that his supportive community can be proud of. Not only is Fisher far and away the best coach in the Mountain West, he’s on the very short list of the best in the nation. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 28th, 2014

The Mountain West clearly isn’t as good as it was last year. Two teams receiving invitations to the NCAA Tournament in March seems likely. While there are some future pros in this conference, there is nobody even on the radar for an overall #1 pick like Anthony Bennett was last season. We could spend the next thousand words or so telling you all the things that the Mountain West is not, but let’s focus on this indisputable fact: It remains a pretty darn exciting league. This week, in 10 conference games, there were a total of five different overtime periods; three games were decided by just two points; and five were decided by less than two possessions. And yet, inexplicably, in a conference almost defined by the strength of its home court advantages, the road warriors once again rose up, with fully half of this week’s games won by road teams; for the year, home teams are just 21-18 in conference play.

Not To Be Repetitive, But With A Pair Of Road Wins, The Aztecs Again Win Our Team Of The Week

Not To Be Repetitive, But With A Pair Of Road Wins, The Aztecs Again Win Our Team Of The Week

Team of the Week

San Diego State – When you win two road conference games in one week, you’ve got good credentials for having had the best week in the conference. When you do it in the same week that you get bumped up to #5 in the AP poll, then you’re a lock. Sure, going to San Jose State and getting a win isn’t exactly going to raise many eyebrows, but the Aztecs did what they were supposed to do there: They blew out the Spartans. And then to go from San Jose and beat Utah State in one of the toughest road environments in the country — the first ever home loss in Utah State’s long (ahem) and illustrious history in the Mountain West? That’s a serious accomplishment.

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Bumpy First Ride Through MW For Utah State, But Program Belongs

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 23rd, 2014

Life is not easy on the road in the Mountain West. The conference’s newest member has quickly learned the harsh reality of a league notorious for protecting its home courts, as Utah State dropped its fourth league road game in as many tries Wednesday night, falling 62-42 at UNLV. In a development typical of both conference and program, the Aggies have taken care of business in their two conference home games, but dwindling at-large hopes will only truly be resuscitated away from the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. However, NCAA Tournament or not, Stew Morrill’s program should fast find comfort in its new league. An entrenched coach, a passionate fan base, and a paradigmatic home court all make Utah State a natural fit for the Mountain West. But for now, the Aggies are learning that a step up in class doesn’t always make for the smoothest transition.

After An 0-4 Road Start In MW Play, Preston Medlin And The Aggies Are Looking Forward To Returning Home

After An 0-4 Road Start In MW Play, Preston Medlin And The Aggies Must Be Looking Forward To Returning Home

The last time Utah State switched leagues, it found the changeover a bit more manageable. Back in 2006, Stew Morrill led his charges from the Big West into the WAC, where they went 11-5 in their first regular season, then pushed Nevada to overtime in the WAC Tournament title game. No matter that the WAC brought a significantly enhanced reputation to the table: the Aggies belonged from the get-go. In this round of conference roulette, the MW brings a similar upgrade in class for Utah State. If geography still means anything when it comes to conference affiliation (the AAC may tell you that it doesn’t), the Aggies have positioned themselves in a western league that has to be second to only the Pac-12 in terms of desirability for the Logan, Utah, based school. It’s an elevation well-worth a season – or two, or three – of struggles on the court.

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A College Basketball Resolution For 2014: Get To Know Nevada’s Deonte Burton

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2014

There’s a chance, Mr. or Mrs. Diehard college hoops fan, that you don’t know who Deonte Burton is. No, we aren’t talking about the Marquette swingman (although that might also be a conversation worth having, after he authored this late entry for the dunk of 2013). The Deonte Burton you need to know had produced a trio of productive individual campaigns before this 2013-14 season, but here in his final go-around, both the volume and efficiency of that production has exploded. Finding a national spotlight can be difficult when you are starring on a mediocre team in a self-proclaimed “little city” (even if it may be the “biggest little city in the world”), but it’s time for folks outside of Reno to start taking note of Nevada’s explosive senior. And if the surprising Wolfpack’s newfound winning ways somehow manage to keep up? There will be no choice but to appreciate the player at the center of the surge.

He Has Been Brilliant All Season, But Deonte Burton Put On A Special Show Wednesday Night At The Thomas And Mack Center- Even By His Lofty Standards

He Has Been Brilliant All Season, But Deonte Burton Put On A Special Show Wednesday Night At The Thomas And Mack Center- Even By His Lofty Standards

After a 74-71 victory over UNLV in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, Nevada is suddenly alone atop the Mountain West at 3-0. The quick start marks a drastic reversal of fortune for a team that won just three conference games all of last season, and entered 2014 with an entirely underwhelming 5-8 overall record. Wins over San Jose State (on the road) and Wyoming set the stage for the Wolfpack’s victory in the battle for the Silver State, but this latest triumph was far from guaranteed early. UNLV built an 11-point lead late in the first half, but in those critical pre-intermission minutes when second-half momentum is always on the line, Burton snatched all that impetus the Rebels had previously held. In the span of 80 seconds, three consecutive contested, step-back Burton jumpers found the bottom of the net, and the Wolfpack headed to the locker room down just two. It was as acute a pivot point in momentum as you will find, and it propelled Nevada to an 11-0 run out of the locker room. This spurt created some permanent separation, as the UNLV deficit wouldn’t shrink to below six again until the meaningless final seconds.

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O26 Mid-Season Awards: Gregg Marshall, Chaz Williams, Jon Severe and Others…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 9th, 2014

With non-conference action all but wrapped up and league play already going in earnest, it‘s time now to pass out some mid-season superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn some national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next two months.

O26 Midseason Coach of the Year

Gregg Marshall has Wichita State off to a 15-0 start this season. (Jamie Green/MCT)

Gregg Marshall has Wichita State off to a 15-0 start this season. (Jamie Green/MCT)

Gregg Marshall – Wichita State. Could the Shockers actually outdo themselves from a year ago? Even with expectations high coming into 2013-14, very few could have predicted the kind of start Wichita State has had to this season, fresh off its Final Four run last March. Monumental success of that type often breeds sluggish beginnings or even major letdowns the year after, which is what makes Marshall’s coaching job so impressive — his team has not missed a beat. The Shockers have jumped out to a 16-0 record that includes wins over BYU, Tennessee, Saint Louis and Alabama, the latter two coming on the road and all of them despite losing key seniors Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead to graduation. Together with preseason MVC Player of the Year Cleanthony Early and NCAA Tournament hero Ron Baker, Marshall has inserted Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton into the lineup — complementary pieces a season ago — along with JuCo transfer forward Darius Carter to create a starting five arguably more efficient and consistent than last year’s group. They are balanced (four players average in double figures), deep, and rarely lack focus from night to night. And while the early winning has generated a lot of buzz about Wichita State possibly going undefeated in the regular season, its coach won’t let the commotion deter his team’s one-step-at-a-time approach. Marshall recently said, “I’ve always said you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Right now, we’re not thinking about eating the entire elephant. We’re thinking about our next meal.” That mentality has earned Marshall our award for mid-season O26 Coach of the Year.

Honorable MentionsSteve Fisher – San Diego State, Derek Kellogg – Massachusetts, Tod Kowalczyk – Toledo, Mitch Henderson – Princeton

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