Tip-Off Marathon: The O26 Menu

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 17th, 2014

Tonight kicks off ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon, a jam-packed, 24-plus hour slate of basketball featuring numerous mouthwatering options for O26 fans. And with many of these games serving as important resume-building opportunities, you better come hungry. Let’s check out the menu.

Appetizers/Starters

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)

R.J. Hunter and the Panthers take on Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum. (AP Photo | Gerry Broome)

  • UC Santa Barbara at Florida Gulf Coast – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Tonight. We are not even sure if this is formally part of the Marathon, but what better way to whet your appetite than by watching Alan Williams take on Dunk City? After logging 22 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas on Friday, UC Santa Barbara’s 6’8’’ center gets a shot at the Atlantic Sun favorites in Fort Myers – the first of two contests between the Gauchos and Eagles this season. Florida Gulf Coast’s Brett Comer is among the better point guards in the country, while his running mate, Bernard Thompson, is a conference Player of the Year candidate. Both squads could wind up dancing in March.
  • Georgia State at #14 Iowa State – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Tonight. Certain to be one of the most popular appetizers on the menu, this game features a loaded underdog taking on a top-15 team in one of college basketball’s best environments. The Cyclones better be prepared for Georgia State, which boasts a pair of Bluegrass State transfers – Ryan Harrow (Kentucky) and Kevin Ware (Louisville) – and arguably the Sun Belt’s best player, guard R.J. Hunter (18.3 PPG in 2013-14). Hilton Coliseum will be rocking, as always, but perhaps maybe its magic will work in the Panthers favor, instead of the other way of around.
  • #22 SMU at #13 Gonzaga – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN, Tonight. This is one of those fill-you-up-before-the-entrée type items, a hearty match-up of Top 25 units with high expectations. SMU took a serious hit when forward Markus Kennedy, the team’s best player, was ruled academically ineligible for the first semester, so Gonzaga is in great position playing at home. Still, even though Mark Few’s bunch looked utterly dominant in its opener against Sacramento State (with newcomers Byron Wesley, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis combining for 44 points), the Bulldogs must come out and execute against Larry Brown’s defensively-tough Mustangs. Kevin Pangos vs. Nic Moore is one of the best point guard match-ups of the young season.

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Top of the O26 Class: Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West, WAC & WCC

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 10th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Western region of the U.S: Big Sky, Big West, Mountain West, Western Athletic Conference, West Coast Conference. Previous installments include conferences from the Northeast region, Midwest region, Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region and the Southern region.

Top Units

Mountain West

Guys like wing Dwayne Polee II need to step up offensively for the Aztecs. (Ben Margot — AP)

Guys like wing Dwayne Polee II will need to step up offensively for San Diego State. (Ben Margot/AP)

  • San Diego State – 2013-14 record: 31-5 (16-2). San Diego State will be very good defensively, that much we know, but whether it can replace do-everything guard Xavier Thames (17.6 PPG, 120.0 ORtg) is the most pressing concern this time around. The Aztecs – which have ranked among the top-20 nationally in defensive efficiency in three of the last four seasons – return several long-armed stoppers like Dwayne Polee II and 6’10’’ center Skyler Spencer (best block percentage in the league) while adding a highly-touted Arizona transfer in 6’9’’ Angelo Chol. But Thames was the only consistent offensive threat last year and points were hard to come by when he struggled, so the ability of guys like Polee and guard Winston Shepard to thrive in more prominent scoring roles is crucial. Steve Fisher’s club should win the Mountain West considering the talent he has on hand (five-star forward Malik Pope also joins the mix), but the team’s offensive development, especially in the backcourt, will determine its ultimate national stature.

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College Basketball’s Five Best Games of 2013-14

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) on April 15th, 2014

As we continue to sift through the memories of the 2013-14 college basketball season, we take a look back at some of the best games of the season. In order, here are the five best games from 2013-14. We covered the five best stories of the season last week, if you’re interested.

  1. November 12: Kansas 94, Duke 83 – Two of the most anticipated freshmen in recent college hoops history matched up in the Champions Classic nightcap, and neither Wiggins (22 points, eight rebounds) nor Parker (27 points, nine rebounds ) disappointed. Kansas broke open a close game behind a late push from Wiggins and Perry Ellis (24 points, nine rebounds), in the process earning one of the season’s first true statement victories. The young Jayhawks would go on to win 25 games and the Big 12 regular season title, but their finest (and most entertaining) win may have come in their second outing of the year.

    Star Freshmen Jabari Parker And Andrew Wiggins Matched Up In What Was A Memorable Champions Classic Battle. (Getty)

    Star Freshmen Jabari Parker And Andrew Wiggins Matched Up In What Was A Memorable Champions Classic Battle. (Getty)

  2. March 29: Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63 (OT) – The low-possession game that everyone expected came to fruition, but both the Badgers (1.05 PPP) and Wildcats (1.03 PPP) managed solid offensive efforts in this Elite Eight battle. Neither team was able to build more than a three-point lead during the final 17 minutes of play (including overtime) in a tangibly tense seesaw battle, but it was the offensive clinic put on by the Badgers’ Frank Kaminsky (28 points, 11 rebounds) that proved to be the ultimate difference. After a controversial replay review in the final seconds that gave the ball back to Arizona, Nick Johnson was unable to get up a winning shot attempt in time, and Wisconsin was headed to the Final Four for the first time under Bo Ryan. Read the rest of this entry »
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O26 Bracketbusting: East and West Regions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 19th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

The most joyous time of the year is finally upon us, and I’m not talking about tax season. I’m talking about buzzer-beating threes and scoring sprees, nickel-dimers and Nantz one-liners, back-door cuts and Farokhmanesh guts. I’m talking about the NCAA Tournament. And since O26 squads often make the most magic in March, let’s examine the prospects of each non-power conference unit in the upcoming Dance. Yesterday, Adam Stillman reviewed the South and Midwest Regions. Here, Tommy Lemoine looks at the East and West regions.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a legitimate chance to reach the second weekend, and perhaps even the Final Four.

Can San Diego State generate enough offense to make a deep run? (AP Photo)

Can San Diego State generate enough offense to make a deep run? (AP Photo)

  • San Diego State (#4, West) – This is the fifth straight season San Diego State has reached the NCAA Tournament, but only once in that span has it advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The good news for Aztec fans is that this is the best overall defensive unit – not to mention highest-seeded outfit – since 2011, the year Kawhi Leonard and company made that run to the second weekend. Steve Fisher’s club ranks seventh nationally in defensive efficiency thanks to long-armed perimeter defenders like Winston Shepard (he’s a 6’8’’ two-guard) and interior stalwarts like Skylar Spencer. The Aztecs are aggressive, confusing and energetic on that side of the ball. They draw New Mexico State on Thursday, a sizable and athletic #13 seed that’s both offensively proficient and does a good job defending the paint. But they turn the ball over quite a bit, and there’s a good chance SDSU will seize on that sloppiness, even if they have trouble scoring. In the following round, they would meet either Oklahoma or North Dakota State – two really efficient offensive squads that have both shown weaknesses this season against athletic, pressure defense. Both are beatable for the Aztecs. Finding success in Anaheim, though, might be a different story. The offense will need to be more consistent than it’s been up to this point, especially against a team like Arizona – the nation’s best defensive unit (and most likely Sweet Sixteen opponent). If Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames can play like he did in January and early March – when he put up numerous 20-plus point performances – and complementary pieces like athletic wing Dwayne Polee can make solid contributions, SDSU would have a shot. But if they can’t find buckets with regularity, the Aztecs won’t last long.
  • Gonzaga (#8, West) – It seems like everybody is sleeping on the Zags in favor of the ‘Marcus-Smart-can-make-a-run’ narrative, which is fine, and may very well happen. But do people realize that Mark Few’s bunch is ranked 20th overall in KenPom, with a top-15 defensive efficiency rating and a stellar effective field goal percentage? They might not be vintage Gonzaga, but these Bulldogs can still play. Their opening bout with Oklahoma State will probably be a good one – in fact, it has the highest ‘Thrill Score’ according to KenPom’s FanMatch – and  should be winnable if they can contain Smart and limit turnovers. The experienced backcourt of Kevin Pangos, David Stockton and Gary Bell will help in the latter department. If they manage to get past the Pokes, a match-up with Arizona in the round of 32 would be daunting, of course, but not necessarily insurmountable. Consider this: Three of the Wildcats’ four losses this season came against opponents ranked in the top-30 in effective height. Gonzaga, with 7’1’’ Przemek Karnowski and 6’9’’ Sam Dower in tow, ranks 25th. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon will not be able to simply bully Few’s frontcourt into oblivion. If the big men hold their own and Pangos (41 percent) and Bell (42 percent) get hot from behind the arc, watch out. Admittedly, a deep run into the second weekend or the Final Four seems a bit farfetched for the WCC champions – especially considering their lack of quality wins in 2013-14 – but I’m not willing to completely push aside the possibility of a Sweet Sixteen run.

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Bracket Prep: West Region Analysis

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 17th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), Midwest (11:00 AM), South (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) breaks down the West Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC West Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCwestregion).

You should also check out our upcoming RTC Podblast with Andrew breaking down the West Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.

West Region

Favorite: Arizona, #1, 30-4. The Wildcats are the nation’s best defensive team – this is beyond debate. In 34 games to this date, they’ve allowed teams to score better than a point per possession just six times all year (and seven times they’ve held their opponent to less than 0.8 points per possession). They’ve got freshman Aaron Gordon, who is on the short list of most versatile defenders in the nation, capable of guarding players from power forward to point guard. Likewise, guys like Nick Johnson, T.J. McConnell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are terrific athletic defenders, while sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski is a rugged rim protector. Point is that it is going to be very hard for any opponent to score consistently on this team. Throw in the fact that the Wildcats are a quality offensive team as well (only six times all season have they scored less than a point per possession in a game) and that they’re playing arguably their best ball of the season at the right time for rising star Sean Miller, and the West is theirs to win.

Arizona Earned A #1 Seed In The West Region And Fortunate Geographic Placement

Arizona Earned A #1 Seed In The West Region And Fortunate Geographic Placement. (AP)

Should They Falter: Wisconsin, #2, 26-7. Aside from a head-scratching downturn in the middle of the season when the Badgers lost five out of six games, Bo Ryan’s squad has been excellent. Only once in the last 12 seasons has Wisconsin had a more efficient offense (2011, and even then, it is a razor-thin margin), but what is different about this team is an increased tempo, a sparkling shooting percentage, and a complete avoidance of turnovers. However, all of this offensive wonderment does not come without a price, as this is also the worst Badgers team on the defensive end in those same dozen years, with the team – especially in that bad stretch in January – failing to contain dribble penetration and regularly getting scorched. This happened again this past weekend against Michigan State, so the Badgers are not here without concerns. But in a region where there are few teams without some blemishes, the Badgers are the safest bet – beyond Arizona – to wind up in Dallas.

Grossly Overseeded: BYU, #10, 23-11. Let’s just refer back to 2012 in the West region and read what I wrote then. Sure, some of the details have now changed, but the gist of this is the same: Why is BYU in the field again? They’ve got a solid win over Gonzaga, they beat Stanford and Texas in the non-conference. Sure. But all of those good spots are balanced out by atrocious losses to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Portland and Pacific. There aren’t a ton of other great options to go into BYU’s spot, for sure, and rewarding them for playing a tough non-conference slate is fine. But if anything, the Cougars should have to win their way into the field of 64 by getting through the First Four in Dayton.

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Bracket Prep: UCLA, New Mexico, New Mexico State

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 16th, 2014

As we move through the final stages of Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. Here’s what you need to know about the most recent bid winners. 

UCLA

Steve Alford's Hire Was Met With Resistance Last Spring, But Less Than Twelve Months Later, He Has The Bruins Back On Top Of The Pac-12

Steve Alford’s Hire Was Met With Resistance Last Spring, But Less Than Twelve Months Later, He Has The Bruins Back On Top Of The Pac-12. Next Stop: NCAA Tournament.

  • Pac-12 Champion (26-8, 15-6)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #21/#16/#16
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +13.8
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #4-#5

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. In making Arizona look mortal for the first time all week in Vegas, UCLA became Pac-12 Tournament champions and earned the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. UCLA has now scored 75 points against the Wildcats in both meetings this season, and since Michigan is the only other Wildcat opponent to score 70+ points on Sean Miller’s team, it’s an achievement worth noting. If you can score on Arizona, you can score on anyone, and UCLA looks likely to accomplish just that in the Tournament. Each member of Steve Alford’s eight-man rotation is capable of scoring in double figures on any given night, paced by leading scorer Jordan Adams (17.2 PPG, 2.7 SPG). The high game totals that the Bruins’ quick pace generates obscures what has actually been a pretty decent defensive effort (UCLA has the 49th best defense in the country according to Ken Pom), but there’s no hiding that it’s the hyper-efficient offense that makes the Bruins go.
  2. Kyle Anderson (14.9 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 6.6 APG) is a joy to watch on the court, but it might be even easier to appreciate him on KenPom.com, especially if you like to spend Saturday nights poring through free throw rates and true shooting percentages. The All-Pac 12 selection and Pac-12 Tournament MOP ranks in the top-500 in a whopping 12 of 15 individual categories on the site, with the only average categories being percentage of shots taken (who cares), offensive rebounding percentage, and turnover rate. Figuring out how many players have a similar variety in their statistical profile would take quite a while, but it’s difficult to imagine any player in college basketball even having ten of their fifteen categories among the top-500. He’s as proficient at cleaning the glass as he is setting up teammates, equally likely to knock down a three as he is to a shot block a shot. There will be only one Kyle Anderson is the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and that absurd Ken Pom stat-line is testament to just how diversely special he has been all season.
  3. Steve Alford is a massive part of the UCLA narrative heading into this NCAA Tournament. Alford has done a wonderful job in Westwood this season, but don’t think it’s nearly enough for him to outrun his shaky Tournament resume. Seeing is believing, and the latter will only happen with Alford after the former occurs.  The reticence to trust the UCLA head man stems from Alford’s 3-6 Tournament record at Iowa and New Mexico, a mark that includes exactly zero Sweet Sixteen appearances and one nice ugly upset to #14 seeded Harvard just twelve months ago. Do you want to believe in Alford already? Hang your hat on the differences between this UCLA team and the eleven previous ones he coached at Iowa and New Mexico, because only one of those teams (2004 Iowa) finished among the top-100 teams in possessions per game (and still just 66th). The Bruins are currently 14th in the metric, and there’s little doubt that this is the most up-tempo, offensively efficient basketball team that Alford has ever coached.

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Conference Tournament Primer: Western Athletic Conference

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2014

Championship Fortnight continues with the last five conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the final push of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the O26 tourneys starting are the Big Sky, Big West, Sun Belt and WAC.

Dates: March 13-15
Site: Orleans Arena (Las Vegas, NV)

(cbssports.com)

(cbssports.com)

What to expect: It’s been a strange time for the pillaged WAC, a conference that saw seven of its 10 teams from last year defect for greener pastures in the offseason. The overhauled league consists now of just eight tournament-eligible programs, and only two of them – New Mexico State and Utah Valley – were reliably competitive in 2013-14. The Aggies, by far the most talented bunch, will be without leading assist man K.C. Ross-Miller this week, suspended following an on-court brawl in the team’s recent loss to UVU. It’s a tough break for a squad that was expected to dominate its less-talented conference-mates this season. After underwhelming and under-performing on the road numerous times throughout WAC play, though, and now without a key player, NMSU’s quest for the automatic bid seems like far less of a sure thing. Still, even without Ross-Miller and despite the inconstancy, Marvin Menzies’ group – one of the tallest in the country – should have enough firepower to reach its third-straight NCAA Tournament.

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O26 Superlatives, Part III: Big Sky, Big West, Southland, SWAC, Sun Belt & WAC…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2014

In Part III of our three-part series (click here for Part I and Part II), we pass out 2013-14 superlatives to the best teams, performers and performances from six different O26 conferences: Big Sky, Big West, Southland, SWAC, Sun Belt and WAC. In alphabetical order: 

Big Sky

Davion Berry and Weber State finally edged Montana and won the Big Sky. (Photo by Weber State)

Davion Berry and Weber State finally edged Montana and won the Big Sky. (Photo by Weber State)

  • Team of the Year – Weber State (17-11, 14-6). After winning 55 games in the previous two seasons, this was the year – the most parity-driven in recent memory – that Weber State outlasted Montana and won the Big Sky. The Wildcats now host the conference tournament, which could mean a return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2007.
  • Player of the Year – Davion Berry – Weber State. Narrowly edging out Montana’s Kareem Jamar and North Dakota’s Troy Huff for our Player of the Year, Berry averaged 19 points per contest, distributed the ball effectively, shot almost 40 percent from long range, and led his team to a title.
  • Coach of the Year – Tyler Geving – Portland State. Portland State was picked to finish ninth in the conference, an outlook that became even worse when senior Aaron Moore, averaging nearly 12 points per game, was dismissed from the team in early January. After the Vikings lost four straight close games in the middle of the Big Sky season, Geving deserves credit for leading his guys to a 5-1 finish and a fifth-place tie in the league.
  • Upset of the Year – Northern Colorado over Kansas State, 60-58. Until last Saturday, Kansas State was pretty much unbeatable at home this season: Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State, and George Washington — all these teams left Manhattan without a win. But you know who did manage to leave Manhattan with a win (aside from Baylor)? BJ Hill’s Bears. Gotta love early November.
  • Dunk (or Dunker) of the Year – Jaron Nash – North Dakota. Nash goes baseline, emphatically stuffs it with one hand, then salutes the home crowd. Great stuff.

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Morning Five: 03.03.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on March 3rd, 2014

morning5

  1. The immediate fall-out from the aftermath of Thursday night’s New Mexico State-Utah Valley game appears to be over, but we are guessing the consequences of this and other similar incidents will be dealt with in the off-season. If you haven’t seen the incident, the footage of court rush and fans fighting with players is pretty jarring. New Mexico State’s K.C. Ross-Miller was suspended for two games and Renaldo Dixon was suspended for one game by the Western Athletic Conference. Dana O’Neil is one of the few to voice her support of the fans and places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the players involved. We are not sure which way the WAC or other conference will go on this, but it will certainly be a topic that will be hotly debated.
  2. We have seen a lot of strange things in March over the years, but this year’s SWAC Tournament has to be pretty high up there. As a result of the APR rules four SWAC teams are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, but after discussing the matter with the NCAA all ten  of the teams in the SWAC are still participating in the conference tournament. Prior to this teams that had been barred from the NCAA Tournament did not participate in their conference tournament, but the school presidents voted to include all ten teams most likely to help increase ticket sales (Alabama State President Gwendolyn Boyd is one of two to vote against it). Now the winner of the conference’s automatic bid will be the team that is eligible for the NCAA Tournament and makes it the furthest in the conference tournament. If there is a tie (such as if two ineligible teams make the finals and only the losing semifinalists are eligible) then the higher-seeded team will be given the automatic bid. If that team happens to be the conference tournament champion, nobody will notice. If not, we could have a very weird championship celebration.
  3. It probably goes without saying that March is our favorite time of year, but over the past few years the change from February to March has also left us with a feeling of sadness since February 28 is Dean Smith‘s birthday. Normally that would be a time for celebration, but with Smith’s dementia and deteriorating health it brings our annual story on Smith and his difficulties from John Feinstein. Although sports fans (and college sports fans in particular) can harbor some of the biggest grudges we cannot think of anybody speaking out against Smith on a personal level. Many prominent coaches have legacies of piling up wins on the court, but Smith’s legacy is one of the few that extends beyond it.
  4. With its win over Syracuse on Saturday, Virginia clinched the ACC regular-season championship. Except the ACC does not recognize a regular-season champion. The rationale behind that decision is complex, but Shane Ryan’s column on why the ACC does not formally recognize its regular season champion does an excellent job of explaining the history behind it. Essentially what it boils down to is the other schools in the conference standing up to North Carolina and Dean Smith, who wanted the NCAA bid awarded to the winner of the regular season. The article also includes a few amusing anecdotes about North Carolina’s fixation on hanging up banners that others don’t recognize including its ridiculous 1924 Helms banner.
  5. Whenever a lower-tier program hires a big-name coach such as what Florida Atlantic did with Mike Jarvis six years ago we often hear about how that coach is going to turn the program around. However, more often as is the case with Jarvis that typically doesn’t happen. After six seasons (five of which were losing seasons) at FAU, Jarvis announced that he will resign at the end of the season. Jarvis says that he is making the move to explore other opportunities, but sources close to the situation say that Jarvis was going to be fired and the school gave him the option to resign instead. With Jarvis turning 69 just after the season ends, we would expect this is the last head coaching stop for Jarvis. If it is, he will finish with a 422-312 record with nine NCAA appearances in 25 seasons at Boston University, George Washington, St. John’s, and FAU.
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#rushthetrip Day 11 (Continued): Unlikely WAC Leaders Enjoying the Ride

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 18th, 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.

No conference has been decimated by conference expansion like the WAC. Perennially one of the better mid-major conferences for much of the last two decades – even sending a team (Utah) to the national title game in 1998 – the current iteration probably looks nothing like how you remember it. Good luck figuring out who is in this new WAC, because only two schools have been conference members for more than a full season (New Mexico State and Idaho), and many of the newbies emphatically fail to fit the geographic profile of the conference. After beginning my Saturday with a signature member of WAC’s past (Utah State), the second half of the weekend two-fer had me paying a visit to the unlikely leader of this new and (un)improved league: Utah Valley University. I think my sanity might be called into question if I had any idea of what to expect out of the trip to Orem, so suffice it to say, I headed in there ready for anything.

After An 89-88 Victory Over Idaho Saturday Night, Utah Valley Is Still Your WAC Leaders -- Try Processing That Information!

After An 89-88 Victory Over Idaho Saturday Night, Utah Valley Is Still Your WAC Leader — Try Processing That Information!

What I got was a highly entertaining basketball game. There wasn’t much defense to be found (that’s usually what happens when teams ranked 210th and 304th nationally in defensive efficiency meet), but Utah Valley and Idaho submitted a tidy offensive display, combining to score 177 points on 58 percent shooting from the floor. The Vandals’ leading scorer, 6’5” forward Stephen Madison, poured in 42 points (16-of-21 FG), but UVU forced the ball out of the crafty senior’s hands on the game’s final possession, and two misses later, the Wolverines had escaped with a one-point victory. In doing so, Utah Valley hardly conjured up memories of ’98 Utah or ’04 Nevada, but at least for a few more days, the road to the WAC title still runs through Orem.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Toledo, Jerrelle Benimon, UTEP & Chicago State…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 22nd, 2014

The rigors of conference play began taking its toll last week as several O26 league favorites discovered just how hard conference road games can be. Some teams dealt with these hurdles better than others, the results of which ranged anywhere from surprising upsets to crazy comebacks to clutch shots. Let’s pass out a few awards to the performers who handled themselves best during the O26 week that was.

O26 Team of the Week

In part thanks to some Juice Brown heroics, Toledo had an excellent week. (BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH)

In part thanks to some Juice Brown heroics, Toledo had an excellent week. (Jeremy Wadsworth/Blade)

Toledo. First it was the expected-but-still-disappointing loss to Kansas followed by a forgettable defeat at Western Michigan, and all of a sudden the Rockets — once unbeaten and the talk of the mid-major world — were in serious jeopardy of losing their groove. Some teams might have become deflated, lost confidence and continued to slide, but not Toledo. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk remained calm after falling to the Broncos, noting “We didn’t play well in two games all year. This is one of two… we’ll be fine.” His team has responded in similar fashion, handling Central Michigan with ease two Saturdays ago before collecting a pair huge wins this past week to remain the MAC West kings. First was a home contest against surging Buffalo, a squad on a four-game winning streak that looked poised to make it five in a row. The Bulls jumped out to a quick lead in the opening minutes that it wouldn’t hand over until midway through the second half, even then not backing down from the Rockets. A big reason for that was because Javon McCrea was his usual beastly self, finishing with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and enabling his team to keep pace and ultimately knot things up at 59 with a minute and a half to play. But just when the game appeared to be headed for overtime, Toledo point guard Julius “Juice” Brown made the magic happen, capping off an eight-point, 90 second stretch by receiving the second pass off a full-court inbounds play, hoisting from just inside the arc, and nailing a buzzer-beater to win the game, 67-65. It was one of the most exciting finishes you will see all season and an emphatic completion to an important win for the Rockets.

Despite the mid-week heroics, though, it was Saturday morning’s match-up at Akron that was supposed to provide the drama, with two teams pegged to win their respective divisions in the preseason and each featuring first-team all-conference talent. But as the game wore on, it became more evident that this was not going to be the hotly contested battle many thought — Toledo thoroughly and resolutely outplayed the Zips for much of the 40 minutes, pounding them on both ends of the glass and putting the game completely out of reach midway through the second half. Brown finished with his second straight 20+ point outing, while former Ohio State forward J.D. Weatherspoon — who has emerged as a vital paint presence in recent games — scored 20 points and secured a game-high 14 rebounds. The win was something of a statement for the Rockets, an assertion of dominance over a club predicted by many to win the league and return to the NCAA Tournament this season. Now 15-2, Kowalczyk’s group has regained its status as one of the more dangerous non-power conference teams in America, a position it hopes to maintain through MAC play and into the postseason. The wins over Buffalo and Akron were key steps on that path and important demonstrations of resiliency, earning Toledo our award for Team of the Week.

Honorable Mentions: George Washington (2-0: vs. VCU, @St. Bonaventure); Towson (2-0: @Drexel, @College of Charleston); UTEP (2-0: @Middle Tennessee State, @UAB).

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Municipal Auditorium: College Basketball Still Lives In Its KC Cathedral

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 19th, 2014

There’s a revival underway at one of the cathedrals of college basketball. Once upon a time, John Wooden paced the sidelines in this building and Wilt Chamberlain took the floor here. But this isn’t Pauley Pavilion or Allen Fieldhouse; rather, Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Municipal doesn’t have the instant credibility of The Palestra or Hinkle Fieldhouse, but it’s nearly as old as those fabled venues, and steeped in just as much history.

Walt Hazzard leads UCLA past Duke in the 1964 final at Municipal Auditorium. This was the first of many titles for John Wooden and UCLA (msn.foxsports.com).

Walt Hazzard leads UCLA past Duke in the 1964 final at Municipal Auditorium. This was the first of many titles for John Wooden and UCLA (msn.foxsports.com).

Municipal has hosted more Final Fours than any other building in the country (nine) and the second-most total tournament games (only Dayton Arena, buoyed by the First Four, has hosted more). Wooden won his fist national championship on Municipal’s floor by beating Duke in 1964, his 16th season on the bench in Westwood. The win was also the finishing touch on Wooden’s first of four undefeated seasons at UCLA (30-0). Three years before that, Cincinnati walked off Municipal’s floor as national champions, surviving a 27-point effort from Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas in the final. The Buckeyes got two points from a reserve forward named Bob Knight in the 1961 championship game; as it turned out, that one field goal wouldn’t be the pinnacle of his basketball career. Kansas reached the 1957 finals at Municipal on the back of Chamberlain (that tournament’s Most Outstanding Player), but fell in triple overtime to Frank McGuire-coached North Carolina. This was the Tar Heels’ first championship and second Final Four appearance, and things have gone pretty well in Chapel Hill ever since.

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