Championship Fortnight continues with yet two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the MAC and the MEAC get started.
Dates: March 10, 12-15 Site: First Round: Campus sites; Second Round, Quarters, Semis and Championship: Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland, OH)
What to expect: The MAC’s power pendulum has swung numerous times this season, so it’s difficult to tell which contender has the best shot in Cleveland. Buffalo came on strong in the second half of the year and might boast the league’s most dominant player in Javon McCrea, a double-double machine who recently set the school’s all-time scoring record, while Western Michigan enters the event having won 10 of its last 11 games. Toledo, meanwhile, set a school record with 26 overall wins and will get a triple-bye (yes, a triple-bye) all the way to the semifinals, along with the Broncos. More likely than not, one of those three clubs will emerge as champion. Still, don’t be surprised if one of the conference’s other up-and-down challengers – like recent NCAA Tournament representatives Ohio and Akron – put together a run and leave with a trophy.
We find ourselves on the verge of annual basketball bliss. Over the next several weeks, the action will crescendo as we progress through the regular season sprint to the finish, with the conference tournaments on tap first followed by the NCAA Tournament. Much of the beauty of the Big Dance is that it doesn’t simply build to a single championship round. In essence, every round, from the opening games in Dayton to the title tilt in Arlington, will be a championship round for some teams, a golden chance to exceed their fans’ wildest expectations and make school history. The question every March isn’t if any teams will assume the Cinderella role, but which teams will. In some cases, teams are able to build on their NCAA success for the long term, especially if they return most of their key contributors or catch the eye of a bigger-fish conference. In other cases, Cinderella’s coach may receive a promotion of his own, moving up in prestige and pay scale, and leading to a rebuilding project for his former team.
Butler is the Cinderella Benchmark (AP/N. Wass)
Let’s catch up with a few of the O26 Cinderella teams from recent tourneys:
Morehead State. As a #13 seed, the Eagles sent shock waves through the Bluegrass State by defeating Louisville before losing to Richmond in the round of 32. That team, led by rebounding machine Kenneth Faried, won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament after a third place regular season finish. Since then, Morehead State has taken two steps back before moving forward. The following season without Faried, the Eagles finished 10-6 in conference play. In 2012-13, after head coach Sean Woods (from Mississippi Valley State) replaced Donnie Tyndall (who left for Southern Mississippi), the Eagles slipped to 8-8 in the OVC. They now appear to be on the way back this season, approaching 20 wins and contending with Belmont and Murray State for an OVC title.
Richmond. As a #12 seed, the Spiders defeated Vanderbilt and Morehead State before losing badly to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Chris Mooney was rewarded with his first NCAA Tournament wins (and second appearance) in his sixth season at the school, after showing steady improvement throughout his tenure. That team, led by seniors Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper, won the Atlantic 10 Tournament after finishing in third place during the regular season. Richmond had to regroup after losing its stars, finishing 7-9 and 8-8 in conference play in subsequent seasons. But this season, led by a balanced attack that includes Cedric Lindsay (who was a freshman on that Cinderella team), the Spiders are on their way to 20 wins, in a tight race for second place in the Atlantic 10, and find themselves squarely on the bubble heading into the final two weeks (they are included on 32 of 95 brackets, according to Bracket Matrix, as of Tuesday evening).
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)
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.
As conference hierarchies begin taking shape and teams gear up for the stretch run, this week offers a whole host of compelling O26 contests that are sure to impact the picture come March. Let’s take a look at the most intriguing match-ups on tap.
Game of the Week
Toledo (17-2) at Ohio (14-5) – 1:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday.
The Bobcats host the 17-2 Rockets on Saturday in a huge MAC tilt. (John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer)
Efficient offense meets stingy defense in what could very well be a preview of the MAC Championship game on March 15. After losing at home to a gritty, defensive-minded Bowling Green group last Wednesday night, Ohio again found itself in serious trouble at Eastern Michigan last Saturday, trailing by 13 points late and completely unable to generate baskets against the Eagles’ 2-3 zone. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Bobcats ripped off 20 points in the final eight minutes — including a 12-0 run to take their first and final lead — and stunned EMU to remain a game back of Akron for the MAC East’s top spot. It was a big win for Jim Christian’s crew, but Saturday’s contest will be a different beast altogether. For all of the conference’s tough defensive teams, Toledo is the stand-alone offensive power, ranking 11thnationally in offensive efficiency and featuring five starters each within the top 500 in offensive rating. That ability to score has helped the Rockets to a 5-1 conference record and a stellar 17-2 mark overall, among the best in the entire country.
The moment came long before the seismic final flourish. Chase Fieler may have slammed the door shut on Georgetown’s March dreams when he pumped through that Brett Comer lob, but the sniff of NCAA Tournament doom – a sensation that is fast becoming a Georgetown supporter’s sixth sense – surely set in far sooner. These days it doesn’t take much to elicit that sense of fear in Georgetown circles come March, as double-digit seeds have sent the Hoyas home before the Sweet Sixteen in each of their last five NCAA Tournaments. The futility has been so profound that Hoya fans can likely find a bit of retroactive appreciation for the most underachieving Georgetown team of the last decade: a 2009 squad littered with talent (Greg Monroe, DaJuan Summers, Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, among others) that bottomed out in the first round of a tournament that lacks the power to break hearts – the NIT. With the halcyon days of a 2007 Final Four run now firmly in the rear view mirror and a confused hysteria building with every March failure, “Hoya Paranoia” has taken on an entirely different meaning. So naturally, we ask the question: Why is Georgetown so incapable of March success?
To Say March Success Has Eluded John Thompson III And Georgetown Lately Would Be An Understatement (AP images)
At this point, even the most forgiving of Georgetown supporters would have to admit that some part of the Hoyas’ problem comes from within. Five straight March disappointments is plenty large enough a sample size to sound the alarms. John Thompson III’s system, highlighted by a slow-tempo offense that rarely deviates from Princeton sets, is also unique enough stylistically to raise concerns that the program may be resting on a fundamentally damaged foundation. Nobody should be willing to take that theory all the way, as slow-tempo teams have found plenty of March success over the years (75 percent of the 2013 Final Four ranked in the bottom 40 percent in possessions per game), but limiting possessions is an easy way to give a team with decidedly inferior talent a chance to win. It’s the same reason why underdogs will find winning one game easier than taking down a seven-game series, and just last season we saw Georgetown keep plenty of bad teams hanging around into the final minutes. Duquesne, Liberty, and Towson all ended the season outside the top 170 teams in the country (according to KenPom), but each lost by single figures to a Hoya team that would finish 301st in the country in possessions per game. That slow tempo is par for the course for Thompson-coached Hoya outfits; after finishing 70th nationally in possessions per game in Craig Esherick’s final year in 2004, the Hoyas have not ranked higher than 188th since. Let’s be real: This preference for a snail’s pace is not a sufficient answer to the question as a stand-alone, but the Hoyas rarely blow teams out (relative to other highly-seeded teams) and struggle to come back when they fall behind early – see 2010 (Ohio), 2011 (VCU), 2013 (FGCU) for some recent examples.
Like many other college basketball sites we have talked quite a bit about Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to commit to Southern Methodist and how it could affect their recruiting forward. One thing that most writers glossed over, but Mike DeCourcy goes in-depth about is Emmanuel’s brother, John Michael, and how he could have a huge impact on the program even if he does not fill up the box score. While we remain surprised that Emmanuel turned down Kentucky and many other top-tier programs to come to SMU, the fact that he would enroll at a school to play with his brother (and a Hall of Fame coach) should not be that shocking. Having said that we will wait until Emmanuel actually matriculates before we are ready to officially put him in SMU’s column.
In the wake of the NCAA laying down the hammer on Johnny Manziel, several media members and a few anonymous coaches/administrators have taken shots at the NCAA, but few individuals have as much reason to criticize the NCAA as former Miami guard Dequan Jones. You may remember Jones as the Miami player who was forced to sit out 11 games of his senior year after the NCAA took Ponzi scheme mastermind Nevin Shapiro’s word that a Miami assistant had asked for $10,000 to get Jones to commit to Miami before the NCAA finally backed down when they could not find any evidence against him (other than the word of Shapiro). As you can imagine Jones was less than thrilled with how the NCAA handled their investigation of Manziel in comparison to how his was handled. We suspect that Jones is not alone among athletes who have previously been targeted by the NCAA and walked away with much larger penalties that what Manziel incurred.
We are a little over a month away from the new Midnight Madness, but there is still some movement within the coaching ranks. Normally the hiring of an assistant coach at a mid (or low)-major would not merit a mention here, but the announcement that former Boston College coach Al Skinner had been added as an assistant on the Bryant staff intrigued us. Gary Williams might remain the most well-known (and successful coach) to grace the Chestnut Hill sidelines, but it is Skinner who remains the all-time winningest coach in school history. Obviously Skinner left under circumstances that can best be described as less than ideal, but if this current stint at Bryant works out for him he could soon be in the running for some fairly prominent coaching vacancies.
It has been a precipitous fall for Anrio Adams. After enrolling at Kansas (arguably the most successful program in the country in recent years) Adams found himself stuck behind Ben McLemore before a series of unfortunate tweets led to Adams’ departure/dismissal from the team. From there Adams wound up at Ohio (a solid, but not elite program). Now after his decision to leave Ohio after just two months to pursue options at the junior college level we have to wonder where he is headed next. Although Adams was probably never headed for the NBA this is not the ideal trajectory for a player who was once a 4-star recruit. We do not know Adams’ motivation for leaving Ohio, but at this rate we do not expect to see Adams playing a meaningful role at the Division I level any time soon.
After a hot streak picking up transfers it appears that at least one of USC‘s transfers–Ari Stewart–will not be playing for the Trojans this season as the former Wake Forest transfer reportedly failed to qualify academically. Stewart, who sat out the 2011-12 as a transfer redshirt, averaged 3.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per game last season for the Trojans and would have helped the Trojans on the inside this season. Unfortunately for Stewart he already used his redshirt year when he transferred meaning that his college career is over. Thankfully for Andy Enfield he will have VCU transfer D.J. Haley available this season to take some of the minutes that Stewart likely would have had.
Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Hosts the South Regional
New Favorite: #3 Florida. It hasn’t been an arduous road to the Sweet Sixteen as Florida dismantled #14 Northwestern State and #11 Minnesota to advance to Arlington. Although the Golden Gophers cut a 21-point halftime deficit down to eight midway through the second half, they never truly challenged Florida and the Gators coasted to an easy win. Did we learn anything that we already didn’t know about Florida in the process? Probably not. Billy Donovan’s team is as good as anyone at blowing out inferior competition, but it was impressive to see their resolve demonstrated against Minnesota. The common belief is that the Gators crumble down the stretch in close games — amazingly, they have not won a game by single digits this year — but there was no need for late-game drama this weekend. To reach the Elite Eight, Florida will have to next beat #15 Florida Gulf Coast. Not exactly murderer’s row to get to the South Region final by having to play against all double-digit seeds, but FGCU has already proven that it is far from a traditional #15 seed. After posting big wins over Georgetown and San Diego State, the Eagles have shown they can more than hang with any team in the NCAA Tournament. With that said, I projected Florida to win the region when the bracket was initially released and they’ve only confirmed that belief after the first weekend.
Horse of Darkness: #4 Michigan. So much for Shaka Smart’s vaunted havoc defense. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. had little problem dealing with Virginia Commonwealth’s pressing defense en route to a convincing 25-point victory. The Rams’ 71 point swing— a 46-point win against Akron and 25-point loss to Michigan — is by far the greatest two-game switcheroo in NCAA Tournament history, as the Wolverines demonstrated that all a team needs to foil Smart’s plan is a backcourt consisting of two NBA-level players. Michigan is grossly underseeded and is probably closer to a #2 seed than #4. This is a team that was ranked in the Top 10 for virtually the entire season, but limped into the NCAA Tournament after going 6-6 in its final 12 Big Ten games. It has been evident that Michigan’s style of play has kicked up a notch against non-Big Ten teams; South Dakota State and VCU’s urge to speed up the pace of the action seemed to play right into Michigan’s hands. With Trey Burke running the show, John Beilein has the best point guard in the South Region going up against a Kansas team that clearly lacks a steady one of its own. Kansas played one good half in the first two rounds — albeit an extremely good second half against North Carolina — but is ripe for the taking.
Burke Played Like a NPOY Candidate Last Game (AnnArbor.com)
Biggest Surprise (1st Weekend): #15 Florida Gulf Coast 78, #2 Georgetown 68. What, like you thought there could possibly be a surprise that trumps what Florida Gulf Coast did in Philadelphia on Friday and Sunday? Not only did the Eagles make history as the first #15 seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, they did so with flying colors — quite literally — in beating Georgetown and San Diego State by 10 points each. FGCU’s win over Georgetown was certainly a major surprise, as a 24-10 team that finished in second place in the Atlantic Sun and had been swept by Lipscomb soundly beat a 25-6 Big East team with a slew of wins over top teams. Yet after its resounding win over the Hoyas, was anyone that surprised with its victory over a San Diego State team that proved to be mostly average in a Mountain West Conference that went 2-5 in this year’s Dance? Neither win was a fluke for Andy Enfield’s squad; the Eagles flat out beat these two teams that spent much of the season ranked in the Top 25. From Andy Enfield’s story — a former NBA assistant with Rick Pitino, owning his own company called “Tract Manager,” and marrying a supermodel — to the fact that FGCU has been a Division I program for less than a decade, the endless stream of alley-oops and ridiculous dunks thrown down by high-flying no-name players, the swagger and jovial attitude of Sherwood Brown, and the heartwarming story of Brett Comer, among many other things… words simply cannot do justice to what Florida Gulf Coast accomplished over the weekend.
The quarterfinals are here, which means the Big East tournament is in full swing, and the top four seeds will get their chance at the league as-we-know-it’s final crown. Georgetown and Cincinnati open today’s festivities at Noon, followed by a 21st century ACC donnybrook between Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
The Bearcats knocked off Providence 61-44 yesterday afternoon.
No. 9 seed Cincinnati had a strong showing against Providence yesterday afternoon, defeating the Friars 61-44 behind 17 points from Sean Kilpatrick and 15 points and 10 rebounds from JaQuon Parker.
Next game: Cincinnati will look to upset top seeded Georgetown at Noon.
BestCase: Cincinnati nearly took down Georgetown at Fifth Third Arena in February, losing a tight one, 62-55. Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright were a combined 3-of-15 from three point range in that one; if Cincinnati’s guards can knock down some shots from the outside they should not have much of an issue keeping up with Georgetown’s scoring. Consistent guard play is the key for the Bearcats; if Kilpatrick keeps up his solid play and Wright finally returns to the level that he was playing at before he missed time due to injury, Cincinnati can make a run in this tournament.
Worst Case: The Bearcats get frustrated against Georgetown’s probing Princeton offense and Otto Porter flashes his normal brilliance, and the Hoyas run away with a double-digit victory. Cincinnati’s next conference tournament game is played in front of 4,000 fans at the Izod Center against Tulane.
C.J. Fair continues to act as a steadying presence for Syracuse.
Syracuse struggled down the stretch of the regular season, but a strong second half propelled them to a 75-63 win over Seton Hall. The Orange dropped their game at The Pete earlier this year, but were without forward James Southerland. Will an Orange-friendly crowd and Southerland’s three-point prowess make the difference for Jim Boeheim’s squad?
Next game: Syracuse faces No. 4 seed Pittsburgh in the 2:00 PM slot.
Tonight’s Lede. Conference Tournaments, Y’all. The first conference tournament of 2013 slipped under the radar. If you missed it – and no one’s scolding you for passing on the opening round of the Big South Tournament – you can be forgiven. The smallest minnows of the mid-major world are long conditioned to early-round negligence in their conference tournaments. Just promise me one thing: When the mid-major tourney bombardment begins in earnest tomorrow, for the rest of the week and leading up until the Power Six tourneys, you will at least pretend like you know what you’re talking about when automatic bids are cashed in remote little gyms around the country and the at-large bubble pool inevitably shrinks. This stuff, whether it interests you or not, directly affects your teams’ NCAA hopes. On to the recap…
Your Watercooler Moment. Buckeyes Raid B-Town.
Stingy defense from the Buckeyes hindered Indiana’s vaunted offense (AP).
First things first: Indiana is not invincible at Assembly Hall. Just this winter, Wisconsin went into the vaunted Hoosier Dome, controlled the pace of play and imposed its trademark trodgy style to excellent effect. The Badgers left with a five-point win and a frustrated Hoosiers fan base. Things have changed since, obviously. Indiana quickly righted the ship with five straight wins, building confidence and national acclaim by the week, and amidst all the madness at the top of the college hoops landscape this season, the Hoosiers had built something of a consensus as the number one team in the country (sorry Gonzaga, but this isn’t about you). All that was left in the final week of the regular season, which Indiana – thanks to Michigan’s win over Michigan State on Sunday – began having already claimed at minimum a share of the regular season title, was a home-and-away two-game finish. Those games commenced Tuesday with a visit from Ohio State and finished Sunday at Michigan. The latter was viewed as the biggest road block, and with good reason. Tuesday’s matchup was perceived as a stepping stone of sorts, a tune-up for the regular season finale. The offense would hum, Victor Oladipo would infect the game with positive energy and Indiana would ride a boisterous crowd to a comfortable victory. It was practically a formality.
Ohio State did not take well to the idea of a Hoosiers victory party. The Buckeyes used the stifling perimeter D of not only Aaron Craft but also bouncy sophomore Shannon Scott (who had four steals) and got another big scoring effort from Craft (15 points) to complement one of DeShaun Thomas’s habitually-high scoring marks (18 points) to pull out a nine-point win. As encouraging as it is to see Craft put together another high-scoring effort (he had 21 against Michigan State), the Buckeyes’ key to victory was their defense. Like the Badgers in early January, Ohio State took Indiana out of its offensive comfort zone, and the Hoosiers were too shaken to adjust. Ohio State didn’t just spoil Indiana’s senior night and presumptive full-regular season title clinching. It quite possibly unveiled a defensive blueprint to shut down the nation’s hottest offense.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
Bubble Game of the Week. A cursory scanning of this week’s collection of games reveals an odd an utterly mystifying fact: there is only one game between two teams who truly classify as quote-unquote bubble inhabitants. Ole Miss was in danger of falling out of the conversation completely after losing to not just the worst team in the SEC this season, but one of the worst groups in league history: Mississippi State and its ghastly 227 RPI figure. The Rebels needed Tuesday night’s home game against Alabama just to stay in the picture; they got it, and probably dashed Alabama’s fading NCAA aspirations along the way. So Ole Miss isn’t totally dead, I suppose. Not yet. Winning at LSU Saturday would be a good place to start. Read the rest of this entry »
Tonight’s Lede. Because Big Ten Upsets Come In Pairs. Right when the Big Ten churns out one massive upset, number one Indiana’s four-point loss at Minnesota Tuesday night, the league got bored, went back to the drawing board, and said – in the most demonic voice possible – hey, Michigan, your time has come. The Wolverines went down on the road, at the house of a traditional basketball doormat, and on most nights, that story in itself would block out the rest of the night’s schedule. Not so – the Michigan loss was merely an icebreaker for a long and thorough evening of big-time matchups. Your humble nightly ATB writer compiled a sampling of the biggest headlines. Alas:
Your Watercooler Moment. A Very Happy Valley.
The conciliatory retort to any mildly surprising loss in the Big Ten season has gone a little something like this: it’s ok to lose on the road in the Big Ten, because you know how hard those Big Ten road games are, right? Wednesday night’s shocking result in Happy Valley, where Penn State won its first conference game in 18 tries after a blistering 15-point second-half comeback, was a huge exception. Most road games are difficult to win in this league, no question; from Mackey Arena to the Crisler Center to the Barn, the Big Ten lays claim to some of the nation’s most raucous campus environments. Teams lose, like Indiana at Minnesota, and it’s tough to get too caught up in the result. Any team in this uber-deep league can rip off a big upset win on any given night, it is widely and frequently said. We would have been rolling out the same logic had Michigan lost at, say, Illinois or Minnesota. Instead, the Wolverines elected – willfully or not – to suffer their worst loss of the season against the worst team in their league. And the weird part is, the final score really isn’t that crazy at all. To the passive onlooker, yes, Michigan had no business losing this game. But for anyone who paid mind to Penn State’s eight-point loss (ahem, moral victory) at the Crisler Center just 10 days ago, seeing Michigan bite the dust at State College was insane, but it wasn’t some Kansas-TCU-level revolution. The point in all of this is not to disparage Penn State by way of condemning the unlikelihood of Michigan’s loss. The Wolverines have some real issues to sort out in the final weeks, particularly on the defensive end. With two of their final three games coming against Michigan State and Indiana, Michigan needs to shake this off, address whatever issues ailed them at PSU and rally for an important concluding schedule in advance of what’s shaping up to be an utterly chaotic Big Ten Tournament.
Also worth Chatting About.Pac-12 Competitiveness.
A league bereft of depth and quality last season is on the improving (AP).
Unlike the 2012 version, this year’s Pac 12 is sort of ok. In fact, it’s more more than that. The league could, believe it or not, birth as many as six NCAA Tournament squads this season. Four of those Tournament hopefuls took the court Wednesday night, and the most significant result (Arizona’s loss at USC) is probably something we should have suspected all along. USC has won five of its past seven without fired coach Kevin O’Neill and are quietly playing their best basketball of the season; meanwhile, Arizona’s last three road games, including tonight’s loss, read as follows: a blowout loss at Colorado, a four-point win at Utah and a loss at USC. In other words, the Wildcats’ squeaky road ways were a dangerous way to life live in the Pac 12. In the other two marquee P12 games of the night, UCLA held serve against Arizona State and Colorado hung tough and gutted out a road win at Stanford. Most of these teams, with a few exceptions at the bottom, are competitively intriguing, and Wednesday night was the latest example. Not even the possibly one-seed bound Wildcats are safe against the likes of a middling if inspired USC. The league may not be great at the top — much like every power league this season, there truly is no “dominant team” — but the considerable growth in the middle regions has added substantial girth to a conference that sent just one at-large team to the NCAA Tournament last season and saw its regular season crownholder, Washington, miss the field altogether. Change is undeniable. The preeminent western conference is back on its feet, and the on-court product it doles out keeps getting better and better as the season closes in on the most crucial stretch.
This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.
Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)
Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournamentbid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) – This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action.
South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) – Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.
And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …
The Weekend’s Lede.One More Month.Passage into February is a temporal marker for college basketball’s great postseason. Talks of preparing for “next month” are fair game now. Bubble discussion will rage on a daily basis. Each win will be scrutinized not just by the box score, but for its RPI and strength of schedule effects. The next monthly calendar flipping will bring even more excitement, but as the large masses who casually check in on the sport after the Super Bowl conveniently forget, the race to the dance can be just as tantalizing as the dance itself. From here on out, the competition will be fierce, the pressure will mount, and each and every day will bring us closer to our final destination: the NCAA Tournament. With another weekend in the books, time to revisit the first February action of this college hoops season.
Your Watercooler Moment. Another Slow Start Dooms Michigan.
A poor start hurt Michigan’s chances Saturday in Bloomington (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Everybody loses games. What separates the great from the merely good, is the ability to learn from those losses, eliminate the bad tendencies, keep the good ones and readjust your memory bank. Michigan knows the perils of getting out to a slow start on the road in Big Ten play. In its lone loss of the season prior to Saturday’s eight-point defeat in Bloomington, the Wolverines allowed Ohio State to storm out to a 16-3 lead in Columbus. Michigan clawed back to make a real game of it, but in the end, Ohio State held on. The Wolverines’ early sluggishness put them in too large a hole to climb out of. Michigan should have come away from that loss with a stern appreciation for how to handle the opening minutes of high-level conference road games. Against Indiana, managing the early possessions without letting things get out of hand was the foremost hurdle to knocking off the No. 3 team in the country in its own super-packed, deafening, red-and-white filled building. Michigan didn’t – the Wolverines allowed the Hoosiers to bust open a 28-13 advantage by the 10-minute mark in the first half, ignite a delirious Hoosiers crowd and force the Wolverines into a massive uphill climb from that point onward. Michigan responded with excellent point guard play from Trey Burke and solid bench production from freshman big man Mitch McGary, but much like the Ohio State game, the Wolverines couldn’t quite make it all the way back.
Other factors – Victor Oladipo’s energetic defense, Cody Zeller’s easy looks in the post, the natural benefits of playing in one of the nation’s fiercest home gyms, Michigan’s numerous chances to win the game later on – need to be considered before pinning this loss entirely on Michigan’s slow beginning. And I don’t doubt John Beilein counseled his team on the dangers of a slow start at a hostile hoops fortress like Assembly Hall. But it just felt like Michigan came out with a tentative, almost rattled mindset – that once Indiana started hitting shots, the Wolverines had no power to settle the game down, collect themselves and dictate the flow on their terms. The comeback effort was strong, again, but it doesn’t disabuse the fact that Michigan played into the Hoosiers’ home-crafted momentum advantage, and had a much, much better shot at leaving with a W if not for that poor opening stretch. An eight-point loss at Indiana is not the end of the world; Michigan will rebound, and when these teams meet again on March 10, you can expect another high-paced, high-intensity, high-stakes battle.