Saturday Preview: Entering February, Stakes Are Raised

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 1st, 2014

Hello February! College hoops welcomes you into 2014’s second month with a mouth-watering slate of action. You may be sold at “Duke-Syracuse,” but there will be plenty of games that don’t set Carrier Dome attendance records worth watching. That’s not to say that your college basketball fan credentials will be confiscated if you aren’t settling in to your couch for some ACC on ESPN action at 6:30 PM ET today – because they will be – but here are some other storylines to watch on the first day of February.

Perfection Will Be Tested

All Three Unbeatens Are In Action Saturday. With Visitors From Durham In Town, C.J. Fair And Syracuse Look To Be The Most Vulnerable Of The Trio.

All Three Unbeatens Are In Action Saturday. With Visitors From Durham In Town, C.J. Fair And Syracuse Look To Be The Most Vulnerable Of The Trio.

For the first time since 1976, there are three teams 20-0 or better in college basketball, and all three are in action on Saturday. Wichita State shouldn’t have any issues with Evansville (3-6 in the MVC) at The Roundhouse (3:00 PM ET, ESPNU), but both Arizona and Syracuse face serious threats to their dreams of perfection. The Wildcats visit Berkeley to take on a Cal team (10:30 PM ET, P12 Nets) which had been undefeated at home up until Wednesday, when Arizona State squeezed out an overtime win over the Bears. If Mike Montgomery’s team is to add the signature victory of all signature victories to its resume, they will need senior Richard Solomon to have a big game against that impressive Arizona frontcourt. All the way across the country, Duke would be well-served to find a way to match up with the impressive frontcourt of their undefeated opponent. The Blue Devils are not a great rebounding team, but in their game with Syracuse (6:30 PM ET, ESPN), keeping the Orange (ninth nationally in OR%) off the offensive glass will be imperative for Coach K’s squad. On the other end, look for Jabari Parker to get plenty of touches out of the high post. A record crowd is expected at the Carrier Dome for this one, which obviously sounds like good news for Syracuse. Maybe not, though. The last time there was an attendance record set at the dome (last February, versus Georgetown), a do-it-all 6’8” forward named Otto Porter torched the Orange for 33 points and eight rebounds in a lopsided victory for the visitors. Can Parker induce a little déjà vu on Saturday, and end Syracuse’s perfect season while he’s at it?

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Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback on January 31st, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

Teams on the Rise… Teams on the Slide

Just over 38 percent of the conference schedule is in the books and two teams — Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth — have emerged as the teams to catch. Three other teams – George Mason, Duquesne and Dayton (!) — are falling out of contact with the rest of the conference.

Shaka Smart and company are once again right in the mix for the A10 crown. (AP)

Shaka Smart and company are once again right in the mix for the A10 crown. (AP)

Rising – Teams that are finding their groove

  • Saint Louis — Skeptics who groused that the Billikens’ early conference success came compliments of an easy draw have to pause for reflection after this week. Wins over Dayton, a rallying St. Bonaventure, and most recently Richmond (by 20 points) confirm that the Billikens are unlikely to slip against the conference’s middling teams and will continue to set the pace in the conference race for at least the next two weeks. A good deal of ink has extolled and analyzed Virginia Commonwealth’s HAVOC, but Jim Crews’ smothering defense — ranked #1 nationally by Ken Pomeroy (and a runaway #1 in conference play, over eight points per 100 possessions better than #2 VCU) — that provides the winning edge for the Bills. A combination of consistent two- and three-point field goal defense and strong defensive rebounding has powered Saint Louis’ defense in sharp contrast to VCU’s gambling, steal-oriented, press-and-trap approach that tolerates fouls as a byproduct. Saint Louis by contrast does not foul. Jordair Jett, the Bills’ thick but quick point guard, combines with undersized forward Dwayne Evans to provide the Billikens with an adequate, but hardly prolific, offense. The defense — for now — is enough. Their February 15 date with Virginia Commonwealth, the first of two games they will play with the Rams in the final three weeks of the regular season, is the opening shot in what may well become a three-game set that will be decided in the conference championship game at the Barclays Center. Read the rest of this entry »
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O26 Weekly Awards: American, Juvonte Reddic, Chris Mooney & FAU

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 30th, 2014

From half-court shots and buzzer-beaters to reverse alley-oops and posterizing dunks, it was one heck of a week in O26 basketball. And for several players, coaches and teams, it might have been a defining one. Let’s pass out some awards to those who stood out from the rest of the pack.

O26 Team of the Week

American has reason to be confident after last week. (American University Athletics)

American has reason to be confident after last week. (American University Athletics)

American University. No team in college hoops made a louder conference statement than American did last week, and perhaps no other program has exceeded expectations to the extent the Eagles have this season. With only two returning players who averaged more than seven points a game a year ago, just one returning senior, and a new coach to boot, D.C.’s other, other school (in terms of basketball notoriety, at least) was picked to finish ninth of 10 teams in the Patriot League and entered 2013-14 ranked 288th in the KenPom rankings. Merely finishing .500 or better in the conference would have probably been deemed a success, which is what makes American’s 9-0 start in Patriot League play such an unexpected and wholly remarkable feat. And after their three most recent resounding victories, it’s clearer than ever that the Eagles are no longer just a nice story in a revamped league — they are the team to beat.

First was the absolute shocker. On Wednesday night, American hosted preseason favorite Boston University in a contest that was supposed to be relative toss-up, the Eagles having the slight edge at home but most expecting the game to go either way. From about the five minute mark onward, however, it went only one way: Mike Brennan’s group absolutely eviscerated the Terriers, scoring 1.32 points per possession behind 11-of-14 three-point shooting and 71.4 percent shooting overall, recording assists on 22 of 30 made baskets and winning by a whopping 30 points. “Our chemistry is starting to grow,” guard Jesse Reed noted afterwards, in a massive understatement. The 86-56 final was BU’s worst loss since November 2012 and its first Patriot League defeat this season, giving American sole possession of first place near the halfway point. It was an impressive achievement, no matter how you slice it.

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O26 Game of the Week: MAC on the Line as Toledo Faces Ohio

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2014

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)

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 11th nationally 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.

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Matchup Zone Continues to Key Richmond’s Run Through A-10

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 25th, 2014

On paper, Richmond, now 4-1 in the Atlantic 10 after a win over St. Joseph’s Saturday, should not be competing with the better teams in the league. The Spiders are a team that is regularly outsized and do not have the same caliber of athletes as many of their opponents, but the reason the Spiders are playing so well is because of their intensity on the defensive end. Chris Mooney’s team boasts one of the best match-up zones in the entire landscape of college basketball, which allows the Spiders to compensate for their athletic and other deficiencies.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney presides over one of the best zone defenses in college basketball at Richmond (credit: usatoday.net)

After outclassing nationally-ranked UMass earlier this week, Richmond could have been in for a letdown of sorts on Saturday. Instead, the team came out with an extremely impressive effort defensively. As a team that starts two guards, two wings and just one post player, Richmond is already disadvantaged on the glass before the game even starts. The Spiders aren’t going to match most opponents’ rebounding efforts or their second-chance points, but Mooney expects and seems comfortable with that. Richmond lost the rebounding battle by 10, but still won the game by a 77-62 margin.

The reason for conceding a deficit on the boards is because of what Richmond can do in forcing teams into difficult offensive decisions. For example, a big man may receive the ball in the post to find 5’9” Kendall Anthony guarding him. Instead of a quick and easy two points, an immediate double-team comes from the weak side to force a kickout pass. The zone then resets very quickly, so there aren’t often many wide open looks on the opposite side (a major reason why, despite playing so much zone, Richmond was second in the A-10 in three-point field goal defense at 40 percent coming into Saturday). Perimeter players have trouble driving to the basket, and the amount of time it takes a team to find a decent look bleeds most of the shot clock. Richmond is only allowing 64 points per game (second in the A-10), and can live with the occasional offensive rebound from the other team because it’s so rare that the opponent can come in and dictate exactly what it wants to do.

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Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback on January 23rd, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

Bid Talk: 3? 4? 5!?

Two weeks of conference play has scrambled the conference’s NCAA bid picture. Going into conference play, the Atlantic 10 had five teams in the postseason conversation, increasingly a “normal” situation for the A-10. However, five conference games has shuffled the New Year’s pecking order of Massachusetts, Saint Louis, George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton (last eight in). The Minutemen picked up their second loss of the season (58-55 at Richmond) after a couple of close calls (with St. Bonaventure and George Mason), as the Billikens edge closer to UMass in the hearts and minds of bracketologists — if not the poll voters (compliments of a strong opening run).

The Saint Louis faithful is gearing up for another run at post season play. (Saint Louis athletics)

The Saint Louis faithful is gearing up for another run at post season play. (Saint Louis athletics)

With the losses of Temple, Xavier, and Butler to other leagues, more than a few publications predicted a step back for the conference’s overall postseason prospects. At this point the conference offers four candidates that will need consistent conference play to maintain their chances. How many bids can the conference get (maximum), and was the non-conference showing strong enough to boost any of the outlier programs into postseason contention (should any of the front runner fade)? Massachusetts (#13 in the January 20 AP poll; #12 in the USA Today/Coaches poll) and St. Louis (#19 AP, #20 in the USA Today/Coaches) are legitimate “High Fliers” that should contend for the conference title and draw NCAA bids with their consistently solid play. The non-conference resumes for George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton are good enough, but their conference work could move them out of contention. GW is among those “also receiving votes” from voters in both polls. Note that Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, the RPI and ESPN (the BPI) all rank five conference teams among their top 60 — see the below table of the consensus top eight conference teams below. Read the rest of this entry »

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UMass’ Stumble at Richmond Exhibits Reliance on Chaz Williams

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 23rd, 2014

When a team has four players averaging  double-figures on the season, it’s easy to assume that an opponent can take any one player away without assurance of success. Massachusetts, one of the media darlings of the first half of the college basketball season, boasts a roster with several multifaceted scoring options. But if anything can be taken away from the Minutemen’s tough 58-55 loss to Richmond on Wednesday night, it’s that they have one indispensable player on the offensive end: Chaz Williams.

Chaz williams

As Chaz Williams goes, so too does the UMass offense and hopes of being serious contenders in the season’s second half (credit: sports.yahoo.com)

Fresh off of a selection to the 25-player midseason Wooden Award watch list, Williams struggled mightily against the Spiders’ defense on this night. While UMass has shown that it can play well at different tempos, the frenetic style of this game exhibited why their point guard is of the utmost importance. The size of Richmond’s Cedrick Lindsay and the other taller perimeter defenders bothered the diminutive Williams — there were no forays into the paint or open shots for the A-10 Player of the Year favorite, and the Minutemen suffered as a result. He seemed to be trying to do too much as Richmond’s defense smothered UMass’ every pass, and he was frequently out of control in trying to make up for an early deficit. Williams finished the night contributing only eight points on 2-of-11 shooting, along with four turnovers.

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A-10 Sends SEC Into Conference Play On Sour Note

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 6th, 2014

There was an unofficial, inadvertent Atlantic 10/SEC Challenge on Saturday, with three games matching up teams between the two conferences. Unlike the official Big 12/SEC challenge, this one didn’t take five weeks to finish. But the SEC again found itself on the short end of the inter-conference match-up as two league teams were sent into conference play with disheartening losses.

Johnny O'Bryant had to watch a good portion of LSU's frustrating home loss to Rhode Island from the bench (thetowntalk.com).

Johnny O’Bryant had to watch a good portion of LSU’s frustrating home loss to Rhode Island from the bench (thetowntalk.com).

  • Richmond @ Florida, the narrow escape. Richmond held a lead in the O-Dome with under seven minutes to go, and it seemed that the Spiders had the recipe to spring the big upset. But Florida outscored the Spiders 22-10 down the stretch and escaped with a win. The up-and-down start for the Gators was probably due to a couple of factors. Scottie Wilbekin had an off game (4-of-13 shooting, two assists) and Richmond often runs a funky, quick version of the Princeton offense. They’re also a solid enough team to take advantage of a better opponent that comes out flat, which describes the Gators on Saturday. The real positive for Florida was that Michael Frazier carried them offensively at times. The sophomore has been very efficient (20.1 PER) and deadly from three (49%), but understandably passive on a team with a number of upperclassmen ahead of him. It’s encouraging for Billy Donovan that Frazier has shown that he can step up when needed.

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New Year’s Resolution For Power Conference Teams? No More Cupcakes – Conference Play Is Here

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 4th, 2014

With conference play arriving almost everywhere this weekend (it’s about time!), let’s take a peek at some of the major Saturday (and a few Sunday) games and storylines in college basketball’s seven major conferences.

Say What You Want About The AAC, But The New League Will Pose A New Challenge For Memphis: Real Tests In January And February. The First Of Those Examinations Comes Today Against Cincinnati.

Say What You Want About The AAC, But The Recently-Birthed League Will Pose A New Challenge For Memphis: Real Tests In January And February. The First Of Those Examinations Comes Today Against Cincinnati.

AAC. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first-ever weekend of American Athletic Conference basketball! OK, so maybe it isn’t that exciting, but an old Conference USA matchup does offer the league a headlining game on 2014’s first Saturday. Cincinnati visits Memphis (12:00 ET, ESPN2) in an early match-up of presumed upper-echelon AAC teams, but look elsewhere if you seek a battle of stylistic comrades; the deliberate, defensively stout Bearcats (286th nationally in tempo, eighth in defensive efficiency) will look to put the clamps on an explosive Memphis squad that rarely presses the pause button (39th nationally in tempo, 19th in offensive efficiency). UConn and SMU, both 0-1 in league play, offer an alternate viewing option (2:00 ET, ESPNU), and with a visit to Louisville coming next, Larry Brown’s SMU team would be well served to get a win Saturday to avoid staring down the barrel of an 0-3 league start.

ACC. Will there be life after Jerian Grant for Notre Dame? If yes, then a visit from Duke (4:00 ET, CBS) will offer the Irish the chance to provide a more convincing affirmation than they offered in their first game without Grant – a gut-check overtime victory over Canisius. Garrick Sherman should have a chance to exploit the smallish Duke interior, no matter what Doug Gottlieb thinks about his beard. Elsewhere, Pitt and Syracuse join Notre Dame in making their ACC debuts. The Panthers visit NC State (12:00 ET, ESPN3), while the Orange play host to Miami (2:00 ET, ESPN3). And if you like defense, two of the nation’s 10 most efficient defensive units are set to meet in Tallahassee; Virginia and Florida State (5:00 ET, ESPN2) will tussle in a race to 50 between ACC sleepers.

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VCU Seeks to Make Claim as Virginia’s Best Program Saturday

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 21st, 2013

The VCU Rams entered the 2013-14 season with the school’s highest preseason rankings in school history (#14 in the Associated Press poll, #15 in the USA Today/Coaches poll) and arguably coach Shaka Smart’s best team since he took over the program in 2009. The Rams have hit some early stumbling blocks with losses to Florida State, Georgetown and Northern Iowa, putting them outside of the rankings altogether at this point. The team is adjusting to new foul rules that often hamper it’s ability to run its vaunted Havoc defense, and they have not been consistently effective from long range. But this weekend’s upcoming Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic in Richmond gives VCU an opportunity to firmly stake its claim to a title they arguably have yet to formally hold — the best basketball school in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

vcushaka-4_3

A win over VT would continue Shaka Smart’s team’s ascension in the state hoops pantheon (credit: USA Today)

Since Smart took over, the Rams have been the main school in the headlines when it comes to Virginia college basketball. The magical run to the Final Four in 2011, considered one of the greatest Cinderella runs of all-time in the NCAA Tournament, pushed them to the forefront of the basketball scene. But staying power is the only way to hold the title of the state’s best hoops school, and it’s that consistent success Smart and the Rams have enjoyed in the years following that makes it clear they are Virginia’s foremost basketball program. NCAA bids were achieved again in 2011-12 and 2012-13, where each year VCU had the misfortune of meeting one of the best teams in the country and getting knocked out in the third round (a rising Indiana displaced them in 2011-12; eventual national runner-up Michigan did so last year). To then come into this year with the enormous expectations that were placed upon it shows that the VCU program is now a major player on the national scene.

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Checking In On… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback on December 19th, 2013

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

Dealing With Expectations

Forgive me if six weeks and 10 games (more or less) into this season I am a little dizzy from all the twists and turns. Most understood Massachusetts would be good, especially with Chaz Williams’ decision to take his last season of eligibility in Amherst, but undefeated? VCU would be nicked in the non-conference schedule — that much was a given — but three losses that include a 14-point loss to Florida State on a neutral court and a loss to Northern Iowa? That is a surprise.

What's new? UMass standout Chaz Williams is having another great season. (AP)

What’s new? UMass standout Chaz Williams is having another great season. (AP)

First Team

  • Chaz Williams (Massachusetts) — It may be hard to believe, but the unanimous pick has actually exceeded expectations. Williams has led the Minutemen to a 10-0 undefeated start and a #22 ranking in AP’s Top 25. UMass is the only conference representative.
  • Dwayne Evans (Saint Louis) — The Billikens’ slashing forward’s sluggish offensive numbers mirror the larger problems facing St. Louis this season. Evans can score inside as his 51 percent two-point completion rate attests, but absent a consistent long-range scorer, opposing teams find it very easy to stop the Bills — pack the lane and wait for Evans (or guard Jordair Jett) to drive. The stingy defense lives on, Saint Louis is ranked #3 defensively by Ken Pomeroy, but a team-wide three-point drought (Jake Barnett excepted) leaves Jim Crews’ squad with a one-dimensional offense.
  • Tyreek Duren (La Salle) — Hobbled by a troublesome plantar fasciitis condition that dates back to last May, the point guard has to adjust his energy to manage the Explorers’ offense rather than create it through his typical to-the-basket drives. There are many reasons the Explorers are struggling this season and with a better start Dureen’s inability to move laterally and plant for a jumper would be a footnote.
  • Treveon Graham (Virginia Commonwealth) — Graham continues the domination that established him as a first teamer last season. He leads the Rams in scoring (196 points, 16.3 PPG) and combines prolific scoring with efficient scoring, earning a 117.9 offensive rating from Ken Pomeroy. Questions on how to get VCU back on track should not start with Graham. He is on pace to accumulate last season’s numbers, and has improved his defensive rebounding to boot.
  • Juvonte Reddic (Virginia Commonwealth) — VCU’s second leading scorer (140 points, 11.7 points per game, 110.1) and leading rebounder (30-56-86) has stepped back slightly in offensive efficiency, but has improved in block and steal rates and in getting to the line. If his contributions hold steady through the season, Reddic should be in the thick of an All-Conference conversation come March.

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Checking In On… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback on November 28th, 2013

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

 

Highlights and Lowlights From the Week (from highest to lowest)

Looking for high profile wins in the early season invitational tournaments and traditional home-away settings, the conference had some bright spots but overall the results were mixed:

Big man Cady Lalanne has been outstanding for UMass. (Maria Uminski/ Massachusetts Daily Collegian)

Big man Cady Lalanne has been outstanding for UMass. (Maria Uminski/ Massachusetts Daily Collegian)

  1. Massachusetts — The Minutemen were voted #24 in the AP’s Top 25 on the strength of their weekend at the Charleston Classic. Coach Derek Kellogg’s squad ran their winning streak to six with wins over power conference representatives Nebraska (81-65) and Clemson (62-56) and (then) #19 New Mexico over the course of the Charleston weekend. Center Cady Lalanne became the much anticipated low post beast, scoring 47 points on 17-of-36 (13-of-16 from the line) shooting while grabbing 35 rebounds over the three game run. He logged two double-doubles in the three game set. Chaz Williams is the guiding force for the squad (and he did not disappoint in Charleston either), but if Lalanne (along with Maxie Esho and Raphiael Putney) emerge as legitimate threats game-to-game, this Massachusetts squad will challenge for the conference title. Read the rest of this entry »
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