#rushthetrip Day Four: Waves Rising in Paradise?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 10th, 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.

After three days spent traversing the deserts of the Southwestern US, I arrived in sunny Southern California for a Saturday double-header of hoops. By my count, the greater Los Angeles lays claim to nine D-1 hoops programs, including one of the greatest of all-time in UCLA, but the city is hardly considered a college basketball hotbed. My appetizer for the day, Saint Mary’s vs. Pepperdine, didn’t figure to offer much in the way of evidence for a larger conception of LA-area college hoops, but the UCLA vs. USC nightcap seemed like the perfect ticket for gaining a sense of college basketball’s present and future in the City of Angels.

The Fieldhouse's Parking Lot's Courts (Replete With A Pacific Ocean Backdrop) May Have Been More Inviting Than Firestone Itself

The Fieldhouse’s Parking Lot’s Courts (Replete With A Pacific Ocean Backdrop) May Have Been More Inviting Than Firestone Itself

Saturday afternoon clouds didn’t serve up Malibu in all of its glory, but Pepperdine’s cliff-side campus still possessed the power to stun the senses. Cozy Firestone Fieldhouse won’t soon be featured on any list of college hoops’ must-see venues, but I dare you to find a prettier backdrop for an arena exterior. I do not believe it exists. Moving inside, the sweeping views give way to a glorified high-school gym upon entrance to the fieldhouse, and if not for Jarron Collins’ imposing presence to my immediate left (doing color commentary for the WCC Game of the Week), I could have been tricked into believing I stumbled into a high-level high school game. Recent nights spent at The Pit and McKale Center didn’t help in de-emphasizing Firestone’s diminutive layout.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on February 5th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

The previous week’s play might have sealed the WCC’s fate as a one-bid league. With the shocking demise of Saint Mary’s as a serious contender for an at-large NCAA berth, only Gonzaga has an overall resume and a potential WCC Tournament championship firmly in its grasp. BYU proved its strength in the Marriott Center with an 84-71 victory over Saint Mary’s, but still has road games against the Gaels and up-and-down San Diego and has posted a so-so 15-9 record so far. San Francisco may be better positioned than BYU to challenge for second place behind Gonzaga, with a Saturday showdown in Provo looming to possibly settle that question, but second place will not win an at-large bid for the Dons either.

Bennet's Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary's to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Bennet’s Tough Week May Have Resigned Saint Mary’s to the NIT (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

The Gaels’ meltdown against San Diego – a 61-43 humiliation in which they barely registered a pulse – and subsequent loss to BYU marked several milestones for Saint Mary’s, none of them positive. In absorbing four losses with eight games to go, the Gaels have guaranteed their worst WCC performance since going 10-4 in 2008-09. Saint Mary’s record of winning at least 25 games a year for six straight seasons also seems doomed, with possibly 11 games left (assuming three games in the WCC tournament) and only 16 wins so far.

The only apparent path to a second bid for the conference lies in an upset of Gonzaga at the WCC Tournament in March. In that case, the victor would receive the automatic NCAA bid and Gonzaga would presumably receive an at-large bid based on its history of 14 straight NCAA appearances and its overall resume in 2013-14. But which team is likely to pull that off? There is no bye to the semifinal round this year, as each potential champion must play at least three times in Las Vegas. None of the would-be contenders has shown the consistency to pull off three tournament wins, which would include a victory over Gonzaga along the way. A single bid seems all but assured.

Power Rankings

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O26 Resume Review: VCU & St. Joe’s Rising, Toledo & St. Mary’s Falling…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 5th, 2014

Let’s be honest. It wasn’t a good week for O26 teams with NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. In fact, it was downright awful. It’s almost as if a few of these teams don’t want to go dancing after all. There certainly are spots to be had. Even with just 36 at-large berths handed out this season thanks to the addition of the American, an abundance of middling high-major teams has left the door open for some strong O26 candidates. They just haven’t taken advantage, and this week says it all. Let’s see who helped and hurt themselves this week.

Helped

VCU (18-4)

VCU is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team.

VCU is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team.

Is VCU even a bubble team at this point? Probably not. The Rams are probably safely into the field barring an unexpected collapse. VCU’s RPI rose from #35 to #28 as of Monday after wins against Fordham and fellow A-10 bubble-dweller Richmond this past week. The Rams have won five straight games and are off to one of their best overall starts in school history. A tricky game at surging St. Joseph’s awaits Saturday, but VCU is most definitely trending upward right now.

Projected seed for now: #10

BYU (15-9). It amazes me that a WCC team with nine losses is still in the at-large conversation, but that demonstrates just how weak the bubble is this season. Don’t we say this every year, though? BYU capped a strong week with a pair of double-figure wins against Pacific and Saint Mary’s, boosting its RPI from #49 to #45 in the process. That’s pretty much right on the fence. The Cougars need to keep taking care of business during the next couple weeks before the make-or-break portion of the schedule — at Saint Mary’s on February 15 and home to Gonzaga on February 20. Win both of those and the Cougars just might be dancing next month.

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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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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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Checking In On… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 28th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Crystal Ball Time

With most teams in the WCC having completed half the conference schedule it’s time to do some end-game handicapping. Here’s how the rest of the schedule shapes up for the main players:

  • Gonzaga, although sitting pretty at 8-1 with a game-and-a-half lead on Saint Mary’s, has a tough second half of conference play ahead. Its three home games should give the Zags little trouble, but road pitfalls could come against the Bay Area schools (Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and Santa Clara), in Provo against BYU, and in the Jenny Craig Pavilion against San Diego.
  • Saint Mary’s has an unfavorable (4/6) home/road balance ahead, but two of the road games are against nearby rivals San Francisco and Santa Clara. The Gaels’ main peril begins right now with four games in southern California and Provo. If Saint Mary’s comes off that journey intact, it will be well positioned to entertain BYU and Gonzaga at home.
Rex Walters and USF have a real chance to make some noise in the coming weeks. (Getty)

Rex Walters and USF have a real chance to make some noise in the coming weeks. (Getty)

  • San Francisco also has a chance to do some damage against the leaders by entertaining Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s at home, but will be at risk on the road against BYU and San Diego.
  • BYU is up against the wall no matter how you slice it because of its inability to win a single conference game on the road. The Cougars will certainly battle Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga tough at home, but its chances against the Gaels and Toreros on the road don’t look good based on performance to date.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (18-3, 8-1)
  2. Saint Mary’s (16-5, 6-2)
  3. San Francisco (13-8, 6-3)
  4. BYU (13-9, 5-4)
  5. Pepperdine (12-10, 5-5)
  6. Portland (12-9, 4-5)
  7. San Diego (12-10, 3-6)
  8. Santa Clara (10-12, 3-6)
  9. Loyola Marymount (11-11, 3-7)
  10. Pacific (11-8, 2-6)

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O26 Storylines: Wichita Unbeaten, St. Louis, Harvard, WCC & New Mexico…

Posted by Adam Stillman on January 24th, 2014

There’s been no lack of storylines in the O26 conferences this week. Let’s dive right into five of them.

1Can Wichita State really go unbeaten?

Ron Baker and Wichita State could be looking an an undefeated regular season. (Photo courtesy of si.com)

Ron Baker and Wichita State could be looking an an undefeated regular season. (Photo courtesy of si.com)

Well, the Shockers (20-0, 7-0 MVC) passed the first of their few remaining major tests in the Missouri Valley Conference by blasting Indiana State by 20 at home Saturday. The biggest obstacle left is the February 5 rematch game in Terre Haute. Should Wichita State pick up a win there, you’d have to like the Shockers’ chances at going unbeaten in the regular season. A potential trap game pops up right after the Sycamores, as the Shockers head to Northern Iowa on February 8. Indiana State and Northern Iowa figure to duke it out for runner-up position in the MVC. Ken Pomeroy currently gives Wichita State a 33.5 percent chance at finishing the season without a blemish — the Shockers are projected as favorites in all of their remaining games, with the closest being a five-point win at ISU. Despite all of that, KenPom lists the Shockers’ projected record to be 30-1 overall and 17-1 in the MVC entering postseason play. As fun as it would be to see the Shockers run the table, I just don’t see it happening. Missouri State put quite a scare into Wichita State a couple of weekends ago, blowing a 19-point second half lead at home to lose in overtime. I still think the Shockers will slip up at some point, but, man, you’ve got to love what Gregg Marshall is doing with that program.

2. Is Saint Louis now the favorite in the Atlantic 10?

It’s hard to argue against it. Remember that the Billikens are the defending Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament champions, and right now SLU (18-2, 5-0 A-10) remains the conference’s only unbeaten team. Massachusetts, the league favorite heading into this week, suffered its first league loss Wednesday night at Richmond after a string of close calls. SLU, meanwhile, just keeps winning. Sure, it’s not pretty. The Billikens waited until the last minute to pull out a victory against cellar-dweller Duquesne on Wednesday, and also struggled with St. Bonaventure at home the week before. But SLU keeps winning. The Billikens are 26th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and boast the top-rated defense in the nation (87.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). A home-and-home with VCU, along with road games at St. Joseph’s, La Salle and Massachusetts still loom, but for now the Billikens have to be considered the favorite until proven otherwise. SLU is projected to win every game from here on out except for those two road games to Richmond (VCU) and Amherst (UMass). KenPom projects SLU’s final A-10 record at 13-3, with UMass and VCU coming in at 11-5. A two-loss or three-loss squad seems like a pretty good bet for an Atlantic 10 champion.

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Checking In On… the West Coast Conference

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 23rd, 2014

Looking Back

Things are beginning to have a more familiar look as the WCC season passes the one-third mark: Gonzaga on top, with BYU and Saint Mary’s trailing closely behind. Early-season pretenders such as Pepperdine and San Francisco have been knocked back, if not out, and BYU seems to have overcome its first-week stumble into losses at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount by rattling off five straight wins.

Rumors of Mark Few and Gonzaga leaving the WCC keeps getting louder and louder (AP)

It’s been business as usual for Mark Few and Gonzaga, who have once again performed at a championship level. (AP)

  • Gonzaga has gotten Sam Dower Jr. back and is successfully integrating Louisville transfer Angel Nunez into its offense. Only the return of Gary Bell Jr. from a broken wrist keeps the Zags from fielding the team it envisioned at season’s outset.
  • Saint Mary’s has Randy Bennett back at the helm after a five-game NCAA-imposed suspension, and the result has been two wins at home. The Gaels hope to welcome Garrett Jackson back this week after several weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, which will give Beau Levesque some support at power forward.
  • All the leaders seem set for the next part of the season, therefore, and only one game separates BYU and a game-and-a-half separates Saint Mary’s from the Zags. Let the games continue.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (16-3, 6-1)
  2. BYU (13-7, 5-2)
  3. Saint Mary’s (14-5, 4-2)
  4. San Francisco (12-8, 5-3)
  5. Pepperdine (12-8, 5-3)
  6. Portland (11-8, 3-4)
  7. Santa Clara (10-11, 3-5)
  8. San Diego (11-9, 2-5)
  9. Loyola Marymount (10-10, 2-6)
  10. Pacific (10-7, 1-5)

WCC News & Notes

  • Dower celebrated his return to the Gonzaga starting lineup with two monster games in Southern California, an effort that won him WCC Player of the Week honors. Dower was a perfect 7-of-7 against Pepperdine, which had a chance to take over first place in the WCC with a win, and added eight rebounds to his 18 points in a 70-53 rout. He matched that with a 28/14 effort two nights later against LMU, leading the Zags to an 82-72 win. Perhaps in recognition of Dower’s importance, the USA Today poll raised the Zags three spots from 24th to 21st.

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 16th, 2014

Michael Vernetti is the WCC correspondent for RTC.

Looking Back

Did the earth move or was it merely a hiccup?

Somehow, Randy Bennett And Saint Mary's Just Keep On Winning Games (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

Randy Bennett is back for Saint Mary’s. (Jason O. Watson/US Presswire).

One could see portents in Santa Clara’s upset of Saint Mary’s (57-55) on the Gaels’ court last Thursday, and in Gonzaga’s slip at Portland (82-73) the same night. After all, Gonzaga had won 22 straight conference games and 20 in a row over Portland, and Santa Clara had beaten Saint Mary’s only once before in Kerry Keating’s seven seasons at the helm. So, the upsets indicated anything but business as usual in the WCC. But don’t go rushing out and proclaiming the dawn of a new champion in the WCC, which has been dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s for the past decade. The Gaels bounced back from the Santa Clara loss with a solid 87-73 pounding of San Francisco, which came to Moraga with a 4-1 conference mark and intentions of staking a claim at the top of the standings. The San Francisco game also marked the return of Randy Bennett to the Gaels’ bench after an NCAA-imposed five-game ban on leading the team. Although top assistant Eran Ganot guided Saint Mary’s to a 3-2 mark, including two conference road wins, everyone in Gael Nation breathed easier with Bennett back in charge.

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O26 Resume Review: Saint Louis Trending Upward; Harvard, Boise, St. Mary’s Dropping…

Posted by Adam Stillman on January 15th, 2014

Conference play is in full swing for every team that falls into the O26 category. It’s a new season of sorts. We’ll see teams that set themselves apart from the rest of their leagues, thus thrusting themselves into the NCAA Tournament at-large conversation. Then we’ll see other teams crumble, taking themselves out of the big picture. It’s time for the contenders to separate themselves from the pretenders, so let’s take a look at a few of the O26 teams that either helped or hurt their at-large cases during the past week of action.

Helped

To be honest, there weren’t many O26 teams that really boosted their credentials this past week. Sure, Nevada has had a nice couple of weeks by starting out 4-0 in Mountain West play before Tuesday night’s loss to Boise State. But the Wolf Pack’s lackluster non-conference slate — complete with losses to Cal State Bakersfield, Pacific, Morehead State and Nebraska-Omaha — really remove them from the conversation. George Washington picked up a nice home win against VCU as well, but that loss to La Salle on January 9 prevented the Colonials from turning in a big week.

Saint Louis (14-2). There was only one O26 team that really helped itself last week. Saint Louis went entered the weekend with a gaudy record but didn’t have much meat on its resume (10 RPI 150+ wins). That all changed after the Billikens traveled to Dayton and picked up a huge road win. The 67-59 victory on January 11 handed SLU its first top-50 RPI win of the season, as prior to the victory over the Flyers, the Billikens’ best win was a 17-point drubbing of Indiana State (RPI #65) at home. Now SLU’s 14-2 mark finally has something to stand on. Boasting a #33 RPI doesn’t hurt either. The two losses are to Wichita State and Wisconsin, a pair of top-five teams. The Billikens are now at home for four of their next five games — the one roadie is at Duquesne — meaning SLU should enter the toughest part of its schedule with a 19-2 mark. Not too shabby. Then comes games at Saint Joseph’s and La Salle before a home date with Virginia Commonwealth, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Dwayne Evans and the Saint Louis Billkens are on the rise. (Thearon Henderson)

Dwayne Evans and the Saint Louis Billkens are on the rise. (Thearon Henderson)

Projected seed for now: #9

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Checking in on… the WCC

Posted by Michael Vernetti on January 7th, 2014

Looking Back

Where’s the threat? Gonzaga was apparently in a fragile position as last week’s conference play ensued. Archrival Saint Mary’s was coming to town, and Zag starters’ Sam Dower and Gary Bell, Jr. were sidelined with injuries, Kevin Pangos continued to struggle with turf toe, and even gritty former walk-on David Stockton was said to be iffy because of the flu. Panic? Meltdown?

Despite a slew of setbacks, Mark Few and Gonzaga keep on chugging along. (Getty)

Despite a slew of setbacks, Mark Few and Gonzaga keep on chugging along. (Getty)

How about domination? The Zags simply throttled Saint Mary’s, holding the hot-shooting Gaels to a 32 percent field goal performance and a pathetic 1-of-12 from three-point range (supposedly the Gaels’ strength) on the way to a 73-51 romp. Zags’ sophomore Prezmek Karnowski not only got in Brad Waldow’s face, he apparently got in his mind, too, blocking seven shots and holding him to five points and three rebounds.

Gonzaga continued the week with an equally-dominant win over Pacific, 86-64, completing a four-game conference homestand at 4-0 and holding all four teams to fewer than 65 points. The Zags’ injuries? Turns out Dower is okay after injuring his hip against Kansas State; Stockton should contact the medical establishment about a cure for flu; and Pangos limped to 31 points in the two games, playing more than 30 minutes in each. Bell remains sidelined for at least another month with a broken hand, but former subs Drew Barham and Kyle Dranginis have stepped up admirably and the Zags seem strong enough to stay atop the WCC.

Power Rankings

  1. Gonzaga (14-2, 4-0)
  2. Saint Mary’s (11-4, 2-1)
  3. Pepperdine (10-6, 3-1)
  4. San Francisco (10-6, 3-1)
  5. Loyola-Marymount (10-6, 2-2)
  6. Santa Clara (9-8, 2-2)
  7. BYU (9-7, 1-2)
  8. Portland (9-7, 1-3)
  9. Pacific (9-5, 0-3)
  10. San Diego (9-7, 0-3)

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O26 Buzz: This Week’s Storylines

Posted by Nicholas Patrick on January 3rd, 2014

Every Friday throughout the rest of the season, the Other 26 Microsite will dig into some of the top storylines featuring those leagues from the previous week.

1. Eye-Opening O26 Results from the Past Week

Kyle Collingsworth and his fellow BYU Cougars need to get back on track after opening WCC play with consecutive losses

Kyle Collingsworth and his fellow BYU Cougars need to get back on track after opening WCC play with consecutive losses

  • Saturday: UNC Greensboro 55, Virginia Tech 52: The Spartans’ complete list of victories against D-I opponents now includes High Point, Stetson, James Madison, oh, and a member of the ACC.
  • Saturday: Massachusetts 69, Providence 67 (OT): Derrick Gordon’s game-winner gave the Minutemen their fifth victory against power conference opponents.
  • Monday: Southern 116, Champion Baptist College 12: This game was already unsettling by the time CBC scored its first point (at that time, Southern had already put up 44 points).
  • Monday: Louisiana Tech 102, Oklahoma 98 (OT): Alex Hamilton scored 36 to lead the Bulldogs to their first win against a power conference opponent.
  • Monday: Pepperdine 80, BYU 74: The Cougars trailed from the opening minutes and finished a disheartening week that also included a loss to Loyola Marymount to open WCC play.
  • Tuesday: North Texas 61, Texas A&M 41: The Mean Green took charge midway through the first half and never looked back on their way to crushing the Aggies.
  • Thursday: Gonzaga 73, Saint Mary’s 51: If this blowout win over their primary WCC rival is any indication, the Zags may not have a true challenger for the conference crown.

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