Yesterday was the true first day of the NCAA Tournament and overall it was a good one for the four Big East teams that played. Syracuse and Louisville cruised to easy victories and Marquette won the most exciting game in the day, rallying to beat Davidson on a gorgeous left-handed drive by Vander Blue in the last five seconds. Of course Pittsburgh ruined a perfect day for the conference by making exactly one of their 17 three-pointers and turning the ball over 15 times in an 18-point loss to Wichita State. The story for Pitt is getting old at this point. No matter how many times they win 25 games in the regular season, until they actually win a worthwhile NCAA Tournament game, their gaudy records won’t mean anything. It would be one thing if the Shockers had played a clean game themselves, but Wichita State was just 2-of-20 from downtown and turned the ball over 11 times themselves. For Jamie Dixon, that job at Southern California that he shot down oh so casually shot down this week is looking real nice right now, because it seems like the Pitt fans are starting to get fed up.
You want to know why Vander Blue is an NBA prospect? Watch his game-winning layup against Davidson five times, heck I could watch it all day. Too often players settle for long jumpers on last-second plays, Blue on the other hand didn’t hesitate at all, blew past Davidson’s Jake Cohen, and finished smoothly at the rim with his left hand. That was a grown man move with the game on the line. It helped that on a day when the Golden Eagles shot just 34. 5 percent from the field, they hit three improbable three-pointers in a row in the final minute of the game. They weren’t open three-pointers either, they were well-defended, and the man who hit two of them, Jamil Wilson, made just two other field goals on 11 shots up to that point. It was a game that will be hard to top today in terms of excitement, late-game heroics, excitable coaches (what’s up Buzz). But after watching Memphis suffocate and swat down Saint Mary‘s offense, the Golden Eagles will not be able to play that poorly on offense and hope to win in the third round.
An unintended benefit of having so many games spread out across the country is that occasionally a good story is written that wouldn’t have a news peg if there wasn’t an NCAA Tournament game being played in that city. Such is the case with this piece about Villanova’s experience in the realignment done well by the Kansas City Star. The Wildcats play North Carolina in Kansas City tomorrow and rather than write yet another preview, the Star chose to go back and time and talk with coach Jay Wright about the uncertainty of watching the Big East crumble and the move into a basketball-centric, new Big East conference next season. Things are settled now and that’s good, because the Tar Heels present a stiff challenge. Not unlike Pittsburgh, Villanova is back in the tournament after a disappointing season and they will be looking to prove they belong.
The best part about Syracuse’s near-50-point thrashing of Montana other than the near flawless basketball the Orange played was watching CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis act a fool in full-on Syracuse gear. The outfit was Davis manning up after he picked the Grizz to pull of the upset and felt confident to make a bet with Syracuse sports radio hosts, a bet he honored by looking extra-bright on national television. Yesterday I mentioned that another data-based formula showed that Montana was a good candidate to pull of the upset and last night’s beat down was evidence that none of these formulas are bullet-proof. The zone defense and length of the Orange defenders were too much for Montana’s shooters and the game turned into a boat race midway through the first half.
Georgetown has had less obvious and publicized recent struggles in the NCAA Tournament than Pittsburgh but the Hoyas and coach John Thompson III could use a deep NCAA Tournament run this season to assuage some of the concerns that have crept out of nowhere since the team’s trip to the Final Four. For whatever reason, Florida Gulf Coast has seen a groundswell of support and most of it is seemingly coming from people who have never seen them play. They have a win over Miami and they definitely have an argument about receiving just a No.15 seed given their resume and talent. But they also haven’t seen a defense as long and athletic as Georgetown’s and just as Montana found out today against a hungry Syracuse team, the Eagles are going to quickly learn how hard it can be to score against a premier Big East defense.
Tonight’s Lede. NIT Invades National Spotlight. For months we’ve awaited the commencement of college basketball’s premier postseason event. Countless sentences were typed in this space praising teams for their pre-tournament momentum or berating them for their postseason urgency, or lack thereof, and all of it comes to a head this week. The ceremonial opening – the one fans across the country yearn for every year around this time – is Thursday. Employees call in sick for work; online game streams become a fixture on desktops and PCs around the country; brackets are ripped and flicked into nearby garbage cans. None of this stuff begins in earnest until Thursday. Tuesday night was the technical commencement of the NCAA Tournament – the first half of the First Four. It is called the “first round,” but that moniker serves more to frustrate and annoy fans and writers like yours truly than actually signify an additional round of games. In what universe does four games constitute a “round” in the same way that the second “round” includes 32? Ugh. Minor complaints. The point is, the tournament we’ve all been waiting for is finally here, and guess what? The biggest college basketball story of Tuesday night had nothing to do with the bracket sitting on your work desk. Don’t worry, a bracket was involved, alright – just not the one you’re thinking of.
Your Watercooler Moment. Down Goes UK.
Around this time a year ago, Kentucky was relaxing in Lexington, maybe playing a casual game of ping-pong or two in UK’s famed lockerroom-turned-sports-mancave, occasionally turning around to check up on eventual first-round opponent Western Kentucky’s First Four game and cracking jokes about all the doubters who believed the Wildcats’ SEC Tournament championship game loss to Vanderbilt had revealed some sort of exploitable flaw that would lead to an early-round upset. Number one seeds that good don’t lose, and Kentucky didn’t. Things couldn’t be more different one year later. Thanks to one of the NCAA hosting sites being placed in Lexington, Kentucky was forced to travel to Moon, Pennsylvania, for a #1/#8 match-up with Robert Morris. Before we dive in, it’s important to preface the conversation with one important fact: the Colonials are good. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament in two of the past five seasons, force turnovers at a top-20 rate and have not registered anything worse than a third-place NEC regular season finish since 2006-07. Being good within the NEC and making a few trips to the NCAAs every now and then is admirable for any small-league program. Knocking off Kentucky is a whole ‘nother level of “good” – and not even in the sense that the Wildcats are some national juggernaut. Because they aren’t, not this season. For RMU this win was as symbolic as it was impressive: Kentucky has dropped its share of games badly this season, and RMU can and did pick them off in its biggest game of the season. But it’s the spectacle of not only hosting, but knocking off, court rushing, and showing up John Calipari and his NBA-loaded Wildcats in Cal’s hometown, that makes this an unforgettable experience for the Robert Morris players, coaches and fans. The Colonials didn’t just win an NIT game. They beat Kentucky in their own 3,000-arena gym to add insult (and finality) to a painful UK season. Divorce the competition label from the singular feat. This was as massive (or close to it) as any NCAA Tournament triumph could ever be for RM.
Tonight’s Quick Hits.
Saint Mary’s Moves On. A frequent motif in the pre-Selection Sunday discussion was the idea that Saint Mary’s was one of the threshold outfits likely to get left out of the field, that the Gaels hadn’t accomplished much outside of a BracketBusters home win over Creighton, that they missed on all three opportunities to take out WCC king Gonzaga, along with all the usual power conference disdain that comes hand in hand with small-conference at-large discussion. St. Mary’s didn’t have one of the better at-large resumes in the field, and the Tourney rightfully slotted it into a First Four game with Middle Tennessee, another controversial non-Power-Six at-large inclusion. The Gaels proved Tuesday they very much belong in the field, and that if you were ever opposed to seeing Matthew Dellavedova spread the floor and slice into the lane off a high screen to dish to an open man or float a teardrop over two frontcourt defenders– well, you’re just no fun. Delly’s here, at least for one more game, and you should savor every last moment of his brilliant career. Read the rest of this entry »
Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (9 AM), Midwest (11 AM), South (1 PM), West (3 PM). Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCmidwestregion).
You can also check out our RTC Podblast with Bennet breaking down the Midwest Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.
Favorite:#1Louisville (29-5, 17-4 Big East). It stands to reason that the top overall seed in the field is also the favorite to emerge from the Midwest Region. No team enters the NCAA Tournament hotter than Louisville, winners of 10 straight games and 13 of 14. Consider the Cards’ dominant second half of the Big East Tournament championship game a final warning for this field of 68 – there is no scarier team in this tournament.
No Sleep Until Atlanta For Siva, Pitino And The Rest Of The Louisville Cardinals, Your #1 Overall Seed
Should They Falter: #2 Duke(27-5, 14-5 ACC). It’s been a quiet few days for the Blue Devils, as the weekend’s ACC discussion largely revolved around Miami. But there they lurk at the bottom of the Midwest Region, poised as ever for a March sprint. Let’s not forget that the Devils’ ACC Tournament loss to Maryland was the first time Duke had lost with a healthy Ryan Kelly, and the senior’s clean bill of health is a far greater blessing for the Blue Devils than a #1 seed ever could have been. Duke also owns a victory over Louisville from back in November, albeit one with an asterisk attached – Cardinal big man Gorgui Dieng missed the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. For now though, Coach K and company are happy to let Louisville absorb all the buzz as the region’s favorite, while the dangerous Blue Devils attempt to navigate a manageable road to Indianapolis.
Grossly Overseeded:#6Memphis (30-4, 19-0 Conference USA). Bracket projections had the Tigers anywhere between a #6 and a #9 seed. Josh Pastner’s team maxed out its seed line by receiving the #6, but now comes the hard part – beating an NCAA Tournament team. Memphis did that just once in the regular season (a win over #14 seed Harvard), a rare gap in the resume for any team in the field, much less a team so highly seeded. Let’s put it this way — Middle Tennessee, the most controversial at-large selection in this field and a potential Third Round opponent of the Tigers, had two more victories over NCAA teams, and just one more loss than Memphis. That’s not to say that the Blue Raiders are a better team than Memphis (although perhaps we will get to find that out), but you get the point.
Grossly Underseeded:#12Oregon (26-8, 15-6 Pac-12). Likely the most underseeded team in the entire field. Sure, the Ducks slogged their way to the finish line of the regular season, but the return of Dominic Artis and an impressive three-game run to win the Pac-12 Tournament had most bracketologists predicting a spot in an #8/#9 game for Oregon. Committee chair Mike Bobinski admitted that the Ducks were actually on the #11 seed line and had to be moved down as a result of logistical issues elsewhere in the bracket, but either way, this team is better than their double-digit seed would indicate.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference. He filed this report after the WCC Championship game in Las Vegas Monday night.
“I’ll watch some TV, see if there are any upsets.” – Randy Bennett.
That’s it for Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett while waiting for the selection committee to decide if his Gaels will receive an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Following a 65-51 shellacking at the hands of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s must hope its overall body of work in 2012-13 merits a bid. “Our RPI today was 28,” Bennett noted following the loss in the WCC Tournament championship game. “That’s better than it was last year,” when the Gaels won both the regular season WCC title and the tournament championship, which confers an automatic bid. “We’ve only lost to one team (Gonzaga) since Christmas,” he added. “That’s a pretty good season.” Indeed, the Gaels finished 27-6, notching more than 25 wins for the sixth season in a row. What they haven’t been able to do is garner an NCAA bid in back-to-back seasons, playing in the NIT in both 2009 and 2011. All Bennett can do is wait for Selection Sunday to see if his team breaks that pattern.
After its 65-51 loss Monday night, all Randy Bennett (middle) and Saint Mary’s can do now is wait. (Getty)
Gonzaga’s Mark Few has the opposite problem of Bennett — namely, managing expectations that come from a prediction by several bracketologists that Gonzaga will follow its first-ever #1 national ranking with its first ever #1 seed in the NCAA’s West Region. Few bent over backwards following the Saint Mary’s win not to say anything that might jinx the #1 seed. What Few did was praise the current version of his always-powerful Zag machine. “I think defensively we’re better than any group I’ve had,” Few said, noting his team held Saint Mary’s to 35.7 percent shooting. “Our DER [Defensive Efficiency Rating] is higher than it’s ever been. That’s something we chart very closely.”
Like Bennett, all Few can do is wait for the selection committee’s decision on Sunday. He won’t have to root for any upsets, however, as Gonzaga has cleared almost every hurdle before it in a record-breaking 31-2 season.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
This will be the fifth straight year of a dramatic showdown in the West Coast Conference tournament between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. On the line tonight, as it has been in four previous showdowns, is an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament – something that means more for Saint Mary’s than Gonzaga.
The Zags are darlings of the basketball world this year, reeling off 30 wins (a school record) and earning a #1 national ranking. Their participation as a high seed in the NCAA tourney is a given, with many pundits according them a #1 seed in the West Region. They want to give themselves every chance to maximize their standing, however, and can’t afford to stumble over the Gaels. Many so-called experts are pooh-poohing the Zags’ accomplishments because, they say, going 16-0 in the WCC pales in comparison to battling through a Big East, ACC or Big Tem season. Those people overlook the Zags’ 5-0 record against teams in the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor and West Virginia), which indicates they’d fare pretty well in a Power Six conference.
For the fifth straight year, these two guys meet up to decide the WCC tournament crown.
Saint Mary’s faces the specter of dismissal to the NIT if they fail to win the automatic bid, however. That fate befell them after losing to Gonzaga in the WCC championship games in 2009 and 2011, and they got to the NCAAs only by defeating the Zags in 2010 and last year. Many bracketologists contend the Gaels will be in whether they win or lose tonight because they finished the WCC regular season with a 14-2 record, losing only to Gonzaga, defeated Creighton in a BracketBuster game and escaped the WCC Tourney semifinals with a gut-wrenching 69-66 overtime win over San Diego on Saturday. But Randy Bennett’s boys have experienced the kick in the gut that comes with an NCAA rejection and don’t want to put their fate in the hands of the selection committee.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
WCC Tournament Preview
Is there anything else to the WCC Tournament this week (March 6-11) in Las Vegas besides the official coronation of Gonzaga as absolute masters of the league and lock for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Maybe, maybe not.
No doubt the format of the WCC tourney favors the Zags, as they won’t play until Saturday and will most likely face the winner of a Santa Clara/San Francisco tussle on Friday. The Zags fared better against Santa Clara than they did against San Francisco in the conference season, holding off a spirited upset bid in Santa Clara before winning 81-74, then demolishing the Broncos at home last week, 85-42.
Against San Francisco, the Zags won by “only” 14 at home (66-52), then ended a three-year history of losing in San Francisco by topping the Dons 71-61 on their home court. Whichever team survives the quarterfinals will be a heavy underdog against Gonzaga, as the Zags have been gaining momentum and can’t wait for the NCAA Tournament to begin to cement the #1 national ranking accorded them this week by both the AP and the USA Today/Coaches polls. Pencil Gonzaga in for the tournament championship game on Monday before a nationwide ESPN audience at 6:00 PM Pacific time.
The play of Kelly Olynyk and Matthew Dellavedova will be key in deciding the WCC tournament champ
With top ten teams falling everyday it seems like we are the verge of finally seeing Gonzaga rise to #1 in the rankings. As we pointed out nearly a week ago Gonzaga’s likely rise to #1 will be met by skepticism in many corners as evidenced by the fact that they might not get a #1 seed even if they enter the NCAA Tournament as the #1 team in the polls. However, that shouldn’t diminish how impressive the program’s rise from the archetypal mid-major power to one that has become such a national force that even The New York Times stopped by Spokane for the annual story about the program with a piece by Greg Bishop appropriately titled “Nothing ‘Mid’ About Gonzaga”. We tend to find the “mid-major” label argument tiresome, but the growth and continued excellence of the program has been nothing short of remarkable regardless of whatever moniker you want to afix to them.
Gonzaga might be reaching their post-Casey Cavalry peak later today, but their West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s certainly is not after the NCAA handed down some substantial sanctions on Friday (full report PDF here). We have a longer breakdown of the story from Friday afternoon, but the primary charges against the school and its coach, Randy Bennett, are that they failed to monitor an assistant coach in his recruitment of three international prospects as well as Bennett conducting impermissible training and coaching sessions. The assistant coach who was not named in the report, but is believed to be Keith Moss, was hit with a two-year show-cause. The school was hit with four years of probation, a reduction of scholarships from 13 to 11 in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, elimination of foreign trips until the 2017-18 season, no skill instruction during the next two seasons, and they cannot participate in multi-team events for the next two seasons. Bennett will serve a five-game suspension next year (doesn’t make any sense to us why this should wait until next season) and is prohibited from recruiting off-campus next season. We are sure that St. Mary’s fans are having difficulty finding anything positive from the situation, but this should guarantee them that Bennett will not be leaving them for a higher profile job in the very near future. Of course that is operating under the assumption that administrators care about NCAA violations, which may not be the case.
If Moss is looking for hope after his show-cause he can look to Steve Forbes, who shook off the NCAA’s one-year show-cause (part of the Bruce Pearl investigation) in an unusual way–going to the NJCAA. Forbes’ route is an unusual one in that he did not sit out at all and went straight into another college coaching job. Given his recent coaching success and his success at recruiting at the Division I level we would not be surprised to see his name mentioned in another month when more than a few positions. Still if Forbes is able to make it back to the Division I level (especially as a head coach) he would be joining a very short list of coaches to have done so (Todd Bozeman is the only head coach to have done so, but we are not certain on assistants making the leap).
The decision by St. John’s to suspend D’Angelo Harrison for the rest of the season is one of the more interesting ones we have seen as the Red Storm were still on the bubble when they made the announcement on Friday and we still have not heard a good explanation for why Harrison was suspended for the rest of the season. Having said that we have to give Steve Lavin some credit for making the tough call as it would have been much easier just to put up with whatever Harrison was doing (assuming he isn’t in legal trouble) and finish out the season with a potential NCAA Tournament trip on the line. On top of that there is always the risk that this move will help push Harrison out the door at St. John’s whether that is to another school or (a dumb) decision to enter the NBA Draft.
The University of San Diego bribery case appears to be nearing an end (at least for those of us concerned with the basketball aspect) as the school’s all-time leading scorer, Brandon Johnson, was sentenced to six months in prison for his role in the scandal. Johnson was charged with fixing four games, but continues to deny everything except that he unsuccessfully tried to recruit another player to throw games despite the fact that the FBI has a recorded conversation where Johnson stated he wished he had thrown every game and even offered to throw a NBA Developmental League game. Johnson will begin serving the sentence on May 31 after being granted a delay in sentencing so he could finish out the rest of his season as a youth league coach in Houston. Johnson says he hopes to play professional basketball again at some point, but given the evidence against him we cannot imagine any league taking him with his background.
It seems like we will never be rid of the seemingly constant conference realignment storylines and the latest one is a pretty big one–the group formerly known as the “Catholic 7″ is looking to keep the Big East name and expected to add Xavier and Butler this coming season. The move would be a swift change from what had previously been reported and would likely mean that Notre Dame might also join the ACC this summer instead of for the 2014-15 season as previously expected. As for the Catholic 7/9 or Big East or whatever moniker they are going by these days is expected to add Creighton the following year and possibly also Dayton and St. Louis. While these changes would trigger some early exit fees the reported cost is far from the staggering sums that some conferences had sought from departing members.
One of the more contentious points of debate between the advanced metric community and the old guard is that of luck. Led by Ken Pomeroy the advanced metric community has long advocated that a team’s ability to win close games is primarily dictated by luck while the old guard believes that this is a learned skill. As you might expect Pomeroy decided to take a look at the data and found that a team’s ability to win a close game is essentially a coin flip no matter what their prior record in close games is. With the old guard being what it is we are not sure that they will believe the numbers, but hopefully they will at least look at them.
In an effort to make sure that they have actual classes for the courses that students are enrolled in North Carolina has begun conducting “surprise inspections” to verify that the classes actually exist. While this may seem absurd at first glance (ok, it is just absurd) this is the school’s attempt to try to not be embarrassed when an outside review team comes this spring to assess whether the school has made any improvements since its academic scandal. The fact that the school has had to resort to literally walking by classes and looking through the window to make sure that there are students being taught by an instructor is a good indication of how pathetic the school has been made to look by the academic scandal. As the article notes many of the instructors have expressed their distaste for the practice and how they are being affected by what they call an athletic department issue even if the school continues to insist it was not confined to just the athletic department.
The NCAA executive committee may have given Mark Emmert a vote of confidence last week, but that doesn’t mean that its members do not think that the organization does not need some changes. Michigan State president (and NCAA executive committee chairwoman) Lou Anna K. Simon came out yesterday and said “there is an embedded culture and set of processes and approaches that need to be changed.” We remain skeptical as to whether the NCAA will make any meaningful changes without the threat of a lawsuit in front of them, but it is refreshing to see someone within the organization exhibiting at least a modicum of introspection.
Proving that it doesn’t always take two years for them to conduct an inquiry the NCAA is set to release the outcome of its investigation into Saint Mary’s recruitment of foreign players later today. As investigations have gone this has been one of the lower profile ones we have seen as we have heard very little about it since it was first announced. Still there is a possibility that the NCAA could hand down some potentially damaging sanctions, which might even have an effect on this season for the Gaels. The timing of the announcement is interesting for the school as they have quietly put together a strong case for an at-large bid. Given what we have heard about the case, which is admittedly not much compared to the higher profile cases that have dominated the news, we would be surprised if this affected this year’s postseason, but with the NCAA you never know.
The Weekend’s Lede. Reining in the Last Weekend of February. The end of two prized college basketball traditions came to pass this weekend. ESPN’s annual Bracketbusters event saw its last go-round feature a slate that, frankly, didn’t meet the occasion of the event’s last rendition. Meanwhile, a decades-old Big East feud between Georgetown and Syracuse came to a close, and unlike the mediocre Bracketbusters field, the game was a fitting send-off for one of the nation’s best rivalries. Those two events headlined another excellent weekend schedule, the rest of which included (per the usual) a massive upset, some grueling league match-ups and all kinds of bubble and seeding implications sprinkled throughout.
Your Watercooler Moment. Miami Goes Down.
The notion of Miami going undefeated in the ACC always felt like a distant, almost untenable concept. The Hurricanes are, at the risk of paint a bleak picture, a basketball non-entity. They play in front of an apathetic fan base at a “football school,” in a city with fans that are — let’s just say -– selective about going to see their teams play. Neither me, nor most of the nation’s best college hoops minds, knew exactly what to think. Miami was good, sure, but how good?
Until Saturday’s loss at Wake Forest, Miami’s first in ACC play, the answer was unambiguously glowing: Miami was good enough to run the table, despite everyone’s early-conference season doubts. The Hurricanes were storming through league competition, barely breaking a sweat while doing it and slowly but surely grasping the country’s attention as they rose up the AP Poll and surfaced as a favorite to land a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The praise was well-earned; this team can really play. Not only do they have spiffy efficiency numbers to back up the results – which include a 27-point drubbing of Duke and wins over NC State and UNC – they also have the experience and senior leadership to complete the intangible component of a legitimate Final Four candidate. It’s never fun to be the subject of another team’s court storming, nor is it comforting to have your undefeated conference run come courtesy of one of the nation’s worst Power Six schools (Yes, Wake plays teams tough at home, but come on: these squads aren’t in the same league). But if you began the weekend pleasantly impressed and optimistic about Miami’s chances of making a deep March run this season, I don’t know why you’d lose faith now. Miami lost, and it didn’t look particularly good in recent games against Clemson and North Carolina, but does one game negate a 13-0 ACC start, a top-10 efficiency profile and a senior-laden team armed with the sideline guile of March-savvy coach? No, it doesn’t.
Also Worth Chatting About. Hoyas Soil Storybook Big East Exit.
Wins don’t get any bigger than Georgetown’s Saturday at the Carrier Dome at the Carrier Dome. (Getty)
All the elements of a ceremonial Syracuse smackdown were present. A raging pack of 35,000 + orange-clad maniacs, an eligible and re-ingratiated James Southerland, the jersey-hanging commemoration of one of the best players in program history (Carmelo Anthony). Saturday, at the Carrier Dome, this was about the Orange, about Jim Boeheim, about punishing a rival one very last time. Otto Porter and the victorious Georgetown Hoyas were having none of it. A defensive battle, as expected, stayed tight deep into the second half. Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone frustrated the Hoyas all afternoon, and Georgetown countered with smothering defense of their own. The deciding factor was Porter. In a game where points, assists and general offensive execution was hard to come by, Porter rose to the occasion in an impossibly tough road environment (before Saturday, Syracuse hadn’t lost at the Carrier Dome in 38 games, the nation’s longest streak). And so after a bumpy opening in conference play, and all the usual Hoyas-centric questions about season-long endurance being raised, Georgetown has rendered moot a once debatable subject: who’s playing the best basketball in the Big East these days? Georgetown is the only answer.
Saturday’s BracketBusters match-up between St. Mary’s and Creighton was billed as a statement game between excellent mid-majors looking to bolster their at-large resumes, but by halftime, it had quickly become a story of two teams headed in seemingly opposite directions. The Gaels got off to a quick start and led by as many as 17 as they coasted to a 74-66 win that was never as close as the score indicated. The win was the 13th in 15 games for St. Mary’s, who has only lost to Gonzaga (twice) since the start of the new year meanwhile it was the fourth loss in six games for the Bluejays, who have squandered a hot start and now find themselves squarely on the bubble for an at-large bid.
The nation’s ninth-most efficient offense was operating on all cylinders in the first half as St. Mary’s used a litany of ball screens to find easy looks underneath and got a huge game from sophomore center Brad Waldow who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. But the real reason they were able to win so easily was because of their effort on the other side of the ball. It’s no secret that Creighton’s offense runs through their star forward Doug McDermott and the Gaels made sure to pay close attention to where he was on the floor at all times, rotating a host of physical defenders on him and forcing him to play mostly with his back to the basket.
Brad Waldow tallied his first double-double of the season in an important victory for St. Mary’s (Gaels Athletics)
The National Player of the Year candidate still finished with 22 points, but just nine of those points came in the second half and McDermott became visibly frustrated at times as he jostled with Waldow and fellow forward Mitchell Young for position. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Then There Was One: Gonzaga romped past its most challenging week in WCC play, throttling Saint Mary’s, 77-60, and holding off San Francisco, 71-61, and left little drama for the remainder of the conference season. The Zags have a moderately difficult game in Provo on February 28 against BYU, following what should be two routine wins at home against Santa Clara and San Diego, and one could make a case that BYU will be desperate for a season-saving win. Even if BYU pulls off the upset, however, it will be too late to do the Zags any harm, either to their conference standing or their national reputation. The win over Saint Mary’s gave them an effective two-game lead (the Zags have a final game on March 2 against barely-competitive Portland to bring their conference record in line with Saint Mary’s), and it would take a monumental collapse to overcome that. Not going to happen.
Kelly Olynyk was his usual dominant self against the Gaels. (USA Today)
Although it ended in anti-climax with the Zags outscoring the Gaels 21-8 over the last six minutes after Saint Mary’s pulled to within four at 56-52 on a Matthew Dellavedova three-pointer, the Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga contest was not without its drama. For one thing the setting was college basketball tension at its best, with a packed and fevered McKeon Pavilion urging on the Gaels. As Saint Mary’s fought back from an early deficit behind Dellavedova’s 19 first-half points, the building seemed about to explode when Jordan Guisti’s three-pointer gave Saint Mary’s its first lead, 33-30, with less than two seconds left in the half. It would have made an interesting scientific experiment: How much noise can a crowd of some 3,500 crammed into a smallish gymnasium create? There was no personal conversation possible, just a wall of ear-thumping sound reverberating in the building.
The Gaels would take a one-point lead into the break after two Kevin Pangos free throws, but in the end it was too much Kelly Olynyk, whose 17 points and seven rebounds do not adequately describe his dominance. Olynyk had his hands on seemingly every rebound, batted ball and misdirected pass in the game, keeping offensive sets alive, disrupting passing lanes and scoring when necessary. He was, literally, larger than life in Moraga and that meant death for the Gaels and their chances of defending their WCC championship of a year ago.
Gonzaga (12-0, 25-2): The Zags will be forgiven if they were watching for the two national polls on Monday, as they had a chance to move up in both the AP and USA Today/Coaches Polls. They did move up on AP, from five to three, but held at three in the USA Today poll. All of college basketball was watching the Saint Mary’s game to judge the Zags in a difficult situation, and their performance should have removed all doubts. Read the rest of this entry »
Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), an Oregon-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.
The Golden Bears stormed Tucson on Sunday and came out on the better half of a 77-67 game, with special thanks to the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Allen Crabbe, who poured in 31 points. With 15 points in the first half, Crabbe came up strong again Thursday night as Cal dismantled UCLA in Berkeley to keep its undefeated record at home in Pac-12 play. Despite a four-loss non-conference schedule, the Bears have managed to play themselves back into the discussion for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Not bad considering that they were 3-4 fewer than three weeks ago.
Allen Crabbe had a week to remember. (Icon SMI)
(Related winners: Crabbe, who combined for 57 points in the two games; Oregon, which regained the conference lead it lost after a three-game losing streak including a loss to Cal. Related losers: Arizona – see below.)
After a foot injury to Oregon point guard Dominic Artis derailed the Ducks and led to a three-game losing streak and a gift of the Pac-12 lead to the Wildcats, they decided to give it right back with a pair of bad losses, stumbling at home to Cal before losing the return game against Colorado a month after a controversial buzzer-beater was disallowed and Arizona rolled in overtime to stay undefeated at the time. This time, the Buffaloes left no doubt about who would win, cruising to a 71-58 win. The Wildcats shot at an even 40 percent clip over the week, while Cal shot 59 percent and Colorado 50 percent. So much for having control over the conference.