For Villanova and VCU, Handling the Ghost of Seasons Past

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on November 25th, 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. Joe filed this report after Villanova’s 77-53 victory over VCU Monday evening.

When Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth faced off in the first round of the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last night, a trail of questions about these two dynamic teams followed them onto the court. Both had great success last season, winning their respective conference regular season titles while compiling a combined record of 55-14 (Villanova was 29-5 while VCU was 26-9) but each saw their seasons expire with a sigh that betrayed what they had worked for. VCU had run up a 24-7 record even before the conference tournament, securing no worse than an at-large place in the NCAA field as the Atlantic 10 Conference garnered a record-breaking six bids. They burned through Richmond and NCAA-worthy George Washington by 20 points apiece before bowing to a senior-heavy Saint Joseph’s squad, 65-61. But it was the two-point loss to Stephen F. Austin (77-75) that stung. Had HAVOC run its course? If the defensive turnover machine of seasons past could not produce, the Rams’ open court offense was reduced to their half court set which yielded far fewer points (and possessions). Like Gonzaga, Butler and George Mason before them, the Rams were no longer the hunters, they had become the hunted.

Will Shaka Smart Be Interested In The Open Position In Westwood? (US Presswire)

Smart’s club started off well, but tailed off against an equally talented Villanova squad in Brooklyn. (US Presswire)

In “the old” Big East a 28-3 regular season record capped with a 16-2 conference record would have heralded the Wildcats as an elite team and Final Four contender even before the conference tournament. For Villanova and “the new” Big East however, double-figure losses to Syracuse and Creighton (twice) appeared to undermine the Wildcats’ — and the Big East’s — attempts to write a new chapter. Villanova dropped their first round conference tournament game to Seton Hall (64-63), secured a #2 seed in the NCAAs, then dropped their second round game to former conference mate Connecticut (77-63). The Big East garnered four bids and no conference team made it to the Sweet Sixteen. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tremendous Guard Play Masks VCU’s Interior Weakness

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 19th, 2014

This year’s VCU team is considered Shaka Smart‘s best squad since he took the reins in Richmond some five years ago. The return of the majority of last year’s team coupled with three top-100 recruits helped the Rams to a #15 ranking in the preseason AP poll, the team’s second consecutive such honor. After two wins in its first two games of the season, it’s clear that there is a lot of talent on this roster. But there is also a glaring question shadowing the team: Can the Rams consistently win without offensive production in the post?

Alie-Cox and his fellow post players need to add offense to their defensive contributions (AP)

Mo Alie-Cox and his fellow post players need to add some offense to their defensive contributions (Associated Press)

The season’s first two contests — a convincing win over Tennessee and last night’s thrilling victory over Toledo — demonstrated more of what everyone has come to expect from VCU. The Havoc defense creates all kinds of problems for opposing offenses, and the Rams have a number of players who can hit the open three-pointer. In those two contests, the Rams have already created 40 turnovers and knocked down 20 threes. What’s different about this season’s team is that they lack a skilled big man who can provide a credible offensive threat on the interior. Juvonte Reddic and his 12 points per game are gone to graduation, and the players filling in for him have done little thus far to make up for his production.

Mo Alie-Cox is the sole big man in the starting rotation, and he has contributed only nine points through two games. Jarred Guest, Justin Tillman and Michael Gilmore have combined for 12 points as the frontcourt reserves. While all of these players have excellent potential, they too come with limitations. Alie-Cox is a brute force inside, but he stands at only 6’6″ and has a limited offensive skill set, making it difficult for him to match up against true centers. Guest is a senior but is still too lithe to bang with big bodies inside and often finds himself in foul trouble. Gilmore and Tillman are both freshmen, clearly learning their roles on the offensive side of the ball. The result so far has been a team living off the long ball and dribble penetration from its guards.

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Atlantic 10 Season Preview

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on November 17th, 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.

Looking Back

The schools in the Atlantic 10 broke a conference record by sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament last March. Although the seeds fell in a narrow range from #5 (Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis) to #11 (Dayton), the A-10 drew one bid fewer than the Big 12 (seven), tied the Big Ten and Pac-12 (six each), while outdrawing the American (four), the Big East (four) and the SEC (three). What a way to end a season that began with hand-wringing over the departures of Charlotte, Temple and Xavier. Although the conference standard-bearers Saint Louis and VCU did not survive the first weekend (VCU went from the hunter to the hunted, falling to Stephen F. Austin in an overtime Round of 64 game) and A-10 Tournament Champion Saint Joseph’s fell to eventual National Champion Connecticut, Dayton did advance to the Elite Eight before falling to Florida, 62-52.

Will Shaka Smart Be Interested In The Open Position In Westwood? (US Presswire)

It was a great year for Shaka Smart, VCU, and the rest of the A10 last season. (US Presswire)

Rumors swirling around the Barclays Center during the Atlantic 10 Tournament had the A-10 in negotiations with Barclays and the Atlantic Coast Conference over access to the venue for their 2017 conference tournament. The conference had Barclays locked up through 2017, but the ACC (with ESPN’s backing) wanted a New York City venue for its 2017 and 2018 conference tournaments. The A-10 eventually agreed to relocate its tournament site for the 2017 (Pittsburgh’s Consol Center) and 2018 (Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center) seasons in exchange for an extension at the Barclays for the 2019-21 seasons and a commitment for three conference double-headers to be staged annually there in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 Intrigue: Eight Storylines on Opening Weekend…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine & Adam Stillman on November 14th, 2014

Basketball is nearly upon us! Here are eight O26 storylines to keep an eye on during the opening weekend of hoops:

Does VCU seize the opportunity against Tennessee without Briante Weber?

VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min / Times Dispatch)

VCU will have to attack Tennessee without Briante Weber. (Daniel Sangjib Min/Times Dispatch)

The Rams should be one of the better teams in the country this season, and they will have several marquee opportunities to prove it before the calendar flips to 2015 – opportunities not only to justify their top-15 ranking, but also to better position themselves come Selection Sunday. The first of those chances will be tonight against Tennessee in the Veterans Classic in Annapolis. The fact that the Vols, a decent-but-not great SEC squad, have serious questions at point guard would normally be good news for VCU and its disruptive pressure defense. But without Briante Weber in the lineup – the senior guard is serving a one-game suspension – the Rams are down their peskiest defender and a guy who’s on track to break the NCAA’s all-time steals record. HAVOC will press on (literally), but keep an eye on whether Weber’s absence enables Tennessee to limit its turnovers, make this more of a half-court game, and minimize VCU’s easy transition buckets. The last thing Shaka Smart’s group wants is to drop a nationally-televised opener (6:30 PM ET, CBSSN) against a beatable power-conference opponent. Read the rest of this entry »

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Welcome Back, College Basketball

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 14th, 2014

At 8:00 AM local time today in Cheney, Washington, it will happen. A man will throw a basketball into the air, two other men will jump for it, and a new college basketball season will commence. Texas Southern and Eastern Washington will play a college basketball game that will almost definitely mean nothing, but they will be playing a college basketball game. Midnight Madness was fun and exhibition games offered a pleasant tease, but they’ll never leave you fully satisfied. It’s possible that a SWAC/Big Sky battle might also leave you wanting more, but that’s the beauty of today and beyond — more is on the way.

For The First Time Since This Moment On April 7, College Basketball Will Be In-Season

For The First Time Since This Moment On April 7, College Basketball Will Be In-Season (AP)

Shortly after things kick off in the Evergreen State, familiar faces – and familiar fun — will begin popping up all over the country. Shaka Smart and the gang will resume their HAVOC-wreaking ways in Annapolis against Tennessee. Duke can be found on an ESPN network (versus Presbyterian), while ACC rival Virginia will look to suffocate an intrastate foe (James Madison). National Player of the Year candidates will begin their campaigns: Marcus Paige in Chapel Hill (against North Carolina Central), Frank Kaminsky in Madison (versus Northern Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor in Durham. The game of the day features as many likely NCAA Tournament teams (2) as it does coaches with the last name Pitino, which I’ve heard is a fairly familiar surname in college basketball circles. It’s a beautifully inverted hibernation that begins anew today, as dozens more teams, coaches and players reappear for their winter stay in the collective eye of the nation.

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Top of the O26 Class: A-10, A-Sun, Big South, Colonial, MEAC & SoCon

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 30th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeastern region of the U.S: the Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Colonial, MEAC and Southern Conference. Previous installments include the Northeast region leagues and the Midwest region conferences.

Top Units

Which mid-major will make the most noise this season? in Rush the Court's Polls on LockerDome

Atlantic 10

  • VCU – 2013-14 record: 26-9 (12-4). Shaka Smart has led VCU to four straight NCAA Tournaments including a Final Four run in 2011, and yet this might be his most talented bunch to date. Perhaps his most highly motivated, too. After suffering a bitter, never-should-have-happened defeat to Stephen F. Austin in the Round of 64 last March, preseason all-conference picks Treveon Graham and Briante Weber return, along with several other key pieces and Smart’s best recruiting class. Graham, a 6’6″ forward, is poised to break the school scoring record this season, while the quick-handed Weber looks to build on the career steals mark he already shattered – it’s like the guy was built for HAVOC. The presence of forward Mo Alie-Cox, backcourt contributors JeQuan Lewis and Melvin Johnson, and a trio of heralded freshmen – including four-star Terry Larrier – makes this team more than ready for a tough non-conference slate. Expect a bunch of wins, an A-10 title and big things come March.
VCU is loaded with talent this season. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

VCU is loaded with talent this season. (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Dayton – 2013-14 record: 26-11 (10-6). Last year’s Cinderella should be top-three good in the A-10, but it may need some time to rediscover the magic. Gone is Dayton’s best all-around player, Devin Oliver, its most important big man, Matt Kavanaugh, and two productive guards. Luckily, Archie Miller’s tendency to use a deep rotation last season – 10 to 12 guys a game – should pay off; this year’s newly-anointed starters all saw quality minutes in 2013-14. Among them will be Scoochie Smith, who steps in as starting point guard following the transfer of Khari Price. Smith’s ability to open up the offense, along with the continued emergence of forwards Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott, will be important factors. Dyshawn Pierre and sharpshooter Jordan Sibert should lead the way, but it is the (probably large) supporting cast that will determine the Flyers’ ceiling.

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Previewing the Atlantic 10 Tournament

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on March 12th, 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.

Everything’s Gonna Be OK

The unasked question at Media Day last October was how the conference would fare without Temple and Xavier (not to mention Charlotte and Butler). In the 17 seasons since John Calipari left Massachusetts, the Owls or the Musketeers won (or shared in) 10 conference regular season titles, won eight conference tournaments, collected 25 of the 56 NCAA bids, and represented with at least one entrant in all but a single postseason (2005). Their last season in the league had more whimper than bang, so the remaining 13 members have to build their future without the name recognition and traditions that those programs contributed to the whole. If this season is the foretelling of things to come, though, the A-10 will be in great shape over the long run. Stellar non-conference play by George Washington, Massachusetts and Dayton, along with strong showings from Virginia Commonwealth (albeit disappointing by preview standards) and Saint Louis have put the conference in a no-man’s land between the basketball-first conferences (the West Coast, the Missouri Valley, C-USA and Mountain West) and the conferences that sit atop Division I. Whether the chosen metric is the RPI (ranked #6), Ken Pomeroy (ranked #8), Sagarin (ranked #8) or Dunkel (ranked #8), the Atlantic 10 is clearly positioned closer to the elite conferences than the other 25. Anticipating between four and six NCAA bids, the conference is about to kick off the second edition of its tournament at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and ready for the limelight.

With a bevy of quality coaches, including Shaka Smart and Jim Crews, the A-10 is trending upward.

With a bevy of quality coaches, including Shaka Smart and Jim Crews, the A-10 is trending upward.

Four, Five… or Six?

The consensus of season previews anticipated that Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis and Massachusetts would catch the Selection Committee’s attention, but by the eve of conference play, two more — Dayton (12-3) and George Washington (12-2) — had joined them to assemble a group that potentially could equal last season’s record five bids (matched twice before). Massachusetts and Dayton faltered in conference play, but the Minutemen were secure enough by mid-January that the slippage has translated into a #7 seed line this week. A 1-5 start put Dayton out of the field of 68, but a 6-1 February followed by a 3-0 (so far) March has moved Archie Miller’s squad back into the conversation as a possible First Four (#12 seed) candidate. As for VCU (#8), St. Louis (#6) and GW (#8), all appear to be secure enough that an early round exit from the conference tournament should not jeopardize their NCAA bids. St. Joseph’s, despite a mediocre 9-4 (eventually 10-4) non-conference record, compiled an 11-3 A-10 record and appeared to be squarely in the field. An 0-2 closing put the Joe’s at 11-5 and back into a possible round one game in Dayton. The Hawks will need a win or two this week to bolster their resume.

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VCU Likely Crushes Richmond’s NCAA Dreams, Bolsters Hopes of March Success

Posted by Lathan Wellls on March 7th, 2014

VCU continued to put thoughts of their three-losses-in-four-games stretch to rest Thursday night, vanquishing their city rivals from Richmond, 56-50. While the depleted Spiders didn’t appear on paper to have the manpower to match up with a Rams squad fresh off an upset of Saint Louis, it was still a rivalry game in which anything can and did happen. Richmond’s 26-22 halftime edge and 11-point lead with 15 minutes to go was enough to prove that. Still, the comeback win was encouraging and important for VCU’s push into March, and also emblematic of the reason Shaka Smart’s club becomes so dangerous come tourney time. A look into Smart’s numbers away from home and against familiar opponents while at the helm demonstrates why opponents hate to meet the Rams late in the year, no matter the game’s location.

Coach Smart's team is ridiculously successful in "return games," boding well for conference tournament play (sportsillustrated.com)

Coach Smart’s team is ridiculously successful in “return games,” boding well for conference tournament play (sportsillustrated.com)

Everyone knows about the well-documented defense that VCU employs. The attacking Havoc style has been alive and well all year long, as the Rams currently rank third in the Atlantic 10 in defense (allowing 66.0 PPG coming into the match-up with Richmond) and lead the nation in turnovers forced. The key to this team’s success, though, is in its balance. VCU also ranks second in the conference in scoring, making it the only team in the A-10 that can boast top-three rankings in both statistical categories. That means the Rams can hound their opponents to death with the full-court press, but also boast five starters averaging at least nine points per game. While Richmond’s formidable match-up zone defense had its way with Smart’s offense for the bulk of the game and there was a definite lack of impact from the bench, the frenetic pace the Rams employ and the variety of scoring options at their disposal proved vital in the second half and illustrated why they’re a scary team to meet late in the year.

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O26 Game of the Week: Saint Louis-VCU Pt. II, Iona-Manhattan & More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 27th, 2014

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.

Saint Louis (25-2) at Virginia Commonwealth (20-7) – 6:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Yes, this was our Game of the Week just two short weeks ago and yes, the Billikens all-but-clinched the Atlantic 10 crown by winning on their home floor. So why does the second iteration once again headline the week? Well, for one thing, it was a really good basketball game the first time around. Saint Louis held serve in Chaifetz Arena, sure, but not before VCU forced 17 turnovers and battled back from a double-figure deficit to make the final two minutes thrilling — it took a Rob Loe three-pointer with around 30 seconds left to ice it for the home team. And the defenses lived-up to their dominant billing, each limiting the opposing offense to well-under one point per possession on the afternoon. Even if you had tuned in for just five minutes of action, the high level of play and serious potential of both teams would have become quickly evident.

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris Lee)

The Billikens and Rams will battle in Richmond this time around. (Chris Lee, AP)

And that’s the overarching reason why Saturday’s tilt — this time in Richmond — is the main event in an already-loaded week; Saint Louis-VCU isn’t merely a marquee A-10 match-up, it’s a marquee national match-up. Everything at stake in a high-profile power-conference game is also at stake here: perception, NCAA Tournament profile, late-season momentum, bragging rights, and in the case of the Billikens, a very long winning streak. Jim Crews’ bunch has reeled off 19 straight victories over the course of three full months, last losing way back on December 1 to still-undefeated Wichita State. Shaka Smart’s group, meanwhile — fresh off a painfully-close road loss to UMass last Friday — has not dropped a home game in more than a year, obliterating visiting opponents this season by nearly 17 points per contest. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in Verizon Wireless Arena, and the basketball-watching public will be the beneficiary. KenPom has the home squad pegged as 62 percent favorites, which is to say, it’s more or less a toss-up. Tune in on Saturday — Round II should be great.

Four More to Watch

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Checking In On… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on February 19th, 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.

Another Look at A-10 Offensive and Defensive Efficiencies

St. Bonaventure and the inversion of Saint Joseph’s and Richmond with George Washington and Massachusetts excepted, conference records and efficiency differences are lining up. If this seems too early for this “alignment,” do not worry, as a week of upsets can jumble the differentials and records quickly, as even 10 games is still too small a sample size. Given the unbalanced schedule, however, this may be the best available predictor out there.

Table01140219

The bottom four teams identified last week (Rhode Island, George Mason, Duquesne and Fordham) continue to drift away from the other conference members, even as Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth separate themselves from their conference mates. Another trend worth tracking are the defensive efficiencies and the winning percentages of individual teams. As the standard deviation suggests, there is a greater variability between the conference defensive efficiencies (points per 100 possessions allowed — 7.7) than between their offensive efficiencies (points scored per 100 possessions — 3.1). For the Atlantic 10 so far this season, defense is the barometer that predicts each team’s prospects.

Pomeroy projects UMass, George Washington, the Joe’s and Spiders will tie up third through sixth place with 10-8 records. The application of tie-breakers will be necessary to set the seeds for Brooklyn should the multiple ties come to pass. If we look at those four teams as a mini-conference, the “standings” against each other so far:

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Checking In On… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on February 12th, 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.

Looking Behind the Conference Win-Loss Records

The conference win-loss record hints at the overall dimensions of the conference race. Possession-based statistics can provide insight on how any of the teams developed their current standing. The sample is small, anomalies and outliers abound — the conference records and efficiency differences will not “behave” for another two-to-three weeks (if then). By comparing the record, the difference between a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), and their difference (offense – defense), along with the conference strength of schedule, we can understand more precisely where a team stands with respect to the conference race, and their prospects going forward.

Table01140212

The top four (Saint Louis, George Washington, VCU and Massachusetts) and the bottom four (Rhode Island, George Mason, Duquesne and Fordham) are clearly separated from the “middle six”, forming three basic tiers. A paradox or two jump out quickly: Saint Joseph’s -2.7 efficiency difference contradicts the Hawks’ 6-3 conference record as does St. Bonaventure’s +2.5 difference with a 3-6 record. Coach Phil Martelli’s squad suffered through double digit routs (versus Richmond and Saint Louis), while all three of the Bonnies conference wins (Richmond, La Salle and Massachusetts) were by double digits. While Saint Louis, GWU, Massachusetts and VCU are relatively secure in the NCAA field of 68 with seeds ranging from Joe Lunardi’s bracket (#5 seed — Saint Louis to #9 seed George Washington, four bids total), to Jerry Palm’s bracket (#6 seed — Saint Louis to a first round play-in #12 — Richmond, five bids total), to RTC’s Daniel Evans’ bracket (#7 seed — Saint Louis and Massachusetts to #9 seed George Washington, four bids) the consensus is about four+ bids with the mostly upper bracket seeds. Palm’s fifth bid — a right side of the bubble play-in seed for Richmond — hints that the conference could garner more than four bids.

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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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