Bracket Prep: Buffalo, Stephen F. Austin & Eastern Washington

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2015

Let’s finish off the Bracket Prep series with our reviews of each of the weekend mid-major automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket. Here’s a primer on each of the most recent bid winners. The entire series can be found here.

Buffalo

Buffalo is going dancing for the first time in school history. (Ken Blaze, Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Buffalo is going dancing for the first time in school history. (Ken Blaze, Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

  • MAC Champion (23-9, 12-6)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #28/#54/#59
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +8.4
  • NCAA Seed: #12

Strength: Buffalo has some serious offensive weapons and tends to set them free. The Bulls were the most uptempo offense in the MAC this season, using just 17.4 seconds per possession and attacking the basket at every turn; 76 percent of their points came from inside the arc or at the free throw line. Part of that emphasis can be attributed to the presence of Justin Moss (17.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the 6’7” forward who won MAC Player of the Year. His ability to both run the floor and dominate on the low-block – along with a stable of talented, attacking guards like Shannon Evans (15.3 PPG, 4.7 APG) and Lamonte Bearden (8.2 PPG) – makes Bobby Hurley’s group tough to stop on that end of the court. The MAC champs are pretty solid on the other end, too, holding opponents to under a point per possession on the season. Keep an eye on Moss, though – the junior was limited during the league tournament because of an ankle injury.

Weakness: Outside of its so-so perimeter shooting (34% 3FG), Buffalo does not have too many glaring weaknesses – at least not by the numbers. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. There was a three-game stretch during February in which the Bulls were bludgeoned on the defensive end, including a home loss to Toledo where the Rockets shot 86 percent from behind the arc and scored 1.3 points per possession. And for a team that shoots a healthy 72.2 percent from the stripe, Buffalo’s late-game free throw shooting in both MAC Tournament victories over the weekend was not very good. Whether these inconsistencies have to do with their youthful backcourt, lulls in energy, or something else, I’m not sure. But they can’t afford similar lapses this week.

Key player: Xavier Ford (9.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG). Moss is absolutely crucial and his health should be closely monitored as the week progresses, but assuming he’s good to go, another guy to keep your eye on is Ford. The 6’7” senior’s length and athleticism gives Hurley an added dimension on the offensive end – a slasher able to get to the rim (and rebound effectively) – as well as a defender who can guard the type of athletic scorers his team will probably see next week.

Outlook: Buffalo led both Kentucky and Wisconsin at halftime this season, which says a thing or two about its overall ability. As long as Moss is healthy and able to go, the Bulls are more than capable of keeping pace with West Virginia, especially considering their #12 seed line. Hurley’s bunch is talented, fiery and could end up playing on the back-half of the weekend.

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Conference Tourney Primers: Big Sky

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2015

We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.

Big Sky Tournament

Dates: March 12-14

Site: Dahlberg Arena (Missoula, MT)

skyrl

What to expect: Montana clinched the top seed and earned the right to play in its own building, which is bad news for everyone else; the tournament host has won this event five years running. But the Big Sky is also more competitive than it has been in years, with Eastern Washington (co-champions), Sacramento State and Northern Arizona all finishing tied or within a game of the Grizzlies. The Eagles, which snapped Indiana’s 43-game non-conference home winning streak in November, are an especially dangerous team – lethal from behind the arc and proven on the road. Jim Hayford’s bunch was the only Big Sky unit to win in Missoula this season. In reality, the conference race became so unpredictable towards the end of the year that it’s hard to give an advantage to any one contender outside of Montana’s obvious home-court edge.

Favorite: Montana. Montana won eight of its last nine games to end the regular season and now welcomes its Big Sky comrades to Dahlberg Area, where it was 8-1 in conference play. The Grizzlies parlayed home-court advantage into a pair NCAA Tournament appearances in both 2012 and 2013, and while this year’s group might not be as good as those teams, it’s hard to argue with history – especially in a league where home teams went 66-42 in 2014-15.

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O26 Midseason Awards: Jeff Jones, Kyle Collinsworth, 10 All-Americans…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 8th, 2015

With conference play having begun in most leagues across the country, it‘s time now to pass out some midseason superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next couple months.

O26 Midseason Coach of the Year

Jeff Jones has done a masterful job at Old Dominion. (Courtesy: Rick Voight)

Jeff Jones has done a masterful job at Old Dominion. (Courtesy: Rick Voight)

Jeff Jones – Old Dominion. The Old Dominion basketball program took a sharp turn in 2013 when – after more than a decade of sustained success – the school fired its longtime coach, Blaine Taylor, during a 5-25 campaign in which the coach’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. In came Jones after spending 13 seasons at American, and immediately things turned around as the Monarchs went 18-18 last season and reached the CBI semifinals. But perhaps even the most optimistic Old Dominion fan couldn’t have envisioned how quickly the team would go from the dregs of the CAA to the cream of Conference USA; at 12-1 with wins over LSU, VCU, Georgia State and Richmond, the Monarchs have cracked the Top 25 and should be in the at-large discussion by season’s end. How has Jones orchestrated such a sharp turnaround? Campbell transfer Trey Freeman has helped. The 6’2’’ point guard paces the team with 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per contest, with Jones calling him “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached” after the team’s victory over LSU in November. The success has been the result of more than just Freeman, though, as the Monarchs have thoroughly bought into Jones’ system, predicated on patient offense and tough man-to-man defense – the latter of which has held opponents to 0.91 points per possession so far, the best mark in C-USA. Likewise, Jones deserves credit for his ability to seamlessly integrate both Freeman and George Mason transfer Jonathan Arledge into a deep cohort of returnees. The head man said in an interview recently (regarding his first year at the program), “We just needed to make people understand it would take some hard work [and] it would take some time, but we were going to just try to be as patient as we could moving forward.” “Time” and “patience,” sure, but it’s taken not even two full seasons for Jones to completely revamp and re-energize things in Norfolk; and for that, he earns our Midseason Coach of the Year honors.

Honorable Mentions: Ben Jacobson – Northern Iowa; Bob McKillop – Davidson; Porter Moser – Loyola (IL); Keno Davis – Central Michigan; Mark Few – Gonzaga; Eddie Payne – USC Upstate

O26 Midseason Player of the Year

BYU's versatile point guard is our O26 Mid-Season POY. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

BYU’s versatile point guard is our O26 Mid-Season POY. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Kyle Collinsworth – BYU. It feels a little weird deeming Collinsworth O26 Midseason Player of the Year when his teammate, Tyler Haws, is college basketball’s third-leading scorer. But remember how BYU looked last March without Collinsworth after he went down with a torn ACL? The Cougars were crushed by Oregon in what should have been a competitive #7/#10 NCAA Tournament match-up. The point guard’s versatility, defense and toughness – not to mention eye-popping numbers, which we’ll get to in a moment – make Collinsworth the glue that holds BYU together and the player worthy of our midseason honor. “He is a really effective player in so many different areas of the game,” head coach Dave Rose said recently. At 6’6’’, there are few players (perhaps no player) who do what Collinsworth does: Not only is he the facilitator for the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense, but he also serves as BYU’s best rebounder and defender, leading the team in assists, rebounds and steals. At this point, the junior’s impressive across-the-board averages (13.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG) are overshadowed only by his record-setting triple-double pace. With three already under his belt, Collinsworth needs just one to tie and two more to break the single-season NCAA mark. That all-around ability has allowed Rose to utilize a four-guard lineup in recent weeks, a move that’s enabled BYU to hit its stride just as WCC play heats up – evidenced by the team’s 99-68 drubbing of San Francisco on Saturday. “Kyle’s a big reason because he can rebound as well as any guard in the country. To have him on the floor, you have a guard that’s a great rebounder,” Rose noted. With Collinsworth healthy and playing at an incredibly high level, the Cougars should return to the Big Dance this March.

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We’re #351! Southern Utah Keeps Hope High in Trying Season

Posted by Kenny Ocker on January 24th, 2014

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a national columnist for Rush The Court. He filed this article Thursday night after Southern Utah and Eastern Washington played at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Jumpers snap through the net. Thunderous dunks shake the basket and stanchion. Crisp passes fly around the court, sometimes two or three at a time. Laughter accompanies the occasional goofy or errant shot. The Southern Utah Thunderbirds are loose, just in time for tip-off. You’d never know the team was riding a 14-game losing streak, or that they were the worst team in Division I in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

A Southern Utah player goes up for a slam dunk early in pregame warmups against Eastern Washington in Cheney, Wash. (Kenny Ocker/Rush The Court)

A Southern Utah player goes up for a slam dunk early in pregame warmups against Eastern Washington in Cheney, Wash. (Kenny Ocker/Rush The Court)

“Yesterday is history,” that’s what Thunderbirds coach Nick Robinson said Thursday morning as an evening tip-off against the Eastern Washington Eagles in Cheney, Washington, awaited his team. “There’s nothing you can do about it, whether it’s practice or a game, and you have to focus on what’s going on right now. We try to send that message to our team constantly.” That’s a tall order when your team struggles to hit 35 percent of the shots it takes, when opposing teams hit 50 percent of the shots they take against you, when you turn the ball over one out of each five possessions. But Robinson has his team’s attention, regardless of their 0-14 record against Division I schools. Keeping his players engaged is paramount; there might not be a Division I team with less experience than the Thunderbirds’ 10 combined seasons among their 13 players.

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