Conference Tournament Primer: Horizon League

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 4th, 2014

Championship Fortnight is under way, and what better way to get you through the next two weeks of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s conference tournaments as they get started. Today, the Horizon League and Atlantic Sun tip things off.

Dates: March 4, 7, 8, 11
Site: First Round: Campus sites; Quarterfinals and Semifinals: Resch Center (Green Bay, WI); Championship: Campus site (higher-seeded team hosts)

Horizon

What to expect: Green Bay was far and away the best team in the regular season, amassing a 24-5 overall record and notching a high-profile non-conference victory over ACC regular season champion Virginia. Led by 7’1’’ center Alec Brown — an NBA prospect with an outside shot — and high-flying point guard Keifer Sykes, the Phoenix should take care of business on their home floor. Brian Wardle’s bunch has been playing some of its best basketball of the season since losing to Milwaukee in early February, securing four its final five wins on the road and dominating opponents by more than 15 points per contest. Still, watch out for Cleveland State and its lights-out three-point shooting — fourth-best in the country at 40.8 percent — as well as defending champion Valparaiso; the Crusaders took down Green Bay earlier in the year. The top seed stumbling at home is not unprecedented for this tournament, but seems unlikely this time around.

Favorite: Green Bay. The team is confident, talented and playing at home. Put simply, anything short of a championship would be hugely disappointing for the Phoenix.

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Missed Chances Leave AAC With Precious Few Quality Wins

Posted by CD Bradley on December 10th, 2013

The AAC has missed several opportunities for quality wins early in the season, which will increase the difficulty of getting four or five teams safely into the NCAA Tournament come March. As it is finals week for many schools, we get a bit of a breather at the one month mark before wrapping up most of the non-conference slate and opening league play over Christmas break. There are enough games left that team RPIs are still of little use as a comparison metric, but there is RPI value in examining where the conference stands relative to other leagues. After Monday’s lone AAC game, the league currently ranks ninth in conference RPI, with just the barest of leads over the West Coast Conference one spot behind.

Shabazz Napier's game winner over Florida gave the AAC one of its best wins in the season's first month. (AP)

Shabazz Napier’s game winner over Florida gave the AAC one of its best wins in the season’s first month. (AP)

“[T]here’s no question in my mind that six teams will come out of this league to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said at AAC Media Day in October – and he’s hardly the only coach who has overstated his conference’s prowess – but history suggests otherwise. Only once since 2000 has a conference ranked as low as ninth in the RPI sent even four teams to the tournament, but here’s the interesting part: Those four teams included Louisville and Cincinnati (along with UAB and Charlotte) from Conference USA in 2005, and Louisville made it to the Final Four that season.

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AAC Team Previews: Central Florida Knights

Posted by CD Bradley on November 4th, 2013

Our team preview style has been heavily cribbed from the microsite writers over in the Pac-12. We love them and assume they would take our attempt at loose imitation as flattery and not plagiarism. 

Central Florida

Strengths: Experience and flexibility. The Knights’ starting lineup is made up of five returnees, all of whom averaged at least 20 minutes per game for a 20-win team last season. Their best player, 6’6” Isaiah Sykes, led the team in scoring, assists and steals and was second in rebounding last season, and can play four positions. Their center by default, 6’7” Kasey Wilson, led Conference USA in three-point shooting last season, making 42-of-84 from long range. That versatility could cause match-up problems for some teams and put the Knights in numerous advantageous scoring positions.

Isaiah Sykes, the do-everything wing for Central Florida, will have to do even more this season. (ucfknights.com)

Isaiah Sykes, the do-everything wing for Central Florida, will have to do even more this season. (ucfknights.com)

Weaknesses: Defense and rebounding. Even with all the returning players, UCF has one big loss to overcome: center Keith Clanton, the school’s all-time leading rebounder, who pulled down nearly a quarter of the team’s rebounds last season and nearly half its blocks. But even with him, the team still allowed opponents to shoot 49.4 percent on two-point attempts (good for #239 in the country, according to KenPom.com) and to grab 33.1 percent of rebounds on the defensive end (#229 nationally). Without Clanton, a team that allowed foes to make too many close shots and rebound too many of the few they missed is going to have some major problems. Unless 6’8” JuCo star Eugene McCrory can make a big difference at the defensive end, the Knights don’t look to have many answers.

Schedule: The non-conference slate offers only one real opportunity for a marquee win, and it’s very early on when Florida State visits Orlando on November 13. Otherwise it’s possible the Knights won’t face another top 100 RPI team before conference play (although it’s not necessarily their fault that a road game at Miami (FL) the week before Thanksgiving won’t feature Shane Larkin). AAC play starts with a bang, with preseason favorite Louisville visiting Orlando on New Year’s Eve. The conference slate is front-loaded, though, as they close with at Houston, Rutgers, at SMU, at Temple and Houston.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan State 65, #14 Valparaiso 54

Posted by Will Tucker on March 21st, 2013

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Will Tucker is a RTC correspondent. Will is covering the Auburn Hills pod of the Midwest Region. You can also find him on Twitter @blrdswag.

 Denzel Valentine #45 of the Michigan State Spartans reacts in the first half against the Valparaiso Crusaders. (Getty)

Denzel Valentine of the Michigan State Spartans reacts in the first half against the Valparaiso Crusaders. (Getty)

Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Michigan State can make huge runs with its defense. The Spartans sleepwalked for the first 13 minutes, which underscored the sense that they don’t have elite offensive efficiency, but they do have the ability to make dramatic runs quickly with defense and the transition shooting of Gary Harris and Keith Appling.
  2. Gary Harris has the poise and temperament of an upperclassman. He struggled shooting the ball for most of the game and suffered a 14-minute shooting drought on either side of halftime. But Harris contributed in other ways, adding a game-high four assists and team-high two steals to accompany his 10 points and four rebounds. More importantly, he showed the patience and judgment of an upperclassman, and helped energize his team after a lethargic opening performance. Plus, the MSU crowd absolutely loves him. “Freshman of the year, right there!” a fan screamed proudly after the Big Ten FOY drained his second gorgeous three in the first half.
  3. Derrick Nix is going to be hard for anyone in the bottom half of the Midwest Region to stop after the way he played today. While Memphis has incredible athleticism at every position, they’ve shown vulnerabilities on the glass against big teams like Southern Miss. St. Mary’s presents a much tougher matchup with their depth and size in the front court, so Michigan State fans might be inclined to root for the Tigers to knock off the Gaels today.

Star of the GameDerrick Nix (23 points, 15 rebounds) was a man possessed against a team with decent size that entered today ranked #34 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. With nine offensive boards, he helped the Spartans build a +23 rebounding margin and score 14 second chance points.

Quotable. ”Not every player at this tournament gets to play in their home state. Make your state proud.” — Tom Izzo before the game.

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The Other 26: Bracket-Busting, East and Midwest Edition

Posted by IRenko on March 20th, 2013

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I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

This is part two of our TO26 bracket analysis, focusing on the 17 non-power-conference teams that populate the East and Midwest regions. The teams are grouped into five rough categories, and, within each category, they are ordered by their likelihood of advancing.  For our analysis of the South and West regions, see here.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

  • St. Louis (#4 Midwest) — The Bilikens are flying a bit under the radar, but this is a team that should be a favorite for a Sweet 16 run. They have one of the best defenses in the country, a group of experienced guards who can attack and shoot (Kwamain Mitchell, Mike McCall, Jordair Jett), a surprisingly effective post presence in Dwayne Evans, and a pair of pick-‘n-pop big men (Rob Loe, Cody Ellis) who can drain the three. It should be said, though, that the Bilikens’ draw is not necessarily ideal. A first-round game against New Mexico State presents some matchup quandaries (see below), as does a potential Third Round game against Oklahoma State — both teams are prepared to bang and grind with the Bilikens down low. Ultimately, I think the St. Louis’ defense is strong enough to get them to the Sweet 16, where their steady guard play gives them a non-trivial chance of knocking off the Cards.
Can Rotnei Clarke Lead Butler Back to the Final Four?

Can Rotnei Clarke Lead Butler Back to the Final Four?

  • Butler (#6, East) — Yes, they’re back. Neither Bucknell nor their potential Third Round opponent (Marquette or Davidson) will be an easy team to conquer, but all three of these teams will give Butler an important reprieve from its biggest vulnerability — a tendency to turn it over. Bucknell and Marquette will also play at the kind of grinding pace at which the Bulldogs excel. And they’ll focus their offense on the areas of the floor where Butler’s defense is strongest — the paint. Butler also has the shooters — Rotnei Clark, Kellen Dunham — to bombard Marquette’s compact defense and the rebounders to exploit Marquette’s weakness on the glass. If anything, Bucknell may pose a bigger matchup problem, as they tend to chase teams off the three-point line and they don’t give up much on the offensive glass. The Bison will be a tough opponent, but when you look at Butler’s pod as a whole, a Sweet 16 run looks well within reach.

One and Done

These teams have at least a 50/50 (or better) chance of picking up a win, but are unlikely to get two.

  • Colorado State (#8, Midwest) – I would actually bump the Rams up to the tail end of the “Regional Threats” group if not for the uncertain status of starting point guard Dorian Green. The team’s unquestioned floor general, Green suffered an ankle injury in the first round of the MWC tournament, and though he played in a semifinal loss to UNLV, was ineffective. With a fully healthy Green, the Rams’ have a good chance of toppling Missouri. The two teams are somewhat similar in that they try to score in the paint on offense, while keeping opponents out of the paint of it on defense. Neither team is especially potent from the three-point line, and both rely a fair amount on offensive rebounding, though the Rams’ have the advantage here, especially as they are equally adept at controlling their defensive glass. That, along with Missouri’s tendency to be a bit loose with the ball, may be the difference-maker. And don’t sleep on Colorado State’s chances against Louisville in the next round. The Cardinals’ weak points are defensive rebounding and three-point shooting. The Rams are the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and as noted above, their defense forces teams to beat them from the three-point line. They also take pretty good care of the ball, which will serve them well against Louisville’s pressure defense. But this analysis could be all for naught if Green isn’t healthy enough to be effective.
  • Creighton (#7, Midwest) Doug McDermott is perhaps the most fundamentally sound player in college basketball. His All-American status owes itself to his incredibly precise offensive footwork, positioning, movement, shot, and cuts. He has inside-outside skills that present a very tough matchup if you’re not used to guarding him. And he’s surrounded by lots of great three-point shooters. Cincinnati’s defense has generally been strong, so they might be able to contain McDermott and the Bluejays’ three-point attack. But they’ll have to be especially effective because their offense has been truly miserable. I like the Bluejays’ chances here. A Third Round matchup with Duke would be a tougher proposition, as the Blue Devils combine a defense that shuts down the three-point line with an offense that is far more high-powered than Cincinnati’s. McDermott may well get his points, especially posting up inside, but that’s not likely to be sufficient.

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region Analysis

Posted by BHayes on March 18th, 2013

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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.

Midwest Region

Favorite: #1 Louisville (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

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: #6 Memphis (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: #12 Oregon (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.

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Bracket Prep: LIU-Brooklyn, South Dakota State, Valparaiso, Bucknell

Posted by BHayes on March 14th, 2013

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Over the course of the last two nights, four more teams made their Big Dance dreams a reality. As each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.

LIU-Brooklyn

It's An NEC Tournament Three-Peat For The Blackbirds.  Welcome Back To The Big Dance!

It’s An NEC Tournament Three-Peat For The Blackbirds. Welcome Back To The Big Dance!

  • NEC Champion (20-13, 15-6)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #178/#184/#162
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +0.2
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16

 Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. While it might be a bit of hyperbole to announce the Long Island Blackbirds as a NEC dynasty, three conference tournament titles in a row will get that conversation started. LIU may have found the transition under new coach Jack Perri to be slightly rougher than expected – they were just 5-10 before winning 10 of their final 13 games – but a familiar destination has appeared at the end of the road – the NCAA Tournament. And while the Blackbirds haven’t completely embarrassed themselves in the past two NCAA Tournaments (losing by 15 and 22 points, respectively), can this year’s team make the next step and put a real scare into one of the field’s top teams?
  2. Normally, a team playing at the 29th quickest tempo in the nation would be lauded for their freneticism, and yes, LIU does play fast. But after back-to-back years of holding a top three spot in the metric, things have slowed down a bit in Brooklyn. The offensive personnel on this team is impressive. Junior point guard Jason Brickman is the nation’s leader in assists at 8.5 per contest, while his backcourt mate CJ Garner has been on a scoring tear, going for 30+ in three of the Blackbirds last four. Neither is the team’s most talented player, however; senior Jamal Olasewere plays power forward for LIU at 6’7”, but would seamlessly fit in on most any power conference team at the two or the three. A phenomenal athlete who can both put the ball on the deck and score with his back to the basket, Olasewere is a match-up problem waiting to happen.
  3. It’s fun to watch LIU play offense. Too often though, it’s just as fun to watch their opponents play offense. LIU ranks 318th nationally in defensive efficiency, and gave up at least 89 points to each of their three power conference foes this season — Kentucky, Maryland, and Seton Hall (yes, the same Seton Hall that managed a total of 81 regulation points during its two-game Big East Tournament run.) None of those three games were particularly close. The offensive firepower gives the Blackbirds more bite than your typical #16 seed, but their profound inability to get stops is the reason they will likely be in that slot. LIU might have a little bit of fun at the Big Dance – maybe 20 minutes or so – but nothing they have done so far suggests they are capable of hanging with the nation’s elite for the full 40.

South Dakota State

Next Stop For The Jackrabbits: The Big Dance

Next Stop For The Jackrabbits: The Big Dance

  • Summit League Champion (25-9, 16-3)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #65/#103/#94
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +4.6
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #13-#14

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ATB: Wolters Is Going Dancing, Valpo Lives On and LIU-Brooklyn Earns Third Straight NCAA Bid…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 13th, 2013

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Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. More Tourney Tickets. Bids are flying in from the most distant precincts of college hoops common fandom. The casual onlookers among us look at, say, South Dakota State or Valparaiso and breathe a collective sigh. They see an undeserving population of lower-class programs free riding off a welfare-like system of automatic bids that prizes a days-long single-elimination conference tournament over a season’s body of work. No one said the current small conference arrangement was the silver bullet for competitive entry; it’s just the complex and maddeningly frustrating world we live in. Look, these small league teams may not stand the same chance of making deep March runs as your average power conference denizen, but you know what? Who cares? Yeah, yeah, laugh all you want now, poke fun at the hyphenated university names and obscure locales, but the fact of the matter is these teams, like it or not, will be in the field come Selection Sunday, and they might just wind up giving your [insert BCS conference school here] a brutal time in the early rounds of the Tourney.

Your Watercooler Moment. Horizon and Summit League Hand Out Bids.

Last year's NCAA Tournament trip for SDSU resulted in an opening-round loss to Baylor. Wolters and SDSU are back at it again this year (AP Photo).

Last year’s NCAA Tournament trip for South Dakota State resulted in an opening-round loss to Baylor. Wolters and SDSU are back at it again this year (AP Photo).

In case you missed out on Valparaiso’s stunning semifinal victory over Green Bay, and the utterly hilarious reaction it induced from head coach Bryce Drew, be aware that the Crusaders were one Ryan Broekhoff last-second heave away from never making the final in the first place. Alas, Valpo pulled through, fought off Wright State in the championship round and secured its first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2004. The near-death semifinal experience gives Valpo’s inclusion a charmed quality, if you can call it that, but the biggest story from Tuesday night’s games comes straight out of Sioux Falls, where – you wanted it, you got it – Nate Wolters led South Dakota State to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance by knocking off league rival North Dakota State. Wolters shined, to the surprise of almost no one, scoring 27 points and dishing out six assists and making every big play in winning time to ensure the Jackrabbits would reach the sport’s grandest national stage once again. This Wolters fellow is an interesting story. Some have broached comparisons to Jimmer Fredette, but that’s really not an accurate description of Wolters’ game. He is a backcourt creative engine, not an electrifying, rhythm-garnering, pure jump shooter. His style is deliberate and cunning, smooth yet off-kilter, harmonious yet lethal. If you missed tonight’s game, circle SDSU’s first-round Tourney match-up, whoever arises, because it’s the final chance to behold one the sport’s most mysteriously alluring backcourt star. You won’t want to miss out.

Tuesday Night’s Quick Hits… 

  • Blackbirds Make It Official. Would you be surprised to learn the nation’s leading assist man, Jason Brickman, hails from a three-time defending NEC conference regular season and tournament champion, that Julian Boyd, LIU-Brooklyn’s best player, has been out since December with a knee injury, that the Blackbirds are – not just historically, but this year specifically – actually good? That’s the unit the NEC churned up and spewed out for its automatic NCAA bid this season, and unlike the countless cases where a “hot team” wins a few games to spoil another team’s dominant regular season work, the Blackbirds, who beat Mount Saint Mary’s in the NEC Tournament final Tuesday night, are here on merit, make no mistake. Even without Boyd, LIU-Brooklyn is attuned to the intensity and competition level of tourney games. If nothing else, experience should make the Blackbirds a tricky team to deal with. Read the rest of this entry »
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The Other 26: Saturday’s Top Five Bracketbuster Games and More…

Posted by IRenko on February 22nd, 2013

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This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.

Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)

Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)

  1. Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournament bid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
  2. Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) – This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action. 
  3. South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) – Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
  4. Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
  5. Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.

And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …

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ATB: Terps Dump Duke, Cowboys Edge OU in OT and Kentucky Fails First Post-Noel Test…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 18th, 2013

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Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

The Weekend’s Lede. A Not So Special Weekend. Not every Saturday is a jam-packed day of must-see top-25 matchups and earth-shattering upsets. This season has deluded us otherwise with an immaculate set of weekend slates, so when you get a day like this Saturday, where – with a few exceptions; college basketball is never actually boring – big-time matchups are hard to come by, disappointment is inevitable. This weekend was not as fun as most in 2013, but at this point in the season, as teams labor for resume points and RPI upgrades, most every game is hugely important. A multitude of teams either buttressed or damaged their NCAA hopes, while others remained in neutral. If those general descriptions aren’t enough (and, really, they shouldn’t be) follow along to get the all the gritty details.

Your Watercooler Moment. Terps Talk The Talk.


Must-win is a fuzzy qualifier this time of year. Can any game honestly be termed a “must” when the conference Tournament always providing a final safety net? What if the bubble unexpectedly softens up, and your previously unqualified resume starts trending in the right direction by virtue of other teams’ misfortunes? Those are always possibilities, sure, but you never want to rely on other teams crafting your NCAA Tournament fate. So Maryland took control of its own by picking up its biggest win of the season over No. 2 Duke Saturday, a win it sorely needed (there, I said it) after an uninspiring 11-point home loss to Virginia last week seemed to suck dry the final remnants of its improbable at-large hopes. The Terrapins have been one of the biggest disappointments in the ACC this season. After loudly and persistently clamoring for national poll recognition throughout November and December based on a gaudy 13-1 record that lacked anything resembling a good win, the Terrapins dropped five of their first eight ACC games, including a three-point home defeat to Florida State. Mark Turgeon’s eminently talented team – Dez Wells and Alex Len are surefire pros, and the complementary pieces are credible assets – looked vastly underprepared (or overrated) for the rigors of ACC play, the Terrapins’ Tournament hopes were evaporating and that hot start UM fans eulogized throughout the nonconference season felt like nothing more than a schedule-crafted mirage. With the exception of a home win over NC State, Maryland had basically played its way out of national relevancy. Canning the Blue Devils will help; storming the court is always fun, right? And I’d love to pencil Maryland in for an at-large berth, or at least provide some assurance with a comforting percentage projection. I just can’t, and I won’t, because I don’t know what to expect from this team in its final six conference games. The next four (at Boston College, Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Wake Forest) have to be wins. Get through this stretch, and the Terrapins could (could, not will) be inching toward tourney inclusion.

Your Second Watercooler Moment. Big East Movement.

The Golden Eagles are on the rise in the Big East (Photo credit: AP Photo).

The Golden Eagles are on the rise in the Big East (Photo credit: AP Photo).

At the outset of Big East play, it was easy to look at Marquette and Georgetown and see two good but flawed teams. The Golden Eagles run one of the most efficient offenses in the Big East; even after losing Darius Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder, Buzz Williams’ team gets the most out of every possession by leveraging the superb interior precision of Davante Gardner and the intuitive creativity of Junior Cadougan. The only problem? Marquette isn’t nearly as good on the other end of the floor(The Golden Eagles ranked eighth in the Big East in defensive efficiency heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh). The Hoyas are the complete opposite of Marquette: they play top-five efficiency defense, but rank just inside the top-100 in offense. Offense-defense splits are not uncommon – most teams are demonstrably better at scoring or preventing points. Only the elite of the elite can master both. But as we enter the final five or six games of conference competition, the Golden Eagles and Hoyas (along with Syracuse) find themselves on top of one of the most competitive leagues in the country. How exactly did they get there? The most recent set of results shows Marquette handling Pittsburgh at home Saturday and Georgetown delivering another home loss to Cincinnati (its fifth of the season) Friday night, but both have been playing steady if not spectacular hoops for most of the league schedule. Marquette and Georgetown butted heads last week, with the Hoyas’ superior defense besting Marquette’s superior offense. Which team reaches a higher perch on the Big East pecking order by season’s end, I don’t know. Based on last week’s outcome and empirical results from over the weekend, I’ll cast my lot with Georgetown and that suffocating defense.

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The Other 26: This Is Not Mark Few’s Best Team… Yet

Posted by IRenko on February 16th, 2013

I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

After a 17-point win at St. Mary’s on Thursday night pushed Gonzaga’s record to 24-2 and cleared its biggest hurdle to a regular season record tainted with just two losses, some are wondering whether this is the best team that Mark Few has put together in his 14 years at the helm. It’s a fair question, given the way they’re playing. But the best ever? Sure, not since Adam Morrison was dragged off the court after a heartbreaking loss to UCLA ended his college career, have the Zags had a player with the combination of star power, All-American credentials, and curious hairstyle that Kelly Olynyk has brought this year. And, true, moreso than the Morrison-led team of 2006, this squad is a well-balanced offensive machine, with a multitude of frontcourt and backcourt options. They proved that on Thursday, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, who have deferred most of the scoring load this year to Olynyk and Elias Harris, dropped a combined 38 points on St. Mary’s.

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

This Gonzaga Team is Good, But Not Mark Few’s Best … Yet (James Snook / USA TODAY Sports)

But Few’s best team ever? They have a ways to go before they can claim such an honor. Take, for example, the 2004 team, which also dropped just two contests heading into the NCAA Tournament.  That squad was led by All-American senior guard Blake Stepp, and like Olynyk, he had lots of help. Junior Ronny Turiaf, sophomore Morrison, and senior Cory Violette shared the scoring load, with all four players averaging in double-digits. They coasted through league play undefeated, never winning a game by less than double digits, and ended the season on a 20-game win streak en route to a 2 seed in the Tournament, Gonzaga’s best ever. Their two pre-Tournament losses were to St. Joe’s and Stanford, both of which went on to earn 1 seeds that year. By contrast, this year’s Gonzaga team lost to Illinois, a bubble team, at home by 11 points.

Of course, this year’s squad could prove itself a superior to the 2004 team — or any team that Few has coached — if it can get past the Sweet Sixteen. Since Gonzaga burst onto the college hoops scene 14 years ago with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, they’ve yet to get reach the brink of a Final Four, much less a Final Four itself. The ballyhooed ’04 squad was upset by 10th-seeded Nevada in the second round, the ’05 team squandered a 3 seed with a second round loss to Texas Tech, and the ’06 Zags memorably collapsed against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen (a game to which one cannot refer without remarking that it was perhaps the finest moment of Gus Johnson’s illustrious career). This Gonzaga team stacks up well with those predecessors, but unless it breaks through to the second game of the second weekend, it won’t prove to be their clear superior.

What’s undisputed, however, is that the Zags have been dominant enough to remain at the top of this year’s Top 10.  On to that, our Honor Roll, and this week’s games to watch  . . .

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ATB: Spartans Soar, Noel’s Future In Doubt and Indiana State’s Inconsistency…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 13th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. BIG and SEC Are Main Attractions. Two of the so called power conferences assumed the national spotlight Tuesday night. One of those leagues, the SEC, resides at the bottom of the power six food chain. The other is the Big Ten, which has produced some of the most entertaining and hotly-contested hoops these eyes have seen in years. The intra-league disparity could not have been greater, but the chasm in conference quality is where the differences end, at least as far Tuesday night’s schedule goes – for both leagues showcased two pre-eminent teams on big stages, with each game carrying conference title and NCAA Tournament implications. Those match-ups, plus a couple of other sneaky-good fixtures, filled your Tuesday college basketball quota.

Your Watercooler Moment. MSU Bullies Its Way Into First Place.

It was an eye-opening performance from Michigan State Tuesday night in East Lansing (Photo credit: Getty Images).

It was an eye-opening performance from Michigan State Tuesday night in East Lansing (Photo credit: Getty Images).

By the time Michigan and Michigan State finished the first top-10 rendition of their heated rivalry, only one team looked like it merited that elite numerical tag. The Spartans shredded Michigan at the Breslin Center with suffocating defense, balanced offense (four Spartans finished in double figures), and a resounding reminder about the state of Michigan’s recent basketball hierarchy. MSU has been the better program over the last decade-plus, was better Tuesday night, and has all the pieces to be better down the stretch in conference play. The win pushes it into first place in a clustered B1G top tier, with Indiana sitting a half game back and Wisconsin one and a half back. The Wolverines have some major catch-up work to do, and they do get both the Spartans and Hoosiers at the Crisler Center in March, but it’s not crazy to suggest – and I’ll probably (almost certainly) regret typing this, what with the shifting paradigms about who’s who in the Big Ten this season – that Michigan is just a bit undercooked for this brutal league race. There’s no crime in losing to good teams on the road – especially not Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin and MSU, all fearsome outfits in their own right. It’s just that Michigan was brimming with national championship potential not so long ago, and for as fuzzy and baseless as this may seem, I just can’t get behind projecting a team that loses by 30 in a critical intrastate rivalry game to cut down the nets in April. This being the Big Ten, I reserve the right to pivot on that hard line later this season. On Tuesday, Michigan State inherited Big Ten frontrunner status. Next week, when the Spartans host Indiana, who knows what happens.

Tonight’s Quick Hits. 

  • Florida’s Fine. I address the biggest takeaway from Tuesday night’s Florida-UK tilt below. Nerlens Noel’s knee injury, needless to say, is disconcerting. If you can decompress and divorce that sad topic from the game itself, hear me out on this Gator-focused blurb. It was easy to panic and scrutinize and work up a lather over Florida’s convincing loss at Arkansas last week. The Gators had dismantled practically everything their schedule had to offer leading up to it, and Arkansas reciprocated that treatment by dominating Florida from the tip. But when you remove the inconsequential subjective noise and dig up exactly why the Gators fell into such a big hole – they didn’t make shots in the first half – what you get is a team that walked into a rabid Bud Walton Arena, stuffed to the gills with a geeked-up fan base, and a Razorbacks team that played some of its best basketball of the season. Questioning Florida’s rebound credentials – its SEC title control and NCAA Tournament seed – is petty and myopic. As of this writing, Florida tops Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks, counts one of the most balanced and versatile roster constructs to its name, and has racked up a stable of quality wins so far (both in and out of league play). The Gators beat Kentucky Tuesday, and that’s a nice win. It is not definitive proof that Florida has finally regained its stride after that “questionable” Arkansas loss. The Gators are one of the three or four best teams in the country. One road setback didn’t change that. Read the rest of this entry »
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