RTC Top 25: Week Nine

Posted by Walker Carey on January 19th, 2015

After nine weeks of the regular season there is probably not a conference that has more uncertainty in it than the Big 12. If the importance of home court advantage in that loaded league had not been clear before, this past week really made sure that everyone realizes it. From Tuesday through Saturday in conference games featuring at least one ranked team, the home team notched a sterling 7-0 record. No Big 12 win last week was more important, though, than #9 Iowa State knocking off #14 Kansas on Saturday night. The victory moved the Cyclones to a 3-1 league record, which helped them keep pace in the loss column following Wednesday’s narrow loss at #23 Baylor. The Big 12 has been so crazy this season that an unranked team (Kansas State) somehow holds sole possession of first place. There is a lot of basketball still to be played, of course, so it will be a good idea to keep an eye on this conference as Kansas State, Iowa State, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Baylor, and Oklahoma State figure to battle tooth-and-nail for the league crown all the way to the last weekend of the regular season.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump….

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.59.34 AM

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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VCU Reserves are the X-Factor in Rams’ Recent Surge

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 8th, 2015

The book on VCU’s style of play is fairly simple. Defensively, they want to press you full-court to create a bunch of turnovers and resulting easy baskets. Offensively, they shoot a high volume of three-pointers and rely on the quickness of their guards to break down a defense in the waning seconds of a shot clock. That’s pretty much their ethos. But as the program now enters its third season in the Atlantic 10, teams know what’s coming and have begun countering what VCU likes to do. What they are having trouble dealing with, however, isn’t a problem of strategy as much as personnel. VCU, currently riding a seven-game winning streak, boasts a much-improved second unit this season, led by the heralded freshman Terry Larrier. The bench’s production was on grand display in the Rams’ impressive victory over Davidson in Richmond on Wednesday night.

Terry Larrier is starting to show why he's Shaka Smart's highest-rated recruit (AP Photo)

Terry Larrier is starting to show why he’s Shaka Smart’s highest-rated recruit (AP Photo)

In those seven games, the Rams’ bench has outscored its opposition in all but one contest (a double-overtime victory over Northern Iowa). VCU’s second unit is comprised largely of young players, and they are starting to come around at just the right time. Freshmen Justin Tillman and Michael Gilmore have been doing a much better job on the boards in relief of Mo Alie-Cox inside and have looked more active offensively; classmate Jonathan Williams appears much more confident handling the ball when he spells Briante Weber and JeQuan Lewis at the point; and sophomore Doug Brooks has become a real spark with solid long-range shooting and a disruptive role in the chaos-inducing Havoc defense. Brooks was especially key in last night’s VCU victory with his contributions of eight points and two steals.

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Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on January 7th, 2015

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.

Changing of the Guard

The BCS conferences may have soaked up most of the ink spent covering conference realignment, but the Atlantic 10 has undergone three realignment-triggered makeovers in the last decade. The long term triumvirate of flagship programs — Massachusetts, Temple and Xavier — were divvied up by the bigger fish, resulting in a conference footprint that has stretched far away from its New England, Middle Atlantic and Rust Belt roots, now creeping southward into North Carolina and westward to the Mississippi River. Temple, along with the football-playing remnants of the Big East, formed the American Athletic Conference, while Xavier, along with Butler (who paused for a cup of coffee in 2012-13) joined up with the basketball-first schools of the Big East. The Atlantic 10 in reaction brought in Charlotte (which has since returned to the C-USA), Davidson, Virginia Commonwealth and St. Louis. The three Philadelphia members — La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Temple — gave the conference a Philadelphia-centric feel through the 1990s and 2000s, as at least one of the three schools took (or shared) the regular season title (or the tournament title) in 10 of their last 15 seasons together. As Temple and Xavier took their leaves to greener pastures, Virginia Commonwealth and St. Louis (with a challenge from resurgent Massachusetts) have stepped into the vacuum.

Could Mike Lonergan and George Washington truly challenge VCU for the conference crown? (Getty)

Could Mike Lonergan and George Washington truly challenge VCU for the conference crown? (Getty)

Non-conference returns hinted change was at hand, and the games of the conference’s first weekend offer a tentative confirmation. Consider that St. Bonaventure soundly beat Massachusetts, an NCAA Tournament last season, 69-55 in Amherst. Rhode Island, whose 29-63 record over the past three seasons was the nearly the mirror opposite of host St. Louis (81-23), beat the Billikens 65-53 at Chaifetz Arena (where the Bills have a 36-10 record over the last three seasons). Davidson opened its inaugural season in the Atlantic 10 with a resounding 81-67 win over visiting Richmond even as George Washington broke its road skid with a 64-60 win on Hawk Hill. Virginia Commonwealth is still the team to beat. Shaka Smart‘s program returned to the Top 25 this week in both national polls, coming in at #20 in the AP and #21 in the USA Today/Coaches polls. VCU will, however, have to contend with new challengers, two schools south of the Mason-Dixon line and two from the northern and eastern edges of the footprint, as the Rams try to win the conference title in their third season as a member.

A-10 News & Notes

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RTC Weekly Primer: An Ode to the Big 12

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 6th, 2015

Money talks. It’s an unavoidable and unfortunate truth. In almost any facet of life, money is persuasive. Whether indirectly or directly, visibly or otherwise, it influences the decisions we make, creates irresistible motives, and causes things to happen that are otherwise undesirable. It’s an unparalleled force. A few years ago, the Big 12 was a victim of the almighty dollar’s faculties. It succumbed to money’s authority. Between 2010-13, while the league went about its business playing collegiate sports in the midsection of America, it was relentlessly under siege. Driven by economic motives, the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 ravaged it, pilfering four of its 12 members and rearranging the landscape of college sports. During this period of extreme uncertainty, there were thoughts of dissolution. There appeared to be a significant chance that the Big 12 would soon cease to exist. At the very least, it had been weakened as it’s BCS brethren had beefed up. These were times filled with worry; with concern; with fear.

The Big 12 May Have Lost the Football Wars This Year, But It is Killing the Basketball Side (USA Today Images)

The Big 12 May Have Lost the Football Wars This Year, But It is Killing the Basketball Side (USA Today Images)

Several years later, with all of that uncertainty now in the rear view mirror, money seems somewhat irrelevant. It still talks, and the economic side of Big 12 sports might not be as lucrative as that of the Big Ten or SEC. But money doesn’t automatically result in good basketball. And in 2014-15, while the Big Ten and SEC are crammed with mediocrity, the conference that once looked in serious danger is thriving. Seven of the 10 conference teams currently rank in KenPom’s Top 25, while only eight from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC collectively make the cut. In an age where money increasingly steps to the forefront of any discussions on college sports, there remains a majestic purity about this sport. And as conference play gets underway in the Big 12, that purity will be as enjoyable and as evident as ever. It’ll also produce night after night of high-quality basketball.

Three for the Money

Kansas at Baylor | Wednesday, 9:00 p.m. EST, ESPNU

Where else to start but with the Big 12? As will be the case many times this year, there are multiple mouth-watering match-ups in conference play, but any game that involves Kansas still draws extra attention. It’s an annual tradition around this time of year to pose the question, “Is this the year that somebody finally unseats Kansas atop the Big 12?” But this year, such an inquiry might just have a little more merit to it. Baylor isn’t necessarily one of the teams that could knock the Jayhawks from their perch — that responsibility should fall to Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State. But the Bears are an outstanding example of the depth of the league. Picked sixth in the Big 12 preseason poll, Scott Drew’s squad has been steadily improving this season. Led by a physically imposing front line that pounds the offensive glass as well as anybody in the country, Baylor won’t be an easy out for anybody. And especially not for a Kansas team that, despite only two losses and several good wins, hasn’t looked vintage. It is important to note that we’ve seen the stage set like this before only to have the Jayhawks hit their stride in early February and run away from the pack. But the backcourt of Frank Mason and Wayne Selden is a far cry from what Self has had in Lawrence over the years. The interesting match-up here, however, is down low, where Kansas’ forwards, specifically Cliff Alexander, will have to brandish their Big 12 title winning credentials and show some requisite toughness.

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Checking In On… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 16th, 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

While games with the highest-ranked six conferences accounted for only 35 percent of last week’s conference schedule, they accounted for six of the eight losses the Atlantic 10 recorded. George Washington‘s win over DePaul represented the lone win the league has recorded this season against the Big East, but Rhode Island‘s E.C. Matthews, despite scoring 27 points, could not notch another one over intrastate rival Providence. Fordham took the other loss to a Big East team last week, as the Rams fell to crosstown rival St. John’s. The Big Ten’s Penn State beat two A-10 teams this past week, squeaking by Duquesne on Wednesday before turning around to beat George Washington over the weekend. Duquesne and Saint Louis lost troubling games to teams that play among the lowest-ranked conferences; Duquesne was upset by local rival Robert Morris of the NEC while the Billikens dropped a decision to the Summit Conference’s South Dakota State. Those kinds of losses drag down the conference-wide RPI, something to watch as the season carries on.

Despite a big game for E.C. Matthews, the Rams came up just a little short against their in-state rival. (AP)

Despite a big game for E.C. Matthews, the Rams came up just a little short against their intrastate rival. (AP)

Three Games to Catch This Week

  • VCU vs Belmont (Tuesday 12/16 7:00 PM ET) — This should be a bear of a week for the Rams, as they face giant-killing Belmont on Tuesday and Cincinnati on Saturday. Tuesday should be an easier game, given VCU’s notable home court advantage and Belmont’s two-game losing streak. Both teams press and rely on turnovers to fuel their offense, and given that fact, both also have poor field goal defense. VCU has trouble defending the three-point line while Belmont converts efficiently from there. Hitting that three on a delayed break is the key stat for determining Belmont’s prospects.

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VCU’s Win Over Northern Iowa Does Little to Mask Defensive Deficiencies

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 14th, 2014

Sometimes a team, if it has enough overall talent and a few breaks, can win a game in which its major flaws are exposed by an opponent. That’s exactly what happened in VCU’s thrilling double-overtime 93-87 win over an excellent Northern Iowa team on Saturday night in Richmond. Coming in, VCU’s detractors were wondering how the team dubbed Shaka Smart’s best since he took over the Rams program in 2009 could be a mere 5-3 and out of the national rankings already. The answer(s) to that question surfaced early and often against the Panthers; luckily the Rams’, buoyed by an always boisterous home crowd, overcame their nagging issues on the defensive end to win.

Shaka Smart's Rams got a much-needed resume-builder, but defensive issues remain (vcuramnation.com)

Shaka Smart’s Rams got a much-needed resume-builder, but defensive issues remain (vcuramnation.com)

VCU’s HAVOC defense is now a nationwide buzzword, and their pressing style can be utterly infuriating for opponents. But what has caused this Rams team to struggle in the non-conference schedule is the fact that once that press is broken or has been rendered impossible to set up, they’re a subpar half-court defensive team. Coming into the Northern Iowa matchup, the Rams were allowing opponents to shoot nearly 41% from three-point range. For a team that loves to chuck from long-range themselves, that can negate any good three-point shooting night they have. They’re not a whole lot better inside the arc, either, mostly because they take chances with their guard-heavy lineup and don’t have any true rim-protectors on the roster.

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Saturday Rewind: Utah is Legit, Kentucky Cruises, and a Thriller in Richmond…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 14th, 2014

It was another whirlwind December Saturday of hoops, as 14 of 25 ranked teams were in action, and plenty major conference programs challenged themselves. Here’s how it all transpired.

Headliner

Delon Wright Did What He Could But Utah Fell Just Short (USA Today Images)

Delon Wright Did What He Could But Utah Fell Just Short (USA Today Images)

Kansas 63, Utah 60

  • The Game: This wasn’t your everyday, wire-to-wire battle. Kansas had seemingly left Utah in the dust with a 23-2 run toward the end of the first half that gave them a 39-21 halftime lead. But possession by possession, the Utes chipped away after the break, and reclaimed the lead with 4:39 to play. But Kansas didn’t miss a single shot – field goals or free throws – the rest of the way and escaped with the win in Kansas City.
  • Kansas Verdict: After the 32-point beatdown at the hands of Kentucky in mid-November, Kansas was rather rudely shoved to the background of the national college basketball picture. But since, the Jayhawks have somewhat quietly strung together some really nice wins – first over Michigan State and Florida, then at Georgetown, and now this one Saturday. However, it’s not as if Kansas has cruised – rather, it has labored through all four, and on different days, could’ve lost any of the four. Obviously this team is young, but it’s far from complete, and guard play in particular is a worry. Frank Mason and Wayne Selden looked worryingly out of sync during Saturday’s second half. So while the wins will look nice on Kansas’ résumé, Bill Self still has a lot of work to do.
  • Utah Verdict: Are the Utes legit? This game would seem to indicate they are. They are essentially a two-man team surrounded by role players, but those two men – Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl – are really impressive. Wright is a true multi-faceted star no matter how you look at him, and Poeltl is a handful down low. And while Utah lacks some offensive punch – they scored 2 points in 10 late-first-half minutes – what stood out today was team defense. That’s what allowed them to mount their comeback. Over a 17-minute second half stretch, the Utes held Kansas to 11 points, and gradually, they climbed out of the 21-point hole with stop after stop. It wasn’t enough in the end, but a three-point loss is nothing to hang your head about – especially when you consider Utah was without Jordan Loveridge, arguably the team’s third best player, who should return in January.

Best of the Rest

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O26 Games of the Week: Utah-BYU, Northern Iowa-VCU, Gonzaga-UCLA…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 10th, 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. 

Utah (6-1) at Brigham Young (7-2) – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Wednesday.

Perhaps a look-ahead spot for Utah, with Kansas looming on Saturday? Not a chance. Basketball matters in the Beehive State, and these intrastate rivals – who have continued playing each other annually, despite both leaving the Mountain West in 2011 – might be its top two programs. The Cougars boast the 11th-most efficient offense in America, led by arguably the nation’s premier scorer, Tyler Haws, who comes in having scored 30-plus points in three of his past four outings. Joining him is versatile point guard Kyle Collinsworth (13.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.8 APG) and a cast of shooters capable of lighting up the scoreboard in bunches. Guard Anson Winder (50% 3FG) has been a perimeter-shooting X-factor in the early-going, reaching double-figures in eight of the team’s first nine games. Scoring shouldn’t be an issue for Dave Rose’s uptempo bunch.

Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Utah-BYU should be a battle tonight. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Stopping Utah, however, might be cause for concern. Everyone knows that Delon Wright, the Utes’ 6’5’’ point guard, is really good – he might be more versatile than Collinsworth – but the bigger match-up issue could be seven-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl. The Aussie has been a revelation for Larry Krystkowiak, flashing an advanced offensive skill set (10-of-10 FG against North Dakota), muscle on the glass (leads the nation in OReb%) and strong interior defense (15th in block percentage). If he plays like he did against Wichita State (12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks), the big man will be tough for BYU’s foul-prone frontcourt to handle. Utah is the more balanced team – a top 50 squad in both offensive and defensive efficiency – and might be the better team, but the Marriott Center should be louder than ever with the rival Utes coming to town. You’ll want to flip over to ESPNU tonight.

More to Watch

  1. Northern Iowa (8-0) at VCU (5-3) – 7:00 PM ET, NBCSN, Saturday.  Will VCU lose twice in a row at the Siegel Center? The Rams’ 22-game home winning streak was broken last Saturday in a loss to Virginia, and they will certainly have their hands full against a Northern Iowa unit that just cracked the Top 25. Believe it or not, these teams are very familiar with each other – this will be their third meeting in the last four years – and the Panthers upset VCU in Cedar Falls last December. The Rams forced 16 turnovers in that game and nailed 10 three-pointers, but their interior defense was lackluster (UNI shot 67% 2FG) and they allowed Northern Iowa too many trips to the free throw line. Similar problems have plagued Shaka Smart’s bunch so far in 2014-15, which could be a problem against a team with lots of shooters and a newfound attack-first mentality (Panthers rank 22nd in FTA/FGA). Of course, VCU has capable shooters of its own and will amp up HAVOC in front of its always-raucous home crowd. Read the rest of this entry »
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Didn’t See That Coming, Five Atlantic 10 Surprises to Start the Season

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 9th, 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.

  • Virginia Commonwealth’s Struggles — After a series of double-figure wins to start the season at 3-0, the Rams have hit a 2-3 slump because of defensive collapses. During the five-game window, Shaka Smart’s squad yielded an average of 1.2 points per possession, well above the Division I average (0.995 PPP). Two of those losses (to Villanova by 24 and Virginia by 17) were not competitive. The loss to the Wildcats represented the largest margin of defeat since they lost to Michigan by 25 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. While Treveon Graham, Melvin Johnson, Briante Weber and Jordan Burgess are carrying the offense, field goal defense is down and fouling is up, trends that do not bode well for the Rams come conference play.

    After a hot start, Shaka Smart's squad has cooled a bit. (Getty)

    After a hot start, Shaka Smart’s squad has cooled a bit. (Getty)

  • Massachusetts Misses Chaz Williams — For a Minutemen squad which had only a single loss heading into conference play last season, collecting four defeats with four non-conference games still to play throws a damper on any postseason expectations. Derek Kellogg’s squad is riding a three-game losing streak that includes a truly disappointing letdown against Florida Gulf Coast from the Atlantic Sun Conference. With two of their remaining four games away from the Mullins Center (at Providence and at BYU) and vs. Iona, a well-coached MAAC squad, still to come, UMass could enter conference play with as many as five to seven losses, a definite RPI killer. Except for freshman Donte Clark, the guards and wing forwards are struggling with their three-point shot this season (26-of-90).

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London Perrantes Proves Again Why He’s Mr. Indispensable

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 7th, 2014

It’s easy to look at the team Tony Bennett has put together at Virginia and say that his players are interchangeable. After all, his defense-first philosophy and the offensive identity of continually working for the best available shot don’t seem individual-specific. One could point to the program’s rise and success under Bennett as further evidence of that theory, as Virginia looks every bit as good in starting 9-0 this season as last year’s ACC champion, despite some key personnel losses. Even when the Cavaliers were down two starters (including the team’s leading scorer, Justin Anderson) in a tough road game against Maryland on Wednesday night, Virginia still ran away to a 76-65 win.

London Perrantes proved once again why Virginia can't succeed without him (USAToday Sports)

London Perrantes proved once again why Virginia can’t succeed without him (USAToday Sports)

But the truth is that Virginia does have an indispensable player: London Perrantes. The sophomore point guard is the heady, sure-handed player that makes this team capable of playing a variety of styles and still have a chance to beat anyone. That was obvious in the Cavaliers’ emphatic 74-57 defeat of rival VCU in Richmond on Saturday. The Rams once again employed their HAVOC defense, and any team facing their relentless full-court gauntlet needs an efficient, smart ball-handler to navigate through it. On Saturday, Perrantes deftly kept the ball moving and expertly broke through the press time and time again, often leading to dunks or fouls in transition as a result.

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Battle for the Commonwealth: Previewing VCU vs. Virginia

Posted by Lathan Wells & Tommy Lemoine on December 6th, 2014

Last year, VCU went into John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville and shocked Virginia on a Treveon Graham buzzer-beater. This year, both teams entered the season ranked in the top 15 nationally with the rematch set to take place on VCU’s home turf in Richmond. Some may think that the luster of this game wore off with VCU’s two early-season losses and subsequent plummet from the rankings, but that’s far from the case in Virginia’s capital city (need evidence? see here). The Cavaliers will be the highest-ranked team ever to play at VCU’s Siegel Center.  RTC’s Tommy Lemoine and Lathan Wells preview one of the biggest games in recent Virginia collegiate basketball history here.

Tommy Lemoine: Joe Harris scored almost a third of Virginia’s points against VCU last year, but he’s since graduated. Justin Anderson has done a nice job of filling that void (alongside Malcolm Brogdon), but the reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year appeared to injure his ankle against Maryland on Wednesday. If he is limited – or worse, can’t play – who steps up as an additional offensive creator in his absence?

Last year in Charlottesville, Treveon Graham broke UVA's heart with a last-second shot (AssociatedPress)

Last year in Charlottesville, Treveon Graham broke UVA’s heart with a last-second shot (AssociatedPress)

Lathan Wells: The logical choice is Brogdon himself, who some may forget was a preseason All-ACC selection before Anderson overshadowed him in the team’s early slate. Brogdon is still the player who can make the most plays for this team in crunch time, and he rivals Anderson’s ability to get to the basket off the drive. If he is contained, however, it becomes much dicier for the Cavaliers. Either Mike Tobey or London Perrantes may need a career night if points are at a premium. While Virginia has largely lived up to its billing, VCU has underwhelmed to this point after being lauded as Shaka Smart’s best team yet at VCU. There are numerous issues that need to be cleaned up from the Rams’ 5-2 start, but what do you think is the biggest area that needs to be addressed to knock off the unbeaten Cavaliers?

TL: There are problems on both ends of the court, but against a team like Virginia that limits its own mistakes, the Rams have to be more patient on offense. Too often, their half-court ‘sets’ amount to launching threes (and not all of them the result of dribble-penetration) or isolated attempts to attack the basket. They combined for a staggeringly low four assists in the loss to Villanova and just 10 against Old Dominion. VCU would be wise to shore up its offensive rotations and ramp up its off-the-ball movement against the Cavaliers, whose pack line defense is virtually impenetrable without sharp execution. Speaking of defense, it’s all about forcing turnovers with VCU, but Virginia has done a really nice job taking care of the ball so far this year. Still, the Cavaliers coughed it up 19 times in last season’s match-up – a big reason why they lost. Any cause for concern as they head to Richmond, or is London Perrantes ready to handle the HAVOC?

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O26 Game of the Week: Gonzaga in Tucson, UTEP-Colorado State, More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 3rd, 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.

Gonzaga (7-0) at Arizona (6-0) – 5:15 PM ET, ESPN, Saturday

Following the Wildcats defeat of San Diego State in the Maui Invitational, this weekend’s Gonzaga-Arizona matchup might now be the unofficial showdown for ‘Best in the West’ – the outcome of which could go a long way in determining the region’s top-seed come Selection Sunday.

Gonzaga-Arizona should be one of the best non-conference matchups in 2014-15. (thesportspost.com)

Gonzaga-Arizona should be one of the best non-conference matchups in 2014-15. (thesportspost.com)

Both teams have notched impressive early-season victories – SMU and St. John’s for the Bulldogs, Kansas State and SDSU for the Wildcats – both possess seven-plus-foot frontcourt players, athletic wings and veteran point guards, and each squad is led by a coach who’s won a bunch of games over the past decade. Sean Miller’s group pounded Gonzaga in last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs are a much different, much deeper unit in 2014-15; Kevin Pangos is back to full-health and Mark Few added transfers Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer in the offseason, along with impact-freshman Domantas Sabonis (12.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG). As a result, it seems doubtful the Zags will turn the ball over 21 times like they did in March, nor are they likely to be as overwhelmed athletically. Then again, this year’s iteration does take place in Tuscon, against a Wildcat team thanks to the return of 6’8’’ forward Brandon Ashley (Arizona has not lost with him in the lineup since 2012-13) and the addition of an eventual lottery pick, freshman wing Stanley Johnson (13.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG). Considering the individual talent on both rosters, it’s hard to say exactly who or what will dictate the outcome – does the frontcourt battle between Przemek Karnowski and Kaleb Tarczewski decide things? Or will it be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s energy, or Pangos’ hot-shooting? – but regardless, the game is sure to be among the biggest and most impactful non-conference tilts this season.

More to Watch

  1. Wichita State (4-0) at Utah (5-1) – 11:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Wednesday. Does Wichita State’s 35-game regular season winning streak end in Salt Lake City? The Shockers have not looked prone to defeat so far in 2014-15, having drubbed New Mexico State, Memphis and Tulsa by an average of 17 points per game, but knocking off Utah on its home floor should prove much more difficult. The Utes boast one of the best all-around guards in America, 6’5’’ junior Delon Wright, and are markedly tougher in the Huntsman Center – they were a couple of two-point, overtime losses against Oregon and Arizona from going undefeated at home in 2013-14. Luckily, Gregg Marshall has a pair of experienced, All-America type guards in his own right – Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker – who should hold their own in the hostile environment. KenPom has this one pegged as one a near-coin flip (54% in the Wichita State’s favor), and if the Shockers can emerge victorious, their impressive streak might persist well into the New Year.
  2. UTEP (5-1) at Colorado State (6-0) – 9:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Colorado State won the Great Alaska Shootout and UTEP nearly won the Wooden Legacy over the holiday weekend, punctuating a very good month of November for both units. Even with the Miners falling to Washington on Sunday night, each group appears talented and capable enough to be in the at-large discussion by season’s end – making Wednesday’s game in Fort Collins an important opportunity for both. The Rams, led by senior point guard Daniel Bejarano (13.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and forward J.J. Avila (14.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG), have been very proficient from deep so far in 2014-15 (40.5% 3PT) and are the fifth-most experienced team in the country, while UTEP – paced by athletic, versatile forward Vince Hunter (five straight double-doubles to begin 2014-15) – boasts one of college basketball’s largest front lines.
  3. Wyoming (7-0) at SMU (4-3) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPNews, Friday. This is an important bellweather game for Wyoming, which has gotten off to an excellent start in 2014-15 – including a dominant victory over Colorado – but has yet to play a game outside of Laramie. The Mustangs, despite a rocky start without their best player, Markus Kennedy, are a good, well-rounded team that’s always tough inside Moody Coliseum. The Cowboys have found great looks near the basket this season (66.2% 2PT; second-best in NCAA) and SMU’s interior defense has been less dominant without Kennedy, so Wyoming’s ability to patiently run its sets in a road environment might be the key to success.
  4. Virginia (7-0) at Virginia Commonwealth (5-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday. VCU edged Illinois State on Tuesday night, but the Rams still seek a marquee victory after two disappointing losses last week. This home contest against newfound in-state rival Virginia provides that opportunity. In what should be an exercise in contrasting styles – VCU plays frenzied, uptempo basketball, whereas the Cavaliers like to grind on both ends of the court – the outcome may depend on whether Shaka Smart’s group can force Virginia into turnovers with any kind of regularity. If not, the preseason Atlantic 10 favorites – who already struggle to score in the half-court – could be in for a long night against Tony Bennett’s defense [See: Rutgers game].
  5. San Diego State (5-1) at Washington (6-0) – 9:00 PM ET, Pac-12 Network, Sunday. In another very good west coast showdown, the Aztecs will have to play without guard Aqeel Quinn (9.7 PPG), who broke his finger against Arizona last week. The Huskies have the advantage at point guard with Nigel Williams-Goss (14.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG) – important against an aggressive defensive unit like SDSU – but the Aztecs have more athletic wings, and both squads possess plenty of size underneath. Should be close.

Other Notables

  •  Northeastern (5-1) at Harvard (4-1) – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday.
  •  Long Beach State (4-4) at Stephen F. Austin (4-3) – 8:00PM, Friday.
  •  Boise State (4-2) at Saint Mary’s (5-0) – 11:30 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday.
  •  Florida Gulf Coast (6-1) *at Massachusetts (5-3) – 2:00 PM ET, Sunday (*Springfield, MA).

Upset Special

Can Yale hang around with Connecticut on Friday night? (The Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson)

Can Yale hang around with Connecticut on Friday night? (The Providence Journal/Glenn Osmundson)

Yale (6-2) at Connecticut (3-2) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Friday. There are plenty of reasons why this upset can’t happen – I mean, we are talking about the defending National Champions…playing at home – so how about one reason why it can: Huskies guard Ryan Boatright might miss the contest with a sprained ankle. If he does sit out, Connecticut will be without the guy who leads it in scoring (20.8 PPG), assists (4 APG) and steals (1.6 SPG), who  plays virtually every minute of every game, who shoots almost one-third of the team’s shots while on the floor, and who racks up fouls in bunches. Yale, which looked good in a hard-fought loss to Providence last weekend, has bodies to bang with Connecticut on the glass and should do a better job taking care of the ball (turnovers have been a problem) against the Boatright-less Huskies. If Javier Duren, Jack Montague and Armani Cotton get hot from behind the arc and Justin Sears (15.1 PPG, 9.1 RPG) stays out of foul trouble, the Bulldogs have a chance.

Stars Aligned: Great Individual Match-Ups

  • Green Bay’s Kiefer Sykes at Georgia State’s Ryan Harrow – 7:00 PM ET, Thursday. Both Sykes (18.5 PPG) and Harrow (20.3 PPG) are small, explosive point guards who thrive on their quickness and ability to penetrate. They also happen to be two of college basketball’s best players, on two of the better teams at the mid-major level. You won’t want to miss this battle.
  • William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton at Richmond’s Kendall Anthony – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Another pair of talented scoring guards go at it tonight, as Thornton (17 PPG) and Anthony (15.3 PPG) square off in Richmond. At just 5’8’’, Anthony gives up a full eight inches to his William & Mary counterpart, so it seems doubtful they will actually wind up guarding each other. Either way, expect a bevy of points from these two guys and a hard-fought game between quality intra-state foes.
  • Valparaiso’s Alec Peters vs. someone(s) on Eastern Kentucky – 7:00 PM ET, Wednesday. This game is projected to be a toss-up, but I’m not sure who on the Colonels is going to stop Peters. The 6’9’’ forward has been nothing short of exceptional so far this season, averaging 19.3 PPG and shooting 55% 3PT. With that combination of size and shooting ability, Eastern Kentucky’s best hope might be to exploit Valpo’s weakness at point guard, turn the Crusaders over and limit Peters’ touches as much as possible.
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