ACC Weekend Review: 01.19.15 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 19th, 2015

In the headline match-up of the weekend, Duke ended its two-game losing streak with a surprisingly comfortable win at Louisville on Saturday. But the bigger surprise was how the Blue Devils did it, going almost exclusively with a 2-3 zone defense that was incredibly effective against the cold-shooting Cardinals. Notre Dame rallied from a 12-point second half deficit to beat Miami in South Bend on Saturday, keeping the Irish in second place in the league standings behind undefeated Virginia. The Cavaliers also had to mount a second half comeback to overtake Boston College Saturday afternoon in Conte Forum. In other games over the weekend, Syracuse dropped its first league game of the year at Clemson; N.C. State picked up a road win versus Florida State; and North Carolina and Pittsburgh each won home games against a pair of conference winless clubs, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Here are some other highlights from over the weekend in the ACC.

Notre Dame's Jerian Grant broke out in a big way in Saturday's win over Miami. (USA Today Images)

Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant broke out in a big way in Saturday’s win over Miami. (USA Today Images)

  • Most Outstanding Player: Jerian Grant had scored a total of only 26 points in his previous three games, but the senior guard broke out of his mini-slump with a huge effort against Miami on Saturday. The ACC Player of the Year candidate finished with an efficient 25 points that came on 8-of-10 field goal shooting. He also passed out eight assists and was part of a perimeter defense that held Hurricanes’ guard Angel Rodriguez in check. Rodriguez had torched Duke in his previous game with 24 points, but only managed four points on 1-of-10 shooting Saturday. Grant was also the difference down the stretch as his three broke a tie with 6:19 left and he also scored a layup and blocked a shot in the last minute to seal the win.
  • Best Win: After looking nothing like a championship contender in its two prior outings, Duke got back on track with a mild upset at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center on Saturday. After an all-night coaches’ meeting following Duke’s home debacle versus Miami, Mike Krzyzewski abandoned the Blue Devils’ trademark pressure man-to-man defense to instead play a 2-3 zone against the Cardinals. While it was a big surprise to most of us, the zone was not totally unexpected by Louisville’s Rick Pitino, who said afterwards, “Duke is a team that never plays zone… and that’s what I would have done if I were in [Mike Krzyzewski’s] shoes.” Pitino is no doubt referring to his team’s lack of perimeter shooting, which finished a chilly 4-of-25 on three-pointers against the Devils. Ironically, Duke looked a lot more like a recent-vintage Syracuse team, with the Blue Devils playing deliberately on the offensive end to go along with the newly-installed zone defense.

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ACC Stock Watch: Conference Play Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 16th, 2015

Conference play got under way for the ACC roughly two weeks ago, and the early games have lived up to their lofty billing in providing us with valuable insights. Some teams are clearly playing up to their potential and possibly even beyond it, while several others are already searching for answers for disturbing trends. Welcome to this week’s ACC Stock Watch, the first since the ACC’s teams started beating up on each other.

Trending Up

  • Virginia. It would be hard to imagine that a team entering ACC play at 12-0 could be trending up after just two weeks of action, but the Cavaliers have the look of a serious national title contender. The only team boasting both a defense and an offense among the top 10 in efficiency metrics, the Cavaliers have shown a keen ability to win games in a myriad of ways. It’s not just an elite defense carrying Tony Bennett’s team, as it showed in its awesome 89-80 double-overtime win over Miami two weeks ago. Virginia has already toppled the Hurricanes and Notre Dame and have shown no signs of slowing down.
  • North Carolina. With the best of the Tar Heels’ non-conference wins losing some luster (Ohio State, Florida), North Carolina badly needed a marquee win in conference play. Last weekend’s victory over Louisville qualified as such, and holding on to beat NC State in Raleigh on Wednesday night showed the team may have regained some of the toughness that was so sorely lacking. Could a 3-1 ACC start propel North Carolina to bigger things?
Marcus Paige and North Carolina are off to a very promising ACC start (newsobserver.com)

Marcus Paige and North Carolina are off to a very promising ACC start (newsobserver.com)

  • NC State. A 3-2 start in the ACC may not blow anyone away, but the Wolfpack’s demolition of Duke and their near-win over a surging North Carolina team shows Mark Gottfried’s group is capable of making some noise this year. Add in a blowout win over Pittsburgh an is there a reasonable argument that NC State belongs with the heavyweights?
  • Miami. There were plenty of questions about the direction in which the Hurricanes were heading when they closed the non-conference schedule by losing three of four. But Angel Rodriguez and company have answered the bell in the ACC, pushing Virginia to double-overtime and handling Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. With Notre Dame and NC State up next, we’ll know even more about Miami by this time next week.

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ACC M5: 01.13.15 Edition

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 13th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. Syracuse.com: The Orange received crushing news yesterday that freshman Chris McCullough will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. While his season had been inconsistent to this point, there’s no denying that this is a huge loss for Jim Boeheim’s team. His potential has been well-documented and he’s shown flashes of what he’s capable of at times this season. Perhaps the biggest development from this news, however, is how much his loss further depletes Syracuse’s depth. Syracuse may be the rare ACC team with an easier start to the conference slate, but its overall chance of a promising season took a big blow with this injury.
  2. ESPN.com: North Carolina’s thrilling victory over Louisville on Saturday had to do wonders for the team’s confidence, and more importantly, may have finally given the Tar Heels the early signature win they needed. One of the more interesting items from this article, though, is that Marcus Paige has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot for several weeks. This could help shed some light on the reason for his inauspicious start to the season, and also lend some credence to how impressive his heroic second half against the Cardinals really was.
  3. Fayetteville Observer: NC State’s pummeling of Duke on Sunday is one of the biggest headlines of the young ACC season to date, but what the Wolfpack accomplished in the paint may be the real storyline here. While it has been Mark Gottfried’s perimeter players who have gotten most of the corresponding attention, Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya were the keys to the big upset win. NC State’s post players’ abilities to hold their own against Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow bode very well for the Wolfpack as the season progresses. This is a team that has been on a roll since conference play started, and it looks to continue its hot start in another rivalry match-up with North Carolina on Wednesday.
  4. Streaking The Lawn: A suddenly vulnerable-looking Kentucky team is no longer a unanimous No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, as Virginia wrested two votes from the Wildcats in this week’s rankings following its big win at Notre Dame over the weekend. The Cavaliers appear to be a legitimate title contender and threat to capture the ACC crown despite all the preseason hype about Duke, North Carolina, and Louisville. According to KenPom, Virginia is the only team in the country ranked among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (sixth-best offense; fourth-best defense).
  5. ESPN.com: Duke’s loss to NC State could be attributed to a number of different things — namely defensive lapses and poor three-point shooting — but C.L. Brown keeps it simple: They’re led by freshmen. Despite Okafor’s big game, there were many signs that the youngsters leading this Blue Devils’ team still have much to learn about life in the ACC. Point guard Tyus Jones has not contributed nearly the gaudy numbers he posted prior to conference play, and Okafor and Winslow did little to slow the Wolfpack’s frontcourt (with Winslow eventually fouling out). It’s probably a good time for everyone to remind themselves that they’re watching a Duke team that hasn’t started three freshmen since 1983 for a reason.
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RTC Rewind: Sunday Bloody Sunday

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 12th, 2015

Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, there is nothing to be said. After a weekend like the one that just transpired, this is probably one of those times. You saw the games. Or at least you saw the results. I didn’t even see much of it because life gets in the way, and because, let’s be honest, who would mark their calendars to make a point to catch a late Sunday night Arizona vs. Oregon State game? Or Wisconsin against Rutgers at the same time that Peyton Manning is perhaps playing his last football game… ever? I hate to be repetitive, but man, crazy stuff happens in college basketball. And the craziest part is that that crazy stuff often happens at crazy times when you least expect it.

Upsets, Upsets, and More Upsets!

It Was That Kind of a January Sunday in College Basketball (USA Today Images)

It Was That Kind of a January Sunday in College Basketball (USA Today Images)

The strangest aspect of Saturday and Sunday was that all of this happened on a weekend without many marquee match-ups. Sure, we had two headliner games in the ACC, but many of the results that ended up leading SportsCenter weren’t the focus of the weekend previews. Wisconsin was matching up against arguably the worst team in the Big Ten; Arizona was playing a bottom-four team in the Pac-12; and Duke was playing a middle-of-the-pack ACC squad. All three left with losses, and it didn’t stop there. Kentucky, everybody’s #1 team in America, was pushed to the brink by a Texas A&M outfit that nobody thinks all that much of; and Oklahoma, which might have succumbed to the RTC Podcast jinx (if such a thing exists), looked bad in a home loss to Kansas State. Huh? Overall, six of the USA Today top 10 went down last week – five over the weekend – and two others came very close to dropping their first games of the season. For some – Louisville (at UNC), Texas (at Oklahoma State) maybe even Duke (at NC State) – the losses were reasonable enough for conference play. But for others – we’re looking at you, Wisconsin and Arizona – the upsets were completely confounding. A little less than two weeks ago, Rutgers lost to Northwestern at home, scoring only 47 points; not long after that, Wisconsin beat that same Northwestern team in Evanston by 23. How do you explain that? Some will try by point to the absence of Frank Kaminsky. But you just don’t… you just can’t.

The ACC Bloodbath Has Commenced

It began last Monday night when Notre Dame went to Chapel Hill and knocked off North Carolina and it spilled over into the weekend. There are five ACC teams among the top 20 of the polls, and there really could be five in the top 15, maybe even top 10, but of that group, four already have a conference loss. How do the five stack up? After Virginia’s impressive win at Notre Dame, the Cavaliers have established themselves atop the pack for now (for analysis from South Bend, check out Walker Carey’s postgame takeaways). Duke is probably still a close second despite giving NC State students another insane court rush. But realistically, any of the trio of Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame could be third. It seems harsh to punish the Cardinals for a one-point road loss, but Rick Pitino’s team only has one top-40 win at this point (over a puzzling Ohio State team). Then there are the Tar Heels, which just knocked off Louisville but are exhaustingly erratic. Notre Dame of course won at UNC but struggled with Georgia Tech and only has one other quality win on the entire season (Michigan State). For now, I’ll rank this group as such: 3. Louisville, 4. Notre Dame, 5. North Carolina. But I’d be willing to bet they’re in a different order this time next week.

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RTC Top 25: Week Eight

Posted by Walker Carey on January 12th, 2015

Last week’s college basketball action was highlighted by a Sunday of crazy upsets. First, unbeaten Duke was knocked off by NC State in Raleigh. Next, Wisconsinwithout the services of star big man Frank Kaminsky – was stunned by Rutgers in Piscataway. Last, Arizona experienced defeat at the hands of Oregon State in Corvallis. Winning on the road in conference play is always a tough task, and that was never more on display this year than it was Sunday. A team that was able to grab a crucial conference road victory, though, was Virginia. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers went into South Bend on Saturday and knocked off Notre Dame in a back-and-forth battle that was not decided until the final minute. If this past week was any indication of how conference season will play out, we are certainly in for two months of surprises and thrilling finishes.

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

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.44.44 PM

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Virginia 62, #13 Notre Dame 56

Posted by Walker Carey on January 10th, 2015

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday evening’s game between Virginia and Notre Dame in South Bend.

Three Key Takeaways.

Virginia Came Through in the Clutch on Saturday at Notre Dame (USA Today Images)

Virginia Came Through in the Clutch on Saturday at Notre Dame (USA Today Images)

  1. Virginia’s defense is as good as advertised. The Cavaliers entered play Saturday second in the country in both points per game defense and field goal percentage defense. They lived up to those high marks Saturday, as Notre Dame was held to a season-low 56 points and shot just 33.9% from the field. Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon was instrumental to the suffocating defensive effort, as he played lockdown defense on Notre Dame star guard Jerian Grant all night. Grant finished the game with just six points on 2-of-8 shooting. Virginia also did an exceptional job in taking the Notre Dame bigs out of the game, as Notre Dame’s post players  finished with just a combined five points on 2-of-11 shooting to go along with just seven rebounds. The win moved Virginia to 15-0 on the season and if it can maintain this level of defensive intensity, that unbeaten mark may stay clean well into league play.
  2. The Cavaliers saved their best basketball for winning time. After Notre Dame swingman Pat Connaughton hit a three-pointer to give the Irish a 51-50 lead at the 4:53 mark of the second half, Virginia went on a 12-5 run to finish the game. Brogdon and fellow backcourt mate Justin Anderson each hit important three-pointers down the stretch that helped lead to the Virginia victory. In close games, the victor is usually determined by which teams executes better and plays with more poise down the stretch, and that was no different Saturday as Virginia made the right plays at the right times to help secure the win.
  3. Notre Dame needs more out of its frontline if it wants to be a factor in the ACC race. When Notre Dame won at North Carolina this past Monday night, Irish forward Zach Auguste led the way with 18 points. Saturday was a different story for Auguste, as the junior battled foul trouble for much of the game and finished with just four points and five rebounds to go along with a team-high four turnovers in 22 minutes. Virginia forward Darion Atkins was able to take advantage of Auguste’s off-night, as the senior finished with 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting to accompany his team-high eight rebounds. There are plenty of solid big men in the ACC, and if Notre Dame wants to finish near the top of the league, it is going to need Auguste to become a much more consistent post presence on each side of the court.

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On This Season’s Gonzaga Dilemma

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2015

Two years ago, the debate raged. Did Gonzaga, the #1 team in both polls on Selection Sunday, really deserve a #1 seed? It was a question rarely faced by teams towering over the polls at such a late juncture, but the Zags’ 31-2 record didn’t impress everyone. Critics brought up the weak WCC. They pointed out an unflattering RPI ranking of #8. More anecdotally, they looked up and down the Gonzaga roster and asked — other than Kelly Olynyk — where all the pros were. The Zags claim to a #1 seed was as energized a debate as any on Selection Sunday in March 2013.

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zag's Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team's Spot Within The Bracket?

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zags’ Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team’s Placement Within The Bracket?

That story’s ending shouldn’t have escaped memory yet (Cliff Notes: #1 seed granted, but Sweet Sixteen appearance sold separately) and it may have more damage to deliver the Bulldogs. This season boasts an equally dominant Gonzaga outfit and a similarly helpless WCC, which puts Mark Few’s team on a crash course for a familiar Selection Sunday predicament. After easily knocking off San Francisco on Thursday night, the 15-1 Bulldogs look as poised as ever to rip through a soft WCC and reach Selection Sunday with just one loss, an overtime defeat at Arizona (who is kind of good!). Early results indicate competition for the four #1 seeds is likely to be even fiercer this season than it was two years ago, but this Gonzaga group also looks to be stronger as well. Dominoes in the race for a #1 seed will be falling from now until March — in both Spokane and elsewhere — but round two of the great Gonzaga debate is coming. There’s no reason not to begin considering the question now: Will the kings of the WCC deserve to be on the bracket’s top line?

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ACC M5: 01.09.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 9th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. Hampton Roads Daily Press: How good is Virginia‘s defense? Consider that the Cavaliers have held 39 straight conference opponents to under 50 percent shooting. That’s unreal. The only two teams I see with a chance at ending that streak this year are Duke and Notre Dame. But it’s a testament to the pack-line defense, which has been brutally effective since Tony Bennett got to Charlottesville. Relatedly, WatchESPN did a pretty good halftime piece on Bennett’s defense with Darian Atkins and Malcolm Brogdon showing Jay Williams and Shane Battier how it works.
  2. Miami Herald: Miami basketball alumnus Darius Rice is still working towards his dream of playing in the NBA. He graduated from Miami way back in 2004, but still hasn’t found his way onto an NBA roster despite size with three-point range, and he is getting to the point where his big break needs to come soon. His professional career reads like a traveler’s fantasy, but what’s most irritating about Rice’s story is how he has excelled in the D-League (including a 52-point game in the championship), almost proving that the NBA doesn’t take it seriously. Here’s to hoping his status as an ACC legend (despite only playing in the Big East) gets him that one last shot.
  3. Fayetteville Observer: Wake Forest’s Devin Thomas made Duke’s Jahlil Okafor look like a freshman on Wednesday night. Thomas outhustled the Duke phenom all night, using his veteran strength and confidence to gain the upper hand. What was striking was how poorly Okafor passed out of the double-team. To be fair, Thomas also got the best of fellow All-American candidate Montrezl Harrell earlier in the week. Everyone has bad games, and it looks like Okafor recognizes that (he still ended up with a double-double), but Duke’s season will ultimately depend on how he responds to this sort of adversity. Any possession he doesn’t get a touch is a mistake, but Okafor has to fight for position to earn that touch too.
  4. Durham Herald Sun: Theo Pinson may be the answer to some of North Carolina’s struggles, at least against below-average defensive teams. The sample size is small and bear with me here through some Bzdelik-ian logic. If you remove Ohio State and Clemson (the two top-100 defensive teams Pinson has played against) and Pinson is shooting nearly 80 percent from the field (and most of his misses were threes). Obviously you can’t just ignore good defenses in the statistical profile, but Pinson’s aggressive play could be the answer to North Carolina’s offensive struggles. However, his three-point shooting will not plug the most gaping hole for the Tar Heels.
  5. Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician: Rakeem Christmas‘ improvement has been astounding. Brian Tahmosh takes care of the per-game statistics (along with some comparisons to other Syracuse stars), but think about this: Christmas has nearly doubled his usage with only a small decrease in efficiency. He’s essentially the exact same player he was last year except that he’s taking more than twice as many shots. Oh, and he’s a better rebounder and distributor. That’s just insane.
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ACC M5: 01.08.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 8th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. Miami Herald: Miami is off to the greener pastures of apparel company Adidas. While that means more money for the school, it’s no secret that Nike is considered more hip and arguably more structurally sound with their basketball shoes. There’s also the corollary fact that AAU basketball is run by the shoe companies. While recruits are in the habit of regularly switching allegiances, the move could affect who Miami recruits in the future. The Hurricanes will join NC State and Louisville under the Adidas brand — the other ACC non-Nike schools are Notre Dame and Boston College, which are with Under Armour, and Georgia Tech, with Russell).
  2. Syracuse Post-Standard: Syracuse guard Ron Patterson has been told to “keep shooting” despite his early struggles. He definitely wasn’t alone in that struggle against Georgia Tech last night (the two teams combined to go 33-of-109 from the field), but Jim Boeheim needs Patterson to contribute this year because Kaleb Joseph isn’t an instant standout like Tyler Ennis last season. If the Orange’s shooting woes continue, Syracuse will be looking at a very uncomfortable Selection Sunday.
  3. Louisville Courier-Journal:. Their playing styles couldn’t be more different, but Louisville, Virginia and Duke have a lot in common in that all three are top-five teams nationally that have recently put up questionable performances. While the bottom of the ACC isn’t very good, there aren’t any free games where you can mess around for 30 minutes before hitting the gas and winning easily. Wake Forest just missed pulling off a couple of upsets over the Cardinals and Blue Devils, and Virginia has gotten a bit too cute against Miami and NC State. All three teams are assuredly works in progress, but the coach who can get the most consistent effort from his team will likely wind up on top of the league this season.
  4. Duke Basketball Report: Six ACC teams currently have more turnovers than assists on the season. That’s… not good. The better news is that four of those six teams have an assist/turnover ratio above 90 percent and could still improve (because your stats usually get better in conference play?). Unsurprisingly, Clemson clocks in with the worst such ratio (0.85) and Florida State – a team that has struggled with turnovers the last few years — brings up the rear (0.87). But Louisville (0.94) and NC State (0.94) both need to improve if they want to make something of the postseason.
  5. Deadspin: Ken Pomeroy took a look at the odds that Virginia or Duke will finish as the last unbeaten team in college basketball (instead of Kentucky). Kentucky is the favorite to turn the trick by far, but the results were closer than I expected (although Kentucky’s chance at an undefeated regular season is currently at 18 percent, which is much higher than Virginia or Duke’s). Through the lens of efficiency margin, Duke and Virginia offer pretty similar profiles, so the Cavaliers’ advantage is likely from getting to play Duke at home and avoiding Louisville until the last game of the season.
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ACC M5: 01.07.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 7th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. The ACC: Well folks, I’m happy to announce that the ACC Tournament is finally big time. Yes, contractual obligations and some inexplicable nostalgia mean the conference tournament won’t be moving to New York until next year, but even then, the center of the universe NYC will only be one of the cities in the rotation. Will it be a big deal since the even will not be at the Garden? Clearly this question was plaguing the league offices, along with ESPN. Thankfully, they found a solution: New York Life will now sponsor the ACC Tournament. So the next time some national media member gives you attitude about the ACC, feel free to use this exchange:

    National Media Member: [lazy narrative about the ACC Tournament being small time because it’s often played in Greensboro]
    You: That’s the New York Life ACC Tournament to you, pal.

  2. Roanoke Times: Don’t look now, but Tony Bennett has another excellent defensive team with great offensive balance and several legitimate all-ACC level players (I’m looking at you, Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill). Actually those three guys aren’t just all-ACC level guys, they’re all among the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s Player of the Year race. The trio is a big reason why Virginia’s offense is so much scarier than normal this season.
  3. Macon Telegraph: Time for a small dose of crow for yours truly. Before the season I noted that Georgia Tech was one of the few ACC teams that I didn’t think was moving in the right direction as a program. I may have been wrong. The Jackets are certainly not world-beaters, but this year’s team looked solid in last week’s double-overtime loss in South Bend (we’ll also ignore my preseason skepticism of Mike Brey and Jerian Grant). Georgia Tech still can’t shoot, but man do they ever crash the glass. Let’s give Charles Mitchell his due. He’s becoming the player we all thought he could be at Maryland: an efficient big man (ignoring the turnovers) and a machine on the glass.
  4. Boston Herald: Jim Christian wants Conte Forum to become a tougher place for opponents to visit. He certainly has his work cut out for him, as a mostly apathetic basketball culture has settled in around Chestnut Hill (a small group of students excluded). But Boston College students like sports (see: hockey), and Conte is warm in the winter, so that gives Christian a fighting chance to turn things around. In the long run he needs significantly more community and alumni support. Those groups tend to be more fair-weather than students and will likely show up when the team starts winning. However, Boston College’s loss last night to Pittsburgh is exactly the kind of game the program needs to start winning to get that crowd out in force.
  5. Charlotte Observer: Welp. NC State basketball player Terry Henderson was arrested for allegedly shooting an air gun at a vehicle on Monday night. Henderson is a transfer from West Virginia who is sitting out but should be expected to play a big role next season. That said, a surefire way to screw up your college career is to do something dumb during a redshirt season. The main reason I bring up this article is to point out how very young NC State is this year. While Ralston Turner is a senior and Trevor Lacey is a junior, everyone else on the team is either a freshman or a sophomore. That means a couple of things: first, this team could be very scary if it keeps improving over the next couple of years, and second, there are limited roster spots available.
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O26 Weekly Awards: Sycamores, Kyle Collinsworth, Bob McKillop & Fresno State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 6th, 2015

Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.

O26 Team of the Week

Indiana State. The Sycamores entered the week 4-8, having lost seven straight games against Division I programs, including the last two – home defeats to Eastern Illinois and UMKC – against teams ranked well below 200th in KenPom. Sure, three key seniors did graduate in the offseason and Greg Lansing’s program was picked sixth in the Missouri Valley, but the first two months of 2014-15 failed even to live up to those modest expectations. Conference play can do funny things to a basketball team, and it certainly did something to the Sycamores this past week; despite all signs pointing the other way, Indiana State upended two of the MVC’s better squads to begin its league slate.

Indiana State picked up two Missouri Valley huge wins this week. (gosycamores.com)

Indiana State picked up two Missouri Valley huge wins this week. (gosycamores.com)

Lansing’s club opened the week on the road against shorthanded-but-talented Illinois State, a good team (which beat Old Dominion by 19 in November) with a 91 percent chance of winning, according to KenPom. But despite those long odds, and although it had not beaten the Redbirds in Normal since 2011, Indiana State came out hot from the perimeter (43 percent from behind the arc), limited Illinois State top-scorer Daishon Knight to just five points, and overcame a halftime deficit to pull off the road upset. Neither team managed more than 0.90 points per possession – “We’ve always been a program that wins ugly games,” Lansing said afterwards – but the Sycamores produced enough late buckets and a big, last-second block to secure the victory. “That’s a really good start for us beating a good team.” Next up was Evansville on Sunday, a team fresh off a win over 23rd-ranked Northern Iowa on New Year’s Day. Again substantial underdogs and again hitting from the three-point line, the Sycamores kept pace with the Aces all afternoon and ultimately forced overtime tied at 70. Momentum swung towards Indiana State when Evansville big man Egidijus Mockevicius fouled out with 3:20 left in the extra period, and another big defensive play – this time a Devonte Brown steal – put Lansing’s group up for good. Big man Jake Kitchell led the way for Indiana State with 21 points and 11 rebounds.  “A lot of us struggled at the start of the year, including me. Guys are playing better now and the results are showing,” Lansing noted after the game. Indeed. One week ago, his team looked like it’d be hard-pressed to win two conference games all season. Now? The Sycamores sit coolly atop the MVC standings at 2-0. “It’s only a couple of wins, but we’re happy with them.”

Honorable Mentions: New Mexico (2-0: vs. Fresno State, vs. Colorado State); Coastal Carolina (2-0: at High Point, vs. Charleston Southern); St. Francis-Brooklyn (2-0: vs. Columbia, at Sacred Heart); BYU (3-0: vs. Portland, at Santa Clara, at San Francisco); Idaho (2-0: vs. Idaho State, vs. Weber State) Read the rest of this entry »

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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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